Prepare Close At Hand Possibilities, Then Reap The Random

Recently I was building a track out of samples from one of my recordings. I was recycling bits of looped, pitched-down audio, delighting in defamiliarizing myself with music I knew well. Having found a few samples that got along, I reached the stage of being curious about how the audio converted to MIDI might sound (a topic I discuss in Ways Of Tonal Evolutions). I dragged the audio onto a MIDI track and waited for my DAW software to “translate” the samples.

On a whim, I opened Omnisphere, an instrument–like many of the instruments I use–that I intend to use often because of its depth, but forget to. Omnisphere’s sonic terrain is vast, so much so that instead of searching through new sounds I usually revisit the few that I’ve made or customized myself. On this occasion, I had no particular sound in mind, but was curious about what sonics my MIDI track might bring. This is the exciting aspect of working with MIDI derived from audio: lossy translation. The computer software’s wonky interpretation of fluid, sometimes amorphous audio in the form of discrete, sometimes erroneous data bits creates conditions for compelling results. Whether the data trigger pads, percussion, or bass doesn’t matter so much as our surprise from the results.

The first sound I clicked on was a walloping mono bass sound with echoing white noise mixed in. As the sound interpreted its MIDI, it leapt between low and high octaves (sounds that are monophonic, rather than polyphonic, interrupt one note’s sustain when the next note begins), creating an unpredictably rhythmic sound. It reminded me of something Tony Levin might have played on his Chapman Stick bass, which of course led me back to King Crimson’s enchanting “Nuages” that I used to listen to growing up. I found this bass part so unusual yet useful that I declared my search over and continued working on the track.

Later in the day it occurred to me that the fortune of re-encountering this bass sound was connected to my having made the sound in the first place, forgetting about it, then discovering it again. I had, in other words, prepared a possibility and reaped its random rewards. Experiences like this illustrate the value of tinkering on sounds that may have no immediate utility and saving them so they might be used down the road. Such tinkering or sound design gradually cultivates a garden of what Harold Budd called “close at hand” sounds that can be drawn upon–or in my case, stumbled upon. The power of close at hand sounds is that (1) they are pre-filtered by your former self and so will probably continue to sound halfway interesting today, and (2) they give you license not to search endlessly through sounds with little connection to your work, which keeps a workflow flowing. To conclude by way of an analogy: music production is a species of gardening, where sounds are sown and reaped in an ongoing creative cycle of exploration and exploitation.

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