Creating Computer Music

A while back I wrote a blog post describing 6 lessons I learned about creating and distributing music on the internet. More than one person wrote me to say they were disappointed that the lessons didn’t touch upon the process for actually creating electronic music. So now that I’m back on vacation and had some time to ruminate, I’m going to try to jot down a few things I’ve learned about creating computer music. Please bear in mind these lessons are deeply rooted in personal opinion.

1. Pick a Tool and learn it.

All music creation software is going to have strengths and weaknesses. All the major sequencers – Live, Cubase, Sonar, Fruityloops, Reason, etc – have a huge group of loyalists and detractors. The reality, especially when you are just getting started, is that it doesn’t matter much which tool you pick. They all provide the basic functionality required to create music. What really matters is that you spend a lot of time learning the software inside out. They are all extremely powerful and versatile tools, full of innovation and nuances. It will take a lot of work to understand how to bend a sequencer to your will. Discover its limitations, and learn how to work around them. Amazing music has been created on all of them, so you know that it’s possible for you to do it too.

2. Don’t become a collector of software

I’ve discovered that I’m much more productive when I have limited resources. Don’t become a collector of sequencers and synth plugins. It’s so easy in this day and age to either download tons of freeware software or steal commercial software. Buy a sequencer, and play with the built in synths for a while. There are “lite” versions of all major software, and if you are just getting started with computer music the “lite” version will provide you with ample functionality. If you spend your hard earned cash on software, you’ll be more inclined to use it to its maximum potential.

Try not to go on a buying spree of synth plugins, because you’ll never dive deep into the potential of the plugins. It takes time to just become familiar with the presets of a synth. I’ve definitely gone on some synth buying benders, and became much less productive as a result. It’s great to have powerful tools at your disposal, but you need to be familiar enough with your tools to know when to actually use it.

3. Learn the foundations of electronic music

I think it’s extremely important to understand the basics of analog and digital synthesis. Even if you are planning on just using synth presets (as I do for the most part), you’ll want to know how to tweak a patch so it sounds just the way you want them to. I was lucky enough to attend Oberlin college where they offered advanced curriculum in electronic music. Everything essential I learned in the first semester: How to construct sounds on a analog synth, how to build patches on a sampler, how to route and modulate the sound signal, etc.

I think Reason is the perfect software to learn all these concepts on. The software is built just like a giant modular studio, where all the components and the way your tie them together mirror their real life equivalents.

4. Finish a Song

Not long after you get started, you’ll start creating little song snippets that you enjoy playing with. Eventually you’ll flush some of them out so that you have really awesome little song snippets. The real challenge is to create a full song from a song snippet. This is a daunting and often elusive task. So my advice is make a full song out of that snippet, even if it’s  crappy and super repetitive.  It just needs to have a beginning and an end.

The sooner you are confident that you can create a whole song, the sooner you’ll build the confidence that you can do it again. Otherwise you’ll be spinning your wheels indefinitely on lots of little song snippets.  Once you have a complete song, you can always improve it. So . . .

5. Improve your songs

Find a good set of critics. People who you can listen to and take criticism from. It’s important to learn how to take negative feedback. You don’t always have to agree, but an objective set of ears often has a lot of value.  Learn to differentiate from constructive criticism and mean spirited bashing. Its much easier to be a critic than a creator. All artists must learn to grow a thick skin, because almost everyone who is not you doesn’t appreciate your art.

Most listeners attention span is very short, so learn to trim the fat from your music. I’m always going back through completed tracks and finding measures which I can delete. It can be difficult to throw away some of your brilliant output, but songs are usually stronger when there’s less filler and more substance.

I personally can’t stand repetition in electronic music. I’m always looking to make variations in tracks so that it never feels like its constructed on repeated loops. I like to either create slight variations in note patterns or automate filters to keep repetitive parts interesting to my ears.

On the flip side, I’ve also learned to not over obsess over the details in a song. I self master all my own music, which is a huge, painstaking effort. I know a professional would do a much better job than I do, but the process of mastering a song usually reveals mistakes in the mix. At some undefinable point during this process the returns from tweaking a song starts diminishing. When a song sounds pretty much the way I want it to, it’s time to move on.   

6. Iteration

I’ve discovered that I work best by iterating through songs. After finishing an album, I’ll start from scratch. First I’ll create a new song. I’ll work on it a little bit. As soon as I start to become frustrated with it, I’ll create a new one. When the second song becomes less fun, I’ll go back to the first song. If no inspiration hits, I’ll return the second song. If nothing there, I’ll start a third song. And so forth. Always iterating through the songs, starting from the first one. I’m not super strict about this, but generally adhere to it.

After I have four or five songs that I’m working on, I’ll start filtering the tracks. I’ll listen to each one and put them in one of three folders – “likely”, “maybe”, “unlikely”. I’ll inevitable only work on the songs in the “likely” folder. And I’ll iterate through those tracks, creating new ones when I’m frustrated with the ones I’m working on, and when I have enough tracks I’ll filter them again. And so forth.

I used to not do this. I’d bang my head against a song until I couldn’t take it anymore, and would often be in a dark mood until I’ll could push through. I’ve learned that if I’m working on a bunch of songs simultaneously, I’m much fresher to the material when I revisit it. I know this advice seems to contradict with the “finish a song” statement – but there’s a big difference to having a whole song mapped out and from it being done. I also have the confidence that I’ll finish a song cause I’ve done it almost a hundred times. It took a long time to build that confidence.

Since it doesn’t cost anything to keep the songs from the other folders around, you don’t have to throw them away. One day they may become handy where you need a section for a song that you are working on. I often construct songs by taking two song snippets and figuring out how to seamlessly meld them together. I enjoy the challenge by taking two unrelated songs and figuring out how to blend them together. A good example of this is “starry” – the A and B sections were two unrelated song snippets. I massaged the B snippet to be in a related key to the A snippet, and eventually fused them together. Booyeah.

