“Now, in an era of constant uncertainty and overwhelming malaise, the new age imperative to slow down and heal thyself is deeply embedded in mainstream culture. It makes sense, then, that so many of us would be listening to ambient music all the time: for ‘Peaceful Meditation‘ in the morning (1.4 million likes on Spotify), for ‘Deep Focus‘ as we grind through the workday (3.6 million), for ‘Ambient Relaxation‘ when it’s time to log off (1.2 million), for ‘Deep Sleep‘ at night (1.5 million). The preponderance and popularity of playlists like these—not just on Spotify, but on competitors like Apple Music and YouTube as well—has furthered ambient’s slow transformation from a fringe concern into a sort of marketable commodity, like an auditory stress ball.”
“I thought about the way corporations can ensnare even the most delicate and specific of crafts—and the juxtaposition of expensive, mediocre entertainment and the personal, meticulous work that goes into them. I was indifferent to Buzz Lightyear and had no interest in seeing an animated film giving the origin story of a fictional toy. Yet it had been thrilling to watch the characters come to life—to emerge from silence into fully realized sonic beings, the way that static on an old television set might arrange itself into distinct images. In any case, the craft’s aesthetic ideal isn’t beauty but believability.”
“I really admire economy more than anything else: elegant ways of making big things happen–which is the opposite of what normally happens in a studio, where you have clumsy ways of making small things happen.”
“Although there is much in this world that is incomprehensible, you can nevertheless discover a meaning as long as you have managed to limit your field of search.”
– Fredrik Sjöberg, The Art of Flight
In electronic music production, there are a myriad of ways to get a sound from here to there. Let’s say you want to thicken a sound. Do you double it with another one? Process it with an effect? Or alter it, somehow, from its inside out? If you want to make a beat, do you play it in or program it, use a loop, or manipulate a sample? If you want to mangle a sound into something entirely unrecognizable, how do you do this and how do you know when you’ve done it? While there are many ways to make or alter a sound, there are far fewer ways to achieve this in an elegantly economical way.
When you produce you want to move a sound from here to there in the fewest possible steps, not because it’s the quickest way forward but because it’s the most elegant. As Eno notes, elegance is economy, and economy in production entails finding elegant ways of making big things happen. Elegance then, is doing the minimum required to achieve the maximum results. To return to our examples above, you could thicken one sound with any other one at hand, but that could potentially involve long periods of searching for, and auditioning, contrasting sounds with no relationship to the original sound in need of thickening. A more elegant way is to copy the original sound, alter the copy, and then use this sound as a thickening agent. If your original sound was a metallic keyboard tone, you could give its copy a warmer hue to create contrast while maintaining its DNA connection to the original.
If you’re making a beat, using a pre-fab loop may seem like the easiest thing to do, but it’s not the most elegant. Instead, consider playing a beat imperfectly, which can generate reams of inconsistencies and interestingness to work with. Or if there were some artifacts in your original metallic keyboard tone, you can resample them to use as unusual drum sounds. Leveraging the inconsistencies of your performance and your sampled artifacts is a workflow strategy more elegant than simply dragging a drum loop into your project and assuming that its tempo-matchedness is enough to make it fit. And though it may fit, unlike your performance and your artifacts someone else’s loop has no organic relationship to your work.
If you’re mangling sounds, you can of course go down rabbit holes of trying out effects and effects chains. But a more elegant path is to begin by revisiting whatever effects are already employed in your track. For example, re-use the devices that altered the metallic sound’s copy to give it a warmer hue, or the artifacts that were resampled into drum sounds. While this is an arbitrary starting point for sound mangling, it’s the most elegant way to reduce your choices to just a few, or as Sjöberg puts, to limit your field of search. Instead of feeling the overwhelming possibilities of I could try anything on this sound, you know you have just two effects paths to explore: the one you used to thicken the metallic tone, and the one you used to process its artifacts into drum sounds. Such limited options allow you to work unimpeded, confident that one of these two paths is sufficient for your sound mangling, as you make small changes to effects and effects chains that already worked elsewhere in the track. In sum, elegant production is thoughtful production that re-uses what it already has, working with the limits of what is close at hand to turn a minimum into a maximum and generate elegant ways of making big things happen.
If reverse engineering means examining a finished work to try to figure out how it was constructed, then forward engineering means examining a work in progress and projecting forward to imagine what it might need to be completed. In music production, having the ability to see how a track will end up would be a fortune telling skill: you would never be lost and always know what to do next to arrive at your musical destination. In this scenario, composing would simply require layering and editing parts and effects one by one until the envisioned texture was reached. But production doesn’t work like this. The producer is partially lost at all times and doesn’t know exactly where the music is going until it gets going. We don’t envision a sound until it comes into view.
Another sense of forward engineering, however, is learnable by producers of any skill level. This entails not predicting a track’s future but rather making sensible production decisions that will send the music along a forward trajectory, even if you don’t know exactly where that trajectory will end. A sensible production decision is characterized by having at least one of several traits:
It helps the music adhere to broad conventions of genre and style, whether those are dance-oriented, ambient-oriented, experimental-oriented conventions, and so on. For example, deciding on a tempo, a set of rhythms, and an initial sound set locates the music somewhere rather than nowhere.
It instantiates traditional instrumental roles in the music, such as a beat, a bass line, a chord structure, a melody, and so on. While there may be no “real” instruments in your track, even synthetic sounds continue to play musical roles modeled on the real world, we-are-listening-to-one-another interactions that are the collective responsibility of a band of musicians.
