Thin Wall Holds Everything Back

Thumbing through my mental notebook on reasons why my music project suffers as much as it does. It occurs to me that the sound is dull, lifeless, muted. A song could be full of big sound, and I could be using the fullest extent of my mixing and mastering skills to date, but the final product is flat, smooth, without breath. Sure, it might be pretty, but it seems the more energy and care I pour into the mix, the deader it is.

My song “Cine Ratto” was done in one, maybe two nights. One single instrument with as little production on it as possible. Fixed a few notes here and there, but the tracking and mixdown was done as fast as possible; it was only supposed to be a musical idea, after all, not a real song. And yet it is my loudest, brightest, shiniest piece of work. I just didn’t care as much; as long as I didn’t blow the 0dB levels, pump it.

But what about the rest? What about “Parting Moments“? It’s a pretty song, and I actually felt strong emotions while writing, tracking, and mixing it. But the final mix when played on a typical consumer stereo? Dull as children’s scissors. I tried like hell to get it as loud and bright as possible, and I succeeded in some sections. But in order to not hit the 0dB wall where clipping occurs, I used compressors and limiters all over the place to raise the volume and increase the decay tones, but all that did was chop off the snappy impulses and muddy the mix. The overall result requires the use of nice headphones or a pro-grade stereo system (and a quiet room) to get the nuances and breath.

So why are my songs so quiet, so muted, so pretty? There’s no noise, no bombast, no life. Why? Because I’m timid. I have an excellent pair of studio monitor speakers, a beefy amp to drive them, but I hold back on the volume when I’m monitoring and mixing, usually opting to use headphones. I play nice long chords. I seldom use the drum machine because that’s noisy even with headphones. I don’t want my neighbors to hear it and complain. I’m compelled to make music, but abashed that other people will have to hear it. What I’m doing is going belly-up, being the bottom dog, and the music I make suffers unbelievable indignations because of it.

I’d love nothing more than to resolutely stand my ground, swing my swagger, and pump the music for hours when I’m working on a piece, but the reality is a lot more shameful. I want to be blameless in the neighborly-noise cold wars that are part and parcel of apartment living. So I timidly hold back.