The Art of Making Decisions

I generally prefer to take my time over things. Work on a track, leave it a day, make a few changes, leave it a day, change it again – each time the changes getting diminishingly smaller until I load it up one morning and go “yeah”.

I’m certainly not alone in that approach. But sometimes it’s good to be forced into making decisions quickly, and every now and again a job comes along that reminds me that even when you’ve got the time, sometimes it’s better not to use it.

The Mercedes effect

The biggest job with the shortest deadline I’ve had over the last year was mastering the online content for Mercedes’ flagship ‘Sound With Power’ campaign. Without going into details, I was given a day – maybe two – to master an enormous amount of material. It worked out to about 15 minutes per track.

Granted, the tracks were short, and most of them were very similar to each other, but that’s still an awful lot to get through in a very short time. Certainly no leaving it for a day, coming back to it… Even if I’d had the time, it would have been tortuous to go back and re-do every single track so many times.

So I worked on the first track for an hour or two, decided on a workflow, signal chain and general direction and just ploughed my way through it.

The lesson to learn

The Mercedes campaign wasn’t the first time I’ve had to work like that, nor will it be the last. Anyone who’s ever done any work for film, TV or advertising will know the excruciating deadlines and sky-high expectations commonplace in those industries. But as hard as they are, every time I have a job like that, I find it incredibly informative.

The key is making decisions. Anyone who’s ever mixed anything will know the torture of constantly switching plug-ins and techniques, flip-flopping between often minute variations until you can’t hear straight no more. And then you’re lost.

What jobs like these teach me is the value of making a decision and sticking to it. Treating it like what it is: engineering. Presented with a problem, what’s the solution? What are the best tools to use? And how shall we use them? Great, let’s do that then. Job done.

It’s easy to get caught up in the creative distinctions between different compressor models, different saturation algorithms… With so many digital tools at our disposal, perfection is just an oversampling option away. But the more you play around, the less perspective you have.

Know your tools

The real trick is knowing your tools. Pare down your options. I tend to use only one of two options for everything in my chain. After years of experimentation I’ve narrowed it down to what works best for what job. And when I get it wrong I try the other one. I very rarely have to reach for anything else.

Once you know your tools you can make informed decisions and stick to them. Mix blindness is a far worse enemy than choosing arguably the slightly less appropriate tape saturation.

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