The Elegance Of Economy 

“I really admire economy more than anything else: elegant ways of making big things happen–which is the opposite of what normally happens in a studio, where you have clumsy ways of making small things happen.”

Brian Eno 

“Although there is much in this world that is incomprehensible, you can nevertheless discover a meaning as long as you have managed to limit your field of search.”

– Fredrik Sjöberg, The Art of Flight

In electronic music production, there are a myriad of ways to get a sound from here to there. Let’s say you want to thicken a sound. Do you double it with another one? Process it with an effect? Or alter it, somehow, from its inside out? If you want to make a beat, do you play it in or program it, use a loop, or manipulate a sample? If you want to mangle a sound into something entirely unrecognizable, how do you do this and how do you know when you’ve done it? While there are many ways to make or alter a sound, there are far fewer ways to achieve this in an elegantly economical way. 

When you produce you want to move a sound from here to there in the fewest possible steps, not because it’s the quickest way forward but because it’s the most elegant. As Eno notes, elegance is economy, and economy in production entails finding elegant ways of making big things happen. Elegance then, is doing the minimum required to achieve the maximum results. To return to our examples above, you could thicken one sound with any other one at hand, but that could potentially involve long periods of searching for, and auditioning, contrasting sounds with no relationship to the original sound in need of thickening. A more elegant way is to copy the original sound, alter the copy, and then use this sound as a thickening agent. If your original sound was a metallic keyboard tone, you could give its copy a warmer hue to create contrast while maintaining its DNA connection to the original. 

If you’re making a beat, using a pre-fab loop may seem like the easiest thing to do, but it’s not the most elegant. Instead, consider playing a beat imperfectly, which can generate reams of inconsistencies and interestingness to work with. Or if there were some artifacts in your original metallic keyboard tone, you can resample them to use as unusual drum sounds. Leveraging the inconsistencies of your performance and your sampled artifacts is a workflow strategy more elegant than simply dragging a drum loop into your project and assuming that its tempo-matchedness is enough to make it fit. And though it may fit, unlike your performance and your artifacts someone else’s loop has no organic relationship to your work.  

If you’re mangling sounds, you can of course go down rabbit holes of trying out effects and effects chains. But a more elegant path is to begin by revisiting whatever effects are already employed in your track. For example, re-use the devices that altered the metallic sound’s copy to give it a warmer hue, or the artifacts that were resampled into drum sounds. While this is an arbitrary starting point for sound mangling, it’s the most elegant way to reduce your choices to just a few, or as Sjöberg puts, to limit your field of search. Instead of feeling the overwhelming possibilities of I could try anything on this sound, you know you have just two effects paths to explore: the one you used to thicken the metallic tone, and the one you used to process its artifacts into drum sounds. Such limited options allow you to work unimpeded, confident that one of these two paths is sufficient for your sound mangling, as you make small changes to effects and effects chains that already worked elsewhere in the track. In sum, elegant production is thoughtful production that re-uses what it already has, working with the limits of what is close at hand to turn a minimum into a maximum and generate elegant ways of making big things happen.

(Image credit: Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash).

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