Notes On A Music Production Workflow

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I know some ways to work, but there are so many routes to get musical things done that each session is a re-thinking of how to work. (Begin anywhere Cage said.)

I began with marimba chord samples that I had recorded a few months back.

I played between 20 and 30 different chord rolls—plenty to make something out of later on, which is today!

I had hoped that one of the marimba chords would turn out to be so interesting that I could ignore all the others, but that didn’t work out, which is okay. 

I narrowed down my choices to a handful of chords that sounded better than the rest and played the chords on the grid controller. The goal was to de-familiarize them and come up with a new sequence. Playing the chords by tapping the rubber pads, I left space after each one so that they could resonate within their own echoes. I recorded sequences that were odd lengths—not 4 or 8 bars, but 15 or 23 bars long. Why? I’m trying to surprise myself.

With these chord sequences as placeholders, I began trying out other parts. 

What might “go” with them?

I have thousands of sounds that could potentially sound good with the marimba chords, but it rarely works out that way. Most of the time, very few sounds fit. In fact, on this project I have only found three or four sounds that fit.

An ongoing music production question I have is
Why is it so difficult to find sounds that fit?  

Sometimes nothing fits, which is its own kind of helpful information.

The challenge with finding sounds that fit is that it takes a while to get to know both the sound I’m trying to fit to and the sounds that could potentially do the fitting.

I’m surprised that a sound that fits is not one with a similar timbre to the marimbas but rather one that contrasts by occupying a distinctly different frequency stratum of the mix.

This suggests a lesson: pay attention to contrast.

As I auditioned sounds I was simultaneously writing new parts that might work with them. Like the sequenced marimba chords, these new ideas are also placeholders—attempts at filling out the mix in a meaningful way.

(How you define a musically meaningful mix might differ from how I do. I like hearing a sense of space and being able to pinpoint everything that’s going on within that space.)

Even though they’re placeholders, I try to make these parts as complete as possible by performing them as well as I can, thereby giving me a decent chance of sequencing a part that can be used later on. Sometimes what was once a placeholder part becomes, with a bit of editing, a final part. The for now unattainable goal is to play everything only once and perfectly. That would be something, wouldn’t it? 

You never know, so make the part excellent the first time.

While I’m trying new sounds and new parts, larger-scale forms are suggesting themselves. If a part is sounding good, I’ll keep playing it for a while. This playing can outline a possible new section that I’ll then have to fill in with other parts. It helps to be able to see everything I’m doing as a left-to-right sequence on the screen.

This suggests a lesson: the arrangement page is the musical score.

Everything I do in terms of part-making is potential scaffolding to hold up something else later on.

 

Accidents and errors are sprinkled through each aspect of the workflow—from sequencing the marimba chords, looking for contrasting sounds, recording placeholder parts, to noticing the emergence of larger-scale forms. Here are two examples:

I solo a part and like the sound of that, so I delete all the other sounds that were once around it. Musics don’t always have to be busy. Now the sound can shine on its own.

I accidentally drag the marimba sequence a few beats too far and now one of its chords is newly juxtaposed against another part. The accidental counterpoint sounds interesting so I’ll leave it (for now).

(Accidental counterpoint often sounds more interesting than my deliberate counterpoint. Why is this?) 

Accidents and errors are welcome and I go with them if I like how they sound.

But in general, chance procedures aren’t the ideal way to develop the kind of music I like to listen to because I like the sound of intentionality. 

One way to develop the music is to question it at each of its passing moments. I don’t mean question the music while making it! I mean question the music when I’m listening back to what I’ve done and thinking about how arrange it into a more cohesive and intentional whole.

The following questions come to mind as I listen:

Is this boring me? If so, why?
Is this repeating too much or not enough?
Is this part adding something?
Is this part getting in the way?
Why is this part even in here?
Is this part distracting from the main one?
Do I need a main part?
Is there even a main part?
What aspect of the part is irritating?
Are the details within this part sufficiently audible?
Is this effect drawing attention to itself rather than the effect it seeks to create?
Is static what you want for this section, or should it be changing?
Why is this music reminding me of (…)?
Is the tempo a bit off?
Is the percussion merely adding energy without helping the mood?
How else can I incorporate pulsation into the music?
Has the music become out of touch with its overall sense?
If only the end section sounds good, do you even need the beginning?
Could I start from the end?
Do I like this piece as it is? If not, why?

