The center of the macular portion of your eye is called the fovea; it’s the portion of your retina that most nearly represents what you’re looking at directly. I adopted from my father the phrase “thinking off the fovea.” It means tackling a problem not by focusing directly on it, but what’s at the periphery. And in any creative question, that can be a great tool for harnessing different ways of thinking. In music production, it’s doubly true: by necessity, working on music production can take large amounts of time and effort, and the more effort you spend, the further you get from the ability to judge what you’re doing objectively or recall that initial creative spark was.

The question of how to approach tools in music technology comes up constantly. The “why are we all here and what are these things for?” question seems especially apt as I bunk in Frankfurt, Germany, a stone’s throw from cavernous halls full of gear for the annual Musikmesse trade show.

People talk about focusing on music instead of tools, as if the two can be neatly separated. These discussions can become circular, though, in groups of musicians.

So, instead, let’s ask chefs. Food and music are often connected, spiritually, socially, and metaphorically. (Music being the food of love and whatnot.) Both can be an aesthetic experience, but both also connect to some need in our being.

Can they connect philosophically? Practically?

Watch the video above and see if you nod along; I know I did not only personally but having interviewed artists across a great gamut of style and training. I won’t give away the content of the video, but I’m also curious:

What’s your knife?

Film by Cool Hunting, who do a wonderful series of shorts about design and inspiration, regularly relevant to music even when they’re about something else.

  • UNK

    A quality set of headphones or monitors fits the analogy well for me. That and an interface that you know really well, and can use quickly.

  • redvoid

    love this post & video. being both a fairly serious home cook, and a lifetime musician, I have seen and too often resembled the person with a kitchen full of high tech gadgets who goes out to eat more often than cooking up something original. this is why a classical pianist is busy working on their musical chops, musical interpretation, and subtlety of performance while electronic musicians are out selling off last year’s gear to buy this year’s gear to once again make a few crummy demos that nobody ever listens to. its actually kind of unusual to hear chefs talking about tools since they’re usually talking about demi glace, stock, sofrito and mirepoix. They ARE engaged with the music, not with the piano.

    I am currently in the process of selling off a room full of gear that I’ve collected since the mid 80s having transitioned from 512k Macs with dual floppies and no hard drive running MOTU Performer 1.0 sequencing a Mirage & DX7 to Ableton/Reason a pile of virtual instruments and plugins, control surfaces and custom extensions, to trying to get back to something more connected. For me, the luster of gear has waned, and I really want to focus more on making new sounds, and new music and get the tools out of the way. As I sell off gear, I buy a new module for my Eurorack since that is my current knife/piano and the next full length release will be exclusively that and no other instruments. Consolidating the many into the one focuses the mind and the connection between the human and the instrument comes alive again. This singularity of focus has made me feel more inspired, and less like a studio technician troubleshooting midi channel overlap issues or cabling. Its far too easy these days to get caught up in the tools and forget what they’re supposed to be for. Now I’d rather write new music, than buy yet another bit of kit.

    overall Peter nice analogy!

  • Wesad

    That’s a hell good of metaphor. Thanks for the article.

  • Paul

    That’s why I call it my “ax”.  It happens to be a french horn, but that’s beside the point.  All musicians need a sharp bladed tool.

  • sharp

    It’s gotta be sharp

  • Tim Roberts

    Of late, Pro Tools is my film and mixing knife, with Ableton Intro (the one that comes with a launchpad) being my musical ideas knife.  I guess taking the analogy further, instruments are ingredients?

  • Danyu100

    At first I thought applying this metaphor to musicians and music tech was goofy, but if I look at is as the “tool” is the daw/sequencer, the plugins/synths/effects are the ingredients and your song is the recipe, it makes sense. 

    Before you pick a recipe you must have at least a general sense of purpose, like for example, make a birthday cake or learn how to pickle vegetables. 

    It illustrates how ridiculous and unbalanced it is to buy more and more ingredients (synths , effects, etc) to improve a recipe or to treat your ingredients like tools. Either hone your knife skills or get a new knife.

    You also don’t learn how to make a great 5 course meal by buying and cooking all the ingredients at once, but by the same token you don’t make a great meal by copying someone else’s garnish.

  • agargara

    Great article, I love the metaphor. I think a DAW is a lot like a knife – you only need one, but it should be sharp. But no matter how good or shiny your tools are, if you don’t have fresh ingredients and technique, your dish won’t be tasty.

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