Out of Focus: The EP That Took Ten Years to Make
The title Out of Focus has a few layers of meaning. First, I had no real idea what kind of music I was going to make when I started writing it, only a rough plan and halfway decent motivation. I actually started off trying to make ambient music like the stuff I listen to at work, but, apparently, I gravitate towards house/trance. Oh well. At one point, there’s a dubstep-esk breakdown and I even drift into… trap??? I don’t know—I just never focused on one genre, and I’m okay with that. The other major reason for the name is that it was an act of focusing back on music. This deserves a bit more of an explanation though, so keep reading if you’re interested. If you want to know about the creation process itself, then skip ahead to this section.
Why I Made This
In my day job, I’m a marketing copywriter for Sweetwater Sound, arguably the best (and one of the biggest) music-industry retailers in the world. We sell everything from professional recording studio and large-scale sound-reinforcement gear to consumer products for project studios and music production. My own background is extremely diverse. I’ve played bass and produced electronic music since I was a kid. I got into sound design and live sound in college, and eventually I earned a degree in music recording technology from Madison Media Institute a small private school in Madison, WI.
Anyway, after working as a copywriter for many years, I’d put my music interests aside and focused on fencing, graphic art, and many other things. The problem was, I still wrote about music gear every day. In short, I found myself hating my job and in need of either a new career or some reinvigoration to get me jazzed about music again. Finding a career change a bit too daunting at this point in my life, I decided to get jazzed about music again. That’s when I decided to start producing electronic music again.
At the time, I didn’t have a functioning computer. Oh, I had my ten-year-old MacPro, which still serves me well as a graphic art machine (largely because I froze it in time a few years back). Still, being an stationary machine, it didn’t accommodate my need to change environments to be creative (more on that later), so I hadn’t used it for music in… well… pretty much ever. That’s why I decided to start exploring what I could do in iOS with my slightly newer iPad 4.
I have a lot to say about making music in iOS—so much, in fact, that I’ll have to devote an entire post to the subject at some point. Suffice it to say that in the winter of 2016–2017, there were a lot of great music/synth apps out there, but the infrastructure to use them together was too cumbersome to be effective for my taste. After spending WAY THE HELL too much money on apps that I ultimately couldn’t get to play well together, I adopted Korg Gadget, a self-contained electronic-music creation platform of iOS.
Holy crap this app is amazing. As a composition tool, it leaves much to be desired. I don’t like the way it handles scenes, and the editing environment is extremely clumsy in paces, but it’s no worse than anything else for iOS (a lot better than most, in fact), so I’m okay with that. Where Gadget excels is in its instruments. You get a whole boatload of them right off the bat (expanded even more in v3), and the add-ons (all of which I’ve purchased) are totally worth it. If you make music on the go, I cannot recommend a better platform.
The Creation Process
Getting back to the clunky composition UI, I quickly wrote off the notion of actually assembling my entire EP in Gadget. I wanted to write the whole thing as one long piece and cut it up into tracks later—something I haven’t done yet at the time I’m writing this. I could write shorter pieces in Gadget, and, in fact, one section of “Out of Focus” was produced this way, but it’s not ideal for even that. Instead, I decided write the piece scene by scenen, overdeveloping themes in single overlapping sections and exporting them as audio loops to my Dropbox, with the idea that I’d assemble the whole piece in Ableton Live.
- Write a scene (about a dozen overlapping loops) in Gadget.
- Export the scene as individual loops to Dropbox.
- Use a few seed loops from the scene to build up a new scene.
Repeat steps 1–3 about a dozen times.
- Label loops in a desperate attempt to organize them.
- Bring loops into Ableton Live and start arranging them.
- Write additional parts in Gadget as needed.
I only had to do this twice, but one of these resulted in the first major theme, which I would never have anticipated.
- Edit the ever-living hell out of my loops to create new parts and transitions.
- Add drums, samples*, and effects in Live.
- Mix/master the results to the best of my abilities.
I pulled all of the samples for this project from the episode titled “The Outer Limit” (September 8, 1950) from Dimension X, a radio drama that’s long passed into public domain. This was extremely fun and frequently reminded me of a particular Homestar Runner episode. I totally plan to do this again.
What I Learned
Wow. I learned so much from this process, and I could list the insights for days. Hell, I’ll probably go back and edit this several times to add things I missed. Whatever. My first reflection is about the writing process itself. I see both the up side and the down side to creating audio loops. On the one hand, being able to create music anywhere—even where a laptop was too inconvenient (e.g., on the jon)—was a real plus. I’m even more devoted to Gadget than ever.
Strangely, now that there’s a desktop version of Gadget, I’m actually ambivalent about picking it up (if I can score an NFR, I’ll probably grab it though). That’s because there’s a strange kind of freedom to limiting myself to audio loops in Live. You see, MIDI gives me the ability to tweak my sounds indefinitely, which can lead me to stall as I work and rework melodies, sounds, and effects. By forcing me to commit to ideas, audio loops let me work more efficiently. This is partially an illusion though, as Live is phenomenally flexible, and I was able to do a lot of tweaking in the audio realm anyway. In the end, this afforded me the best of both worlds, inspiring me to work efficiently in Gadget and take my time in Live.
On the flip side, I ran into real organizational problems. As much as I love the app, I have lots of criticisms to offer Korg on the subject of Gadget, many of which seem minor. For instance, the tool that lets you move notes and alter their length absolutely sucks—it really needs to be two separate tools. The other seemingly minor issue is track naming. You can’t name your tracks; just designate them as “lead,” “bass,” or other generic categories. Granted, I should have made what use of this I could have, but it would be nice to be able to add descriptions. At any rate, I didn’t think to even label my tracks that way until way too late in the process, and since I put off organizing anything until I’d written all of my scenes, I dug my way into an organizational hole.
I agonized about how to start and put the whole thing off way longer than I should have. That is, I’m a big fan of sitting on an idea and mulling it over (i.e., procrastinating in a useful maner), but in the meantime, I got a bit bored with the whole project, which caused me to rush in places and spend longer fixing problems. At one point, I nearly abandoned the whole mess. Ultimately, this may have been a blessing in disguise, because by the time I really got going, I’d forgotten most of my original vision and ended up creating something totally different than what I’d planned.
Would I Do it Again?
I told myself repeatedly throughout the project that there was no way in hell I’d ever create another piece like this again. I identified all kinds of problems with the process (some highlighted above) and swore it was all a big mistake. I swore a lot, actually. I also rediscovered the wonderful world of Native Instruments products al la Komplete 11, some of which I used to good effect to enhance my sound. I didn’t even suffer option anxiety as I had in the past. However, as all of these flaws stacked up and I had to come up with workarounds, I also made creative decisions I wouldn’t have had I things gone as smoothly as I expected them to. In the end, I think the matter isn’t whether or not I’d create music this way again; it’s whether or note I could do so deliberately. We’ll find out.
I’ve included the entire uncut EP in this post. My plan is to cut it up into tracks and create a Bandcamp page or something. I’d like to get this up on Spotify too, if I can figure out how. Musically, I’m actually planning on delving into the realm of hip-hop next, marrying my natural gravitation to electro-house (I think… one can never really tell) to my love of lyrical macramé. Who knows though—I have a lot of ideas and only so much time.