Templates, No Template

A workflow adjustment I’ve made in recent months is using a DAW template with most of the instruments I like working with. Prior to doing this, I would begin a piece with a piano sound. I still often begin with piano, but the problem with beginning with only a single (and familiar) sound, I realized, is that I forget about all the instruments at my disposal because I don’t see them in front of me. Maybe if they were in front of me it would occur to me to use them? So I set up a template with twenty different VST synthesizers and samplers (including mainstays like Serum and Zebra, as well as more offbeat freebies), each loaded onto its own track, ready to go, ready to be noticed. Inside each of these instruments are my own sounds, but more than that: each one I think of as a yet-to-be-explored universe where almost anything is possible. The prospect of getting to know these possibilities is both exciting and daunting. 

I’ve found that seeing the instruments in my template does shape how I work, mainly by spurring me into fresh directions. For example, Serum is where I’ve made many slow moving pad sounds (two of which I used in Slowdown). When I see Serum in my template now, those pads come to mind and I turn to them as starting points. I might mangle one of them some more, re-save it, and add to Serum’s library. But things get more interesting when I combine template instruments in new ways. The pad may come from Serum, but bass tones may come from an Arturia instrument, and a sample (or the whole track in progress) might be dropped into one of Native Instruments’ interesting granular tools whose potentials I only faintly understand. As the piece builds I may remember something about an instrument not apparent until now: Didn’t I use some static sounds in from there to make percussion? Didn’t I save a sine tone bowed sound in that library? A good chunk of the producing-composing process is letting one’s faint intuitions about what to do next come to the foreground of one’s consciousness and rolling with them as you put together disparate sounds and textures for the first time. Editing and finer judgments can come later.

As our templates facilitate the play of our faint intuitions, it’s also worth noting that we have no surefire templates for how to work. But maybe that’s a good thing, for if there were a script for how to assemble a piece of music, both the script and the music made with it would soon grow stale. In sum, setting up a template sets parameters for our creative play—parameters within which we seek a balance between, on the one hand, doing compositionally sensible things and, on the other, genuinely surprising ourselves by trying something that shouldn’t work, but somehow does. Templates, no template: each time we sit down to make music we’ll figure out anew a balance between adhering to constraints and going for it.

Curating The Week: Blur, Imperfections, The Time Course Of Creativity

An article about optical blur (which has me thinking about blurring in music).

“There are still artists for whom the purity of optical blur—a tiny depth of field with a single detail picked out, or total lack of focus across the composition—says something important about the limits of perception, or usefully frustrates a viewer’s expectations. The delicate domestic studies of Rinko Kawauchi, the out-of-reach architecture and interiors of Hiroshi Sugimoto, jewel-colored mirages by Uta Barth, Catherine Leutenegger, and Bill Armstrong—all of these owe something to the long history of deliberate blur, but also, perhaps, to the kind of maddening error we all used to make when we forgot to focus, or snapped away too close to our subject.”

An article about the value of imperfections on music recordings.

“When music gets cleaned up too much, listeners lose opportunities to connect their imperfections with those in the music, the human traces that might otherwise reach the ear and burrow into the heart. Fewer are the opportunities to hear oneself in the music, to follow the threads that tie the listener to it. The effect is the same when the pumped-up realities we encounter on social media leave people who are feeling their own unfiltered humanness at a distance, isolated.”

An article about the time course of creativity.

“Creativity is the generation of ideas that are novel and useful. Research finds that, when generating solutions to a creative problem, people typically do not generate their most creative ideas first. Instead, creative ideas tend to emerge over time, such as over the course of an ideation session or even over the course of a career. One reason for this time course is because of the cognitive processes that underlie idea generation itself. New ideas are generated by integrating and recombining knowledge in working memory. When solving a new problem, the information that comes to mind first (i.e., is the most cognitively accessible) tends to draw on common and obvious cognitive associations, which tend to result in more common—and less creative—ideas. After working on the problem for a period of time, people begin to draw on less common associations and less obvious approaches and, ultimately, arrive at more creative ideas. This feature of idea generation is one reason why persistence is a consistent predictor of creative performance.”

