Laser tag is a type of non-contact shooting game where players use infrared light emitting guns to shoot at each other. It is commonly played indoors using blacklight to illuminate the playing area…
A lone acoustic guitar emerges softly with a melancholy, finger-strummed melody, bordering on sad. After 25 seconds a voice emerges, much louder in volume, almost out of balance with the guitar. But it’s a soft, soothing voice:
It may be the most haunting and beautiful first line of a song ever written. I’m literally tearing up as I type.
Alternative rock band Death Cab For Cutie’s 2005 single “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” is the most commercially successful song the band ever released, certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. It’s been featured in countless movies and TV shows and covered many times.
It is also the only song featuring lead singer and guitarist Benjamin Gibbard at the exclusion of all other members.
And its mere presence is a miracle.
Waiting for the hint of a spark, indeed.
Death Cab was hard at work on their new album, Plans, which would go on to be their most revered, both by fans and critics, and represent the turning point from indie darling to mainstream success.
But recording an album isn’t as glamorous or exciting as it sounds, like most things in life.
Ben Gibbard was tracking vocals for a different song on the album. His band mate and producer Chris Walla was behind the glass at the mixing console, trying to fix a pair of broken headphones while Gibbard was supposed to be taking a break.
To pass the time, Gibbard decided to practice a new song he was working on for later in the album.
His vocal mic still was live, however, and through that single mic his quiet performance flowed into the mixing room through the studio monitors. Walla stopped what he was doing as the vocals shone through:
Walla was struck by the eerie sound.
So he hit record.
The recorded track, as released, is completely anachronistic.
In the typical modern recording of a singer-songwriter piece, there would be a minimum of one mic at the mouth and one mic on the guitar, if not two on the guitar. Many different mics would be tested on each through dozens of play-thru’s.
The song would be recorded many times in order to choose the best performance for each section from different takes, and “comped” or glued together in post.
Each mic would then be mixed separately for the optimal sound and creative tonal choices. Reverb would be applied in post-production, a digital emulation of a well-treated acoustic environment to make the song feel like it exists in the real world, and not recorded in a dry, echo-less studio. The virtual space would make it feel like the song was all around you, in stereo, the way we actually hear the world.
Finally, all mics would be combined together and evened out to avoid excessive swings in volume.
None of this is true of “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.”
The entire song was captured with a single mic, optimized for a different song, and pointed at Gibbard’s mouth, making the acoustic guitar down at his waist sound thin and far away.
As such they had limited control over the relative volume of the vocals and guitar, and even less control over shaping the tone of either, because all post-production decisions would be applied to both simultaneously.
Since the entire song was recorded with only one mic, it didn’t make sense to add a fake stereo space in post, so they left the entire song in mono, which is practically unheard of since the late 1960s.
They did one take. No comps. No glue. No choices.
We try so hard to control our lives, to make the right choices and say the right things. We read books and listen to podcasts, get amped up by motivational speakers, and go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to get a decent education, which will supposedly prepare us for success.
But when you take a close look at the most successful people, ideas, businesses, and projects of all time, you find one and only one thing in common:
We are told that talent, intelligence, motivation, and hard work are the keys to success. That if you just work hard enough and never give up, good things will happen and you can live your dreams.
It’s hopeful, but also dangerous. It’s dangerous to the extent that successful people underplay the lucky breaks and chance encounters without which none of their achievements would have been possible.
Stroll through clubs in New York City and find some of the most talented musicians on planet earth, who have undoubtedly written some of the greatest songs the world has ever known.
Except the world hasn’t known them, because they never caught a lucky break… or ten.
I’ve personally met so many magicians whose talent, motivation, and hard work far exceeded my own. Magicians so dedicated to their craft it makes my head spin. And yet, most are struggling to make ends meet, working 9–5s and scraping together whatever they can, while I became a world-traveling, highly successful magician by simply being good enough.
I didn’t work harder than them. I didn’t work longer. And I’m certainly not more talented. I just got lucky, a bunch of times and in a bunch of ways.
If you believe the Internet, Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said,
The world isn’t just, fair, or right. It just is. You can do everything right and fail. You can also do everything wrong and succeed in spite of it. What’s the lesson here?
Let’s not take too much credit for our success. But also, let’s not wallow too much in our failures.
Brian Miller is globetrotting magician turned author & speaker who works with organizations, students, and educators who want to create an environment where everyone feels heard, understood, and valued.
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