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.

Resonant Thoughts: Greg Milner’s “Perfecting Sound Forever” (2010)

“Presence died a million deaths in the seventies. In its place was the Edisonian dream: record the music, not the room. There was a cultural and geographic component to the dry-as-a-bone sound. It was especially prevalent in West Coast studios, and especially audible on the California-centric rock bands of the seventies—put on an Eagles record and you’ll hear it. Or better yet, listen to the early Steely Dan records, technological masterpieces made with the engineer Roger Nichols. But really, it was everywhere—rock, disco, funk—the sound of the age. It wasn’t necessarily bad from a listener’s perspective. Minimalist seventies classic-rock records—ZZ Top, Bad Company, AC/DC—do sound ‘live’ in an Edison-biting-into-wood sense. The music is intimate, unencumbered, right in front of you. But if you stop and think, they really don’t sound the way bands do when you hear them live, when ‘presence’ is blown up to mammoth proportions. Kick drums and snare drums, for example, end up sounding similar.”

Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever, p. 162

Thinking Compositionally, Texturally, and Vibely

I often begin a project by playing chords. The instrument sound doesn’t matter so much, although I default to the piano because it’s a sound and way of playing I’m familiar with. What’s useful about chords on a keyboard is their limits: they’re a limited expressive world inside a limited spatial world of 12 pitches per octave. There are only tones and semitones to work with, plus the limitations of ten fingers and the limitations of what I can realistically play on a tiny MIDI keyboard. I love all of these limitations though, because they spur me to focus on what’s important, which is to somehow come up with a sequence of chords or a melody that I haven’t quite heard before. The reason I begin with chords is that, to my ear, chords are the most powerful index of a piece’s tonal-compositional structure. Thinking compositionally is thinking in chords and chords say so much! Chords set an emotional mood, map out where a piece goes over time, and bring intrigue and repose to the journey by building the music up, and then letting it come down again. When I have some chords in place whose sequence is pleasing, I have something robust to build upon. The right chords sound good no matter what sound is playing them.  

But as much as I’m chord oriented, in electronic music production especially there are two other equally important considerations to think through. The first is thinking texturally. The texture or timbre of a sound conveys almost as much information and affect as a chord does. Think of the difference between the same pitch played by an oboe, a violin, and a tuned gong. The oboe has a nasal, pinched timbre that feels plaintive. The violin has a voice-like, searing timbre that feels tactile. And the gong timbre has an underwater, slightly mysterious, and non-human quality about it. In electronic music production, one repeatedly encounters the problem of: What sound should be triggered by this melody, bass, or chord? The problem is not simply that most producers have hundreds or thousands of timbres to choose from, but also that each timbre signifies or communicates slightly differently. (It’s a sort of mind-boggling excess of sonic signifiers.) And it’s not just instrumental sounds. Effects are another source of texture and affect (read my post about effects here). Knowing what’s the right sound involves trying out a lot of sounds and effects, feeling how each one feels, and then trying to remember where everything is–a subject for another essay.

Trying out different sounds and noticing their varied textures and timbres leads us to thinking vibely. As one tries out different sounds, the same chords can take on drastically different emotional hues, or what musicians commonly refer to as vibes. As a noun, a vibe is a distinctive feeling or quality felt or discerned. As a verb, vibing with a music means to feel in harmony with it. I often come around to vibes only after I’ve been fiddling with compositional and textural possibilities. What happens is that I’ll try out a sound–usually by accident–that completely alters the vibe of the music. This happened recently when I was working with what I thought was a floaty, ambient-style piece. I sent the piece’s main chords through an effects send track on which I had a delay chain I had made for another project. I didn’t anticipate that the effects would conjure a dub-style, bubbling rhythm on top of the chords. Suddenly the music was less floaty and more pulse-y–a sound that was unexpected and delightful to the point that I reconsidered the chords I had spent most of my time figuring out. The bubbling rhythm was creating a vibe I didn’t know the piece could have, and now that it had it, I reflected on my process. I love chords, but thinking compositionally isn’t limited to music’s tonal qualities. Composing texturally and vibely are equally powerful ways of organizing a piece of music.  

Curating The Week: Mind Wandering, Music Streaming, West African Drumming

An article about how a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

“The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

An article about music streaming platforms.

“The platforms right now are flooded by a tidal wave of content as millions of creators getting access…these are essentially content uploaders. They’re not artists in the sense that we traditionally think of artists…These are hobbyists that are playing to an essentially empty house.”

A resource for learning about West African drumming.