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.

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