“Piano first, generally. Though maybe a small rhythm element may be put in place to spark the harmonic gateway that the piano provides. Then starts the long process of embellishing it, or orchestrating it. I say orchestrating, as I like to think of the synth elements that I add as orchestrations.”
U-Ziq’s “Goodbye” (2022) is a marvelous track whose clearly discernible structure is part of the music’s power. (Which reminds me of Steve Reich’s quote in his Writings on Music about “a compositional process and a sounding music that are one and the same.”) The music proceeds in 8- and 16-bar blocks, with each block a different arrangement of parts. Each block is similar, yet crucially, each block is unique. Here is the arrangement structure:
breakbeat 8 bars
breakbeat, piano, and bass 16 bars
breakbeat, piano, bass, pad, and quiet breakbeat percussion 16 bars
vocals, quiet breakbeat percussion, pad, and bass 16 bars
“Balance is one of the most important cognitive concepts in sound production and perception. Musical movement is often conceived of as driven by sonic elements that continually balance and unbalance each other in different forms of tension-and-release patterns, and sound production is largely about balancing sounds relative to each other in order to achieve a well-balanced mix (or to deliberately create tension and imbalance as a creative effect)” (84).
“In music production, balancing sound is about finding the right amount of ‘ingredients’ (e.g., heavy sound, light sound, rough sound, and soft sound) to reach an ideal mix of elements in the sound container. It is also related to creating a harmonious arrangement and interaction between the elements (e.g., blending the elements properly with each other). Finally, equilibrium balance is connected to the creation of a balanced functional relation between the sound container and the content in such a way that sounds are contained and constrained in the mix with the right amount of control (e.g., controlling the dynamics with dynamic compression)” (85).
“Balance is a bodily activity that is not governed by a specific set of rules. It is often a felt sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in experience…Balance is a cognitive value that applies to every aspect of the evaluation of auditory experience…We may…point to three overall properties of balanced sound:
Spectral balance concerns the relative amount of bass and treble in a mix. In a well-balanced mix sounds are distributed across the frequency spectrum to give enough room for each sound. An excess of sound in one frequency band gives rise to spectral imbalance” (86-87).
“Stereo balance relates to the distribution of sounds on the lateral axis” (87).
“Dynamic balance…means adjusting the relative volume between individual tracks to reach a satisfying mix. If we think of the mix as an organism we can make sense of the act of balancing the dynamics in two ways: (1) it is about finding the right proportion between individual elements for the organism to function properly, and (2) it is about finding the right ‘amount’ of elements relative to the size of the sound container—if there is too much, then the recording is overloaded and distorts” (87).
Mads Walther-Hansen, Making Sense of Recordings: how cognitive processing of recorded sound works (2020)
Over the past few weeks I’ve been listening to Huerco S’s recording Plonk. The music finds many ways to hold a listener’s attention, and its sound-flow suggests someone playing with the artifacts of sounds, taking them apart, and arranging them into always new constellations. In other words, it’s not so much Huerco’s sounds that hold my attention but rather what the producer does with the sounds: the producer as kaleidoscope maker. Listening to a track such as “Plonk VI” reminds me that the most compelling sound is that of someone who has figured out novel things to do with a limited set of sounds.
This idea dovetails with how I’ve been working lately, which is to lean on sounds that are either generic (e.g. a piano sound, a pad sound) or roughly in the ballpark of the kind of sounds I like and then process those sounds to alter their timbre until they become unfamiliar and sounds I didn’t know I liked. Locating my starting point sounds and playing parts with them is merely a first step. The fun begins when I mangle these sounds into something Other, something I haven’t yet heard.
But one can go overboard with mangling sounds. An example of going overboard is drowning a sound in reverb. This tends to obfuscate the sound source while highlighting the artificiality of a reverb set to 100 percent. On the other hand, some effects work well when taken overboard. Distortion on max crushes a sound into a thousand pieces, which is sometimes interesting. Distortion obfuscates the sound, yes, but it also renders it into something quite Other. Low- and high-pass filters also work well set to max: a strongly low-passed sound is instantly mellow, while a strongly high-passed sound is impossibly brittle.
Just as mangling sounds is a second step after playing them, (re)arranging sounds is a third step after mangling them. By (re)arrangement I mean focusing on the positioning of those elements that make up a sound. To illustrate, consider that every sound has both an evident and a latent structure. A sound’s evident structure is its discernible shape that we can hear all at once: for example, this shape might be a four-chord sequence, or a looping beat with a syncopated kick and snare pattern. We can hear these sequences and patterns repeating in time—we can grasp the shape of their arrangement. But our chords or beat also have latent structures within themselves. A chord is made of three or four notes, each with its own vertical trajectory over the music’s horizontal time (as represented on Arrangement page of the DAW software), yet other to-be-explored harmonies are ready to bloom inside the chords. The looping beat has a phrase, yet other rhythms lie hidden inside smaller segments of it. We can hear those new harmonies and rhythms when we explore our chords and beats as kaleidoscopes of possibilities.
This is where play comes into the production equation. The four-chord sequence or looping beat may work as they are, but your adventure is to uncover the latent structures that exist beneath the evident ones. To get you started: the chords can be re-ordered or their notes swapped or inverted; the beat can be sliced into shorter segments to reveal syncopations within the syncopations, or stretched out to double its length playing at half its speed. There’s no one best or ideal way to approach these kinds of (re)arrangement. You try things out and see what sounds good and build upon that. Play with what you already have to try to make something you haven’t yet heard.