Tools We Can Rely On

by Matt Blair on March 9, 2009

in Process and Workflow

Many years ago, when audio editing software was primitive and hard drive space too scarce for regular backups, I hit the wrong key and saved a 30 second excerpt of an audio piece over a 40-minute original recording. I managed to recover the original, but it was a long, long night.

We each probably have our own stories of technology failing us, or of inadvertently scuttling a project with some minor action of our own. Usually, these flubs aren’t show-stoppers or permanent blocks, but a few petty annoyances combined can be enough to pull us out of flow. We forget the thrust of our thoughts, and might even wonder whether the project is worth our time, or if we shouldn’t turn our attention elsewhere for a little while.

Thin Ice

In creative work, the tool layer should support the idea layer: it needs to provide a solid, smooth and reliable platform for our idea work. Bad tools are like thin ice. They cause us to step tentatively, not boldly. Our eyes are looking down for signs of trouble rather than forward, or toward the sky.

And when the ice cracks, we fall through and lose momentum. Our attention turns to extracting ourselves and patching over the hole. Once we’ve done that, we may feel a momentary surge of satisfaction, then a sinking feeling that after so much time and energy, we’ve just gotten ourselves back to where we were, and not any closer to where we were headed.

Composer Tech

When a musician uses a computer to create new work, there are all sorts of distractions lurking within. The oboe sound isn’t quite write, so he searches for a more authentic one. The software keeps switching a g-natural to a g-sharp because it thinks he is trying to change keys. He wants one measure to have a long pause in the middle, and disappears into the documentation trying to figure out how to bend the machine to his will.

Sitting at a piano, the tools are simple, dependable and have been tested over centuries. There is a very low probability that the creative process will be disrupted by a failure of the piano, or the pencil, or the staff paper. This leaves the mind free to work at the creative layer, the idea-crafting layer, rather than the tool layer. You don’t expect a piano to sound like an oboe, so there’s less “distraction of perfection” — fiddling with the details while the project stalls.

Techno-Skepticism

I’m not a technophobe. Technology has transformed our ability to express and share our ideas in startling and empowering ways. If you want to hear how all the string quartet parts sound with the rest of the band, a piano alone won’t suffice.

But I am a techno-skeptic. Protecting ideas as they emerge — from all distractions — is critical to the creative process, and therefore it is important to be skeptical of anything we allow into that process.

Here are some of the tactics I use when choosing tools for my own creative projects:

Tool selection sessions. Set aside time in your schedule for assessing and evaluating new tools. Go into the experience without any expectation of producing a usable creative result, and then you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you do. The main goal is understand whether this tool would be more of a disruption or distraction than its worth, or whether adding it to your toolbox will enhance your creative expression.

Avoid the most sophisticated tools. Use tools that are just barely sophisticated enough for the task at hand. Think of filmmakers using story boards first instead of shooting a “rough draft” of the film. In my own creative work, I find that little is gained and much is lost by trying to be on the bleeding edge. I prefer the phrase bleeding edge to cutting edge, because it emphasizes the pain rather than the usefulness. When the complexity/dysfunction pain drops — or if you have built-up thick calluses! — then it is time to adopt the tool.

“Fix it in the mix.” Yes, it’s a cliché, and really bad advice if you are trying to capture a polished performance. But with so many good editing tools, it’s often just easier to enhance ideas after the first attempt: overdub the audio, insert a different clip, or work on a backup copy and revert to the original if you mess up. Use a simple tool to get enough of an approximation of an idea when it first pops into your mind, and then use more sophisticated tools to clean it up or recreate it later.

Caveat Creator

Problematic tools can also present us with beautiful dilemmas — boxes we are forced to work within.

A MultiMoog Synthesizer

A MultiMoog Synthesizer

About fifteen years ago, I found a filthy old MultiMoog synthesizer in a music store, and bought it for about 20% of the going rate at the time because it was “broken” and the owner didn’t want it.

What did “broken” mean? There was something wrong with the envelope circuitry, so the sound started when I turned it on, and didn’t stop until I turned it off. Everything else about it, including the keyboard (I could change the pitch) and the volume knob (I could fade in and out) still worked, and it could create rich tones and intricate patterns. It wasn’t something you could use for a prog-rock cover band, but as a complex drone machine — a kind of 20th-century hurdy gurdy — it was full of possibilities.

Sometimes, reliable dysfunction can be just the right thing.

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