On Redoing A Not-So-Great Version Of A Track

“It was all change until the very last second.”

Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing

Recently I was getting a track ready for release. Usually this involves revisiting music finished some time ago. I find it helpful to let time pass between a first draft and its subsequent edits so I can forget about having done it and hear afresh whether what once excited me about the music still does.

I opened the file (from August) and listened to the mix. It still had a mood I liked, but sounded somewhat sterile; its soundscape was all mid-range frequencies and one-dimensional. I thought I could improve the mix and began making adjustments here and there to track volumes and effects automation. Making these adjustments took a day—which isn’t long, but long enough to feel I did something. I bounced down the mix and listened to it, side by side with the original.

It sounded worse. Despite what I thought were well-considered adjustments, the music sounded squashed (i.e. over-compressed) and overloaded. The mid frequencies were less harsh, yes, but somehow the music was duller overall. My work had made the music sound dead.

My first reaction to this failure was to declare the music not so good in the first place—for if it were a better piece, surely it could survive a weak mix? My second reaction was that I owed the music another go. I listened again to the original version and my assessment of it hadn’t changed: it had a nice mood, but sounded too synthetic. What else could I do to help the music that didn’t involve putting it away forever?

A few days later I decided to try slightly different sounds. The string sounds in the original were lush, but now I wondered whether the lushness itself was a problem. I swapped the lush sounds for a more transparent sul tasto (“on the touch”) strings sound I had used on Bowedscapes and These Realms. I muted all the effects for a moment to listen to the strings without adornment. I liked how their sound didn’t need to hide itself behind lushness. That’s a thing about great sounds: they sound compelling on their own.

With all of the strings replaced I began re-adjusting effects. On the original version of the track there’s a droning mid-range reverb whose source was unclear since I had multiple reverbs happening—on individual tracks, track Groups, Sends, and even on the master output channel. Making things more complicated, I discovered that the reverb drone was in fact a composite of different effects overlapping and creating phantom tones that were covering up my sul tasto strings. I reduced the volume of these effects, one by one, to figure out what they were doing. Then I changed EQ settings and added more volume rise/falls to make the melody lines more life-like. The strings also had articulation controls that I altered over the piece to add small evolutions to the parts.

One change I had implemented in the second, dead-sounding version of the music was to add a bass ambience track. Ambience tracks can lend a rich warmth to a mix, but they need to be controlled frequency-wise: too many lows will muddy the sound and clash with any bass tones already present. While I like hearing an ambience track hum throughout a piece, here I delayed its arrival until the end to avoid bass clashes and create a welcome surprise. How does one assess such spontaneous arrangement decisions? I listened to the entire piece repeatedly to hear how the ambience track’s late entrance was affecting the music.

With these changes in place, I bounced down the latest version and listened, comparing it to the other two mixes. The music sounded better, mainly because the timbre of the strings wasn’t gratingly synthetic and the subdued effects now supported rather than obfuscated their sound. Could the mix be better? Probably. But spending too much time on one piece risks moving away from whatever inspired it, putting oneself in a lonely landscape of diminishing returns. The trick is knowing when a track is good enough to declare it done, which frees us to turn our attention elsewhere. In sum, redoing a not-so-great version of a track is an opportunity to learn how to devise ways of getting the music closer to its ideal form.

Database: U-Ziq On Using What’s At Hand

“Finding a sound that works is half the battle. I am not one of those producers that considers themselves a ‘sound designer’. I hate the term, actually. It makes me think of cinematic rumblings, car park door slams, and Hans Zimmer–all that does nothing for me. I am a musician. I like to use what’s at hand to create music. Using a preset in a more creative way can do more to advance music scenes sometimes.”



On Moby’s Slow Motion Ambient

Electronic music producer Moby’s Ambient 23 collection contains some compelling pieces that are evocative and reward close listening. The tracks alternate between synthesizer-based electronic washes of sound and austere piano pieces built upon a few still tones. One of my favorites of the former type is “amb 23-11.” Structurally the music is a I-vi-V progression, but in slow motion. Each chord lasts about twenty seconds, and once around the cycle about one minute, which means the cycle is heard ten times over the ten-minute piece. The repetition foregrounds basic music theory: how two of the chords (I and V) are major and stable-feeling, while the linking chord is minor (sharing two pitches with the I chord) and unstable-feeling. Timbrally “amb 23-11” slowly rises and falls in brightness as white noise textures grow out of the sides of the stereo field. But overall, the music remains muted and calm–as interesting as it is ignorable, to remix the famous Brian Eno quote about ambient–and evokes dark clouds floating on a horizon.

