Illustration by ©RGBstock.com/Robert Proksa
I will tell you some personal stories today. One of the things I most love to do is to create. I create stuff. Often. It is a process that I can’t really explain, I’m just lying around and then, out of the blue, I make some nifty associations and I come up with something new or, at least, that is new to me. Regarding music this process is often very visual. I’m making a kind of movie in my head. I think about someone, about some situation, often a daily situation, nothing uncommon at all. And then I picture that scene. Sometimes it’s triggered by a conversation, a picture, other times just by a dream, because it often happens when I’m asleep or just after I wake up. This essay, for instance, started happening as soon as I woke up and read one email in my smartphone.
I’ve been delighted writing a virtual orchestral piece. I pictured a friend in a certain situation and made a short movie inside my head regarding it. This movie doesn’t exist in real life and never will, I just made it up. And as soon as I was making it up I could hear the music that was going along with it. It was a very silly theme played in an oboe going along with some pizzicato strings and a triangle and a glockenspiel making subtle counter melodies. I found it so funny that I had to make it true so I could hear it properly and share it with my friend. I had that urge: “Oh my! This is good stuff! Let’s make it happen”. Often this is what happens when I create music – this kind of urge to make something in my head real and share it with the person that made it possible to happen in my head.
Then, I sit at the piano and make a rough sketch of the music. I play out the themes and the chords that go along with them. And I get a very simple melody/accompaniment texture for piano, often somewhat incomplete and with some variants regarding the true sound that I hear in my head.
After that stage I open up my notation software and start writing it down, “properly”. I engage in a very “scientific/algorithmic” process where I literally mount an orchestral work out of a flawed piano reduction. Often this happens much with trial and error comparing the sounds I have with the ones I have in my head. Mozart would never do it this way, but it is the way I like to do. I begin writing my oboe line, my strings and the glockenspiel. And then? Then in my head I realize that the answer to the first line is not exactly the same sound as the oboe. Humm, I need something else… I’m probably hearing a clarinet, and not an oboe anymore. And so, cut and paste that second part of the theme to the clarinet. Let’s hit play – yes, that’s it, it sounds much better. And then the repetition? Again, I have a motif and an answer, and both are two distinct sounds but not the oboe/clarinet anymore… could it be a flute and a bassoon? I try it, not… it’s not that. Perhaps an english horn? Oh, yes, the english horn is perfect. But it’s still not a bassoon… oh, it’s the flute, but on the upper octave!… Then let’s hit play again! Perfect, exactly this sound I was looking for. It matches what I had in my own head and desires. It’ perfect because I wanted to hear it this way, these sounds! It fulfills my expectations!… Or not? No, I’m missing some kind of answer, a tinkling sound somewhere, and it’s not a woodwind, neither a string, neither the glock… perhaps a harp glissando here will do the trick?… but from where to where?… again, methodic. I observe the notes I’m playing… humm… I’m playing something with g’s, b flats’ and e’s… I’m playing a C7 perhaps… so, a rising gliss from a low c to a high c will do the trick?… I try it, no, too long, let’s come from an octave upper, still too long, let’s start a beat later… oh, yeah, this will work!…
And I keep doing it. And doing it. And then I rest and have a meal… and go see a movie… and then I start later. And I hear it again, and all of a sudden it’s all fresh. It is like hearing something new again. And it’s a pleasure because everything is so perfect! The second time I hear what I compose sounds much better. But still could use some more detail. Perhaps a percussion here and there to add color?…
This was just an example. A detailed and colored one, but my reality is not much different. I use a kind of scientific/algorithmic process because I know that these notes will go along with the others and this meter makes sense here, and then if I have a kind of structure, I already know that some bits are going to be repeated in the future, and then I shall transpose parts of it, and that this line should be duplicated by that instrument. These kind of decisions are very rational and all based in my experience and my theoretical background. I’ve learned in university and by studying scores from the past that some people did some things in some ways. And those that I liked I assimilated and replicate their ideas and processes now. So I’ve come up with a “way of doing this” that is a mix of a lot of “how to do” from several other composers that I like.
