Monthly Archive for June, 2014

Weekend at Sweetwater’s Gearfest 2014

A couple of weekends ago, I ventured back to my roots—music. I went to Gearfest 2014 at Sweetwater Music Inc. in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. I went there for no particular reason other than to be around music gear, musicians, and just force myself to get closer to the music industry as I’ve been away from it for way too long. Little did I know what I was walking into. I didn’t really look at that much gear, but across the two days I spent there, I certainly swept across any of the gear that might have interested me. Instead of gear touching, I tried to attend as many seminars as possible. I filled up the days completely. On the second day, I attend the marquee of this Gearfest, which was a panel of mixing engineers. Among the eight or so engineers was Bruce Swedien, the man who mixed Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It was amazing to hear him talk about working in the studio with Michael, and the other most amazing thing was that each of the persons in the panel would arrive at the basically the same answers but independently to questions the M.C. asked. The questions were rather simple but philosophical in nature, questions like, “what is the best advice for up and coming producers,” or “what is the most important gear that a home producer could invest in,” to which the unanimously was, “acoustical treatment [and none of that sexy gear].” And when the questions circled around how to make a good mix, all of the answers rounded back to simply to music itself. Especially Bruce would say, “it’s about the music. Do you understand what I’m saying?” Even if you’re mixing rock music or electronic music, you should still attend classical and acoustical concerts to understand how acoustical music works because that is still the reference for electroaccoustic. Since I went alone, it was easy for me to find seats up close. I could easily find single empty seats the people in the audience left between each other, and so I sat in the second row from all of these rock stars making eye contact with all of them.

At the end of the first day, I sat in at a presentation of drummer Kenny Aronoff who told us the story of his big break when he composed the famous fill for John Melloncamp’s song Jack and Diane. He said it was the first time he decided not to overplay as many young drummers do when they’re still trying to prove something. It saved and made his career because the keyboardist and bassist were already fired earlier during that session. I was impressed with how much preparation he said it takes to play what seems like simple groves, such as when he performed the song Something with Paul McCartney. What seems like a simple introductory fill actually requires a great deal of focus to hit the two first notes at exactly the right time apart. “Beat, time, grove, and creativity,” is what you have to play with as a drummer.

Afterwards, I attended a presentation by Mick Guzauski who shared with us stories behind some of the most famous mixes he did for Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Eric Clapton, and the latest Daft Punk album that took home all of those Grammys, Random Access Memories. Those Daft Punk boys paid for that entire album themselves upfront and later sold it to Sony, so that means no accountants stood over the project with a stopwatch. After it was all recorded (all rhythm sections were acoustic, something unusual for an electronic band), they rented another studio for the entire summer of 2012 that had one of those amazing $200k+ analog consoles that cost $45k/yr to maintain, and they mixed one song at a time, leaving the song up on the board for many days until they were happy with the mix. Typically, a song gets mixed in less than a day. On those analog boards, you can’t recall an old song after you’ve zeroed the board and moved on to the next song. You can try to get it close again, but it won’t be the same. So, I respect them more now because they took an uneconomical path to get as close to perfection as technologically possible, not to mention the best craftsmen of the industry were selected.

Another cool presentation was by a young guy named Mad Zach who leveraged analog Moog gear to basically “destroy” the sounds he was using and mangled them into something really futurist and cool and almost evil sounding drum beats. He probably had the best combination between being educational and entertaining of all of the seminars I attended.

I also finally met the sale engineer with whom I’ve been doing business over the phone for over eleven years. He sold me my first real synthesize, the Access Virus Rack. I still have it, and you can hear it on pretty much all of my best work. It was really nice finally putting a face to the voice because I can’t imagine a better sales guy who sells the stuff I need. He will straight up tell you “you don’t need that” if you come with a bad proposal to a solution you need. He’ll listen to your needs, and figure out how to best get you there within your budget. I met the CEO of Sweetwater, and he was at a loss of words to describe Jason Koons besides that he’s one of their best out of over 250 people in their sales force. I told the CEO Jason deserves a raise to which he replied that he gets a raise every time sells more stuff, referring to commission.

