Yours Alone: Music Production Ergonomics

(photo: Paul Skorupskas)

“If you really want to separate your work from everyone else’s,
every time you come to a Y in the road, don’t think about which way to go;
automatically take the toughest route. Everybody else is taking the easiest one.”

– Richard Serra in Leonard Koren’s What Artists Do (2018)

I sometimes wonder, Why I don’t have my DAW set up in a way that reflects how I work? I’ve made templates, but then don’t use them because while I like the idea of focusing on certain sounds, my intentions always dissolve once I get a project going. My attention is hijacked by something unexpected, like a single interesting sound or two, upon which I start making music. At some point I notice the rest of my unused template and think, What do I do with all of this?

What I’ve found is that my process oscillates, moment by moment, between fumbling around and moments of clarity as to what to do. And since this blog is about sharing the thinking behind music production, consider my far-from-unique experiences as a ground for broader discussions about crafting sound in the DAW. From me to you: surely every producer can learn something by considering the question, How do I like to work?

If you wish to keep your options open in music production, there’s no set way of working: a piece can begin and develop by any means. But if you examine your go-to workflows, some generate more interesting results than others. A technique I often return to is setting up juxtapositions of one unrelated part against another whose sound is unpredictable and surprising. For example, I’ll dissect vocal samples into short phrases and sustained single pitches. I pick only the evocative bits–the held dissonances, unfolding cadences, and perfect unisons–that sound good on their own, or that suggest an unsounded musical accompaniment. It’s like making a sample pack whose musical purpose isn’t yet clear. The producer Richard Dust of The Black Dog describes a similar process of assembling a bespoke sample bank:

“When we start, we create simple banks of samples to try and get some very basic loops and tones going, just to try and set the tone and style that we want to start with. That usually gets completely thrown out the window by the end of the project, but because it’s a start point, it helps us all to focus on a certain idea.”

Next I bring the vocal samples together with an unrelated chord sequence/beat I’ve prepared to hear what happens. Sometimes there are problems I didn’t foresee–maybe the singing is three semitones out of key and 34 cents out of tune (who knew a few cents conveys so much sense?), or the tempo’s all wrong. But once I retune and find a better speed I’m often surprised by the voices-against-chords/beat juxtaposition. It often sounds startlingly more than the sum of its parts–like something I could never compose had I tried to accompany the vocals. The freshness of this sound reminds me how rarely I achieve compelling results by playing along with samples–in fact, trying to fit my playing to a sample sort of diminishes the playing. The producer Four Tet (Kieren Hebden) similarly describes how manipulating samples of his own playing is the most compelling kind of performance:

“I started to find that the most original sounds I was making and the ones that were giving me sort of a signature style was when I was manipulating these samples to fit with each other. The artifacts and weirdness that would come out of what was proving to me more interesting than me picking up an instrument to play. A classic example for me is I play guitar: all the interesting guitar parts I was coming up with was me messing with a sample of myself playing guitar.”

Bringing together samples with unrelated chord sequences/beats is just one workflow I find useful. There are, of course, countless techniques producers use to put music together, hundreds of which are documented in this database. But even if you have no set way of producing, it’s worthwhile to understand your typical workflow and whether your musical system supports and enhances it or gets in the way. Production ergonomics is this psychic/aesthetic fit between the configuration of your system and the idiosyncrasies of your workflow. Once you know how you like to work (for now at least), adjust and refine your musical system so that it feels inspiring, organized, easy to use, and yours alone.

Database: Lorenzo Senni On Build-ups

“It was just one of the first experiments of how the people could react to […] this like 45, 50 minutes of build-ups taken from trance tracks just looped very precisely that sounds like it’s coming, but it’s always the same loop. After a while you realize that the filter is not opening, the delay is not coming. It’s not growing.

The build-up is just a breakdown, everything falls apart a bit. Then they have to take you back to the kick. I realized that it was the most interesting part in this genre with these sounds because the other parts with the kick and the drum, it’s what defines the genre. But it’s closed, the genre is defined by that so it needs to be locked in a very closed formula. But the build-up was the only part where the musician could express himself, let’s say.”

Lorenzo Senni


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