When you imagine a musician or band really killing it onstage, you hold in mind the traditional notion of musical performance as musicians’ real-time striving to accomplish a goal in the moment. This could be improvising a solo, playing a composed piece from memory, or rendering a classic song one more time. Part of why you go to a performance is that it’s live and not recorded, and so anything could happen, but hopefully what will happen is that the musicians will pull off feats of virtuosity and levels of togetherness that leave you in awe, and ignite your imagination so you think, How did they do that? or I wish I could do that!
Performance in electronic music production is a little different because the medium is a recorded artifact. Historically, in pop, rock, and jazz, recordings are sometimes like live performances in that they capture and preserve a fleeting moment of enchanting and dextrous magic—something like Keith Jarrett’s sprawling and meditative The Köln Concert, or Miles Davis’s restrained and minimalist Kind Of Blue, for example. But most electronic recordings are not performances in the traditional, real-time, striving-to-create-a-moment sense. Though they contain traces and layers of performance from their making, recordings are simulacra of performances that conjure their urgencies via alternate means.
One of the more resonant lessons I’ve learned while producing music is how any performance can be deconstructed and rebuilt. I’ve been working on a series of tracks, all of which began with me performing. I played marimba, I recorded what I played in single takes, and then used these performances as a new starting point. The performances certainly weren’t virtuosic, weren’t interesting all the way through, and had their constraints of key and timing. Despite their imperfections though, I liked the recordings, because they captured something real—they captured what I could do on the spot, right now, with three mallets and not four, at a tempo around 112 beats per minute. What I captured was a series of ideas and a feeling around in the dark, and this was a useful place to begin. My goal was use what I had and just build on it.
The question was, how?
The first thing I did was take what I had performed and load it into the computer. This created instant distance from the fraught moments of playing and the nerves I have whenever I hit record, even when no one else is around to watch. Taking the marimba chords from my hands onto the rubber pads of my MIDI pad controller, now I could re-play the sounds on the pads, but without the intentions of my original performance. The chords could just be, because, for the moment at least, I had taken the time of their performance out of the equation. I spent a few days just tapping the pads and listening, trying to remember why I had played that chord and not another one, trying to figure out what I had been trying to go for when I made the recording. I felt like an amateur, trying to remember where the good sounds were located while managing my increasing excitement as to how I might use them. As I tapped the pads in this and that order I realized that my most useful deconstructive power at this moment in the production process was that I could re-order the chords!
All of a sudden, it didn’t matter why I had played this chord and not that one. All of a sudden, a new production game had presented itself, which was to find some interesting progressions using the chords I had under my fingers. I can only imagine the excitement early hip hop turntablists felt when they isolated the percussion breakbeat sections on records and heard a new groove, or when the French radio engineer Pierre Schaeffer stitched together all those recordings of train sounds to make his pulsating musique concrete. Tapping the pads I sensed possibilities that I hadn’t forseen while playing the marimba chords into the digital recorder.
I found new chord progressions, sequenced them, and these sequences became the basis for the pieces I’m working on still. I added other parts—first just a few, then more and more, creating layers out of layers out of layers, with everything relating in some way to the re-sequenced marimba chords, whether through call and response playing along or resampling. These additive techniques are standard production practice. But somewhere along the way of figuring out what my go-to creative routine would be for these pieces (a routine I have yet to pin down), I noticed a theme: everything I was doing to the music was done with the goal of creating a sense of…performance. A simple example of this is fairly detailed editing to individual melody notes so that each one has a shape to it, such as a rise and fall in volume, or a slight timbre wobble. Or editing drum parts so that individual hits move the rhythm along with more forward flow. Maybe there are more efficient ways of getting where I wanted to go, but my editing was trying to approximate how a real musician (like me) might, if he had enough time, shape the musical line of each part to give it intentionality, to give it life. In short, to make it believable.
Later on in the production process, I pivoted, shifting from trying to get the music to approximate how a real musician (like me) might play it to making the music more compelling by any means necessary. This was a second turning point. Inspired by YouTube tutorials I had watched (I took much inspiration from the Australian musician Mr. Bill), I began to look at my software’s audio processing effects differently. Take a reverb, for instance. Reverbs are generally used to reproduce the beautiful acoustics of a concert hall or a cathedral. But in a more general sense, they’re space generators and ambiance tuners unbeholden to real-world spaces that await a producer who doesn’t want realism, but rather the fantastical.
