I spend more time editing music than I do recording it. As I’ve talked about this topic here and here on this blog, my typical workflow is to work up pieces over a few weeks and then put them aside for about a year. (Isn’t this the aging secret of cheese- and wine-making?) Eventually I open up the files with an uncluttered mindset because now I have some distance from the fraught moments of getting the ideas down. While I may add things here or there, now I edit.
Editing is the first time I take a look at the MIDI notes. They look cool, almost pretty—like maps of hidden elegances revealed in the sounds’ journey from sound to notation. I notice their designs and symmetries now, how a three-note left hand chord looks like a ledge, above which an ascending right hand melody looks like bricks stacked in a gravity-defying left to right staircase. I see counterpoint to nowhere, themes that stutter, attempts at polyphony, fragments of melodies, and chords I didn’t know my hands knew. In other words, I see a record of how I was trying to think while I was playing. Editing is also the first time I compare what I hear to what I’m seeing. Hearing drives the decision-making, and seeing takes a supporting role: if something sounds awry I listen again (and again and again) while following the shapes on the screen to figure out where the problem could be. Maybe a finger slip on the keyboard led a note to be a smidge late or a tad soft, or maybe when I was playing I thought it was a good expressivo idea. But now it sounds off and needs my help.
On my current project (begun a year ago), I’m trying to do more with less—trying to be less interventionist. One problem editing introduces is that it grants you the power to decimate the very qualities that made the thing you’re editing special in the first place: one has to resist the urge to fix everything and instead leave the work’s poetry intact because it isn’t always clear how a music’s various elements interact to produce enchantment. In this regard, a piece of music is like a natural ecosystem. I might, for example, hear a note that is too loud and my instinct is to tame it—to bring it back in line with the other notes around it. Eight times out of ten this is required when the note is distractingly loud. But in those other two cases, the note’s volume affects how the sounds that come before and after it are heard. The distractingly loud note may in fact be setting up something, or drawing our attention somewhere for a second, which buys the music time to do other things, almost subliminally. I’m not sure how these dynamics work, but it has happened numerous times that I tamed a loud note and then realized that I had also killed three or four other things I couldn’t put my ear on. (Thankfully there is Undo.) Another danger with editing is wanting to try out a bunch of alternative solutions when those may not be necessary. If what you have works, let it work and seek no more. As Jason Fried puts it in the book Rework, aim for efficient ninja solutions.
There’s a lot of similarities between editing music and editing prose. First, the goal in each case is to make what you have—the notes, or the words—sound more musical. It may sound cliché, but a musical piece of music or a musical piece of writing flows with a kind of rhythm, building from one moment or idea to the next with a sense of inevitability. The novelist Haruki Murakami describes how this rhythm “comes from the combination of words, the combination of the sentences and paragraphs, the pairings of hard and soft, light and heavy, balance and imbalance, the punctuation, the combination of different tones” (Absolutely On Music, pp. 98-99). Maybe Murakami’s hard/soft, light/heavy, and balance/imbalance pairings explain how a single distractingly loud note can also positively impact how we hear the sounds around it?
A second similarity between editing music and prose is that they both benefit from undergoing iterations. While the creative moment of improvising (composing on the fly) might have arrived and disappeared in a few minutes, editing takes place over a much longer time span as you patiently visit the work numerous times. Each visit reveals new things you might re-shape so to make what you have clearer and more what it was trying to be the first time around. Editing says to the music or the prose, let’s see what I notice today to help you say what you wanted to say.
Make beat 1 or the downbeats obvious.
There needs to be a hook.
Write a great melody.
Don’t repeat too much.
Disguise your effects processing.
Make it sound like music that is already out there.
Make it danceable.
Make the drums “punchy.”
Make sure everything is in tune.
There’s an achievable “pro sound.”
Make it relaxing and easy to listen to.
The groove needs to swing.
Presets are bad.
Less is more.
More is less.
You should like your own music.
The musical tastes of your audience matters.
Your audience cares about what you do.
Some sounds date more easily than others.
Software sounds worse than hardware.
Hardware sounds better than software.
Real music is music you make with others.
Music performed in real time sounds better than programmed/sequenced music.
Music production isn’t composing.
Musical structure is the only way to musical rigor.
A chord progression needs to progress.
“If the Nineties were defined by the loop (the ‘good’ infinity of the seamlessly looped breakbeat, Goldie’s ‘Timeless’), then the twenty-first century is perhaps best captured in the ‘bad’ infinity of the animated GIF, with its stuttering, frustrated temporality, its eerie sense of being caught in a timetrap.
This frustrated, angular time–and the enjoyment of it–is at the heart of footwork. The genre can sound like an impenetrable thicket of rhythms if the thing you lock onto first is the most distinctive thing about footwork: the coiling spasms of super-dry snares. Lock into the floaty synth pads and the vocals, however, and footwork comes on as strangely mellow.”
Mark Fisher, K-Punk (2018)
exquisite—beautiful, lovely, elegant, fine, magnificent, superb, well-crafted
Make it exquisite. This phrase pops up from time to time as an end-goal for whatever I’m working on, a reminder that the made thing should be as well-crafted as I can make it and have some kind of attractiveness (at least for me, and hopefully for you). In writing, there’s exquisite word choice, exquisite sentences or paragraphs, exquisite form, and exquisite conception. In music, there’s exquisite chords and melodies, and an exquisite sense of rhythm or pacing. The via negativa art of leaving material out of a work is another kind of making something exquisite. Even one’s workflow can be exquisite— like when an effortless moment turns into something significant.
I thought about the idea of exquisiteness recently while watching an electronic music instructional tutorial on YouTube. I watch these videos in part to prod myself towards technical stuff I don’t know, and in part to get a sense of what other musicians (apparently) like. The producer in this video was friendly, unabashedly geeky, self-deprecating, and skilled in knowing his way around his software. But about eight minutes into the sixteen minute tutorial I was convinced that he had no taste, and it was clear to me that without taste it was doubtful he would make anything exquisite-sounding. I couldn’t stand his music, but I kept watching as he lead us through numerous “cool features” and “cool tricks” of the software, showing us how they could be mobilized to make “cool sounds.” I thought about the limits of cool: cool only means something if it sounds exquisite, right? No one ever says that’s a nifty piece of music. They say that’s a beautiful piece of music. Nifty and beautiful inhabit different strata of accomplishment: nifty can mean skilled, while the beautiful is something aesthetically pleasing to the senses.
As I watched I thought about the interactions between the producer, his software, and his music. I could see and hear a connection between the parameters on the screen and his musical choices. He tweaked a knob and the sound changed: this cool feature allows me to create this sound. I wondered why he thought the sound was cool in the first place and wished he had talked about that more. How did he come by his knowing? Rather than chase after the exquisite, the producer seemed content to simply make a cool sound and let that be its own kind of accomplishment.
One general criticism of music instructional videos—and certainly ones about electronic music posted in the Wilds of YouTube—is that they propose shortcuts and quick-fixes to hack a creative process. With electronic music videos, the unstated assumption is that if one knows how to make enough cool sounds somehow these sounds will coalesce to produce exquisite music. But so far I have never heard exquisite music in these videos. Like musical instrument stores, the videos are far removed from wherever it is that exquisite music lives. It’s as if the producers are performing music production without producing its most valuable good. Whatever its relationship to technique, taste, style, or cool sounds, how to make exquisite music remains unexplained.