On Musical Transitions

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I’ve been thinking about transitions—that is, how the music gets from one place to another. One of the pros of DAW music software that is simultaneously a con is that in your arrangement page view you can juxtapose a bunch of discrete sections of music and have them seamlessly play in sequence as if that makes for a piece. It’s so easy to line up this to follow that to be followed by that that you overlook the importance of connecting all of your sections meaningfully. In many cases, mere collage-like juxtaposition of one section against another isn’t—to my ear, at least—enough for creating a rich listening experience because as listeners we always hear the shortcuts. 

Some tried and true music production techniques come by way of the DJ heritage, and foremost among these is the fade in/fade out. Back in the day (and still today), DJs would slowly bring up the volume fader of one turntable to blend the incoming record with what was currently playing, and then fade out the currently playing one. With a little pre-mix beat-matching and some careful adjustments of the volume faders, the DJ could make one song disappear while a new one emerged and hence keep the dance floor poppin’. A related technique to the volume fade is the EQ filter, whereby the DJ momentarily filters out low, mid, or high frequencies from the mix. Filtering is a way to play with the overall timbral profile of the music and create drama. For instance, boosting the bass while cutting the mids and highs can make the music sound like it’s muffled, as if heard, suggestively, from behind a closed door. DJs still use these volume and filtering techniques (as well as many others) to dramatic effect, except now they “spin” digital files on digital record decks using touch dials the size of CDs that are stand-ins for the long playing records of old. Talk about skeuomorphisms!

If you’re not a DJ, as I’m not, you have other ways to address musical transitions. From the composer’s heritage comes the reliable technique of identifying a common tone between two separate sections and using that to glue them together. A common tone could be a pitch that is a part of two different chords (e.g. the E-flat in C-minor and E-flat major), or it could be a “leftover” non-pitched sound that connects by hanging around long enough (e.g. the resonance of a reverb tail). Another technique is sharing a melody, chord progression, bass line, or rhythm from different sections among different parts. A transition from one section to another can sound smoother (i.e. more sensible) when a musical element is carried over the transition point to create continuity for the listener. An example of such a carrying over could be say, a clave rhythm that magically becomes a pitched bass line.

At a certain point in my process, when the music is beginning to assume a form that I like (which I know because I start recalling in my mind’s ear during the day), I begin scrutinizing my transitions more closely. In part this is because I’m finished with playing and recording individual parts and devising a rough arrangement. I could keep adding sounds, but that’s not what’s needed. What’s needed is for me to step up the acuteness of my listening game. 

As I listen, I use my eyes as well as my ears, looking at the shape of the arrangement on the screen. The various sections of the piece are easy to spot, and now it’s clear that I don’t want these sections to sound easy to spot. To illustrate, recall the structure of so much pop, where you hear clearly demarcated verses and choruses, and if there’s any doubt about when the big moments are arriving you get a big drum fill or cymbal crash or bass drop or some other overly obvious device of transition to let you know. This structural situation is exactly what I don’t want.

The challenge then, is figuring out ways for the music to make its transitions without being so obvious about it. If I have a secret production goal it’s to transform the music into a single, large-scale, and continuous transformation. Those discreet sections I see on the screen are merely the result of assembling the piece in stages. But in my ideal production world, the music wouldn’t have perceptible seams and would instead sound like a ever-changing, inevitable flow. 

Now, how can I do that?   

       

Arrows Of Attention: A Pattern Language For Electronic Music Production

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Arpeggiate 

Automate 

Breakdown 

Browse 

Compress 

Copy And Paste 

Delay and Echo 

EQ 

Extend 

Fade In / Fade Out 

Filter Sweep 

Fractalize 

Harmonize  

Humanize  

Interrupt 

Juxtapose  

Layer  

Loop 

Mix 

Mute  

Pan 

Pedal Note 

Quantize  

Randomize 

Recombine 

Reduce  

Remix  

Repeat 

Resample 

Re-Tune 

Reverb 

Reverse 

Route  

Stretch 

Subdivide 

Syncopate 

Texturize  

Transform 

Resonant Thoughts: James Williams’ “Stand Out Of Our Light” (2018)

 

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“What do you pay when you pay attention? You pay with all the things you could have attended to, but didn’t, all the goals you didn’t pursue, all the actions you didn’t take, and all the possible yous you could have been, had you attended to those other things. Attention is paid in possible futures forgone.”

-James Williams, Stand Out Of Our Light (2018)

Breaking Free From A Modus Operandi Towards Enchantment

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This happens to me all the time: 

I’m building up the music, fixing and adjusting things, calibrating and measuring, evening out and making everything balanced then I realize, crap, I don’t like it. 

The problem is that I’ve lost touch—temporarily, I hope—of what I would like to listen to. My busyness has assumed an outsized life of its own, forgetting that the point of this work is to make the music better, not worse to listen to. Why do I let this happen?

