Timbrebuilding

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“The power of art objects stems from the technical processes they objectively embody: the technology of enchantment is founded on the enchantment of technology. The enchantment of technology is the power that technical processes have of casting a spell over us so that we see the real world in an enchanted form.”

-Alfred Gell,
“The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology” (1992), p. 44

When I trained as a musician in university, I didn’t think much about my sound because I didn’t have one beyond trying to copy the tone of my teacher. I strove after his tone, as well as his touch. (I’m still working on both of those things.) In the many years since that time, I got into making music with the help of digital tools and came to understand that one’s sound is, to some degree, a function of the sounds one works with. This is why many musicians make a big deal about the particulars of the gear they use. There are hardcore devotees of analog synthesis, for instance, or modular hardware synthesizers, or the virtues of computer software that emulates all this, or abstract coding languages, and on and on. Many musicians feel strongly that it makes an audible difference whether one uses a vintage Moog or Nord Lead, and that the Roland TR-808 drum machine will never be replicated in its virtual forms. In electronic music, touch is configured a bit differently than it is in acoustic music making, because your touch is traveling through additional layers of electrified (analog or digital) mediation. Hence some musicians believe that certain vintage instruments sound more real than anything in the computer realm. 

But I don’t subscribe to this. As I‘ve learned more about some of the tools electronic musicians use, I let myself be guided by what my ear likes—by the sounds that I find enchanting. It doesn’t matter to me where these sounds come from, but because of practical and financial constraints, I’ve taken to music software and doing sound design “in the box” of the computer. The studio for me is my laptop. (But—if you want to ship me a grand piano, I will accept it.)

I spend some time each week going through sounds—either presets or ones I’ve made or modified myself—to hear what they can do. I’ll play a few chords and listen to how they sound. Of the many virtues of music software is its endless capacity for malleability, for shapeshifting. As I play a sound, I experiment with adding in different timbre layers, or swapping out one waveform or sample for another, or changing the ADSR (attack, decay, sustain, release) settings, or applying my own effects chain. My problem—if it is a problem, or maybe it’s a good thing?—is that I like so much of what I hear and can barely process one timbre variation before I’ve moved, out of curiosity and excitement, onto another. I’m wandering in a vast and unchartable land, making mental notes and picking up a few gems as I move along, but there’s much I can’t fathom. Unlike a piano keyboard where I can see all of the notes, I can never see all of music software’s terrain at once. 

In a music software review by Geary Yelton in emusician (October 21, 2015), I came across the term timbrebuilding which describes well what I do when I’m going through sounds. I’m searching for points upon which to build and timbrebuilding gets me thinking about how different sounds suggest different affective states and ways of feeling. I notice that I keep returning to particular timbres, as if the timbres are themselves kinds of instruments I’m getting to know. I modify and combine sounds, I alter them in tiny ways to make them feel more personal, I smooth or sharpen their edges, and I play with their waveform DNA to see how that changes anything or everything. As I explore and tinker, I think about how my music education both keeps me on track and maybe also prevents me from more fluidly using my remarkable software which would be even more remarkable if I could flow with it more. I hear through the fluff, but also miss quirky possibilities. I look for long form structures, but miss short-term pleasures. Is the software stiff, or is it me? I timbrebuild while wondering, Is all this mere surface gloss? But then something clicks with a sound and I’m enchanted again. 

  

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