Resonant Thoughts: Stefan Goldmann’s “Presets” (2015)



“I think sidechaining is a perfect mirror image of what’s going on in society right now. It’s an analogy to a society of market criers. A struggle for survival of sounds…

[Sidechaining] introduces a new elements into music because it’s a very efficient way of eliminating the need to arrange elements to interact meaningfully. Just press them down. Sound design once freed you from thinking about harmonic relations, now sidechaining further frees you from arranging elements spectrally. Instead, a hierarchy is established in which the kick drum is God. Then there’s the snare and the bass, and anything else may breathe only if these three rest. You’re listening to a permanent struggle of characters pushed under water that desperately try to draw a breath. King snare then bangs everything away every time. Such treatments of sound are way more influential for where music goes than any new form of synthesis. This kind of sidechaining was theoretically possible sixty years ago. And it’s interesting that it became prevalent only now.”

– Mike Daliot in Stefan Goldmann, Presets–Digital Shortcuts to Sound (2015), pp. 90-91.

Trompe-L’Oreille: Notes On An Enchanting Mix


Hieronymus Bosch, The Conjurer (c. 1496 and 1525).

An enchanting mix is a sleight of the producer’s hand–a kind of conjuring trick–insofar that it creates the impression that you’re hearing more than you’re hearing, or that somehow the music extends beyond what you’re able to hear—as if it’s fooling your ears. But by what means does a mix sound enchanting, and what can the producer do to move a mix towards an enchanted state?

In his 1992 article “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology”, anthropologist Alfred Gell explains how the power of art derives from the magic the artist has managed, somehow, to exert or compress within the work in the form of symbolic processes which in turn provoke a strong reaction in us. “The peculiar power of works of art” says Gell, “resides in the symbolic processes they provoke in the beholder, and these have sui generis characteristics which are independent of the objects themselves” (48). Gell uses the example of John F. Peto’s 1894 painting, “Old Time Letter Rack” to illustrate the conversion process he’s talking about. For Gell, the “magic exerted over the beholder by this picture is a reflection of the magic which is exerted inside the picture, the technical miracle which achieves the transubstantiation” (49). Here is Peto’s painting:


I learned that “Old Time Letter Rack” is an example of a trompe-l’oeil (“fool the eye”) painting, a style that uses realistic imagery to create an optical illusion that what is depicted exists not in two, but three dimensions. The style has existed since antiquity, where it was first used in murals in Greek and Roman times. The concept was applied to ceiling paintings in 16th Jesuit century churches, flourished in the work of 17th century Dutch painters, and later, among Spanish and American artists. The (excellently titled) 1874 painting, “Escaping Criticism”, by Pere Borrell del Caso, is a vivid example of a trompe-l’oeil whose subject matter literally jumps out at you:


I’ve been thinking about Gell’s work and also the concept of trompe-l’oeil as they pertain to music production, and specifically, mixing music. Although I’ve mixed my own music for years, I’ve only recently dived deeper into its complexities and realized how difficult it is. What makes mixing difficult is that not only the puzzle-like aspect of balancing many different sounds and making each of them appropriately audible, but also creating a sense of what Gell calls “the magic which is exerted” so that the music appears to move beyond the recording’s frame.  

Conventional wisdom on mixing is helpful here. It advises the producer to think of music in not one, but four dimensions. The first dimension is the left to right, stereo field. (Yes, there is surround sound, but let’s stay in stereo.) Sounds can be placed anywhere along this field, from the far left to the far right, or anywhere in between. Sounds can also move around. While you might keep a snare drum or lead vocal in the middle of the field, other percussion or background voices can move around the sides, for example. The second dimension of the mix is its top to bottom frequency spectrum. High frequency sounds like cymbals we hear as located high up or on top of the mix. Low frequency sounds like kick drum and sub bass we hear as located down below. And mid range sounds like marimba or guitar sit somewhere in the middle. Each of these sound types with their different frequency ranges occupy a different stratum of the mix’s overall frequency spectrum. The third dimension of a mix is its front to back aspect. Sounds that have sharp attacks and crisp timbres generally sound in closer proximity to the listener than sounds with slow attacks and mellower timbres, which sound further away. Adding reverb to a sound can also make it sound further away, while reverb-free dry sounds sound up close and personal. The final dimension of a mix is its sense of motion over time. Any sound can move about the stereo field, any sound can move (to some degree) about the frequency spectrum, and any sound can move from a far back depth to an up close one, and vice versa. These movements imbue the mix with a sense of 4D motion, independent from whatever rhythmic motion is already happening through beats, interaction of parts, pulsations of effects, and so on. That’s a lot of moving parts!

One of the essential tasks of the electronic music producer is to devise ways to put this conventional mixing wisdom into action with the goal of making the music more enchanting, so that you hear and feel things that aren’t obviously audible, and come away with an impression that seems more than the sum of its parts. Think of it as a trompe l’oreille, or ear-fooling. While there are no formulae for how to arrive at this enchantment, I have found a few concepts popping up in my own work as I pursue the edges of perceptual magic:

Think about contrast. Bright sounds let you hear the dull sounds, low sounds let you hear the high ones, full textures let you hear the sparse ones, slow lets you hear fast, and so on. There’s probably a famous proverb about this, I just can’t think of one at the moment. 

