Thomas Brett On ‘The Creative Electronic Music Producer’

Thomas Brett is a musician, ethnomusicologist and author of ‘The Creative Electronic Music Producer’, a book that examines the process, practices and culture of music production from a producer’s perspective. We asked him a few questions surrounding his book.

Attack: What sparked the idea to write this book? Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Thomas Brett: I grew up in Canada, playing the drums and piano and then trained as a percussionist at university. This led me to study ethnomusicology and since 1997 I’ve played percussion on Broadway. The Creative Electronic Music Producer It grew out of my experiences producing music, specifically a project for marimba I did a few years ago called Plentitudes.

Some of the book’s ideas also began on my blog, brettworks.com, where I’ve written about music since 2010. My original concept for the book was to experiment with ways of writing that could capture production practice and articulate my questions, frustrations, and relations.

This led me to explore a history of electronic music production, think about musical systems and workflows, survey the thoughts of other producers, listen to the talk of production fans, and connect my ideas with other research on production.

The Creative Electronic Music Producer

Why was the exploration of the creative electronic producer necessary?

For me, it’s because computer-based electronic music production is the most remarkable development in music composition since the advent of sound recording. I also find production compelling as a craft that keeps evolving—there are so many producers doing wildly inventive things.

My book thinks through the complexities and uncertainties of production, and the through-line connecting the chapter themes is the idea of ​​creativity and the questions it raises: How should I work? How might I turn this idea into a process? Why is this sound enchanting? I take a bird’s eye view of producers’ workflows to answer these questions.

Maybe the lesson for producers is to find completeness in a single sound. Forget, for the moment, worrying about perfecting the kick drum or whether the mix is ​​lush enough and just focus on whatever sound you have at hand.

Thomas Brett

Each chapter wanders around broad topics such as improvisation, sound design, rhythm programming, editing, disruption, arranging, and mixing. To understand these topics I zoomed in on the minutiae of producers’ practices and amplified them. I wanted to share how producers work and what they say about it. So my book is a study of production as explained by producers and also a meditation on my own experiences making music.

Did studying ethnomusicology help to contextualise the culture in any way?

An ethnomusicologist would understand electronic music culture, not as a single entity but rather a diverse, multiplicity of scenes, each with aesthetic and social practices deserving of close study.

But the field also helped me see that while production scenes are differentiated and demarcated by their communities of practitioners, their values, and their conventions of style, there are ways of working and techniques that are shared by producers across these scenes.

Upon reflection, are there any ideas that you wish had been included in the book? Have you had any further developments on how to be more authentic in one’s creative production process?

I wish I had talked about those moments when a track-in-progress takes you outside of itself, where the sound you’re making has an outsized emotional effect or triggers a memory, for example. These moments are full-body cues that something significant is happening between you and your sounds.

In terms of being authentic, I think that musical “voice” is fascinating. How is it that some producers have such a distinctive sound, an audible touch? Is it because of their timbre palette, their chord choices, their mixing, or maybe a function of what’s absent in their music?

Developing a voice is connected to authenticity and being authentic is knowing the difference between following shared conventions of a style or practice, and pursuing an idiosyncratic path. One key to pursuing authenticity is to not define what you’re doing—let someone else do that. Another key is to trust your tacit knowledge, by which I mean the stuff you know without knowing how you know it.

You discuss the symbiotic relationship between electronic music production and fandom, particularly with regard to YouTube. Can you elaborate on your findings?

One way to learn about electronic music production is to look at how its fans talk about it. Many fans are producers themselves, which makes them producer-fans. I like reading comments on YouTube music production tutorials because they reveal how other producers respond to what’s being demonstrated. Or on Reddit, where producer-fans wonder about how to make this or that sound or explain why they love a particular track so much.

The production community notices details and knows which details are the salient ones because they have insider knowledge of how involved the craft of production is.

In chapter 6, you introduce the idea that producers should disrupt their production process when building tracks to combat predictability. From sonic manipulation to trying a new chain of plugins, what is your go-to production disruption method and how well has it worked for you?

I’m always surprised when I loop a tiny section of music from a longer, linear sequence and start noticing details in it. I’ll mute some parts and think, wow, there’s another piece in these two bars.

But my go-to disruption method is a constraint, which is that I rarely begin a piece with short repeating phrases. I prefer playing long sequences, recorded live without a click track, to see where that takes me. I find that the hesitations, mistakes, and variations in my playing disrupt my expectations about how the music should move.

