Tweaking A Beat

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The beat could be anything,
or something quite simple.

The beat was for nothing,
or for being interesting in itself,
for creating a mood.

I choose the kit at random
and found its kick and snare:

boom – – – kah – – boom – – boom – kah – – –

A generic a place to start,
a beat heard so many times,
in so many iterations,
that it feels like finger-tapping vernacular.

The computer loops my four bars and I listen.

The rhythm is generic
because it’s a classic design –
three kick hits and two snares,
with different spaces between them.

I listen to the four bars and wonder:
How would I change them
but keep the form intact?

The looped listening turns my ear
to the sounds and my wishing
for more difference.

The kick could be lower,
or softer,
the snare could be higher,
or louder.

But we don’t know what we want
until we hear it.

I tweak the onscreen knobs,
changing the parameters,
changing the sounds.

Playing the beat is one gesture
complete in itself,
tweaking its sound is another,
layering changes
upon the rhythm like a scrim.

Rewind the tape:
we don’t know where to go
when we begin a project,
but initial moves
set up what comes next.

I adjust the Delay
to hear what happens,
the beat multiplies,
quoting itself
in a stereo bounce.

I hear the layers of change—
the beat,
the pitch and timbre tweaks,
the bounce.
What else can be done
if there’s no end to the doing?

The beat could be anything,
or something quite simple.

On The Limits Of Musical Timbre

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When you’re working on a collection of music, it helps to have them unified in some way. The surest way to do this is for each piece to have the same instrumentation. I’ve done this with my music in that each of my recordings is scored for a single set of sounds. For example, Piano and Metals Music is scored for piano, kalimba, and gong sounds, and Four Piano Music is scored for four pianos. When each piece shares the same instrumentation you compose using a single timbral palette. At the very least, this palette simplifies my decision-making and gives listeners some sense of what to expect.

Generally speaking, electronic music producers working in popular idioms don’t work this way. Sure, many tracks might use say, a TR-808-type kick drum or snare sound, but most producers neither need this timbral consistency nor advertise it in their track titles. On the contrary, they—and critics—value new sounds. In an ideal electronic music production world, every piece would have its own distinctive set of sounds. One argument in support of this view of production is: If any sound can be created, why keep using the same old sounds? With the never-ending stream of new software and hardware releases, why not keep pushing forward music’s timbral boundaries? Isn’t this one the main points of making electronic music and the key criterion by which to judge its inventiveness?   

 

But while sounds matter, musical design and process matter even more. I have yet to encounter an interesting sound that made more of an impression on me than an interesting chord, and I have yet fall for a great drum sound instead of a great drum pattern. Prizing new sounds for their novelty often comes at the expense of thinking through interesting things to do with these sounds. As an example of the limitations of timbre, listen to how often TV and film composers rely on single-note, synthesized drones to signal fear, danger, or intrigue. (Oh oh! Something bad’s about to happen!) In many contexts, drones are compositional cop-outs, because no matter how colorful and richly layered their timbres, they do relatively little and there’s little subtlety or enchantment about them. Another example: the gargantuan drum timbres in Hollywood blockbusters. The drums sound a hundred feet tall, but their rhythms are elementary and often plodding. Drumming can be so much more than this. Electronic music producers—include composers for TV and film—sometimes overestimate the power of timbre at the expense of musical design and process.     

As I write, I’m remembering Alexandre Desplat’s excellent score for Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated film, Isle of Dogs. The score uses very little in terms of timbres, sticking mostly to woodwinds, voices, whistling, woodblock, and few drums. Desplat’s choice of timbres fit with the setting of the film and act as almost transparent vehicles for the composer’s designs. One of the film’s main themes is a simple three note motif that drops a perfect fourth and rises up a minor third: g-sharp, d-sharp, f-sharp. It’s pentatonic but also somewhat melancholy—perfect to express the Japanese setting and the conditions faced by a pack of dogs from Kobayashi city exiled to Trash Island. We hear the theme repeated throughout the action played on a flute (along with a complementary g-sharp-b-a-sharp bass counter melody), and we hear it sung and whistled too. It all works exquisitely well.  

In electronic music production, one of the creative challenges is to reign in timbre’s allure in order to figure out interesting things to do with one’s sounds. While music software manufacturers would have you believe that their sounds are inherently enchanting, that’s not how all musical enchantment works. Music is enchanting as a by-product of what it does. In a way, the task of the electronic musician is to transcend his/her timbres by devising novel ways to structure the music. There are a thousand techniques for doing this, but one foolproof starting point is to keep the music in one’s music making body for as long as possible. This entails: 

Playing your parts instead of sequencing them.
Always relating the part to the entire texture.
Taking the time to refine a part before you record.
Taking advantage of your first run-through or improvisation by recording all the time.
Varying your parts on as many resolutions of detail as possible.

By keeping your parts living in the realm of your playing, you also begin to play through the timbres you’re using. Instead of relying on a sound for an effect, try to create an analogous effect by changing a chord, a melody line, or a rhythm. Timbre contributes a lot to how a music feels, but ultimately we hear beyond timbre—listening musically involves listening beyond timbre. Consider an analogy: you’re having a conversation with someone who happens to have a whiny voice. At first, you’re distracted by her vocal timbre, and you may even erroneously attribute to her various personality characteristics based on this whiny sound. But if the conversation is good and the ideas are interesting, the quirks of her voice eventually disappear as an object of interest, let alone significance. Now you’re hearing beyond timbre. 

Music is just like this. If the music is interesting enough, the sounds of its timbres disappear. 

I leave you with a recording that came to mind while editing this blog post, TM404’s TM404, a recording made exclusively with the timbres of the Roland sequencers and drum machines.

    

Curating The Week: Breathing, AI & Creativity, Saturation

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• An essay on breathing.

“Careful breathing is always associated with an experience of cooling, of decelerating. It works in almost any scenario where the mind is being catapulted by the body, and we want control”.

• An interview with Marcus du Sautoy (who has an upcoming book).

“I think human laziness is a really important part of finding good, new ways to do things. I often look at things and think: ‘This is just getting too complicated – let me try to step back and figure out a shortcut.’ A computer will say: ‘Well, I’ve got these tools and I can just bash on, deep into the problem.’ But because it doesn’t get tired and it’s not going to be lazy, maybe it will miss things that our laziness takes us to.”

• A video about Saturation, narrated by the one of a kind narrator, Dan Worrall:

“You need to add nonlinearities deliberately.”