Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - Why I'm Not Making Music at This Moment and Why It's Pro Tools' Fault

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Why I'm Not Making Music at This Moment and Why It's Pro Tools' Fault

 As I sit here on an over cast Tuesday morning, I'm waiting for a new water heater to arrive. 

 Yesterday evening I thought "hey, I think I'm going to get to sleep before 1 a.m. tonight, and there is nothing scheduled for tomorrow morning, so I should be able to do music!".  That was theory, of course: last night I discovered the hot water heater was leaking on the floor, so zzzzzotttt!  So much for today.

 "But Chip, why aren't you doing music right now instead of writing this blog post?"

 I'll tell you why....

 "Because I hate Pro Tools".

 Another Curiously Non-linear Chip Statement.

 Pro Tools as a recording medium became dominant as Alesis ADAT recording studio fell, what, around 2003-ish?  With the demise of the ADAT based recording studio, the demise of the Traditional Music Recording Process occurred.

 Until that moment, an aspect of "making music" stayed the same.  Because the recording gear was still fairly expensive (unlike now, when literally everyone has a way of making a decent recording) it was also in turn exclusive to Special Places called "studios" that required booking and preparation as a personal event. 

 This meant "Recording Music" was a special event.  This lent a particular gravitas to what you were doing, and in turn there is an inherent respect for it.  This is no longer the case as there is no "special event" related to making music anymore.

 Another aspect: the process itself was still akin to the traditional manner of using a multitrack tape machine.  Meaning,

1) tape still had to be rewound.  This meant there were gaps, breaks in time during the tracking process.

2) you didn't have infinite tracks.

3) you didn't have infinite takes, exactly.  You still had to go between 2 tracks, or continue to record over what you just did.

 Pro Tools changed all of that.  Plus, it added an additional aspect:

 The ability to streamline, reduce and strip down the process to it's fastest, most business-like reduction.

 Business like.  A skilled Pro Tools operator does things in a flash with short cuts that would have taken hours to do with ADATs or tape.  There is no waiting around.  Boom boom boom, record record record.  Time is of the essence!  "Music is a business!".

 When I ran a recording studio it was based on tape, so I have not a lot of experience running a commercial operation based on a DAW. But it's a wholly different enterprise. It's all about speed and practicality.

 Music is not about speed and practicality.

 My personal beef with Pro Tools is that it is an out growth of a program that was never meant to do what Pro Tools became, and it inherited a lot of peculiar, software-bureaucratic workarounds.  In the DAW world I prefer Reaper because of this; once you have it set up to your liking you're done.  Pro Tools does not allow any customization, and furthermore requires you to jump through all sorts of arcane hoops to do things.

 Mostly, things involving key stroke shortcuts.  I never had a Mac until recently, and I admit I mistakenly presumed the World of Apple, being so "user centric", meant the GUI was king and the mouse was the main I/O device.

 Yeah, that's funny.  It made sense to me.  I now know that ironically, Apple people LOVE key commands.  Which I despise, because... wait for it..



 Key commands require 2 hands, or an oddball splaying of fingers.

  It's a kinesthetic activity.  When I'm working on music, I have my guitar in my lap, and probably at least my left hand on the neck. 

 In the old days, I'd have to hit a button to arm the track.  Hit another button, RECORD. A button for rewind. Etc...

 A mouse is a little more complicated, but you're still clicking one thing, not a Rubik's Cube Solution or a Pac Man level pattern.  One thing.  Click RECORD. 

 Yes, you can do that in Pro Tools. But if you get too far into the menus short cuts almost become necessary.  In Reaper you just click once on the track panel, and a new track appears.  In Pro Tools - maybe it's different now, but you have to click on the menu, select this, that, this other thing.  The Pro Tools Operator does it with short cuts, quickly. 

 But I don't want to have to do that.  Because...

 My mindset is on the guitar as, literally, a proxy for what's in my mind.  I am "there", the guitar.  I am "thinking on the guitar".  If I have to take my left hand away from it, that illusion goes away.  Worse, if I have to change my posture to lean to get to the keyboard with both hands - I'm literally no longer "feeling it".  I'm out of my game, between two worlds.

 Yes, I can make music that way.  And, it would appear, that means nothing to 99% of the musicians on the planet.  But it's a different mindset, a more clinical and non-art based thought process.

 Even when I'm not with my guitar, and I'm mixing something or arranging something on the computer, I want to be in that Art Mindset. Complete focus on what I'm doing, so I have the greatest ability to model what I'm hearing mentally, muse on it with a clear mind that is only concerned with "how does this strike me?".

 I can't do that if I'm thinking about the guitar slipping off my lap as I reach for the keyboard.  Or if I've got to keep my consciousness divided between what I'm hearing musically and the Guy Delivering the Hot Water Heater.  Knowing I could be interrupted at any moment, and will have to come out of my creative, artsy mindset back into Harsh Expensive and Oppressive Reality. 

 It's not art at that point.  I don't care what anyone says, what you do might end up being "art" but you're not *doing* art.  You're not fully committed.  It makes a difference. 

 Music today is so refined to being Perfectly Acceptable that yes, you can make "that" without the mindset I'm talking about.  I would argue that it's a bit reverse to the Pre-ADAT era; and that music today is different because of that mindset being gone. 

 Not just because of Pro Tools, it's mostly the "this is a business, kid, don't mess around!".  That has always been floating about, but it is NOT the origin of pop music.  The bad thing is that in today's shark-capitalism competitive environment, Pro Tools is an enabler.  Combined those things work against art.  You can make music that sounds Perfectly Acceptable so quickly these days, but that shouldn't be the reason for the process!  Art is, in itself, the process.  Not JUST process, but if the only aspect of the music making process is "how fast we can make something that sounds perfect" that's glossing over the lack of artistic muse.  

 So no... I'm sitting here writing this, because I can do "this" and the end result is not going to drastically be affected by part of my awareness being stuck on "do I hear the truck pulling up outside?".  Or any of the other negative hassles.  This is why studios in the Grand Old Days were so resplendent and luxurious; the music industry back then realized you don't create great music when your brain is occupied by toil and tedium. It doesn't mean that situation automatically creates great music (and what a stupid thing I've had to write there, that reflexive attitude of today's mindset is another problem...), but as decadent as some of those days were in retrospect, one has to consider what truly great art was made and ask oneself "are we hearing the equivalent being made today?". 

 Sorry, I don't think so.  I could very easily make Yet Another Perfectly Normal recording project, and I still might - but I prefer not to.  I'm really, really tired of hearing that, or making myself try to listen to something "new" in order to glean a little morsel of something special or different.  Everything sounds perfect now, doesn't it? 

 Holy frak the dog is barking her head off, that must be the water heater being delivered outside...


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