Pro Audio Files

Train Your Ears Become a Member

12 Experimental Approaches to Music Production & Composition

Anyone that has spent any time creating art in any form has experienced a lapse of inspiration. It is not whether it will happen, but when, and more importantly, what strategies will you employ to pull yourself out of the void. Or maybe you have no problem pumping out new material, but you find yourself working formulaically, robotically using the same approaches over and over again which inevitably yield similar results.

In this article, I hope to provide some ideas that you may not have previously considered using in your work. Some of these concepts have come from colleagues, teachers, and from studying the work of other composers. Please note, I’ve used the loaded and sometimes overused term “experimental” in the title for lack of a better description, but the word is not intended to imply any specific genre or aesthetic.

1. Field Recording and Implementation

I recently wrote an article called,A Guide to Field Recording: Location, Hardware, Software & More that talks more in-depth about this idea so I won’t be redundant here. But if you haven’t used found sounds before or created your own custom sampling instruments you need to give it a try. There are certain things just not possible working exclusively in the box or from using someone else’s sound library.

2. Circuit Bending & Custom Instrument Building

Circuit Bending is the art or process of accessing and manipulating existing circuits found in consumer electronics devices, toys, vintage electronics, etc. One of the seminal books that can start you on this journey is Handmade Electronic Music – The Art of Hardware Hacking by Nicholas Collins.

The author takes you through the basics of soldering and electronics, with many great hacking and circuit bending examples along the way. The book is written not for electrical engineers, but for musicians looking to experiment with new sonic worlds. I have been lucky enough to have collaborated with one of the virtuosos in the Circuit Bending world, Jeff Boynton. Together with ex-Mother of Invention, Don Preston, we formed TriAngular Bent, an LA-based group dedicated to free improvisation and active listening.

3. Modular Synths with Digital Control

There’s a lot of people using modular synths in all sorts of contexts these days. A few years ago I interviewed several experts in the field of synthesis regarding the return of analog, vinyl, etc. in this article: “Analog, Tubes, Vinyl and the Future of Retro”

There is definitely a distinctive sound to analog gear and external synths that use digital oscillators with CV control. It can be cost-prohibitive to enter this rabbit hole so I suggest treading lightly if you haven’t considered it. But there are several lower-cost semi-modular units available now that can give you a taste of what’s possible. And integrating modular synths with DAW’s like Ableton or the new Logic 10.5 can yield tremendous results in live performance. The key point here is that you don’t have to choose between digital and analog because they work beautifully together. Here’s an article from a few years back on modular stuff that might be useful: “The What, Why and How of Modular Synthesis”

4. The iOS World

While some have completely embraced the world of iOS music production, others are still dismissing it as not a professional level approach. That is simply not true. There are some incredible apps out there that have capabilities not possible with any other plugin. Two that come immediately to mind are Borderlands and Samplr. If you have an iPad I encourage you to check these out, and the iOS world in general. This sort of software bridges the gap between instrument and application in ways not possible completely in the box. Check this article out for more on iOS: “10 Weird iOS Audio Apps for Music Production

5. Catalog of Attributes

Everyone knows some piece of music that resonates with them in ways that seem indescribable. But actually, there is a lot that can be described and in great detail. In his book, “Making Music – 74 Strategies for Electronic Music Producers”, Dennis DeSantis describes a process he calls generating a Catalog of Attributes. The approach is to dissect and analyze a work in excruciating detail and make a list of every musical element that can be extracted — structure, harmonic movement, melodic contour, rhythm, tempo, meter, etc.

You then generate a sort of template based on your analysis and use it as a starting point for your own work. While there will be obvious similarities, it will also certainly sound different, and whether you end up using the work or not, you will have learned some musical devices and structural approaches you may not have considered previously. DeSantis’ book is loaded with other great ideas as well so you might want to have a look!

6. Mixed Meter, Odd Meter, Multimeter & No Meter

Having listened and critiqued countless student works over the last 10 years, I feel this needs to be said: not everything needs to be in 4/4 with 8 bar phrases.

Try writing something in 7, or 5, or 13. You could find yourself instantly inspired. Throw in a 9th or 10th bar at the end of a phrase to build anticipation and create interest. Try using two or more meters at once for generating rich rhythmic complexity. Or throw out meter altogether and let the work unfold organically. These devices have been used in all sorts of genres before, so do a little research and you might be surprised to find metric complexity is something you’ve listened to many times before without even realizing it was there.

7. Texture vs. Harmony

It is easy to get caught up in the rules of traditional harmony. Familiarity and hundreds of years of Western music have entrenched these sounds and tonalities in our consciousness. While there have been efforts in contemporary music to break free, it is difficult for the average listener or producer well-versed in popular culture to think of harmony in any other way. But I suggest, as have many others before me, it is possible to think about sound as texture instead of linear structures following the rules extrapolated from the music of Bach.

In its essence, structure and form are based on variety and temporal arrangement. Western harmony is but one way to achieve variety. What I’m implying is a change of mindset, and without going beyond the scope of this article, I’ll leave it at that. But if you have never heard it, check out Metastaseis by Iannis Xenakis (circa 1954). An absolute masterpiece!

8. Randomization & Indeterminacy

John Cage and others ushered in the use of indeterminacy and chance in composition, and these ideas radically changed the course of contemporary music in the second half of the 20th century. In my view, this paradigm shift represented a dramatic skewing of the creative spectrum that lies between expression and discovery.

Things shifted towards discovery and away from self-expression, the idea being that the only way to express something new was to first discover it by chance or some other procedural mechanism. In other words, you can only express what you already know or have experienced. So to this end, the use of random procedures and indeterminate situations can be quite useful.