Another disruption method I use is to continually alter whatever effects chains I’ve made so that these chains are quietly multiplying and evolving in the background as I work on new tracks. If I chained two reverbs together, that chain will only be used again after I alter it and save this alteration. So I disrupt my own presets and Reverb 1 spawns Reverb 1a, 1b, and so on. This kind of disruption is also a good way to get to know plugins.

Thomas Brett playing the marimba

I find that improvising has an urgency about it because it captures something fleeting, it’s unpredictable, and it reveals my limitations.

Thomas Brett

Can you name a few key components that assisted in developing a musical system that works for you? What issues did you face during this process?

Every electronic music producer sets up some kind of musical system with which to make music. A system can be a collection of trusted software and/or hardware configured just so, a palette of favorite sounds and processing chains, as well as ways of working with these elements.

The musical system is a kind of container for your concentration. One way to explore musical systems is to set up a simple one, say a pad sound and a reverb, or a drum kit made from field recordings, and see what you can do with it. You can always develop your system, but it can be enough to figure out how its components can be a whole world.

What has worked for me is having a system that prioritizes capturing live performance first, before I move on to sound design. I find that improvising has an urgency about it because it captures something fleeting, it’s unpredictable, and it reveals my limitations. I guess the challenge with this method is figuring out how to hold my own attention, not for a few bars but for several minutes of uninterrupted playing.

You encourage producers to refrain from trying to fit in and instead to curate their own authenticity. Why is authenticity important for creatives? What are some of the positives and negatives of being “true to self” in electronic music production and culture?

I think authenticity, in the sense of pursuing a sound world you find compelling, helps you keep your work process-oriented and focused on discovery and enchantment for their own sake rather than echoing trends of the moment. The upside to taking this approach is that you learn to prioritize sounds that compel you. The downside of this approach is that your music may not have many listeners!

Bowedscapes by Thomas Brett

There has been a rise in gear that “speeds” up production. From Splice to AI chord plugins and a lot of “get quick results” marketing copy, etc. Where is this leading us? As you say in your book, David Tipper takes time and so should we. Is artistry being amended or destroyed?

When I see ads for AI-based chord plugins, my first thought is, Oh no, this would prevent the fun of discovering chords on the keyboard! So I avoid anything that would disrupt my physical involvement with music. But yeah AI-powered tools, are doing the labor of music production—like suggesting chords or randomizing patterns for us. This means that the producers’ role is to contribute their decision-making—deciding this sound, not that one, this pattern, not that one.

There’s a tension in this machine-human interaction, between what you want to do and what the technology is capable of doing or doing despite you, and this tension has always been part of the production equation. You have to figure out how you want to interact with your technologies. Autechre comes to mind as musicians who have thought a lot about what constitutes a musical system and designed their own software environment with which to collaborate and create.

Nothing about producing music is quick besides getting down initial ideas. Much of the process is gradual and additive, where you try out stuff, add sounds and take them away, make mistakes, note what works and doesn’t, and tinker and edit sounds until they begin to have a life of their own—a presence. Tipper is known for taking his time putting together tracks and this approach is certainly an antidote to any plugin promising quick results.

The painter David Hockney once said that an artwork compresses into itself all the time of its making. I think that’s a vivid way of thinking about the processes of production. The time you spend with a track eventually finds its way into its sound, adding to its presence.

One key to pursuing authenticity is to not define what you’re doing—let someone else do that. Another key is to trust your tacit knowledge, by which I mean the stuff you know without knowing how you know it.

Thomas Brett

Do you have any finals words that you feel might help producers step out of their comfort zone and be more creative?

My favorite quote in the book is from the ambient musician and pianist Harold Budd, who said that his method was simply to use whatever sound was ‘closest at hand.’ I picture him with a synthesizer, finding a preset and thinking, okay this will do and then seeing how he would play using that sound—collaborating with the sound by responding to it through his playing. This is so elegant.

Maybe the lesson for producers is to find completeness in a single sound. Forget, for the moment, worrying about perfecting the kick drum or whether the mix is ​​lush enough and just focus on whatever sound you have at hand. And to get out of your comfort zone? Commit to making something new every day.

The Creative Electronic Music Producer is out now and available from Routledge.

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