One meta cognitive skill worth learning is learning how to think about how you learn in the midst of your learning. The figure of the experienced runner running comes to mind: she’s moving almost effortlessly fast and her body is in constant motion, yet she’s attuned to more than just the terrain and the passing landscape. She regulates her cadence, posture, her breathing (breathing deeply and slow, for instance), and can alter how her feet strike the ground. She can even feel her toes inside her shoes, gripping the soles. In short, the runner is in the moment while simultaneously observing and fine-tuning it. It’s in this way that running can be a feedback experience par excellence—an opportunity to get “in tune” with the micro-learnings of one’s body in deep engagement.
Music production is like this experience of running (or at least I’d like it to be) in that it offers many opportunities for shaping oneself through the shaping of one’s material. Whenever I’m working on music I try to work on my feedback game at the same time, looking for ways to learn better and make that learning stick. As I work, part of my attention mulls over whether or not I’m spending my time fruitfully and I wonder how I might tighten the feedback loop between my actions and what I’m learning from them. I don’t have quick answers to these questions, I but I’ve learned some things.
Work on the thing that appears most problematic or in need of altering. Trying to fix what needs fixing is the quickest route to improving the overall flow of the music. If you don’t hear a problem, keep at it and either (a) listen more closely and/or (b) hone in on a single part and re-assess that. No matter what kind of music you make, its sounds are always making competing claims on your attention, so it’s sometimes difficult to hone one’s focused listening skills to get directly at what needs your help. But as with almost all things, this gets better with practice. In short, the more you focus your listening the better you get at focused listening.
As you alter, fix, or improve something, take note (ideally, writing it down) of the specific thing you’re doing. Even if that action is something as simple as altering a note’s volume say, pay attention. As you take note of your actions, sometimes the actions will reveal themselves to be fundamental creative strategies that you might apply in other situations down the road. Take muting, for instance, which is often a quick way to clarify a musical texture by silencing bits of it here and there. Instead of thinking of muting as a technique you use once in a while, it can be a process you apply (or try to apply) to every part or every piece, almost like a cleansing. I’m often struck by little pockets of beauty that are revealed when I mute something, which in turn has me rethinking matters of structure and which sounds should be featured and where. Maybe one day I’ll mute almost everything in a piece and then what’s left will shine!
Make many small errors in a process of trial and error. This is an idea I gleaned from Nassim Taleb, who explains in his book Antifragile that the virtue of small errors is that they’re small in harm (i.e. they don’t kill you) yet yield a lot of useful information. In music production, my errors mostly come in the form of trial and error: trying something out, realizing it sounds bad (or neutral), and then moving on to trying something else, over and over and over again, until I get closer to my goal of an enchanting sound. In fact, it’s not unusual for a producer to try out dozens or hundreds of sounds or layered sound combinations in search of a timbre that fits and feels just so. No, this isn’t exactly fun, but if the only harm that comes from such extensive trial and error is spent time, then that time is well spent.
As you work on the music over time, let your changing perception of it feed back into both it and your working. It happens to me all the time that what sounded good yesterday sounds lame today. This means that either I’m growing or that my listening is wildly variable, or both. So as a general rule, forget what you perceived then and trust what you think now. The piece may sound like it’s getting worse, not better, but that may be a function of your knowing it so intimately—think about how much time you’ve spent with it already. Remember that you’re trying to refine the music so that it can withstand the scrutiny of your knowledge of it today, but also tomorrow and the next day, at which times you’ll know even more. So be generous with the music by bringing all of your knowhow from today to bear on making it more cohesive, more subtle, more interesting, and more capable of holding your attention down the road. As you work to improve it in little ways, know that by tightening the feedback loop between your techniques and how the music sounds you’re refining yourself too.
“Drummers have an odd relationship with time–they hate being late. I know that sounds like a joke but it’s true. Not just in music but in life. Turning up late for an appointment really annoys them. It fills me with a sense of failure. Every drummer I know gets uptight and obsesses about tardiness, as though we are engaged in a constant, unconscious battle with time. As a type, drummers seem quite relaxed, easy-going and willing to experiment. I am one, so I would say that. To most other musicians, the idea of the crazy drummer is the default stereotype, like the prima donna lead singer.
