Our regular music tech column continues by looking at music production's assumed rules—and why you should break them.
I've been struck recently by how much both the music industry, and the technology industry which facilitates it, is giving the impression that there might be a formula for success. New plug-ins are designed in collaboration with DJs and producers, samples and content for others are put together by up-and-coming producer/artists and, as ever, one successful international single inevitably spawns a catalogue of sound-a-likes.
You'd be forgiven for thinking this is about to turn into a rant about a lack of creativity but quite the opposite is true: what all of these things present is a challenge to be yet more creative. At a loose end one day a few years ago, I made up a list of all of the things I could think of which are common to 99% of pop records, irrespective of their style, to roughly work out what proportion of any given recorded song is "original." Most songs have a similar verse/chorus structure, exist within a fairly narrow BPM range, nearly always feature a vocal, tend to include lyrics of love, (whether lost, gained or simply dreamed about), have their melodies supported by fairly simple harmonic shapes… the list goes on.
Hopefully you can see what I mean; if you're going to write a new song which exists within this canon and stands a chance of hit success, an awful lot of rules must be adhered to in most cases. Writing down a list like this might lead you to believe that there's no originality left to squeeze out of songwriting at all, yet, once again, the opposite is true. I'm a firm believer in the idea that the best musical ideas flow when restrictions are applied to the creative process, particularly when there's a brick wall for producers to bang their heads against and somehow find their way over or around.
These restrictions used to be technical as well as musical; think about how different the records you make today would sound when limited by the restrictions of 4 or even 8-track tape, while more modern tools such as artificial reverb, DAW automation, beat-matching DJ software, hundreds of plug-ins running within a session—these things were the stuff of dreams as recently as 10 years ago.
Yet, rather than these tools having set us all creatively free, suddenly we come full circle and find that our plug-in presets are designed by producers keen to offer us the perfect channel strip solution, or guitar amp presets whose names tell us that we too can sound like Edge, Slash or Johnny Marr with a single button click. Yet those artists have a trademark sound because they dared to be a little different. Perhaps they customized their instruments, perhaps they were more ambitious with effects chains or feedback, or perhaps they just spent a day lost in the studio once upon a time and fiddled with tiny details until something new and beautiful emerged.
In my teaching work, I'm struck by a few questions I'm asked regularly: "If I write this and use that technique and that plug-in, will I pass?" and "what is the right way to EQ this kick drum?" being just two prime examples. These are the wrong questions if you want to bring something new to the world. The process of trying things out, using constructive criticism to mold an idea and trust in it: these are the things which yield interesting results and they're not the same from one record to the next.
Those of us out in the world writing new things need to adopt the same approach: ignore the presets and look to make your writing subtly different every time you switch your computer on. If you move a single snare a 16th note left or right, or add an unexpected note into a C major chord, or change your lyrics so that the final chorus provides a twist or... the options to provide subtle variations from the norm is much longer than the prescribed list I hinted at earlier.
So do use tutorials explaining how to achieve certain results, as they'll introduce you to the subject and help you cover ground quickly, but once you've followed the suggested path, dive into the undergrowth around it and see if you can dig up a new variation on the same theme. And then delve a little further away still, and further, and further. And as for technology designed in collaboration with your studio idols—don't use these tools as a means to copy their sound but rather find your own pathway through the available parameters to achieve something new. Radically new is great, subtly new is OK too.
Jono Buchanan is a producer, composer, music technology lecturer and journalist based in London. Beyond his contributions to RA, he writes regularly for Future Music magazine and teaches Electronic Music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. His freelance production career involves work with a broad selection of artists, while he also composes regularly for television.