On the other hand I have a lot of trial and error comparing the lines that I write with the expectations in my head until they match. This second part of the process is something that would be virtually impossible decades ago. How could you trial and error entire parts of orchestral sounds until you have what you want?… Technology makes wonders.
This is a process that can take several days. Or just a few hours. It depends on the purpose, on my free time, on my will to be refined. Sometimes I get satisfied very soon. I like it the way it is. Other times I decide to rest, to do something else and then come back some days later. In the case I decide to come back later I cannot hear the song again. If I start hearing my song, I get so used to it, that I’ll find it perfect, and I will not be able to change it anymore. While, when I let it rest for a few days without hearing it, when I come back later, my whole life has changed in between. My life experience and expectations changed. A tiny bit perhaps. Or just a few things. It is enough for me to find that some things don’t make sense anymore. It is enough for me to decide that I will erase an entire line of harp and make it a Toy Piano instead, in another region, in another register. So, letting a song to rest can be very beneficial or can be very dangerous. On one side you can refine it and make it more complex. On the other side you can make it more fragmented since you are erasing your ideas and substituting them for another ones brought up in a new life context. It is like you’re mixing the movie you made in your head while you were in the beach, with the new one you made while you were in the countryside. You had two very opposite experiences and now you’re putting in the virtual paper those two. And the outcome might sound chaotic after a while if you keep doing it.
I don’t know which process is the ideal one. I just do it, go with the flow, depending on how much time I have. And how good it sounds in my head until I decide: “it’s finished, I have a nice score now!”.
After I have a nice score I have another huge problem in my hands. Now I have to record it!… If I had real musicians would be a pain to coordinate them all. Having virtual ones it’s not less of a pain. I have to do it by myself, not being a proficient in any of them. How the hell do I know if this trumpet line I wrote is playable in real life? I know it sounds good in my head and in the computer, but I have no idea if a real player could play this! At this point the assumption is: who cares?…
A virtual instrument is NOT a real instrument. What I have in my head is what I want it to be fulfilled so I record what I want to hear and I don’t care about real life. I open up my Digital Audio Workstation and I start refining one instrument by one. I start by choosing the sounds for each line – lets put up this flute here, tweak it, etc. I decide on the fly that some notes are in the wrong place, or they are too mechanical, let’s drag them around; other times, it’s too clumsy, let’s quantize this so it sounds more strict. It’s all individual decisions note by note based, sound by sound until every sound by every instrument sounds exactly the way I want on an individual basis. Sometimes I feel that something is just impossible to achieve. I don’t have that sound at all!… I wish I could have it, but it’s impossible to make it with these samples. And I’m not hiring a real musician to do it!…
Other times I just decide, yes, It sounds fake, in real life it would never happen, but I WANT that sound. It sounds GOOD to me! It fulfills my desires to have this synth sound at this point. So, there are a lot of decisions made by compromise according to the limitations of the technology and the resources that I have. Others, I assume, can be out of ignorance. Some times, perhaps, I could achieve that sound using the resources I already have, I just don’t know how to do that, yet. In those cases advice can be useful. This is why one should never stop learning and seeking advice and feedback. Each new book I read, each new video I see, I learn some new technique that I know they will be handy in the future in case I want to achieve some kind of result.
After I have every track recorded there comes another pain. How should this sound and blend together?… when I play every track at the same time I realize that my dear glockenspiel vanished in the thin air in my phones. But when I hear it through the speakers it seems loud, dry and in my face. Oh my!… I want to hear it, but I want it in the back!.. and I want it “fuller”… and not this aggressive… I need to decide that the glockenspiel has to be equalized, and then panned differently, and probably have a bit of extra reverb. Don’t get me wrong, I usually send all the instruments to a channel where I put a reverb into them all. And they are already panned like they were on a stage. But even when I “Fake a real orchestra room” globally, still some instruments just don’t work for me. They have to be individually tweaked, and so I’m adding another layer of faking. If I already have my glockenspiel on a stage and on the center back, why do I think that putting it on a Cathedral, before all this, will make it better? I don’t know. I just think it does, in this particular piece. It’s an empirical thing for me, trial and error, and someone else can think otherwise. Again, very personal and subjective decisions.
