Recording Perfection Pitfalls 3: 5 Tricks To Beat Perfection Traps

2012/04/04

Toronto Skyline at Dawn

You record golden sound effects with flawless technique that everyone likes.

Sounds ideal, right?

However we’ve seen that expecting perfection can lead to two problems: perfect but generic and bland clips and the numbers trap which can affect quality.

Has this happened to you?

  • Are you overwhelmed by getting started? Don’t know which microphone or recorder to choose, or how to use them with flair? Maybe you’ve read all the articles on how pros record cars, guns and animals but things aren’t connecting during the shoot.
  • Perhaps you’re sharing your sounds on your blog, store or a forum and you’re unsure how people will respond to your library. Maybe you’re wondering what sounds people will appreciate, and need ideas for what to record next.
  • Maybe you’ve returned to the studio after a day’s shoot and you’re not fully satisfied with the results.

If you’ve experienced any of these you’re likely becoming trapped by perfection.

I’ll explain why this happens, and how to solve the problem.

Five ways to avoid perfection pitfalls

Expectations of perfection can make you record bland, one-size-fits-all sound effects that lack direct impact. Also, it can stunt your field recording sessions before you even get started.

What causes these problems?

Expectations that your library will be the absolute best to everyone has the effect of diluting your focus. This means you’ll create less compelling sound clips. It also means you’ll get less done.

How do we get around this?

There are 5 tricks I use to avoid traps from expecting sound effects perfection:

  1. Focus your sound effects
  2. Reclaim your recordings
  3. Find the value in mistakes
  4. Realize perfect is the enemy of done
  5. Real artists ship

  1. Focus your sound effects
  2. Are you unsure what your followers, customers or fans will think of your sound recordings? Not sure your sound effect will fit with a project? Concerned you’re wasting your time recording sound clips that won’t sell?

    If these things are on your mind you’re likely waiting for your sounds to be perfect for everyone.

    There’s something helpful I wrote earlier in Two Things You Must Know When Creating a Sound Library.

    These things are:

    1. knowing your goal
    2. knowing your audience

    It’s common to think that there’s only one way to record a good sound, and every other way is a failure. It’s misleading.

    Sure, you have to record articulate sound. Beyond that requirements differ.

    Not every sound effect is appropriate for every project. Each goal and audience has separate needs. Each has specific requirements for perspective and distance, coverage, number and type of microphones, duration, number of takes, sampling rate and more.

    That’s a lot of variation. Trying to record a sound clip that works for every situation will fast track your library to mediocrity.

    Instead of thinking that all sound is either perfect or not, think about success and failure as measured by your goal.

    Here is the earlier list of goals and audiences. And here’s a few more. For example, think about what constitutes success or failure in:

    • representative field recordings like documentaries.
    • research. Phonography.org explains the role that field recordings have for academic or forensic purposes.
    • narrative soundscapes. Sound has power to relate a story of place and what happens there. I think this is why imperfect recordings still work in soundmaps. Would higher quality make it better? There’s no question. But perfection isn’t always the definition of success.
      For example, listen to this soundmap of Ramallah, Palestine. Does the clip have distracting pop-outs and mic moves? Yes. But that doesn’t prevent it from being a unique, representative recording of place. If the recordist had decided to erase the recording based on imperfect mastering we’d be less for it.

    The idea is that you’re not well served just getting out there pressing buttons while recording anything that makes a sound. It’s true this will add bulk to your library. However it will reduce the impact of your collection.

    Think about your goal and for whom you are recording. Intent will strengthen your field recordings.

    One quick way to change this is to switch your thinking from ‘I want to record x sound effect‘ to ‘I’m recording x sound effect for this goal and that audience.’

  3. Reclaim your recordings
  4. Sometimes weak effects can be salvaged.

    Imported your sounds into Pro Tools and you’re not happy with the results? Don’t wipe that Compact Flash card yet. Try looking at the recordings in another way:

    • strip out specifics. Perhaps your ambience track isn’t compelling. Consider pulling out small sections to create new effects. Example: strip single truck passes from a damaged traffic track, or trim PA from an uneventful hospital hallway atmosphere.
    • create boosters or sweeteners. While some recordings may not be strong enough stand on their own, they may work well contributing to others. Take your B-grade jets and pistols to blend and thicken your fly-bys and gunshots.
    • sound design. Although a recording may not work as you originally hoped, plug-ins can be used to create new sounds where the authenticity of the original isn’t necessary: aliens, space ships, drones, etc.

    The idea isn’t to beef up your library with garbage sounds. I set aside imperfect ‘learning’ sounds in a separate Soundminer database. I label all sweeteners clearly so there’s no confusion.

  5. Find the value in mistakes
  6. Mistakes will happen. Accept that and your craft will improve.

    Whenever I move, I always expect that some dishes will shatter as ‘moving tax.’ A few things will break when you move, that’s just usually how it turns out. I don’t get anxious when it inevitably happens.

    It’s the same thing with recording. If you expect absolute perfection you’ll be more stressed and perform poorly.

    Mistakes are different from failure. In sound effects recording, mistakes can teach us new things about our technique, equipment and the nature of sound. No matter how many years you’ve been recording, there’s always something to learn.

