Pre-Emptive Shh: On The Power Of Muting

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“It’s what you don’t hear, more than what you hear, that makes something clear.
It’s the absence of junk.” – Steve Duda

In music production, I’m often busied with everything I can hear, rather than everything I can’t hear. I get carried away—in mostly productive ways—with the details of what’s sounding in the mix: 

Is that part clear?
Is that noise too loud?
Is that effect audible in just the right way? 

I make what feels like endless adjustments to the sounds in relation to one another, bringing this sound up and that one down, or that one up and keeping this one as is. I make these adjustments in cycles of adjustments over hours, days, and weeks, moving around the mixes in deliberate passes, but also sometimes jumping from one part to another, putting out sonic fires. Ever so slowly I’m bringing each of the hundreds of elements in each track into better alignment. As far as refining what can already be heard, this method works, as long as you have enough time to get the mix’s relations as close to ideal as you can tolerate.

The problem with this approach though, is that it proceeds from what’s sounding, rather than from what isn’t sounding. Put another way: sometimes you don’t know what you aren’t hearing until you begin muting most of what you are.

At this point in the production process, since I have ample material to work with, my task is not to expand on it anymore but rather compress it by making it do more of what it can with less of what it is.

Recently I was listening to a breakdown section in one of the pieces, busying myself with making some ever smaller adjustments to one of the bass parts: 

I’ll just up the level of the white noise on it to bring it out a bit…

The bass was sounding better, but something about the moment was becoming irritating—as if I had too much of a good thing, or I had lost track of what was important. The bass wasn’t the only sound in this section: there was also a drum part, some hi hat pulsations, a pad floating in and out, and the marimbas. Actually, there was quite a bit going on—and that was precisely the problem. I wanted the music to do more with less. And then, I had two thoughts:

How about I just mute the bass completely?
And also the drums?

I muted the parts and suddenly the section was more interesting—it was better in every possible way. 

I didn’t want to believe that the section sounded better with less, in part because of the sunk cost-induced feeling of having worked on something that I was now eliminating. So just to make sure, I listened a second time with the parts back in, then a third time with them out again. 

It’s unmistakably better without bass and drums.

I was re-learning muting’s timeless lesson: 

when you mute a part,
another formerly half-hidden part jumps to the foreground.

To my ears at least, the effect of this tiny adjustment on the music was immense. I wondered if there were places in all of the tracks where I have too much material, sections that could benefit from being pared down via muting, music production’s pre-emptive shh. Next week I’ll look for things to mute, compressing the music so it can do more of what it can with less of what it is. Then I wrote in my notebook, all caps:

MUTE PARTS

A Mix

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A mix talks with the music, asking it how it wants to be heard.

A mix dances with the music, leading it around the stereo dance floor.

A mix emphasizes the important sounds right now. 

A mix exaggerates, boosting tiny into huge,
compressing loud into soft.

A mix generates ambiance. 

A mix balances multiple sounds,
each becoming at its own speed—
 one sound quickly changing over here,
another slowly changing over there. 

A mix unifies and coheres contrasting timbres,
or stratifies and disentangles similar ones. 

A mix sharpens musical center points and edges.

A mix positions foreground and background. 

A mix distorts and blurs.

 A mix answers a question:

 How do we hear everything at once? 

Sound Feels

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Every sound has its own feel. This feel is primarily a function of the sound’s timbre, but it’s also shaped by the volume of the sound, and the energy of the person making it. 

Musical instruments are distinguished by their timbre profiles or what is sometimes called their “sound color” or “tone color.” Timbre is shaped by the material an instrument is made of, as well as how the instrument is played. It’s timbre that allows you to know in a second that it’s a flute you’re hearing, not a violin, a low piano tone and not a gentle roll on the timpani. 

In general, the timbres of different musical instruments have distinctive feels to them. The airy timbre of a (western) flute is quite gentle and transparent, while the high frequency clash of a pair of orchestral crash cymbals is quite aggressive and piercing. Similarly, in electronic music a sine tone wave is a mellow, emotionally empty, and one dimensional tone, while a saw tooth wave is more textured and edgy. By the way, here’s a sine wave:

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And here’s a saw tooth wave:

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The sonic profiles of various musical timbres—of which there are almost limitless variations—are further shaped by how loudly or forcefully the instruments played. To some degree, even the airy flute can become aggressive at louder dynamics, and in the right hands, a pair of cymbals played super soft can sound enchanting.