The same goes for the Guitar. I know it is supposed to be a guitar, but this guitar sounds so fake and lame in my eyes. I know I will never have a genuine guitar sound unless I have a real one, but can’t I make it more appealing? What if I load 3 different samples? Perhaps a harpsichord being placed in the exact same place as the guitar with the same reverb at a very low volume… this way it will sound 80% guitar and 20% harpsichord, and this extra “harpsichord” sound will blend and make it sound more risp and convincing. Convincing for whom? A musician will still notice that it is not a guitar at all. Perhaps he would prefer the original sample or a totally different one. But my hears want that sound I imagined. So again, it’s all personal decisions. I’m pleasing myself and no one else. Even when I decide that I’m mimicking some kind of sound that I saw on a certain context, it’s my judgement. Another guy could hear it and think “no, man, listen to these harmonics, If you want to mimic this sound you have to use a totally different sample and panned elsewhere, you’re doing it all WRONG!”. He would be using his ears and his expertize, while I’m using mine…
So, in the end, you may know one thing: When I export and publish a song, it is because it sounds good enough for my hears in my phones, and in my speakers and in my TV. I usually test it in these three different places and I try to balance it to sound good enough FOR ME on these.
After this whole process, that may take from several hours in a row if made intensive and the track is simple, or more than a week, for a two minute piece, if it is complex and I’m in the mood, I can tell you that I deflate like a balloon. I feel relaxed and fulfilled. And I enjoy myself. It is like a cooking lady enjoying her home made baked cake. I enjoy the music I make. I hear it in repeat one hundred times and I get pleased all the time. The cooking lady often cannot try it out. But me, I had tried it out several times, so it’s perfect. My music is perfect in the sense that it comes out exactly the way I wanted. If it doesn’t come the way I want it is because I had no resources to do so. I confess here right now – voices, guitars are the two instruments I’m never satisfied with when I have to do them by myself. I can’t sing or play guitar they way I imagine in my head, and I cannot absolute fake those two instruments. It’s impossible for me. So those two instruments, unless I hire real people, will never come out good.
But generally speaking, toy pianos, pianos, strings, woodwinds, synths, drums, sound rather good to me. That’s a “problem” I have. I am not a bassoon player. I am not a trumpet player. I am not a violin player. I never played in an orchestra. So when I play with them in a virtual world I have not the experience of dealing with those sounds in real life and knowing their subtleties. So for me if they sound “approximate” they are fulfilling my expectations, and probably most people one’s. Of course they will sound dreadful for the real players. A real clarinet player will found appalling my clarinet lines – “How come this guy recorded this clarinet like this?.. It sounds dreadful! A clarinet would NEVER sound like this! This is BAD!”. The maestro would say “Real musicians don’t interact like this!… This is all WRONG! You need to spend some weeks with a real orchestra! Listen more! Learn more!”.
Well, guess what, I’m playing with virtual instruments, in my place, trying to come up with the sounds that I hear in my head. Just that!… The sounds that I hear in my head are fuzzy and not connected to anything in particular in real life. Why they have to be perfect for you, clarinetist, and you maestro, and you sound engineer?… and moreover, to you, mailman, to you, journalist, to you 10 year old kid?…If they already fulfill my expectations, if they please me to the point I hear it one hundred times, If they give me immense joy, isn’t the purpose achieved?…
Well, it depends. Again, my music is good, it is perfect to my hears. But I’m not inside anyone else’s head. Each individual is unique, has his own life experience, musical associations. Music is not objective at all. It’s relative and highly personal. We all hear music in different ways, and we all interpret it, give value and meaning to it according to very personal and cultural backgrounds.
