Error In Music Production

“…errors cause planes to crash, buildings to collapse, and knowledge to regress. The beneficial properties need to reside in the type of exposure, that is, the payoff function and not in the ‘luck’ part: there needs to be a significant asymmetry between the gains (as they need to be large) and the errors (small or harmless), and it is from such asymmetry that luck and trial and error can produce results.”

Nassim Taleb, “Understanding is a Poor Substitute for Convexity (Antifragility)”

Recently I was clicking around an audio file I had loaded into a granular sampler software. I was changing the Grain Location within the audio, positioning the cursor at different points of a graphic that reminded of the up-down mountain topography of a Tour de France stage, listening for something good. Nothing was sounding good, so I kept moving the cursor along the mountainous waveform, now adjusting the Grain Size knob as well, trying to get something going. But there was no magic–no sound that inspired me to hear beyond itself, to hear through the sound towards a feeling evoked. 

The reason I was clicking around an audio file in a granular sampler in the first place was that I had made the decision to use the software to make a series of pieces. (A series is always better than a single piece because you can leverage what worked in one piece to work in multiple pieces, and failing that, it takes the guesswork out of What to do next? for a while.) My plan was vague: load your audio files, see what you get, and build on that. But so far I wasn’t getting much to build on. Was this idea simply a dead end, an error? 

In his writings about his concept of antifragility, Nassim Taleb notes that our errors are valuable because they reveal information. There’s also an asymmetrical relationship between small errors (i.e. those with little downside) and their potentially big payoffs. Making errors is a good practice to practice because errors have “beneficial properties” built into them in that they tell us what isn’t working, or what we don’t know. In short, it’s through making errors that we learn. In the context of an uncertainty-strewed craft such as music production, when we make errors we strengthen the systems that guide our work. 

Despite there being no magic at the moment, I pushed on with tinkering with my audio. I opened the Modulation page in the software, which shows a representation of the sample’s ADSR (Attack Decay Sustain Release) Envelope. I played with the sustain length, making it shorter which caused the sample to skip and stutter, then made it super long which created a drone. 

Wait, what’s that sound

The drone kept going…and going. I stopped, took my fingers off the keyboard, and listened. It sounded gossamer yet full of little pulsations. It was also super quiet, so I boosted it 10 dB. I clicked on the Effects page, noticed that there was reverb on the sound, turned it off, then turned it on again to see what exactly the difference was. (Not much.) Through tinkering, what seemed to be an error a few minutes ago was becoming an opportunity.

The sustain on the drone was so long that I could play a chord in the lower register with it and, while the chord resonated, play higher notes. I went back and forth from one end of the keyboard to the other for a while until I remembered to record a take. Then I tried separating the low and high register parts into different takes. This way the first (lower) part wouldn’t be listening to the second (higher) one, and the length of each part could be different. Recording the lower and higher parts as separate takes of differing lengths added unpredictability into the process. I liked the resulting sound because it wasn’t something I could have played all at once I couldn’t predict how it would go. 

One of the most common experiences I have when working on music is encountering my own errors. (“Cataloguing of negative results” Taleb advises in the essay’s “Heuristics to Maximize Antifragility” section.) Among the many types of errors are those of process, judgement, performance, and patience. Process errors include doing things that I know from experience rarely lead me to interesting results, such as using four-bar loops. Errors of judgment include not listening closely enough to what it is in a sound that isn’t quite right. Errors of performance happen when I don’t take enough risks while recording. All of these errors are connected to my errors of patience. I find that when an error tells me what isn’t working, I can use this information to slow myself down and alter the course of my practice. The example of my clicking around an audio clip in search of something good illustrates this. My workflow felt like an error until trying this and that began generating something with promise. 


Demo Thinking

It isn’t hard to begin a new piece of music, because you can begin anywhere and build out from there. But what is hard is the self-imposed pressure to make what you’re working on a polished piece—a piece that sounds finished. I sometimes feel this pressure way too early in the production process and find that the best way around it is to treat what I’m working on as a demo.

Demos have a long history in popular music. Demos are what every basement band from every era was always working on, in the hopes of either getting noticed, or getting a record deal. (Remember records?) Demos were sketches of songs you recorded on cassette to show others. Sometimes a demo, with revisions, could go on to become a real song, and sometimes a demo could be released just as it was. Bruce Springsteen released the demo versions of the songs for his album Nebraska once he realized that he couldn’t recreate their feeling on “proper” versions recorded in a studio. As Bruce allegedly said to his engineer, Toby Scott, “there’s just something about the atmosphere on this tape. Can’t we just master off this?”

