“I feel the important part of making a track is to recognize the point where you have to listen to what the track wants. This point comes in around 40–50% of the whole process, where it’s not so much about what you want with the track anymore, but what the track wants you to do with it. To figure out this change of perspective is the only way to successfully finish a track. Of course it’s intuition, but at a certain point the music is the boss. And you always recognize it when you want to finish a very fancy idea for example and it doesn’t work. You build the arrangement and it doesn’t work, you try something else and it doesn’t work. If you just listen to what the track wants, it’s much easier.”
A constraint is something that limits you in some way, something you can push against or work around, something that forces you to be resourceful despite a less than optimal situation. Common constraints for makers of art and craft are their materials (or lack thereof), conventions of practice, and of course, time itself. Since there’s never enough time to try out all options, a maker benefits from constraints—either self-imposed or realities of the job at hand—to limit those options and keep making progress.
My approach to constraints is not to set them from the outset of a project, but rather let them evolve as I learn which workflow options are affording me the most pleasing results. (Which reminds me of architect Christoper Alexander’s notion of a continuous very-small-feedback-loop adaptation.) I don’t begin a project by saying, “I’m going to limit myself to just this one synth.” Instead, I begin with whatever sound I happen to be using that’s giving me interesting results and then focus on how I might incorporate constraints to shape how I use it. For example, on a recent project I got into a routine of using audio from my own pieces loaded into a step sequencer/sampler. I quickly learned that to hear a sufficient amount of my samples I needed to (1) greatly extend the sustain and release amounts of the sampler’s envelope and (2) change the sequencer’s note value from 1/16 to 1/8 to increase the samples’ play time. With more sustain, release, and time, the samples had a chance to “bloom” over a slow sixteen-pulse cycle. These requirements for hearing the samples properly became constraints that I continued using on subsequent pieces.
I also used some of the sequencer’s simple sound shaping tools, particularly its filter which works as both a low- and high-pass. Over the course of making pieces using the sampler, I got a feel for a range of filter settings that sounded good, committing to a timbre from the get-go rather than fussing over it later. Similarly, I began panning each part. Typically, sample 1 was panned in the center, while samples 2 and 3 were panned left and right. So what began as a way to more clearly hear the composite texture of several parts playing together by spacing them out along the stereo field became a constraint: I decided that these tracks require only three main parts.
But the most significant constraint that emerged while making the pieces was committing to various sample playback locations. As I auditioned locations I wrote down their numbers so I could return to them. Soon I had a long list of 20 to 30 of my favorite locations. Then it became a matter of how to proceed through these samples: Do I focus on one sample? Cycle through them all? Play each one twice? Four times? A solution that sounded good became a simple arrangement constraint: I would keep part one as a through-line, repeating sample, while parts two and three would move through numerous similar, yet different samples. I wasn’t building loops but rather setting up different rates of change inside a steady texture.
In sum, while there’s nothing wrong with imposing constraints from the outset of a musical project, the arbitrariness of that approach can feel pointless. Instead, cultivating constraints in the moment is way to respond to what the music needs, or as the producer Stimming puts it, to listen to what the track wants. Cultivating constraints looks to the options at hand, here and now, as a dynamic way to interact with, and adapt to, the music in progress.
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