Simplicity vs Complexity
Posted by James Cullen on
When you’re producing music, especially in the early stages of a track, it can often be a daunting and difficult process to sort out your ideas. If your process is anything like mine, you will throw loads of ideas down into your DAW as quickly as possible. I always find that I will make a 8 bar loop of a really complex arrangement, putting down any idea I think works and sounds good.
This is by no means a bad thing, because complexity has its place in electronic music, but it’s knowing the difference between complexity for complexity’s sake and an arrangement that works and thrives from that complexity. Similarly, knowing when to strip it back and create a super simple arrangement is a key skill.
But how can you know the difference between making music complex and simple in the right contexts?
In this article we will explore the concept, and go through a few tips you can incorporate into your production workflow. Making a track from a blank slate can be an intimidating journey to embark on, but it doesn’t have to be!
As I mentioned before, when I’m making a tune I will tend to get super excited and add lots of layers of drums and other sounds, and before I know it I will have 20 or so tracks of different elements to work with. As you can imagine, this can sometimes sound messy.
Now you don’t want a track to be boring, so simply reducing the number of elements isn’t always the way to go, but on the other hand having too much can bring on ear fatigue in the listener super quickly, so how do you find that balance?
A good rule of thumb is to ensure you do your best to balance minimalism with maximalism, simplicity with complexity, and in this way you will give your track room to “breathe” as it were. If a section contains really complex drums, maybe try a simple melody or bassline? Conversely, a super complex melodic section can really benefit from stipped back drums or percussion.
Let’s take an example and run with it.
Building a Wall
Layering the parts for a track as soon as you begin it can often leave your project looking as if it’s a huge wall of sound, with a staggering amount of elements in place. If your workflow is anything like mine and you do this too, it’s good to allow this to happen. It’s the first part of your process of making a track; build an arrangement that sounds good. Add all the little melodies or bass lines or drum and percussion parts for as long as you like. If you add something that sounds good, then why not keep it in?
There is a danger here, though, and that is knowing when to stop and how to arrange your music.
If you think of the above step as Phase One of your production plan, let’s have a think about what Phase Two would look like. You’ll know when to move on because you’ll find you’re adding parts for the sake of it; you will reach a stage where you feel you’ve added everything the trak needs, and now it’s a case of working it together into an arrangement.
Trimming the Fat
The most important part of this stage is using your ears. If you have an 8 or 16 bar loop of lots of layers of sounds, spend the time listening to it on repeat. It may drive you (or those you live with!) crazy, but it will be worth it in the end, trust me. You want to get yourself so familiar with this complex layered arrangement that when you start to tweak it you can really hear the nuances and differences.
Once you’re ready, start auditioning the parts in different groupings. Maybe you don’t need 3 different hi hat patterns to all come in at once, so you could gradually introduce them over the course of your track.
There are no set rules here, so experiment and solo or mute different individual or grouped tracks to see how that makes the overall mix sound. Ask yourself if a part is really necessary at this stage (or at all).
Does that snare rhythm actually add anything?
Similarly, do you lose anything significant if you mute it?
The beauty - or curse - of this stage is that it can go on for as long as you like. There’s no limit to how many different things you can try together, and what you may find is that as you do this, you will realise that certain groups of ideas sound really good together.
In that case, drag those parts to a new section. Maybe that could be your intro, or a breakdown or B section of the track. Or maybe you could use certain rhythmic parts to gradually introduce change so the repetitions don’t bore the listener. If you’re especially focused on club oriented dance music this is a great tip, as this music is often categorised by long sections of the same part looping. But when you listen more attentively you will notice that it isn’t actually as simple as it may first appear.
Remember, in Phase One, the goal is to pour in every idea you come up with. It’s always a plus if you have something that you can remove, instead of feeling that your track is missing something and you then have to think of what that something is.
Phase Two is about being more disciplined; don’t be scared to scrap an idea you like individually if you think the track sounds better without it. After all, you could always use it in a later section, or even an idea for a new track! Being honest with yourself and trying not to allow your ego to sneak in is a crucial part of this.