Database: Grischa Lichtenberger On Steps Of Enhancement

“I very rarely go back or delete. I add one eq after the other and each one of them is like a step of correction or enhancement of the previous one. Of course it is maybe the worst thing you could do, but it makes the sound more yours, or better: it crystallizes what your relationship actually is. That’s what I like about electronic music production – it isn’t said that in the end the trumpet-sound must resemble the original trumpet. After everything it could sound more like drums or like a piano.”

Grischa Lichtenberger


The Analytical-Intuitive Fader

“The musician,
like the writer or speaker,
regularly confronts his conduct
as performance or not.”

David Sudnow, Talk’s Body (1979)

On one of my favorite VST synthesizers there’s a volume mix fader that allows one to move between the sounds of two oscillators (Osc). The control is delightfully simple: when the fader is all the way up, the sound is 100 percent Osc 1, when it’s all the way down it’s 100 percent Osc 2, and when positioned in the middle it’s 50 percent of each. It’s this kind of straightforwardly useable parameter that I turn to in the flow of making music, when I’m looking for a way to slightly shift a sound without wrecking it. Often the best kind of sound design is the subtle kind–where a sound undergoes an almost subliminal transformation that’s felt before noticed. 

Now we zoom out: the Osc volume mix fader can be a metaphor for how electronic music producers shift back and forth between different modalities of knowing and action. We can think of these as analytical and intuitive modalities. Both are ways of problem-solving, the difference being that the analytical way is a conscious cognitive activity while the intuitive way is unconscious. In artistic work, both modalities are always in play. I think of them as frames of mind that are in dialog to create a liminal space in which one works. It’s in this space that artists make decisions about what and how to create.


Part of what makes making music interesting to me is noticing the habits, routines, and patterns I turn to over and over again that have me oscillating between different frames of mind. For example, in my workflow I notice a pattern whereby I begin quite consciously, deliberately deciding on a sound and trying play a part with it. The playing’s raison d’être is simply that it be some kind of complete performance. Performances, which I’ve written about, can be one minute or one hour, but they have to achieve something emotional, and this entails beginning somewhere, going somewhere, and ending somewhere. (Such a vague definition of performance inspires me to put it into action!) The music’s wheres don’t matter as much as the performance sounding compelling in being where it is. Performance, whether played live or constructed in the DAW, is music’s most potent ingredient.

While the decision to play something is deliberate, my playing itself is intuitive, by which I mean a trying-things-out-on-the-fly, a reaching for notes as shapes and patterns, a trusting that what David Sudnow aptly called ways of the hand will lead me somewhere interesting. But once this performance is recorded, I’m back in analytical mode for a moment, trying to figure out what additional sounds–if any–could come next. Will they be variants of the existing sound, something I’ll fashion by re-sampling it, say? Or will they be unrelated sounds? (How about a glockenspiel?) There are many, many ways I could go.

The next stage unfolds quickly, as I intuitively try out sounds and parts—copying, pasting, moving, stretching, and resampling to scale up, fill out, and orchestrate my initial performance. This trying out of sounds and parts is itself another performance that I try to do in a single gesture–which means rather quickly. Whatever occurs to me I try, and if it works I go with it and then move onto the next bit. The process feels like zig-zagging from one sound layer to another, trying to add to the musical whole in a way that deepens it. And zig-zagging also describes the inner game of remembering previous experiences to guide me again. I might, for example, reach for a sound that I made last week, mainly because it’s still fresh in mind. 

At some point, when I’ve run out of ideas as to add, I return to an analytical frame of mind to assess what I have so far and quickly arrange the parts, change notes, and add in broad volume fades. Even though it’s just a sketch, I might have enough elements now to give me an idea of what the sketch could become if I keep adding to it (or start removing from it). In sum, in the space of an hour or two I’ve moved many times between two different ways of knowing and action. Like dragging the synthesizer’s mix fader between Osc 1 and Osc 2 to re-shape a sound, a producer’s shifting between analytical and intuitive mindsets is a way to change focus and stay sensitive to music’s changing needs of the moment.