    When I find myself in a field recording shoot that’s not perfect, this is what I do:

    • make notes. I use Evernote on my phone. I keep detailed notes about challenges. This helps avoid problems in the future. Some ideas:
      • track levels for recurring sounds. If you blew the levels on that freight train pass, note the threshold where the sound was destroyed. This will ensure you don’t make the same mistake when you try again.
      • note what frequencies are dominant, or weak. Choose a microphone next time that will adapt to this.
      • test the pick-up pattern and position. Let’s say you’ve over-modded the beginning of a crowd recording. Keep rolling and change your microphone location and technique. Listen to how things change. Replaying files like these when you get back to a clean, studio environment will teach you how that sound acts, and the abilities of your gear.
      • keep track of what time of day problem sounds are stronger. Is that location under a flight path on Tuesdays? Trains pass at 4:17 every day? Cicadas begin seasonally in June but not May? Make a note to help in the future.
    • record the problem sound anyway. Use it as a reference for future recordings, or recreating scenes. Reader René pointed out in an earlier article that

      Sometimes situations are so specific that the recordings may never make it into a project… but the experience gained by hearing those things go down in real life can be extremely informative when building related events in projects.

      That’s great advice.

    Record. Expect mistakes. Embrace them. You’ll learn valuable lessons about sound, your gear and technique.

  7. Perfect is the enemy of done
  8. French writer and philosopher Voltaire wrote ‘Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien,’ or ‘the best is the enemy of the good.’ It’s adapted widely as the phrase: ‘perfect is the enemy of done.’

    This suggests that if you wait until everything is flawless, you’ll get nothing done.

    The physics of sound are complex. There are thousands of microphones and recorders. How do you begin? Will you choose the right gear? And once you’re rolling, how do you know you’re recording correctly?

    Don’t let the fear of recording anything less than perfection paralyze you. Record. Don’t wait for perfect. Just begin.

    The value of the last page

    There’s also a more positive aspect of recording regardless of a perfect outcome.

    In author Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, she describes that writers should just begin writing six pages, regardless of content:

    There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you are supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

    Apply this to field recording. Don’t wait until you have an 8-track recorder and an arsenal of microphones before you record your first car. Don’t worry about having flawless technique before you start rolling.

    Sure, your initial attempts may be reckless and ineffective. There’s a good chance that process will reveal secrets of the sound itself, or tricks to use your gear more wisely.

  9. Real artists ship
  10. In January of 1984, Steve Jobs and his team were working frantically to complete what would be the first Apple Macintosh. They knew it would be a revolution in personal computing. However, the software was buggy and incomplete. If they took time to finish the work, they would miss the deadline.

    Engineer Andy Hertzfeld approached Jobs and told him the news: they needed to push the delivery date.

    Jobs refused. His reason? “Real artists ship.”

    Apple products are reputed to ‘just work.’ You’d think that every minute detail would be perfect before being releasing their computers. Even Apple isn’t stuck on perfection.

    What does this mean for sound effects?

    It means that the most important thing you can do as a field recordist is to produce. Steven Levy summarizes this in his book, Insanely Great:

    One’s creation, quite simply, did not exist as art if it was not out there, available for consumption, doing well… The final step of an artist — the single validating act — was getting his or her work into boxes.

    Why is this important? Seth Godin wrote in Linchpin:

    The greatest shortage in our society is an instinct to produce. To create solutions and hustle them out the door.

    Don’t let this happen to your sound effects. Aim for quality. Don’t skimp and rush out garbage sound effects. Just make sure you get something done.

Perfection and sound effects

When I recorded protest crowds and fighter jets, I struggled with the idea of expecting perfection while field recording.

Perfection I think is misleading. It assumes there’s only one right way to do things. It presumes that an ideal sound effect for one person is good for everyone, even though every project is different.

Some libraries produce sound fx that sort of work for everyone. Sound Ideas and The Hollywood Edge do this. There’s no focused audience for their collections. As a result they are victim to the same problems when you mass-produce anything: generic sounds without any depth of knowledge or nuance.

Recording without focus may capture the sound effect well, but you’ll record only superficial aspects without personality or depth. And who wants to contribute a lack of personality to their projects?

Sound effects recordings are stronger when captured more thoughtfully.

What I wanted to explore in this series is that expecting perfection not only traps you with unreasonable expectations, it undermines the character and personality that you as a recordist bring to your field recordings.

Nothing justifies accepting anything less than your best effort. Instead, avoiding perfection is about escaping a prison made by expecting generic ideas of perfection. It’s about contributing personality instead of relying on stats or prices to give a sound effect expression.

Perfect, unexpressive sound effects aren’t helpful. Desiring generic perfection undermines recording vivid, evocative sounds and can prevent us from interacting with, and richly representing the sounds we record.

What helps?

Refuse to let ideas of perfection prevent you from producing creative sound effects. Ship, experiment and learn.

Choosing a specific goal and audience will strengthen your sound library. Decide who you are recording for before you step out the door. Your sound effects will benefit. Adding purpose always improves the quality of your sound effects.

In the process you may make mistakes. That’s fine. The goal isn’t to be perfect.

There’s an quote about professionals that I like. It was written by Werner Heisenberg, a German physicist who asserted the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics:

An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject and who manages to avoid them.

In other words, not a rigid, perfection-based automatons. Imperfect people who grow and learn.

Thank you again to all comments, Twitterers and writers who’ve sent emails.





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