Prima donna drummers, on the other hand, are few and far between. I’ve heard stories but I’ve never actually met one. But then I never met Buddy Rich.”
– Stephen Morris,
Record Play Pause: Confessions of a Post-Punk Percussionist Volume 1
(2019), pp. 172-173
Fix the structure. Fix the mix.
Fix the order. Fix the bliss.
Fix the treble. Fix the bass.
Fix the reverbs. Fix the space.
Fix the rhythms. Fix the beats.
Fix the quantize. Fix the key.
Fix the panning. Fix the flow.
Fix the aura. Fix the tone.
Fix the repetition. Fix the time.
Fix the stasis. Fix the line.
Fix the effects. Fix the sends.
Fix the routing. Fix the sense.
Fix the variations. Fix the theme.
Fix the turnaround. Fix the dream.
Fix the noises. Fix the hiss.
Fix the energy. Fix the clicks.
Fix the style. Fix the meaning.
Fix the music into sounds of gleaming.
Most of the time when I’m producing music I approach it in terms of a through-composed journey through time—a getting from one place to another. The clearest example of such a journey is a free improvisation, say at the piano, which I do a lot. When I improvise I tend to move outwards from a center starting point, always building. Sometimes that means moving from a lower register to a higher one (or vice-versa), moving from soft to more loudly (or vice versa), or transforming a melody or sequence of chords into something more elaborate (or pared down). Whatever I do, I often chase after this sense of a journey in musical time and a journey over the space of the instrument’s terrain. When it comes to building pieces with more than a single sound, I still begin the process by trying to through-compose each part in its entirety because this gives me the best chance to capture a performance with energy. Once I have some performances recorded, I can begin refining and tweaking them into something sharper and more compelling and in that process gradually build the form of the piece.
As anyone who uses DAW (digital audio workstation) software knows, when you record a part (a beat, a chord sequence, a bass line) it appears on the screen as a colored sequence that unfolds like an unspooled horizontal ribbon, from left to right. A piece with ten parts is thus represented as a stack of ten colored ribbons, each of which contains the MIDI data (or audio) for an individual sound. One of the useful things about this left-to-right visual representation of your piece is that it provides an instant bird’s eye view of a performance, and, if you work in sections, these sections can be easily delineated and re-arranged. In short, recording into the computer turns your music into a fully modular experience whereby structure is perpetually fungible.
Recently (a few months ago) though, I realized that I hadn’t been exploring a vital hidden benefit of my through-composed parts arranged into horizontal ribbon sequences. The hidden benefit is being able to loop the music along any section of its horizontal unfolding–whether a fraction of a beat to twelve bars or somewhere in between. I resisted doing this because I’ve long approached my work with assumptions about repetition. I assumed that repeating a section would be less interesting than doing something new within it. I assumed that repetition would be more boring than change. And I assumed that relying on loops of any kind was tantamount to creative cheating. Yet my ears were telling me to think again. But Tom, this sounds cool!
So I decided, somewhat arbitrarily, that each piece would have a “breakdown” section at some point where I would exploit the repetition potential of a snippet of the music. To find suitable sections I tried looping a few bars here and there until something clicked. It’s obvious when a section loops well because it immediately manifests an energy you never noticed when it only went by once. Also, a great loop sounds inevitable. Once I found a loopable section I looped it and began muting individual parts within it, and then experimented with various combinations of muted and unmuted parts. This further revealed qualities that had been hidden just a few minutes ago. Suddenly there was space in the music. Suddenly it was grooving better. Suddenly I was curious to hear how the music would resolve itself—would it stay in this loop or morph into something else? Suddenly I was hearing what I had worked on for so many months from a fresh perspective. Yes, this does sound cool!
The takeaway from my loop experiments is that I learned that my through-composed material is simultaneously a finished statement in itself and also, if I let it, a starting point for further looping and manipulation. One of the reasons I have been a snob about repetition is that I’m weary of it being used—and weary of my using it—as a substitute for new ideas. Just because something is looped doesn’t necessarily make it interesting. This is why I perform parts, as much as I’m able, as complete statements that get me from one place to another. But now I have a lot of material to play with and loop to hear its hidden significances. Playing with repetition is teaching me that the music could become more than I now know.