Talk Box: The “Back To Basics” Trap

There’s a lot of talk about going back to basics and simplifying one’s sound. I don’t have a problem with that; for example, layering a boring melody line with more boring melody lines will make for a bigger sound, but won’t improve the melody line. In that case, time spent on writing a better melody is a better option than time spent doing tons of layering.

And when it comes to recording, we sometimes see people adding way too much compression or EQ, doing overdubs that aren’t really necessary, inserting gratuitous loops, and the like. In the process, they lose sight of the most basic musical component: recording a great performance that bristles with soul, integrity, and originality.

So it’s good there’s an emphasis on getting back to the right kinds of basics. But if “back to basics” is an excuse for not being willing to try new concepts—even ones that might appear at first excessive—then we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

Many thought that rock and roll, a daring blend of R&B, blues, pop, and country, was just a passing fad. Some felt the Beatle’s “Sgt. Pepper’s” was excessive in terms of using the studio as an instrument, yet now it’s considered a classic album—possibly the best of their career. And Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” was definitely over the top compared to what was happening at the time, but had a profound influence on pop music.

Today’s tools let us do feats that could only be dreamed about a few years ago, yet often, these tools aren’t exploited to anywhere near their full potential. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that: Just because something exists doesn’t mean we have to use it. In fact, I often advise people who are overwhelmed with technology to find their comfort zone, and work within that.

However, staying exclusively in your comfort zone may keep you from finding something ground-breaking. It’s the people who transposed samples way out of their natural range who uncovered great new options for soundtracks; and we owe looping to the composer who cut a piece of analog tape and stuck one end to the other. Where would the Sex Pistols—or Enya or Queen for that matter—be without huge amounts of layering? And how many tape recorder motors were burned out in the process of figuring out tape flanging?

Sure, don’t lose sight of the fundamentals. But in the process, also make sure you don’t lose sight of what might be over the horizon.