Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Bottom Up Audio Production

In a previous article I proposed that Top-down and Bottom-up Design approaches common to software development might also be applied to modern music composition and production.

This article expands on the concept of Bottom up Music Design.

If you're not familiar with the term, Wikipedia defines Bottom-up Design as follows:

"A bottom-up approach is piecing together systems to give rise to grander systems, thus making the original systems sub-systems of the emergent system. In a bottom-up approach the individual base elements of the system are first specified in great detail. These elements are then linked together to form larger subsystems, which then in turn are linked, sometimes in many levels, until a complete top-level system is formed".

In my experience as a producer of music, sound design and sonic branding for a variety of media:

Scoring to moving picture, whether to video or game, often requires a ‘Bottom Up’ construction rather than the Top Down process I've previously described as typical of traditional composition.

A final score may feel as though it in fact drives picture, or one may feel runs a perfect aural parallel with picture, but let us return to its inception. Scored music is created as reaction to events on screen –i.e. the pacing of the edit, and then the content itself, be it visible action or simmering emotion.

Setting pre-scores aside, many composers (when presented with moving picture) begin composing a score by finding a click track that works with the edit. That is, edits will thereafter occur on a click. To a uniformed eye, it looks as though the cuts or edits react to the click. If the editor cut to a temp track, then the composer will almost always match their click to the temp track. in any case, the natural result is a PULSE.

Bottom Up Design and Production is marked by a process whereby TIME and RHYTHM are established before MELODY and HARMONY.

Thus once a click has been created, the Bottom Up designer will as often as not, start by adding and layering RHYTHM parts. In my experience many contemporary video and game composers begin with one or more loops, all beat matched so as to move in sync with each other, the click and the picture.

Some composers might add a bass ‘line’ at this juncture, but most will first jump up the pitch range and indicate a simple harmony, usually in the way of a string pad or guitar rhythm. Only after sketching out the harmony, will they then drop back down the staff in order to add an appropriate bass part.

Only then, when the resulting rhythm bed and accompaniment are in place, will our Bottom Up Constructionist composer consider the melodic needs of the work.

Therefore, in Bottom Up Design, Melody is born out of Harmony and locked to Groove, which is not so unusual when one considers improvisation of any sort, but generally alien to the Top Down Composition process described in a previously.

In an improvised work, a melodic idea might kick off a jam, but new and alternate themes may soon enough evolve based on tonal information delivered via harmony, with the potential of spinning off in every direction.

Without melody, our improvisational jam is simply an extended groove or vamp, a musical bed but arguably not a wholly conceived composition. Add melody and we essentially introduce or enhance story or possibly provide (nonverbal) commentary. We can think of small sound bytes that deliver musical memes as Ear Candy, bursting with potential and exciting our senses with the promise of something else to come.

Ear Candy events are often created as musical cues to visual information, and a series of such events can give form to an apparent theme. And really, unless we are producing main titles or end credits, that might be all we need to satisfy the task of scoring a given scene or cut.

Once a Bottom Design has been established, a composer/designer can use the results as a sort of audio graph paper, a grid, upon which he may know change his process to layer Top Down (or even Center Out) information on it, further enhancing the material or modifying accompaniment to accommodate thematic development, if it’s warranted.

So when I describe ‘Bottom Up’ Audio Design or Construction, I mean a musical work composed in the following manner: Pulse, Beat, Rhythm as the first frame of reference followed by a layering of sonic assets, usually in the following order: Harmony, Musical cues, Theme.

Top Down composition, in direct contrast, evolves in the opposite direction. In Top Down Composition our conceptual seed is the establishment of a complete melody, which then implies harmony and rhythm –i.e., Melody maps out everything.

Practically speaking, I tend to compose Top Down, improvise Center Out and produce from the Bottom Up. Sounds hilarious out of context, I know, but that's how I orient the analysis of musical information for the described creative tasks.

Future Digital Artisans would do well to form an integrated Top-Down Bottom-Up approach to music development, though perhaps by doing so they would then better be described as Music Designers than composers or sound designers, an idea I'll explore further in the next article of this series.

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Click on any link below to read all the articles in the six-part series detailing the changing relationship between Traditional Music Composition and Modern Music Production:


Part 1: Top Down, Center Out and Bottoms Up
Part 2: Top Down Music Composition
Part 3: Bottom Up Audio Production
Part 4: Film Composer, Sound Maker or Music Designer?
Part 5: Songwriter Vs. Song Designer
Part 6: Music By Design