Summing up:

I know some ways to work, but what makes music production fascinating is the complexity of the possible interactions between a musician and the technologies/musical system at hand. 

At any given moment, a sound can morph in infinite directions. Likewise, at any moment, my understanding of what the piece is can shift. 

Am I engaging the production process in a way that is both systematic yet also open-ended and exciting?

  

 

  

 

Frames Of Attention: Deciding On Musical Materials

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One of the primary tasks involved in building a piece of music or a piece of writing is figuring out as early as possible in the process what materials you’re working with. Our process won’t reveal itself until we’re further along it, so there’s so sense worrying about that until we get there. But our materials we can decide upon now, even if that deciding feels arbitrary because, at least in the case of electronic music production, what constitutes one’s materials is perpetually in flux and potentially has no end. I can decide, for instance, that my piece will use at maximum one or two tracks of percussion. I can also decide on the (initial) sound sets for those tracks. My rationale is that two tracks of particular sounds afford me exponentially more options than one track does (especially in terms of polyrhythm and timbral call and response), but that any more than two tracks will be overkill. Am I missing out by not adding more tracks and more sounds? Maybe. But I gain a sense of clarity from having chosen to make do with just one or two tracks. I feel this clarity as I get to work figuring out what I might do with my chosen palette of percussion.

As I get further along the process of recording parts with my decided upon two tracks, the limitations I’ve set for myself come in handy. Now I have a super narrow frame for attention: each track of percussion has only three or four sounds, thus I only have 6-8 different sounds total for accomplishing whatever I’m trying to do. Though it’s difficult to capture in words, the moment of confronting a super narrow set of options feels like a crux of composing insofar as in that instant I have to decide how to make do with what I have. Conditions aren’t ideal, so I invent a way forward despite them. In sum, improvising with, and adapting to, the moment happen because I decided beforehand on the materials that set the conditions for creativity.

Notes On Weezer’s Cover Of A-Ha’s “Take On Me” 

“Weezer isn’t stuck in roles, so we just do what we want to do, what makes us excited.”
-Rivers Cuomo, Weezer

I’m listening to Weezer’s cover of “Take On Me”, a synthpop hit from 1984 by the Norwegian band A-Ha. I like both versions of the song: the original was exceptional—a song almost sublime in its MIDI-sequenced tightness, arranged just so, here for a pristine three and a half melancholy minutes then gone—and Weezer’s cover is a surprisingly moving tribute. Even though A-Ha was a trio powered by drum machines and sequenced keyboards, their song remains intact 35 years later with almost a billion views on YouTube and now, through Weezer’s rendering of it in rock form. The story of how Weezer came to cover “Take On Me” and other 80s gems is this: in 2018 a young fan reached out to the band on Twitter and suggested that they do a version of Toto’s “Africa.” Surprisingly, the band obliged and their Toto cover became their first hit in a decade. Maybe the success of that song got the band thinking about covering other songs? In any case, cover songs they did, and as a side note: when someone covers TLC’s “No Scrubs” and doesn’t change the lyrics to fit a male singer (TLC were an all-female 90s R&B group) it’s always worth a listen.

As I listened and re-listened to “Take On Me” I thought about what kinds of things the song was telegraphing to those of us around for the original. To start, the Weezer cover traffics in nostalgia for our always receding musical past, and maybe it exemplifies what Simon Reynolds has called retromania. Cover songs trigger our minds in certain ways: when you listen to a cover of a song whose original version you know well, you jump into a super-fast comparative mode, trying to figure out what is the same and what is different between the two versions. And when that original is powerful, something else happens as well: your comparative mind shuts down a bit and you lose yourself in the music, not quite sure whether you’re hearing the new through the prism of the old or the old through the new. Or some combination of both of these ways of listening.

