It’s been a little while since “City Dreams” came out and I thought I should tell you that, yes, I have been busy working on new material! Here’s a small sample:
For this work, I’ve been focused on making a clean ambient sound. This should be the kind of music that can sit in the background while you study, sleep, or meditate. And, so far, I’m pretty happy with the results. That said, I’m still very much in the initial creation and mixing phase of my workflow – so I don’t yet have a target release time or any more details about the album.
My main focus, in creating the cleaner sound, has been in improving my mixing. I’ve largely focused on doing better with equalizers and, in some cases, attempted to apply a more standard song structure. My plan is to avoid drums in this release or, if they are added, having a minimal amount of them. What I want is to have a mostly free-flowing piano lead with a variety of ambient drones and strings in the background to invoke a nice sense of calm.
As for other techniques, I’m using a limited amount of compression, a variety of delay and reverb techniques, and a whole lot of shimmer. (See: https://valhalladsp.com/shop/reverb/valhalla-shimmer/). I don’t have too many third-party plugins but that one is definitely one of my favorites!
Anyway, I wanted to share some updates because I’m excited about this future release!
Music production, based on school-age band class, should be as simple as picking up an instrument and recording playing said instrument. Or in the case of a band, recording all the different people playing at the same time. This is, of course, not the case at all. Playing the instrument is only but a tiny piece of the puzzle. My adventure into music has involved a lot more research than I’d like to remember and I’ve come across various opinions on music theory in particular… and, well, I’m throwing my hat in the ring.
Most of the tutorials I’ve read or watched seem to say, “You don’t need music theory… until you do.”. Of course, some places have articles that tell you don’t need music theory but then they’ll have “top chord progressions every producer should know”. If you’re going to learn chord progressions, you’re going to need to know some basics in music theory. I mean, if you don’t get into some basics, how are you supposed to understand all that nonsense about chord progression anyways?
What is my short answer on whether or not you need music theory? It’s situational. I would argue that if you are doing any sort of traditional composition, you absolutely need to take the time to learn the basics. On the other hand, if you focusing on experimental music or work exclusively through samples – this endeavor may be a waste of your time. Sometimes, just using your ear and listening to the music is the best way of knowing if it works for you.
More importantly, spending a lot of time on music theory may lock you into a box that impacts your experimentation. So if that’s your target, perhaps skip the lessons because I feel this is one area where things are more science and less art.
In an art course, you will most definitely be told that you need to know the rules so you know how to break them. Music theory? Maybe that applies but it feels harder. Breaking the rules produces sounds that you now know are wrong whereas before, you may have found them interesting. And in so many cases, it’s not that you broke a rule: you just invoked a rule that you didn’t know existed.
Like now, I know better when to throw in borrowed chords from a parallel scale or how to switch from a major scale to its relative minor for added interest. Before? I just got lucky.
As with anything else in life, you’ll get what you put into this study. If you want to be a faster composer and spend less time experimenting or less effort on guessing why things sound good or bad together – spend time to learn music theory. Power through it, you can do it! But on the other hand, if you’re happy with the sound of your music and don’t want to learn music theory? Don’t feel bad about that choice because it’s totally fine.
Also, you should accept that if you want to learn music theory, you’re not going to get it done quickly. I don’t care how many of those videos you watch where the tag line is “learn music theory in 5 minutes!”, it’s not enough. Even now, as I write this article, I spent some refresher time and came across concepts I had completely forgotten and other concepts that were totally new. I have stacks of notes, books that I bought, and tons of bookmarks on the subject… because there’s a lot of information on it.
Point is: no one becomes an expert of anything over night so don’t sweat it. Just do what’s right for you and keep making your art!
P.S. I don’t know if I said it adequately enough above but learning music theory can help speed up your music making process by giving you more tools with which to assess your music… but it’s only one part of the puzzle. If you have to choose between this and some other skill – say, how to mix your music – do the thing that’ll give you the most return for your time now and come back to the other thing later. Don’t fret because you aren’t 100% knowledgable in all things right now. It takes time to learn a skill.
