This is the second in a series of posts documenting the development of Play With Your Music, a music production MOOC jointly presented by P2PU, NYU and MIT. Read the first post here.
Alex is fond of the phrase “pedagogies of timbre and space.” By that, he means: ways of studying those aspects of recorded music beyond the notes being played and words being sung. Timbre is the combination of overtones, noise content, attack and decay that makes one instrument sound different from another. Space refers to the environment that the sound exists in, real or simulated. These are the aspects of music that get shaped by recording engineers, producers and DJs. Audio creatives usually don’t have much input into the stuff you see on sheet music. But they end up significantly shaping the end result, because the sonic surface is the main thing that most non-specialist listeners pay attention to (along with the beat.) For many pop and dance styles, the surface texture is the most salient component of the music.
The work of audio professionals, be they recording artists, engineers, producers, remixers or DJs, consists mostly of close listening. Making recordings consists of doing a lot of asking yourself: Does this sound good? If not, why not? Is there something missing? Or does something need to be taken out? Is the blend of timbres satisfying? Are the sounds placed well in the stereo field? Are they at the right perceptual distance from the listener? No one is born able to ask these questions, much less to answer them. You have to learn how, and then you have to practice. In a sense, music production software is like the Microsoft Office suite. Before you learn about the fine points of formatting or making equations, you need to learn how to write coherently, how to organize data, how to structure a presentation. So it is with music. There’s no point in learning the nuts and bolts of particular software until you know what you’re listening for and what you want to achieve.