Making music is fun, sometimes magic, but also a path full of issues. Creative block? Welcome to the club!
The good news is… there’s a book for this. Yes, not an app, or a YouTube video or anything like that. Just a good old book, made of paper (ok, there’s a Kindle version too!).
Making Music – 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers, the first book published by Ableton, is a collection of solutions to common roadblocks in the creative process, with a specific emphasis on solving musical problems, making progress, and (most importantly) finishing what you start.
Its author, Dennis DeSantis, is a composer, sound designer, and percussionist. He worked as a sound designer for Native Instruments and is currently the Head of Documentation for Ableton.
I’ve enjoyed reading Making Music and I’m glad Ableton brought it to life. I wish I had a book like this 20 (or more) years ago when I started my musical adventures.
The design of the book is timeless, and Dennis’ tips are clear and pragmatic. Some of them may not be for everyone (after all the title mentions electronic music producers, not traditional singer-songwriters), but regardless of your musical style, Making Music is one of the most helpful things you may read this year.
Also, it’s one of those reference books that you will want to keep on your bookshelf, because you know that sooner or later you’re going to need to read one of its tips again.
After joining one of his workshops, I asked Dennis De Santis some questions about the book, his job at Ableton, his personal creative path, etc.
- In my opinion, your book tries to bring back humanism at the center of the creative stage. Do you feel this can be part of a ‘healthier’ approach to the whole tech narrative that surrounds us?
I wouldn’t say I see an inherent conflict between the human element and the technology. Both have a fundamental role to play in electronic music production. Although the book explicitly avoids talking about technology in favor of more “human” topics, this is only because I wanted to deliberately make up for what I perceive as a bit of a vacuum in that sort of education. There is so much material available already that helps to teach about the tools, in great detail, that I wanted to overcompensate in the other direction, and really write a book about the non-technical aspects of the process. But I don’t think you can have one without the other. Electronic music without technology is just acoustic music. And electronic music without people is just composition algorithms writing music for no listeners, which sounds like a bad dystopian novel!
- You have hosted several workshops after the release. Can you tell us more about the reactions you got so far and the most interesting discoveries you made interacting with the audience?
The reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, which has been really humbling. I’m so glad that the book seems to be helping people. I was actually really nervous before this came out. As with making music, you release something because you believe in it and hope that others get something out of it, but you can’t really know what sorts of reactions you’ll get until people actually get their hands on it. So getting a positive response is really an affirmation that your internal sense of taste isn’t completely out of alignment with the wider world.
The most interesting discovery has probably been that the book also seems to resonate with people in fields outside of electronic music production. I really wrote it with that very specific audience in mind. I felt like there were already a lot of “creativity encouragement” books out there already, many of which were probably more eloquent than my offering, so I wanted to aim for something much more focused. But then I heard from choreographers, teachers, lighting designers, theater directors, and others that they were also finding the book useful, which I found really interesting and unexpected.
- Your main job is writing the documentation for Ableton’s products. Speaking of manuals, it must be a bit frustrating when you realize that most users would rather search on the internet than use the official documentation. How often do you feel like shouting RTFM?
Actually, never. I think people have a completely understandable expectation that things will be easier than they are. As a culture, we’ve become used to things like smartphones and televisions that are basically self-configuring and generally “just work.” Although Ableton’s products are more complex than this, there’s no inherent reason why a user who’s new to music production should immediately know that. And even after they’ve figured it out, the fact that so many additional learning resources exist proves that the manual simply isn’t the answer for everyone. I don’t write our documentation with the expectation that a large portion of people will read it. Instead, I write it to be the definitive resource about how everything works, which I expect to be referred to in a kind of “trickle-down” way—the people who read it are the ones who will then go on to make secondary learning materials, become Certified Trainers, etc. Its value is primarily as a reference book for other trainers who will synthesize its contents into their own teaching. I do think it’s also useful for end users, of course, and I’m the type of person who obsessively reads the complete documentation for every tool I use. But I’m not bothered if other people don’t do this.
- What has been the biggest challenge for you at Ableton so far?
Probably getting to a position where I’m comfortable with the answer I gave to your previous question. When I first started, I didn’t really know anything about our users. I only knew about Live. So it was actually quite an eye-opening experience for me when I realized that many people have the expectation that things will be very, very easy, and that things like comprehensive documentation are seen to be old-fashioned and probably unnecessary. Learning that was the first step, but learning to accept it was a later step. Now I’m working on trying to find comprehensive ways to help everyone by trying to understand the problems they have and then meeting them where they are, rather than by trying to force them down the path of traditional learning resources. There’s still a lot of work to do.
