“…Who strive—you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,—
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter) – so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia. I am judged…”
– Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto” (“The Faultless Painter”) (1855)
First attributed to the 19th century poet Robert Browning, the phrase less is more might be a cliche, but like many cliches, it’s often true. It’s especially true in music production, and doubly true with regards to one’s production sound palette.
While working on a project over the past nine months I’ve thought from time to time about how few sounds I use relative to what I have available to me, and how those few sounds have, over time, revealed so much. When I began the work, I was searching for sounds with only their broad timbral contours in mind. I would think,
I need a kind of soft-attack, mid-range pad sound,
or I need thin bell-like sound,
or I need a sort of nasal bass sound.
In a word, I was searching for rather generic electronic music sounds. The idea was to somewhat cover my timbre bases and assemble a sound set that could work well together and make a foundation for something which I hadn’t yet built. I went through the instruments I had in my computer and played and listened to presets I had made and saved. Usually I could tell within a few seconds if a sound was a candidate. (Also, I’m the type to stop searching whenever I’ve found something that seems to work.)
Looking back on it now, it’s good that I limited my search to broad contours, because over the time of the project each of my sounds has changed rather radically. (They’re still changing too.) The important thing is that I had found the sounds inspiring enough to begin making music with them—playing one part, then playing along with another, then another, and another, until I had bits of call and response, layered dialogue going in the form of chords, melodies, and rhythms. It’s also good that I had the foresight to remind myself, I can fix mistakes later, and that I believed that such mistakes could include the sounds themselves. Maybe I would swap out all of the sounds somewhere down the line, because nothing is ever fixed in the digital realm, right?
It turned out that I committed to these sounds I chose, and not only was there was nothing wrong with them, but their less-ness is their more-ness. Working with just a few generic timbres simplified my production process immensely, focusing my attention on how to do things with and to the timbres rather than doubt whether or not they were the “final” or “right” ones for the project. What happened, in other words, is that the music’s complexities blossomed around the sounds as I figured out ways to turn their less-ness into more.
Some of the (conventional) techniques I have written about already, such as resampling, which involves re-recording sounds and amplifying hidden things inherent in them. But there are other ways to play with sounds through effects, volume, stereo placement, or simply cutting them up and swapping and reordering them around. Every time I sit down to work on the music I end up altering the sounds in these small ways in pursuit of the elusive sense of synergy.
A lesson from this is that you don’t need to spend too much time at the outset of a project stressing over exact sounds because everything will change over time as you uncover the generative potential of less is more.
It’s out of date now—most people prefer reading weekly or monthly newsletters, or trance out scrolling through a billion Instagram photos of others performing their lives and framing the world filtered just so—but blogging old-fashioned text still works, still has a place, especially for longer form content. I like blogs. One of my favorites is Rose George’s intermittent dispatches about running in British fell races, at Rose Runs. It has nothing to do with music, but I like reading how she thinks.
You meet interesting strangers, or at least strangers interested in what you think because, after all, they found you. People continue to find my blog despite my attempts to prevent that from happening (kidding). Go Internet!
You become accountable to yourself to say something every day, or at least a few times a week. I went through a period of feeling crap, what am I going to say tomorrow? But this problem was solved by not saying anything for a few days and then something would pop up again (like this post). I subscribe to the old runner’s maxim, commit to putting in the miles. Speed and energy matter of course, but the steady miles of saying something are where transformations happen despite yourself.
You commit to publishing posts regularly, and therefore move the focus from what you’re saying onto the act of saying it.
In moving your focus onto the act of saying, you become less self judgemental. You realize that whether or not your ideas are of interest is not really for you to determine because you’re busy with the saying.
In moving your focus onto the act of saying, you become more picky about what you say. I have many blog sitting posts on the computer because they’re just, meh. This brings to mind what golf commentator Paul Azinger says: Play more shots instead of trying to make perfect swings.
You accumulate an archive of posts. Some of these may prove valuable to you or others down the road. Case in point: one of my most read posts is a ventrilo-dialogue with Rihanna which explores her voice. Now people google “reporter dialogue with singer” to dig up that post. Wow—who knew?
As you accumulate an archive of posts you begin making connections to what you said earlier on and you can link readers to these older posts. Also, you begin amassing a self-propelling set of references that takes on its own energy and sometimes themes emerge.
You write about what interests you and this shifts over time. You might, for instance, begin writing about gardening and then find yourself musing about growth, complex systems, and time. Who knew? Certainly not you. The key is to be open to following the direction of your interests.
When you write about what interests you, you tend to go all in. When I write about something it’s because it’s obsessing me and I want to unravel the threads of that obsession and put them out there. Obsession leads to new interests, new connections, more critical reflection, less judgment, more accountability, more readers, and new ideas for what to write about next.
“What’s really interesting these days for me is people’s idea of sound. We’ve got a whole new generation of musicians—people who, for instance, program a beat box without any experience of a real drummer. When we first got beat boxes, we tried to program them to do what a drummer would do. Nowadays people haven’t got a clue what a drummer would do, but they make the box go ‘do do do da bo baf’, and it’s fantastic, it’s great. I really find that exciting. Drum programming has become quite amazing. The way people get things to sound these days is really quite unbelievable.”
– Trevor Horn in Timothy Warner,
Pop Music: Technology and Creativity (Ashgate, 2003), p. 146