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Rehab for Musical Perfectionists

When I first got into music production I arrived as a songwriter. I was writing my own music and playing all the instruments. Living in a small town with only a few musicians led to me to be self-sufficient.

I would spend large amounts of time on each song. I would go back to older songs and keep chiseling away. Sometimes, I was improving. But other times I was in my head, trying to perfect what shouldn’t be perfected.

This is really common among songwriters who self-produce. Being on your own in a closed-off room doesn’t really allow for outside input.

Checking In

Sometimes, it’s important to have someone there just to say you’ve gone too far. The self-producer/artist tends to hear and stress about things that nobody will hear.

When I moved to NYC, it was quite a surprise how people recorded. They didn’t spend weeks on one song. Things moved fast. They left in things I would have sweated over and spent an hour editing.

My first impression was that this was sloppy work. That was an incorrect assessment though. The fact was, this was really how music was made. There is beauty in what some may call imperfection. That human element is what makes music special.

More importantly, it wasn’t that they didn’t edit cleanly or weren’t particular about parts. They simply didn’t self-destruct. Perhaps it’s the cost of studio time in NYC or the constant struggle to make ends meet. The fat tends to get trimmed a lot.

Migration

Moving to NYC or LA isn’t an option for everybody. You don’t have to live in a mega city to evolve your mindset on self-producing.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to finish projects! There is never going to be a perfect time. You’re never going to “finish” your masterpiece.

There comes a time in every project when it’s important to take the album away from the artists to protect it. Otherwise, we’ll just keep chipping away, and not for the benefit of the music either.

Break the Cycle

How do self-produced artists learn to cycle on their music less?

Working on deadlines can be very beneficial for self-preservation. Try writing a song and producing it with a tight deadline, just as an exercise.

Make sure you stick to it! Don’t get all perfectionist! This exercise isn’t necessarily meant to produce the songs you’ll put on your record. It’s meant to give you perspective.

I’ve been composing a lot of 30-second spots for TV shows. I’ve noticed something really interesting while I’ve been working on this project. I’ve become less critical of myself.

I do a 30-second spot in about an hour. I compose, record, edit, and mix in 60 minutes. That’s quite a cram.

This doesn’t mean I leave in mistakes or get subpar sounds. I treat it like anything else I do.

The Devil’s Own

When it comes to my own records, I spend more time than an hour. These days, I tend to be less critical in a self-destructive way. I’m able to discern between real self-criticism and that little devil of perfectionism on my shoulder. I attribute this to the need to work fast.

I also believe it’s important to work on some productions that you’re not emotionally attached to. There are times when artists will keep reconstructing a song, not because it’s wrong, but because they’ve got an emotionally attachment. It’s not about what they hear, it’s about how they feel and how it may be attached to something that makes them insecure.

Rehab for Perfectionists

Once or twice a week work on a short composition that you have no attachment to. Let all the emotion go. Write and record the first thing that comes to mind, like a stream-of-consciousness production.

It’s the same with engineering and mixing. What’s your first impression of how it’s supposed to sound? How do you get that sound? Figure it out and do it immediately. No going back. No cheating.

Compose, record, mix and master in the same day. Place the MP3 in your iTunes library for whenever you want to listen to it. You’re not going to open up the session for a tweak, right? Remember, I said no cheating.

Step Aside Bully

One cool side effect of this experiment is you’ll find the door to creativity will open wider. You’ll be getting out of your own way.

Many producers/songwriters have a bouncer at the door of creativity. They ask for an ID and eye the new idea up and down.

These days I let everyone in and buy them a drink. It doesn’t mean I think they’re all gems. They’re not, but I find gems come in more frequently, and projects get finished.

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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at guitaristmarkmarshall.com
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  • Farzad Houshiarnejad

    Thank you for this article, it felt like a lightbulb went off by the time I was finished reading! Im off to set some deadlines for myself 🙂

    Thanks again
    -Farz

    • Mark Marshall

      That’s great to hear Farz!

  • Mr Concept

    Been suffering this a looong time. Literally a decade. I’ve got about 5 albums worth of material and +100 beats that could all do with ‘further tweaking’ lol.

    • Mark Marshall

      Yeah, it’s a thing that most of us suffer from in one way or another. Thing is, it will never be perfect even when it’s perfect. Haha. Now, go finish those records.

  • Took me awhile to come to terms with this, still a work in progress!

    • Mark Marshall

      I think it will always be a work in progress. And that’s ok. It’s only important that you keep moving forward.

  • I’m going through this RIGHT now. I have some songs that have been hanging around forever, and others that are coming together really quickly…. so I guess I’m straddling that line. 🙂

    But I also find that so much of the stuff being produced nowadays is produced to death…. and in the process, crushing out any of that human element you mentioned – which is all OVER the place in older recordings. I purposely leave a bunch of that stuff in, plus intro counts and breaths, etc. – to keep it human.

    I’m definitely going to try the rehab exercise. It sounds like fun – and that’s supposed to be part of making music, right?

    Thanks for the post – really, really helpful.

    • Mark Marshall

      It’s odd when you compare new recordings to old revered recordings. Especially when you disect them. I really think all the “human” variances keep your subconscious interested. I think on a subconscious level your mind hears all the cutting and pasting. I almost never cut and paste for that reason. I prefer to play each section.

    • Me too!!!!

  • Brad Maestas

    Allan Holdsworth should read this! I suffer from it too and framing it this way was exactly how I unshackled myself and was able to move on and finish projects. Nice article, Mark!