There's a heap of DiY information online these days. One of the clear benefits of our brave new digital world is the glut of YouTube videos offering truly useful information. Want to learn how to affix a door handle? Do some plumbing? God forbid, fit a boiler? Step-by-step details are there, for those confident enough.
The same is true of electronic music. From the most basic beat-making to complicated chord progressions, working with analogue hardware to intricate mix-downs, the fantastic free information out there has truly unlocked the previously out-of-reach domain of the studio don.
One thing producers won't often find though, is information about how to actually make the music itself — ideas, how to tackle production problems, writer's block, how to improve the process of creation. It's something which has come to the attention of Dennis deSantis, Head of Documentation at Ableton, the people behind the world-class digital audio workstation (a do-it-all, super powerful music-making software program, in other words) of the same name.
While there's a million different ways to create and manipulate sound with Ableton, there's no helpful guide about how to go about using it to express yourself. Inspired by works like Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies, it's prompted deSantis to write Ableton's first print book (though it's also available as an eBook), Making Music - 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers.
“Historically, a lot of the information [Ableton] provide is about how to use the specific buttons and knobs on the products we make,” says DeSantis. “That’s all essential information, of course, but it’s quite technical, and doesn’t necessarily get to the larger underlying issue of how you actually make music with this stuff.
This seems to be the trend in music technology education in general; there are many, many more resources about the production side than there are about the music side, and this book is an attempt to shift that balance a little bit.”
It's something the book does very successfully. Rather than being structured like a boring manual, it presents each section as a potential Problem — and its potential Solution. One interesting quandary it rises is the Problem of whether or not to use Presets as Starting Points.
Many producers frown upon their use and consider true production to involve all sounds being designed from scratch. The Solution is presented in an open-ended and refreshing way, with Dennis suggesting in the book that:
“Instead of approaching sound design as an all-or-nothing endeavor, use presets, samples, and loops as the point of departure for each song part, but with the implicit understanding that you will devote some part of your music-making time to fine-tuning the sounds to suit your particular taste and needs”, before expatiating on the pros of this approach. Realistically, he also notes that for some only pure sound design will prove satisfying.
Other subjects concern how to make the most of your musical scraps and sketches, originality, where to place parts of a tune in the sound field, and how to create variation while retaining cohesion. For Dennis, the subject matter is all personal, coming from his own tribulations with music-making over the years.
“A lot of this book is really autobiographical; it’s sort of a journal of my own struggles with the music-making process, and the techniques I’ve come up with to get music done over the years.
“I knew I wanted to write a book around this type of topic for a while, but I spent a long time thinking about how to do it effectively,” he adds. “It really came about from regularly meeting musicians who had some understanding of the technology, but who still had trouble getting music done. I realized that there weren’t so many resources for these people.”
Despite being an Ableton product, Dennis's book is, he claims, not specifically geared towards Ableton users, but to all people who make electronic music; he points out that in fact, there's no mention of Ableton itself, or their hardware controller Push, in the tome at all. What does communicate the brand though, is the clean aesthetic, sleek design and high quality paper stock of the book.
The font is notably the same as on all their official products, DeSantis noting that “...a kind of refined, distraction-free aesthetic is part of how we think. We like technology to stay out of the way of the creative process as much as possible, and the book should do the same”.
But why have Ableton chosen to produce the book in such an antiquated format as print? Surely it's at odds with the in-the-box nature of the software?
“The decision to go with print was that we wanted something that got you out of the computer. If you’re creatively stuck, maybe stepping away from a screen — or even from electricity altogether — is a good way to clear the air. I’m a huge eBook reader, but there is still something special about holding a nicely designed book,” DeSantis reasons.
Packed with useful information and fascinating insights, beautifully presented, Making Music - 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers is the just the kind of book you'd hope that Ableton would produce. Watch the others fall over themselves to try to repeat the trick.
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