How Might I Develop This?

“I should have spent less time worrying and more time building.
If you’re not sure what to do, make something.”

Paul Graham

From the get-go of working on a new track the most pressing question a producer needs to answer through action is, How might I develop this? Your answer depends on what you’ve begun with, and to some extent, where you want to go. Did you begin with a beat, a series of chords, or a single sample? Are you aiming to make something rhythmic or ambient? Also, how you develop what you’ve begun with steers where you’ll be able to go. Is the beat something you want to repeat or morph into something else? Are the chords fine as they are, or should they be modified over time? Is the sample the star of the show, or will it become grist for a yet-to-be-created sound? (For example, a voice could become a pad.) There are no hard and fast rules for how you might answer such questions, because you don’t know what will capture your attention until you’re in the thick of it, building things and trying out options. Building and trying options produces information that helps steer you to the next step. In the meantime, here are a few strategies that always generate information of one kind or another.

Work with what’s already there. If you have a few chords, a beat, a sample, or even just a sound you like, work with that. It can be helpful to limit yourself, for the moment, to just exploring the potentials of what’s already in hand. This means you’ll be facing a less than ideal sonic something in need of help. If the beat isn’t the best, try doing things to it to make it better. If it lacks syncopation, run it through a delay, and then run that delay through another one. If the chords are uninspired, move a few of their notes around until you hear something interesting. If the sample is too obvious, make it more more subtle. (Hint: if the delays helped your beat, maybe they could also work well on the sample? Even when it comes to effects, work with what’s already in hand.)

Loop the good bits. It could be that your being unimpressed by your material’s entirety is blinding you to its good bits. One way around this is to loop a fragment of a beat, chord progression, or sample to isolate one of its evanescent, magical moments. Sometimes the good bits on loop make a compelling larger form. You don’t know until you try it out.

Amplify textures. A lot of sounds hide their magic and your job is to reveal it. The best way to do this is to greatly amplify what appear to be little details of sounds, such as the parts where the sound is fading out, or the tail of a reverb on a sound. You amplify by either boosting the volume gain, severely EQing, or by compressing the sound so that its quieter elements jump to the foreground. Sometimes I compress a sound once, and then a second time after a reverb effect to better reveal the effect’s texture.

Double a part. In a DAW MIDI and audio parts can be copied in one second, and then these copies can be your next step for developing the music. A MIDI track can drive a completely unrelated instrument: for example, a keyboard can become strings, or a melody can become a bass line. An audio track can be processed into new forms: a voice sample can become a reverb’ed pad, then re-pitched much higher up to become a treble celestial seasoning to fill out the mix. Whenever you’ve created a part, double it and then process its double into something else. 

Imagine how another producer might develop this. I’m a fan of incorporating brief cognitive time outs into my workflow, where I wonder how another (more skilled and experienced and nuanced) musician might work with what I have. Doing this reminds me that I’m not adventurous enough, and that I already have too much material. The problem is me, not the music, and I’m sure another producer would look at the track in progress and say, you have everything you need right here.    

Resonant Thoughts: Sarah Davachi On Listening

“I always think of myself as being on this producer’s end of listening: the way that a producer might listen to a recording, or might listen to an instrument, or a microphone or whatever. So usually the way I would want people to think about sound is trying to listen to these details. And listening to any kind of recording and trying to think about, you know, what are you actually hearing? And then when you go a step towards making it, think about how that would have been done and trying to go backwards from the sound and try to deconstruct it a little bit.

But even if you’re playing an instrument—if you have someone who has a basic oscillator or something–to just listen to it, to just listen to things. And to really take time and listen to them and not just move on to the next thing but really think about that sound quality. And you could try making minute changes to things and really try to absorb what that sound is like.”

Sarah Davachi

Music Production Database

Broad Strokes First, Then Smaller Details

While there are no foolproof ways to get a piece of music going, a useful strategy is to think in terms of broad strokes first, then smaller details. This is the musical equivalent of the writer who gets an initial rough draft down, then refines it later. It reminds me of something I heard a graduate school classmate, Dan, once say: If I have words on the page, then I have something to build on. Using the broad strokes first strategy means that you begin with the most general parameters to guide what you’ll be doing. For example, you might decide on a tempo*, a key, or a set of sounds to establish parameters for your music. My go-to broad strokes first move is finding a chord progression–even if it’s just a few chords. A useful thing about chord progressions that’s easy to overlook is that they always go somewhere over time: they literally progress within a tonal space and in so doing set up a structure for your attention. While I aim for a perfect take, usually I record a progression that’s not entirely right that I then edit into something better. 

Depending on the sound I’m working with, I often like the chords but not the sound. When this happens, I alter the sound until it’s compelling in some way. Since I’m still working on broad strokes though, I keep the process moving along. Rather than sound-designing from scratch to alter the sound, I use effects or effect racks I’ve already made to hear how they shape it. Whether I improvise something in one pass or edit it into a better timbral hue, the goal is these broad strokes is generating something interesting on its own–something I could listen to on its own without getting bored. 

Once a broad stroke sound is happening, its smaller details tend to come to the foreground, inviting my further attention and finessing. For example, as I apply an effect I might notice an interesting artifact such as a faint harmonic. When this happens I quickly look for its source–Is there a volume control for this?–so I can boost the artifact to make it more obvious. If there aren’t details coming to the foreground, I return to the chords themselves and try ways of building upon them. Remember that even the shortest chord sequence can be copied to other parts, halved or doubled in length, transposed into higher or lower octaves, inverted, and so on. Chords contain multitudes too–their root notes might become a bass part, and their top notes a melody. Between sound designing and chord deconstruction, the producer has endless options for timbral and tonal invention. In sum, the powerful thing about a broad strokes first, then smaller details approach is that it clarifies a workflow, gets your momentum rolling, and contains everything you need to build a piece of music.

*I often keep the same fast tempo (north of 140 bpm) for a collection of pieces, not because it suits the pieces but because I forget to change it and usually begin a piece by playing without listening to a metronome click. This sets up a situation in which I play slow against a fast moving pulse I didn’t know was there.