Production Mindsets: Volume

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“Can I have everything louder than everything else?”— Ritchie Blackmore

Trying to get just the right volume for every element in the mix is frustrating, because there are so many factors contributing to how we perceive a sound. There is the timbre of the sound, the register it’s playing in, the part it’s playing, as well as its context (the other sounds and effects that surround and interact with it) and last but not least, your state of mind. I have often had the experience of turning a sound up for one reason, and then, a few moments later, turning it back down for another reason, which leads me back to where I began. This is why getting a mix together can be slow going.

The technique—if you can call it that—that has helped me the most with figuring out volume is to simply listen to the music as a totality, pay attention to my immediate impressions, and make adjustments based on that. Recently I made notes on some mixes. As I scribbled down shorthand for each piece (“piano quiet” and “overall quiet”) I realized that my task for the day was to listen through the pieces and track several sets of volumes. I needed to figure out if the piano was loud enough, if the supporting parts were loud enough (or too loud, which causes the piano to sound too soft), and also adjust the overall volume of the piece if need be. Listening through the beginning of the pieces, my immediate impression was that on most of them the piano lacked punch. It was too soft. But one of the pieces sounded better than the rest, so I used that as a benchmark in terms of volume, EQ, and compression settings. Then I went back to other pieces and tried to make them sound more like the one that sounded better than the rest.

Immediate impressions are valuable insofar as they tell you something is wrong with the music without explaining exactly why this is so. Your job is to experiment by making small adjustments until you can longer discern any problems in the mix and every sound doesn’t sound louder than everything else.

Being In It: Thoughts Whilst Editing Music To Make It Better

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Let me open up the first piece again. (Double click.) Okay I’ll listen from the top. Oh, I was going to EQ the piano. (Search for EQ, click and drag.) I had a preset I saved. (Piano is playing. Load EQ.) It sounds a little boxy on this piece though. (Move the EQ bump to a higher frequency range, then a lower one as the music plays.) Do I need to EQ the same frequency but with less gain? Or a different frequency? (Move EQ back to starting position, and lower the gain.) It still sounds too loud. (Go to mixer page and lower the fader a fraction as the music plays.) Better. I think it sounds better. (Turn off EQ to listen to original piano. Turn it back on to listen to EQ’d piano. It does sound better.)…I can’t hear this second (effected) piano part. (Move level up from 9.8 to 10.2.) Was there a reason I had it this low? (Move from 10.2 even higher.) I want it to be adding more energy. (Solo the part.) I like it but some of it is lost when the other parts are playing. (Unsolo the part.)…Can I automate that reverb on the main piano? (Click on reverb. Notice the “Stereo Width” parameter.) I could start it narrow and then get wider and back to narrow again. (Click on Effect Send Automation lane—a thin red horizontal line. Click once at the beginning, once in the middle, and once at the end. Drag the middle dot upwards to make an elongated triangle shape.) It’s hard to hear the reverb’s width, but you can feel the difference. Can’t you? (Solo the piano to listen to reverb width.) Why is this so loud? (Turn down monitors a tad.) I can feel the reverb opening up…When the bass enters I want to feel it but not notice it. (Turn down fader a tad. Play the entrance again.) It’s still noticeable. (Turn it down a bit more.) It should be so subtle it just resonates the space from below. (Listen again.) It’s better. Yes, it’s better. Save that. (Hit “Save.”)

Resonant Thoughts: Nick Papadimitriou’s “Scarp” (2012)

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“This book is…an inquiry undertaken in order to systematically ‘feel out’ the presence of my subject matter as it brushes against the consciousness…I will reconstruct the ghostly voices I hear while walking on Scarp in an attempt to relate my own story to theirs, to locate my own voice and sensations in the ones that came before me.”

“The deeper implication is that the world that confronts us through our immediate surroundings is alive and intrinsically valuable
in ways not amenable to instrumental reasons or economic reductionism” (10-11).

