Friday Freestyle


• I’ve been enjoying Nadia Eghbal’s newsletter, and also Kyle Chayka’s newsletter. (Also: Chayka’s forthcoming book on minimalism.) 

• Thinking about music making as some kind of litmus, but not a test. 

• Tee shirt sighting: “Sorry for what I said at mile 20.”

• A second tee shirt sighting (shirt worn by a very large man walking slowly):
“Repeal entropy.”

An interview with chef Magnus Nilsson. “It’s a paradox of aptitude. You’re very good at something and very quickly you find yourself doing it less and less.”

• Walking home one night I was re-listening to the end section of Steve Reich’s Sextet and began thinking about cadences. As his pieces wind down, Reich typically removes notes from his chords and moves to increasingly higher registers to telegraph that the end is near. It occurred to me that what he’s doing is slowing down and stretching out a kind of cadence. Not the traditional V-I now we’re done! kind of cadence, but more tonally ambiguous and harmonically evaporating cadences that create the sense that the mallet groove-chugging pulsations could keep going forever. Then I wondered about whether Reich cared/cares about cadences per se, or whether it was the demands of the additive-subtractive, now you hear a note now you don’t process that he evolved over the years that shapes the endings of his pieces? Still walking home (I had only moved a block), I wondered about how it is that any piece of music ends. Speaking for myself when I’m working on something I enjoy listening to, I don’t want it to end—ever, basically—and this feeling of not wanting it to end becomes a puzzle to figure out. Maybe turning a 7-minute piece into an 11-minute piece is forever enough? Anyway, it’s sad when the music ends. Maybe this is why the fade out in popular music is often used in place of a cadence so the sounds just gradually…vanish…

• Why watching sports is educational: “Play more shots instead of trying to make perfect swings”  says golf commentator Paul Azinger. Noted.

• An article about chef Sean Brock. “If you ask any chef what they want their cuisine to be: simple, simple, simple. You hear simple so many times, well, simplicity is really hard. The trick is to take as little as possible and make something amazing out of it and that takes a lot of wisdom, a lot of craft, a lot of talent…I call it the complexity in simplicity.”

• The most practically useful music production advice on output recording I encountered this year, from the musician Mr. Bill in one of his YouTube tutorials:

“The concept is to take tools at your disposal and use them in ways that they’re not meant to be used, or in just very creative ways, and then record the output and figure out how to contextualize it for music later.”

• An awesome and simple to make recipe for zucchini bread from Smitten Kitchen.


Good Notes Are Everywhere At Hand


“Any theory’s relevance depended on its possible bearing for my practice.”
– David Sudnow, Ways Of The Hand (2001), p. 19.

“Good notes were everywhere at hand, right beneath the fingers” wrote David Sudnow in his 2001 book, Ways Of The Hand. Originally published in 1979 as a deep (and fairly reader-unfriendly) phenomenological dive into the experience of learning to improvise jazz piano, the rewritten book has sat on my bookshelf for years as a reminder of the kind of writing about music that is possible when the words are grounded in one’s first-hand experience of making it. But more than inspiring ways of writing about music—writing which, no matter how descriptive, is for me always a kind of second-hand, after the fact experience—Ways Of The Hand inspires me to think about lessons latent in playing and now, producing music. 

I’ve talked before about pursuing a sense of synergy in music—that sense that everything is cohering in a way that feels bigger than the sum of their parts. One of the ways to arrive at synergy is to heed Sudnow’s advice that good sounds are everywhere around you, notably right beneath your fingers. He’s right. In music production, no matter where you are along the process of building a track, you may have everything you need in front of you. For me, the key to taking advantage of this fact involves two steps: noticing, and then trying things out. As the music-in-progress plays, I have to notice something—anything—that I didn’t notice yesterday, otherwise nothing’s gonna happen today.

It can something as simple as a level that’s too loud, or a weak sauce moment where not enough is happening, or some annoying bit that’s jumping out too much. (You want a reliable technique for working? Keep fixing the annoying bits.) Once I’ve noticed something, I set about fixing it or improving it, and herein lies an opportunity to experiment. What usually happens at this point is that fixing something triggers a deeper noticing of something else close by (or not). My mind begins to consider possibilities and my listening gets newly attuned. (I believe Sudnow used the word attuned quite bit…) It’s a little like having a temporary sense of my dog’s sense of hearing, where she tracks every novel sound (dog walks by outside, a bell sound on the TV…) and keeps looking at me for assurance. What was that? Did you hear that? As I track the sounds, fixing one thing becomes adjusting three things. 

Fixing and adjusting leads me to the second step of pursuing synergy, which is trying out solutions. I think about Sudnow’s idea that good notes are everywhere at hand as I look at the numerous effects Sends channels I’ve set up for the piece. For example, there’s one channel with a reverb on it. The reverb is there to provide a sense of space to some of the track’s melodic parts, creating a space in which they can float around. A delay effect on another Send does something similar, creating a space in which a sound can bounce and bobble. These and other (conventional) effects are my good notes right beneath the fingers, and there’s no rulebook as to how they should be used. Moderation is good, but so are moments are extremeness. So: I wouldn’t normally have reverb on say, a drum sound, because drum sounds have hard attacks that trigger resonant craziness in the reverb which then covers the percussion. But once in a while a single drum hit put through the reverb can sound interesting, even necessary. I discovered this by accident, when I brought up the level of what I thought was another effect and then realized that the reverb was interesting. Another example of trying trying out solutions is EQ. Normally EQ is a corrective tool used to fix imbalances in the mix (often in subtractive, rather than additive ways). But it can be used to do other things. I’ve used it to remove resonance from an instrument so that a bass line say, becomes ghostly without any weight to it. In sum, the lessons in noticing and trying things out in music production are endless, but they pivot on the fact that when you pay attention you have everything you need everywhere at hand.   

Less And More Music Production Heuristics


Less predictable.
More unusual.

Less smooth.
More textured.

Less even.
More jagged.

Less new.
More weathered.*

Less obvious.
More nuanced.

Less automated.
More considered.

Less quantized.
More error.

Less looped.
More change over time.

Less rushed.
More taking its time.

Less prefab.
More customized.

Less trying to impress.
More trying to explore.

Less boring.
More interesting.

Less doing it the right way.
More doing it every and any way.

Less relating to what you’ve already done.
More imagining what you might do yet.

Less hoping it will soon be finished.
More fixing what is not yet right. 

Less you.
More the echoes of your doing.

 (*Optional reading: Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi.)

Notes On Less Is More 


“…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.