interesting – holding or catching your attention;
from Latin interesse ‘differ, be important’
A surprising percentage of my production tinkering involves trying to get a part to sound more interesting. Recently I was adjusting piece no. 6, which had never been among my favorite tracks, but I had committed to making it better by increments. The track was coming along, but didn’t become compelling music that I looked forward to returning to until I made some changes to the bass near the end of the piece.
Because of the repetitious listening involved in music production, you get to know the parts of your tracks to a degree that you hear them even when you’re away from the mix. But remember: this familiarity doesn’t mean the parts are forever fixed (yet). It often happens that as you listen to a track you hear a part doing something familiar, yet wish it were doing something (or the same thing) different. As I was listening to no. 6, I wanted the bass to do more than it was doing. The part was providing a foundation for track by hitting low tonic notes every few beats. The problem was that the bass wasn’t going anywhere, and as I listened I wished it were.
I tried out alternate pitches for the bass, changing some of the notes so that now the bass it had its own motion, and even better, now created some new harmonies in combination with the other pitched parts. Some of the new bass pitches were lower and some higher, each of which required additional volume boosts and cuts so that the notes sounded in line dynamics-wise with the rest of the music. Overall, this after-the-fact playing-with-a-part’s-pitches-to-create-new-harmonies is one of my favorite techniques, simply because it achieves sounds I would never have arrived at when I recorded the initial part.
My alterations to the no. 6 bass part got me thinking about what else I could do to help the track. I turned my attention next to the timeline, which is a pitched, harp-like-but-not- harp sound that pings in a fixed rhythm through sections of the track. When I recorded the part, I liked its steady rhythm or groove—it was like a bell that linked the other parts together. But now, encouraged by what I did with the bass, I wanted the timeline to do more. I wanted the part to telegraph a sense of musical line and to have more presence.
Speaking of presence: one audible fact of some electronic dance music is that a majority of its elements sound as if on sequenced auto-pilot, serving groove ends at the expense of other musical qualities. Perhaps the problem is not the use of digital tools or DAW sequencing per se, but rather the producer’s lack of attention to altering the details within patterns to keep them interesting. That four-on-the-floor kick drum can be programmed in a minute, but it may take significantly more time to transform it into a compelling musical line of its own.
So I changed the pitch of a few notes of the timeline, listening now to the altered bass part below for hints on how to proceed (contrary motion always works well). It was a start, and soon the timeline sounded more supple.
After I made small alterations to no. 6’s bass and timeline parts I pondered a foolproof music production hack:
make it more interesting.
The reason no. 6 hadn’t been among my favorites is that it lacked interest and failed to hold my attention. The track didn’t have enough differ, be important moments among its parts to compel me. Changing bits of the bass and timeline parts helped, and also sparked ideas for more elaborate musical transformations which I’ll keep trying to implement until the track sounds like it has everything it needs.
Coda: I think about musical interestingness as I listen to other musics too. In pop/hip hop I sometimes hear interesting sound design (e.g. a synth pad), but alas, the instrumental tracks are designed to be insistently catchy, rather than interesting. In some experimental electronic music I hear interestingness that flirts with being difficult and/or hard to interpret—as if to be interesting one needs to be difficult. Blanketing sounds in noise and distortion, for example, is interesting to a point, beyond which it’s difficult to interpret because the signal to noise ratio is literally out of balance. Another frame for thinking about musical interestingness is TV ads, which overlay visual narratives onto (often familiar) music to heighten the narratives’ emotional impact. We hear 80s pop in an investment ad, jazz in a hotel ad, country music in a truck ad, and hip hop recast as comedy in a soda ad. I often have the feeling that musical interestingness is rarely for its own enchanting sake, but instead subservient to being catchy, being difficult, or selling a feeling.
“One of the most powerful ways to influence the behavior of a system is through its purpose or goal. That’s because the goal is the direction-setter of the system, the definer of discrepancies that require action, the indicator of compliance, failure, or success toward which balancing feedback loops work. If the goal is defined badly, if it doesn’t measure what it’s supposed to measure, if it doesn’t reflect the real welfare of the system, then the system can’t possibly produce a desirable result. Systems, like the three wishes in the traditional fairy tale, have a terrible tendency to produce exactly and only what you ask them to produce. Be careful what you ask them to produce.”
“Be especially careful not to confuse effort with result or you will end up with a system that is producing effort, not result.”
