It is always great to have a book that explains things in a really direct, actionable way. If I want X and know that adding Y and Z will get me there every time, having that information on hand is usually a no-brainer. Being handed a process on a silver platter that works reliably is a fantastic thing. I'm known to actually read instruction manuals. I live a glamorous lifestyle, I know.
But when I’m looking to be inspired, I need something that requires interpretation. Something that isn’t so cut and dried. It has to make my brain hurt a little (or a lot). That is when I’ll purposefully reach for books that are outside my understanding or appear unrelated to the thing I’m trying to relate them to. Maybe the author is just too blatantly talented to ignore. I’m a sucker for biographies of people I look up to for this reason.
I do this because going outside my comfort zone increases the chances of discovering something that everyone and their mother can’t Google for. It forces me to extrapolate and make the connections myself. The higher barrier to entry makes the results less picked over. It usually does makes my brain hurt. This is a price I am happy to pay for novel insights. If I do the work to relate things and develop my own thinking, that is not stuff someone else can go buy for themselves. It is mine to use as I please.
What I really like about Making Music: 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers by Dennis DeSantis is that it is two books in one. First, the obvious. Is it good for improving one's production workflow? It certainly has been a big help for mine.
On the electronic music side of my brain, Making Music is closer to being that direct, easy to apply kind of resource. As I heard over and over at Loop, making good music is still hard, so it isn’t like just following a repair manual. It is way more inspiring than that. It is closer to being a cookbook that explains a lot of principles behind good cooking, but without providing recipes. You still have to make up your own. It is just enough of a push to get you going.
Great. Mission accomplished, now we go home, right? Not so fast.
Viewing it through the eye of a double bass player has a whole other set of valuable insights. They're a little harder to get to, but well worth it.
Many of the principles used to problem solve while composing electronic music can be extrapolated and applied in the practice room to acoustic instruments. For those willing to do the work, this is a really great book for picking apart musical problems in general. It is not just for electronic musicians. Hell, some of the more insightful chapters don’t require technical knowledge or mention computers at all. I’m writing this article mostly because I think it is a great book for any kind of musician to have. It has lead me to some interesting thoughts regarding multiple levels of my music and I leave a copy near my music stand most of the time.
I AM A BASS SYNTHESIST
Some would say I play a wooden box for a living. I would say I work in a very specific niche of bass synthesis. Playing my double bass is a form of synthesis. There are limitations, instabilities, and quirks that make it exciting, just like a lot a lot of prized analog equipment.
Much like in a hardware synthesizer, if I am not getting a consistent result, I’m more often than not leaning on habits without a clear concept of how to construct a sound I want to make. Saying, “make X double bass sound” on a double bass at a given time really isn’t all that different from saying “synthesize X sampled sound” on a synthesizer. It is a series of steps that need to happen. The principle difference being once the double bass process is clear, I have to train myself to realize this process in realtime (also known as “practicing”). Also similar to plugin or hardware synthesis, thinking in terms of troubleshooting connected components is often an effective practice strategy. Except instead of dealing with LFOs and Oscillators, I’m using body weight and different muscle groups.
HARD MUSIC? MONTHS OF PRACTICE? FEW PEOPLE CARE.
Most listeners don’t want to hear difficult to make music. They want to hear good music.
If you make something in 5 minutes people won’t celebrate you as a genius if it isn’t good.
If it takes 5 decades of ascetic sacrifice, they won’t worship you if it isn’t good.
How it sounds to the intended audience is king. But sometimes as performers we get wrapped up in a dead end approach because we don’t want to face the cognitive dissonance of throwing out something we put lots of time into. We make up a little story for ourselves that people will hear the work or appreciate that we spent so much time on it or this next repetition might be the lightbulb moment where it all comes together...and then you've effectively played yourself into a corner.
The lesson here? Decide what I want to work on, then work backwards from there in the shortest possible path. No one cares how difficult or easy your music is to make.
After 6 years in music school, I’d see the same thing over and over. People trying to outwork each other because Work = Good, right? In The Four Hour Workweek* Tim Ferriss calls this “Work For Work’s Sake”, albeit in a different context. We tell ourselves that simply because we're busting our asses on something, we HAVE to be getting something done.
