When the music is obvious it what’s it’s trying to do, I lose interest in it because I’m not pushed to try to figure it out or track its changes through a thicket of subtleties. This applies to stuff I listen to as well as my own productions. I spend more than half of my composing time transforming the music I already have into a more interesting, subtle, and less obvious sound. Whenever I can, I strive after this sound ideal in moments of improvisation, but that rarely works out. Or it works out, but only to a degree. One reassuring fact of music production is that anything can be dramatically improved upon if one has time to refine it.
Here are three techniques then, for moving from obvious to more subtle-sounding music:
Remove material. The most efficient way to make almost anything better and more subtle is to remove part of it. Removing creates a space for other parts (e.g. for call and response), and also for the listener to insert herself into the music and wonder what will come next, and when. One problem with continuously-sounding material is that it fills all the space in the mix and thus makes it difficult to make subtle gestures. So: remove.
Turn an abrupt change into a gradual one. Abrupt changes are dramatic, but they don’t allow the listener to participate in getting from one musical place to another and so don’t make substantial demands on our attention. Instead, it’s in their nature for abrupt changes to catch us off guard and fling the music in another direction without warning. Here and there this can be the right thing to do, but…not so fast! Take your time with transforming the music and its parts. For example, instead of drowning a sound in reverb from the get-go, you could slowly grow the reverb around the sound so that a halo of resonance only becomes apparent over time as you track the sounds from their beginnings to their ends to experience this subtle shift in space. Think about the proverbial watched pot that never boils. Have you ever tried watching one get to a rolling boil? If you stick with it for a few minutes and get over your own impatience (and your superstition that watched pots will never boil) you’ll notice yourself noticing little things—more bubbles, more water motion, more sound—that you never would have noticed had you walked into the kitchen when the water was already at a boil. So too can music be like a slow boil that draws your attention towards its processes, so embrace gradual changes.
Tweak a single parameter so that it begins to sing its own line within the music. This idea builds upon turning abrupt changes into gradual ones. What I mean by a parameter singing its own line is this: think of every facet of the sounds you’re working with as changeable. In other words, it’s not simply voices and melodies that “sing.” A rhythm can sing too. Or a timbre. Or volume. Or panning. Or a sound’s ADSR (Attack Decay Sustain Release). Or the mix’s frequency spectrum. Or the timing of a delay. Or the Threshold of a compressor. And so on and on and on. Whether you’re removing material, turning abrupt changes into gradual ones, or tweaking single parameters, you’ll conjure enchantment by trying to make every part of the music sing.