When I’m browsing and trying out synthesized sounds, wishing that I were doing something else (this happens about 30 seconds into the process—it is what it is), I inevitably end up playing a few chords or a scrap of melody to hear how they sound. I don’t consider this real music because I’m just throwing my hands down at whatever keys are near to listen to how the sound presets react to my touch. So it was with some surprise that I recently used a feature in Ableton Live called Capture. It works like this: you play something—for a few seconds or a few minutes—and then, when you’re done, you press the Capture button and Ableton records retroactively what you played. With Capture, you’re always recording. Like those assistant speaker devices for the home that no one knows why exactly they need, it turns out that the software was listening all along.
What’s interesting about Capture is how the feature supports the psychological dynamics of creating. The traditional concept of recording is that you prepare to record, the red “Record” light in the studio comes on, and at that point you get a little nervous because you have to execute what you prepared, knowing that the recording is capturing everything. Your awareness that you’re recording changes your playing as you experience a self-imposed pressure to make it good. But the Capture feature removes fear from the performance equation because you’re recording retroactively. It’s like going back in time.
This idea of going back in time came to mind as I was trying out a sound. All of a sudden I liked what I was playing and my next thought was, I should stop and try to do this again—but properly. But small thoughts can have larger damaging effects because once I had the thought I couldn’t recreate whatever quality it was that caught my attention, and besides, the moment was already gone. Let’s rewind those three ideas: a quality of sound, paying attention, and the moment evaporating. In an ideal musical world I would be attuned to these changing states all the time, but that never happens; instead, working on music is an ongoing practice of trying to stay focused through sound. Fast-forward to trying out a sound: it was at the moment when I realized that I liked what I had just played that I clicked the Capture button and Ableton offered the MIDI of my past two minutes of noodling around.
I’m not totally sold on Capture though, because I think aiming for some kind of performance under the pressure of recording is a goal that always pays off with—well, a solid performance. Even if I’m just drumming a short pattern that I could straighten out later, or playing a harmony that could be copied ad infinitum, I’ll try to nail the (single) take because why not? That being said, Capture de-fears performance and provides an alternate way to (un)consciously document what you do. Capture suggests an ideal workflow in which you just play, and if you want, go back later to develop parts of what you did. Surprises in music production sometimes come when you aren’t expecting them: you were composing the whole time.