Thinking in Pairs

In the course of building a track there are many opportunities practice the concept of thinking in pairs. The idea is that a musical part or element is better when it’s somehow doubled, so that it works alongside a duplicate form of itself. Thinking in pairs relates to recursive music production, but here are three practical examples. 

Bass + treble bass. If you use low-pitched, sub bass tones in your music, it can useful to copy that bass part and move it up an octave or two to create a treble copy. This copy will sound brighter by virtue of sounding in a higher register, but you can also use a brighter sound. This sound allows the listener know what the sub bass is doing, even if that sub is inaudible due to playback system limitations (i.e. crappy speakers or headphones). 

Left and right parts. If you have a part, like a melody or a vocal, it can be useful to turn it into a matched or unmatched pair. This allows you to place one part on the left side of the stereo field, and the second part on the right, creating a balanced, call and response’ing soundstage. Left and right pairs can also trigger new counterpoint and harmony possibilities that arise when you rhythmically stagger the parts or change pitches in one but not the other. 

Doubling effects. If you’re using one effect with good results, it can be useful to duplicate it to make a chain with two instances of the effect. This allows you to multiply the effect’s processing possibilities–by stacking tools to create sonic complexity and nuance–without going down a rabbit hole of adding a second but unrelated effect. One example of effect doubling is to use a reverb twice, with slightly different settings on each instance. The first might have a very narrow width and 70 percent wet/dry mix, while the second has a very wide width but only 20 percent wet/dry mix. In this way, the second effect in the chain subtly “tints” the sound generated by the first effect. 

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.

Curating The Week: ChatGPT, AI and Art, Dumbed-Down Culture, Bach

• A story about interacting with ChatGPT (which also speaks to creativity).

“On a conceptual level, these large language models–these prediction machines–they deal with a certain amount of uncertainty. When you do down one of these ‘hallucinatory chains’–if you ask the model something that it hallucinates an answer to and you keep going, you keep pressing it–you’re basically compounding that uncertainty. So each answer is going to a little less certain…and all of a sudden you’re going to find yourself in a pretty crazy place.”

Kevin Roose, The Daily

• An article about AI and art.

“In some sense, you could say that artists are losing their monopoly on being artists.”

• An interview with novelist Walter Mosley.

“We’re living in a dumbed-down culture because the education of most people in America is sad and not useful. There are people who don’t know how to spell, they don’t know how to think. They don’t even teach kids how to deal with money in school — the one thing you think they would teach in America. So the fact that the people turn to comic books and pornography and other seemingly lower-level things? I’m not sure that they are lower-level, but the reason that things are selling is because of how America is dealing with its citizens. It’s a symptom: He’s sneezing. Why is he sneezing? We live next to a pepper factory. Maybe it’s the pepper!”

Brett’s Sound Picks: Claudio Arrau plays J.S. Bach, “Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826 – 6. Capriccio”

Every Track Is A One-Off

One day, while struggling to get a track going, I thought about what I call the one-off concept in music production. A one-off is something made only once, something unique. When making music it’s not uncommon for producers to rely on trusted, play-this-then-play-that workflows to get a familiar something going. The image of a band comes to mind: some musicians sitting around the room, playing different riffs alone and together, trying to figure out how to make a whole from a sum of parts that haven’t even materialized yet. While you play this, I’ll play that…The band is searching not for inspiration, but rather a spark that could inspire a piece. Composer-producers often work the same way. In my case, I was trying ideas on a piano sound until I realized that it was habit, not need, that brought me to the sound. I paused. What I wanted was not a piano but a non-acoustic sound I could build upon. 

I opened up some instruments in which I had made and saved sounds. My sounds populate every instrument I use, but I can’t remember many of them until I encounter them again and re-hear what it is that I liked about them. (Maybe I should set aside time to reacquaint myself with sounds I’ve made?) I like sounds with something perceptually puzzling about them: something in the sound either jumps out, is pleasingly obscured in some way, or its timbre needs to be “resolved” (like one chord resolves to another through a cadence), but, stubbornly, doesn’t. In one Arturia instrument I re-locate a murky pad sound that’s interesting. The sound has a lot of noise in it and is filtered so its high frequencies are as if heard through a wall. Sounds like these suggest or hint at more than they actually say; or put another way, their way of saying is subtle (which is a restrained personality trait that is nice in people too). 

