A while back, I was running out of things to write about for this blog and asked the readers to give me some ideas. I got a ton of great suggestions, as well as some down right terrible ones. That’s to be expected though, and I appreciate people for trying. Something that popped up a lot were questions about my music and how it’s made. I suppose this is a very curious topic for people outside the creative process and for people who are not me. I mean, shit, interviewers have been asking me a similar question as far back as I can remember. The oh so important query of “How does your music get made?”.
When I’ve answered questions in this vein , during interviews, I tend to give a brief answer and move on as the creative process , to me, is extremely boring. Every artist works differently and subscribes to their own practices. Mine just happen to be mind numbing.
I think when someone outside of making music imagines this process, it’s extremely romanticized. They perhaps see images of a thoughtful artist , tucked away in their studio, surrounded by equipment, candles and burning incense. The artist feverishly working away , completely zoning out and creating music that eventually becomes something that means a lot to many people. Well…i can only speak for myself but this could not be less like how I go about making music. Don’t get me wrong, I do think their are people like this. In fact, I’ve met many people who completely lose themselves in what they do. I’d say about 35% of them are genuine in that and the other 65% are emulating what they think an artist is “supposed to do”. Particularly people working in electronic music of any sort.
Personally…my way or working is something that might really let you, the listener, down. I’ve considered writing about this before but I always felt like I should keep a little mystery behind the curtain and not expose myself completely. But fuck it. The way I see it , the artistic process needs to be exposed a bit , if not to simply shake some of the preconceived assumptions that seem to follow it. Too many artists treat it like it’s the agonizing thing that only they could ever really understand and I’m here to say that simply not always the case. In fact, it’s rarely the case. Making music is something that comes natural to many people. Like most things that come natural, it’s not so much “hard” as it is time consuming. This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of natural musicians out there who don’t struggle. Of course, any artist worth anything is going to hit walls and deal with tons of peaks and valleys.But the misconception by music fans that musicians are either fragile beings or unsung geniuses has always bugged me. Some people just make music without all the pretense.
So, allow me to dismiss the myths behind how MY music is made. Remember , I’m just one person and I’d venture to say my way is not the norm. I’d also like to clarify that I’m not really even a musician.I play no instruments, i can’t read music and , at best, have adequate rhythm. So, just keep in mind, everything I’m writing here is from the perspective of an “Electronic” music maker. I have no clue how rock bands do what they do. I have no clue how polka bands do what they do. This is just about what I know. So keep that in mind.
When i make music, I sit in a chair , in front of a computer. I got this program called “Music maker 2000” that not many people are up on. All you do is, write an adjective in a little box. For instance, I might type “Gloomy”. It takes a few minutes but , within moments, a fully formed song pops out , perfectly fitting the adjective. Over the years, I’ve gotten much better at it and have learned to enter multiple words in to really great results. A song like \"It\'s raining clouds\" was the result of me typing “Stormy whirlwind sad uplifting elf-like”. I’m telling you. This program is amazing.
Okay, obviously I’m making that up but how would you feel if that was real? It ain’t that far off.
Let me be really honest.
Here is my actual work process in making a beat.
First off, what i’m working with:
ASR 10 sampler that i purchased over 15 years ago
Ableton live on my mac book
A Moog slim phatty
A gemini record player
A dusty ass component system and the speakers that came with it (but i also use headphones)
That’s it. Nothing more. Not cause I don’t want more but more cause I’m frugal and working within this tiny spectrum has served me well in the past.Also, NYC apartments aren’t exactly spacious. I literally don’t have enough room to add much more. I will say though, I’m certainly open to adding stuff to this meager roster in the future, we’ll see what happens.
Anyway, here’s the process, step by step.
1)Sit down in front of my sampler
2)Hook up my computer and record player to the sampler
3)go through records/mp3’s of music I would like to sample looking for ideas.
4)When I find something that peaks my interest, I sample it. I now have a starting point. I may chop it up, throw effects on it or just leave be. That usually is based on if I feel it needs to be flipped up, or if I want it to sound a certain way.