During the last few hours of the festival, I talked to some of the engineers from the panel. I kept Ed Cherney company while he unpopularly smoked a cigarette next to a trash can. I told him that after attending the panel, I concluded that all of those disciplines take so much dedication that out of all of them (mixing, recording, mastering, composing), I will focus even more on composing and less on the others ones because composing is the only one on which I am willing to make sacrifices like that. To this Ed practically snapped back at me, and this is the kicker of the entire visit. He said, “Composition is where it’s all at. Nothing else here would fucking exist…” pointing to the entire store, manufacturers, festival, and industry, “if it weren’t for the compositions.” We didn’t talk much after that, but that was all of the unexpected validation I needed to finally let go of the desire, despite my utmost respect, for developing good mixing skills, and just focusing on writing. This ties back an earlier comment I heard about mixing from yet another presentation earlier was that if the music is orchestrated correctly and the overtones don’t fight each other, then it makes the mixing process way easier. Otherwise, the mixing engineer has to try to work around those problems. I will focus more on learning orchestration techniques because that’s one thing I’ve always respected but deferred because I thought that was for writing for an orchestra. However, it’s actually about dealing with overtones regardless of the music style, and I remember my orchestration professors in college lecturing on that.

At the very end of the festival, I talked up the producer Fab Dupont and his girlfriend. His daughter kept sliding down the two story slide they have a Sweetwater. She counted thirty slides in all. His girlfriend was intrigued why a non-musician would go to Gearfest, but she later understood my struggle and why I was trying to be around musicians. There was a nice French-Polish connection going there between Fab, his girlfriend, and me. After about a nice thirty minute conversation Fab gave me his card, and I walked the family to the parking lot.

It was a great trip and was well worth it. See the press release about the producers panel.

Life is Messy and the Timing of It

When I first heard the phrase “life is messy,” it didn’t sit well with me. Being a planner who tries to keep things structured and organized, the entire point of creating structure is to mitigate the mess, but I later learned that’s not the point of this phrase. As a leader, it’s also about how well and how quickly one can adjust course to the make the most of any given situation. A monkey can learn routine, but it takes higher intelligence to re-prioritize on the fly. It’s a real art of when to dive head down to execute a task list or when to come up to adjust a plan, and it takes real strength when the entire plan needs to be scrapped and a new one must be created just in time for the next transaction. Should a new plan be needed, keep in mind that no one else really knows how incomplete your plan may be, so your next transaction may look flawless while you can continue building your plan in preparation for the following step.

This perspective surrounds the ability of seizing windows of opportunity. Any good analyst can eventually finish his or her complete investigation of all of the variables and with some experience and a good imagination even make a tree of all possible outcomes, and that is probably the best way to do it. The problem is that takes time. Meanwhile the environment changes, and the windows of opportunity close or change to where a new analysis would have to be started.

So my point is that to make changes of this kind—the kind where you make things happen instead of letting things happen to you—you’ll never feel ready because it’s impossible to feel ready. Although luck favors the prepared, it usually requires a scramble to take off, and you will probably be landing in a storm, not even on an airstrip but somewhere in a cornfield or atop a mesa. You may break a few things, but you probably won’t die. Nevertheless, it’s anything but comfortable. Sure, you can mitigate risk like a novice scuba diver first trains in a tank before diving in the sea, but there’s still a first time for everything. Sometimes, for windows of opportunity as mentioned here, it will also the last time.

When you do that, there will be many naysayers, mostly because they don’t understand your priorities (which who cares because you should only share your priorities with the people you trust) but also because they’re jealous of the strength you exhume during those events, or that they have missed the window for themselves. On the other hand, mass in motion acquires more mass as it travels, so it gains gravity. When you move forward like that, you will attract. These particles may be part of other humans in your life. It’s ok if you kill a few of these particles because you’re not killing the whole human, and it’s ok as long as you don’t enjoy the killing.

The point is to know what you want, and when the opportunity presents itself as a window to pass through towards the goal, not necessarily access to the goal in a single step, then take the window because those windows don’t come around very often. A good planner isn’t someone who can plan every step but is someone who knows how to adapt his or her plan based on the stability of the previous step. Imagine stepping on some stepping stones over a brook. The rocks look sturdy but still require focus and balance; however, one of the stones may wobble and may require a quick change of course to ultimately reach the other side without falling into the water. Think of ninjas or the main character in the video game Prince of Persia and how these characters interact with the environments, and it’s that quick skill to adapt that is their strength that is valid of envy.

This concept of timing I first learned from a leader in the workplace with whom I no longer work. His goal was essentially to talk me out of thinking that skill in details leads to overall success, which I naturally thought that probably due to my Polish upbringing. He described how imperfect his attempt appeared, but I observed the outcome of his stories and the massive cultural changes in the workplace that were created as a result of such forceful and critical starts. Being able to alter culture in a group has always intrigued me ever since I would try to reconcile why a body of people may not follow a process when the details clearly exemplify that following that process was to their benefit. I realized this leader was correct because the results in the end spoke for themselves. That is how “life is messy” ties into “timing.”