If you’re reading AbletonOp, chances are you love electronic music. Although that label spans a huge variety of genres — dubstep, ambient, house, trance, and everything in between — everything united under the label shares the same kind of ambition. The idea that our music is no longer limited to the things our hands can create. Our music is made mathematically. Sound waves can be edited formant by formant. Our drum beats are inhumanly precise, and can become unimaginably complex.
Drum and bass shows us the limits of speed, and tests our endurance on the dance floor. House music sits at 120 BPM, the perfect tempo for human movement. In a sense, electronic music is the music we’ve always wanted to create, but never knew we could.
When you make music on the computer, you’re decoupling music from the musician. Your hands no longer limit you. You can play hundreds of instruments at once. The traditional requirements of musical mastery — muscle memory, music theory knowledge, agility, and countless hours of practice — don’t apply. They’re replaced by much more analytical brain processes. You occupy an interesting space between the composer, the musician, and the instrument. Sometimes you are all of them at once.
It all depends on how far away you are. When you’re close, when you dig into a rack and turn knobs a degree at a time, tweaking a sound to perfection, you’re not really a composer. You’re not really being a musician either. You’re the instrument itself. Although everything you change alters the music, that doesn’t interest you. You’re in too close to see the big picture — and there’s nothing wrong with that. It takes being the instrument to design good sounds. Every sound out of place is your problem, because you crafted that sound essentially from scratch.
Step back a little, and you become the musician. You play the instrument, you listen to other instruments. You solo the bass track to see if it sounds good by itself. If it does, you drop it in with the rest, and listen, content. If it doesn’t, you step closer and become the bass, changing it. Bobbing your head because it’s just that funky. You can’t help yourself, and that’s okay.
The musician exists in the third dimension, observing the music as it passes, not truly knowing what’s coming next or what everyone else is doing. But the composer exists in the fourth dimension, “unstuck in time.” She sees the piece as a whole, timeless, from beginning to end. In this way, it’s doesn’t have the ephemeral quality that music traditionally has. The music becomes a shape — blocks stacked on top of each other, ending and beginning in different places.
This kind of composition isn’t unique to electronic music. Neither is this kind of musicianship. But the idea that you can be both simultaneously, and also control the instruments themselves with an intimate amount of detail is what makes electronic music production so satisfying. It reminds us that every error is our own, and that the music does exactly what you tell it to do. It’s half craft, half art.
And We Analyze
We analyze constantly. We watch MIDI flow into synthesizers. We watch the tinkering of our fingers at the keyboard trickle through the oscillators and the LFOs and the filters. And the audio comes out of the synthesizer, half-made, but not there yet. It passes through effect racks like water cascading through rapids — the same flow, simply altered at each collision. If you’re lucky enough to own some real modular synthesizers, you observe this flow through patch cables, and it’s so much more beautiful.
We watch this flow, and we detect which rocks we like and which rocks we don’t. We move one or two a millimeter. We take some out completely, and we put some back in. We change their order. We attach some of them to filters so they can move like magic without our interference.
But the real magic comes when all these parts come together. When you’ve assumed yourself into the shape of each of your instruments, and tweaked them all to perfection. When you’ve zoomed in and out, back in, and back out again. When you’ve put all the notes in their proper place — or maybe in the wrong place, on purpose. When the LFOs run on time, every time, like the most reliable train station ever. When the delays and the reverbs and filters and all the distortion and every other effect you’ve placed changes the sound just like you like it.
And when you’ve changed all these little things in each track, you’ve only completed one small piece of the puzzle. You zoom out, drag things around, and build the track like you build a wall, with bricks. That’s what the clips in session view look like to me, anyway. And arrangement view is just a brick wall with a lot of little loop bricks put together. Or maybe you don’t work that way. Maybe you’re not fond of loops. Maybe your bricks look different.
It’s like looking at a tree, and knowing that it starts in one place — the ground — and takes all these different paths on the way up. And at each step you find a piece of bark, and that bark is made of trillions of cells. And it looks like a tree at one level, and at another level, you see cytoplasm. A lot of cytoplasm. You can’t see every level at once. You can be the musician and the composer and the instrument in the same hour, but you can’t be them all at the same millisecond. The brain has to analyze, shift up or down, and get back to work again.