Resonant Thoughts: Anna-Karin Berglund (aka AKB) On Not Working In A Linear Way

“To not work in a linear way when making a track. It’s better to just start somewhere and explore from there, don’t try and write a song from start to finish, make it random. And also don’t be afraid to get theoretical when making music, especially electronic music. There is a lot to be found in classical theories for composing which can be inspirational, and also surprisingly fun.”

Anna-Karin Berglund

Mix Lessons: Relational Listening

Recently I was working on a mix for a piece of music with eight parts: percussion, piano, vibraphone, bass, pad, and voices. The piece has two percussion parts, the first comprising a kick-snare-clap-hi hat drum pattern, and the second a top loop part, which is a beat (extracted from another, earlier piece) consisting of mostly high frequencies. I was listening to the point in the piece where the top loop enters the mix, joining the main drum pattern, and was finding the loop a smidge too loud, so I turned it down. But, surprise surprise, now it was too soft, so I readjusted the volume by ever smaller increments to see if I could get the loop to blend just right with the drum pattern.

As I adjusted the volume and listened I noticed that I was listening to the two parts in a new way: I was listening relationally, weighing one against the other, listening to them together, listening to them as a composite, foregrounding them against all of the other parts in the piece as if I had put the percussion in an aural spotlight. In listening relationally I heard each sound within each percussion part interacting and interfering with the other sounds. I noticed that when two or more drum sounds are sounding simultaneously, calls and responses emerge between them. For example, the hi hat sound dovetails with part of top loop because they both share high frequencies, my ear drawn to their dialogue. While the respective volumes of these treble elements were about right, I heard other mix options to create contrast, such as making one sound darker by rolling off its high end. Here was a lesson to apply to all the sounds I could notice within the percussion patterns: make timbre adjustments so that each sound in each part is articulated without ever obfuscating any of the other parts.

What I’ve so far described is a part of mixing a piece of music so that each of its elements can be heard optimally, yet never exclusively. Listening relationally leads me to adjust volumes and timbres, but it also spurs me to make quick arrangement decisions. At several spots in the piece, I began muting percussion hits to reduce the number of simultaneous co-hits, where sounds from the two percussion patterns play at the same time. Thus, I muted kick drum hits on downbeats (the most conventional place to place them) and reduced an every off-beat cymbal to just once in a while. Muting hits opens up space in the composite drum part and changed once more how I hear the texture. Now, in addition to a call and response quality, the two percussion patterns have a more intentional feel: I can hear them trying to be mindful of one another’s sounds, interlocking in a synergetic way. In other words, the sequences sound more human–like real musicians listening to one another in the moment.

After this tinkering with the two percussion patterns for a while and assessing the results, I reintroduced the other six parts of the piece to hear how the percussion would interact with them. Now, with piano, vibraphone, bass, pad, and voices added in, another relational listening was necessary. The percussion talked well along themselves, but would they listen and respond to what  the other parts were saying? Some of these parts needed nudging, either volume-wise or timbre-wise. For example, the lower vibraphone notes disappeared while the highest ones stuck out like shrill bells, so I boosted and reduced here and there (by drawing in automation) so that notes never vanished or got annoying. The pad sound could be too wall-of-sound-ish, so I thinned out its lows and mids. The bass volume proved tricky, because in this piece I want to feel it more than hear it. But even as I finess the vibraphone, pad, and bass parts so that they are all co-present in the mix, the voices must be front and center. This means that their blemishes are always on display. Voices can go from being just the right level to a tad too soft or loud in an instant, and the effects on them can easily verge into cloying territory—are they in a small cathedral or a gigantic cave?—so I spend time micro-adjusting dynamic contours and effects levels so the voices seemed emphatic yet natural.

At some point I began listening to the entire piece to hear the mix of all my changes to the piece’s individual parts. Finally I could hear the relationships among the sounds. The spaces opened up by the muted percussion allows the piano to ring on the downbeats, the boosted vibraphone low tones brings out their harmonies with the piano, and pad is transparent enough to let the voices shine. Subjectively speaking, the mix is sounding more coherent and has more synergy, but it’s hard to know for sure. I keep listening relationally, alternating my attention among the two percussion parts, the vibraphone, the bass, piano, pad, and the voices. 

Can I hear what I need to hear when I need to hear it?
Are all the sounds cooperating? 

I’m on the inside of the music, hearing it as if standing among musicians playing around me in a virtual room. But when I share the finished piece, will others hear what I hear? 

Curating The Week: Musical Plagiarism, Sound Design, Ambient Music, Heresies

An article about plagiarism in popular music.

“There are only so many notes and very few chords used in pop music and coincidences are bound to happen if 60,000 songs are being released a day on Spotify, that is 22m songs a year, and there are only 12 notes that are available.” – Ed Sheeran 

A video about sound design in film music (quote at 23:00).

“We can be more successful in our sound design when we start it with acoustic recordings. The reason for that, I think…is that subconsciously there are embedded elements of acoustic recordings that tell the brain this is real. And it’s all about the time arrival to the ear and the acoustic environment that a sound lives within that synthesizers or electronic sounds don’t inherently have. You can add them is post-production by adding reverbs and delays and things like that, but they’re never as complex or as rich as the acoustics that you get in real life.”
– Mark Mangini 

An article about ambient music.

“In a multibillion-dollar wellness industry, streaming platforms and meditation apps frame ambient as background music — something for detached listening and consumption. It is spa and yoga music, or field recordings for undisturbed, restful sleep. Instead of embracing ambient’s potential — its capacity to soften barriers and loosen ideas of sound, politics, temporality and space — the music has become instrumentalized, diminished into sound-as-backdrop. […]

Experiencing ambient music — to allow its political, philosophical and oppositional knowledge to become visible — requires a full use of the senses. It means tapping into the sensorial vitality of living: the tactile, spatial, vibrational and auditory experiences that being human affords us. […]

I do wonder how, on an infinitesimal scale, listening closely might free us from the logic of hasty, individualistic action. When I force myself to listen closely, I hear a refusal to analyze, judge and act with immediacy. In its call to suspend time, the music carries the potential to press pause on the punishing velocity that attends disaster, that robs our attention and predetermines a fixed future. I hear the promise to act deliberately, collectively and with care, to embrace intentional observation and action — the durational practice of a lifetime.” – Isabelia Herrera

An essay about heresies

“A heresy is an opinion whose expression is treated like a crime — one that makes some people feel not merely that you’re mistaken, but that you should be punished. […]

In the late 1980s a new ideology of this type appeared in US universities. It had a very strong component of moral purity, and the aggressively conventional-minded seized upon it with their usual eagerness — all the more because the relaxation of social norms in the preceding decades meant there had been less and less to forbid. The resulting wave of intolerance has been eerily similar in form to the Cultural Revolution, though fortunately much smaller in magnitude. […]

I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning any specific heresies here. Partly because one of the universal tactics of heretic hunters, now as in the past, is to accuse those who disapprove of the way in which they suppress ideas of being heretics themselves. Indeed, this tactic is so consistent that you could use it as a way of detecting witch hunts in any era.”