“…Who strive—you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,—
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter) – so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia. I am judged…”
– Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto” (“The Faultless Painter”) (1855)
First attributed to the 19th century poet Robert Browning, the phrase less is more might be a cliche, but like many cliches, it’s often true. It’s especially true in music production, and doubly true with regards to one’s production sound palette.
While working on a project over the past nine months I’ve thought from time to time about how few sounds I use relative to what I have available to me, and how those few sounds have, over time, revealed so much. When I began the work, I was searching for sounds with only their broad timbral contours in mind. I would think,
I need a kind of soft-attack, mid-range pad sound,
or I need thin bell-like sound,
or I need a sort of nasal bass sound.
In a word, I was searching for rather generic electronic music sounds. The idea was to somewhat cover my timbre bases and assemble a sound set that could work well together and make a foundation for something which I hadn’t yet built. I went through the instruments I had in my computer and played and listened to presets I had made and saved. Usually I could tell within a few seconds if a sound was a candidate. (Also, I’m the type to stop searching whenever I’ve found something that seems to work.)
Looking back on it now, it’s good that I limited my search to broad contours, because over the time of the project each of my sounds has changed rather radically. (They’re still changing too.) The important thing is that I had found the sounds inspiring enough to begin making music with them—playing one part, then playing along with another, then another, and another, until I had bits of call and response, layered dialogue going in the form of chords, melodies, and rhythms. It’s also good that I had the foresight to remind myself, I can fix mistakes later, and that I believed that such mistakes could include the sounds themselves. Maybe I would swap out all of the sounds somewhere down the line, because nothing is ever fixed in the digital realm, right?
It turned out that I committed to these sounds I chose, and not only was there was nothing wrong with them, but their less-ness is their more-ness. Working with just a few generic timbres simplified my production process immensely, focusing my attention on how to do things with and to the timbres rather than doubt whether or not they were the “final” or “right” ones for the project. What happened, in other words, is that the music’s complexities blossomed around the sounds as I figured out ways to turn their less-ness into more.
Some of the (conventional) techniques I have written about already, such as resampling, which involves re-recording sounds and amplifying hidden things inherent in them. But there are other ways to play with sounds through effects, volume, stereo placement, or simply cutting them up and swapping and reordering them around. Every time I sit down to work on the music I end up altering the sounds in these small ways in pursuit of the elusive sense of synergy.
A lesson from this is that you don’t need to spend too much time at the outset of a project stressing over exact sounds because everything will change over time as you uncover the generative potential of less is more.