Losing Objectivity

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I had worked on the track for a year, which was far longer than I had ever worked on a ten-minute piece of music. In my defense, things take time: it had taken time to decide on sounds, time to get going and wonder where I was going, time to record chord progressions, beats, and harmonies, time to edit, time to add more sounds and modify existing ones, time to rearrange the arrangement, time to resample sounds, and time to edit more and mix. Also, I like slowness because it gives me the time to think about what I’m trying to do. Cue quote from Lao Tzu: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

Around and around I went, beginning each day with what I had so far and trying to build on that, either by adding to it or by subtracting from it, playing along to it or playing with it. I tried out what seemed like never-ending effects-driven alterations to my material, sometimes out of curiosity, other times out of a hope that I might hear something breathtakingly new so I could throw out most of what I had and keep only what made the music more interesting. That was always the goal: to make the music more compelling to listen to.  

For the most part, the time I devoted to the track over the year was time well spent, because it allowed me to move it from an almost random series of chords to a finished piece. But there are also downsides to spending a lot of time on a single track. First, since I was the one making all the changes to the music, I now can’t help but hear traces everywhere of my earlier production moves, hearing both the sounds and the layers out of which those sound were created:

Why did I over-crunch the drums?
Why is the marimba recording so noisy?
Why that bass sound? 

At each moment in the music I know what’s coming up next sound-wise, so it’s hard to be surprised. One side effect of this situation is that I tried amping up my editing moves to make them more extreme, as if to get more of a reaction out of myself. For example, volume fades that seemed smooth a few months ago now seem tame and I want them ever more exaggerated. It’s as if I’ve become immune to what I once thought were the music’s subtle charms. A second downside then, is that it became increasingly difficult to hear the music with fresh ears. This is a by-product of working on fairly micro levels of attention and musical detail. For example, I might spend a session finessing the levels and panning for a single part, because today that part seems downright wrong in its mix placement, and by the way, what was I thinking last week that made me unable to notice this problem? Working on micro-details is essential editing, but it turns your attention away from the music’s big picture. As I re-listened to the piece, the details were sounding good, but a big picture question I had never asked of the track was now gnawing at me: Why does it need so many parts? I don’t know why it needs so many parts. Maybe it needed so many parts because at some point in the process I had hoped that many would translate into more interesting. 

I bounced down the mix and listened. I tried imagining how a friend or my mastering engineer would hear the music for the first time, but it was impossible. For reasons both real and imaginary, I can’t get out of my own perspective on the music. Some parts I like, but there are still problems and surely I can somehow fix those and finally make everything better?     

Musical Endings

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I spend a lot of time working on the endings of my tracks. One reason for this is that I’m both glad the music is almost over, and also sad that I didn’t done more with the time I had allotted for it so now I’m trying to conjure more interesting sonic stuff just as the sounds are fading out or otherwise reducing themselves. When you’re in the middle of writing a track, your attention is all over the place because you don’t know where you’re headed, and certainly don’t have any idea how the music will end. In fact, when a groove or constellation of sounds is working well, ending seems optional. In fact, in any DAW (digital audio workstation) software one can just loop sounds so that they continue forever. And that’s a long time but I’m here to tell you: when you inevitably arrive at the music’s end, it’s satisfying to finesse multiple levels of detail, treating every decision of sound design and arrangement as, well, precious.

My preferred type of ending is a gradual reduction of parts and sounds, so that the music appears to slowly unravel or disintegrate. Gradually reducing is a staple structuring device of electronic dance music, but technology-influenced composers such as Steve Reich have also been using this technique for decades. Unraveling and disintegrating are more compelling to me than the classic fade out, whereby the musicians keep playing their parts as their sounds slowly vanish in the mix’s distance. (Here is an article on the history of fade outs in popular music.) It’s also more useful than an abrupt ending where everyone stops on the “and” of beat 4, or worse yet, come together on a final downbeat punctuated with a giant cymbal crash. As I hear it, unraveling or disintegrating parts and sounds involves altering the music such that it gradually loosens its hold on the listener and the sound-to-silence ratio shifts. It’s about taking things out in subtle ways to subtly cue the listener as to what’s happening.

As I craft endings, I re-evaluate the overall form of the piece and decide if now is really the time end. Sometimes it’s clear that  

the music must go on!

and so I’ll extend and transform the ending into something substantial. Recently this involved writing codas for some tracks, so that when you think the music is over it returns. I wrote several codas, but then reversed course on two tracks on which the codas sounded indulgent. Such are the editing choices necessary when producing music. At these moments, it’s essential to distinguish between what one likes and what is actually needed. This is way of thinking that I could apply to other aspects of making music: to bring what I like and what is actually needed into alignment so that either route brings a similar result. 