- Still about Ableton, I find the Push trade-in program quite brilliant and I love the fact that Ableton is focusing on the education world, especially now that education funding is getting worse almost everywhere. Do you think this approach will also inspire other companies?
I hope it does. I don’t think we see this as a competitive advantage, but rather just as an opportunity to give back in a meaningful way. But there’s so much more that could be done, and I hope other companies feel this way as well.
- Speaking of music, how did your classical music background influence and shape your approach to the creation of electronic music?
It’s hard to say. I think being exposed to a broad range of different music and being forced to think about it critically and analytically was really valuable. I can also usually get musical ideas out of my head and into the DAW pretty quickly. But beyond this, the actual carryover from one world to the next is a bit fuzzy. I find it hard to point to specific practices or techniques that I make use of that came from my classical background, but I guess everything you learn somehow feeds everything you do.
- I’m not a big fan of lists, but they’re always popular so… can you share with us 3, 5, 10 albums (you choose…) that for a reason or another had the most significant impact on you (and briefly tell us why)?
I’m terrible at these kinds of things, because I think “impact” is a hard thing to quantify. At best, maybe I can talk about records I find myself listening to again and again, and over significant amounts of time:
Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
My parents had a record of this when I was very young and I think they burned through it because I wanted to listen to it so many times. I guess it was “formative” music for me, so my attraction to it is probably largely nostalgia.
The Police – Zenyatta Mondatta
Everything you need to know about hi-hats can be learned by listening to this record. It also seems to somehow exist entirely to the side of the rest of the music of its time.
Tangerine Dream – Poland
I was really intrigued by Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack work in the 80s, and then I found this album, which kind of rewired my young brain and is probably more responsible for my electronic music problem than any other single recording.
Meshell Ndegeocello – Plantation Lullabies
This album is, for me, the high point of a really great era of “neo soul” R&B. Amazing production and engineering from Bob Power as well. Her live shows during that period were life-changing.
Theorem – Ion
I heard this right around the time I first started producing electronic tracks that I felt really proud of, and it strongly influenced the stuff I was making at the time, including my first record Clock Wise. There’s a kind of elegance and purity to this direction of minimal electronic music that will always work for me.
Lusine – Serial Hodgepodge
I’m a big fan of Lusine’s carefully considered composition and sound design in general, but this record really feels like each moment is as good as it gets. To my ears, it’s also timeless.
- Between DAWs and plugins, cool iOS apps and the renaissance of hardware synths and gear, the choice for a musician nowadays is overwhelming (not to mention updates, upgrades, etc.). Unfortunately, this also means that it’s harder to focus, learn an instrument and make it ‘your own tool’. How do you deal with this, and what are your tips for a solid, inspiring and effective setup?
I think it’s just a matter of discipline. Every instrument and effect has a personality and a set of sweet spots but even the devices that are included with most DAWs are now powerful enough to provide almost everything a musician needs. There’s no point in having thirty EQ plug-ins if you don’t really have a good feeling for how EQ works. So I think it’s important to explore the tools that are already at your disposal and try to push them as far as they can go before expanding the field of possibilities. As you said, more options may just make it harder to focus.
- The approach of your book is highly pragmatic. Actually some chapters left me wanting more (in terms of text or other media, like video clips). Given its success, should we expect some follow-up?
Including media for the examples is tricky because it’s not all original music, and once you include audio or video you get into rights and licensing issues. I certainly could do it for the original content, but I actually quite like the fact that you’re forced to work this stuff out for yourself. If I provided audio examples, it would be very easy to just listen to them and have the feeling that you’ve fully engaged with the material. But if people want to experience what some of this stuff sounds like, they have to input it note-by-note, and this kind of methodical process can be a valuable exercise.
As for follow-up, it’s hard to say. I really enjoyed writing the book, and the response is better than I could have hoped for. I have lots of non-concrete ideas floating around in my head but one thing I could imagine doing is expanding the idea of the first book into something that incorporates more voices: interviews with other artists about their creative problems and solutions. I’ve done a few panel talks this year along these lines and I’ve really enjoyed the discussions.