Think about compensations. When one part comes up, something else should come down, or else everything will be coming up and competing with everything else for your attention, creating that situation once described by Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, who asked on behalf of all of us: “Can I have everything louder than everything else?” Even if it’s just for a brief passing moment done in a subtle way, have one musical thing foregrounded at a time. 

Think about musical lines. Each part can have its own arc over the piece—a journey it goes on that is its own. Even if the listener doesn’t consciously notice this line, perhaps it’s felt nevertheless? Who knows, maybe a good part of musical perception is our not fully conscious perceiving of such details.

Think about continuity and surprise. The way to make the music un-boring is through change, disruption, and surprise. Please don’t be boring. 

Think about efficiency. What is the least I can do in the mix to make the maximum emotional impact?

Think about accumulations. Trust that individual mix changes made over time will accumulate as layers and thereby have a composite power based on this layering.  

Curating The Week: Being A Polymath, The Senses, A Roadtrip


An essay about being a polymath.

“The real master has no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is to hand. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater your resources for improvisation.”

A discussion about the human senses.

“It’s always the combination of many experiences that are producing the experience of consciousness that you’re having at any time.”

An animated video short about a road trip.


Wont’s And Wills: Notes On Composing


You will have to chose right now, right this very moment. 

You won’t go back.

You won’t judge it positively or negatively.

You won’t wonder, What if I had done something else?

You won’t worry how it relates to anything.

You won’t worry that it sounds too simple or too complicated.

You won’t speculate on how it will be received or ignored.

You will forget that you have a taste of preference for anything at all.

You will try to connect this moment to what you remember from the one just past,
but you will get it only partly right.

You will try to make something grand, but miss.

You won’t worry about missing what you intended to do.

You will do something and then move on.

A Banjo And An Accordion (And A Gorilla) Meet In A Mix


Mixing, very roughly described by someone far from having expertise in the matter, is the process of balancing the levels and shapes of the sounds in your mix so that together they create a cohesive and living whole. On the face of it, it doesn’t seem all that complicated: if a part is too soft, turn it up; if a part is too loud, turn it down. If you have just two sounds in your mix—say a banjo and an accordion—mixing the two sounds together could be straightforward considering that these instruments are different from one another (one has a plucky and brittle tone, while the other has a sustained and nasal tone) and their sounds have room to get along since there aren’t any other similar timbres in the mix. By the way, I would love to hear some music for banjo and accordion.

But even with just a banjo and an accordion, you might have to shape their sounds a bit to get them to get along just so. Maybe the banjo needs to be brighter to find an audible place against the droning accordion chords, or maybe the accordion needs to be warmed up to better support the banjo’s delicate plucks. All of a sudden, even a two-sound mix becomes complicated in terms of how you want it to play out over time: 

Do you want the instruments to be the same size, sonically-speaking,
or will you exaggerate one or the other for contrast? 

Are both instruments panned in the center, or off on different sides?
Or do do they move from here to there over the time of the music? 

Are there solos or featured sections when one instrument needs to jump out a bit more
while the other plays a supporting role? 

Or maybe there are almost-hidden details in the timbres of each instrument
 that you want to foreground for special effect or the mood that only they can convey?   

Adding to the difficulty of creating a cohesive and living mix is the challenge of hearing your music analytically, not just emotionally. Specifically, mixing well is difficult because it requires you to 

hear what is actually sounding and can be heard
rather than what you hope is sounding and can be heard

To return to the banjo and the accordion, say you’re listening to a section where the banjo takes a plucky solo and the accordion plays some enchanting chords underneath. It’s precisely because it’s a great moment in the music that highlights the call and response between the two sounds that you could fail to hear a problem with the mix. Maybe the accordion’s sound gets thin in the higher register, maybe the fast banjo runs need a little boost to keep them articulate, or maybe the dynamics of one musician get out of control. (The banjoist was really rippin’.) Mixing demands keeping a level head—and level dynamic levels—in the midst of whatever musical enchantment may be pulling at your attention so you can attend to imbalances. Perhaps it’s analogous to the focus required in the famous Invisible Gorilla psychology experiment. The experiment plays a video of two teams and the viewer is asked to count the number of times one team passes a basketball around. At one point in the video, someone in a gorilla suit walks into the frame and then leaves. The experiment measures our selective attention—known as inattentional blindness—by testing whether or not we notice the gorilla while we’re busy counting the team passes. Mixing music can be just like this: despite all the musical passing going on, we need to notice the presence of possible gorillas in the mix.    

Resonant Thoughts: Rory Sutherland’s “Alchemy” (2019)



The opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea.

Don’t design for average.

It doesn’t pay to be logical if everyone else is being logical.

The nature of our attention affects the nature of our experience.

A flower is simply a weed with an advertising budget. 

The problem with logic is that it kills off magic. 

A good guess which stands up to observation is still science. So is a lucky accident. 

Test counterintuitive things only because no one else will. 

Solving problems using rationality is like playing golf with only one club. 

Dare to be trivial. 

If there were a logical answer, we would have found it.