Commit To Beauty

Each day I work I’m unsure as to how to alter music-in-progress I don’t yet like into something I do like. I’ve played something, made a sound or a sample, but when I listen back to the idea there’s no magic–it sounds lackluster, predictable, cliché. Often the problem is that too many little things are not functioning right for enchantment to arise, and so, for the moment at least, the music feels pointless. My task is to figure out what the problems are, fix them, and hopefully turn pointless into meaningful.

Recently I was listening to some marimba samples I had made (actually, played!), letting the three parts repeat and overlap with one another. The music-in-progress had potential, but its logic could be better: it wasn’t clear how the marimbas should interact. One problem is that I don’t know which of the three parts is the “main” one, so I play with their arrangement. Another problem is that some of the samples are cutting off before their ends, so I adjust the sample lengths. (Interesting bits often appear at the ends of musical events.) Another problem is how to EQ each marimba for maximum sound but minimum frequency masking. Which parts should sound full (with more mids and lows) and which ones thin (with fewer mids and lows)? I try various EQ cuts and curves to carve each part so it plays well with the others. And how should the marimbas be panned–in front of the listener or around them? And reverb: Does each part get its own custom setting, or do all of the parts share the same space? (And what kind of space?) I try narrow and wide reverbs with different wet/dry amounts, listening for where the resonance is audibly too little or too much. And of course I adjust and re-adjust the volume relationships among the marimbas, listening for the balance point where the parts sound distinct yet as one.

As I move from EQ to reverb to volume and back again, around a circuit of micro trial and error adjustments (after Nassim Taleb) the music begins to have an aura that I notice–and notice myself noticing. Now that the sounds are in rough balance, my attention moves on: I like the effect the parts’ repetition is having on me, but could the music move more slowly? I turn to tempo, adjusting it from 167 bpm down to 154, which seems like a better speed. (I’ll set a fast default tempo in my project templates to give me rhythm options: you can always subdivide if you want slower beats.) I keep working on the marimba parts, but every few minutes I find myself slowing the tempo down further by a few bpm. What’s happening?

This production story reminds me of the tale about a frog put in tepid water which is gradually brought to a boil without the frog noticing. In my case, after an hour or so of work my piece’s tempo went from 167 to 107, and to my astonishment I could hardly tell the difference! How did I get there? At each step of editing I asked, Would this sound better if it were a bit slower still? and adjusted accordingly. Did something about the looping music lull me—like the frog in a pleasantly warm bath—into accepting the ever-slowing tempo as the optimal one? Or did adjusting and listening make me more attuned to the best tempo for the music? Whatever the case, each incrementally slower tempo somehow feels like the right one.

In sum, I began to hear something attractive in the marimba samples only after considerable futzing around with them. The futzing, which involved a lot of trial and error adjustments to arrangement, EQ, panning, volume, reverbs, and tempo was guided by a decision to turn something lackluster, predictable, and cliché into something interesting. Here lies a lesson. What’s the best way to understand the potentials of your tools and workflows? Commit to making something beautiful and then explore ways of getting it done.

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