Zoë Blade's notebook

Quantity Over Quality

The pots parable

There's a popular anecdote about a class of pot makers: the class is split into two groups. One is going to be judged by their pots' quality, the other by their quantity. Each of the people in the first group tries to make a single beautiful pot, while the people in the other group quickly churn them out. At the end of the class, the second group not only has the most pots, but also the best ones.[1]

I have no idea whether this actually happened, but I've certainly seen people who have been "working on a novel" for years, and others who have in that time written a lot. If you were to write, say, a short story a month, then by the end of five years you'd have sixty of them, and by that point probably at least a few would have been published.

There's a few ways you could read into this. One is safety in numbers: by creating lots of things, some are bound to be better than others, and you can cherrypick the best ones to share and promote. This is far better than believing you have only one story to tell, and tinkering with it until the day allegedly will come that you deem it finished. Another way of reading into it is that practicing, that is actively making things, whether you deem yourself already accomplished or not, improves your skillset in the process.

I've seen people labour for months over a single song, which is unfortunate given how little anyone else will likely care about such a small thing. I think most people would rather hear several interesting songs than one finely polished song.

Even worse, for the engineers amongst us, all this energy being misdirected into a single project is even more finely poured into a less interesting aspect of it — the quality of the mix, or miniscule refinements of a single sound, rather than the buildup and flow of the sections, or even more importantly, the catchiness of the tunes themselves.

Rough inspiration

Everything was originally mastered on standard tape on a hi-fi cassette deck... With the first track, the tape had chewed in about seven places... It's a retrospective look, and the tape munching was all part of the stuff I was doing, so I've left it in.

— Richard D. James (Aphex Twin), 1993[2]

In some ways, I suspect I'm quite lucky. When I was twelve, first tuning into the radio to discover what music was out there in 1993 Britain, the rave scene was in full swing. The charts were awash with the picks of ecstasy-fuelled party people who prioritised novelty over quality. Three years later, I bought a cassette tape of Amiga mods from the demoscene, similarly made by enthusiastic amateurs having a go at making music, unburdened by an excess of theory or equipment. They'd make a fun, interesting track, then move on to the next one.

Enamoured with those Amiga mods, when I got my first "proper" computer, I started tracking, first in Scream Tracker 3, before quickly moving on to Impulse Tracker. Making slick, highly polished songs wasn't an option, especially as I had no instruments. My weird sound collages woven from short samples of my voice and hitting various household objects were inevitably rough on the ears. But I didn't care. I was having fun.

When I got a DAW, and learnt a little music theory (very little), my music got more "correct", and more boring for it. It took me a while to realise that theory was more like hints and tips, less like hard and fast rules.

Eventually, when I got a modular synthesiser, I made a conscious effort to get back to my earlier mindset. Happily banging out some absolute bangers, without worrying too much about getting the technical or theoretical aspects right. Having fun again, making weird music. I finally had a plan to stick to: use first takes where possible, and don't overthinking anything.

Good enough, move on.

What you really need: deadlines

A movie is never finished, only abandoned.

— George Lucas, paraphrasing an unnamed director

When I got clients, I was blessed with deadlines. I joined Patreon, in part to have even more. I promise my fans at least a track a month. Much like Hiro Protagonist, I don't promise a polished track. I just promise at least one, each and every month. My fans are kind, and give me a lot of leeway. I don't want to let them down. And I imagine that rather than a glossy slab of pop, they'd prefer to hear something interesting that only I would make.

I'm convinced deadlines are not just a blessing, but a necessity. Instead of waiting for some amorphous "inspiration" to strike, they convince you to plonk yourself down and get started. I doesn't matter if you make something bad, no-one else has to see it. Just make something. If it's no good, fine, throw it away and make something else. It usually doesn't take long to stumble onto something good.

At the other end, instead of waiting to achieve "perfection", deadlines require you to let go and move on just as readily as you engage yourself in the first place. They regulate when to start and stop caring about each project. They give you a time to aim for. And for a bigger project, you can add smaller mini deadlines along the way, milestones.

Since then (in the early 2020s), I've tried to focus more on the bigger picture: when the song's getting too repetitive, and needs me to add another layer, or switch over to a different section. I've all but stopped EQing and compressing, mostly just levelling and panning. I try to spend a proportional amount of time on composing the music, writing the lyrics, designing the sounds, and mixing together the result. I think balance is important.

In short, it's an unrealistic goal to try to make something "perfect". To actually accomplish things, I find it's far more useful and practical to aim to make lots of things that are weird, interesting, quirky, fun, catchy, emotional, or thought provoking. Let other people judge how good any of it is, and when they do, don't worry about their opinion. It's too late, you've already moved onto your next project.

Quotes

It took half an hour to write, and three hours to record [Icct Hedral] originally.

Aphex Twin, 1995[3]

We didn't really hang around on tracks. We used to work two, three, four days, and I think "Papua New Guinea" was the longest we ever worked on a track. We worked on it for about a week solid, and it just kept coming, and Brian kept pushing.

— Garry Cobain, The Future Sound of London, 2006[4]

...we said to the studio manager, "If you give us the keys for a couple of weeks, while it's apparently closed, we can do some recording and we'll call it quits." We recorded about nine or ten tracks...

— Mark Archer, Altern-8, 2013[5]

Because we had this deadline to make these records for this double pack, one of the other beauties of it was that we turned the records around really quickly, because we were kind of like "argh, we've gotta get these tracks!" so I think all in all the double pack contained eight tracks, and so we weren't really thinking, and Ripgroove, actually, we done it in an afternoon. It was really quick, it was a really spontaneous moment...

— Timothy Andrew, Double 99, 2021[6]

References

  1. Art & Fear David Bayles & Ted Orland, 1993, ISBN 0-9614547-3-3
  2. "The Aphex Effect" Dave Robinson, Future Music, Apr 1993
  3. "Aphex Twin" Razor, The Lizard, Apr 1995
  4. "Classic Tracks: The Future Sound of London 'Papua New Guinea'" Richard Buskin, Sound On Sound, Nov 2006
  5. "Altern-8: Where Were U In '92?" Mark Archer, 2013
  6. "Garage Evolutions: Turn of Speed With Double 99 / RIP Productions" user-612196404, Jul 2021

Workflows: Quantity Over Quality