What made the original “Take On Me” sort of exceptional was that it perfectly encapsulates what pop should do, which is unfold itself through brief verses whose sole purpose is to lead you to catchy and repeated choruses as efficiently as possible. But more than this, “Take On Me” is an example of musical form and musical sound perfectly melded. Returning to the song now, it sounds as if it was expressly designed for the synthesizers and drum machines used to make it. English Producer Neill King, who was brought in midway through A-Ha’s initial recording sessions to bring zing to the productions, explains in a Sound On Sound article some of the electronics he used to achieve a sound:

“There was the Synclavier from which everything was sequenced. This was used as the drum machine; a mixture of synthesized and live samples courtesy of Tony Mansfield. The Synclavier was the first synth that grooved a little more following the first generation of drum machines. In terms of effects, there was a lot of reverb going around and we slammed the hell out of a Lexicon 224X and AMS RMX16. There was also an RMX15 for stereo delay. Classic ’80s stuff.”

The version of the song recorded with Neill King was a moderate hit, yet the band’s record company, Warner Brothers, was convinced they could make an even more compelling version, so they brought in producer Alan Tarney to re-build the music. Tarney’s go-to studio equipment included a Roland Juno 60, a (by then slightly dated) LinnDrum drum machine, and a UMI MIDI sequencing computer which were all used on the song. As Tarney recalls in the same Sound On Sound article,

“’Take On Me’ had a fairly standard Linn snare sound and I just remember compressing it quite heavily to get a very slappy feel. At the same time, while the quality of the Linn’s snare, toms and kick drum was quite good, its cymbal sounds were a bit crappy—no high end. So [A-Ha guitarist Pål Waaktaar] overdubbed real cymbals and possibly some hi‑hat in the studio, to add some clarity and get more of a live feel.”

Out of this layered production process “Take On Me” emerged and became a chart-toping hit, in part thanks to an expensive and innovative video whose hand-drawn comic book graphics kept the song in heavy rotation on MTV.

If you toggle back and forth between A-Ha’s and Weezer’s versions of “Take On Me” a few differences become apparent. First, the original is in A major, while Weezer’s cover is transposed down a step, presumably to better suit vocalist Rivers Cuomo’s vocal range. Production-wise, the original has a crisper, livelier sound than Weezer’s, while Weezer’s has a darker, almost dull sound (the drums especially), albeit with more weight. This is strange insofar as the original was recorded onto a warmer-sounding analog tape-based system and not into a computer-based DAW as today’s recordings usually are. Also, the original recording of “Take On Me” has more layers of textural nuance than Weezer’s version. Little programming details—like the high register bumble bee-like keyboard line that flies around the stereo field and off into its own reverb (from 2:02-2:08), or the drum machine fills that sounds uncannily like what a real drummer would play—still sound amazing to me. Weezer partly makes up for that lack of nuance with some lovely filigree electric guitar arpeggios added to the chorus, but on the whole, the song’s original version remains a testament to careful musical construction. Let’s take this moment to remember a truth about music production: it’s not about whether the instruments used are electronic or not. What matters is how the music is put together.  

The second thing you notice is that Weezer’s Cuomo seems a stronger singer than A-Ha’s Morten Harket. Harket has a sweet choir boy voice, but I only recently noticed how his word enunciation wasn’t always clear and when he hit sustained falsetto notes his energy and pitch could flag a wee bit. (I guess those 1980s Lexicon 224 reverbs could only do so much.) To me, Cuomo’s voice sounds more present and careful in its phrasing and use of micro, almost Michael Jackson-esque breathy/rhythmic glottal stuttering sounds around the words. His voice is a subtle instrument. A third noticed thing is what we might call the transferability of great songs. In Weezer’s version of “Take On Me” there’s two new sections: a half-time bridge where the band breaks out the distorted electric rock guitars and sloshy cymbals and a brief break before the final chorus where the song reduces to just an unplugged acoustic guitar and intimate vocal. In the half-time section we hear the suppleness of A-Ha’s harmonic progressions, and in the acoustic break how Harket’s melody still holds up with even the sparest of accompaniment. A strong song maintains itself through all kinds of versioning by transferring its energies from one artist to another over time.

