Ad Hoc Processes As Creative Spur

“If you do things the way everyone else does, you’re gonna get the same results everyone else does. It’s really, really good to mess with your process.”

James Holden

It can be useful for electronic music producers to regularly devise ad hoc workflow processes to spur musical output that’s original, or at least novel. There are a number of ways to approach the ad hoc, including not doing what you usually do or doing something out of your comfort zone of familiarity. What defines ad hoc workflow processes though, is your decision to commit to an improvised, makeshift, and uncertain way of producing sounds. As is the case with many kinds of craft, the specifics of a way, a method, or a technique are less important than your devotion to seeing where its processes might lead you.

I recently found a novel process while fiddling around in an unfamiliar DAW, getting to know some of the DAW’s included instruments, clicking here and there to look at their GUIs and listen to their sounds. I was far from my regular working environment, in a space where none of my familiar moves were leading me anywhere. (How do I add a new track? Can I drag a note by holding down the mouse?…) But then I happened upon a simple electric piano sound. I liked the simplicity of the sound –it was a Fender Rhodes emulation–and even more, I liked how responsive the sound was to my touch. The instrument felt acoustic–no dynamic seemed too soft to trigger it. I began playing super softly, with the headphone volume cranked up. For a moment, the unfamiliar DAW was a congenial space because I had found a sound in it to play with. Maybe I could try making something with this sound?

Over a week, I recorded some electric piano playing each day. To this track I tried adding a few other supporting sounds for atmosphere. It didn’t matter so much what these sounds were–pads, textures, basses–because they were secondary to the electric piano. After roughly mixing one of the pieces, I bounced it down. It was done…Or was it still a piece in progress? I wondered what would happen if this file were just a first step on the way to a more interesting piece? What if I used these electric piano improvisations as sample material for something else?

I dragged the WAV file back into my home DAW, and then into a step sequencer. My idea was to see how the electric piano music could work as a series of smaller samples. Now the ad hoc was in flow: I pitched the file down six semitones (12 sounded too muddy, and pitching it up didn’t work) and began scrolling through it, listening for interestingness. Pitching down the electric piano and its supporting parts made them unfamiliar. What is that granular percussive texture in the background? The texture had been a pad with a noisy timbre, but now it was entirely something else–a something partly made by me, and partly by an ad hoc process. Whenever I found an interesting bit I looped it to hear if was enchanting or annoying, whether it flourished or suffered from repetition.

As I gathered repeating bits I liked, I used the same process on other tracks I had made in the unfamiliar DAW: re-importing the keyboard solos back into the step sequencer and then searching within them for complementary tones, chords, and patterns. The ad hoc process had transformed the sounds: now the electric piano was a lower-pitched gong, now the supporting parts were amorphous textures. I setttled on using one repeating chord as a through-line, while two others worked as interweaving support parts. I added a fourth part on top of this three-part texture, like a new chord progression floating above. Even though their materials were my electric piano chords, nothing about these parts sounded familiar. I don’t know what these sounds or chords are, but I like them! After the session, I reflected on how I had built loop-based pieces out of a linear-based improvisation.

Fiddling around in an unfamiliar DAW had led me to an electric piano sound, which led to making a piece based around it, importing the WAV file back into my home DAW, sampling from it, and constructing a new set of parts from these samples. In hindsight, I didn’t have to use an electronic piano sound as my starting point, but I did because the sound’s plainness and responsiveness caught my attention enough to commit to it. (One always starts somewhere, even an arbitrary somewhere, or as John Cage advised: begin anywhere.) I didn’t have to add supporting parts for this sound, but I did to hear what random textures I might find in the unfamiliar DAW’s collection of instruments and presets. Finally, I didn’t have to import the WAV into a sequencer to create looping samples. But the ad hoc runs on curiosity, transforming I have to into What if I did this? The ad hoc re-positions a finished track as a first step on the way to another piece, reveals unfamiliar creative terrain, and remixes our habitual ways of thinking.

2 thoughts on “Ad Hoc Processes As Creative Spur

  1. Very interesting thought[s] I do the same thing as I use Cakewalk as my main DAW. Maschine as a scratch pad with some full production and also Reaper. It is fun sometimes to use Maschine to start drums and loops them go I to Cakewalk a use it as a vsti and continue or the Maschine loops as outtakes. I am DjRenigade on Bandcamp and most major streaming services.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes–it can be useful build one kind of musical thing in one place, then bring that into another DAW to do different kinds of work with it. Each DAW has a different aesthetic feel as well.

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