On Musical Manipulation

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manipulate—handle or control typically in a skillful manner

If you zoom out far enough from the minutiae of music production, you see that the grand contours of your production moves are made up of unequal parts recording (audio, MIDI) and technology-assisted manipulation. As I practice it, recording is straightforward enough: at an acoustic instrument (yes I still play those) or using some kind of controller (keyboard- or pad-based) I play parts and record them. I might practice or rehearse ahead of time, or simply improvise on the spot, but I always play something and then record it. This typically takes place early on in the process, as I’m trying to flesh out a set of sounds, devise different sections of music, and most importantly, capture some exciting performances that surprise me or sound enchanting in some way. Even though I know I’m nowhere near finished, recording is an attempt to quickly render the shape of a finished piece. In an ideal world, I’d just play everything once and it would be perfect. But since I don’t live in such a world, recording is just step one. 

Once parts are recorded, the manipulation begins. Techniques of musical manipulation are probably endless, but the ones I turn to initially are super simple: turning the volume of a part up or down, muting a part, or deleting a part (or part thereof). Adjusting volume is the quickest way to hear if a part is working but isn’t in an appropriate dynamic relationship to the other parts, or else not working no matter what its dynamic relationship. Muting and deleting are similarly powerful because they allow you hear how a part sounds when it isn’t there (!) 

Once a piece is underway and parts have been committed to, techniques of manipulation blossom in response to the needs of the music. These techniques are endless, but there are some that I return to often: 

re-shaping
interrupting
modulating
warping
morphing
fading
amplifying
filtering
rhythmifying
reverbing
delaying
softening
sharpening
blending
compressing
expanding
inverting
reversing
mirroring
accelerating
tightening
loosening

When you approach your recorded music with these techniques of manipulation, fundamentally you’re aiming manipulate each part to the point where it lives a colorful life for the duration of the piece, dynamically interacting with everything around it. Manipulating the music is laborious, but rewards patient listening and re-listening to your experiments as you try out sounds and keep asking yourself, Is this helping the music become more itself/more resonant/more expressive?

What is interesting to me as I reflect on this list of techniques is how almost all of them are modeled on what an acoustic musician can pull off while performing on a single instrument in real time. In fact, one could make the case that skilled performers are music’s supreme manipulators, able to use their instruments to seamlessly control sounds so that the music seems to magically come alive.

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