How to Prepare for Technology Fails as a Creative
It still happens to me. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat down to create music and my computer starts to grind, or I just can’t get any sound out of my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), or I can’t pull up the file I need from an external hard drive. Two hours later, I’m still researching on Google and troubleshooting; “how to fix [this software/hardware issue].” Or how about this: Everything is working fine but I am looking for the perfect sound patch to use in my song but I can’t quite find the right one. I have thousands of sounds to choose from, but I can’t seem to make up my mind. In the meantime, my hot new million-dollar idea is sitting in my head anxious to come out. I spend so much time and energy trying to find- or failing to find- the right patch, that by the end of it all I’m tired, my ears are fatigued and I've lost interest in pursuing my original idea.
Today, I’m talking about how I deal with technology glitches, what steps I take to reduce their impact on my work flow, and how I build in safeguards to deter technology glitches from hindering my creative process.
YES, I know there is a whole debate out there as to whether or not technology hinders creativity. While that is a discussion beyond the scope of this blog post, I tend to lean towards the “NO-it-does-not-BUT-it-can-sometimes” side, because I’m a realist.
Here are the most common technical glitches I experience in my creative sessions:
Crackles, noises, and pops from faulty connections
Battery failure (especially if you use wireless mice or keyboards)
Plugins hogging all of your computer's processing power and your computer literally grinding to a halt
Looking for sounds/patches and not being able to find the appropriate sound for your project
SEVEN WAYS TO COMBAT TECHNOLOGY FAILS IN YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS
Craft fail-proof workflows
One of the ways I minimize technology failure is by looking for fail-proof ways. When I get an idea for a song, before starting to fiddle with the computer, I sing the idea into my iPhone's voice memos. For me this is so simple, it works all the time and it involves very few steps- unlock phone, swipe down, type V (to pull up voice memos), hit voice memos, hit red (record) button. The reason I name the steps is to show that whatever fail-proof method you develop, it should boil down to a few distinct steps that you can virtually perform by muscle memory, so that your brain is entirely focused on the idea in your head. If you have to deal with more that a handful of steps, there is a chance you might get distracted and lose your idea.
Simplify your setup and process
I always work to simplify my setup and simplify my process. For example when I recorded Iva on the track series, in order for me to avoid tech failures I decided to record directly into my iPhone from the mixer, so that my computer did not have to deal with recording audio while also creating it in real-time. I also wanted to eliminate the chance for editing audio because I wanted my audio to sound as raw and unpolished as possible for this project. If I recorded a new IOT session today, I would probably tweak the process again, but at that time, while I was still developing the idea, I needed to keep it simple and keep the ideas flowing.
Always remember, there is no harm in continuing to streamline your hardware to give you the simplest setup with utmost efficiency in creation, and comfort. Keep studying and taking note of the things you wish were different about your setup and process. Note them down as future opportunities for improvement. For example, when I used to mainly compose in Sibelius (which is a notation software), I was unable to record notes directly into the software in real-time because my audio interface had way too much latency for this to work. I went through a couple of upgrades that my budget could allow until I found a nearly latency free interface that supported this.
Create A Plan And Stick to It
Conventional wisdom agrees with the need for planning but creative people love winging it. In his conference paper The Importance of the Planning Phase to Project Success, presented at the Project Management Institute, Pedro Serrador points to a summary of available studies that have shown a direct correlation between project planning and success of the overall project.
In my earlier stages of creation, I would get hung up on things that were not priority at the moment, and not even realize it until so much time had been spent in the wrong places. When I started planning my workflow and writing it down, I got more efficient at composing songs, mixing songs, finishing songs, not sweating the small things, and surprisingly enough- I experienced less technology-related interruptions.
Before you create a song, create a plan!
Here is my most basic workflow plan in creating a song:
1. Conceive an idea--> sing and record it into my phone
2. Decide on the five major instruments/elements I would like to hear in the song (you can always change them later, but have a starting point)
3. Start recording in my DAW focusing on only the five elements I think are the foundation of the song (these could be drums, bass, lead sound for melody, comp sound for chords etc.)
4. The framework is now complete. Now I arrange it into verse, chorus, & bridge
5. Fill in the missing ear-candy elements like fills, rolls, & effects
Tip: Sometimes I use a reference song (a favorite, professionally produced song that is similar in genre to mine) right from the very beginning to help me choose comparable elements that I need in my song
Take Time to Experiment
One thing I do to reduce technology mishaps is dedicating some time to experimenting and messing with my toys before I "need" to use them. Most times when I feel uninspired to create, I use the time to learn more about my tools, DAW, plugins, routing etc. I learn new shortcuts of doing things, sometimes I even get inspired to create from just discovering a new easy trick.
Some other things I do during my experimental times are find samples, kicks, and snares that I think are interesting or usable in the future, save them and organize them in such a way that I can recall them quickly during my creation session. For example, if I sample a kick that I think will be good for a club banger, or the right snare for a ballad, I name it very descriptively and put it in a personal collection folder. Furthermore, some plugins have an option to favorite or rate sounds/patches by "hearting" them or giving them stars. I use this from time to time to favorite my top leads, strings, pianos, etc. so that I don’t waste a lot of time during the creation process looking for sounds.
Don’t Stop Learning
Choose a platform and stick with it. Don’t’ give up until you become an expert in your DAW of choice. Getting really experienced in using your DAW will help you avoid technology glitches. If you know your DAW’s quirks, strengths, weaknesses, etc. then you are better equipped to curtail tech issues before they interrupt your creative session.
I’m not gonna lie, in my free time I watch a lot of YouTube videos to help me get better at using my tools. I try to watch videos that are short and specific. For example, “How to create a stutter effect in Ableton”, “How to layer kicks”, “How to stack sounds” and so on. Use the resources you have at your fingertips to learn everything you can.
I always remind myself not to be taken up by sound design because I realize I am not as good at it as I am at composing melodies. So I am fine with using templates, presets, even samples. During my experimental times, I will do some patch creations and stuff but I don’t see myself in that role, so I don’t let it slow me down.
Don’t be afraid to use royalty-free samples. All the great producers use samples to speed up their work. I use samples for two things: inspiration and to increase productivity. If you are afraid of using samples and sounding like everybody else, I have a whole blog post dedicated to discussing how to use samples and NOT sound like everybody else (STAY TUNED!). Instead of spending time creating a hi-hat groove from scratch, I will throw in a sample. I may tweak it here and there to fit my songs but this frees me from being so hung up on being original in everything.
Accept The Inevitable
Sometimes when technology fails, I simply accept it and take it as a learning opportunity.
I always try to figure out what went wrong and how to avoid it next time. I am a problem-solver, so I only let a problem afflict me once before I find a solution or work-around for it. For example, if it’s crackles and pops, I try to establish the source of the noise. If it’s a cable, I buy a new one; if it’s a plugin I try to figure out how to optimize it or avoid using it. If I need an update to solve the problem I download the update. I basically spend that time trying to make sure the same problem doesn’t happen to me again.
Sometimes when technology fails, I simply accept it and take it as a learning opportunity.
The truth is that technology is going to do what technology is going to do, but if we are prepared for it we should be able to reduce the impact of its failure on our creative process. Notice I said “reduce” and not “eliminate”, again because I am a realist. Be flexible, have alternate ways of doing things, anticipate failure, and have a backup plan. Have redundancies in place if you can afford it. Otherwise, have a tried and true alternative way of routing, recording, capturing moments, and you’ll do just fine.
Let me know in the comments below what tech fails you relate with the most and how you deal with your tech issues!