Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Never be ashamed of your process if the result is good

Over the years I've composed quite a few songs that include my cello, but I never dared actually record and release them. I did publish some recordings before, but I've always marked them as "unfinished" or "quick sketch" or some other excuse, planning to practice more and make a better recording later on. Today I finally have one that I consider "finished", but the process ended up quite different from what I expected back then. It's called Growl, and it's a loud cello duet. Have a listen!



I'd love for others to also play this composition, so I've made sheet music for it as well. Let me know if you end up playing this composition: I'd be honoured and would like to hear how it went!
I've also made a start with making a page that collects all my music and sheet music. It currently doesn't contain much yet, but I intend to record and release all my compositions. That means I have a lot of work ahead of me, as I need to record another duet, two solo cello pieces, two trios and a bunch of songs that combine cello with electronic instruments. I'll add songs to music.joostvandongen.com as soon as they're finished.

The reason I never finished recordings before is that playing cello well enough for a recording is incredibly difficult. This is difficult on any instrument and the particular challenge of cello is to play perfectly in tune. There are no frets like on a guitar, so place your fingers a millimeter too high or low and you're out of tune. Since most compositions require jumping around the fingerboard it's a huge challenge to always jump exactly the right amount.

I always figured I would solve this by practising more, and indeed I did practise quite a lot (for a hobby player, that is). However, by now I've played cello for over 25 years and I'm still not there. I'm not a professional cellist who can practice several hours every day for years, so I've finally concluded that I'm just not going to get good enough to live up to my own requirements. But I want to share my compositions! So I've reached a different conclusion: while I'm going to keep practising to get better, I'm henceforth also going to 'cheat' wherever needed to make recordings sound better.

I use two main cheats. One is that I play with a clicktrack: while recording I hear the ticks of a metronome on my headphones so that I play at a constant speed.

The other and bigger cheat is that I record the song a bunch of times. I then mix and match parts from each recording to get a complete recording that sounds acceptable. I tend to make different mistakes every time I play a song, so if I record it enough times I'm bound to get every note right at least once. Growl is a duet, so two cello parts, and each of the two cellos in Growl is a combination of six different recordings. Heck, if needed I can even use autotune to correct an individual note (this is used exactly once in Growl).

Mixing recordings together works a lot better than I had expected beforehand: if I mask the seams carefully then afterwards I can't even tell where they are. You might think you can hear them, but the lifting or shifting of the bow sounds so similar to a seam in the mix that you need to be a real specialist to be able to tell the difference.

Working like this makes me a bit cynical, since I wanted to be a good enough cellist to just record everything once and it's perfect, and clearly I'm not. However, if there's one thing game development has taught me, it's that it doesn't matter how you make something. The only thing that matters is the end result. If it's fun to play, then it doesn't matter whether the AI is truly intelligent or just pretending to be so. It's okay if everything is smoke and mirrors as long as the player doesn't notice it. The same goes for any creative endeavour: if it sounds/looks/feels good then it is good. There's no higher goal other then the end result and your creation isn't any worse or better depending on how you got there.

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