Song Structures Versus Sound Sculptures

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One key to electronic music production is learning to devise ways to expand what you happen to have right now into something something you can’t yet hear. What you have right now might be a rhythm, a bass line, a sequence of chords, a burst of noise, a loop, or ten minutes of field recordings awaiting some closer listening and editing. Online tutorials on music production often focus on how to expand these sonic materials into a finished track, as if the aim of production is to rationalize abstract ideas by pressure cooking them into verse, chorus, and bridge, harmonizing them into tonality, and quantizing them into a clean beat subdivisions. It’s as if a notion of a predictable, 4/4 song—albeit with interesting sound design and dramatic bass “drops” for maximum impact—always lurks in the background as a default end-goal for one’s sound design/songwriting/track-making. But for me, “making a track” puts serious constraints on how I imagine the music could be. Can’t our making be the by-product of freeform exploring?

   

As someone with high tolerance for apparent boredom, I often work with material that bores me until suddenly it doesn’t, because it somehow now sounds interesting. I might begin by playing chords—always, always playing—until I hear something unusual. Sometimes it works to just play for a long time and record a super long sequence—never, never a 4-bar loop—that captures some unusual moments. The other day it happened that the super long sequence, which I recorded without a click—the time is always more interesting without a click—lined up in interesting ways once I put the click back in. (Oh—that upbeat is actually a downbeat!) I nudged one or two notes forward and back, but otherwise left the sequence exactly as I had played it. I have been recording like this for a few years, and now I know the reason why: it’s compelling to listen to. The 4-bar loop I can always figure out, and so can you, and we can do better. The 73.5 bar sequence? You’ll lose interest in counting it out. When a sequence is that long, the notion of looping itself is changed, and the idea of a predictable 4/4 track slinks away, realizing it has no business being here. (Note: I said I have high tolerance for apparent boredom.)

Another way I work is to begin with extremely limited and often very obvious-sounding materials, like a single chord or a two-note rhythm played on a bit of white noise (actually, it was the sound of the wind hitting a bus stop sign). When I work with limited materials, there is hardly any improvisation involved—only enough to record a single idea. Then the process is to fiddle with it until, hopefully, the idea becomes as interesting as a 73.5 bar chord sequence. The other day I put the white noise rhythm through delay effects. I hadn’t ever explored this one particular delay (I have a few), so this was my chance. I looped the white noise rhythm and started fiddling. The rhythm began multiplying, bouncing around the stereo field, becoming polyrhythmic (which is always interesting), layered, and textured. There were dubby sounds and glitchy sounds, metallic shimmers, tape echoes, and alien bends. I made adjustments, like moving the “Wet/Dry” knob up and down to alter the balance between the original signal and the effected signal, and listened. I kept at it—trying out settings, listening, adjusting, listening some more, and saving what I liked so I could return to it one day. There was so much that I liked! The two-note rhythm had become a continuous flow, and now the notion of the predictable 4/4 track had left the building for good. 

 

Through these kinds of experiences I think less about song structures and more about sound sculptures; less about verse-chorus-bridge and more about velocity-contours-bandwidth.

Music production wizards manage to bring these different goals together and have ways of transforming an anything into a something. This reminds me of a YouTube compilation video that shows Skrillex making music on his laptop. Near the end he casually notes that with a few simple tweaks, any sound can become any other sound, and how, in fact, he once even made an entire track from the sound of his voice: “You can make anything out of anything. You can make a whole song out of your voice. I’ve done it before. It wasn’t the best song, but you can do it” (9:33).

Whether you think in terms of writing songs or sculpting sounds, figure out ways of being inventive with what you happen to have right now to expand it into something you can’t yet hear. With the computer, every musician is an experimentalist.    

Resonant Thoughts: Nick Foster and Simone Rebaudengo’s “On Distortion” (2020)

“A symptom of electronic failure became the defining audio landscape for generations, the ‘bug’ became a ‘feature’ and distortion settings are now commonplace on every available guitar amplifier. The initial aim of amplification technology was to generate an accurate reproduction of an acoustic guitar sound, only louder. In reality the technology morphed and altered the input to create new, previously unheard sounds which captured the imagination of musicians and fans (…)

The intervention of technology into the creative arts typically delivers new aesthetics, as individuals push and pull at its edges and play with its shortcomings. The explosion of creativity brought about by the birth of photography was led in part by exploring the ‘errors’ in capture and processing. Likewise the synthesizers and drum machines of the 70’s and 80’s, (which did a pretty poor job of recreating ‘real’ sounds), birthed everything from disco to Miami booty bass (…)

We should enjoy the distortion that comes from an under-trained model, just as we do from an overdriven guitar.

– Nick Foster and Simone Rebaudengo, “On Distortion” (2020)