When you find a sound you find compelling your excitement then leads you to do novel things with the sound. I begin playing chords, but because the sound is so textured I limit my chords to just two or three notes and leave space around them. This is one kind of composing within producing: trying to figure out the optimum part to play with a sound. Via negativa: I quickly try out all that won’t work–like the keys and registers where the sound doesn’t impact as well. I don’t want to waste a good sound on a dumb part, nor do I want to bury it underneath other parts. For now, I consider the sound as a potential solo–How do I know there will ever be other parts?– and try to extract every bit of meaning from it by presenting it just so.

With a sequence recorded I try adding other sounds. I would like to say that I’m mindful of certain things when coming up with additional parts, but what usually happens is that I work fast and try the first things that occur to me. Following this process, I fit in a piano-altered-into-a-pad sound, a bass sound (chosen by accident), and a few other melodic “interjection” sounds. For some reason, I try adding a beat to the track, which at this point seems ill-advised because 

(1) I had played the lead part free form, without any metronome click 

(2) adding a beat after the fact isn’t optimal, because if you have a beat you want to be playing the other parts off of the beat, so the beat comes first, and 

(3) this track doesn’t really need a beat.

But why not try a beat? I play one in, using the metronome click (for the track which hasn’t been using a click) set at a brisk 160 bpm. As expected, the beat sounds terrible and I listening to figure out why. The cross stick and hat part are annoying, so I change their sounds, then just mute them completely. Better. Muting these parts leaves just a kick drum hitting once every four beats. Is this even a beat? It’s more like a pulse with little relationship to the other harmonic parts. What to do? 

It’s at this point, the point where I have programmed myself into a corner, that things get interesting. Is there a way this kick, as it is, can work in the track? I play with its sound a bit, making it a bit duller, but it’s still annoying–like an unwanted guest not contributing anything meaningful to a conversation. I try different effects on the kick: saturation to make it buzz with white noise, harmonics to give it a pitch, and delays to turn its single thud into subtle echoes. I’m listening to what these effects can do–turning knobs to try see if the kick can come alive…

A few minutes later the kick does come alive. Now the single hits have a pitch and rattle to them, followed by a gentle rhythmic tail. Now the kick drum’s out of time-ness joins the other parts in a meaningful way. The kick drum part has revealed itself as the piece’s slow heartbeat.

The point of this story is to illustrate not the just the momentary ad hoc chaos of making a new piece, but more fundamentally, how every piece is a one-off in terms of the workflow required to generate the momentum it needs to feel it’s going somewhere. I have techniques that produce results for me (and which I discuss on this blog), but finessing a kick drum to fit is a lesson in embracing each track as a sui generis process: the slate is blank and we begin, one more time, from scratch.

Arrows Of Attention: 20 Production Prompts

Make a beat with a generic-sounding kit then add effects until it sounds enchanting.

Make an effects rack that turns any tuned sound into ambience.

Truncate percussive sounds until they are tiny slivers, all attack.

Make a huge template with every instrument you enjoy using.

Design/finesse the sound to the point where it’s irresistibly playable.

Work with the first sound that makes you go, hmm.

Be parsimonious: if one track uses three effects,
those are the all the effects the entire piece will use.

EQ before drastic volume changes.

First commit to 3-5 distinct yet complimentary sounds.

Once you have a few tracks, re-sample each one. (Now you have a few more.)

Make the loop point seamless.

Find alternatives to fidelity. (And alternatives to lo-fi.)

Is quantization necessarily stiff if there’s looseness somewhere else?

Try alternatives to bass lines. (Or bring a bass up an octave.)

Long tones let pointillistic percussion show through.

Scale up what you improvised–there’s a lot there!

Move onto the second part only once the first part is emotionally moving.

Three ways of transforming what you already have:
additive transformation, subtractive transformation,
and dimensional transformation.

Play the right rhythm now, fix its notes into the right pitches later.

The perfect chord is often a semitone away, so don’t be afraid to edit.