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The Finer Things in Life

Chris Lose • June 2021LD at Large • June 10, 2021

Illustration by John Sauer – www.johnsauer.com

Over the last few months, I have had ample time to indulge myself listening to the music that went over my head as a teenager. I remember listening to Rage Against the Machine in the 1990s and completely identifying with the rage but not fully understanding the machine. I knew that Zack de la Rocha was raging, but as an upper-middle-class white male, I had very little idea of what he was raging against. I must have played the Evil Empire album a thousand times in my senior year alone. I remember fixing the cassette with a pencil at least twice. In short, I listened to those songs a lot.

Fast-forward almost 30 years to just the other night. I am listening to the same neo-Marxist, rap-punk-metal tones in a dark room with my DT-770 Pro headphones, as I have become slightly more audiophilic in my forties. Exactly three minutes into “Bulls on Parade,” there is an obtrusive speaker buzz recorded onto the track. While the guitar solo slides to the left side of the track, on the right side, you can hear what sounds like an ungrounded microphone get plugged in. Am I crazy? Please take a minute and listen to it. Email me if you notice it. Having listened to that song so many times, I cannot figure out how I have never heard it before. The first thing I do is rewind a dozen times and make sure it’s the recording and not my system. It’s in the recording. I had to tell my wife about it. I still can’t tell if this is an artistic choice or a mistake that has been overlooked for more than two decades. RATM, by nature, is a dirty sound. They are not known for being overly produced or finely polished. In that regard, the speaker buzz in not unwarranted. However, it’s the exact sound that thousands of audio professionals have been paid exorbitant fees to avoid. For this sound to make it into a Grammy Award-winning song is unheard of. This makes me wonder whether this sort of blunder matters or not. Was this the work of a perfectionist mad man or a lazy mistake? Did someone lose their job? How much attention do we really need to pay to these finer details, and how should we react to them? Let’s explore the topic further.

‡‡         What is a Perfectionist?

I have worked with many clients. Some of them are artists and some of them are businesspeople. Artists tend to be more focused on the nuances of the final product. Business folk tend to be more focused on the attendance rates. You can tell the difference during rehearsals. In the extreme, the perfectionist will hold the doors and demand the band rehearse the same chorus that they have already performed a hundred times before. By definition, a perfectionist is someone that refuses to accept anything less than perfection. They can be very protective of their songs, the quality, and the presentation. They are making art, and the art expresses their deepest thoughts and emotions. They aren’t just presenting a hit single; they are presenting themselves to the world. Their presentation will be judged on every note, every color, every beat, and from every angle. The audience will critique every move they make and share it to the world even before the artist is off stage to defend themselves. This leads to perfectionism. There is no reason for these artists to get on stage unless everything is perfect. This requires artists and technicians to try new things and try to get them exactly right. The song must align perfectly with the image inside the artist’s head, no matter how unrealistic. Our job is to present this final image without questioning the laws of budget, logistics or even physics. Given enough time, we are known to make miracles happen for perfectionists. This sort of approach can be exhausting but rewarding.

‡‡         What am I?

I’m not a “perfectionist.” I’m in it for the rock ‘n’ roll. I can’t tell you a C-minor from a C-sharp. I can barely tell a verse from a chorus without looking at the lyric sheet. I can tell you a good song from a bad song, but that is highly subjective, and it fluctuates with intoxication levels. I want to make pretty pictures in the sky for other people and collect a paycheck. I know that I can punt some kick-ass shows with an hour to program and call it “good enough for a paycheck.” I have sat at the console and watched this one artist play the same chorus 30 times in one afternoon, holding doors until they were satisfied. Myself? I didn’t notice one thing different. But my name isn’t Paul Simon, and my name was certainly not on the marquee that night. That’s not to say that I don’t care. When given proper time, I’m never done perfecting a show. Ronnie Beal has laughed at me for taking notes on the last night of a tour to fix them in pre-viz. I want to make the artists happy, but I want to open doors on time too. I’m also a concertgoer. I know that after tipping back a few, I can still get frustrated when the beams are blinding me. As a fan, I might notice if Tom Morello’s guitar, aptly named “Arm The Homeless,” isn’t hitting as hard in the mix as it should be. I can feel deflated when an artist is having a bad day and they are phoning it in. I’m not paying attention to the minutia; I’m feeling the overall vibe of the room. For me, rock ‘n’ roll is meant to be out of control antics complete with wrong notes and forgotten lyrics. Rock ‘n’ roll is the Clash, it’s RATM; it’s not supposed to be perfect.

‡‡         How Can We Resolve This Paradox?

Drunks have rights to a good show too. Knowing the entire audience will be blitzed out their heads is not a good reason to put up a sloppy show. Knowing that a perfect show is wholly unobtainable, we cannot let that prevent us from striving for perfection. No matter how absurd the requests, we must take every available minute to give our clients exactly what they are asking for. Our livelihoods depend upon striving for perfection, knowing that we will come up short. When we reach a certain level in our career, we will encounter increasingly scrutinous clients. Years on the road will cement their habits and preferences. They will have the resources to rehearse for months and the bravado to hold doors until they are positive that they are ready to perform. We must live up to their expectations. We are here to make their art come to life. Art demands painstaking precision. Art requires the cultivation of the finer details. The smallest of details can make the biggest differences. We need to remind ourselves that attention to detail is the difference between an average performance and an extraordinary one. I’m not immune to the disorder, the older I get, the more I appreciate the finer things in life.

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