A fourth noticed difference between the two versions of “Take On Me” is the degree to which electronic pop can be “rockified”, which in turn raises the question of what happens when rock music gets a synth pop (or say, electro R&B) treatment, which in turn might push us to consider the general porousness of various pop musical styles. Weezer keeps the chord progressions and melody and basic keyboard parts from A-Ha’s original, but adds crunchy distorted electric guitars, bass, and drum set to the mix. I’ve written on this blog before about the “trickle-down” influence of EDM aesthetics on rock and pop. Weezer’s covers of 1980s songs now have me thinking about the hegemonic power of rock style to shape how we hear and imagine every other kind of music.

The impact of Weezer’s cover of “Take On Me” is heightened by the band’s video for the song, which is delightful and frames a simple story within a story. The simple story’s protagonist is a teenage Cuomo and his band. When mom leaves the house he grabs a slice of pizza and mobilizes his bandmates to rip through Weezer’s version of the song. The viewer sees Cuomo and his mates growing up in the 80s to the sounds of synth pop and rock: there’s Cuomo in his bedroom doodling a giant “W” (for Weezer) in a notebook and imagining make one day making it big. This simple story is simultaneously set inside A-Ha’s original video for their song with its hand-drawn graphics. Weezer quotes this video by having it temporarily turn teenage Cuomo and Co. into a comic strip—as if the comic is a visual representation of Weezer’s cover version interpenetrating with A-Ha’s original recording. The cumulative effect feels like layering nostalgia, and so for some viewers, these two versions of one song might bring back vague memories now blended into a single sensation. In music, the past lives in the present and the present uncovers the past. When conditions are right, some songs find unexpected ways to get us feeling again.

Resonant Thoughts: Paul Bertolli’s “Cooking By Hand” (2003)

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“Most of all, I’ve learned that the art of cooking consists largely of ‘watching’ with all the senses.”

“To keep a pear in mind as it ripens is to practice cooking in its simplest form. It is through such observance of any food from the point of purchase throughout its preparation and later in the act of eating itself, that cooking is purged of lapses of attention, imposed formula, impatience, or expediency. Like a fresco restored to its former clarity, food reveals what we wish for or remember it to be.”

Paul Bertolli, Cooking by Hand (2003), p. 27.

Music Production Notes: Creating Separation Between Different Stages Of Composing

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I work on projects in distinct stages for various reasons, not least of which is simplifying my workflow so I have some idea of what I need to do each day. (Oh I’m editing today? Okay great.) This has an inherent benefit: it creates separation between different ways of working. For my current project, I divided it into four stages. The first stage was recording a series of marimba chords. I placed no limits on what I would play, except of course for the self-imposed limitations of what chords I could actually come up with while recording. For the most part, I played triads with open voicings, but there were always a few outlier chords, and upon re-listening to what I played, these chords were super interesting because I could hear that I had no idea where I wanted to go with them. Which is just as such things should be.

The second stage of composing was mapping each of the chords I played to my grid controller so I could re-play them by tapping the pads. Even before mapping the chords, I had a sense that this would be an important start to getting some distance from whatever I had intended while playing the chords on the marimba. By mapping the chords, one chord per pad, I turned them into marimba samples that could be used however I wanted. Finally the sounds were free!

The third stage was trying out various ways of sequencing the marimba chords mapped to the pads. I had between thirty and forty chords from which to choose, so the hardest part was knowing where to start and how many to use. Would my sequences be 4 or 24 bars long? Would there be one or two sequences per piece, or five or six? The only way to know was to try out different sequences to hear how they sounded. As a side note, playing the chords on the pads became a challenging game of trying to remember what sound was mapped to what pad.  

The fourth stage was to manipulate my chord sequences in various ways. I repeated them, I added and subtracted space between them, I transposed them, and I moved them about the timeline of the piece, so that a beginning might appear again at the end, or the middle part of one might be superimposed upon the end of another. I was always pleasantly surprised when I dragged a sequence into a new position and heard an unexpected juxtaposition with the other parts. Since I had kept my marimba playing to a single key per session, the chords could function in a modular way. 