When you’re producing music you’re simultaneously a composer, arranger, engineer, producer, and listener tracking a huge number of variables as you go along. At any given moment, you might be doing one small thing while noticing many other small (and not so small things) in need of help next. Your attention is bouncing all over the place and you’re problem-solving on theoretical and physical planes at the same time. Not only that, you keep thinking about the music even when you’re not doing it, so that a run or a bike ride becomes a mental playback in which you revisit what you did or didn’t do or want to do as soon as you get home.

 

I’m editing a drum part, zooming in onto its granular details, adjusting the volumes of things, then moving to effecting it here and there so that it has a reversing, inhaling sound. I’m not entirely sure what I’m aiming for, but I trust that I’ll know it when I hear it. I’m listening to a small snippet of the music over and over as I work, but my ears are always considering other things. (This is a useful modus operandi—to always be considering other things.) I’m fixing the drum part but still not convinced by how it’s sounding. It’s either too bright or too dark, too sharp or blunted, too static or too eventful, and most of all, it still isn’t moving me, perhaps because it doesn’t move enough itself. (Impress me!) So as I edit I’m even considering abandoning it altogether. (I may be the music’s shepherd, but I’m not overly attached to its components.)

Out of curiosity and a bit of desperation, I begin muting other parts because my attention can’t keep up with the music: the music has got out of control by prioritizing impressing me over enchanting me. I mute more parts and keep listening.Then I solo a few tracks in a novel combination that I haven’t yet tried: the lead marimba chords supported by some resampled marimba underneath them. I loop a section about three quarters through the piece and let it cycle. The marimba chords are right but in the wrong order (the lower-pitched one should come second) so I reverse them. The resampled marimba is a tad too quiet so I boost it. Then I look at the screen and listen. 

Hmm. 

I get up and walk around the room and listen. 

Not bad. 

I leave the room and keep listening and I realize that I like the sound more than the rest of the piece combined. Is the entire piece just preamble for this discovery? I copy the section over to the left so I can work on it some more. 

Is this sound I like the piece’s new beginning, or its culmination? Is it the music’s climactic point, or its undertow? A new direction, a variation, a coda? I don’t know.

But this experience offers lessons. First, approach the music, as much as possible, as a listener wanting to hear something enchanting. If the music doesn’t sound this way, something’s wrong—not with the listener (you) but with the music. Remember that music’s most meaningful metric is whether its sounds make you feel something. The second lesson is it doesn’t matter how you arrive at enchantment—you can use maximal or minimal means, one sound or a hundred to get there. Lastly, the graphic representation of the music’s parts on the computer screen only tells part of the story about where you might want to go with the sounds.

Let your ears guide you.       

Friday Freestyle

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• I’ve been enjoying Nadia Eghbal’s newsletter, and also Kyle Chayka’s newsletter. (Also: Chayka’s forthcoming book on minimalism.) 

• Thinking about music making as some kind of litmus, but not a test. 

• Tee shirt sighting: “Sorry for what I said at mile 20.”

• A second tee shirt sighting (shirt worn by a very large man walking slowly):
“Repeal entropy.”

An interview with chef Magnus Nilsson. “It’s a paradox of aptitude. You’re very good at something and very quickly you find yourself doing it less and less.”

• Walking home one night I was re-listening to the end section of Steve Reich’s Sextet and began thinking about cadences. As his pieces wind down, Reich typically removes notes from his chords and moves to increasingly higher registers to telegraph that the end is near. It occurred to me that what he’s doing is slowing down and stretching out a kind of cadence. Not the traditional V-I now we’re done! kind of cadence, but more tonally ambiguous and harmonically evaporating cadences that create the sense that the mallet groove-chugging pulsations could keep going forever. Then I wondered about whether Reich cared/cares about cadences per se, or whether it was the demands of the additive-subtractive, now you hear a note now you don’t process that he evolved over the years that shapes the endings of his pieces? Still walking home (I had only moved a block), I wondered about how it is that any piece of music ends. Speaking for myself when I’m working on something I enjoy listening to, I don’t want it to end—ever, basically—and this feeling of not wanting it to end becomes a puzzle to figure out. Maybe turning a 7-minute piece into an 11-minute piece is forever enough? Anyway, it’s sad when the music ends. Maybe this is why the fade out in popular music is often used in place of a cadence so the sounds just gradually…vanish…

• Why watching sports is educational: “Play more shots instead of trying to make perfect swings”  says golf commentator Paul Azinger. Noted.

• An article about chef Sean Brock. “If you ask any chef what they want their cuisine to be: simple, simple, simple. You hear simple so many times, well, simplicity is really hard. The trick is to take as little as possible and make something amazing out of it and that takes a lot of wisdom, a lot of craft, a lot of talent…I call it the complexity in simplicity.”

• The most practically useful music production advice on output recording I encountered this year, from the musician Mr. Bill in one of his YouTube tutorials:

“The concept is to take tools at your disposal and use them in ways that they’re not meant to be used, or in just very creative ways, and then record the output and figure out how to contextualize it for music later.”

• An awesome and simple to make recipe for zucchini bread from Smitten Kitchen.