Finishing The Job

It's been said that one of the easiest things to do is to start something, and one of the toughest things to do is to finish what you started. This is especially true when the project is a creative work, such as a book, record, or painting. The principle reason for this is that it's difficult to ever be totally certain that your project is complete. After all, can you be absolutely sure there is no way that you can improve upon something? Most of us feel with a little time anything can be improved upon, if only slightly. So it's challenging to finally have the courage to say, "No more. This song/record/chapter/book/painting is now complete and it's time to move on."

But let me ask you this: with that frame of mind, how will you finish your recording project? Couldn't you forever be tweaking and re-recording and sweetening, etc., so that in a year's time you are still exactly where you are today? This article is written for those of you who want to finish your project, and who don't have the luxury or the patience of groups like Steely Dan or Boston, who may spend up to seven years on a single album.

The Goal

The importance of setting a realistic target date for completion of your record cannot be overemphasized. If you've never done a record before, and you have no idea how long it's supposed to take, you're simply expressing a preference. Simply answer the question, "When would I like to have it done?" If you have recorded before, then you have a pretty good idea of all the steps involved, as well as your working habits, so you can make an achievable estimate without much problem. However, don't let your previous project dictate the current goal. In other words, you may have spent fifteen months on the last record from start to finish, but when you are honest with yourself, you may admit that there were four or five months when you didn't do much of anything to advance the progress of the recording. So this time you may want to set a target date of ten to twelve months, with the idea that you'll focus more on the work and not allow the same distractions to occur.

Make sure your clear on what you expect to have done on the target date. I recommend setting the date that the master tape will be finished, instead of a ready-to-mix date. If you want, set a separate, earlier target date for mixing, so that you don't spend eons mixing basic tracks that were recorded over a weekend.

Once the target date has been established, you've acquired a tremendous amount of power and leverage over yourself. You absolutely know that the recording will end and you will have a finished master tape in your hand on a particular date. Actually visualize yourself on that date, popping the DAT master tape out of the recorder, and celebrating the completion of your project. Again, if this is your second or third project, this should be very easy to do. Make sure you picture yourself in a state of total euphoria, and not in a state of relief. Believe it or not, I've heard some people say after finishing their records, "Man, I am so glad I finally finished the stupid thing." This is usually said as an expression of relief that they don't have to work on it anymore, instead of being completely thrilled that they finished the most important step in releasing their record.

With the completion date in mind you can begin to work backwards to get an idea of how far along you should be at any point in the time frame. For example, if you've allowed six months to record approximately fourteen songs, then after three months, you'd better have around seven songs in the can, otherwise you'd need to start looking for ways to spend more time in the studio. Now imagine if you hadn't set the target date. Three months from now, would you have any clue as to how you were doing or when you might eventually be finished?

Some people say they don't like setting completion dates because it puts too much pressure into a situation that's supposed to be creative and fun. I agree that it puts a certain amount of pressure on yourself, but pressure in life is what gets things done. Think about it. A certain amount of pressure in your body causes you to go to the bathroom; pressure causes you to seek and meet members of the opposite sex; pressure in your stomach creates hunger and causes you to seek out food; pressure by your school teachers caused you to stay up late to complete an assignment (hopefully).

The difference between those kinds of pressure and the kind you want to put on yourself is the source of the pressure. You are establishing the time frame, not your parents, not your teachers, not your spouse, and not your record company. You pick the date in order to get yourself moving, not to meet other's expectations. Since you are in control of the situation, the feeling is completely different than when someone else imposes a time on you to get something done. If you don't make your target date, the only person you're disappointing is yourself.

Almost Done

Have you ever had someone ask you how far along you were on a song, and you replied, "I'm almost done?" Or if you were to express it as a percent, you'd say you were about 80% complete?

It's really easy to get the majority of a song written and recorded in say, one day, then spend four more days 'finishing' the job. So it appears that you are getting 80% of the work done in 20% of the time, then spending four times as long to finish the last 20%. There's nothing really wrong with this, as long as you've allowed five days per song. But if after five days you still feel the need to experiment and try out different methods of improving the song, you may begin to realize that the extra time spent will not noticeably improve the quality of the final product. In fact, a quest for perfection may only serve to squeeze the soul out of a song that sounds fine as it is.

