Creative vs. Technical
Dance Music Production – Creative vs. Technical by Steve Powell
What does it take to make a record in terms of equipment? A four track? A Mac Pro? An SSL4000E? What people use and how they use is of course crucial to the quality and type of dance music production that’s made. The equipment heavily dictates many of the attributes of the music that’s created, probably far more than many people realise. It was commented by one well known electronic music producer that “I realised that I was getting bored with a lot of the music I was hearing; everything seemed to sound the same structurally. After a while I realised it was because the first, and often the following sections of a piece of music were all the size of the default Pro-tools window.” Case solved it seems. Similar occurrences are frequent such as the abundance of house tracks that many labels receive all being at the default Logic 120 beats-per-minute tempo. This is even before having to get started on the continuous use of presets that come with synthesisers, and how often samples from well known packs are woven into received tracks.
To make music that is different and unique, especially with computers, you often have to be more technically active and aware. A few examples of this are learning more in-depth synthesiser techniques, becoming more familiar with some of the more involved parameters and idiosyncrasies within your DAW and developing your knowledge of how to apply more advanced music theory to productions. Truth be told there are some people out there who can take thirty year old sounds and make new and interesting creations; there is a whole chip-tune community out there that can attest to that. However, writing music with sine-waves and bursts of white noise may not be your thing, and if you composed a draft for a romantic score with the love child of Super Mario Bros and Venetian Snares you’re unlikely to get the get the contract. So… to change your music to be more interesting, to sound better and maybe to give you the edge over the person vying with you for that contract, record label or high profile DJ slot, it may be time to delve a little deeper into some technicalities.
However, there is another consideration that presses upon a musicians, as well as everyone else’s mind; time. Presuming you are a beginning or amateur musician, or even a more established one, it’s pretty likely that you still have a job involving non-musical activities for your main source of income. Therefore, your time is of utmost importance, and to get the best out of it you can, a good balance between learning and doing can be very helpful. I would personally argue that doing is more important than learning, because you automatically learn as you do, but you don’t necessarily do whilst you learn. It’s also important to make the distinction between doing something that you have learnt to do, such as writing a track with arpeggiated notes after having learnt how to use an arpeggiator, and learning something new in a fashion that optimises the speed at which you learn and therefore puts that practice into use. A well established example of this is learning scales on an instrument such as the guitar. Left to their own devices, many guitarists will learn over time what notes to play in a certain fashion at the time they feel best. If we had a look at a guitarist fifteen years after starting to play, chances are that we would find them playing the major and minor scale attuned into whatever genre they like to play. This way of working is of course a perfectly legitimate way to learn and comes very natural to some. Stevie Ray Vaughan famously never learned a scale in his life and was one of the greatest players that has ever been, but that doesn’t mean his way is the best way for every instrumentalist. Say we took the guitarist in my example at the beginning of his playing life and taught them the major and minor scales, modes, pentatonics and more exotic scales. Learning these along with techniques and exercises such as speed picking, string skipping, playing to a metronome and sweep picking has been proven to be the most effective way of learning the skills to play as an all-round guitarist. Result? A better player, quicker. Before anyone objects to this by saying the music should come from the heart, I agree; completely and absolutely. But it’s better to be a playing from the heart with great technique than playing from the heart with average technique.
Lets take this concept and apply it to a computer music example. We have someone who has been DJ’ing on decks for a few years. Having started with techno and house, they’ve veered slowly onto more experimental beats and Intelligent Dance Music (IDM), and after becoming interested in the prospect of using Ableton Live for Live DJ sets, decides to make the jump from vinyl to digital. Also, our budding laptop performer fancies making a few loops in Ableton to merge into the set along with tracks by other artists. Now, someone who is knowledgeable with computers should be able to install the software, launch a new project and know how to save and load with ease. Also, the concept of a digital channel strip, EQ and FX should come naturally to a DJ. Upon initiating their first project, our newbie delves into the program and works out after much clicking and frowning how to create a new clip, open an instrument, route some audio and midi, flip between and clip and arrangement view and draw some notes. This might well have taken quite some time without any help at all, even with Abletons on screen tips and help. The quicker solution would have been the quick-start guide or the in-program tutorials. However, these are basic concepts and have still taken some time to work out. Take warping or complex signal routing for example, how long would they take to work out with no guide at all? There’s a simple answer; spend some time learning and find the answers. You can pretty much guarantee that the most successful and knowledgeable musicians today are still learning, referring to the manual, watching tutorials, posting on forums and have a list of things they want to learn as long as their arm.
Having established that some learning time can be good for us all, I have a warning from the other side of the fence. It’s far too easy to get bogged down in the technicalities. It’s also easy to get so involved in learning something or doing something technical that you forgot or lose track of exactly what you are doing it for. I work with Max/MSP and love making my own instruments and tools for music, all of which has musical purpose; to make this sound, that sound, to be able to control this synth in a particular way or whatever I want to do. However, there have been times when I suddenly realise that I’ve been coding for days and not actually made one sound and that what I set out to achieve has become lost or blurred in the process. I’ve also known guitarists that have practised scales so much that they don’t write a song or learn a new lick in weeks, just like I’ve known Ableton DJ’s get so lost in making perfectly warped, catalogued and levelled libraries that they practically forget how to mix.
I hope I’ve given a heads up to a very simple but sometimes difficult to balance element of the musicians life. Whatever you want to achieve musically, knowing what to do when can be one of the most helpful insights of all, so have a think about whether you spend your time best to get to where you want. I suggest trying three things. One: Make sure you learn a little regularly and put it into practice. Two: Remember that it’s all about the music and never forget why you’re doing something technical. Three: Be aware that even though lessons, exercises and practising can be tedious, it is in fact being creative, simply because it’s part of the process that creates.
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