Since I’ve started to produce my own music again, I’ve been investigating ways to break out of some of my existing producer habits. As a visual learner, I tend to get lost in how MIDI events graphs look, and how different instrument regions or clips are placed next to each other and layered. I often end up with instrumental tracks that sound really flat and lack dynamic, movement, or any exciting moments.
While working at Boom Box Post, however, I’ve experienced the workflow of post-production sound edits that really contrasts with the workflow I’ve developed for music production. It’s an organized and serial process that is more efficient than the abstract and intuitive approach I take in producing. In looking to progress my production skills without falling back into the same habits, I thought it would be interesting to fabricate a method of producing music as a post-production sound edit. This could offer a more linear perspective on producing my songs since music in its most basic form is sound over time. This is how I would break it down.
In order to imagine my song as a post-production edit for a film or TV show, I need a story source that functions as the “picture” so I can spot it and reference my “editorial” against the narrative. For me, this material clearly comes from the lyrics which offer visual imagery and tell the story in each song. In fact, when I started approaching a new song in the works, I used markers in ProTools to spot lyrics that seemed particularly important and should be matched by a valuable moment in the sound.
One part of a sound edit that I’m very familiar with and that offers strong foundations is the background edit, which involves room tones for indoor spaces or wind and birds for outdoor spaces, for example. While backgrounds can be a very quick and painless part of the editing process, they offer valuable sonic information on the setting and location of a show. When I think about what would function as the “setting” of a song, the first element that comes to mind is the harmonic arrangement or chord structure. Harmonies in a Pop song support the melody and the emotional tensions of the lyrical story. One habit I have is loading my session up with multiple layers of synthesizer pads or comping instruments that provide similar harmonic information. However, when I look at these tracks through the lens of a background edit, I remember what happens to many background tracks during the mixing stage of a show: they get automated very low in the mix and often many layers get muted. In reality, there is so much going on in a mix that only essential backgrounds are needed, and the rest are just taking up space. I often find that when I get to the mixing stage of a song, the layers of harmonic information I have in the song will load up the mid-range and leave no space for the vocals that share the same frequency range.
The lesson I can learn from background edits as it translates to my producing is this: just take the essentials.
Since I’m thinking about what is essential to the song, I can’t ignore the vocals, which are the meat and cheese of most of my recordings. This post-production analogy is pretty straightforward, as dialogue holds a vital role in the sound edit. Dialogue and vocals drive the story and typically call for crystal clear recording and editing. It’s important in both cases that sound effects or other instrumentation is not overshadowing them. While this may seem obvious, one thing I noticed while spotting my song lyrics was the moments when the words said something that a certain instrument or sweetener couldn’t. This happens in visual media too, and sometimes the way that something is spoken or the choice of words hold strong on their own without support. The dialogue edit teaches me to stay aware of the most irreplaceable spoken or, in this case, sung, moments in a song.
To continue, in a post-production sound edit, Foley quite literally gives more information about the movement happening in an episode and offers a little bit of insight on the characters too. A large monster might have a heavy footstep while a small child would have a softer one, for example. While Foley is generally mixed at lower levels than dialogue and sound effects, there are moments in a show or film where the camera might change perspective to show foot movement, and then Foley has the chance to shine. I imagine the Foley of a song to be the sweeteners that drive a song from one part of the arrangement to the other. I tend to lack support from sweeteners in my production, yet I notice it constantly in current Pop songs that I reference. When I mapped out some of the lyrics and the arrangement in ProTools, I took notes of where a sweetener could come in to prepare the listener for the next part of the song and shift the perspective a little. In music, this could be a reverse cymbal or a massive bass drop that cuts into the rest of the instrumental track. These moments can provide a good chunk of the dynamic that I am missing in my production.
The last part of a sound edit I want to explore in music production is the sound effects edit. If dialogue is the meat and cheese of a show’s sound, then sound effects are the bread and butter. Impactful or detailed effects builds can give viewers clear insight into what is happening at each moment in a show. In Pop music especially, the rhythm, particularly the drum and bass parts are similarly the bread and butter of a song, providing detail and sonic experiences from moment to moment. Something I notice from my drum and bass creations which tend to be the most robotic and repetitive element of my production is that I am not considering what each part of the rhythm is doing at any specific point in time. I tend to see rhythm as MIDI notes along with a graph, which results in instrumentation that is sturdy but not taking care of the music or the song as it moves through time and space. I think that seeing each collection of drum parts and bass as its own “sound effects build” in each measure or group of measures would offer a more linear image and encourage patience as I’m making my tracks. The beat can loop at certain points, but how is it helping the song if two sets of four measures are expressing different emotions in the lyrics? If there were two explosions on screen, for example, and one was right next to the characters and destroyed buildings, it wouldn’t sound like the explosion off in the distance on a rural hill. Drum and bass deserve the same kind of awareness.
Ultimately now that I’ve mapped out this explorative connection between two departments of sound that I love, I’m excited to see how each one can influence the other. In this instance, I’m observing the development of a song in a new format that can yield the results I always want but struggle to achieve.