From Fretting To Positioning To Encounter Interestingness


I used to fret about how I would begin a musical project. My way out of this quandary was to make recordings based on a single sound sample—a Tibetan singing bowl for Singing Bowl Music, Tibetan finger cymbals for Finger Cymbal Music, a Thai gong for Gong Music, crotales for Organ and Crotales Music, and kalimba and crotales for Music For Piano and Metals. On these recordings I derived all of the melodic (lead) and harmonic (pad) parts from one sound, which gave the production workflow a simplicity and clarity. I didn’t have to fret because I knew my sounds in advance. On another recording, Another Kind Of Wonder, I sampled bits of my own marimba and vibraphone playing from my 1997 percussion album, Wonders. On my most recent release, Plentitudes, I recorded myself playing marimba chords and used those chords as the basis for the tracks. For the most part, at no point in the process of making these recordings was I unsure which sounds to use, because I had decided on my sounds ahead of time. A downside to some (or all?) of this music though, is that it has a severely limited and homogenous timbral palette. In a way, the pieces were etudes. 

These days I begin a project with any sound that catches my attention in the moment because I can work fast once I realize what’s happening. Sometimes I begin by designing a sound from scratch (a process which isn’t all that fast), sometimes I encounter a sound preset in my software, and sometimes I work with a sound that I recorded at an earlier time and decide to rework it. Recently, I began a track with a sound I had saved a few months ago. The sound was so unusual—sounding like a cross between a hurdy-gurdy and a pitched bicycle wheel slowly spinning around—that I immediately began playing with it. As I was playing, I thought about how I had re-encountered the sound. Finding it seemed random or lucky, but actually wasn’t: I found it by searching for sounds inside the software using a very specific search keyword—“Brett”—which lead me to a few hundred sounds of my own. 

Ideally, I would have all of my previous work conveniently ready to go. (This is one of the useful things about having a public blog: you can search its archives on the internet when you want to revisit a topic you wrote about.) The idea of having one’s previous work ready to go leads us to a production principle: 

You want to put yourself into a position where you can encounter interesting sounds. 

For me, this involves advance planning where I go through sounds I already have and make adjustments to them so that they sound like something I might want to work with and then I save them. I do the same thing with effects and effects chains. Then I forget about the sounds and the effects until I encounter them—often “randomly”—during a later session. There are many other ways to position oneself to encounter interestingness. Buying new gear that keeps you on your toes is one way: what you notice first in an unfamiliar environment is often significant and productively strange. Starting a track with an unusual constraint, such as setting the meter to 6/4 instead of the usual 4/4, is another way to re-position yourself. Sometimes as I’m adjusting a sound, I’ll decide to make something with it on the spot. Many a sound design session have been aborted after a few minutes when I decide that it’s more fun to work on a piece—even a tiny piece—than to keep shaping the sound as an abstract exercise. Remember: always keep it fun. Also: new music is worth more than a sound.  

A final variable in all this is that, while I’m hoping to randomly re-encounter a sound I had made, my search is limited by what occurs to me to search for right now. In other words, I’m the X-factor. I’m surprised how many sounds I can’t remember ever having made—it’s difficult to keep them in mind. Putting oneself into a position to encounter interesting sounds then, is also about being open to random discoveries that arrive by whim within the context in which one is searching. I’m okay with that. In the end, one of the producer’s skills is a patience to outlast impatience: to keep trying different sounds until something sounds better than the rest.     

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