Think like an Archaeologist
Some of you may find this comparison a little odd, but I like it so it’s happening.
I am a big believer in a lot of things many would call ‘Hippie Dippie Nonsense’ to put it mildly. But nowhere am I more convinced of my weird beliefs than in my music. Let me explain what I mean.
I often find that once I reach a certain point in a track, it feels less like creating it and more like discovering it. As I’m working in Phase Two, removing parts, trying different groupings of sounds out, gradually it’s as if an idea emerges from the noise, as if I’m uncovering a fossil or something along those lines. Like how the comparison works now?
As you work through your ideas, trimming the bits you don’t need, you may find this too. There will be something happening within the music that almost feels beyond your fingertips. The tune has become its own entity and you’re merely helping it find it’s true self. It becomes greater than the sum of its many - or few - parts.
Yes, I am aware of how silly this sounds, but trust me!
This is all part of an ongoing journey of honesty I’ve been trying to embark on this year. I find that the simple act of being honest with myself has a wonderful effect that ripples outward, and my music is a key part of that. I am able to make the more difficult decisions of scrapping ideas even if I like them, because I can make decisions that work for that individual track.
You will learn as you move forward in your own production journey that there is an art to blending the elements to get the mix just right. After all, as the French-writer-who-I’d-never-heard-of-until-researching-this-topic once said;
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Nothing Left to Take Away
This is the part that’s the most difficult. There’s no one there to tell you which parts work and which don’t, so cultivating trust in your own judgement is a hugely important endeavour if you’re going to make this skill work for you long term.
I’ve encountered many people when discussing this topic who fall into the problem of getting used to the track with its Max arrangement, so when they start stripping elements back it starts to sound empty. So I thought this section would be a good place to include some tips on overcoming this.
- Bounce as you go.
If you’re unsure on which elements work and which don’t, it’s a great idea to do bounces of different arrangements of your track. Listen to it outside of your usual production environment; in your car if you have one, on some different speakers, or even send it to friends or peers to compare 2 different arrangements. Over time, this will help you learn to trust your own judgement and use your ears.
- If you’re stuck, work quickly.
There’s nothing quite like some self imposed boundaries to help your creative juices flow. If you’re having trouble deciding what needs to go and what needs to stay, or you’re falling into the trap of it only sounding good at its fullest, then you could challenge yourself to work to a set time limit. Stick a 15 minute timer on your phone, work on the arrangement, and then bounce it out and sit with that for a few days. Same as above, listen in some other environments and contexts, and see what your thoughts are.
- Need vs Want
This ties into my points about your ego. It can be easy to get attached to a musical idea because you created it. It is good because it was me who made it! But a key piece of advice is this;
“If an element doesn't NEED to be there, ask yourself if it should.”
It’s all well and good keeping an idea because you like it, but does it work in the track you’re trying to create? Does it add anything? Or does removing it make the track work better?
- Use your other skills
You’d be surprised at how often non-musical skill sets can transfer over into your production workflow. I’ve encountered hobbyist producers whose main work is in Photoshop, and they claim that working with those layers has helped them transfer that thought process over to layering in Ableton. This works for many different skills, so consider whether you have any other pursuits that contain skills you could incorporate into your music.
After all, there is no clear cut formula for making a really good tune. As I mentioned earlier in the article, sometimes you will just know when you’ve struck gold, and sometimes you may put it a lot of effort and still come out disappointed. It’s all part of the process, though. Making music is a continuous journey with no final destination, so each track you work on, whether it gets a release on a label or it gets left on your hard drive for years and years, never knowing a listener other than you, is a key piece of your journey and your development. The skills you use in each track will transfer over and long term repercussions in your music.
So hopefully this guide gave you some useful insights into how you can incorporate new techniques into your production. Deciding whether to go simple or complex with an arrangement is a key part of crafting your music, and this article should give you some hands on tips to include when you’re working.
As always, thanks for checking in with us here at Top Music Arts and make sure to check out the rest of our site for all the production resources you could need.
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