“I’ve found that quite a good trick is that if you feel like you’ve put too much reverb on something just add more.”
When I’m composing, I’m playing or drumming on a keyboard controller, but mostly I’m looking at a screen and inhabiting the virtual world of DAW software, listening, trying to finesse whatever sounds I have into something more compelling than what they already are. If the sound isn’t compelling, ambiguous, out of the ordinary, unusually different, or prompting some kind of real response, I keep trying things until one of those goals comes into focus. In other words, when nothing seems to be working, I haven’t yet found the thing that could work.
While I do design my own sounds using software synthesizers (such as Serum, Vital, and Hive), I often find that it’s the sound of the effects and signal processing that I apply to my sounds that’s the most interesting. In a computer-based recording environment—which is the default tool used by almost most everyone who produces music themselves—effects are a compelling point of focus because (1) there are so many of them and (2) they can be combined in so many ways. As a starting point, effects include modules for reverb, delay, distortion, EQ, and compression. But from there, they move outwards into more black box sound-mangling, granular, and plain strange territories. Effects add or foreground traces, echoes, mirages, ambiances, textures, harmonies, sub-tones, presence, and implied rhythms to sounds. One can overdo effects and swamp a sound source, or use them lightly so that they are felt as much as heard—that is to say, heard only at that point where they begin to be felt, but no more. In short, effects are negotiations with the fungibility of timbre and ultimately, all about affect.
The point where musical timbre and texture intersect reminds me of a book that I first encountered in graduate school, The Affecting Presence: an essay in humanistic anthropology (1971) by Robert Plant Armstrong. Drawing on examples from Yoruba and Javanese expressive culture (sculpture, music, and dance), Armstrong proposed that we understand artworks not merely as symbols or representations of social life, but rather as direct “presentations” of feeling and affect. As a musician, this stance aligned with my understanding of what music is as an experience (as opposed to what music is theoretically–as a “thing” to be transcribed, as a part of social life, etc.). Twenty-five years later, I find Armstrong’s phenomenology of art as an inherently affecting presence to be a useful frame for thinking about the use of effects in music production, whether they be simple distortions of instrument timbres, rampant auto-tuning on voices, or complex transformations of a mix. To sum up: if effects are affects, then an effect is only as useful as its affect is affecting.
Back to my (by no means original) practice. One of the ways I learn about effects is to use them in various combination chains. For instance, a simple combination might include a reverb or a delay, followed by a distortion unit, an EQ, and then compression. I save these four separate effects as a single chain called an “effects rack” that I can use on a conventional sound, such as a piano, to hear what happens. Since the rack is saved, I can also re-use it at a later time in another piece, on a different sound. Sometimes I place an effect or effects rack directly on a sound’s track, and other times put the effects on a Return track. This allows to me control how much of the effects processing is applied to several sounds simultaneously. For example, on a piece with keyboard, percussion, and voice tracks, each of the sounds can receive varying amounts of an effects chain from a single Return track. This leads to unforeseen, by-product timbres because each track’s sounds trigger the effects’ affect in different ways.
The takeaway from my use of effects is twofold. On the one hand, effects aren’t a complete substitute for musical structure and design. Yes, an effect that slowly changes or evolves over time (via automation) does create a kind of (often hypnotic) structure, but such changes have their limits. For me, listening to a slowly-opening filter on a synthesizer is often too predictable to be structurally interesting. On the other hand, effects are a producer’s magic wand, capable of morphing this sound into that one in a second, conjuring an enchanting affect out of the slimmest of materials and reminding us that the sonic profile of music is always fluid, a feeling in progress.