In addition to writing blog posts, I also write notes to myself about music making. These notes are free of narrative and big picture theorizing, focusing instead on the nuts and bolts of what I did, why I did it, and how it worked out. Some notes do eventually become blog posts, but most of them just go in a file to remind me of what I’ve done…and the fact that I’m actually doing something. Here’s a note from a recent session:
“I had a bit of a breakthrough with 11. As I listened I noticed that the cs80 part wasn’t loud enough, so I spent the entire time boosting its volume. By now, I know each of the parts fairly well, and so although I could hear the cs80 pad fine, I was mentally filling in missing details. The part’s lines weren’t actually clear until I raised the volume—sometimes substantially. This is an effective way to work: focus on adjusting one sound at a time through the entire track, as you listen to it in context of everything else. I chose the cs80 not because it’s the most important sound (it isn’t) but because it was the first sound in the mix to jump out at me as being wrong. I spent last week doing something similar with the marimbas: adding slight amounts of presence here and there to boost their audibility (without changing their volume).
Listening to the cs80 part in relation to everything else, I made sure I could hear it well whenever it entered and was important to hear—especially at the outset of its phrases (unless I wanted it to sneak in, which I did, once in a while). Sometimes, when the part wasn’t playing, it’s noise tail (created by distortions) kept going, so I re-shaped those tails some more too. You want to hear the tails because they’re interesting and unstable timbres, but they shouldn’t wash over other important parts. This is exactly what was happening at the beginning of the middle section, which is announced with a single high bell tone. After my first round of adjustments, the cs80’s noise tail was obliterating the bell so I had to go back and keep lowering the noise’s level until the bell was audible again.
The lesson? Push the levels of parts as far as you can for maximum audibility and clarity, but stop and dial it back a touch the moment the level begins interfering with something else in the mix. In a way, we keep returning to Ritchie Blackmore’s famous request—Can I have everything louder than everything else?—but compromise by making sure one part’s quest for loudness doesn’t prevent other parts from being heard too.”
Even though I’m always on the lookout for them, I don’t have any reliable methods for producing music beyond trying out a lot different things and going with those things that sound interesting. But even though I’m without methods, I have relied on a few fundamental principles to move my work along.
Principle No. 1
Begin by playing something and capturing it. This sounds simple and it is! Just improvise on an instrument—play a chord progression on the keyboard, or drum a beat for a bit. Trust that even a moment of your performance is more than enough to build on. The important thing is the act of Capture—capturing yourself playing something. In that playing are traces of ideas that aren’t yet fully formed or apparent to you. Think of your performance as the DNA for the music, containing in embryonic form the essence of what might happen later down the production line.
Principle No. 2
Develop something simple by making it more complex. I learned about this idea from electronic music producer Jlin. Now that you have a moment of your performance, build on that. You can build on it in time, by extending it horizontally, or you can build on it in sound, by adding other sounds and expanding it vertically. To extend your performance, you can copy it in whole or in part, so that a measure or two becomes ten or twenty. To build on your sound, you can effect it, blend other sounds in with it, or resample it to make a different-sounding copy. By using one or all of these techniques, all of a sudden what began as something simple becomes more complex. Things are getting exciting!
Principle No. 3
Notice, keep going, and keep noticing. Having played something and begun the process of making it more complex by building on it in time or in sound, the next step is to notice what you now have and keep going with that. As you develop complexities you will notice new sounds. For example, maybe you repeated a chord shard has now taken on a life of its own, or a series of layered effects have created an enchanting timbre or ambiance. Pay attention to whatever you’re now noticing, and turn your attention there.
Principle No. 4
Refine. Now that you have played something, developed complexities around and through it, and noticed some new sounds emerging, you can refine what you have. For example, I’m constantly adjusting volumes and EQs, the same way one adjusts seasonings while cooking. Generally speaking, the aim of refining your sounds is to make their essence more articulate. So for example, a clear bell sound can be made even clearer, while a fuzzy, low-fi drum sound can be even fuzzier. Refining your sounds means to make them more of what they already are, distilling them ever closer to their essence.
Principle No. 5
Reduce and arrange. At some point in the playing-complexifying-noticing-refining process that may have taken a few hours, a few weeks, or a few months, you can reduce what you have. For example, maybe one of your added complexities—say a resampled part—may sound best on its own, without the original performance that initiated it. You can reduce and arrange the music by foregrounding, backgrounding, or even muting parts, to better hear what you now want to hear.
Principle No. 6
Do I like this? Since you’ve been busy trying out different things that sound interesting, it’s worth taking a moment to re-assess your work so far. Asking the question Do I like this? once in a while recalibrates your ears from focusing on fine details back to the big picture. Maybe the music is done, maybe it still needs more work, maybe the opening is terrible, or maybe you’re done with it and will put it aside and move onto something else. Whatever you chose to do, you’ve moved the music along and learned something in the process.