Resonant Thoughts: Donella H. Meadows’ “Thinking In Systems” (2008)

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“One of the most powerful ways to influence the behavior of a system is through its purpose or goal. That’s because the goal is the direction-setter of the system, the definer of discrepancies that require action, the indicator of compliance, failure, or success toward which balancing feedback loops work. If the goal is defined badly, if it doesn’t measure what it’s supposed to measure, if it doesn’t reflect the real welfare of the system, then the system can’t possibly produce a desirable result. Systems, like the three wishes in the traditional fairy tale, have a terrible tendency to produce exactly and only what you ask them to produce. Be careful what you ask them to produce.”

“Be especially careful not to confuse effort with result or you will end up with a system that is producing effort, not result.”

Journal Note: Tweaking Audibility, One Part At A Time

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In addition to writing blog posts, I also write notes to myself about music making. These notes are free of narrative and big picture theorizing, focusing instead on the nuts and bolts of what I did, why I did it, and how it worked out. Some notes do eventually become blog posts, but most of them just go in a file to remind me of what I’ve done…and the fact that I’m actually doing something. Here’s a note from a recent session:

“I had a bit of a breakthrough with 11. As I listened I noticed that the cs80 part wasn’t loud enough, so I spent the entire time boosting its volume. By now, I know each of the parts fairly well, and so although I could hear the cs80 pad fine, I was mentally filling in missing details. The part’s lines weren’t actually clear until I raised the volume—sometimes substantially. This is an effective way to work: focus on adjusting one sound at a time through the entire track, as you listen to it in context of everything else. I chose the cs80 not because it’s the most important sound (it isn’t) but because it was the first sound in the mix to jump out at me as being wrong. I spent last week doing something similar with the marimbas: adding slight amounts of presence here and there to boost their audibility (without changing their volume).

Listening to the cs80 part in relation to everything else, I made sure I could hear it well whenever it entered and was important to hear—especially at the outset of its phrases (unless I wanted it to sneak in, which I did, once in a while). Sometimes, when the part wasn’t playing, it’s noise tail (created by distortions) kept going, so I re-shaped those tails some more too. You want to hear the tails because they’re interesting and unstable timbres, but they shouldn’t wash over other important parts. This is exactly what was happening at the beginning of the middle section, which is announced with a single high bell tone. After my first round of adjustments, the cs80’s noise tail was obliterating the bell so I had to go back and keep lowering the noise’s level until the bell was audible again.

The lesson? Push the levels of parts as far as you can for maximum audibility and clarity, but stop and dial it back a touch the moment the level begins interfering with something else in the mix. In a way, we keep returning to Ritchie Blackmore’s famous request—Can I have everything louder than everything else?—but compromise by making sure one part’s quest for loudness doesn’t prevent other parts from being heard too.”   

Without Methods, But With Principles

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Even though I’m always on the lookout for them, I don’t have any reliable methods for producing music beyond trying out a lot different things and going with those things that sound interesting. But even though I’m without methods, I have relied on a few fundamental principles to move my work along. 

Principle No. 1

Begin by playing something and capturing it. This sounds simple and it is! Just improvise on an instrument—play a chord progression on the keyboard, or drum a beat for a bit. Trust that even a moment of your performance is more than enough to build on. The important thing is the act of Capture—capturing yourself playing something. In that playing are traces of ideas that aren’t yet fully formed or apparent to you. Think of your performance as the DNA for the music, containing in embryonic form the essence of what might happen later down the production line.

Principle No. 2

Develop something simple by making it more complex. I learned about this idea from electronic music producer Jlin. Now that you have a moment of your performance, build on that. You can build on it in time, by extending it horizontally, or you can build on it in sound, by adding other sounds and expanding it vertically. To extend your performance, you can copy it in whole or in part, so that a measure or two becomes ten or twenty. To build on your sound, you can effect it, blend other sounds in with it, or resample it to make a different-sounding copy. By using one or all of these techniques, all of a sudden what began as something simple becomes more complex. Things are getting exciting!

Principle No. 3

Notice, keep going, and keep noticing. Having played something and begun the process of making it more complex by building on it in time or in sound, the next step is to notice what you now have and keep going with that. As you develop complexities you will notice new sounds. For example, maybe you repeated a chord shard has now taken on a life of its own, or a series of layered effects have created an enchanting timbre or ambiance. Pay attention to whatever you’re now noticing, and turn your attention there. 

Principle No. 4

Refine. Now that you have played something, developed complexities around and through it, and noticed some new sounds emerging, you can refine what you have. For example, I’m constantly adjusting volumes and EQs, the same way one adjusts seasonings while cooking. Generally speaking, the aim of refining your sounds is to make their essence more articulate. So for example, a clear bell sound can be made even clearer, while a fuzzy, low-fi drum sound can be even fuzzier. Refining your sounds means to make them more of what they already are, distilling them ever closer to their essence. 

Principle No. 5

Reduce and arrange. At some point in the playing-complexifying-noticing-refining process that may have taken a few hours, a few weeks, or a few months, you can reduce what you have. For example, maybe one of your added complexities—say a resampled part—may sound best on its own, without the original performance that initiated it. You can reduce and arrange the music by foregrounding, backgrounding, or even muting parts, to better hear what you now want to hear.

Principle No. 6

Do I like this? Since you’ve been busy trying out different things that sound interesting, it’s worth taking a moment to re-assess your work so far. Asking the question Do I like this? once in a while recalibrates your ears from focusing on fine details back to the big picture. Maybe the music is done, maybe it still needs more work, maybe the opening is terrible, or maybe you’re done with it and will put it aside and move onto something else. Whatever you chose to do, you’ve moved the music along and learned something in the process.