After some unscientific observances, including my own fascination with loops/presets now that I have Logic and a new i-Mac (sweet, BTW), I realized that it is easy to be mesmerized by factory presets and loops, but that clumping a bunch of sound waves and punching in a few notes on the default software instruments does not an interesting piece make. If you ever listen to my music, there are two things that I avoid like the plague: Monotony and Cheesiness.

MY DEFINITION OF MONOTONY: Repeating ANYTHING more than twice in the same way. That goes for drum hits, high hats, guitar licks, bass lines, special fx, whatever.

MY DEFINITION OF CHEESINESS: Anything that sounds like a bubble gum commercial. Too clean, too perfect, too symmetrical. Now, here is where, if you are a commercial musician, you will have to sacrifice originality for cheesiness. But, hey, we all have to pay our bills somehow.

FIVE WAYS TO AVOID MONOTONY AND CHEESINESS IN YOUR OWN MUSIC:

1) AUTOMATION
Do you like the factory preset for reverb, echo, etc? Well, that's nice, but add a little finesse to your tracks by nudging the dial a bit and have the settings change gradually over the song. Even the new consumer-friendly Garageband has added some limited AUTOMATION features.

2) DYNAMICS
Nope, this has nothing to do with dynamite, though it can make a static song get some life. DYNAMICS have to do with the volume of the tracks, added accents, gradually getting louder and softer, etc. In music-speak, you would use the Italian words forte, piano, mezzo forte, crescendo, decrescendo, etc., but you get the point. Don't leave the drumset at the same dynamic level for the entire piece. I mean, yeah, drummers are LOUD, but you leave the track hot the whole way, and it gets boring FAST!

3) TEMPO
Depending on the style of music that you write, you can morph the tempo a little bit. Stretch it out and make it slower, or speed it up to a dizzying frenzy. If you a bit advanced in your mixing/composing, you can even AUGMENT the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies of your piece. By augmenting, I mean that you take a lick that lasts two measures and you double the value of the notes so it equals four measures. For some intricacy, you can even augment only some of the instruments, and leave others at the same speed. Just watch your harmonic structure.
external image steim_session.jpg

4) EXPERIMENT
Mess with the effects until that harmonica sounds like an elephant in heat. Change a firecracker sample into a twittering bird. Warp a telephone ring into a bizarre alien choir. It is all entirely possible. Just be sure to save your newfound experiments. And when you are done, you will have entirely ORIGINAL samples that have not been heard before (probably).

5) INSTRUMENTATION
Change up your instrumentation when mixing or recording. What would it sound like if you had a mess of tabla or conga players driving the rhythm section? What would the melody sound like with a flute or sax? Bring in a friend who plays harp or trumpet, and let them jam with you for a session and see what happens. Sometimes you can end up with an amazing mix that you would have never discovered had you stayed with the standard band fair. One of the most eclectic bands I was once in was a gothic band called Virelie, which consisted of bass, harp, cello, electronic drums, guitar, hand percussion, dulcimer, vocals, and probably the kitchen sink! You can check out the interesting combo HERE. (That's me playing dumbek in the back).