Once in a while I imagine different general musician types, among which I include myself. Here are six types:
The underplayer. The underplayer doesn’t play “out” or deliberately enough. He’s often fairly recently out of school (a college music program), has his playing together and knows the notes, but there’s something missing. Maybe his strokes are too delicate—as if he’s not convinced of what he’s playing? The notes are there but they sound ventriloquized, as if they are those of someone else (his teachers, his favorite musicians as he imagines them playing). His gestures are proper but not yet his own. His solos don’t explore the music or dynamically interact with it—frozen riffs and patterns that he inserts at the appropriate time (the same way each night too), hoping for the best. If you change up your dynamics on him (as a friendly experiment), he doesn’t respond. He means well but you feel like he always needs to be turned up—way up. You want to compress and add reverb to his sound to compensate for his lack of presence.
The overplayer. Unlike the underplayer who may have some doubts about what he’s doing, the overplayer over-believes in the power of his own presence. The overplayer has confidence in his musical-motor skills to a degree that he has no problem, well, overplaying. Overplaying is doing too much of something—throwing in too many unnecessary “licks”, filling too many of the music’s spaces, playing too brashly or loudly, and so on. The overplayer’s confidence makes it difficult for him to listen well and interact sensibly (i.e. complementarily) with anyone else as he’s too caught up in the acrobatics of his own playing to notice. Watching the overplayer overplay, you wonder if he does that because he’s bored or because it’s in his personality. Maybe he’s insecure?
The steadyplayer. The steadyplayer is reliable yet somewhat boring (though apparently not bored), content to play the same way over and over, confident in the proven power of this or that phrasing, of playing the notes just like this, every time. The downside of the steadyplayer is that he can sound like an edited MIDI sequence. On the plus side, the steadyplayer is always attentive: he has space to notice what’s going on around him as he plays. He’s thoughtful, well-adjusted to being a professional, and always gets the job done.
The flashyplayer. Related to the overplayer is the flashyplayer, who knows he’s very, very good, and his playing reminds you of that at every turn. The flashyplayer is one step down from a virtuoso—the difference being that, unlike the virtuoso, the flashyplayer’s playing can’t make you cry; and unlike the virtuoso, the flashyplayer can never make himself disappear into the music. Like the reflective ball hanging above the disco, the flashyplayer is designed to perpetually disperse his own reflections around the space of the music. Here I am—Rat-a-tat-tat!!
The emotionalplayer. The emotionalplayer has sunk his life into these sounds in this musical moment, his every expression connecting to the currents of his inner life. But sometimes it feels awkward to listen to the emotionalplayer because there seems to be no line between his life and the life of the music. Even though that line-blurring is a courageous artistic accomplishment in itself, you sense that maybe the emotionalplayer depends on the music’s cathartic powers too much (and certainly more than you do). You fear that one day music could let him down, and then what will he do?
The naiveplayer. Whether a child just learning music or an adult with zero musical experience, the naiveplayer is free of the music world’s heaviness and has not yet learned the sonic signs of underplaying, overplaying, steadyplaying, flashyplaying, or emotionalplaying. The naiveplayer simply taps around on a musical instrument, delighting in the sounds being themselves, smiling because he gets one of the keys things about music—which is that its sounds provide instant feedback on your actions. This is so cool he says. It sounds mysterious! Watching the naiveplayer tapping around reminds you that every expertise has its downsides.
Much of doing is waiting
for the right time
to do anything
but especially the music
morning’s too early
evening too late
the afternoon can work
if properly configured
meaning I need to adjust
myself to its parameters
become its vibration
so I wait
sweep and clean
arrange everything just so
the moment can be mined.
“In music, the instrument often predates the expression it authorizes…it contributes, through the possibilities it offers, to the birth of a new music, a renewed syntax.”
-Jacques Attali, Noise, p. 35.
At some stage in the music production process, I work with audio effects. These effects are known as software “plug-ins” that load inside of my DAW software. An effect can be as simple as an EQ or a reverb, or it can be a more complex type of sound mangler that alters a sound through filters, distortion, delays, and so on. To borrow some concepts from Guy Rehak’s book on visual special effects in film, More Than Meets The Eye (NYU Press, 2018), plug-in effects are visual effects’ audio equivalents—“dynamic agents” that help the composer create “fictive words” through “augmented performance” (21, 22), opening your ears to possible timbral journeys your sounds may take.
When I work with effects I have a general idea of what they can do, but there’s something of a disconnect between all of their parameters precisely laid out as a series of virtual knobs or sliders and my vague sense of how I want to use them. My goal, though, is always the same: the effect needs to sound compelling in some way. It needs to get me thinking about the music’s sound in a new way. The effect needs to sound cool in a What is that sound? kind of way. It needs to add something to the music or heighten what is already in it. Because my goal is clear but my methodology vague, I’ll dive right into a plug-in by trying out various settings until I hear something that changes my perception of the music. It’s only at this point that I pause and take a closer look at what I’ve done, making note of what knob or combination of knob-turns led me to this interesting sound. Sometimes I’ll save those settings as my own presets for future use—assuming I can figure out how to save a setting.
It’s often a fine line between a sound that sounds obviously “effect-ed” and a sound that masks its own effected-ness. One key to negotiating this line is being attuned to ratio: if you add too much of an effect it dominates your attention. (This is analogous to how adding to much salt draws attention to the taste of salt itself, while adding just enough merely heightens the inherent flavor of the tomato.) Another key to using audio effects is whether or not a sound has, for lack of better words, a sense of magic or enchantment about it. For me, a compelling sound is an enchanting sound—a sound I can’t quite figure out, its way of being never fully obvious, its tone through time never quite stable. A perfect example of this is the sound of a struck singing bowl. It’s no wonder bowls have been used for meditation for centuries: strike one and listen to its ringing fundamental and harmonics change and decay over a minute or longer, drawing your attention along with them.
Effects can quickly move from obvious to subtle. For example, the other day I was listening through some reverbs. One was meant to evoke the space of cathedral, the other meant to evoke a “dark” space. The cathedral was nice, but I didn’t believe the sound of its default settings because it muddied the attacks of my piano. I don’t think the piano would sound like that, in that space, from the standpoint of the performer. (Maybe the effect would have been perfect on another sound?) The dark preset was more evocative, keeping my piano’s attacks intact and surrounding them with a smooth ambience, but I wanted its overall presence to be stronger. These presets are only suggested starting points for subtle sound design. I could alter the pre-delay setting on the cathedral reverb to fix its sound-muddying problem, or I could turn up the “wet-dry” mix signal of the dark reverb to increase its presence. Or I could blend both reverbs into a hybrid, fade one into another, or automate them so that they gradually grow or recede into the mix. With music, sometimes enchantment comes only after you have run your materials through a process of one type or another that brings you to a new space. In the digital realm there’s no end to what a sound might become, nor are you given advance notice as to when and where enchantment might arrive—you just have recognize it when you hear it. At this stage in the production your job is to figure out a process that helps you get where you think you want to go.