Listening And Remembering Qualities Apparent: Tony Williams On “Cantaloupe Island” 

For three or four years when I was a teenager I bicycled on weekends to second hand record stores, searching for jazz albums I had read about or listened to on late night FM radio. Mostly I was interested in the drummers on these albums—Tony Williams, Max Roach, Jack DeJohnnette, Roy Haynes, Baby Dodds, Papa Jo Jones, and other architects of twentieth century jazz drumming. I listened to the albums focusing on the qualities of the drumming more than anything else, determined to learn something about and from them. One of these albums was Herbie Hancock’s 1964 recording Empyrean Isles, whose track “Cantaloupe Island” I studied and played along to, somehow with little curiosity about Herbie’s infectious piano riff (which sounded like a sample) or Ron Carter’s four-note rising bass line anchor. Instead, for me the star of the show was Tony Williams’ energized drumming, and over time I noticed qualities in it. His ride cymbal pattern was not a typical swinging triplet pattern, but rather a “straight” steady eighth note propulsion; he pedaled the hi hat on every quarter note beat, whilst his right foot and left hand played a simple kick and snare pattern—1-and-(2)-and-(3 and 4) and-ah—whose call and response syncopation moved like a fluid drum machine; and at the end of the song’s 12-bar phrase, Williams landed an emphatic rimshot on beat four (and mis-hit it the second time around, at 1:09). 

After figuring it out at slow speed, Williams’ “Cantaloupe Island” beat was within my wheelhouse to play, and I played it often as a kind of solo against an imagined band. As I played other details in Williams’ drumming I had noticed on the recording came to mind. Williams’ bass drum’s sound was not the dead “thud” of rock drummers’ kits, but rather a resonating higher pitched sound, and I retuned my bass drum to try to match it, feeling how the drum without muffling material had a more lively response to my foot. There were occasional stutters in Williams’ ride cymbal and snare drum parts too, where he played an 8th-note double-time to make it two 16ths, or paused his hand for a microsecond, without interrupting the musical time. He also used buzz rolls on toms for fills (2:49) and fragmented the beat at places, as if he were singing the song’s melody and not drumming its rhythm (3:25). So began my unwiring from rock and pop drumming’s heavy-handed thump, as I learned Williams’ light and skittering ad libs by heart and expanded my drumming vocabulary, one detail at a time. From Empyrean Isles and many other jazz albums I listened to during those years, I learned to notice qualities apparent in drummers’ touch, drum tuning, phrasing, and musicianship. 

The Minimalist Mindset In Music Production

“Space, as my work evolved, really became my subject.”
Richard Serra

“Keep it simple stupid.”
Kelly Johnson

A minimalist hears less as more.

A minimalist simplifies music production, bracketing the experience by reducing the number of variables and possibilities considered while building a track.

A minimalist begins with a single sound.

A single sound’s qualities allow it to be a focal point, complete in and of itself, an end not a means.

A minimalist works with less, without necessarily seeking more.

More leads away from less, straying from a single sound’s simplicity. More multiplies and meanders, while less is liminal and tensioned with potential.

A minimalist builds music through reducing the elements that constitute it.

A minimum of sounds,
a minimum of structure,
a minimum of effects,
a minimum of compositional intervention

lead to

a clarity of instrumentation,
a clarity of direction,
a clarity of texture,
a clarity of feeling.

Resonant Thoughts: Graham Massey On Composing On the Mute Buttons

“The way we used to compose was sort of like filling a 24-track tape full of loops, basically. Some of them will be 8-bar loops, some of them will be 2-bar loops, some of them will be 6-bar loops. So they’d all spiral ‘round each other while you composed on the Mute buttons. And one of the aspects of there being four of us in the band—is eights hands operating the mixing desk. Because we didn’t use automated mixing back then.”

Graham Massey, 808 State