It helps the music cohere better, as does setting up track Groups and effects Sends that can be used to treat different groups and parts with different amounts of the same effect. Using Track Groups and effects Sends glues the music’s parts together in subtle ways, bringing a measure of unity to an un-orderly collection of sounds.
It provides the music with a temporary scaffolding, as does repeating parts within a section and then repeating sections to create larger forms. Sometimes, when you don’t yet know what you want a part to do, you repeat it so that its form-form-form-form-form-form enacts a steady scaffolding for other parts. You can go back later to vary the repeating part, or not.
At any point in the process it reuses what is already present in the music. The most powerful example of this is resampling, where one processes an existing track and records the results onto another track to make a new (and altered) part. But there are many other production recycling options. A sliver of a beat can turned into a micro-beat, a moment of audio can be turned into a sampler instrument, or a reverb tail can be amplified into a more significant sound (and then used as a drum sound for that micro-beat). When you go to a restaurant where the chef has prepared beans “three ways”, this is the same recycling idea in action: extract multiple textural options from your materials.
It subjects the music to various sonic treatments (a term coined by Brian Eno). This idea relates to setting up Groups and effects Sends, but also applies to the the track’s entire mix. For example, a “global” effects treatment can be applied to all of a track’s sounds at once. This technique can destabilize your idea of what the music is so far, especially since you may have committed to a tempo, a set of sounds, a form, etc. But it can also be inspiring because in one fell effect swoop you’ll blur all of the sounds in a halo of reverb, crush them into bits, or multiply them into swarms of rhythms. The results of such treatments could be a new beginning for the music.
It takes chances and learns from its many small errors. At every moment of composing, the producer is taking chances, making tiny bets, making mistakes, and finding one thing while looking for another. Your hands find a chord you didn’t anticipate finding and it sounds good; the effect created for this sound works even better on that sound; you try out this instrument you haven’t touched in a while and are surprised at what you find; and the section at the end that you had looped so you could fix some notes in it becomes your favorite, so you revise the piece to highlight this section. Being sensible incorporates ways of working on a whim and recognizing serendipitous discoveries that may arise as a result.
In sum, these seven production decisions create results that get you thinking anew about the potentials latent in what you have so far. Forward engineering is elegant in that it doesn’t spend more energy that it needs to, trusting that your practice will generate its own momentum.
“Transition is the very heart of inspiration and creativity” writes the inventor Ernő Rubik, in his autobiography, Cubed (2020). Rubik is, of course, the inventor of Rubik’s Cube, my favorite toy back in the day. I could solve the Cube fairly quickly when I was a kid, although I had to read a book about it. With obsessive practice, I learned color pattern recognition, along with the tacit knowledge of how to handle the Cube, keep track of which color-shapes were on which of the six sides, and how break down solving the puzzle into smaller goals achieved by various twisting patterns. I can still feel in my hands the flip down-twist left-flip up move required to rotate a corner piece, for example. Solving the Cube is about recognizing patterns of color-shapes and then stringing together a series of twists to gradually transform those patterns into a single color per Cube side. The solving process is a continuous flow of the hands working to transition one pattern into another and then another, creating slowly morphing six-color combinations. Solving the Cube is to unscramble it back to its pristine state.
Composing music is similarly a matter of devising transitions to take sounds on a journey, to take the music from a here to a there. There are many forms of transition. A widespread harmonic transition is one chord “moving” to another (we say moving, but a chord progression is only metaphorical motion), or a chord cadence used to end a phrase, such as V to I progression, which is essentially a transition from a sense of tension or anticipation to a sense of stability or resolution (we say that a I chord “resolves” the V chord). Moving from one section of a piece of music to another usually requires a transition point, obvious or not, whether that be a modulation or common tone (as in classical music), a drum fill (in rock and pop), a bass drop or effects filter sweep (in electronic musics), or the gradual addition/subtraction of parts (a feature of many musics).
A more amorphous kind of transition concerns how to develop a simple musical idea—such as a rhythm or a beguiling timbre—into something more substantial. Back to Rubik’s Cube: the puzzle isn’t solved by simply repeating patterns; transition requires transforming one pattern into another pattern. In his book, Kubik looks to nature’s fluidity and connectivity as the ideal ecological model for thinking about design and creativity generally. “At its core, design is the link to nature for artificial objects” he says. “Nature does not know strict borders or barriers; it only knows transition.”
Musical structures are frequently built upon mutually distinct, yet interconnected, patterns layered upon one another: chords, melodies, rhythms, and timbres each doing different things whilst superimposed to make a composite, interpenetrating meta-pattern. The composing of electronic music production–or what I’ve begun thinking of as a kind of omnimusicality–is fundamentally about figuring out novel ways of arriving at such meta-patterns using technological tools for manipulating sounds. As the producer Huerco S. notes in an interview, these tools make it possible to investigate the “artifacts deep deep below” a sound’s surface to excavate ideas that can be used compositionally. As well, in the never-ending process of understanding the potential uses of tools, the producer undergoes his/her own transition into awareness of workflow and the creative process. In a YouTube tutorial, the producer AU5 explains this metacognitive transformation: “It’s not just learning the tool; it’s learning how you interact with the tool—the relationship you have with synths and effects.”
In music production, there are as many kinds of transition as there are ways of manipulating sounds. Sometimes a musical process is its own transition, such as a piece that gradually erodes into noise, slows down, moves from mono to stereo, or melts into a drone; while other times transitions are finessed into the music as finishing touches. Sometimes producers disguise the seams of their music, so transition points are felt but not obvious in their workings; while other times a transition such as a bass drop, filter sweep, or fade out is the focal point. In sum, transitions in music are like twists of the Cube: processes of momentum that keep the music changing from one state to another, in a continuous flow.