Beautiful surface (Click for larger image)
Beautiful surface (Click for larger image)

Today I’m going to take some time to talk about something that happened in a Woodcraft.

This will apply to nearly anything in life where you create. Music, programming, woodworking, sewing, gardening… basically anything.

I’ll also be covering a music-mixing topic.

I’m writing this post because I want to test out using Dragon for Mac I have been having RSI issues lately and I need to find an alternative to typing on my keyboard. (Note: I actually abandoned this after a paragraph. Not for me.)

If you have any questions or comments, please comment below! I read every comment and respond to most. No registration is necessary to comment, so don’t be shy.

Contents

Creating things

My favorite place in the shop
My favorite place in the shop

This rant is largely about how people go about creating things. I think a lot of people focus on small details when they should be focusing on rough actions. I’m talking about large sweeping actions the make big changes.

I heard a conversation where someone said the phrase, “You can tell the quality of the craftsman by the shavings they leave behind.”

I thought that was a fine statement, but as I heard the conversation continue I realized he was implying that better craftsmen left behind a floor of nothing but the finest, wispy, gossamer shavings.

I think that’s rubbish.

Nobody that does anything of worth works that way.

Small Cuts

Beautiful surface (Click for larger image)
Beautiful surface (Click for larger image)

You see that shaving? That was made with a hand plane that I made myself. The shaving is so fine that you can see through it.

It also left behind barely a mark on the work piece. There’s a glossy smooth surface that you could ice skate on. But…

Can you imagine building a boat making shavings like that all day long? You would certainly develop your muscles, and you’d end up charging astronomical prices due to the fact that it took you 15 years to prepare the decking alone.

Big Cuts

Thick Cuts
Thick Cuts (Click for larger image)

That’s not a beautiful shaving. It didn’t leave behind a brilliant surface. The resulting surface finish is actually rather poor. You can see where the blade was chattering because I wasn’t able to fully control it while taking that cut.

But… that shaving got some work done. I can take a large board from twisted, cupped and bowed to tried and true in about 10 minutes with shavings like that.

Those big cuts are what gets work done. You start with rough materials and you take big cuts until it begins to resemble your idea, then you refine it. There’s thousands of big cuts taken, and one final ultra-fine pass.

If you spent some time thinking about it, the woodworking process takes some really large cuts. Cutting off the ends of logs, turning logs into boards, veneering logs, etc…

The whole process of going from log to workable board is about taking the biggest cut you can.

The real world

I really had to work with this code.
I really had to work with this code.

I know that many of you don’t do wood working, but this applies to anything where you create.

In development there’s a concept of Premature Optimization. This, is that. It’s taking the small shavings on a log that’s still covered in its bark.

If you’ve ever watched a brilliant mixer work, the first thing they do is “Throw up the faders”. They start from scratch and see what they can do with just a quick rough mix. Then they identify issues, make some big changes, etc… until there’s some light fine tuning.

Recordists do the same. Throw up some mics, see how it sounds, then make some fine adjustments.

As an administrator on one of the largest realtime music chats, I see this all of the time. People that are making music and they immediately are focused on EQing a small noise to perfection or ask about how to use compression when they don’t even have a song written. I see people talk about moving mics around in intricate ways, yet when asked for a demo of how it currently sounds they have nothing to show yet!

Before you take the small shavings, you need to have something that is beginning to resemble a finished product. It’s tangentially related to the concept of Bikeshedding or “Being up to your neck in alligators”, except in this case the alligators are ghosts of your imagination.

Doing things right

Sharp as a... chisel?
Sharp as a... chisel?

By no means am I suggesting not doing things right and simply taking an axe to every problem you need to solve. Sometimes it’s necessary to focus on small details, or to take time to carefully plan your project.

This isn’t a rant about ignoring details. DETAILS ARE IMPORTANT. Overlooking small details or not taking time to integrate details into your view of the larger picture is a recipe for disaster.

DETAILS ARE IMPORTANT

The only thing more important than details, is knowing when to address them. There’s no point optimizing things that don’t even have a functional resemblance to intended operation. With music this is an important concept. This is why I have adopted the “Top-down” mixing workflow, and why I’ve been building a new system based on that.

My favorite place in the shop

Sharpeness
Sharpeness

If you scroll up then you would see that my favorite place in the shop is my sharpening station.

Woodworking becomes significantly easier with sharper tools. It doesn’t matter if you use hand tools or power tools. You need to remove material quickly and leave little evidence of your presence.

Being ‘sharp’ applies to nearly every type of creation as well. If you can’t do exactly what you want with little effort, then you will scatter your incompetence across your creation.

This means having the best tools that you can afford, but more importantly knowing how to configure and utilize them. It doesn’t matter what tools you use if you know how to prepare them to be utilized as is needed.

In the music world this means taking time to read your DAW manual, ‘playing’ with plugins and chains, experimenting with your instruments. In the development world this means exploring your build system, learning what features your language offers (often so you can ignore them!) and slowly learning how to deeply modify your tooling. In the woodworking world this is keeping your tools sharp, understanding how to sharpen them for different tasks and eventually learning to make your own tooling (or modify what you have)

Every craftsman leaves their mark, but let it be your mark. Don’t let it be the evidence of poorly configured tooling.

Top-down Mixing

Top Down Mixing (Click for larger image)
Top Down Mixing (Click for larger image)

The “Top-down” mixing workflow is as such: You begin your work on the latest bus in the signal flow. Create a basic mix with faders, then apply changes to the master channel. Now to your busses (drums, guitar, bass, sfx, etc..). Then you continue this process until you’ve reached making changes to the individual tracks or items.

I’ve drawn an image above that shows this. First drop all of your faders, then create the best mix you can with faders and pan. Now start at stage 1 and work your way down.

This workflow forces you to constantly prioritized the ‘next biggest picture’ in the process. You only proceed to the next level of detail when you’ve done as much as you can with the widest brush.

You are forced to begin your entire process by getting the best sounding track you can. That is where you start. Too many people begin their process by trying to get the best sounding kick, then the best sounding bass, then the best sounding… whatever. It’s a song. Focus on making the best sounding song you can.

Conclusion

Nothing I’ve written here is new. There’s so many metaphors, similies, anecdotes, proverbs and the like about this subject. This isn’t some brilliant idea I’ve come up with on my own.

I’m writing this as a reminder, or as perhaps a wakeup call.

Sometimes it’s fun to become devoured by details. It can be exciting to find small flaws and patch them with shrewd solutions (that leave you scratching your head months later when you look back).

If you’ve read this far, then I urge you to take a look at your workflow and see if you are spending too much time focusing on details before those details are even of consequence.

Thank you for reading.

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If you have any questions or comments, please comment below! I read every comment and respond to most. No registration is necessary to comment, so don’t be shy.