What are the benefits of being a minimalist as a producer, musician, or mixing engineer?
Minimalism isn’t just a thing that you try to live with a minimum of something. Minimalism needs perfection to make it possible to live with that minimum.
I also use that approach while I’m writing these words. I always read what I’ve written, and I think like “which sentence or word can be removed?” This way I can be sure that I’ve written the most important aspects of my thoughts. (I’ve just deleted a paragraph before this one.)
I’m a professional mixing and mastering engineer, and I try to approach everything that I do as a minimalist. But I don’t describe myself as a minimalist in general. I think of what I can remove, decrease, or mute while I’m mixing. As a result of that, every plugin has a manner in a project that I’m working on. It’s so easy to add an infinite amount of samples and instruments to your song in the age of DAWs, but you should ask yourself “is it necessary?”.
So, how can you use minimalism as a technique on your projects?
1. Everything must have a purpose
Think about the purpose of anything while making, recording, or mixing your music. This could be a chord, a percussion loop, a second microphone in front of the guitar amp, a compressor, or an entire section in a song.
Always think like “is this thing serving the song well, or not?” Always try to see the other way. Try to mute, bypass or delete things, and listen carefully before deciding if it’s essential for you, or not.
Most of the beginners instantly put an EQ to a channel even before they hear the track. There is no point in this. If a track serves the song well as it is, you don’t have to do anything. I know it feels like you’re not doing anything, but it’s not true. On the other hand, you can do even a better favor by not doing.
This situation is even more apparent if you’re a mastering engineer. Because sometimes you don’t have to do anything instead of approving what is already done in the mixing.
Let’s say that you are trying to make a change in that mix and you want to feel like you are making a difference. However, it would only cause you to lose the impact of the mix because it wouldn't be a conscious action.
Most people add instruments to their productions to make a section bigger, but it’s not the only way. If you remove some elements before that section you will have the same effect. It’s so tiring to listen to a song that never rests.
2. Humans can only process up to three melody lines at the same time
Do you know what your friends, who are not musicians, focus on your new song?
They hear and listen to vocals. If they listen otherwise, they can listen up to three melody lines. This means they can hear only your vocal, guitar melody, and keyboard chords. Do you have another melodic bass line underneath? They don’t hear that. Do you have strings behind the music? They don’t hear that either. They also find it difficult to listen because of the complexity.
The best thing you can do is to think like an average listener, and not to use any more elements that can’t be handled at the same time. If you need more than three, then you’re trying to hide some boredom within your songwriting or arrangement.
3. The quality of the elements that you use
If you have one element to use, you won’t want to use a poor one. Let’s say that you’re producing a song, and you need a pad synth underneath. If you have to use just one sound to fill that place, you better be careful when you’re designing that sound. If there are three different pad sounds playing the same chords you don’t have to think about them separately that much.
I watched a Youtube video from Recording Revolution which discusses a rule that you can use while making music. When I watched it, I started thinking about it while producing. Graham Cochrane says that if you can’t finish your song with 24 tracks, there is a problem with the song. According to that rule, you have to finish your song in 24 tracks.
This rule makes sense because there wasn’t any 24 track recorder before the ’70s. And your most favorite albums made with those 24 track recorders. If the masters did that in the past, either can you. I know there are no rules while making music, but it’s a good starting point.
4. Your song will sound bigger with less
Everybody talks about Billie Eilish, and her production this year because of an important reason. She is an incredibly good example of minimalism in music production. Her songs sound huge because there are very few elements.
Most of the “bad guy” is based on a bass line and the vocals. She doesn't even use a consistent reverb on her vocals according to the mixing engineer Rob Kinelski. Your song will also sound bigger if you have the same spaces in your arrangement.
Alicia Keys is also similar to that trick. She talks about that in the Song Exploder Documentary’s first episode. On the song “3 Hour Drive” she doesn’t use a hi-hat sample, because she wants space between other drum samples. She doesn’t even want her live drummer to play hi-hats loudly at her concerts.
When pop trends adapt to minimalism, there is no point to add an enormous amount of tracks to your next production. Try it yourself, and let me know if it works or not.