A Matter of Time
Updated: Feb 9, 2020
A Change of Pace
Typically when I’m working on a selection of songs for a release, I do so in a rather short timeframe. I set myself short deadlines as I quite enjoy and tend to work efficiently under positive pressure (by which I mean manageable pressure that encourages efficiency, without being overwhelming).
For example, the EPs Girls On Bikes and Boys On Boards were each completed in around ten days (per EP). That’s writing, MIDI sequencing, recording audio, mixing and mastering. The same is true of The Real OSC Volumes I & II. Him and Her were a little longer as they required a bit more time to rework the songs from previously unreleased arrangements that weren’t doing it for me.
When working to a tight schedule, I feel incentivised to make quick judgements and commit to them. I don’t procrastinate or ponder on things much. I take many positives from this process in terms of capturing a moment or a feeling, as well as the logistical aspect of simply getting the work done and finishing (which is something I struggled with a lot in my youth).
One drawback to this approach however is that I sometimes find myself painted into a corner of tried and tested processes and arrangement tricks; habits that can be hard to break. If you listen to my output from the last two or three years, you’ll hear the same kind of arrangement tricks used time and again; it's like I'm building different (but similar) Lego houses using the same, small selection of bricks.
With my upcoming album I decided to take a very different approach. I gave myself a much looser framework within which to work (months as opposed to days). Going back as far as late 2017, I expected to release an album in late 2019 (knowing I’d be doing some EPs in the meantime). Therefore the album’s been on the musical slow-cooker for a long time.
Rather than focus on completing five or so songs in a ten day period (like many of my EPs), I aimed to complete just 16 or 32 bars of a song in the same time-frame (ten days per 32 bars). It will therefore come as no surprise that some songs took a long time to finish. However I found this process positive, unlike when I was young and took a long time to finish things (or didn't finish things at all) due a lack of confidence or conviction. Naturally there would be instances where I’d get more things accomplished within a given time-frame and get ahead of my schedule, but generally I aimed to devote much more time to the minutia.
I took this approach as I wanted to test myself and see if I could break habits, take my music in unexpected directions and generally learn new things about my creative process. Below I'll discuss some of the noteworthy points that arose from this change of creative pace.
More Time = More Perspectives
I can only assume that using a slower process allowed me to better link up the creative and logical sides of my brain. Completing a production in a short space of time means I'm usually firing on my creative inspirations alone, whereas spending much more time on the composition, arrangement and production meant the creative excitement would wane and logical, rational thought processes would become more central to my decision making.
That's not to say that the music became void of creative excitement, more that I was able to slowly apply techniques and processes (over time) that enhanced and deepened the emotional aspects of the music. As I explored melodic, harmonic, arrangement and sound-design in greater depth (than I normally would), the creative process also evolved into one of learning and growth as much as one of artistic expression. This culminated in learning a great deal about myself and how to get the best out of my own practices (whilst also picking up some new approaches and techniques in the process).
As a result of this, the album has a grander sensibility about it when compared to my previous works; whether that's a good thing or not, only time will tell.
Another, unforeseen outcome from this slower approach to production was the directional changes songs would take mid-production. With the production time taking up to a month or longer per song, I’d be listening to all kinds of music in my downtime, which would lead to very varied and mixed influences during the creation of a single song.
For example, if I’m listening to Electro-Funk music when I start a song, it’s likely to have an Electro-Funk feel. If I finish the piece the same or next day, it will still have the Electro-Funk flavour on completion. However, in the case of this album, I might start a song being influenced by Electro-Funk, but due to the time I was spending on writing, arrangement and production, I’d listen to many other, totally different, influences such as 80s Hip-Hop, Jazz, J-pop, orchestral film scores and more. All of these other genres of music would influence my approach and inspire me to try different things within the same song. Therefore, whilst I was starting songs with one aesthetic in mind, the songs would grow unrecognisable from my initial vision. I didn’t see this as a bad thing, more a reflection of my journey, nevertheless this was a distinctive change from my previous approach.
Putting the Pieces Together
The mid-production changes of style presented their own problems however, mostly in terms of coherence. Utilising such varied styles and influences in the same song would make the songs flip-flop and take sharp stylistic turns from one section to the next. I therefore had to work extensively on transitions between sections and also devote much time and thought to how I overlaid different sounds and phrases taken from different influences. Overall, it was a new and challenging experience compared to my previous writing and arranging, but also a very rewarding and creatively refreshing experience.
There were some low points however, most notably when I had to take the difficult decision to axe almost a month's worth of work on one song, as it just wasn't melding and working alongside other aspects of the song and the wider direction of the album.
Considering Listener Fatigue
With the album taking shape, what struck me was the general level of intensity and how the above-mentioned processes had culminated in songs that were large, ambitious and technical (compared to my previous work). For example, the picture below is the project arrange-window for the song Girls On Bikes. It's reasonably busy, but not overly so.
Below are two screenshots of arrange-windows for songs from the upcoming album. Notice how many more objects and editing is present across the songs (I couldn't actually fit all of the tracks into the screenshots!).
Whilst satisfied that I was achieving the musical and emotional content I was aiming for in these songs, I was concerned about the heightened level of technicality invoking listener fatigue due to over stimulus (this is something I experience with certain styles of music that are very busy, such as Dubstep and some Experimental Jazz).
Conscious not to overwhelm the listener, I needed to offset the intensity with some more understated songs. I decided to gift myself the same (lengthy) time-frames for the simpler songs as I had used to make the complicated songs, however; unlike the complicated songs, I didn't indulge my (arguably fickle artistic direction), instead opting to focus on a single, specific end goal that would be approached in a slow and steady fashion. I.e. technically simpler, but just as timely and carefully produced as the technically complicated songs.
I’m hopeful that the end result will come across as balanced and not fatigue the listener; bringing them along for the ride on my creative journey that pools 18 months worth of influences and ideas into a 40 minute ride of high-funk and chilled-out nostalgic sound fonts.
Conclusion - Play With Time!
From a purely creative standpoint, messing with time (management) has been a very interesting and seriously refreshing change in my approach to making music; and a change is as good as a vacation, right!
Based on my experiences, I'd strongly encourage you to try something similar with your own work, even if it's just to experiment and gain a little perspective. For instance, if you tend to produce work slowly, try and complete something in a much shorter time frame (days instead of weeks, or better still, hours instead of days!). Alternatively, if you tend to work quickly (like me), try taking a slower approach (as discussed in this article).
Whether the finished product ends up as something you release or whether it turns out as a load of rubbish is somewhat irrelevant; what's important is the journey, the process, and ultimately what it teaches you about yourself and your own creativity.