What We Talk About When We Talk About Records

It’s easy to develop and gravitate towards apocrypha surrounding art we revere. In some ways it’s important to create stories to understand what we cannot, especially that which we love. We dodge a crucial question in the process, though:

How do we love something we don’t completely understand?

We can look to our relationships with people for the answer: wholly and deeply–as long as we are able to accept the limitations of where we can overlap, and the realities of where we never will. Forgoing that process destroys what makes that love sacred; it creates a mythological absolute of knowing and oneness.

There is no knowing a record, just as there is no knowing another person. All you have is an experience, and gratitude that it is yours and (hopefully) beautiful.

Records (and any art) are absolutely made with craft, study, luck, labor, money, experience, and over time. But all of these are invented and debatable. The one thing that is undeniable and formative to all of them is love, and any content of a work beyond it is subject to interpretation.

That still leaves us with so much! We get to hold on to our memories of blasting an album in the car, knowing that it is exactly the length of a particular subway ride, remembering the person who first showed it to us, placing it in a particular time in our growth. Better yet, we don’t have to downplay these as secondary qualities. We get to honor them as the cornerstone of our experience with art, as the compass we use to navigate the world (even if magnetic north is about 500 miles away from true north).

We don’t have to listen to the journalists wax poetic about stylistic influence, historical context, genre convention. Ignore your friend who says: ‘oh, that one’s pretty good, but you should really check out this one’. You don’t need to listen to it again if you “didn’t get it the first time”.

Fuck all of that!

I try to take this into the studio every day, whether I’m going to be by myself or with someone I’m engineering for. I try to block out the noise that says “is this good? have we accomplished the goal of the work? does it compete with the genre’s current offerings? do we need to work harder? should we give up?”

I try to ask myself and my clients (though not with these words), “Do we love this? Do we love the work we put in? Do we love each other more for doing it together?” and these questions not only feel better to ask, but they always give a better idea of how things are ‘going’.

If there’s love in the room, there’s gold in the speakers, and I become more certain of that every day.

Sometimes the strange alchemy of experience turns that gold to silver in a listener’s headphones, or even copper, but it never turns to coal. And even copper conducts electricity.

At the end of the day, art (like anything else) is always better when love is at the center of it. Love creates more things elsewhere beyond its original germ. It settles and it takes root. The center expands, and there’s a place for all of us inside it.

Why I Never Leave My Room: A love letter to acoustics, confidence, and myself

One of the most impactful periods of my life was the time between the ages of 22 and 24 when I was deeply psychotic, delusional, and going in and out of the hospital on a regular basis.
I was paranoid the government was spying on me, had anywhere between 0 and 10 panic attacks a day, and periodically felt God tap my shoulder and nudge me in confusing directions. I was emotionally,  interpersonally and ontologically led astray for a long time, and it largely compromised my ability to trust my perception of reality and my impact on the world around me.

I developed strange coping mechanisms. I would walk the same path in the woods 5 times a week in my bare feet and learn every pebble and root–a grounding exercise to “check in” with something constant, to assure myself that I wasn’t completely floating away. I would over-attach myself to romantic partners to create day-to-day consistency I was otherwise lacking, and would create strange recordings and songs of my experiences to keep tabs on my wellness.
All of these backwards attempts at normalcy didn’t really help, though, because they didn’t work to regain a confidence in my own reality, they were actually predicated on the impossibility of any reality.

And as a transfeminine person with no current plans to start hormone replacement therapy, my perception of myself has always seemed completely contrary to how the rest of the world perceives me, hidden under thick layers of fatalism, fear, insecurity, dysphoria. I feel so much anxiety about how my gender expression will contextualize any decision I make or action I take, and each oblique collision of these two realities leaves me dizzy and depressed.

But it all changed when I started seriously studying acoustics after making the leap to full-time freelancing.

I needed to be able to mix quicker and more effectively, so I designed and built bass traps and broadband absorption panels in my bedroom, which transformed it from a living space into a sonic garden. I started hearing nonlinearities in response, timing issues, consistent deficiencies in my mixes–and I became obsessed. I would read articles about monitor design, boundary interference response curves, absorption coefficients, what have you, and I started to rearrange the garden.

This carpet should actually be dampening the northern half of the floor, the speakers should be moved closer to the wall with the low trim set lower, the bed should be by the window, the amperage of this IEC cable is a little to low…my reference level has been far too high for six months! Why was I doing that? When I mount the monitors horizontally, the bass tightens up, but the spectral response falls apart. I need to listen to all these changes for two days before I do this round of mix recalls, just to be sure. The kick drum on that Bedhead record still sounds wrong–why???

But the garden was becoming beautiful, and the madness was subsiding. The changes became smaller and less frequent. Now they have stopped.

It took 14 months, but my bedroom has become an honest place. It tells me everything I need to know, and its lies are now white and rare. I know exactly how loud the kick drum should be, how long that reverb needs to spill out from behind the lead vocal, how hard the chorus should hit the 2-bus compressor. Any sonic decision I make in that room can be made with about 90% confidence, and considering that about 5-10% of my decisions in a day aren’t in front of a computer, that’s a pretty good number. My room loves and takes care of me

I used to leave it to remind myself that the word still existed, that I was real. Now I never leave it because it can tell me so much about whatever the world brings me when I’m inside it. It’s a place where I can be confident in my decisions, my taste, and myself in general–in ways I never could be before.

And it gets so much sunlight.