On Seeking Beautiful Outputs

“I’m lazy; that’s why I like machines. They do things I would not have thought of. I can put things into them, and then I can see something happen there beyond what I would have had the time, the taste, or the endurance to have produced myself. I usually don’t want to slavishly make something in detail. I want to produce the conditions from which it and many its could come into existence. I think of myself as a machine builder in a way. Making a record for me is inventing a way of making music.”

Brian Eno

If your instrument is the DAW, a hindrance to working is its infinite sound possibilities. What to do now, next, and how should you do it? When I’m puzzled about how to develop a track I remember something the physicist David Deutsch once said: seek beautiful outputs. This idea, which recalls Brian Eno’s thinking about musical systems, helps us understand workflow differently. Workflow is devising conditions that might lead to beautiful outputs.

Beautiful, of course, is not the only musical goal. Some composers prioritize complicated or intricate constructions, while others pursue simple, tuneful melodies, shocking noisescapes, or relentlessly slamming beats. But beauty, however defined in whatever musical idiom you’re working in, is always part of the equation. And beauty slams by subtle means: it’s the small differences that makes a big difference. Beauty is the thing you notice that transforms or elevates a music into something special, into something deserving your attention.

Compositionally, beauty in music emerges in many ways. It can be subtractive or additive, the by-product of what you take away or add. It can be cumulative, the result of multiple parts layering and interacting. And beauty can be accidental and beguiling, as when you find or make a sound you didn’t know would work until you encountered it. (How did that happen?)

Deutsch’s idea of seeking beautiful outputs can be a guide for the composer scratching the surface of a DAW’s possibilities. As I’ve gained experience making tracks, I’ve begun thinking about a music’s early stages as inputs for its latter stage outputs. For example, I recently tried scaling back some of my keyboard improvisations to allow more space into them. The reason for this is that further down the production chain I may fill these spaces (or not) with other sounds that I can’t yet know.

Also, I’m scaling back not just improvisations, but expectations. If you think of your playing as input rather than a finished piece, it doesn’t need to be perfect. It only needs to be an interesting starting point. Still, I find it helps to follow performance standards. First, an improvisation should hold my attention for the duration of a take. If I’m not feeling it, I start over, repeating the process until something is happening. A second standard is to make sure the improvisation works as a solo, free of supporting parts, effects, or production trick-wizardry. Would I listen to this as it is? If I can, we move on.

With an improvisation recorded, I switch gears, reassured that I have inputs to play with. The improvisation works as a solo, but can it spawn beautiful outputs? There are reliable techniques that producers use to make this happen–

resample it,
cut it into pieces,
re-pitch it,
put it into a sequencer,
effect into something else,
convert the MIDI to audio,
convert the audio to MIDI,
stretch and slow it down,
compress and speed it up

–but the most exciting way to discover beautiful outputs is by trying a new technique each time around. This is a third performance standard: each time around a process or workflow, do something new to turn repetition into practice. (As the neurophysiologist Nikolai Bernstein insightfully says about practicing: practice is a particular type of repetition without repetition.) As I have written, I’ll often pair effects to hear what happens. While this isn’t an original move, it has led me to original sounds I probably would not have encountered any other way. If the sound is blah I keep changing settings, or swap in other effects, until something is happening. I save these effects racks and their variations, but I won’t re-use them unless I change them again. In production, there is nothing more unproductive than nostalgia for what has already been done, blocking us from exploring the unknown.

Exploring is play is discovery is beauty: what matters is not the techniques an electronic music producer uses but whether or not these techniques create outputs that are beautiful in some way. Computers, software, and sounds come and go. But making a beautiful output is always a prospect on the horizon, beckoning and sometimes within reach of our imperfect practice.

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