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Why trying to be perfect is detrimental to your growth as an audio engineer

Large diaphragm condenser microphone

Recording and mixing are two forms of artistic expression. Like drawing or painting, there’s a lot more to being proficient than just having natural talent. Innate talent will only get you so far, while hard work and practice will get you further. A combination of both is when true genius happens. But there’s a reason there are so few geniuses. It’s rare that someone possesses both the talent and dedication to become great at something. The vast majority of us have mediocre talent and an average work ethic. For a lot of people that are naturally talented at something, they will try something out and discover they’re good at it, but their lack of work ethic stifles their progression into the next level of proficiency. Their natural talent made it easy to get started, but when they reach the top of their talent limits and don’t keep up with the practice, their progress diminishes.

I’m speaking from experience: my perfectionism and desire to be great is what ended up holding me back. I’ve touched on this in “Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering,” but there was a big part of me that was subconsciously steering away from making music for fear of being bad or creating something that I would not be proud of. I’m very opinionated and have strong feelings towards everything from fine art, music, and food to even things I don’t care about, like interior design or architecture… you name it, I have an opinion about it.

Now, this harsh opinionated mindset works well when trying to figure out which EQ or compressor I want to use for certain specific scenarios, but it holds me back when I’m judging my work. It turns out I even have a strong opinion about myself! In the back of my head, I always feel that everything I do can be better. None of my work is ever finished.

Da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

If you’re one of these people that has trouble finishing a project, a song, a mix, or an arrangement, well, welcome to the club. This is a common occurrence with artists of all types, and it’s so common that Leonardo Da Vinci spoke about it over 500 years ago.

Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci

A consummate professional knows when to abandon his work. He knows when to move on and when not to let his emotions get to him when he has a project that has a deadline and needs to go out. You have to get the work done and move on. It’s the only way to get better. I had to learn that I’m not going to magically turn each one of my productions into an amazing song every time. I’m certainly not going to make that happen by slicing the drums up a million times and spending hours tuning the vocals. That kind of stuff doesn’t matter when it comes to the bigger picture. You learn from each mix and every tracking session, but no single thing is going to make or break a mix or production. There’s not a single technique that’s going to take your skills to the next level. Everything is made up of small wins; small things eventually accumulate and add up to something much bigger.

I also used to wait for inspiration to motivate me to start working. I would wait for my brain to magically tell me to go make music. I don’t think anyone is constantly inspired. Inspiration comes and goes. Spurts of inspiration happen, but it’s rare. I need to push myself to start working. A real professional is someone that’s going to hone their abilities whether they feel inspired or not. You can’t wait for the perfect moment or the perfect setup, or the perfect piece of gear to start working on a mix or project. You just have to show up. Showing up and starting is half the battle. Making art feels daunting, whether it be an album or a painting, conceptually, it feels impossible.

Many times artists and creators are surprised at how their work ends up the way it does. It’s almost like we serendipitously end up with the finished product, but we aren’t sure how we got there. It makes us feel like phony because we don’t know how we did it. Then there’s always this underlying fear that we won’t be able to get to that same place again. It’s hard not to feel like that one great recording, mix, or song we made was just a stroke of good luck and we wouldn’t be able to do it again. Since we don’t know exactly what we did, we certainly don’t know how to replicate it. So we go into the next project with our fingers crossed, hoping that we can recreate that same magic again, sometimes we do, and other times we don’t.

Perfectionism will affect every aspect of your creative process, but it will affect you most when it comes time to stamp something finished. Trying to create something that’s “perfect”  won’t let you declare any project completed because there’s always something you can do to make it better

So what should you do?

Work on projects and finish them. The goal shouldn’t be to make a perfect product; the goal should be to finish it. Whether it’s good or bad doesn’t matter. There are always going to be people that have unfavorable opinions and negative attitudes, try not to listen to them. Work within a time frame and stick to it. It’s better to work on 50 good projects in a year than one perfect project. The only way to get better at recording and audio engineering is by doing more of it.

Related articles:
How to survive as a working audio engineer
[Even more] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
EMT 250 and the birth of digital audio
The “your mixes sound bad in the car” phenomenon

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