Along with an atmosphere they capture, what makes demos powerful is the demo thinking that goes with them. When I’m making what I consider a demo, I’m just trying to get down (record) the essence of what has captured my attention. I’ll think, I can always improve it later. In the meantime, I make sure to get an initial part right (or right enough), and then swiftly flesh out some supporting parts. Rather than spend a long time getting just the right sound, I settle on the first one that gets the job done because I can always improve it later. Since it’s a demo, I may even quickly arrange the parts into a rough form to hear how they move together and how long the piece wants to be. If a little sound design or effects are needed, I’ll add those as I go, using whatever is closest at hand—or what comes to mind because I see it first—to sharpen or blur what I have. The whole demo process is often done in a single session and I stop when either (a) I run out of ideas for what to do next or (b) the piece doesn’t seem to need anything else for now. I can always improve it later, right?

The value of demo thinking is that it prevents us from getting ahead of ourselves and obsessing over possibly more refined future version of the music. So far, nothing feels refined about how I’ve gone about this demo and most of my musical decisions have been guided by a quiet desperation–a sense that since nothing is working convincingly, don’t worry about where the music is going. In sum, believing that this version is a demo frees me to play with what I have. Ironically, thinking about a piece in progress as a demo to keep the stakes low leads me to polish it because, after all, it’s a demo and I can always improve it later

But here’s the thing: I may not go back to the music. Sometimes demo thinking is a necessary fiction to get a piece done.

Curating The Week: Samplers, Samples, The Creative Paradox

• A documentary about the Fairlight CMI sampler.

“We started just sort of sampling anything we could get our hands on to see how it would sound when it played back at different pitches. I happened to have this record [Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite] on my shelf…and I recorded the first half a second of one of the tracks [“Infernal Dance of King Kashchei”] and it was the whole orchestra playing a big chord…This is arguably the most famous Fairlight sound.”

An essay about sampling in the music of Burial.

“Sampling — that is, the reconstitution and arrangement of prerecorded sounds (musical or otherwise) into something fundamentally different yet (potentially) still recognisable — is, in many ways, a hauntological act. Sample-based music affords a new existence to old sounds, a new reality that reinvents the audio fragment as something simultaneously old and new, both present and absent. As phenomena that reproduce the gestures and expressions of the departed, the no longer here, recordings themselves hold the power of resurrection—of exorcism.”

• A comic by Grant Snider about the creative paradox.

Start From Scratch (Again)

If you’re new to this blog or haven’t noticed its themes, I often write to distill ideas relating to music production workflows. I generalize based on my own experiences and share concepts that guide the work of other musicians. I think there are insights here and there, or at least an accumulation of analytical weft that points a way forward. 

But even as I look to others for ideas, there is one idea I practice most often: start from scratch (again). Sure, I keep track of what I’ve done, return to older pieces to polish them, and put tracks in progress into color-coded folders (the promising ones are green, the polished promising ones purple). But this is more busywork than essential work. The essential work has a different feel to it, and always a similar trajectory that builds from the ground up. For example, it might begin with new sounds, a new structure, a new way of relating these sounds and structures, fewer or more chords this time, a significant timbral difference, or a bigger or smaller ambiance. Such things can suggest a new idea. Essential work begins with a sense of freedom from what we’ve already done–a freedom to proceed as if naive and a freedom to ask, How about this? as a starting point.

Most of all, essential work is defined by its forward flow. In contrast to busywork that ticks off tasks once accomplished, essential work navigates a series of decision intersections. Picture being lost in an unfamiliar city (pre GPS), where you can’t see beyond where you currently are and don’t have a mental map of the place. Since you’re lost, you flow through your wayfaring decisions made in the moment: I’ll turn here to see what’s around the corner, or I’ll stay on this road until it ends. So it is with committing to sounds in the production moment as you use what you improvised as a structuring device, or build a piece around the first sound that really grabbed you. In the wayfaring of being lost and the wayfaring of doing essential work to create something new, your flow is always forward and there’s no going back, no do overs. It’s a performance! What makes both experiences essential and generative is your trust that they’ll lead you somewhere interesting.