Without Methods, But With Principles

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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.

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