Saturday, 20 December 2014

Cod Music Philosophy: What Matters in Making Music

This blog is about me telling you why my way of making music is better than yours and why you really should be doing things like I do. Because your way is wrong, takes too long, misses the point and doesn't get to the heart of what music really is.

But don't let any of that put you off.

I've written before about how I make music and maybe you have read some of those blogs. This year my way of doing what I do has, as it should, undergone some transformations. If anything, the pre-existing predilections I had have become more extreme. It is in thinking about what has happened and what effects it that I have come to new conclusions about what it is I am doing and why. And it is in talking with other people who do things a different (and far worse) way that I see the sense in what I am doing. So let's unpack this a little.

When I record music I play. In two senses. In the first sense in that I always play in the music I record. I am not a very good player of anything but I am an autodidact. And so I try to do everything myself. I play in drum patterns on pads. I will play in any notes on a keyboard. And if I do it badly then I do it badly. The important point is that a performance was recorded and the dynamics of my playing are recorded too. You don't get dynamics of playing with a mouse drawing on a sequencer. That is to say that the link with a physical performance is preserved my way. As it should be. The second sense of my play is that when I make music I always have fun. It is a game. It is entertaining yourself. A playful frame of mind is by far the most creative. This is demonstrated in that I, in this frame of mind, have a pretty much 100% success rate of musical ideas to finished tunes. It is extremely rare I reject an idea that forms this way.

So why is this important? Because music is a physical thing. Sound is vibration. Physicality is inherent. Music is deliberation regarding sound. That is, music is deliberation regarding a physical process, the process of creating sound. This is why when I have recording sessions I stand up. Forget that these days you can be completely sedentary in a computer chair wiggling your mouse. Forget that microprocessors can simulate the sound-making process. Forget those things because both sound and music are more primeval than that. Instead concentrate on the thrill you get when you press a key, strum some strings, hit a drum or myriad other things, and a sound is produced, one you made directly. That is the vital, primeval connection I am talking about. That is why people prefer to make music with things they can directly affect and know that they did it. Its why people making music using instruments have more fun than people sitting at desks. And also remember that music and sound are physical things in their effects. Music creates and affects emotions and they physically change the state and feeling of your body. There is no aspect of music that is not, and should not, be physical.

So, besides playing and preserving physicality in my music, I also like to improvise. Lately, as you will know if you have read other blog articles, I have even explicitly introduced randomness. What's so good about this? Well, it removes the barrier that is the creator. Or, at least, it puts him or her in the background a bit more. Too much music today is too knowing. It is soaked in cynicism. Many people put forward having an idea in their head and knowing what they want as a good thing. They are wrong. Its a bad thing, a barrier, a limitation - and not the good kind of limitation. It guarantees that you will always sound how you purposely want to. How can that be good? Wouldn't you rather create yourself and make something new, something you COULDN'T have imagined or made on purpose? Wanting to match the idea in your head is ultimately a deeply conservative act and anti an experimentalism which frees you for new musical experiences. It is wanting to shape the music but not yourself be shaped or changed by it.

And that, I think, is a very crucial distinction to make. The dominant model of the musical creator as king over his creations puts in place very many ideas which, I say, are not helpful. I believe that music should change things. And top of that list should probably be the creator of the music themselves. But, it seems to me, not many people want to be changed by their music. Instead, they are obsessed with creating some perfect thing which exactly matches their creatorly wishes. I can't think of anything worse. Not only will it not be perfect (perfection is a mirage and therefore a massive waste of creative energy) but all it will do as a musical act is petrify their musical choices. It is, to me, creating musical fossils. It also remains true that perfection is deeply boring. Its the imperfect things which are the most interesting in this world, the flawed, the accidental, the random. In short, the things you couldn't have imagined but that just happened, that came out of nothing but your creative energies put to use in some time and space. Are you trying to create your little piece of perfection by deliberation? You are wasting your time.

Another area where you are likely wasting your time is production. We live in a computer world now. I can't think of any piece of musical software (commonly called Digital Audio Workstations) which doesn't these days have templates for everything. Its basically impossible for even the most non- tech savvy individual to sound bad. So whack on your master template onto the master channel of your track and there you go. Job done. What's that? You are coming back to me with a load of pseudo-professional BS about sound dynamics, room dampening, phase cancellation and the like? Well, if you want to sound like Coldplay or U2 then, yes, you may be right. But none of that interests me. I want to sound NOT like them. I don't want to sound like the currently in favour "professional" idea of what something sounds like and the sheen of commerciality which that is all about does not remotely interest me. I firmly believe that there is NO SUCH A THING as a bad sound. In fact there are only two types of sound: the sound you want to create and the sound you don't. There are no hard and fast rules, no rights from wrongs. There are just wants and taste: Both are yours. You might not like dull, muddy mixes. But I might want to create them. And, remember, its not as if either you or I are being objective about this. Sound is a subjective matter. What sounds "good" or "bad" is informed by multiple things - not least by what you have been told sounds good and bad. So, please, don't act like there is right and wrong here.

BUT! I will say this. Sculpting your sound IS important. But its important at the beginning of the process not at the end. If you didn't care what sounds you made at the start then no amount of "producing" at the end will be able to save it. Make great sounds BEFORE you start playing and then use those sounds creatively. You will find that works much better. SOUND is the most important thing in music. I have said for years that if you use great sounds then it is virtually impossible to make a bad song. A love of sound, I think, is a necessary pre-requisite to making good music.

And while we are talking about "producing" I want you to ask yourself a question. Is it really realistic to think that millions of people in their bedrooms or back room studios who want to make music are all suddenly fantastic producers? I see a lot of people describe themselves as producers. They call themselves that because it seems to them that they are doing what some professional person who works in a studio facility might do. They aren't. One reason I don't emphasise the production role in what I do (and, to be fair, I largely bypass the process completely) is because I am humble enough to say that I know next to nothing about it. A real producer or sound engineer has studied the craft, maybe taken exams and worked in commercial facilities. The rest of us are just hacks in varying degrees. Now there are those who would quibble with my abilities (I mean you Jeff!) but I must say, in all honesty, that I never produce. What I do is merely organise sounds. That's not sophism. I've made music for decades and never considered things like phase cancellation, noise floors or lots of other things you can read about in professional audio journals. And do you know why? Because where's the fun in that? It is simply not in my music-making mentality to get anally retentive and boring about sound. Sound, for me, is just having fun. Nothing more, nothing less. And anything that isn't fun, in this context, I could care less about.

So perhaps now it makes more sense why my process is about playing, performing and simply pressing record and saying I'm done. All I'm interested in is authentically communicating a personal performance, or sequence of performances, from myself onto some recorded medium. Indeed, lately I've even wondered about the recording part. Recording things is another way to set things in stone and, philosophically, I have issues with that. But maybe those issues are things for another day.

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