Less can be more. This was a concept many others and I were taught while studying audio engineering. As a statement it’s an oxymoron, but in relation to music it’s an absorbing topic worth exploring and understanding, and not just in reference to music production (more on that later). It’s a deceptively-straightforward idea that is common to audio engineers within both the studio and live music. When looking to increase the focus on a certain instrument or voice, simply turning up it’s volume isn’t often the best approach to handling that goal. At times it can quickly become harmful to the resulting overall product (especially within the live music world, when things are often already close to loud-as-can-be). I remember being told that when creating a base mix of the sounds within a song, and you feel you need to create more emphasis somewhere, to always consider slightly turning down other things in the mix before you consider adding more weight to something through volume or effects.
Now please don’t misunderstand, often turning up an aspect of a mix is the correct action to take when trying to make that part of the music stand out, or when trying to make the overall mix the best it can be. Less can be more is by no means a universal maxim to live by. Yet those who are in the know realize that often carving out a sonic space can be the more discerning, and better sounding, choice. That is often accomplished through controlling volumes, cutting frequencies for certain instruments/sounds, or the level of effects placed upon them.
Another interesting aspect, when the idea of less can be more is employed correctly, the listener is usually not consciously aware of it ever being made, partly because the overall final product will still reside at the same level of volume. Yet it can greatly effect one’s resulting enjoyment on a subconscious level, which is quite a powerful thing to do and one of the reasons I believe we humans have the loving relationship with music that we do.
Mike Monday, a music producer and teacher to other producers has this to say on the subject, which he calls the #1 rule of music production, “Less musical parts have more sonic impact. It might seem counter-intuitive but if you want your music to sound big, add less. With fewer parts, each have more space in the mix and sound more powerful.”
But over the years since audio school I have started to think about the idea of “less being more” in other ways related to music, often as reactions to seeing/listening to certain musicians. It’s an easier concept for most to wrap their head around in relation to song production/mixing, but really it is something larger than a way to approach audio engineering. While at my first Alt J show a while back I was struck by the fact that the drummer does not use cymbals on any song, they simply aren’t a part of his kit. I had always loved the percussive approach of the band and was obsessed with their first album An Awesome Wave, and had done close listening of it many times – but I never realized how it was that his percussive energy cut through the mix is such a strong yet elegant manner. I completely missed something quasi obvious. I knew I liked their approach, but was not able to apprehend why until that moment!
Another instance that comes to mind when I ponder upon this topic (albeit quite randomly) is Nirvana’s Unplugged. Their studio albums are stellar and their fierce grunge rock sound was not only brilliant but unquestionably changed the realm of popular music. They were known for projecting a sound filled with intense yet catchy guitar, a thickly played low end, with mumbled or screamed vocals smothered on top. Yet for me it is when they were challenged by the Unplugged series, in which they had to abandon the roar of the electric guitar and approach their songs (and covers) in a novel stripped down manner that led to their most stunning musical creation. It’s one of those albums that stops you in your tracks and inspires awe. In being forced to dismantle their sound and add unusual emphasis to each individual part they not only created stunning music but also connected with the listener in a powerful way. A way that their studio albums didn’t provide. When Nirvana was challenged to work with less their reservoir of musical skill was allowed to tangibly radiate.
There are many more instances of this idea. Think about the musical revolution that was punk rock. Yes, punk is usually played loudly and in an intense and often hectic manner, but the songs are also usually under 3 minutes and comprised of uncomplicated chord structures and straightforward lyrics/vocal interactions. Yet damn does it pack a punch. My mind also goes to artists like James Blake, Imogen Heap, or Elliot Smith. Artists who have created exquisite music through embracing the idea that there is immense power within the minimal. They realize it can grab onto the imagination of the listener in an unconventional manner.
This, however, also then brings up an important counterpoint. Shakespeare once famously told us that brevity is wit. But of course that doesn’t mean that all things brief are somehow endowed with wisdom. A closer interpretation would probably be that if two sentences or stanzas or paragraphs convey an idea equally well – the one which does so in the least amount of words is the superior one. Music that is purposely minimal, skeletal, or uncomplicated can be horrible – that’s obvious to all. Yet Shakespeare’s famous saying does imply that once you’ve conveyed the emotion or sound or energy intended within a song (or a mix of a song), there exists a point where adding anything else will be disruptive towards your goal.
But here’s the catch; knowing where that point is, well that’s where skill comes in – and often it’s an unteachable skill. Just because Nirvana’s Unplugged session was scary good does not mean another band’s Unplugged session will be, the talent and musical understanding still must be there. An innate understanding of the strength of the simple within music is not easy for musicians nor audio engineers to creatively employ, in fact “the simple” can often be the hardest musical attribute to create/reproduce well (see: The Beatles).
Sometimes what we like in music, what is speaking to our brain – the subconscious and conscious – isn’t something we can put our finger on, even if we think we can. But by letting each element of a song, of a band, of an album, shine through separately of each other is usually a good start toward pleasing the listener. It usually comes across better than just piling more noise and volume and sounds upon someone (think hair-rock), and sticks with us in a different way. But of course there is overly complicated, noisy, and piled-upon music that is fantastic as well (of course there is!). Let’s be honest, it’s not like Shakespeare stuck to writing haikus or anything. But the oxymoronic idea that less can be more communicates a fascinating feature of our relationship with music, one that is definitely a part of it’s alluring and continual mystery. And if nothing else, it’s wonderful food for thought.
Simple isn’t easy. To make a song greater than the sum of it’s parts is even harder. But when it happens, well that’s magic, and often results in the the stuff that sticks with us the most.
[Please tell us in the comments what you think. Agree, disagree? Examples or counter examples? Let us know, let this be a discussion!]
By Sean Brna
OurVinyl | Editor