“I used walking as an instrument of research,
the aim being to step straight through the cracks in the apparent world” (24).

“Proximity flight: that’s what I call this using of environment to trigger mental journeys to another place and time in which the same stimuli can be found. I find it lifts my sense of the environment out of its codified framework and into fresh possibilities of interpretation, my eyes wiped clean by the resultant defamiliarisation” (44).

“I hit the underlying circuitry, the pulse-energy that pushes up to manifest” (63).

“I always approach my chosen subject from a position of near total ignorance…
I never seem to gain the accretion of knowledge
that would enable me to declare myself an expert” (78).

“Which aspect of the experiential field
serves as the sine qua non for understanding a place?” (79)

“organic interface between the human world
and processes of longer and deeper duration” (80).

“Deep topography is concerned primarily with the experience of place,
not its description” (253).

Nick Papadimitriou, Scarp (2012)

A Way Of Thinking About A Blog

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“What was it that I really wanted? That was when I recognized that my subject was the natural history of the summer night. But there was no such subject, so I stopped.”

“Then I quickly remembered the significance of sitting still and waiting, for stories or whatever. Sooner or later everything seems to be part of the same puzzle.”

-Fredrik Sjoberg, The Art Of Flight

What’s the true subject matter of this blog? What does it hope to be about? What is it that I want from it (and want you to take from it)? I reflected on these questions recently upon rereading parts of entomologist Fredrik Sjoberg’s The Art Of Flight. In one passage (see epigraph above) he describes his turn towards entomology, but not before drifting in half-reverie, as he often does, towards other possible career trajectories, “pondering deeply all the while.” No matter how impractical the idea seems—“the natural history of the summer night” isn’t exactly a viable subject for a career—Sjoberg has the time to consider the gamut of its implications for his life. Anyway, it was upon reading this passage that I thought about my blog.

I think it’s about music, making music, and listening to music. It’s about music as a scene in which to explore how ideas come to be. It’s about attention and concentration as they manifest themselves through music. And it’s about invention and variations on a themes related to musical action. I admit I often dance around these themes—talking about them indirectly, or perpetually delaying the onset of the main event. There are analytical pieces about playing and composing, reviews, reproductions of art depicting musicians, quotations from books and articles, favorite tracks, fictional ventrilo-dialogues, profiles of unusually interesting musicians, links to my academic articles, and even poems about music. But really, these posts are just elaborate ways to stay busy while I’m busy making music.

Which brings me to a frustration. In dancing around the main event of making music, the blog perpetually comes up short—staying busy, yes, but essentially staying out of my way. It comes at music before or after I’ve made or listened to it, but never during. (In the blog’s defense: How can it do otherwise?) In that sense the blog is based on memory as it tries to distill and compress what could happen or has already happened. It theorizes in lieu of sounding. It speculates about meaning instead of dwelling in it. It looks for connections to the extra-musical picture even though making music is always smaller picture and resolutely in the moment. It works with text instead of sounds. Even if writing about music is not quite analogous to dancing about architecture, it’s certainly a different way of knowing from making music. If music, as the poet Wallace Stevens once said, is feeling, not sound, maybe writing about music is the same thing, only once removed from sound’s stomping ground.

In light of these limitations—and keeping in mind Sjoberg’s idea that “sooner or later everything seems to be part of the same puzzle”—the blog is most useful to me and possibly you as an amplifier of my musical work. What I mean is that everything amplifies everything else. For example, I’ll often begin writing by thinking about what I’ve been doing music-wise—what’s working, what’s not, what I hope to do next. (I like lists and list-making.) Writing about the craft of playing or composing or listening is reflexive and feeds back into the craft, back into the doing, back into the action. Writing is asking yourself to notice something over and over again until it begins to reveal its subtleties to you. It’s a Noticing Game. The reward for your persistence is a changed perspective on what you do. Like a microphone placed in front of an amplifier, you become your own feedback instrument, making unexpectedly new sounds out of a single tone.