Once You’ve Found The Middle Ground Twiddle With Its Sides

One way to think about music production is that it’s an intensive generation of a track’s middle ground followed by twiddling with this middle in search of variations and details to fill out the sides. I’ve written about how I begin pieces with chords, but any sound will do. It doesn’t matter where you begin, but it does matter that you do enough initial work to generate a substantial ground for your middle. What’s the middle? The middle is what you consider the essence of the piece–if not its main theme, then its main event, its main through-line. Sometimes you won’t know what the music’s middle ground is until you’ve generated numerous parts and some kind of arrangement and have arrived at a point where there’s too much going on you need to pare back to uncover the music’s basics. So the middle is the music’s basics, however you define that from one piece to another. 

Recently I’ve been working on a series of pieces (one of which I discussed here) that were each begun by trying to make a keyboard sound out of a vocal sound put into a granular sampler. I didn’t find it an easy way to work, because generating a usable sound was hit or miss (for me at least). But for reasons of stubbornness, I stuck with the plan so I would hit more than miss. One thing the workflow had going for it though, is that it constrained me in a way that I was forced to figure out “escape routes” for generating useable sounds. On numerous occasions I stumbled upon an unusual sound that invited me to play something I probably would not have otherwise. For one piece, the sound I found was so unusable–because of the sample material, there were perfect fourths built into each pitch–that only a few notes on the keyboard worked. But despite this tonal constraint, the sound had an interesting built-in rhythm to it. After many false starts I decided and that instead of playing chords I would simply hold a single low, pulsating pitch. I hit record and held the note for 9 minutes, listening, and then, at the very end, introduced a few higher notes that weren’t jarring. Starting with a rhythmic drone and a long structure wasn’t my usual way of working, but something about the sound was compelling: it sounded like the music’s middle.    

With this long middle in hand, now I needed to twiddle. We think of twiddling as absent-minded time wasting, which it can be, but twiddling also means to rotate lightly or idly. These adjectives perfectly capture the loose, exploratory approach to sound design that music producers take as they develop a track. I began by twiddling with this long drone, finessing its sound a little bit, making it a bit grittier. I made a copy of the sound to hear what it could generate when run through this and that effect. About a week later I returned to the piece and tried playing along with the drone, this time using a playable keyboard sound. But something was off: the drone was out of tune by some cents, so I sharpened it until it matched the keyboard’s tuning. Finally I recorded a few long takes. When I neared the end of the first take and heard the higher notes I had introduced above the low pulsating pitch, I realized I would have to play around, and with, those notes. I recorded a few more times, and once I had a decent take in hand I twiddled here and there with altering the notes and timing of some of its chords so they better lined up with the drone’s pulsations. The piece wasn’t finished, but it had begun: the pulsating drone and sequence of chords were a middle ground and sides upon which to build.   

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