On Micro-Adjustments And The Game Of Amounts

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Electronic music production, said the producer Mr. Bill in one of his YouTube tutorials, is a game of amounts. It’s true. Bill was referring to the thousands of micro-adjustments one makes in the course of designing sounds, recording parts, arranging, and mixing a track of music. The process is simple but involved and very drawn out: electronic music production is a game of making micro-adjustments over time with the goal of getting the music sounding just so. 

How do you know when the music is sounding just so?
How do you know if that last adjustment you just made is the final one, or the first step in another round of adjustments? 

You trust your ear. You trust your sense of how what you’re doing compares to what you’ve heard others do. You trust your intuition that what you’re making is either boring or exciting, a rehashing of old gestures, or a sound that’s genuinely new (for now).  

Since micro-adjustments is the name of the game you need to get comfortable making them constantly over time, in the same way that you season and taste your food as you’re cooking it, always adjusting and manipulating the ratios of its various components. Adjusting is a gentle form of manipulation, a way to alter elements of the music slightly so these elements fit better with what is around them. For example, adjusting is leveling off a reverb tail so it doesn’t drown a sound, or EQing a drum sound so it’s less boxy. But each adjustment you make sets into motion a new set of relations among the parts. So when you bring down the level of the drums, everything else appears louder. Or when you brighten the noise layer of one sound, the other sounds sound dull by comparison. 

With adjustment-making, the computer’s screen is your friend. On the screen you see everything in front of you—the parts, the arrangement, the levels, the waveforms, and the effects routing. With the screen as your lens you can zoom in on whatever resolution of the music-in-progress you want to see, all the way down to the sounds’ waveforms. You can zoom in so tight that a waveform now fills the screen as you hone in on a split-second of a sound’s attack point onset. It’s as if you’ve changed the size differential between you and the music, making the music into a skyscraper as you fiddle around on its ground floor. Or you can zoom out the other way, making a ten-minute piece into a five-inch ribbon sequence, the better to see its structure from afar.

Seeing the music’s components on the screen also helps you hear them better. I often spend time listening repeatedly to a section, looking at its parts layered horizontally on top of one another, trying to hear what I see. When I can’t hear something I zoom in on it, using my eyes to test the acuity of my ears. I look at the volume curve and start adjusting it upwards while I listen. If the change isn’t clear enough I exaggerate it, dragging the line way up and listening to how that sounds instead. The optimal volume is probably somewhere in the middle, but sometimes dramatic changes, at least at the onset of a sound, lead listeners in a way they need. The software designer Steve Duda explains this approach to mixing:

“With events and with parts, I’m emphasizing them at their start then bringing them back to the same [dynamic] place…The listener wants to be guided through the song and be shown the highlights. It’s amazing what can be solved with just good levels.”

Sometimes the music’s representation on the screen can articulate its structure and provide you with ideas on how to elaborate on that. With hundreds of layers of adjustments already automated in the track’s arrangement, the producer begins to notice visual patterns that might cue new ideas. For example, one of the parts fades out right here, illustrated by the volume line that descends from left to right. But you notice that the waveform has information hidden by the fade, so you adjust it by making it ascend instead and this makes audible some new pulsations. Now, with the volume curve turned upwards instead of down and the new pulsations audible, you have the idea to mirror that visual design elsewhere in the other parts. This inspires you to create a series of crescendos that dramatically lead into upcoming chords. This is the kind of production idea that you might not have had at the outset, but by making micro-adjustments cued by what you noticed displayed on the screen you found new ways of phrasing the music. As Jenny Odell describes the nature of idea formation in her book How To Do Nothing: “Any idea is actually an unstable, shifting intersection between myself and whatever I was encountering.”        

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