On Musical Manipulation

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manipulate—handle or control typically in a skillful manner

If you zoom out far enough from the minutiae of music production, you see that the grand contours of your production moves are made up of unequal parts recording (audio, MIDI) and technology-assisted manipulation. As I practice it, recording is straightforward enough: at an acoustic instrument (yes I still play those) or using some kind of controller (keyboard- or pad-based) I play parts and record them. I might practice or rehearse ahead of time, or simply improvise on the spot, but I always play something and then record it. This typically takes place early on in the process, as I’m trying to flesh out a set of sounds, devise different sections of music, and most importantly, capture some exciting performances that surprise me or sound enchanting in some way. Even though I know I’m nowhere near finished, recording is an attempt to quickly render the shape of a finished piece. In an ideal world, I’d just play everything once and it would be perfect. But since I don’t live in such a world, recording is just step one. 

Once parts are recorded, the manipulation begins. Techniques of musical manipulation are probably endless, but the ones I turn to initially are super simple: turning the volume of a part up or down, muting a part, or deleting a part (or part thereof). Adjusting volume is the quickest way to hear if a part is working but isn’t in an appropriate dynamic relationship to the other parts, or else not working no matter what its dynamic relationship. Muting and deleting are similarly powerful because they allow you hear how a part sounds when it isn’t there (!) 

Once a piece is underway and parts have been committed to, techniques of manipulation blossom in response to the needs of the music. These techniques are endless, but there are some that I return to often: 

re-shaping
interrupting
modulating
warping
morphing
fading
amplifying
filtering
rhythmifying
reverbing
delaying
softening
sharpening
blending
compressing
expanding
inverting
reversing
mirroring
accelerating
tightening
loosening

When you approach your recorded music with these techniques of manipulation, fundamentally you’re aiming manipulate each part to the point where it lives a colorful life for the duration of the piece, dynamically interacting with everything around it. Manipulating the music is laborious, but rewards patient listening and re-listening to your experiments as you try out sounds and keep asking yourself, Is this helping the music become more itself/more resonant/more expressive?

What is interesting to me as I reflect on this list of techniques is how almost all of them are modeled on what an acoustic musician can pull off while performing on a single instrument in real time. In fact, one could make the case that skilled performers are music’s supreme manipulators, able to use their instruments to seamlessly control sounds so that the music seems to magically come alive.

Curating The Week: Distraction, Sublime Frequencies, Disco’s Influence

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An essay on digital distraction.

“The problem of concentration is recursive. Any strategy for sidestepping distraction calls for strategies on sidestepping distraction.” 

An article on Sublime Frequencies’ world music recordings.

“The label Sublime Frequencies…was initially a response to the reigning approach of ethnomusicology, which they perceived as prizing a kind of detached, academic expertise. Sublime Frequencies’ early releases reveled in zealous naïveté and randomness. Its CDs skirted legality—adherence to copyright would have made releasing many of the recordings, full of unknown performers, practically impossible.”

• A video essay on the influence of disco and the 12-inch single on pop music.

“Any music that’s made electronically and made with an experimental purpose—its beginnings, in many ways, is the 12-inch remix.” (Paul Morley)

Resonant Thought: Ferran Adria’s “Notes On Creativity” (2014)

 

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“The ‘why’ is the driving force of all of our work. It means to take nothing for granted, and to ask ourselves if everything, absolutely everything, can be changed, developed, or improved. The ‘why’ is a symbol that reminds us that we don’t know anything, that we have much to learn, and that this is marvelous fact, since it gives us the strength to continue. It is also important to maintain the necessary degree of humility, better yet normalcy, in the face of creativity. I always say that we don’t know anything about cooking, only a little more than those who aren’t dedicated to the trade.”

-Ferran Adria, Notes on Creativity (2014)

On Nontypical Timekeeping Ways And Messing With Percussion Sounds

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“Beware of clichés…There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought—even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.”

-Geoff Dyer

I’ve been enjoying messing with my percussion sounds to make them more interesting to listen to. I’ve messed with them so much I’m not sure it matters much which sounds one begins with because it’s about the production journey, not the production’s starting point. My messing with the sounds began when I admitted to myself that I found unadulterated kick, snare, hi hat, and a few other percussion sounds rather uninteresting to listen to. I don’t have anything against those (classic) sounds, but in my work I haven’t been using them in a typical timekeeping way. I might, for instance, have a hi hat part, but the rhythmic flow of the piece doesn’t depend on that hi hat the same way the musicians in a band might depend on the drummer. In one way or another, all of the parts (twelve in total) in my piece are already synced to its tempo, so there’s no need for any one part to “lay down” the rhythm. The rhythm of the music is in the interaction of all the percussive and non-percussive parts to make a whole with different layers of pulsation. 

Something about unchanging percussion sounds doesn’t sound right for my textures. When the percussion parts were unchanging in their timbres, it sounded as if they were separate from the other sounds—as if layered in on top instead of integrated with them. I wasn’t listening to my percussion sounds as ways of timekeeping but as independent musical lines in the piece. This is why I couldn’t just cut and paste a steady kick drum pattern and then forget about it. It was clear that my only option was to craft a part that would be different every single hit. As I messed with the sounds, I changed their pitch, attack, decay, and their resonant space. I routed them through filters and other effects to see how they would react. I automated slow changes over time as well as abrupt, one-shot accents. The goal was to surprise myself by creating a percussion part whose compositional origins I couldn’t recollect. I wanted to get to the point where I could ask: How did I make that cool sound? 

Messing with sounds is a little like editing prose—swapping out words, deleting adverbs (like, really), reordering sentences, and distilling ideas until the simple concept you began with begins radiating an unanticipated clarity that feels like a revelation. While I wouldn’t call the messing with sounds (or prose) process fun exactly, the prospect of a potentially enchanting end result is enough to push me to keep experimenting and trying things out to see if anything catches my ear. As a side note, I’m always surprised by how much can happen in as little as a ten minute session. As with writing, a defining feature of music production is that it’s a gradual and cumulative process of refinement that rewards the long-ball game: every little change adds up.