Pushing The Envelope

“One of the phrases that kept running through the conversation was ‘pushing the outside of the envelope’… [That] seemed to be the great challenge and satisfaction of flight test.”

   The Right Stuff – Tom Wolfe – 1979

Innovation is a wonderful thing. Innovating in the studio and innovating on stage are two different things. I see the studio and the rehearsal room as laboratory environments; they are where you test concepts and try out new ideas. When we transfer to the stage, there is a subtle difference: the musician is still innovating, trying out new ideas, testing new concepts, but the technology needs to be reliable. By technology, I mean everything from the guitar to the laptop to the video screen to the Joshua Light Show. When the clarinet was invented, Mozart embraced it for what it was – new technology. The piano is an amazing piece of technology, but it needs to be reliable, it needs to stay in tune.

Testing a new aircraft and pushing it to its limits is only possible if there is a reasonable ratio of risk and reward. Putting new ideas on stage that require the use of technology needs the same ratio of risk and reward.

Don’t get confused with technological innovation for the sake of it. Use the technology to achieve the music you hear inside yourself. The technology is there to work for you.

In my opinion, a lot of music technology journalism is advertising dressed up as editorial. Do I need the latest this or that to do my job to the best of my abilities? Probably not. Would I like all the new shiny things? You betcha! Pushing the envelope doesn’t have to mean always having the newest gear. I can push the envelope of my performance technique, my songwriting skills, my knowledge of production and engineering. The tools needed to do this are available in abundance.

Behind The Curve

“Just remember,” Davis told her, “you have to stay ahead of the power curve.” “I don’t understand,” Joyce replied. “It’s a saying they have on aircraft carriers. If a pilot comes in ahead of the power curve, he can pull up and out safely if something goes wrong. If he falls behind the curve and something happens, he’ll crash into the ship. You always have to look out for yourself and stay ahead of the power curve.”

The Execution of Charles Horman, by Thomas Hauser, 1978.

(Disclaimer: I don’t know the first thing about aviation physics.)

There is something interesting about the above quote. In a way, using the phrase “behind the curve” is kind of backwards in the context of the quote. In order to build safety and redundancy into your system it actually needs to be over-powered not under-powered. The phrase “behind the curve” suggests a system that is out of date and not up to the job. Right now in 2016, an under-powered system is a thousand times more capable than anything we had twenty years ago. Setting up your live rig or studio setup with this concept in mind will give you reliability, while still delivering technological capabilities that will more than match the job. Think about it as being “ahead of the  power curve” and you’ll get the idea.

There is a common philosophy in music technology that you should try to keep your system a couple of years “behind the curve” and freeze the state of the system until you are fully ready to upgrade. There are a few different reasons for this:

  1. New hardware and software will generally have a few bugs that need ironing out in the first few months post-release. You need your live rig or studio setup to work flawlessly all the time, so ironing out bugs shouldn’t be part of your daily routine.
  2. If you are in the middle of recording an album, the last thing you want to do is update your operating system only to find that half of your studio peripherals and plugins are no longer compatible with the new OS. Wait until you have a good week or two of downtime where you will be able to safely address any compatibility issues without affecting the smooth running of your business.
  3. When working with a team (for example a touring crew), it’s best to all be using the same version of a piece of software. I just found this out yesterday, when I tried to load an Ableton session I created in my studio on to the laptops we use for live playback. My studio version of Ableton is 9.6, and the touring laptops were on 9.2, so the session wouldn’t load. This lack of backwards compatibility is a really serious issue, and hugely annoying when you need to get on with soundcheck. The only solution was to tether the tour laptops to our phones (because venue wifi was non-existent) and download Ableton 9.6 on to them. Lesson learnt.
  4. Reliability is a different issue in the studio and on stage. In the studio, you need your gear to be reliable so that your clients can come in and get work done. You need your system to work. But a little downtime can be accommodated within reason. On stage, downtime becomes an awful, awkward, gaping grand canyon of dead air. If you rely on technology for your live show to work, it has to be 100% reliable. I have experienced only a few serious equipment failures on stage; one was a playback system freezing up in the middle of a support slot in one of the biggest stadiums in the world. The redundancy system was to have a second playback device loaded up and ready to go, but the backup device wasn’t ready to go, so there was considerable downtime while the issue was resolved. Lesson learnt here was: have a redundancy system that is actually loaded up and ready to go.

Definition: cutting edge


  • NOUN

  • 1The edge of a tool’s blade.
  • ‘tools with cutting edges should be kept sharp’
  • 2[in singular] The latest or most advanced stage in the development of something.
  • ‘researchers at the cutting edge of molecular biology’


Source: Oxford Dictionaries [https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/cutting_edge]

To be at the cutting edge implies being in possession of exclusive knowledge and techniques, but if you apply the first meaning of the phrase, “cutting edge” simply means keeping sharp the part of the blade that does the job. Your tools are yours, and not defined by fashion or commerce. Keep those tools sharp and functional, and you will be always be at the cutting edge of things. If you can get on stage and do your job to the best of your ability, you are cutting edge; if a client can walk into your studio and efficiently and effectively realise their vision, you are the cutting edge.

State of the Art

The earliest use of the term “state of the art” documented by the Oxford English Dictionary dates back to 1910, from an engineering manual by Henry Harrison Suplee (1856-post 1943), an engineering graduate (University of Pennsylvania, 1876), titled Gas Turbine: progress in the design and construction of turbines operated by gases of combustion. The relevant passage reads: “In the present state of the art this is all that can be done”. The term, “art”, itself refers to the useful arts, skills and methods relating to practical subjects such as manufacture and craftsmanship, rather than in the sense of the performing arts and the fine arts.[4] – Source: Wikipedia [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_of_the_art]

I hear the phrase “state of the art studio” or “state of the art technology” quite often. I try to remember that the arts of music and creativity exist outside of the limitations of time and fashion. Technology helps get the job done, but the song existed long before the tape machine. A great song recorded straight to vinyl or on a home cassette recorder is still a great song.

In terms of evolving technology, “state of the art” is like a marker in time; this is where we are, and this is the best we can achieve with this technology right now.

Pushing the Envelope, Staying Ahead of the Curve, the Cutting Edge and the State of the Art. What does it all mean? What am I trying to say?

If you are working in the music industry and you rely on technology to do your job, you might feel a sense of urgency, a panicked drive to constantly upgrade your setup, to stay ahead of the curve. But what if staying ahead of the curve actually meant running an over-powered system so that you could rely on its built in redundancy?

I sometimes spend too much time trying to push the envelope of what I can do with technology, when the simplest approach is usually the one that will give me the most space to be creative and express myself honestly.

What if your approach to your work wasn’t driven by fear, but instead was built upon a foundation of self-belief, a security in the knowledge that your tools were good enough, that you could keep sharp your cutting edge?

If something is “state of the art” does that mean that it is actually highlighting the limitations of a man-made system, showing us the boundaries of our reach? What are the limits of human imagination? Does “state of the art” ever apply to human creativity?

I love technology and I have relied on it for most of my working life. I want to remind myself that there is something far more powerful and abundant than man-made technology, and that is the creative impulse we were born with.

Thanks for reading.