Making Fifty

This one will be a bit unusual. Instead of my typical sermons on  strategy, ecosystems, and development, I want to talk about another hobby of mine: making music. I recently published a new track called Fifty, and figured that it might be fun to write about how I went about creating it.

My experience is that electronic music-making is a lot like software development. There’s tinkering involved. There’s always a new technique to be discovered, some new trick that I didn’t know about. There’s skillful practice that feels very much like flow — at least after one has done this for a while.

At least for me, it is also different in that I start with a very generic intention of “let’s make music”. I don’t have an idea of what this next track will sound like. Unlike with software, I don’t have any concerns about whether the final product will be useful or interesting to someone or whether there’s going to be a market for it.  There are no timelines or cost concerns to worry about. I make music for the sake of making music. And just like with any sort of craft, I settled into a fairly stable process.

My process seems to follow a double-diamond diverge-converge structure, bookended by the finishing step. The first diverge-converge diamond is about finding the sound, and the next one – about finding the track. They can sometimes stagger, but they rarely go out of sequence.

First phase: sound-making 

In the first phase of the music project, I seek the sound. I want to understand what the feel of the track will be. I love starting with some raw material to shape and muck about. For example, I may take a friend’s excellent karaoke performance as my starting point, or the sounds of a city, or perhaps a favorite event. This is the maximum serendipity phase. I float around between ideas, and it can take quite a while. Since there’s no time pressure, I can spend several months in this state. In some cases, I get close to the point where I feel like I have something, but I can’t make any more progress on it. Sometimes, nothing interesting happens for a while. Until serendipity finds its way.

For Fifty, this moment came with the discovery of the sound you first hear at about 2:02 and it’s this epic chord/clang that is kind of hard to describe. The long reverb and shimmer effects make it go seemingly forever, evolving and shape-shifting. This sound is the defining terrain for the track, permeating it and giving it this trance-like floating quality. 

The sound started rather prosaically. I was experimenting with layering slightly discordant tones, intentionally putting them out of tune. It wasn’t going anywhere. Here’s one early bit:

Keystone sound dry

And here’s another iteration, with a bit more reverb. It was all kind of meh:  

Keystone sound with reverb and delay

I was about to give up when, on a whim, I decided to stick it into a cabinet. The Guitar Rig has this amazing collection of authentically sounding matched cabinets that emulate those massive Marshall rigs that we all remember from the rocking stage performances. They are the ones that give electric guitars that massive sound. And I thought: I need me some massive sound. And – BAM! – the track was born. 

Keystone sound amped

The guitar amp couldn’t get enough of the extra harmonics created by the disagreeing oscillators. It was that magic moment of convergence: finding the sound that digs deep into my imagination that spurs the progress of the track. One moment it’s just a random four bars and the next, it starts to feel like a track. I now can hear the final thing before it’s even created. All I need to do is recreate it in real life.

What I heard was this epic, almost outlandishly bombastic track. I quickly threw together this classic slightly-detuned saw to go on top of the keystone sound.

Detuned Saw

When I played it to my wife, she said: “sounds like one of those sports broadcast intros.” I was like, “YESS!!” – that’s exactly the vibe I was going for. 

Second phase: putting together a stem

In the second phase, the sounds start to come together into something like a stem, and I start literally hearing the final track, even before it’s done. Usually, at this point, I only have eight bars of various instruments loosely strewn together, but it comes alive in my imagination. This is the convergent phase of the process and it is characterized by the original eight bars rapidly accruing additional instruments and sounds. Drums and percussion usually come around here, as well as various pads and plucks. At the end of this phase, I have this massively overloaded sonic nightmare of all instruments playing at the same time across the same eight bars. Here’s one for “Fifty”:

The Stem

Third phase: making track fodder

The third phase is another divergent phase. I pull the instruments apart into stems and start working on them separately, creating more and more distinct patterns out of the original eight bar cacophony. 