One of the mysteries of music in both live performance settings and in its recorded form is how it conveys the feel and energy of the musicians who make it. What is the source of a musician’s sound feel? Surely it involves technique as transmitted through physical touch, but are there also other, more elusive factors? And if there are such factors, does the musician have any control over them? Also, how are elements of technique and touch transmitted in electronic music making, where the musician’s gestures are at some remove (or disconnected) from the resultant sounds? 

As I produce music I think about sound feels all the time: I’m scrutinizing the sounds in my timbre palette (used consciously or unconsciously) and wondering how extending or reigning in those sounds might change how everything feels. Every session begins with the question, How does this feel? Music can feel a million different ways, and part of the producer’s skill set involves describing these feelings, at least provisionally, so that next production steps can be taken. When I hit play on a track in progress, I feel all kinds of things—

It feels dead.
It feels busy.
It feels dark.
It feels ecstatic.
It feels confused.
It feels like it has no chill.
(I have no chill—damn it. I really have no chill. None.)
It feels unrecognizable.
It feels hopeful.
It feels simple-headed. (It sucks.)
It feels alive.

Some of these feelings point towards simple fixes. For instance, when something feels too busy I can remove material. But in music as in life, feelings are also interconnected. So if I remove something that feels too busy, the music may feel less confused but unfortunately now too simple-headed as well. In other words, addressing one feeling can impact the feel of something else. Also, simple fixes is not necessarily always what you want. There are times when the music’s sense of hope might depend on some blend of busy, dark, and ecstatic. One doesn’t know these things until one tinkers to the point of making the music sound worse and only then realize how its various sound feels are linked. Undo button, undo! 

Things get interesting when you understand that there are many technical routes to altering the sound feel of the music. Sometimes I just sit in front of the screen and try out a processing move—linking this with that and then routing it through that—and find a solution to a sound feel problem. On several occasions I’ve experienced a split mind: I acknowledge the solution to a technical problem (e.g. this section was missing some bouncy high frequency stuff) while simultaneously getting carried away with the discovery of a new sound feel. This is so cool! I’ll save something as a preset to return to later, but I know that this moment was a one-off, accidental counterpoint encounter between deliberate action and random discovery. 

One of the puzzles that keeps me coming back to projects is a sense that I haven’t yet figured out how to work (as if there is a right way to work), I haven’t yet understood what the music wants to do (as if it has a mind of its own), and haven’t yet figured out the most elegantly simple way to proceed (as if working should be simple). Does this piece need ten more alterations or a hundred? It’s hard to say and I kinda wish it were just…done. (I need more chill.) 

But there’s hope: if you’re attuned to them, the music’s sound feels always offer clues to moving forward. The reason for this is that our feelings while listening to a mix are like a compass for getting our bearings within the music’s expressive world. In sum, the most important attribute of a sound is its feel.

Sound feels matter because making us feel is what music is designed to do. 

Secret Music

Most of the music I enjoy on a weekly basis I share on my Brett’s Sound Picks Spotify playlist. Since this music is new, only time will tell how it ages and whether it will be interesting to listen to a few years or more down the line. But once in a while a recording comes along that has proved its Lindy status—a music that defies its age, a music that still sounds good to me years after I first heard it, a music so in its own world and doing its own enchanting thing by its own idiosyncratic means that it sounds like a secret only you can hear.

Julien Neto’s 2005 recording Le Fumeur de Ciel (Touch Records) is an example of this. Neto is a moniker and his/her real identity is unknown—though I’ve heard that he/she might be a Paris-based musician. Le Fumeur can loosely be described as ambient downtempo electronic music, made up of long ethereal pads, bits of glitchy percussion, shards of vocal and instrument samples, and deep sub bass. In a way, the music is all atmosphere.

Of the many qualities I like about this recording, what is most striking is its overall intentionality which Neto achieves through quite minimal means. There’s never more than a few sounds happening at once, each sound is meticulously placed, voiced, and varied, and the tracks unfold precisely, yet as if in a dream. The chord progressions, the slow shifts of timbre, and the striking way each moment grows out of what preceded it makes the music feel like a ravenous vine ascending the building that is our attention.

Here is Track 6, “Voy”: