August Preview: Daniel Levitin

A musical neuroscientist talks technology, focus, and the creative process
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Daniel Levitin

From his landmark book This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession to his groundbreaking work at McGill, Stanford, the University of Oregon, and UC Berkeley, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin is on a quest to help the world better understand how our brains process music. We sat down to chat about recording technology, studio life, and staying creatively focused in an overwhelming world.

Some EM readers might not realize that you're a studio guy from way back. How has that informed your work?

I had some very good teachers when I was just starting out being a studio musician and producer: Leslie Ann Jones, Mark Needham, Maureen Droney, Fred Catero, and Rick Sanchez and Jeffrey Norman who really helped me learn what the studio could do and what a good pair of ears could do.

I had jumped right in as a producer before I knew anything because I had been in a series of failed bands and I liked the studio part of being in a band better than the having beers thrown at you part. These very patient and brilliant engineers helped me learn the ropes. And then David Rubinson, who was Herbie Hancock’s manager at the time and the owner of the Automatt [studio in San Francisco], was very generous in giving me a bunch of free studio time to learn my craft there, which was at the time one of the top recording studios in the world. He introduced me to George Martin, and I spent some time talking to and learning from him. After that, I was mentored by Narada Michael Walden and Sandy Pearlman, two very different producers, and I learned a ton. I learned more during that time than at any other time in my life.

What all of those great engineers and producers taught me was how to see music as a canvas and the studio as the brushes and paint; to help me see how an idea can be realized in the studio. And it helped me to hear better. I've been a musician since I was four years old, so I was always listening, but there wasn’t really a focus for my listening until people like Leslie came along and said, “Well, listen to this. You notice the difference between how the same thing sounds on Scotch 250 tape vs. Scotch 226?” and, “Listen to how this microphone does this and this microphone does that.” Being taught how to listen and then how to apply that listening to both creative and technical work was a huge part of my education and my life.

When I decided to go into the scientific side of things, never giving up the playing and performing and producing side, I was able to approach the science with that kind of precision and that kind of open-mindedness about questioning things that I got from being a studio rat.

You often talk about the evolutionary of nature of things; what about the evolution of musical tools? What are some ways new technology interfaces impact the creative process?

If you'll indulge me and let me be a bit pedantic: We use the word “evolution” in two ways here, and I think it’s worth teasing them apart. When we talk about biological evolution, that's a haphazard system that has no plan or design, and things just sort of happen at random and some of them turn out to be adapted and selected. That's really not what happens with technology. An engineer or a user sits down and says, “Gee, this doesn't really do everything I need it to do. I need it to do that.” And somebody plans it. There is a kind of natural selection aspect of some products doing better than others, but that's still different.

I feel like the tools enabled great bursts of creativity, most famously realized in recordings like Sergeant Pepper’s and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Prince’s 1999, Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind and his five albums that followed it... I think that those were all important landmarks showing the power of the tools in the hands of real creative geniuses. I don’t remember who it was, but somebody went and accepted the Grammy for Album of the Year one year, back in that run of five amazing albums Stevie put out. And they said, “And I thank Stevie Wonder for not putting out an album this year.”

I think that was Paul Simon.

It might’ve been. Paul Simon is very witty. I would add, actually, since you mentioned Paul Simon, I think Paul Simon’s album So Beautiful, So What is another example of a technical achievement. It’s one of the most gorgeous recordings I’ve ever heard. But I think the tools have been misused lately. When Geoff Emerick was trying to find a way to make John Lennon sound like he was suspended from the ceiling and moving around in circles, he came up with idea of putting the voice through a Leslie speaker. And subsequently, he came up with other sounds, with flanging and phasing and things like that.

Starting in the ’80s, it was too easy to just push a button and get a sound that everybody had already used. And I think that that created a homogeneity in records that a lot of people, including me, don’t like. The public doesn’t seem to mind so much, but that ready ability—“I've got a keyboard sampler with a thousand different instrument sounds in it and they sound pretty good, but I’m sure that somebody used them before,”—it's not like having an ARP or a Moog and patching together a new sound like Rick Wakeman did.

I think that some of the greatest works of creativity come from artists struggling with their tools to come up with something new, not complacently hitting a button and using something that’s already been used a thousand times before.

Quincy Jones once told me, “There are only 12 notes.”

Trying to put them together in interesting ways is the challenge.

Right.

You listen to good recordings and you hear a guitar tone or a piano tone you've never heard before, and that’s some combination of the player and the instrument and the mic technique, and some production decisions. I love that. There’s a piano that opens up a Lyle Lovett record, Joshua Judges Ruth, on the song “I’ve Been to Memphis,” and it was recorded by George Massenburg. I’ve never heard a piano sound like that before or since. I think that’s what the tools should be able to allow, rather than homogeneity.