Other parameters were hiding in plain sight. For example, in my quest for performance authenticity, I had taken it for granted that the pitches of my melodic parts would remain constant. But now I was re-pitching notes here and there by odd intervals because that sounded significantly more compelling.
This tinkering by any means necessary to get the music sounding more interesting led me to think more generally about performance:
What makes an interesting musical performance?
Is it one that awes us from one moment to the next,
that slowly draws us in,
that builds to a crazy climax,
that depends on the performer’s charisma
or renders it invisible?
I remembered a percussion recital I had watched 25 years ago by a fellow student who was performing a piece by John Cage. The student wasn’t the best percussionist, probably not the most dedicated student, and his rendition of Cage’s open-ended score may or may not have been carried out in good faith. But somehow, almost miraculously, the performance was a success. In a way I couldn’t understand, the percussionist managed to transform Cage’s instructions into a mix of equal parts gravitas and humor, and he held my attention by taking risks I never would have. At one point he played a piano with his entire arm, and at another he set a gong roaring for far too long. But somehow he used sounds in a way that held together a moment. Maybe that’s a functional definition of artistry: holding something together over time.
As I moved further away from my original marimba recordings, I gave myself license to make what I already had sound more interesting. Now, the original marimba chords are still there, but their context is quite different: there are competing melodies and chords, layers of resonance and noise ebbing and flowing around, and different rates of pulsation happening. Everything in the mix is pushing and pulling in different ways—ways I continue trying to refine so that the music sounds more sensible, and more like a…performance.
Summing up, now my performing is largely editorial—a coming back to the music iteratively over time, changing things and then changing those changes to compress and expand, build on, and clarify layers of new action. Music is interesting like that: there’s no limit to how many layers it can have, as long as you can figure out a way to make it all audible or felt in some way. Now as I edit there’s no original ur-performance that I’m simulating, no pristine context I’m trying to re-create. Now the music is its own space.
The subway dancer guys
with a bass speaker
playing big beats
but I’m already listening
to my own sound
so I fiddle
with the volume
just so their beat
mixes with my bass line
and now I don’t ignore them
because our different musics
are getting along.
distort – to pull or twist out of shape, change the form of;
from the Latin distorquere (‘apart’ + ‘to twist)
Among the many interesting and unanticipated discoveries made while producing electronic music is hitting upon distortions that cause sounds to behave in unusual ways. The most common type of distortion is overdriving or saturating a signal so that it sounds gritty, textured, damaged, and less pristine that it once was. This, of course, is a timbre that has defined the macho, loudly-amplified guitar sound of rock music since the 1950s. But any sound can be distorted—either aggressively or by more subtle means, so that the timbre is either all but destroyed or evinces just a hint of damage on its edges.
I’ve been experimenting with distortions and saturations, both deliberately and accidentally, heavy-handedly and subtly, by processing sounds in my mixes in various ways with various plug-ins. Distortion’s most interesting quality is how it makes audible parts of a sound that were inaudible without the effect. For instance, distortion can sound like a buzzing-humming timbre which in turn can grab nearby pitches and accentuate their (sympathetic) resonance along with the buzz-hum. Sometimes I put distortion on a sound just to hear what sonic invisibles it will foreground. This reminds me of something the producer Jon Hopkins says about how his production process involves digging for sounds within his sounds by boosting its noisy elements to hear what happens: “Boosting the bits that you think are just noise. Boosting the mistakes…I can pick out artifacts that aren’t even supposed to be there. Boost them. And distort them again” (musicradar.com, 2019)
My general rule of thumb is if a distortion makes a sound more interesting to listen to, I leave it in. Over time, the distortions I’ve added to parts in a track accumulate and at that point the music takes an exponential jump in interestingness—as if it’s becoming a more complex system. When there are 5 or 10 tracks whose sounds are distorted in some way, their cumulative effect can take the music in a direction I hadn’t planned on. For one thing, the music gets louder and fuller (so I re-adjust levels here and there to tame distortion’s exuberance). Also, the music’s texture becomes thicker and more intricate, because now the multiple distortions are overlapping with one another to create composite distortion timbres. These composite timbres are like a new meta-track within my track—a track not there but there, a track full of inherent rhythms not played by any of the other tracks in isolation, a track whose timbral irregularities I can respond to and further shape. The musician (and voice-over expert) Dan Worrall, who narrates tutorials for FabFilter software, describes distortion as saturating a sound by adding irregular nonlinearities to its waveform. In one tutorial, he offers advice for the electronic music producer who wants to enrich the texture of a mix: “You need to add nonlinearities deliberately.”