The term macros comes from computing, where it refers to a single instruction that unfolds into a set of instructions to perform a task. In computer-based electronic music production, macros often refer to single commands triggered by a knob to carry out several tasks at once. In Ableton Live, an example of this is the software’s Macro Knobs that allow one to control multiple parameters simultaneously. A single knob can be mapped (linked) to settings on say, a reverb, a filter, and a distortion, so that turning the knob increases/decreases settings on these units together. Macros enable the musician to feel as if she has many hands working at once, her senses extended, her touch amplified into multiple dimensions of sound-feeling.
I’ve been thinking about macros in a less technical, more generalized sense of instructions I give myself en route to furthering and finishing tracks. In self-help articles about music production, we often read about “workflow” and “process” and with these concepts, tips, tricks, techniques, and hacks for how to get musical things done. Perhaps an under-acknowledged problem, however, is that each track is its own uncharted terrain, a topography-in-progress without a readymade map, not a blank slate upon which to apply tips and tricks. A key to production is that every track contain within itself answers to its questions. To illustrate, my most useful macros are quite general prods for moving forward that help me use what I already have in new ways. Here are six examples.
One thing at a time. I tend to finish one musical step before tackling the next one. For example, if I’m working with drum sounds, I might start by customizing every sound in the kit before attempting to play a part on it. Once I’m playing a part, I record the part as a complete kind of phrase before I consider processing it with effects. Once I’m processing the part with effects, I settle one on effect before adding another to hear them in combination. In other words, every production step is somewhat self-contained with its own achievable goal. The power of one thing at a time as a macro is that multiple steps can, and often do, add up to make sounds impossible to achieve any other way.
Morph timbres. If I have already played a part, I’ll reuse this played part somewhere else. In this way, chords become bass lines, bass lines become percussion, and percussion becomes atmosphere. Polyphonic chords played on a mono sound and pitched down two octaves becomes bass. A bass minus decay and sustain on its notes becomes percussion. Percussion run through reverb gives it a long tail, turning discrete hits into washes of sound.
Make copies at different rates of speed. If I have a fast part I’ll make a slower-moving copy of it, and if I have a slow part I’ll make a faster-moving copy of it. Inside the DAW, MIDI and audio can be stretched and compressed so that they move at different rates of speed. How will it sound? Try it to find out. Making copies at different rates of speed is a way to get to know the “DNA” of one’s materials.
Move away from the obvious. If a sound or a chord or a beat or an arrangement sounds too obvious, I tinker with it until it sounds less so. There’s nothing wrong with the obvious, except in music.
Amplify the pivotal. I pay attention to which elements in the music are most responsible for what I like about it. Sometimes it’s a small detail in the sound, or a lingering note, a chord, a semi-mistake, or maybe the striking juxtaposition of a super ambient sound over a super dry one. I make notes about pivotal elements, in the hopes that one day I’ll figure out a macro for how to best amplify them.
Stay supple. Finally, and contrary to the overly-analytical frame of this blog, I work playfully and quickly to get things done before the onset of too much conscious thinking. Sometimes the best macro is pretending that you’re making music for some other reason, and when you’re wondering What’s the point of this again? it’s time for a swim.
“The electronic medium seems to attract a long, motley caravan of young, inexperienced and often unprepared ‘beatnik type’ self-titled composers, who believe that the world began yesterday and they you only have to push buttons and prepare IBM cards to achieve magical results.”
– Aurelio de la Vega, “Regarding Electronic Music” (1965)
(The 2021 Playlist.)
Can I hear the part perfectly?
Is the piece’s structure audible?
Is the pacing/tempo right?
Nail the part the first time.
Stay value neutral and suspend disbelief about the music’s prospects.
Close enough for now keeps the process moving.
Good taste is the sharpest tool.