I love technology, generally, and the things it has done for us. But technology has created an interesting problem as it relates to cheating. Some of us are old enough to remember when calculators were forbidden from math class because you needed to know the steps instead of just getting to the answer, right? Now, computers are so ubiquitous in our lives that *not* using a calculator seems like the poor choice. Are we cheating somehow when we use the calculator?
If the calculator example doesn’t hit home for you, how about the last time you went to a music concert? (You know, back when we could still do that.) Or, honestly, to any event. Were you one of the people recording it on your phone to never watch it again? Were you one of the people silently hating the people with their phones out recording this once-in-a-lifetime event?
That is technology enabling people to experience an event in two different ways and we are left wondering if one of those people is cheating themselves. Either they didn’t record the event and can’t relive the moment later or they didn’t pay enough attention to the current moment and missed out on some emotion. I certainly can’t say which approach is right. Having grown up in a different time, I don’t record these events because I just want to be in the moment and know that I’ll never watch the recording anyways.
So what does this have to do with art? Well, technology has enabled artists in the same way and I’m left wondering – what is cheating anyways?
For a very long time, I subscribed to a purist attitude on this. Consider photobashing – or the concept of taking a photograph and blending it into your digital artwork in order to add textures or specific elements to your final art. I hated this concept. I felt like, “Are you an artist if you didn’t really draw the thing yourself?” It felt like cheating because it seemed like it removed the necessity of traditional art skills.
Fast forward many years and here’s a layout in one of my Logic Pro projects:
What you are seeing here is three different piano instruments overlaid in order to produce the song that I was going for. You can see my sections that I’ve labeled with specific chord progressions (3->5->6 or 1->1->5->1->1->6) that I reused. You can see where I loop parts and so on. This is very much a work-in-progress so it’s rough, but as shown above it sounds like this:
This is my cheating.
This is me taking shortcuts to achieve the desired end-goal because I finally came around to a different view which you can look at in one of a couple ways:
Technology enables me to compensate for my otherwise mediocre skills; or
Technology enables me to take shortcuts to get to my end goal and thereby saves time.
If I had to follow a more traditional route, I would have to pound out each of these parts on a proper piano and when I landed on something I liked – write it out in note form. Then I’d have to add in each part I wanted to play to those sheets of music. Eventually, I’d land on the same composition and then I’d have to play it and practice until I was adept enough at playing it error free – I could record it. (To be fair, the recording process could have multiple takes with a sound engineer taking the best parts of each take in order to produce the final recording. So, still kind of cheating!)
Past me, from so many years ago, would have considered this cheating and said: “How dare you call yourself a musician or artist!” Today?
Well, today, I see it as a more efficient workflow that helps compensate for areas where I’m not so great but most importantly, allows me to land on a final composition faster. I hit the record button multiple times and capture my notes in MIDI form. I listen through it, pick out the parts I like the most for the feel I’m going for, and I create a composition. I’m still doing the work to create a finished product.
I also get to take advantage of the process. Accidentally hit an E note when I meant E flat? Fix in post processing. Accidentally get off beat when you didn’t mean to? Quantize it in post processing. Having troubles playing left and right hand pieces at the same time? Play them separate and combine them in post processing.
Quite honestly, I’m not sure it’s much different than using samples and loops in music which happens plenty. But taking these shortcuts, cheating, leaves me with an important question. If you can cheat your way to a finished product, what makes you an artist?
Really, we have to answer that for ourselves.
I think it’s different for everyone. For me, I consider myself an artist because I practice hard and work at it every day. When I’m not producing something of my own, I am reading about other works or researching information that might make me better. One of the most telling things is that when you look at my desk, you won’t see a single book related to my day job but you will see lots of instruction books and printouts related to drawing, painting, and music.
Feel free to tell me what makes you an artist via email or at Twitter!
P.S. Another way to think about whether or not you are an artist is simply this: are you creating art? My partner once relayed a quote to me that went something like, “You are a writer as long as you are writing every day.” If you are doing the art you enjoy, actively pursuing it in your life, then you get to call yourself an artist regardless of your commercial success status.