ADVERTISEMENT

Beyond randomizing velocities or “humanizing” durations, think about random structures, harmony, melody, rhythm, etc. An interesting thing about a randomly generated group of notes is that when it becomes a loop, it no longer seems random at all. And in fact, just one repetition can turn a random sequence in an ordered series of events.

9. Improvisation — get back in touch with your instrument

Too often we get immersed in the digital world and the enormous power of software. While pushing buttons and turning knobs can be enormously satisfying sonically, there is something visceral and tactile about a traditional instrument that cannot be replaced. I use the word traditional here in italics, because I do believe the computer and MIDI controllers are certainly instruments in their own right.

But if you have ever played or studied an instrument in the past and have found yourself somewhat divorced from it due to the power and lure of technology, I suggest a reconciliation. And the best avenue for getting back to it is free improvisation or as my former teacher, Joe Diorio, the great jazz guitarist called it, gesture improvisation.

Record yourself playing first thing in the morning for 10 minutes or so. Freely improvise without regard to anything but the sound that moves you. Try to play perfectly without error and as slowly as necessary to do so. Try to play things you haven’t played before (a surprisingly difficult task). After a few weeks or a month, take some time to listen to the recordings and mine the jewels when they emerge.

10. Oblique Strategies

In 1974, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt released a set of handwritten bamboo cards called Oblique Strategies (subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas), which presented a collection of dilemmas that inspired strategies for moving forward creatively. You can think of them as starting points, mindsets, technical approaches, or simply inspirational and unusual ways to think. There now exists a web-based version that will present a new idea with every screen refresh. Some examples include:

  • Infinitesimal gradations
  • What are the sections sections of? Imagine a caterpillar moving
  • Destroy – nothing – the most important thing
  • Mechanicalize something idiosyncratic
  • Accept advice
  • Define an area as “safe” and use it as an anchor

11. Max/MSP and Max for Live

Sometimes you need to do something radical to move forward in unusual ways. You might be tired of playing with tools made by others or feel constrained by what they can and cannot do. To make your own software seems like an insurmountable task to many that have no experience in computer programming. But that is not the case. Max/MSP allows anyone to create new applications, or in the case of Ableton Live, new plugin devices, with zero knowledge of arcane coding languages.

It is a graphic object-based environment that uses on-screen, in and out cabling between objects, making it a natural for those comfortable with audio equipment and signal path. While the learning curve is a bit steep, the rewards are incredible. Max/MSP, created and supported by Cycling ’74 — purchased by Ableton in 2017, boasts a vibrant community of users that provide a rich source of support and shareware. There is nothing quite like building an application or plugin that is designed specifically for your needs.

12. Active Listening

It should be obvious to any musical artist, producer, or composer that active listening is a crucial skill. Listening to the work of others is absolutely essential to enrich your sonic vocabulary and expand your musical palette. But too often we tend to listen to the same stuff over and over, and while that can be good at some level, we would be remiss not to explore the wealth and variety of music we now have available to us via streaming and other sources.

From the perspective of a person born into an exclusively vinyl world at the beginning of FM radio, this is extraordinary and overwhelming having access to musical ideas on a global scale. I suggest finding one song or piece of music from an unfamiliar genre to listen to each day. Here’s a great site that allows access to a scatter-plot of thousands of musical genres.

According to the developer Glenn McDonald, “Every Noise at Once is an ongoing attempt at an algorithmically-generated, readability-adjusted scatter-plot of the musical genre-space, based on data tracked and analyzed for 4,367 genre-shaped distinctions by Spotify as of 2020-05-21. The calibration is fuzzy, but in general, down is more organic, up is more mechanical and electric; left is denser and more atmospheric, right is spikier and bouncier.”

Inspiration can come when you least expect it, and often it will emerge as an amalgam of previous experiences. So it follows that the more listening experience you can amass, the better.

Conclusions

I offer these thoughts, not as formulas, solutions, or dogmatic approaches, but simply ideas that might provide a creative spark. Our reality is nothing more than a collection of our perceptions which means we are always in control at a fundamental level. So if you find yourself stagnating or in a creative rut, take the advice of John Cage and “Get yourself out of whatever cage you find yourself in.”


Check out my other articles, reviews, interviews and my video tutorial series, Synthesis 101 available exclusively on The Pro Audio Files.

Follow me on Twitter: @PMantione
Instagram: philipmantione

Philip Mantione

Philip Mantione

Philip Mantione is a composer, synthesist, guitarist, educator and sound artist active in the LA experimental music scene. His music has been presented in festivals, museums and galleries worldwide. His current project is TriAngular Bent, an electroacoustic trio featuring Don Preston (founding member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention) and circuit bending virtuoso, Jeff Boynton. Details at philipmantione.com

3 FREE Max for Live Devices

Download three free Max for Live Devices from Phil Mantione.

Powered by ConvertKit
Array
(
    [0] => WP_Term Object
        (
            [term_id] => 681
            [name] => Composition
            [slug] => composition
            [term_group] => 0
            [term_taxonomy_id] => 685
            [taxonomy] => category
            [description] => 
            [parent] => 0
            [count] => 11
            [filter] => raw
            [term_order] => 0
            [cat_ID] => 681
            [category_count] => 11
            [category_description] => 
            [cat_name] => Composition
            [category_nicename] => composition
            [category_parent] => 0
        )

    [1] => WP_Term Object
        (
            [term_id] => 909
            [name] => Production
            [slug] => music-production
            [term_group] => 0
            [term_taxonomy_id] => 913
            [taxonomy] => category
            [description] => Articles on music production.
            [parent] => 0
            [count] => 135
            [filter] => raw
            [term_order] => 0
            [cat_ID] => 909
            [category_count] => 135
            [category_description] => Articles on music production.
            [cat_name] => Production
            [category_nicename] => music-production
            [category_parent] => 0
        )

)