Sound Fishing

“Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure.They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.”

David Lynch, Catching The Big Fish

One production problem we continually encounter is not knowing where or how to start a piece. What instrument do I chose? What sound do I work with? How long should I spend searching for either the instrument or the sound? Should I finesse the sound into something compelling before I use it to play something, or just get on with things? Related to these unanswered questions is how to think about randomness. It often happens that I’ll be searching through sounds, stop on the first one that sounds promising, and then begin making something with it. I’ve done this enough to know that it works, yet it also feels haphazard–as if I haven’t spent sufficient time planning out what I’m going to do. But maybe there is nothing to plan because I couldn’t have foreseen the promising sound that inspired me to make something with it in the first place. There was an element of randomness that I just went with.

Randomness brings us to the metaphorical idea of fishing for sounds during the production process. It’s like fishing in real life, except here the fish are sounds, and you need to stock your sound “pond” with these sounds ahead of time. The easiest way to do this is to set up a few instruments, each of which is an entire world itself (which is astonishing when you think about it). For example, I have used the synthesizers Serum, Zebra, Omnisphere, and the sampler Kontakt. In each of these instruments I have made my own sounds which I can search through, but there are also thousands of other sounds I’ve not yet encountered, as well as endless ways to alter these sounds into new ones. Stocking your sound pond with a few instruments gives you ample sonic waters in which to fish, and saving different combinations of instruments as templates will set you up for your next session.

As far as fishing in these ponds, the workflow is to start somewhere—anywhere—by opening an instrument and reacquainting yourself with what it offers. Deciding on which instrument to open first is the hardest part, but after committing to a double click I’m always surprised to hear sounds I’ve made, saved, and then forgotten. And as with an acoustic instrument, you never get to the bottom of music software–you never learn all that it might do. Like a musician’s sense of touch, sounds are never finished: once you’ve made a sound in an instrument, you can morph it more towards ever more sensitivity, uniqueness, and enchantment. To take one example, the popular software Omnisphere is less of an instrument than an ocean of possibilities compressed within your sound pond. Here there are layers upon layers of hidden sound-mangling tools awaiting discovery. You might go in with a harmonium and come out with an electrified mbira, or start as a soft chord and become a pulsating rhythm. The more you try things, the more you reveal the instrument’s possibilities. Sometimes a sound suggests ways of playing with it, where you play a part to explore the sound and your sound fishing becomes composing. Sound and ways of playing and composing are inseparable in this way: what you play and write is shaped by how the sounds sound.

With one sound you like, you can fish for others by opening another instrument, or another instance of the one you’re already using. Each instrument has not only a distinctive sound, but also a GUI design that may steer you in novel ways. (For example, Serum’s eight LFOs on its main page invite freewheeling modulation routings.) You’re looking for something that “goes with” what you already have, but of course, going with can mean a lot of things. It could be a euphonious relationship between the sounds, or it could be a severely contrasting one. The second sound can be thin where your initial sound is fat, reverb’ed where the initial sound is bone dry, pulsating against a stasis, and so on. You don’t yet know what you’re looking for, which is why you’re fishing to see what comes up. When you find something interesting, you can play a new part with it, or use the part you already played with the first sound as a trigger. Unusual musical textures are often created when different sounds play the same part together to form a composite (what producer Ben Lukas Boysen calls “dynamic layers of sound“), which is a key part of electronic music production orchestration.

Once you have two sounds that get along playing contrasting or similar parts, you have a timbral dialogue happening and are on your way. You can scale up these two parts, or keep fishing for more sounds by opening other instruments in your template. In sum, rather than try to control what you’ll find before you find it, set up a sound pond and then fish in it.

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