Here, it is a matter of improvising over the repeating eight bars. I just keep playing and listening to what feels in tune with what I am looking for. Here’s a small part of the “just playing melodies” session that didn’t make into the final track:

Unused Melody

Not uncommonly, the new stems want to become their own tracks and run away from me. I may start thinking: “hey, that’s a neat little side riff” and a month later this riff becomes the main theme of the track. 

For Fifty, what sounds like a main theme was actually a late addition. It started from a random riff and grew into the piano-like melody you hear in the track:

Riff from which Main Melody grew

I call this phase “making fodder”, because it creates the sonic space that I can then mix into a sequence that becomes the track. At the end of this process, I usually have a large grid of patterns that can be played in various combinations:

Fourth phase: stitching together

The fourth phase of the process is finding the track within that grid. I can go about it in different ways. Often, I hit “Record” and just trigger these patterns to see if a sequence comes up. This is the moment when a “chorus” or a “verse” cadence emerges. One of the combinations jumps out as the main theme, and others line up to support it. This usually takes a while, but I’ve learned that rushing this process results in boring music. I try to let combinations surprise me and not hold too firmly to my original preconceptions of the track. 

Finishing step

The final, finishing step is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s about sprinkling additional movement: extra drum breaks or variations, tweaking the filter knob on a synth or effects, adding a rise here and there. Often, a new instrument can come in to echo and support others. The intro and outro crystallize and become real. And of course, mixing. Mixing is hard. Mixing is the most interesting part of the finishing process. Trying to balance the overall energy across frequencies, ducking the volume on some instruments to clear the way for others, gluing sounds in groups to create distinct lanes of sound. Panning. Trimming echoes that are too long. It’s ridiculously enjoyable.

This step may sound like mostly spit and polish, but I find that most of the exciting moments of the track originate here. 

Let’s take for example the intro in Fifty. It starts with a weird buzzing sound that might be familiar to you.  A while back, on a whim, I recorded the sound of an Apple watch desperately trying to alert me of the expiration of some timer. The device was sitting on a glass surface, and its tiny vibration motor was making a noise that seemed like a beat.

Apple Watch Buzz

Later, when starting this track, I thought I’d incorporate it as percussion, but that didn’t go anywhere. The inspiration struck at the finishing step. I wanted to somehow capture the joy of messing with sounds. So I decided – what if I start this track with play-acting the process of building a sound? I say “play-acting”, because a lot of trial and error goes into the actual process, and that would be too tedious to listen to.

So I took the recorded sound, cleaned it up a bit, and stuck it into the ingenious instrument by Ableton called “Simpler”. At C0 (the low octave), the Simpler produced just the watch buzz repeating. With each next note, the buzz will repeat faster, and faster, and faster – until at C8 (that’s eight octaves upward), the buzzes are so close together that they form their own sound wave:

Apple Watch Buzz as a Note

Then, I dialed up the portamento and played C octave-to-octave, which is more or less what you hear in the first 38 seconds of the track:

Along this upward slide, the sound hit a few harsh (2.6K-ish kHz) patches, so I put in a bit of EQ work to smooth the noise out. Automation lanes are amazing. Back in 1993, I turned the filter knobs by hand as we were recording! It was fun, but oh boy it is so much nicer to be able to just draw the values on a timeline:

The next 40 seconds or so of the track sound very similar to what I typically do when hunting for an interesting sound: I set some pattern of notes to on repeat and twist synth knobs until something surprising pops out. 

You get the “build” version of events: I began with all dials at zeron and gradually added them up. This is a very common layering/additive synth approach, and I love listening to how the layers of sound interact and enrich each other. Within this seemingly simple bass drone is a choir of sounds, and the build reveals the multitude of voices.

At the end of the finishing step, I have a finished track. Here’s Fifty at that moment:

In the past, I had this temptation to keep tweaking the track and improving upon it, but nowadays, I just publish it on SoundCloud and close the file. It is time for the music-making process to repeat itself.

Leave a Reply