I bet if I showed you a video of a basketball game and during the segment, a person dressed up as a gorilla walked right across the court you think you would see it. Chances are you would miss the gorilla, in fact in a test conducted by Ulric Neisser, Neisser and Becklen in 1975, about half of those watching missed the gorilla.
Stories are told about car insurance claims which have lines like 'I hit a tree that wasn't there.' or 'I drive that road every day, and I never saw the car.' It's likely that they weren't lying or insane but telling the truth.
There's a term coined for this, and it is Inattentional Blindness, you can read more about it in the excellent book 'The Invisible Gorilla' published in 2010, co-authored by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.
It's the same thing that means you can be watching a TV show and your partner says something, and you don't hear them.
This from Wikipedia;
Inattentional blindness, also known as perceptual blindness, is a psychological lack of attention that is not associated with any vision defects or deficits. It may be further defined as the event in which an individual fails to perceive an unexpected stimulus that is in plain sight. When it simply becomes impossible for one to attend to all the stimuli in a given situation, a temporary blindness effect can take place as a result; that is, individuals fail to see objects or stimuli that are unexpected and quite often salient. The term was coined by Arien Mack and Irvin Rock in 1992 and was used as the title of their book of the same name, published by MIT press in 1998.
But I contend there's an equally troubling phenomenon, and that is Mix Deafness, or in fact Edit Blindness, and this is where you spend so long on a project that you start missing mistakes, often silly ones. I'm not talking about you choose 5kHz instead of 4kHz as your centre frequency, but you forget an entire channel is muted, a plug-in bypassed or that there's a nasty noise on the bass track.
I would also contend that this issue is even more likely for those who work alone and often for long hours.
One of the things that used to drive my wife insane when I had a temporary studio in a bedroom of the house was the number of times I would play a track back during a project. She used to ask me to turn it down or in many cases to mix on headphones, hearing the mix the first few times was perhaps a novelty, once it had passed the hundreds mark (especially with a snare in solo) she wanted to kill herself and me. I think had she done so she would have been acquited on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
When working on a project, we can often listen and look at it for hundreds of passes, and this is where, ironically, we miss the mistakes. We've got so close to it that we start allowing our brain to fill in the blanks and as I've already said when we work alone we are even more likely to do so. This issue is why the role of a producer or similar is vital in the production process; they help to give a job the second set of eyes and ears, and fresh ones at that!
The issues of Mix and Edit Deafness is not about skill and ability, for example, I can be neck deep in a project and take a break to listen to a new track someone has sent me, within seconds I can hear there's a tuning issue on the guitar or an odd click 2 minutes into the track. It's not the fact that I've lost the ability to pay attention to detail or the skills I use to do my job; I've just lost them on MY current job.
It happened this week on a project that I've been working on for a couple of weeks. Mistakes got missed not once but twice, and they were silly 101 errors, with the client quite rightly asking how these things were getting overlooked; they were so glaringly obvious. To someone looking at it with a fresh set of eyes they were as plain as the nose on my face, but to me, they were the car that wasn't there or the invisible gorilla.
In the end, I felt like I was going insane so I asked another member of the team who had nothing to do with the project to check it for me one last time.
More of us are working alone, and for very long hours on projects, this is where mistakes happen, rather than our intense focus helping us to spot problems, the familiarity means we may not identify them.
How can we solve this problem?
I'd like to suggest three ways to try and counter Mix Deafness and Edit Blindness;
- Deadlines mean we often have to work long hours and with little or no breaks. Logic dictates that you should work through, but you are more likely to deliver better work if you do take regular breaks, your body will thank you for a regular walk around the room or the garden too. It might sound completely insane, but in the middle of a project with a tight deadline I'll go and cut the grass or do some other manual task, the very act of doing something completely different helps me to return to the project with a fresh set of eyes and ears.
- If I have a deadline in more than several days, I like to get a first draft created way before deadlines and then sleep on it. It's amazing how often I come back the next day and either see and hear mistakes or hate the ideas I had - on some occasions I've scrapped it and started again.
- If you work alone then find someone you can trust to act as your producer or executive producer. I did it this week on a job, and they came back with some questions like 'is this supposed to be like this?' or 'there's something here that I'm not sure about.' We may have tighter deadlines and smaller budgets but the client quite rightly still expects the best, we have to create strategies to ensure we deliver.
I'm sure as you are reading this subject is resonating with you, and you are thinking I'm describing you, it's not insanity you are suffering from but intensity. There's nothing new with the need to take breaks this is why everyone from doctors to drivers are encouraged to do so. It's not only tiredness that can affect our judgment but being too close to the task also has a bearing on the outcome.
If you find yourself suffering from Mix Deafness or Edit Blindness, then I hope these strategies prove helpful in ensuring you deliver great work, however tight the deadline is.