For a lot of artists, improvisation is an integral part of the composition process and plays a big role in the final product. Conversely, you may be the type who likes to plan things out, ensuring everything is in its place, performed accurately, and perfectly curated.
While the latter has its merits, this way of working may close you off to creative genius you have waiting just out of sight around the corner. Or worse, have the tendency to sound inhuman. In the following, we’ll explore ways to open your mind to new ideas in order to incorporate improvisation into your production.
No matter what your method of improvisation, the process can unlock a vital touch of humanity and honesty in your production. Here are some techniques for incorporating it into your workflow.
Leave Some Tracks Open in the Recording Session
Sometimes when you are not looking for it, you can find something valuable. Some producers spurn the prospect of musicians ‘dicking around’ in the studio, but in order to turn this into a positive, structure it. Leave some space in your schedule (best after the musicians really know their parts) to turn the song on its head and let the performers stretch the limits of their musicality – whether that be shredding some improv over a vocal track or making up some drum grooves and fills.
When you are working in the box, it is always great to have some material to play with if things aren’t working, or your project needs that special something after the recording process is done with. For inspiration, check out the deteriorating improvisation in Courtney Barnett’s How to Boil an Egg.
Be Creative With Plugins
It sounds silly, but sometimes (after I’ve saved and protected my files) I just play through the song and chuck a bunch of plugins on random channels with random parameters – its this sort of experimentation that can help you unlock an idea for a single track, or even a signature sound.
When you’re not restrained by trying to keep your song safe or making it sound ‘perfect’, you take risks that you would not have otherwise. You can always go back, so mess it up – you may find your vocal that you’ve double timed and added a vocoder and amp plugin makes an interesting percussive layer in your chorus, or a guitar part you’ve washed out with nonsensical reverb can colour the ambience of the song.
It may seem like you’re closing your eyes and bashing at piano keys, but improvisation uses your knowledge of the instrument to filter what sounds bad, so use your discretion and pick out what sounds best. The possibilities are endless.
Give Yourself a Time Restraint
If you’re not comfortable with improvisation and are stuck in your ways, give yourself a limited amount of time to do a task. You may not be able to achieve spontaneity with this (though a rushed creative can turn out amazing things!), but ultimately you can squeeze a piece out that is more human by leaving some of the spontaneity of the performance.
If your piece is sounding stiff and soulless (think Def Leppard’s Hysteria, where each note of a chord was basically recorded separately) have a think – you may enjoy the precision and that is totally okay, but more likely a listener is going to resonate with freer beats, and ultimately, mistakes, even if they are tiny inaccuracies. A little freedom and humanity in the final product is always a good thing.
No matter your method of improvisation, something less rigid can make a song more energetic and genuine. Are you trying to record what it is like to stand in the same room in the band, or a perfect simulation that could never exist? There is merit in both, but evoking the sound of improvisation can do wonders.