There is a music software plug-in by XLN Audio called XO which displays all of your computer’s one shot audio samples visually as colored dots against a black space. Each dot represents a different sample, and each cluster of similarly colored dots represents a class of sounds grouped by timbre and pitch (e.g. deep-pitched kick drums, sharp snares, crisp hi hats, etc.). Clicking on a dot triggers a sound and also reveals a Similarity List of similar sounds that can be scrolled through. The idea behind the plug-in is to make it easier for a producer to locate sounds on a computer. It’s supposed to be especially useful to beat makers who like to quickly scroll through drum sounds to assemble just the right kit.
XO’s visual interface came to mind recently as I was thinking about the more general workflow question of how one goes about curating one’s own work. I imagined all of my tracks-in-progress (numbering in the hundreds) arrayed as dots against a black space, easy to access by clicking on them one at a time, and linked to one another through a Similarity List. I thought: seeing the music displayed like this would be helpful for remembering what I’ve done and how one piece relates to another.
This thought experiment reminded me that the labor of improvising, putting sounds together, editing, arranging, and mixing are only about one half of producing music. The other half is constantly curating your work—sifting through all the stuff you’ve done and figuring out if any of it has any value. Curation is tricky because it involves a number of interacting components. First, there are a few essential questions to answer:
What is good and what isn’t?
What do I like and what annoys me?
What feels finished and what needs work?
Second, curation requires urgency. What should I work on now as opposed to later? As a general, albeit breakable, rule, I do something new every day, with the goal being to make today’s project more interesting than yesterday’s. Since my preference is to work on new things, an older piece needs to have something special to earn a sense of urgency.
Third, curation is a process of remembering—a bulwark against forgetting what’s been done. Pieces are numbered, but that doesn’t tell me that No. 71 is mostly finished and interesting while No. 72 is the barest of sketches and still pretty useless. Or that of fifteen piano pieces, seven were weak, but eight have potential. Oftentimes there’s no way to remember the state of a piece until I open up an old file and listen and evaluate. Some of the pieces I revisit turn out to have been exercises or experiments that chronicled one process or another—as if I was trying to “get reps in” to solidify (and better remember) how to redo something that produced results. In other words, curation can be a process of remembering what you wanted to remember, but maybe didn’t know it at the time.
Fourth, curation is not an exact science, because the curator’s taste is changing too. Piece No. 71 might be mostly finished and interesting, but hold on—I don’t hear it today the same way as I did last June, for the simple fact that I learned something in the process of making it. Making the music helped me get a little closer to a sound, but at the same time chronicles my failure to do so—which now seems more obvious, but maybe wasn’t at the time.
This brings us to a final point, which is that we are not always the best curators of own work because we get in the way of the process. Curating is about selecting and chronicling a representation of a body of material to share with others, not censoring yourself to the point that you share nothing! Maybe the trick is to partially put aside our likes and dislikes when we’re curating so we can focus on the bigger picture of what is good enough and what makes sense to share.