A pernicious music production pressure is the unreasonable hope for each step of the process to generate immediate results, offer no resistance, and to go perfectly. I try to reduce this pressure. One way to do that is to divide the process into separate, self-contained steps. (The steps feel like games.) An example from my work is beginning a session with a threadbare rhythm and then processing it later into a more interesting form. Dividing a production process takes pressure off individual steps to be more than they are. Let’s sketch the process.
For a rhythm I’m looking to make a pattern that’s minimal yet evocative. Using just three or four sounds, I play around with a few notes for 8 bars or sometimes much longer. Whatever the length of the pattern, I double or quadruple it and then edit this longer version, removing (muting) hits here and there to give the rhythm more space. Removing notes is the best way to clarify a texture. A rhythm can never have enough space; this is especially the case with rhythms that will be processed later with effects. Space, in music and out, is a gift to your future self to find ways to fill it.
I notice that rhythms at their early stages of making don’t sound enchanting because their sound isn’t yet nuanced. Even so, I aim for the rhythm in its unprocessed state to have a novel quality about it. Ideally it has an as-if-drummed shape and vitality, plus some degree of unusualness that draws me in.
I have two main strategies for processing rhythms. One is to apply individual effects set to their “default” or “Initialize” state and build up sounds from there. The other strategy is to re-use effects racks I have already created and used in other projects. (A Rack, in DAW terminology, is two or more effects, instruments, or effects + instruments serially grouped together). I often go the effects racks route, because it allows me to learn and re-shape devices I’ve customized.
I might begin with a delay-based rack that adds syncopation to the rhythm. I’ll scroll through a few dozen racks (named by device and numbered) and audition them until I hear something with potential. What’s a sound with potential? Sometimes it’s a sound subtly more attractive than its peers; other times it clearly has a bit of magic that I notice. Having chosen a rack, I make some adjustments to it to hear if I can quickly amplify (or tame) what it’s doing. A workflow rule of thumb I follow here is: only move onto a second effect or effect rack (or a second effect in a rack) once you’re enjoying the sound of the current one. This brings to mind some of the most useful advice about composing, from Harold Budd. “The way I work is that I focus entirely on a small thing and try to milk that for all it’s worth, to find everything in it that makes musical sense.”
Next I add a saturation- or distortion-based rack to my signal chain. These effects add texture, grit, and harmonics to sounds. Once I’m hearing a texture I like, I dial the effect’s amount down to the point where it’s felt as much as heard. Another rule of thumb here: try the opposite of what would sound obvious. (Obvious doesn’t leave room for the listener.) At this point my rhythm is sounding different from where I began. Things are getting interesting!
Building On Interestingness
To build on the rhythm further, I sometimes explore more delay- or granular-based racks. The Jamaican dub masters King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry realized over fifty years ago that delays were tools of rhythmic alchemy. In their hands, delays could transform a 1-2-3-4 rhythm into syncopated African rhythmscapes by multiplying shards of brief drum sounds into a triplet cascades of echo-pulses. Whatever I add to the rhythm this point I hope is subtly transformative. One of dub’s long-resonating lessons is the more abstract, murky, and unpredictable a beat becomes the more we want to listen to it. The most exciting sessions for a producer are those that leverage unpredictability–where what began as macro obvious becomes micro interesting.
With the various effects chains all processing simultaneously, I make adjustments to their settings. I do this to hear what various settings are actually doing and also to fine-tune certain effects I’ve begun noticing within the effects soundscape. Until I automate a parameter, all of my adjustments are incremental and cumulative—turning a single knob to hear how that changes the sound. The knob turning is ad hoc yet cautious, as I try to gauge what’s happening without fully understanding it. When a texture is unclear, I turn off an effect entirely to reset my attention onto what it’s doing.
Now we’re getting somewhere: certain percussion sounds (or their echoes) begin popping out of the mix, either intriguingly or annoyingly. There might be a hi hat that’s too bright or strident, or a kick that could be muffled more. Adjust, adjust, adjust. Fixing such problems is simultaneously a task to get done and a portal to an ever more tuned-in listening. I tend to make sounds darker rather than brighter, but every project presents different sound problems in need of different kinds of shaping solutions.
Effects processing introduces me to sounds I didn’t know I liked until I heard them. Such discoveries are a substantial chunk of learning production as a species of composing: you begin remembering the moves that led you to sounds you like. This remembering is visceral, but can also be very specific. At random times during the day when I’m far from a computer I find myself thinking through possibilities I’ve yet to explore: What would happen if I swapped this effect for that one? Could I have begun with a much simpler pattern? It’s at the intersection of our practice and memories of it that we build and internalize a repertoire of production gestures to re-use and re-configure down the road.
After adjusting the settings of each effect rack I re-save the racks. Some of my racks now have between 10 and 30 iterations, and I add either numbers or letters to the rack names (e.g. “brett delay 29a”) to distinguish among them. Why do I save racks? One reason is to continually broaden my palette of processors and understanding of ways to use them. It’s a gift to future me who might not remember what a rack does (and labels like “brett 29a” certainly don’t help) but will notice that past me thought it sounded cool. In sum, creative work flows when it’s playful and free of the pressure to generate immediate results. Making a rhythm first and then processing it later is just one way to achieve this flow. Like a blog post, music production in a DAW is a record of things tried.