Working on endings sometimes gives me new ideas for beginnings too. A few times I was fiddling with an ending and began listening to a sound on its own. I wondered if the part couldn’t also work at the beginning of the track, and a few times it worked well. One lesson from this is that musical elements are almost always modular: that thing over there could also work right here if you alter it a bit. Another lesson from working on endings is that it gives you a chance to revisi details inside the music that you may have temporarily lost track of. 

The most interesting part of musical endings though, is that they up the level of my concentration and so they’re fun to listen to. This is especially so then the music’s volume begins diminishing and the track’s parts are falling apart. I lean in closer towards my monitors, turn up the volume slightly—manually overriding my fade out—and try to hear everything going on. Is this what I want? Can I hear too much or just enough of what is dissolving? I especially love those moments where I notice a sound for the first time, the moments when a sound is felt as much as heard, the moments when the music finally moves like it was moving towards something all along. 

(Here’s another blog post about musical endings.)

Differ, Be Important: The Make It More Interesting Concept

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interesting – holding or catching your attention;
from Latin interesse ‘differ, be important’

A surprising percentage of my production tinkering involves trying to get a part to sound more interesting. Recently I was adjusting piece no. 6, which had never been among my favorite tracks, but I had committed to making it better by increments. The track was coming along, but didn’t become compelling music that I looked forward to returning to until I made some changes to the bass near the end of the piece. 

Because of the repetitious listening involved in music production, you get to know the parts of your tracks to a degree that you hear them even when you’re away from the mix. But remember: this familiarity doesn’t mean the parts are forever fixed (yet). It often happens that as you listen to a track you hear a part doing something familiar, yet wish it were doing something (or the same thing) different. As I was listening to no. 6, I wanted the bass to do more than it was doing. The part was providing a foundation for track by hitting low tonic notes every few beats. The problem was that the bass wasn’t going anywhere, and as I listened I wished it were. 

I tried out alternate pitches for the bass, changing some of the notes so that now the bass it had its own motion, and even better, now created some new harmonies in combination with the other pitched parts. Some of the new bass pitches were lower and some higher, each of which required additional volume boosts and cuts so that the notes sounded in line dynamics-wise with the rest of the music. Overall, this after-the-fact playing-with-a-part’s-pitches-to-create-new-harmonies is one of my favorite techniques, simply because it achieves sounds I would never have arrived at when I recorded the initial part. 

My alterations to the no. 6 bass part got me thinking about what else I could do to help the track. I turned my attention next to the timeline, which is a pitched, harp-like-but-not- harp sound that pings in a fixed rhythm through sections of the track. When I recorded the part, I liked its steady rhythm or groove—it was like a bell that linked the other parts together. But now, encouraged by what I did with the bass, I wanted the timeline to do more. I wanted the part to telegraph a sense of musical line and to have more presence. 

Speaking of presence: one audible fact of some electronic dance music is that a majority of its elements sound as if on sequenced auto-pilot, serving groove ends at the expense of other musical qualities. Perhaps the problem is not the use of digital tools or DAW sequencing per se, but rather the producer’s lack of attention to altering the details within patterns to keep them interesting. That four-on-the-floor kick drum can be programmed in a minute, but it may take significantly more time to transform it into a compelling musical line of its own. 

So I changed the pitch of a few notes of the timeline, listening now to the altered bass part below for hints on how to proceed (contrary motion always works well). It was a start, and soon the timeline sounded more supple.

After I made small alterations to no. 6’s bass and timeline parts I pondered a foolproof music production hack: 

make it more interesting. 

The reason no. 6 hadn’t been among my favorites is that it lacked interest and failed to hold my attention. The track didn’t have enough differ, be important moments among its parts to compel me. Changing bits of the bass and timeline parts helped, and also sparked ideas for more elaborate musical transformations which I’ll keep trying to implement until the track sounds like it has everything it needs.

Coda: I think about musical interestingness as I listen to other musics too. In pop/hip hop I sometimes hear interesting sound design (e.g. a synth pad), but alas, the instrumental tracks are designed to be insistently catchy, rather than interesting. In some experimental electronic music I hear interestingness that flirts with being difficult and/or hard to interpret—as if to be interesting one needs to be difficult. Blanketing sounds in noise and distortion, for example, is interesting to a point, beyond which it’s difficult to interpret because the signal to noise ratio is literally out of balance. Another frame for thinking about musical interestingness is TV ads, which overlay visual narratives onto (often familiar) music to heighten the narratives’ emotional impact. We hear 80s pop in an investment ad, jazz in a hotel ad, country music in a truck ad, and hip hop recast as comedy in a soda ad. I often have the feeling that musical interestingness is rarely for its own enchanting sake, but instead subservient to being catchy, being difficult, or selling a feeling.