Accretion By Small Decisions

When I’m making music I try to prioritize the performative parts of my workflow over other, more technical tasks, because performing—which can be defined as committing to a concentrated state over time—intuitively feels like the most musical thing I can do (and it’s something I’ve practiced). I’ve written here about the urgency of performance and the challenge of coming up with a musical idea not by thinking it through or notating it, but by playing it. Playing is powerful because it’s like an interface for your body skills and your listening experience to come together, producing results that almost always surprise. But while there’s no denying the efficiency of performing, producing music equally draws on a broad toolset of technical-conceptual tasks, from choosing and editing sounds, to sound designing, arranging, and mixing. These tasks require the musician to draw on previous experience to make many, many small decisions over the course of building a piece of music. How many decisions? Hundreds? Thousands? It’s hard to count such things.

To illustrate this decision-making, consider the simple task of creating an ambience for a sound. Sure, you can slap a reverb on that sound and call it a day… but not really, because adding ambience raises questions. What kind of space do you want for the sound? An acoustic space like a cathedral or recital hall? An artificial space with a 45-second decay time? Or an impossible space of infinite dimensions? Does the space have a wide or narrow stereo field? Are you adding the reverb before you generate the sound (so you can play the sound in the space), or after the fact? Is the reverb directly on a sound’s track, or sent to it via an effects Return? Or do you want to add reverb to all the music’s parts via grouped tracks to use its resonance like a tint? Speaking of tint, is the reverb bright or dark? Vintage or modern? Analog-style or digital? When I work I consider such questions by trying out different options and making quick yes-no decisions to keep things moving along. I’ll turn to my go-to devices and settings, but just as often explore novel sound design paths without knowing where they’ll lead me. What if I use a huge reverb that is gingerly applied (i.e. with its wet/dry knob set low)? What if I foreground a synthetic reverb’s artificiality (i.e. its audible artifacts) rather than a convolution reverb’s acoustic realism? What if I chain two different reverbs together to make a hybrid super reverb? Or maybe there’s other ways to achieve reverb’s resonance and sense of space? Would a delay work better? 

As a piece grows, I’ll revisit a decision I had made about reverb a few days or weeks ago. I move levels up and down, adjust intensities, and finesse timbres so that the reverb works to accentuate the music rather than distract from it. (A question that is always helpful to answer is: Do I want to hear this reverb, or merely feel it?) As other parts are added, each with their own sonic spaces, I alter the original reverb to make room. Is it too boomy or too long? Is it conjuring or annoying? In sum, as with the music’s harmonies, timbres, arrangement, or mix, creating an ambiance for a sound through reverb has me playing with its parameters to get incrementally closer to a sound than sounds alive. Over time, the tedium of making many small decisions becomes its power: crafting beauty by accretion.

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