The truth is, I was one of those people. I’d saw away thinking I was accomplishing something just because I was making sound and getting tired. I wish I could go back, smack some sense into myself and get the time back! Don't just saw away. Measure your successes with a recorder and be brutally honest about what is helping you progress and what is not. You’ll save boatloads of time and make better music. This also changes your definition of work; be open to it. Sometimes NOT practicing or working on music for a little bit is the best thing too. Go see a movie. Read a book. Drink a beer with a friend. Don’t rationalize a lack of discipline, but nobody does their best when inefficient practice has you feeling worn out. If the recorder is showing that you're sounding worse and worse, you aren't doing yourself a favor by beating your head against the wall some more. And listeners aren’t giving you an A for effort, ever. Listeners give you an A when you structure your production/practice process in a way that leads to great music for them to enjoy. Know when to regroup and come back to the work.
While I'm on the topic of work..
WHAT THE HELL IS WORK?
Many of us are taught to define "work" as unpleasant, depleting tasks that we would rather not do. This is only sometimes true. Work should be defined as anything that moves us toward our goals since nobody cares how much you sweat to make it happen.
It should additionally be noted that the exact same tasks can feel like a lot of fun or a lot of work, depending on your state of mind. DeSantis talks a lot about "flow", that blissful state of mind when you are humming along kicking ass and problems seem to solve themselves without much effort. Our enjoyment doesn't make it not work; as long as it advances us forward it's work. Sometimes we achieve that flow state. And then the phone rings. Or a plugin freezes the DAW. When you resume, that beautiful flow state is magically transformed into work (in the unpleasant, depleting sense). This is where the discipline comes in to push through and finish.
THE STRUCTURE OF PROBLEM SOLVING
I love the way this book is structured and try to apply this to how I think about making music in all forums. The entire book is arranged into 3 sections: Problems of Beginning, Problems of Progressing, and Problems of Finishing. Each chapter follows the format of Stating a Problem, Discussion, and Actionable Solutions. Usually multiple solutions are provided that require the musician to make some kind of personal choice. DeSantis is really good about not being too technical or prescriptive. He leaves space for you to use each suggested process within the context of your own work.
This information is equally at home both at the DAW and the practice room. In the practice room it is really easy to just get frustrated and get sucked into circular, self flagellating thought patterns like, “Oh well, I can’t get this music in tune/in time/whatever because I must suck. I should practice more.” When this starts to happen and discouragement starts to set in, the framework DeSantis offers is great to get out of a funk and get back to work. It basically looks like this:
1. Define the phase of development
Am I just trying to get this in my ears? What stuff can I fix right now and what will take more time? When will I move from polishing little spots to practicing the full performance? What’s the big picture of what I’m doing here? How focused am I? Time constraints?
2. Define specific problems
Fix the stuff that is intuitively fixable. This is the stuff that you can “just do”. For the stuff that falls outside of the category, define it and measure it if possible. For example, just saying something is “out of tune” doesn’t really cut it. Is it sharp or flat? How much? Just answering those questions can drastically alter the possible solutions.**
3. Propose multiple solutions
This is where practicing can be really creative. You know what the problems are. Sometimes fixing things is as simple as applying some advice you’ve heard years ago and other times you have to invent your own way. Creativity and failure go hand in hand so try not to get too frustrated. If this happens, just re-evaluate the source of the problem and go back a step.
You can probably see what I’m getting at here. This book rocks. It is great for electronic producers of any level, but also valuable for anyone who makes music. This is a great addition to Ableton's family of first rate products.
But, that is just my two cents. Decide for yourself. You can check out portions of the book for free or purchase a physical copy here.
If you want the full version and want to save some trees, go here.
*Contrary to what the hater’s say and the cover design, this book isn’t about finding a way to sip margaritas on the beach while you contribute nothing to society. It is about being efficient with time, being more effective at whatever it is you do, and having the time to enjoy the rewards. Highly recommended.
**I’ll never forget the time I was practicing Bach and could not for the life of me get one passage close to being in tune. I tried different fingerings, used different strings, I did everything I could think of to iron out the problem in my left hand. No dice. It wound up being a problem of sync. I was moving the bow a split second before my left hand was all the way in place. My left hand was fine from the beginning. All I had to do was make my right hand wait slightly.