A new era for my creative process, courtesy a midi controller
You experience a moment of euphoric understanding when you read a Toni Morrison quote (or George Carlin, if you are so inclined) and find that it perfectly describes what you’ve been meaning to say. You experience it when you observe a Monet and ‘get’ why his water lilies have become cultural artefacts, or why Rembrandt’s inverted light triangles, which illuminate the face with drama, are now reproduced by digital photographers around the world. You experience it with a runner’s high after months of trying to get there, or when you bake a cake that finally — with a dash of salt — tastes right, just like your mother and her mother achieved. When this happens, everything clicks with ease. You think— “This sacred thing feels right in my brain. I understand why it exists, and I am blessed to have witnessed it in this lifetime”.
As a creator, I constantly chase this feeling. The fit, the joy, the ‘I am meant to be here right now’. (I use the term ‘creator’ because across writing, music, art, and photography, it is not the medium but the act of ‘creating’ that I identify with). Everyone wants meaning in their life, and I have become content with accepting that this, at least in part, is mine. Now, my ‘well’ has been on the verge of drying up over the last year, and I have embraced this phase. You realise at some point that it will pass and you have to let it pass — it is a feature, not a bug, of the creative process. This is particularly easy when your artistic creativity is not your source of income, and mine is not. But I’ve recently found an entire gleaming, flowing river of inspiration again! I’m writing this blog to document this moment.
I’ve been writing short songs for a few years now. When I do so, I realise that I’ve catalogued something deep inside of me that refuses to surface unless it is accompanied with a melody and a rhyme scheme. This process has become quite convenient because it allows me to access what needs to be expressed and purge it. But something has always felt amiss. I can’t seem to capture /exactly/ what I want to say — it’s locked inside of me, and I know what I want to hear, but I can’t seem to actualise it.
Recently, I decided that it’s time I put out my first small scale, indie album (2022, maybe 2023). I started writing longer songs, and being more deliberate with structure (I am partial to long verse — chorus —short verse — bridge — chorus, as is most everyone else). Everyone has their own style, but since I primarily see myself as a songwriter, I do lyrics, then chords and riffs on an electric piano or guitar, then melody, then I rewrite some lyrics. Sometimes after an initial phase of composition I play the song on the ukulele, because it is my best bet for refining tempo. Don’t ask me why.
But here is the thing. With instruments and my voice, I can make a song, but I can’t capture a complex range of feelings. This is certainly a personal failing — many people do this acoustically, but I stop in my tracks and get ‘locked in’ as previously described. I’ve been trying, and trying, and trying obsessively to break through to no avail.
I was watching YouTube videos and stumbled upon the field of music production. I know absolutely nothing about it, and composition, which I like, is a different beast. But something pulled me in and I decided to buy a midi controller and see if that would help. I wasn’t worried that I was wasting my money because I had a gut feeling that I would take to it, and I have come to trust my gut (shoutout to my therapist). I settled on the budget-friendly, popular AKAI MPK mini, and on the first day of using it, I experienced my moment of euphoric understanding.
The ‘idea’ or concept of a song is like a blank canvas. You can paint with a brush, that is your voice, and a certain colour — say, blue, that is your piano. But you need so much more to create a painting. You need red and white and yellow, and maybe you need a sponge and knife for texture. You need a palette to visualise every colour in front of you before it makes it onto the canvas. Just blue paint and a brush are awfully limiting. You are a painter, and you need your tools.
The midi controller helped me find them. As a producer, you can be a master of all trades — which I find is a crazy privilege. Base chords to get started. A subtle bassline to bring out underlying darkness. A clap and a kick to emphasize where things start to get punchy. A flute or a violin for everything wistful and melancholy. A synth-ey beat for a vintage vibe, or a minimalist piano melody for an emotional, mellow tune. You can streamline and quantize everything so that you’re colouring within the lines (which is an important and necessary start before venturing beyond them), and use volume automation to mark transitions between song sections. You can layer instrument and vocal harmonies to make the song more robust. You were going corner to corner in a single square inch, and now, the world opens itself up to you.
It is not the blue paint or the brush, but the culmination of each one of these things that finally leads you to what you’ve been searching for all along: a feeling.
I am very very new to production and I’m still feeling my way around the functions. It is all a little bit daunting because the software is unfamiliar and I consider myself both technologically and mathematically challenged (choosing 1/4 versus 1/16, for example, is a matter or trial and error for me at the moment, and it took me a day to figure out how to loop a track). I’m just beginning to learn how to create finger beat patterns. However, having basic knowledge of music theory and over a decade’s worth of practice on the piano is helpful. I am dedicated to using GarageBand until I am skilled enough to justify purchasing a better DAW. I am also nervous that experienced producers will find my seemingly premature excitement juvenile. But all said and done, I think this midi and I have a long, joyous journey of learning and experimentation ahead of us, and I feel myself standing on the precipice of a new creative era.
That is all. :) Here’s hoping for a music-filled, and feeling-filled 2022. May I find the courage to put my songs out into the world.