Music Production Mindsets: Letting Something Help You Decide

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When I first began dabbling in electronic music production around 2000 or so, I had a big Yamaha synthesizer hooked up to my computer. The keyboard had its own built-in sound presets, and I managed to configure its various MIDI channels to the DAW software (Logic) so I could select a different sound for each track—drum kits, bass, strings, brass section, electric guitar, and so on. I never altered these sound presets because I wouldn’t dare get into programming the keyboard using its tiny LED screen—I was afraid I would never be able to find the “Exit” button in all those editing menus! I also can’t say how good the preset sounds were, but I remember that it was easy to decide on which sounds to use because my sound selection was rather limited. I had my go-to sounds and then forgot about them, moving on to the more interesting—and controllable—task of playing each part.

Many years later, I notice that I have new ways to limit my choices while working. For instance, even though now I have thousands of sound options, I’m always looking for ways to simplify my process, alert to any small detail that will help me decide on a direction in which to go. Ideally, that detail will almost make the decision for me. I’m reluctant to search for things or try out a bunch of possibilities if I have in front of me something that’s doing the job. Just as when I started out, I want to travel the least possible distance to get the piece (the music, the writing) going. Here’s an example. I’ve recently been playing with some samples of one of my earlier recordings. While I have the option to alter the samples in any way I want, my goal is to do absolutely nothing with them and to let them decide a direction for me. Even a single sample that sounds just right could be enough to build upon. That’s the goal: do the minimum to get the maximum. Less is more, as the saying goes. Or as Richard Sennett puts it in his book The Craftsman (2009), the starting point “is the calculation and application of minimum force.”

This may sound a bit like throwing dice to determine one’s pitch and duration values (John Cage), or drip-throwing paint on a canvas (Jackson Pollock) to see what happens. But I still have to decide what to do next and which conventional means of developing an initial idea (repetition, harmony, variations, etc.) to use. Noticing a small detail and taking it seriously as a possible direction merely simplifies what could otherwise be an overwhelming production process. Could a whole piece be built upon this little fragment? Sure, why not?   

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