It’s the little things that matter most
This week’s Blog focuses on the small things in a track, the little changes, instabilities and accidental mistakes which make some music great, and how extra attention to detail can really benefit your production.
Velocity & Modulation
These are both about movement, I touched on velocity in my previous blog and made quite a contentious point: that good music is “believable”. I would like to clarify and expand on that idea a little.
When I referred to making your music more believable, I referred to the way our minds imagine and expect little traits found in the real world and in the way real things sound. I was not suggesting for example that all music should be comparable to something that could be done with instruments and a band.
In fact a better way of putting it would be to say, that even in the most fantastically unreal piece of music, whose sole intent is to take you to another world and sound like nothing else, even in that music we still look for the subtle variations in movement and tone that makes it sound alive and believable to us. Think of it as like the smaller details in a storybook that make the whole book’s world come to life in our imagination.
Working in finer detail in terms of Velocity and Modulation can help foster an organic and fluid nature to your music. Songs that live forever as classics that you never get bored of are ALL about the small things, with an often obsessive attention to detail.
Playing things in & Jamming
If you have a midi keyboard this is a must, if you don’t then you must buy one. Getting your groove on and playing things in is one of the more fun ways of getting some humanity into your tracks. It Doesn’t matter if you’re a virtuoso and it comes really easy to you (although that can help) or you’re new to the whole game and you find the whole concept daunting, don’t worry, even the most ham-fisted of us will find a lot of value in having a go.
Play in your percussive parts using a midi keyboard or some drum pads, record in your FX automation rather than program it in by hand. If you set up your project and your controllers in a sensible way, so as to give you hands on access to things like Delay Sends, Filter Cut-offs and Resonance, you will find things flowing more musically and just working out a lot easier and a lot quicker too, even if you do have to do some tidying up of the midi you recorded. What’s more, this improvisation can really help you stamp some individuality on your song and make it stand out. It’s easy to get sucked into programming all your beats, and sometimes it’s impossible not to program them… but do take every opportunity to stamp your name on things where you can.
When working like this you will find that you automatically do a lot of things naturally without thinking, things that are incredibly musical, like varying the velocity of your percussion with the groove or subtle filter sweeps. A lot of stuff you do automatically would be incredibly complex to program from scratch. It’s this you’re capturing, and it will translate directly into your music.
Groove & Humanisation tools
Even on the earliest of Drum Machines there were always controls to add swing or shuffle and to Accent certain hits. It’s important to have a nice tight kick drum to drive the tracks on, but there’s something off-putting if everything is too straight and too static. Off-putting is probably the wrong word, boring is probably more apt. Even in the most industrial techno it is all about the groove, and often the groove is brought alive by some well-placed off-grid notes. Modern sequencers are a treasure trove when it comes to groove tools, often providing many different options to play around with. Do not under-use these tools. A touch of swing to your beats can be the difference between boring and engrossing, it’s as simple as that. Don’t be afraid to move notes by hand off the snap grid, or even play stuff in to find where the groove really comes together.
If you look at Abletons groove system each pre-set groove also features Velocity movements and the ability to add a little bit of Random movement in, which can be great to loosen things up a little. These controls are once again a way of replicating the things us humans do naturally.
But remember if a dead straight groove is part of your artistic direction, and you spend the time to make it sound interesting and work in your song then that’s not a crime either.
Variations & Repetitions
We all have shorter attention spans than we care to admit, and long unchanging, unemotional sections can make people literally stop listening. When listening to a demo, one of the first decisions a label’s A&R guy will make is to ask himself is this interesting enough to continue listening.
Now there are a lot of elements that come together in the answer to that question, one of the main ones is the quantity and quality of variations in what’s going on in your track. Sometimes just changing one or two hits in your beat is enough; sometimes you will need to have a more extensive change in the form of a fill or a break to keep it going. Whatever you do, keep it changing, altering and moving, as the effect that change can have on how engrossing your music is can be powerful. Sometimes just moving away from the strong beat for a couple of bars and then coming back to that same beat can sound like a whole new section in itself. The best repetitive & hypnotic tracks are built on the suspense and tension built when going away from, and coming back to its main repetitive elements in subtle and less than subtle ways, or having the actual repeating element morph and change over time.
Layering is a very powerful tool if you want to build up a dense and interesting sonic “landscape” with your music. The subtle interactions and differences between 2 sounds when played together can add a bespoke sound to your music. Use filters and eq to allow different sounds to dominate different frequencies in your layered sound and create something much more complex and fresh.
Record, Jam & Improvise
As I mentioned earlier having a jam with your music, putting yourself in the position where you perform more of your music, is a great way to really add musicality and individuality to it. Sometimes once I have some basic ideas down, I will start by hitting record and doing a little performance with the Faders and the mutes, to see what kind of ideas I can get going for the arrangement. Some modern software even allows you to trigger specific elements or patterns.By recording 30 minutes of pure improvisation in a rough form, you can often listen back and hear sections with good ideas that help you get a good foothold on your arrangement, and the ideas once again flow very naturally and musically compared to when you program things in.
The “Lucky Mistake”
We have all sat there, having worked for hours without much inspiration, and then suddenly we are enjoying an amazing sound coming from our speakers after accidentally knocking over a keyboard or hit the wrong key. Not really knowing how we made it but just enjoying it and then comes the flood of new ideas, buzzing around our minds.
Every single musician in the world has a story about some part in some track they made by accident and how it’s one of the parts they enjoy the most. The more you work and perform in little bits of your music, the more often you will have these inspiring little musical mistakes, if you are ever stuck on a song or you have started to feel jaded about it that’s the time to start ripping it apart and jamming with it…with record firmly switched on.
If you can’t seem to find the right rhythm for your hats, record in a few minutes of you playing them in or if your breakdown and main section are not really cutting the mustard get playing with the faders and muting some parts and somewhere in there, you will find the answer…of that I am certain.