All Roads Lead to Home

A well-worn ancient Chinese proverb, generally attributed to Lao-tzu, says that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. That is very

A well-worn ancient Chinese proverb, generally attributed to Lao-tzu, says that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” That is very true — as far as it goes. If your journey is between two points connected by a single road, you have only to keep putting one foot in front of the other. But what about when the journey is not one that simply goes from point A to point B but one that reaches its end only in the confluence of several separate, though often related, “sub-journeys” through different territories?

Many projects — including albums, films, and games — fall into this category. A typical studio album has tracking, overdubbing, and mixing phases, and it is not uncommon for those phases to overlap for different songs in the course of production. It can get confusing and even overwhelming.

Planning, better known as pre-production, should be your first line of attack, but once pre-production is done and production gets underway, everything has to move toward a conclusion. How does one juggle all those concerns and get them there?

Often the best strategy is not following each step through to completion or multitasking, but incremental improvement. A task is advanced by a modest but significant amount, and then the next task is similarly brought up a notch and so forth, rotating through all the tasks until they are finally all done. A task that sits too long without receiving attention will lose momentum, stagnate, and fall behind. It can seem frustrating for no single task to reach completion until near the end, but there are good reasons for taking this approach.

The creative act rests more in editing than in generating source materials. During the course of a project, the original idea tends to be modified and reshaped as the concept develops. If one task is taken all the way to completion, it will probably need significant reworking when the overall picture changes. Related to this is the notion that the final work is the sum of all the tasks — or, more accurately, the interaction of the ideas behind them — suggesting that alterations in one area will inspire changes to another. If some tasks are far along while others have not yet been started, there is no coherent context, which stunts conceptual interaction. Further, project needs unanticipated in pre-production (and there are usually at least a few) may not surface until late in the project if there are areas wholly untouched before then.

Finally, many projects, such as albums, consist of multiple iterations of more or less the same process (each song having pretty much the same production phases). By rotating through the tasks and raising each a notch every pass, the process gets worked through the first time, and the remaining iterations can be much more effective and efficient.

The concept of placeholders is key to this method. Demos, guide tracks, rough mixes, sequenced parts to be replaced later with live players: these are all tactics for laying a foundation that encapsulates a whole picture of what you are aiming for. Some placeholders may even make it into the final product.

I'll mention one last major benefit of the incremental improvement approach: facing the beginning of a large multifaceted project can often give one a major case of blank-page syndrome, in which the scope of the project is so overwhelming that it's difficult to see where to begin. By tackling the problem in nibbles, it becomes less daunting, and once a few pieces are in place, momentum naturally starts to pick up.

Not every project needs to be approached incrementally. Songwriting, for instance, often happens by either the words or the music being written in its entirety before the other is even started. But when faced with a journey of a thousand miles and a dozen destinations, breaking it into pieces and raising the level of each piece a bit at a time can make plain the way to bring it all home.