By the fourth stage, I had forgotten all about having played the original marimba chords. I knew the key but couldn’t tell you what the chords were. But this had been my goal all along: to transport the chords from the gestural space of playing an acoustic instrument onto a grid controller and then re-sequence them onto the virtual space of the screen. It was still me playing, but I now had separation between my original idea and the new place I had arrived at. Which is just as such things should be. 

Arrows Of Attention: 100 Music Production Movements

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Move from a blur to clarity.

Move from sharp attack to slow.

Move from everything sounding at once to a single sound.

Move from bass-heavy to treble-light.

Move from sparseness to density.

Move from thick to transparent.

Move from on-beat to off-beat.

Move from left-panned to right-panned.

Move from macro to granular.

Move from static to dynamic.

Move from presets to your own sounds.

Move from stereo to mono.

Move from minimum input to maximal output.

Move from a single piece to a series of pieces.

Move from dry to reverb’ed.

Move from overlap to call and response.

Move from beats to pulsation.

Move from theory to practice.

Move from judgment to attention.

Move from stasis to change.

Move from bass line to melody.

Move from sequenced to through-performed.

Move from argument-like to meditation-like.

Move from you to your listener’s experience.

Move from programming to playing.

Move from relying on bass to relying on chords.

Move from relying on chords to relying on rhythms.

Move from contemplation to action.

Move from theme to variation.

Move from anything’s possible to constraints.

Move from random to deliberate.

Move from separate tracks to a cohesive mix.

Move from effects to the effect that you want created.

Move from rhythm to polyrhythm.

Move from certainty to ambiguity.

Move from what worked then to what might work now.

Move from nostalgia to equanimity.

Move from drum fills to effects fills.

Move from in the style of to drawing on a style.

Move from saying multiple things to saying just one thing.

Move from loop dragging to finger drumming.

Move from discrete to flowing.

Move from popular today to still interesting ten years from now.

Move from the notated score to the sequenced arrangement.

Move from background music to foreground music.

Move from an imperfect performance to a precise, edited one.

Move from audio to MIDI.

Move from Oblique Strategies to direct strategies.

Move from guessing how it might sound to trying it out.

Move from grand intentions to small-scale tinkering.

Move from making mistakes to experimenting.

Move from thinking in tracks to thinking in moods.

Move from sounding to muted.

Move from more volume to more EQ.

Move from adding to removing.

Move from linear to cyclical.

Move from fixing errors to embracing them.

Move from outcome-oriented to process-oriented.

Move from what didn’t work to what might.

Move from saturated with to hinted at.

Move from hardware to software.

Move from having to know to getting to know.

Move from borrowing to creating.

Move from a consistent volume to a fading up and down volume.

Move from accidental to deliberate.

Move from passive listening to critiquing listening.

Move from suggesting to articulating.

Move from just repeating to tracing a musical line over time.

Move from cadencing to leaving you hanging.

Move from abrupt shifts to crossfades.

Move from totally in tune to slightly out of tune.

Move from obvious texture to a more subtle one.

Move from sounding like to evoking.

Move from a small gesture to a grand one.

Move from a relaxed to an urgent mood.

Move from super dark to super bright.

Move from on the click track to around it.

Move from accompaniment music to standing on its own music.

Move from vague to clear-headed music.

Move from verse-chorus to bridge structure.

Move from tried and true to not yet proven technique.

Move from trying-to-be-commercial to happy-to-stay-underground music.

Move from perceptually boring to perceptually fascinating music.

Move from more of the same to a bit more of the new sounds.

Move from perfecting the music to actually putting it out there.

Move from distinct sounds to felt resonances.

Move from a piano sound to a piano-ish sound.

Move from playing to re-sequencing.

Move from the tempo as is to a more appropriate speed.

Move from the arrangement back into a new loop.

Move from a common time feel to an odd one.

Move from promoting the music to giving it away.

Move from trying to write a hook to designing an enticing space.

Move from trying to show off with sound to healing with sound.

Move from music that is unrelated to your life to music that soundtracks it.

Move from working on the music in bits in pieces to finishing it in big chunks.

Move from waiting for musical inspiration to building music prototypes.

Move from composing themes to improvising them.

Move from the first take to the seventh.

Move from yesterday’s musical work to today’s further refinements.