Notes On Music Production In Quarantine

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Recently, with more time at home, I’ve been thinking through and working on different ways of making music. My usual approach is to improvise my way into something interesting. This always involves playing the keyboard, using a sound that I believe in, and trying to figure out some kind of structure and flow for that sound in a single take. What I like about the single take approach is that it creates some anxiety regarding whether or not I can pull something off, right here and now. Some of these takes are flubs, of course, but the better ones have just the kind of unusual structure and flow that I enjoy listening to, because I can’t quite piece together how they were made. The prospect of flubbing a take is important, because it pushes me to get out of my comfort zone, try new things on the fly, and make a game within a game. The game is: How many new phrases and hand shapes can I try before I make an obvious (but fixable) error that ruins the take? A few times I improvised a few minutes into something promising, then decided to abruptly end it there—this chord doesn’t need to resolve!—lest I ruin what had been working up to that point. The lesson I take from this is quit before you realize what you’re doing.

In addition to my single take way of working, I’m trying other approaches. One is to use software effects in a similarly improvised way. Where I once automated the level of an effect by carefully drawing it in, I’m playing the effect in by writing its automation or controlling it with a knob at the same time the music plays—in other words, improvising along to my improvisation. This has freed me from trying too many options before committing to a single sound: as soon as an effect sounds good, I ditch all other options and start improvising. This reminds of me something Prince once said about how he uses drum machines, guitar pedals, and synthesizers. (Note: I have an article on Prince coming out later this year.) Prince worked by feel, tinkering with his equipment to explore what it could do:

“I don’t ever read manuals…I don’t want to have a preconception about what a piece of gear should or shouldn’t do. I just start using it. I start pushing buttons, and I discover the sounds that I can make with it” (Duane Tudahl, Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions, p. 239).

Another approach I’ve adopted is separating sound designing and sound gathering from composing, improvising, recording, and arranging. I’ve been combing through my software to find old and new starting points for sounds that I might like to work with. Sometimes, when I’m tweaking a sound or creating one from stratch, I’ll get an idea for what I might do with it, play a few notes (using the keys on the laptop), and record it. When this happens, I revert to my usual method of trying to make as finished a take as I can handle in one pass (“playing” the tiny A through L keys on my laptop be damned). But most of the time, separating sound design from “proper” composing gives me a newfound sense that I’m finally getting to know the core of my musical system. This system is more than a set of sounds; it’s also a set of effects and ways to combine, connect, and route everything together. Each of my effects has thousands of possible permutations that can enchant my sounds in millions of ways. So I slowly comb through it all, trying out what stands out, noticing interestingness, saving the best bits, and giving these bits a name. In a way, all of this falls under making music as I uncover delights hidden in menus, latent in knobs and faders, drawn in waveforms, and compressed into presets that might someday become music.

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