5)Depending on that sample, I either add drums or look for more sounds to go with that sample. Let’s assume I’m doing drums.
6)I’m either working with chopped drums or a drum break or , often, both.
7)If it’s a break, I throw it in ableton and get it all lined up. Meaning, I clean it up and make sure all the kicks and snares fall where I want them to be.
8)If it’s chopped sounds, I go through my pre-made library of sounds looking for the right combination of kick and snare, as well as the proper hi-hat. This can take anywhere from 2 minutes to an hour depending on how particular the sound I’m working with is.
9)Once I lock down the drum sounds, I play them out on my sampler (depending on if I use a break or not)
10)Once the drums are right, I look into a bass line. This means either something I play on my keyboard or an actual sampled bass line from some other song. Both can take a while to find as the perfect bass tone is rarely right in front of you.
11)Once the bass is right, I just tear through a bunch of records/mp3’s and look for samples to layer over the existing track. This is hugely hit and miss.
12)The layer process can be both tedious as fuck and rewarding. Every day is different. The existence of ableton has made this much easier than when I started. Prior to using ableton, all the sample matching was organic. Meaning, no pitch shifting and no easy way out. It was simply a long ass process of finding something that works. Trial and error like “Woah”. Nowadays, with ableton and it’s time stretching and pitch changing abilities, it’s pretty fucking easy. Too easy if you ask me but whatever.
13)Once I find a decent amount of layers (usually between 3 and 5), I save it to abelton. Until about 3 years ago, I used to save the beats to floppy disks. Yup! Floppy disks. But, thankfully, I’ve moved on from the 1990’s.
This whole thing takes anywhere between 1.5 hours and 4 hours. I don’t think I’ve ever sat in my “Studio” longer than 4 hours at one time. I just don’t have that kind of
focus and the seat I use isn’t very comfortable.
And that is how musical magic happens.
I realize, my work process isn’t far off from how an accountant or pharmacist works. It’s very mathematical. It’s very laborious. It’s rare, when I’m working on music, that I feel like I’m working outside myself. Most of the time, I’m just plugging away, looking for the right formula. I guess what makes it artistic is that my ears are what’s guiding this formula but still, it doesn’t feel very artistic. It is what it is.
Growing up, my dad was a painter and sculptor. Every day, he would wake up , eat his breakfast and read the paper. Then he’d go into his studio for the rest of the day until it was dinner time. I have no clue what he did down there. For all I know, he could have slapped around a piece of clay for an hour and spent the rest of the day doing crossword puzzles. But the thing I came away with from being around him was that every one has their own process that works for them. I know plenty of artists who lose themselves in their work, hate everything they create and are constantly beating themselves down over it. They lose sleep over their work and feel genuine pain over it. In many cases, the final product is great. In a way, i envy people like this cause that’s a level of passion I don’t think i’ll ever grasp. I love making music but I also am able to remove myself from it when I’m not working on it.
On a side note, I do find humor in meeting people like this who also happen to make terrible music. That’s gotta burn the soul, huh? I mean, obviously, whether or not music is good is completely objective. But I do get a kick out of listening to some Minimal techno making dip shit regale me with woeful tales of finding the right 808 sound.
As I’m writing this, I’m taking a break from working. What am I doing , you might ask? Well, I’ve begun working on my new album. This may sound exciting but what I’ve been doing the last week or so is loading up floppy disks, recording each separate instrument , one by one, onto my ableton and organizing them all into folders using BPM’s, track names, and type of instrument. I’m basically doing the musical equivalent to filling out spread sheets. Sounds fun , right? (Just to be clear, I’m not complaining about being a career musician. That would be insane. Obviously, this is an awesome “Job”. I’m simply trying to strip away some of the ideas people have about how some of us work).
So, in the future, just remember this. The next time you’re idolizing some mystical music being, don’t forget that , in the midst of all his genius, he’s very likely a fucking math nerd with huge insecurity issues. Kinda evens the playing field, huh?
But if one thing is the musicians saving grace, at least we’re not actors.