What about the interface to the tools? If I’m using a synthesizer or a reverb plug-in, is the way that information is presented to me informing the decisions I make?

I think the interfaces are often disastrous. They’re designed by engineers. I mean, I’ve been in the labs of some of the companies that design these; engineers who are not really players, they’ll design the instrument, they’ll get a few engineer buddies to try it out, and a typical user is never consulted. And you end up with these awful interfaces that stifle creativity.

I consider myself a technical person; I’m a computer programmer, I taught the computer science departments at two universities. But I find Pro Tools and Logic to be stifling. Even though I've learned how to use them, I mostly hire an engineer to do it because I don’t want to have to be creative and deal with that interface. I have the same problem with some instruments where it’s just complicated to try to get what I want out of them.

I actually like the old analog synthesizers where you can punch a button to get a sound and then move some levers and dials to modify the sound. All that stuff is buried in menus now and your only access to it is a window that’s about the size of your index finger, and to keep track of where you are in the hierarchy and what it is that you're moving, it’s all very frustrating. Although I imagine millennials don’t have the same problem with it that oldsters like me have.

I think it’s probably going in the direction that will make it easier for people with less training to do things. And I’m of two minds or two hearts about that. I think that society would be better off if more people made music, and I recognize that not everybody is as OCD as we musicians are, they’re not going to spend 15 years in a room by themselves learning to play an instrument. I like the idea that there are instruments or Garage Band or tools out there that let people play—I’m emphasizing the word “play”—play music, play with music, without reaching world-class levels of technical expertise. But I think that we should still encourage people to learn to play challenging, traditional instruments. In those, there is always a struggle. One of the last things Segovia said before he died was that he was still learning about the guitar.

The guy that I use for Pro Tools, Christopher Harrison, is also producing my current record. He’s a brilliant producer, music just pours out of him, and he also happens to be the fastest and best Pro Tools person I've ever seen. He plays Pro Tools like Leslie Ann Jones would play microphone positioning or like a great like Dean Parks would play the guitar.

You talk about “the organized mind” and getting your brain in the right mode for task work or creativity; what are some good practices for people who are trying to do both?

One thing is to recognize whether you’re a good task switcher or not. I’m not. I can run Pro Tools if I don’t have to be the creative person, and I can run it pretty well. In fact, in the old days, if I was engineering, I could run the console and the patch bay and the tape machine. But I couldn’t also be a performer or a producer at the same time, just because I can’t switch tasks very well. But there are people who can. It tends to be genderized; women tend to be better at task switching than men, and there’s some brain basis for that. But learning what kind of person you are is the first step. It became very liberating for me to be able to admit, “I'm Daniel Levitin, and I’m a bad task switcher.” I’ve got to hire people to do one or the other and not try to do both.

Beyond that, I think the surest way to stay creative, if something is boring, is just good health and sleep hygiene. Eat well, eat healthy foods, don’t pull an all-nighter if you can avoid it. I know there are people—Stevie Wonder being one of them—who like to work until they drop. But the research is clear that people who put in a steady effort, six hours a day, eight hours a day, even if it’s only four hours a day, but every day, get more done and tend to be more creative than the people who go on these jags where they’ll work 30 hours straight and then collapse for four days. It’s hard to argue with the success of people like that, like Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell; but we don’t know how wonderful the music would’ve been if they had better sleep hygiene practices and better work habits.

How do you maintain creative focus if you're a musician recording at home and you're trying to work Pro Tools and set up your microphones and you're maybe trying out some different synth patches; how do you prioritize that energy?

I carry around a stack of three-by-five index cards all the time and I’m constantly making lists. And when I’m working, if I think, “Oh, I’m going to have to do that,” I write it down, because if I’m doing something else right now, I want to finish what I'm doing and then get to that other thing.

It’s kind of the equivalent of people making out post-its and sticking them on the wall or the monitor. The neuro-scientific jargon would be to say externalize your memory, don’t try to keep it all in your head, put it out there on paper so that you can use your limited brain resources. And they’re limited for all of us. We all have attentional limitations; use the attentional power you have to do the thing in front of you instead of being distracted by the five things that are coming next.

That’s what makes great performers so great, I think. I've been on stage with Neil Young and I've seen him flip that switch in his brain where he suddenly goes into a mode where he’s not thinking about anything except the present moment. And I’m sure that that’s what Miles Davis did and that all great performers do. They’re not up there thinking about five other things when they’re trying to deliver. I think that also applies to actors and engineers. We call it being in the zone, right? Being in the flow.