A Tenuous Grip: Notes On Finding Sounds, Listening, The Arbitrary, And The Infinite

I’ve become faster navigating around the DAW—finding sounds, recording and adding parts, creating effects chains, and working with automation. But slower to develop is my sense of what a track needs. This sense depends on two skills. The first is discerning how the music—its structure, parts, and textures—might be made more affecting and enchanting. My judgment is only as good as my listening, and when I listen I often miss stuff. This leads me to add say, a sound when the music doesn’t need it, or declare the music done when in fact it can use micro-finessing. A second skill that the music depends on is my understanding of the sounds I have at hand. I have a lot of sounds available, and there are always new ones around the corner, or ones I could build right now. For example, I work with the piano a lot, because it’s a go-to writing tool. I do like the piano’s sound, but there are infinite ways to alter it so that it (1) becomes a non-piano and (2) suits the  music better. To tame the infinite, I might randomly try out the first effect (or effects chain) that comes to mind and listen to how it affects the piano. While a decision may feel arbitrary—What about trying this delay mixed with this EQ?—in general it never hurts to explore the arbitrary to see what happens. When something interesting comes from it (which often does), I make a point to save whatever device I’ve made. So if it was a delay mixed with an EQ, I might call it brett delay + EQ 1. While I won’t remember the settings of this effects rack and while it may never be useful again, the simple act of having saved it captures that moment when I went with the arbitrary and tried to make something useful. 

Another point about my grasp of the sounds I have at hand is that this grasp is perpetually tenuous. I work by drawing on hundreds of sounds that I’ve made, and also thousands of sounds I have yet to get to know well. I want to get to know them, but I’m not sure that will ever happen. This brings us to the crux of the matter for anyone who produces music with a computer: 

have a level of familiarity with one’s tools to zig and zag here and there quickly to find sounds in the passing moments of composing so that you don’t slow your flow. 

I can’t say I’m good at that, maybe because I don’t know my tools well enough, and also because I want to move so fast that any search beyond a few moments is enough for me to settle on a trusted piano sound. This isn’t necessarily bad. A conventional sound can be a placeholder sound (I term I first heard from Jon Hopkins, as I discuss in my book) that is eventually either replaced with another sound or altered in some way to sound different. 

A final reason I’m not great at finding sounds is that I constantly make new ones. This might be a bad idea: Maybe I should stick to a limited palette? But the strategy has the benefit of creating situations that resist mastery. My sounds are scattered all over (in the DAW, and in third party plug ins), my memory of which sound is where is tenuous, my naming methods too vague (e.g. “brett pad 132”), and most of all, the possibilities for arbitrary juxtapositions of the sounds I encounter feels infinite. In other words, I’m not fully in control of the work, instead always seeking but not quite finding, aiming for one sound, but then reacting to another more interesting or surprising one. I have my creative habits, but the system I’ve set up keeps disrupting them: Oh this sounds better, why don’t I use that? 

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