7. Frustration is part of the process

Great art always takes great amounts of work. I’ve now finished five albums, and what I’ve learned is that the pain and suffering you endure to create your music is what makes it so good. It’s the curse of having high standards.

I’m always working so hard to finish an album, but after it done, I become a little lost. If you are playing lots of gigs to support your music there’s lots to look forward to, but if you are mostly a composer like myself, it can be a big letdown. I’m starting to appreciate the process more than the end product. As I’ve gotten older I’m starting to grasp that life is about the journey, not the destination.  Don’t rush the process. Without frustration there would be no fulfillment.

8. Collaborate

The advantages of computer music over a band is that you are in complete control of everything. The disadvantage is that you often get so stuck inside your own head that the music never evolves. To grow as a musician, you have to play with other musicians. Computer music is often a solitary art form. I think its important to find some other people that you can collaborate on tracks with. To work with a someone who has a different perspective or skill set is always a learning opportunity. I believe if  you find the right musical partner(s), 1 + 1 = 3.  As soon as I started using Live (instead of Reason), I started working with other musicians, and it propelled my music way farther than I could have taken it alone.

9. Dissect music that inspires you

Start picking apart the songs that you love. Learn how to play their melodies. Figure out what the chords progressions are, which can often be derived from the bass lines. Count out the rhythms. Make a .wav file of the song so that you can import the song in your sequencer. Then you can loop parts, even slow them down, until you understand how they are constructed.

First focus your attention on all the sounds that are at the front of the mix. After a while, tune those sounds out and listen to all the subtle sounds in the back of the mix. You want to learn to be able to focus on song and hear individual tracks in a mix. It takes lots of practice and concentration.

When I run across music that truly inspires me, I usually go through a couple phases. Soon after the joy of discovering such amazing art wears off, I’ll get depressed, because I’ll never be that talented. This is closely followed by jealousy. Eventually, maybe a couple days later, I’ll be able to celebrate it again. Ok, so I’m moody. Be glad we’re not married.

There are always going to be people who are more talented than you are. That doesn’t mean that your art has no value. Use the people who inspire you as teachers. Or break into their house and set their couch on fire. Your choice.

My approach to composition

I’m an improviser at heart. I’ll just hit the record button and jam with myself on a piano or rhodes until I hit upon an idea that might be worth revisiting. Then I’ll play around with the idea until its time to re-record it with a metronome to determine its actual rhythm and tempo. This will be the starting point for my new song. Then I’ll start flushing out this idea a little bit. Sometimes this initial idea, which is the launching point for my new song, will be removed along the way.

The way I compose music is akin to chipping away at a block of stone to create a statue. I tend to mold rough ideas into fully fleshed out song segments. I go over parts endlessly, tweaking this and that until it achieves the sheen that I want. I don’t often know what the end goal is, but I have the confidence that a good idea will eventually blossom into it’s potential. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but I can usually tell when an idea is worth pursuing.

In conclusion

I like pudding. One day I’d like to bathe in it. What a glorious day that will be.

I also like comments. Feel free to leave me feedback so I can learn how you resonate with my perspectives.



Better off Dead

We’re in the midst of wedding-paloza ’09, and I wanted to do something fun for DaveP. So I shot down to LA for a weekend of good times and Dead shows. And now . . . some bullet points.

  • I felt the need to be crafty on my day of birth, so I whipped up some appropriate beads
  • I ran into my favorite show buddy in line for the plane to LA. We sat together and it set the perfect tone for the weekend.
  • Dave and Keri took me to Oinkster for dinner, which is “slow fast food”. That means it’s wicked tasty. Amazing beers on tap to boot. Then we went to “Dave’s Chillin and Grilling” which unfortunately reset my high bar for sandwich snobbery. Now I have two places I must eat at every time I’m in LA. 
  • LA traffic is ridonkulous. Even at midnight, there’s crazy traffic on highways. 
  • The LA lot scene was fantastic. Two jam packed lanes of Shakedown. How I’ve missed a good lot scene. It was particularly hilarious when the unprepared parking people directed cars down the shakedown lanes. 
  • The most random thing I found in the lot was this:

  • Dave, who likes to be prepared, had enough supplies in his cars to satisfy all our lot neighbors desires. He can also piss like a racehorse.
  • I hate seeing shows at Arena’s, but this one had excellent sound. The underground bathroom was a dungeon though. 
  • I have no tolerance for annoying hippies. The one right in front of us, thankfully got pushed a few rows back during the first set. During setbreak, full on verbal warfare almost escalated into physical mayhem. It made the long setbreak far more interesting.
  • Warren Haynes is amazing. He was the right pick for Garcia.
  • The Dead has embraced technology. It made the segment of space -> drums way cooler then it used to be.
  • 30 minutes of Darkstar is too much Darkstar.
  • Dave’s reaction to surprise is amusingly mild. When we walked into his house after the show Zaq was sitting at his kitchen table. 
  • I haven’t slept in the same bed with Zaq since I was 8. The three of us yukked it up on a fantastic road trip up to SF.
  • The lot scene at Shoreline ate it, since the fun police were out in force. Boo to that.
  • I haven’t gone to a show with so many friends in ages. I’d forgotten how fun it was. Summer = chillin on the lawn at Shoreline with friends and great music

  • Apparently the Dead love the Rolling Stones. We got different cover at each venue.  
  • It was amusing to walk through the lot after the show where every hippie had locked their dog in their car and they were all going nuts. 

I know I’ve been neglecting my blog as of late. Good thing it doesn’t have feelings. I’m going to leave the country in five hours. TTFN.