Process This

A couple of years ago I published a few thoughts on making electronic music, and I have been pondering that post recently, since quite a few people have been inquiring about issues surrounding audio production and electronic music composition, such as tips and tricks to help effectively incorporate electronic music into their instrumental compositions. The most recent came in the form of an email from a student who wrote the following:

I am about to start writing a piece for a mixed ensemble (flute, violin, cello, piano, and percussion). I would like to add prerecorded sounds to it. I noticed that you have several pieces that use prerecorded audio. I was wondering if you could give me some tips on how I should approach this. (E.g. What should I think about? How should I plan it? What are the balance issues? Etc.)

This is a big question, and because it has been coming up more and more frequently, I wanted to share my reply because it might be helpful to others, and possibly for a variety of types of music-making. Obviously I can only share my own experience, so I hope you’ll add your thoughts and advice in the comments.

Make Stuff, Part 1
Make some sounds! They can be whatever you want—recordings of nature sounds, industrial sounds, banging on random household objects, electronically generated from software sounds, anything. I prefer to make my own rather than taking them from other sources, but if you must use other sources, please make sure they are in the public domain.

NOTE: Do not use MP3 files! You want to start out with the highest quality audio possible, so make sure your audio files are AIFF or WAV format, at least 16 bit, 44.1 kHz.

Create Boundaries
Spend some time assembling a “palette” of sounds that will be used for the piece. To begin, try using only three or four sounds at most (you can increase that number in later compositions!) They could be any kind of sounds you wish, and they can be of any length. You can process or otherwise mangle them in various ways, but try to limit your core group of sounds to a small number. This keeps things sane!

NOTE: I usually choose sounds first, before I have written much of the instrumental music, and use them to help determine some of the harmonic content of the composition. This is much easier than having to manipulate the pitches of the electronic material later to work with the instruments.

Listen
Consider—and preferably write words and/or draw pictures—the following issues regarding the sounds you have picked:

  • What is the range of each sound? High? Low? Medium?
  • What is the volume level of each sound? Loud? Soft? Varied?
  • What are the similarities and differences between each sound compared to the others? Do they all sound alike? (This is not a trick question.) If they are different, in what ways are they different?
  • How does each sound fit within the instrumental timbres? Does it contrast, or is it similar to the instruments?
  • Depending on the answer to the above question, how will you fit the sounds in amongst the instruments?
  • Where in the sound field will the sounds be? Background? Foreground? A mix? When? Why?

Make Stuff, Part 2
Try mixing your sounds to see how they work together. Play each sound with every other sound, and do this in as many combinations as possible. Don’t think too much while you do this—pretend you are painting, just slapping colors together. You will hear when something works, and when you do, record it! Write it down! Don’t let yourself forget what is happening.

NOTE: Most of this material will end up being awful. But don’t worry! If nothing is happening, step away and try again later. After a few tries you will find some combinations that sound cool.

Think
Treat your sounds as you would any of the other instruments. Think about how they behave, and how they interact with the other instruments. There could, for instance, be a sort of counterpoint between a prerecorded sound that is rhythmic, and the violin or the flute, or all three! Or perhaps the sounds could intermix with the percussion part. Think about the loudness of the sounds and about how they move. Do they start loud and fade away under the instruments, or fade in, or create a steady wash behind the instruments, or…?

Make Stuff, Part 3
Now it’s time to start putting the instrumental music and the electronic sounds together. You could do this within a sequencing/software editing program such as ProTools or Digital Performer. At this point you have a lot of things figured out about the electronic parts, and some decisions have been made about the instrumental music. Assemble what you have figured out so far. As you listen, think about what gaps need to be filled in, or about what sections might need to be expanded, contracted, or maybe even cut. (This does not mean failure—sometimes stuff just doesn’t work! It’s part of the process.) This can continue in whatever fashion you want. I usually end up going back and forth between instruments and electronics often—creating a hunk of one, and then catching up to it with the other, until all the sections are done and can be fit together with sensible transitions.

It’s also important to notate everything as clearly as possible. If you have specific cues that fall at certain times in the piece, those must be marked in the score. I used to draw graphic representations of the electronic music in the score, but now I simply indicate important cues and timings, with text indications of what is happening (for instance, “fade in bubbling lava sound”) and sometimes dynamic markings that are very clearly audible in the electronic part.

The End Game
You have a new piece—yay! Now to have it performed. A few things to consider are:

  • Will the instruments be amplified? That decision depends largely on the performance space. If it is a concert hall, they may need amplification for the best mix with the electronic profile. In a small, intimate space, they may not.
  • How will the electronic part be performed? Will one sound file be played straight through from beginning to end? Could the sounds be broken up into sections and triggered at various points during the performance? Will a DJ mix the sounds live from one side of the stage?! What makes the most sense for the piece?
  • Will the electronics be played from CD or computer? Will this be stereo, or multi-channel? These decisions depend on the technology resources available.

    NOTE: Please, oh please, no matter what, do not ever use MP3 files for performance!! AIFF or WAV only! Seriously. You want your music to be experienced in high fidelity! (Yes, I am an audio snob. Deal with it.)

  • Will the performers need monitors? If they need to hear and interact closely with the electronic part, probably yes. Again, in a small intimate space this may not be necessary.

Ideally for me in a piece of this nature, the electronics are just another instrument in the ensemble—it’s not about acoustic music or electronic music, it’s just about music.

Good luck, and have fun!

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