On Timers And Timeline Finessing


I wanted to set up a timer on my desk. I would be one of those LED displays—preferably with large blue numbers—that I could place off to the side so that with a glance I’d know how long I had been working. I didn’t have a such a timer, so I settled for my phone instead, going to the Timer app and hitting Go. (Then I sat there holding my phone sideways hoping the digits would become larger, but…no.) 

Usually when I work I lose track of time, and I take this as a good thing because it suggests that I get lost in what I’m doing on a consistent basis. I take a break only when I come to a fork in the production road—say I’ve just hit Save after doing a few substantial things—and realize that I’ve been messing around for a while and now is a good time to get up. But there are also days when working on a track is not an attractive proposition. When this happens, I put off the work until later in the day when time feels more pressing and thus there’s a sense of urgency about getting going. (Also, music can sound different in the late afternoon or evening than it does bright and early in the day.) Another strategy for working despite myself is setting a timer and getting going.

I hit Go on the Timer app and turn to the screen. Well, ok, I’ll just hit Play and start listening. This is a foolproof way to begin: listen to what you have. As the music plays I notice whatever I notice. Sometimes I’m surprised by how a part or a texture has coalesced since I last heard it: ohh, nice bass sound, nice fade in. But I’m not here to enjoy myself, I’m here to make the production better, more articulate, more expressive, more enchanting, more like something someone like me would make or even better, could not have made. In general, the goal is to make the music more interesting so that next time I hear it I want to hear it yet again. You may be surprised to know that this last goal—making something you might want to hear again and again—is attainable, sort of: I’ve heard sections that I put on loop just to enjoy them more. But I haven’t done that with an entire piece. Maybe it takes time for a track’s energy to ramp up and draw you in? Maybe the track doesn’t work as a whole? Or maybe my listening is overly good bit-oriented?

Within a few moments of listening to the track I notice things that could be improved. Some of these things are fixable small details, usually related to dynamic levels and why can’t I hear that part more? or why is that part still so loud? Once I notice something off I make that the moment’s focus. For example, recently I noticed how three melodic timeline parts in a track were beginning to coalesce, but they needed help. The last time I worked on the track I had finessed one of the parts, shifting around some of its pitches so that the repetition of its rhythm had a new melodic goal. As I re-listened to the part alongside the other two timelines, it was clear that the other timelines now sounded dull by comparison: I heard them, but I didn’t care about them. They needed some pitch shifts like those in the first timeline, and these shifts would depend on what that first timeline was doing. So I moved things around, using the sample editor’s pitch function and moving bits by semitones. The short-term goal was to make the parts sound like they were talking with one another. Sometimes a pitch altered to a higher or lower note would sound unexpectedly louder or softer, which led me to another round of volume adjustments. This finessing was for a mere 45-second section. Afterwards I made note—in a paper notebook—to consider similar adjustments in the other pieces, if need be. 

I glanced at the Timer app on my phone to see that 29 minutes had gone by. Then I realized the real reason I was using the timer. It wasn’t so much for motivation. It was to remind me that my constant play-tinkering—oh that’s not right, it should be more like this—stretched out over hours, days, weeks, and months is the work itself. Using a Timer shows how even when it doesn’t feel like one is doing much, time is being spent, timelines are being finessed, and the tracks are developing in increments, one second at a time. 

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