Recursive Music Production

No matter how elaborate a musical system a producer works with, no matter how much or how little gear one uses, the most foolproof technique for creating sounds, parts, and structures is one that incorporates recursion. Recursion is the process of repeating items in a self-similar way. In the natural world, recursive structures are found in things that are self-similar on different scales of resolution–such as coastlines and plants–which are commonly known as fractals. In human language use, computer programming, and artistic practice recursion is a method used to solve problems by breaking them down into smaller, repeating problems. In computer science, recursion is defined as an algorithm for solving a problem in which the solution depends on solutions to smaller instances of the same problem. In other words, as programmer and essayist Paul Graham explains, recursion is one of two ways to create symmetry (the other way being repetition) and “recursive refers to an algorithm that refers to itself. A policeman’s algorithm for interrogating people is recursive: ask the person if they know about the crime, or if they know anyone who does, and if they do, interrogate them too” (Paul Graham, Hackers and Painters). 

In my experience, recursion is the ur-algorithm for music production because it’s an approach to building upon-or, to use Graham’s police metaphor, a way of interrogating–what you already have whose results can be used in any musical context. Adopting a recursive approach ensures that your track incorporates self-similar copies of itself and that its sonic whole is woven from the same atoms. Here are a few ways producers can incorporate a recursive approach to making music. 

Recursion mindset. The most important thought shift is to understand that, wherever you might be in a musical project, everything you already have is fodder for what is yet to be. As I’ve explained elsewhere on this blog, I often begin a piece with chords because of how they create a sense of direction upon which to build. But these chords are not limited to those played using a “keyboard” sound, broadly defined. I understand chords as containing melodies and bass parts, as well as input for more abstract sound design textures. In other words, chords can trigger so much more and so everything I do after the chords can in some way be a self-similar repetition of them. If you happen to begin projects by building rhythms, not chords, you can take the same recursive approach by using rhythms or parts of the rhythms to generate other musical parts. 

Solving production problems recursively. Problems such as What sound do I use? or How should I arrange this? or How do I blend these sounds? can often be solved recursively, rather than additively. Instead of getting lost in the possibilities of incorporating ever-new, yet unrelated sounds into your project, create new sounds by altering what you already have. The producer Jon Hopkins describes this approach: “Maybe one of the most common methods I use is to take something that’s there and process it into the next thing” (Tape Notes podcast, November 23, 2022). Similarly, here is the producer AU5 (Austin Collins) speaking about the topic in my book:

“What I usually like to do is I’ll take one main sound, and I’ll duplicate it and tweak that and change it into slightly different sound. And then duplicate that, tweak it, and change it into a slightly different sound. And that way everything kind of has the fullness and it sounds like it’s from the same palette. It’s not just like random, completely outlandish contrasting sounds. It’s like [the sounds] all come from the same family. It’s a lot easier to create a bunch of sounds with diversity from a single sound and have it sound good, than create a bunch of different sounds completely independently—built completely in different ways from one another—and then trying to make those sounds work together cohesively”(The Creative Electronic Music Producer, pp. 98-99).

I used this technique of altering what you already have my piece Three Lines. The three slightly different sounds on this piece were originally three layers of a single sound which I un-layered into its composite timbres. I could have added other sounds, but they would not have had much connection to the timbres already present. A track’s arrangement can take its cues from structural peculiarities inherent in whatever form you have. When I begin a piece by improvising chords, it’s not just the chord notes that interest me. I’m also looking to leverage whatever interesting effects appear as I improvise. What usually happens is that my dynamics are inconsistent, my timing is loose, I pause a bit too long, and repeat a phrase once too many times. These quirks of improvising due to limits of my playing become cues for the arrangement. In my experience, an ideal arrangement doesn’t impose a perfect, 8-bar by 8-bar grid structure on what I’ve done, but instead solves the problem of form by scaling up what I did on a smaller scale to create a more unusual macro structure. As the producer Thomas Köner succinctly notes, “an ideal composition is ambiguous.”

Blending sounds together is easier when the sounds you’re blending are related to one another, and there are ways to ensure that this is the case. For example, if I’ve spent time creating a keyboard sound that initiates a piece, I make a point of (a) saving whatever constellation of processing I’ve used to make the sound into a chain and (b) seeing if I can duplicate parts of this chain to make new chains for other sounds in the music. A simple example is taking a noise/distortion effect that I used to texturize a keyboard sound and re-use it somewhere else, like on the percussion. Here, the problem of how to make a compelling keyboard sound becomes a future solution for generating a compelling drum sound. But it’s never an exact repetition of the effect. Some parameters will be changed (e.g. the dry/wet mix knob may change from 100 percent to 25 percent), and such variations will be saved so that the effect itself keeps evolving. 

Recursive ways forward. The most powerful side effect of adopting a recursive approach to music production is that it de-emphasizes weighty questions such as, Do I have enough material? and What should I do next? that can bog down a workflow. A recursive approach teaches us that we can move forward by turning our materials upon themselves–as if they are now looking inward rather than outward for solutions to their problems of sound and form. In sum, thinking about recursion frames creativity as recognizing the self-sufficient generative properties of artistic process and how, sometimes, even a single sound is enough to generate a whole piece. 

I wrote a book about electronic music production. If this looks of interest to you or someone you know, I would appreciate you checking it out.

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