The point is: if you really want to finish the job, you've got to keep yourself from spending time on 'finished' songs that probably could be better spent on new songs. If you've got a nagging feeling that something isn't right, move ahead anyway to the next song. It's possible you're so close to the music that you can't be objective about it anymore, and that after some time away from it, the song will suddenly sound better. This will keep you from discarding a soulful, spontaneous, but perhaps less than perfect take in favor of a technically accurate, but lifeless re-take.

If this sounds a bit like I'm telling you to trust your instincts, I am, and I'm hoping you'll give your instincts a chance to help you out. Don't be afraid to declare a song finished if you've given yourself plenty of time to finish it, and simply make a note to listen to the song at a future time. If you still feel it needs work, then take a look at your time commitments and see if you can really afford to spend more time on it.

Time, Money And Quality Trade-Offs

Finishing a recording project on time or close to on time usually means there will be some tough decisions needed along the way. Perhaps you will have to decide whether it's more important to improve the material and take more time, or consider it complete in order to be able to move on. If you are working under a recording budget, taking that extra time may not even be possible in situations where all the money has been spent. It becomes a trick (or skill) to balance money, time and quality as the project is developing.

The time when it's easiest to balance the three factors is at the beginning of the project, when you have all your options open. It becomes progressively more difficult to manage the three factors as the project nears the due date, until it becomes impossible when the due date finally arrives. If you haven't kept track of your progress and managed your time and/or money well, you may find yourself in a bad situation, where even if you wanted to spend another three months in the studio, the money is gone.

So when you are recording in a situation with limited financial resources, it's critical to step back every week or two and see where you stand in relation to money spent. If you've got $500 to spend on every song of a ten-song project, you don't want to find yourself having spent $4000 on the first five songs. If you do, you'll have to find some creative ways to get the last five songs recorded for $1000 (difficult, but achievable), or find more money (more difficult, and may be next-to-impossible). What you're trying to avoid, at all costs, is to have maybe four of the ten songs completed, the remaining six songs in various stages of completeness, with no money left to finish the record. That would leave you with an unreleasable mess that will probably remain unfinished for some time to come.

If you record in a home studio, a recording budget is not really an issue. You have only two items that need balancing: time and quality. In theory, the quality of the final recorded output should be exactly where you want it, since you can spend as much time as you need to achieve that quality, right? It's never that simple, is it. Time is never completely unlimited. Not only are there only twenty-four hours in a day, but you may find yourself through circumstance to having a maximum of five hours a week for working on your record. If you want to finish a record in one year, your total time commitment is 260 hours, which sounds like a lot, but is far from unlimited, when you consider the difficulty of focusing completely on the job for the entire time period.

Again, the key is to step back every week or two and assess whether or not you are moving forward. There's a good chance that if you feel you're not making progress, then you probably aren't making progress. You've got to stop and try to figure out just what the problem is and make corrections. If the drummer keeps goofing off and wasting valuable time, get him to change his attitude, or start looking for a new drummer. If you find yourself recording 20 or 30 takes of every part, you might try attempting some less challenging material to record. If recording is halted once a month due to purchase of a new piece of gear that must be learned and integrated into the studio, then you must find a way to record with the tools at hand, or risk falling way behind on your schedule.

Finishing The Article

There's really a skill to finishing things that can only be developed, ironically, by actually finishing things. In order to develop your skill in finishing things, especially your recording project, make sure you are constantly focused on finishing, and that you have shorter, easier tasks or steps (one song, the basic tracks, mixing) that can be finished individually. This will prove to yourself that progress is being made, and reinforce the confidence that you must have in order to complete the larger effort. Also, keep reminding yourself of the great feelings and pride you'll have when the project is finally completed. There's nothing like it.

Dan McAvinchey is a guitarist and composer living in Raleigh, NC.

He believes every musician or composer has the power to write, record and release their own music.

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