So, the problem and what baffles me is when I share my music. I share my beautiful, perfectly crafted virtual music that I made thinking about my home village on the country side and my best friend tells me “Tiago, what a fantastic sound about a beach you made! The sea is so perfect, this is beautiful!”, “What?? Sea?? How come a toy piano reminds you of the sea?”, “Toy Piano? What is that? I was referring to that nurturing sound you have all over the place that is so calm…”.
Then I share it with a guy that all of his life has played heavy metal and he goes “Oh man, this is circus music. And it is way too squared! And what kind of shitty guitar is that? No one plays like this. This sucks bad.”, and then you’ll have the one that just goes “Oh, it sounds nice. I have no clue what instruments are playing! It is nice, keep doing it.” and the ones that will go “This is exactly what you’ve done before. It’s the same thing isn’t it?… you keep doing it all over. That clinging sound is always there, I don’t know what it is, and then the pfft pfft, you’re making the same music all over again.”, and then you have the pro that will go “Oh dude, this is all wrong. These levels are crap. My subwoofer was never used, you should go try a filter here and there, and you are missing a drone in the back just to give atmosphere, and perhaps a bit of stereo imaging in that sound…”.
Argh, I’ve lost it by now. It’s impossible to please whomever. My music is not good because it doesn’t fulfill your expectations. If you’re expecting a real orchestra it will suck. If you’re expecting heavy action in the woods it will suck. I don’t know. Whatever you’re expecting it is probably NOT what I wanted to do, neither what I was imagining in the first place. And that’s the beauty of things. The beauty is when I just do whatever I wanted to do, whatever it felt RIGHT to me, and then some random stranger comes up and tells me “Hey, I really liked your music! It sounded great and I repeated it and shared it with my friends. Please keep doing it!”. I have no idea what kind of associations it triggered in this person’s mind, but apparently it worked! And in the industry I guess the bottom line is: “It works!”.
Some people say that there is a craft. That there are objective patterns by which you can measure this kind of thing and then you’ll be able to optimize your targets and please a larger number of people and also be able to make profit out of it. I don’t know. My personal experience tells me the most unexpected pieces of work, some that sound like garbage to me, made it to please everybody and earn tons of money, while other works that I find are absolutely brilliant are hated all around. I see in the media all kinds of works. Trashy ones and really crafted ones. The media plays a huge role in making associations and trying to impose a “fashion” and a proper “way to do it”. Institutions also try to impose a “correct way of doing and presenting it”. Gatekeepers, directors, etc. But in the end it just seems that every kind of piece can find its own niche market, even in the comedy one, after all, it’s all entertainment industry – even the “erudite and western classical bubble world” is about entertainment in the end. That’s why I’m becoming a relativist. It seems my music will never be good, to some people’s ears. But on the other hand, it seems that every music I’ve ever made will eventually be good to someone else, in a certain time and context.
One awful track I made back then was bought by a foreign client. I call it awful, because back then I had very few resources and recorded it on the fly with a very cheap computer mic and really lousy free samples. I was not pleased at all with that sound. It didn’t fulfill my own expectations. I just did it because I had to do it and had no other way to do it at that time. Still, it was bought over other “good” ones. Because that person, hearing that piece of crap somehow found it good and “It works for my purposes”. And after being used the feedback was not bad at all. So I guess my own judgment was impaired. Or not.
So I guess, in the end, my conclusion is: perhaps I should just keep doing it. Keep fulfilling my purposes and expectations, asking advice and slowly building my pace and techniques. In the end I just have to please myself. If I put everything I have in each track I make, I believe I’m being genuine and honest. And that is the most important thing for me. If I have any kind of “evolution” or “learning curve”, perhaps I’m just following some kind of cultural expectancy related with some kind of “professional expectancies of the peers and the industry in a certain context”, after all, if you’re working with a client you have to please him, not so much yourself. One thing is working for pleasure, another one is working for money. The ideal is having a lot of pleasure and earning money. It is a constant internal struggle for fulfilling my pleasure and trying to please a future imaginary audience. That can be an awesome challenge, but in the end I don’t really know if it matters anymore.