Derrick Williamson, Jr. sits down to the desk in his college dorm room. On the far right sits a midi-piano, about one third the size of a regular piano. It is silver with typical piano keys; notches and buttons sit above the keys. To the far left, sits an American Audio VMS 2, a brand of midi-controller. This midi-controller, or a portable DJ machine, has two black turntables, and an array of switches, notches, buttons, and crossfaders.
In the center of the desk lies a Mac computer with a program open. For Williamson, the program serves one creative purpose.
It’s where the music happens.
Williamson, 19, is a Columbia College Chicago sophomore, studying audio arts and acoustics. But his hobby is actually producing his own original music, specifically in the genre of electronic dance music (EDM).
Producing a piece of music is a detailed process of experimentation. Through trial and error, Williamson says it is possible to create a unique and well crafted song, even if the final product differs from what originally inspired the piece.
“Happy accidents,” he said, “That’s the name of the game in music.”
The accident of music begins when Williamson either hears a particular part of a song that gives him an idea, either how he would change the sound or voice he heard, or to create an entirely new sound from scratch. He likes to do mostly samples, taking a prominent sound element of one song to create a new one, and remixes, the original version of a song with certain elements changed. Still, he enjoys creating his own compositions from scratch.
Once he has his idea, he finds what are called “stems” — specific musical elements of a song, such as the beat, the melody, or the a capella (voice). They can be easily found online, or in the case of those who enter production contests, the stems are provided.
After he’s found the stem he wants to use for his piece, he takes the music file and puts it in the program he uses for production, Abelton Live 9. If he is beginning from scratch, he will create his own stems in the program.
Once the stem, or beginning component, of the song is there, Williamson begins experimenting. “It’s kind of like a puzzle,” he said. “Tossing stuff in, seeing what works and what doesn’t.”
With Abelton, he will add different instrumental sounds on top of the stem he started with, creating new stems for the piece.
But the most critical part of the song production process is mixing, and if you’re really determined, mastering. Mixing is the act of giving each stem the perfect level, or volume. Some parts may need to be made louder, others softer, to give the song as a whole the desired sound the producer is looking for. For an amateur producer, the process can end here once all of the levels are fine-tuned.
However, mastering can still be done, although tricky. Williamson explains that in music production you must be a “critical listener” with the ability to hear the conflicts of sound in composed songs. Mastering, he explained, is editing the song so that it has a consistent sound on every type of audio system. From laptop speakers, to club speakers, to car speakers, a good song sounds the same despite a change in audio frequency.
Williamson recalled his spring break this past year, wherein he spent four days binge-producing a piece for a contest. “I got hit with the most inspiration that I’d ever gotten hit with before.” During his break, he spent four days, Monday to Thursday, working on the composition. He said the first two days were spent non-stop working on the arrangement of the piece.
When he finished with the rough draft of the piece, he played it for his friends and family multiple times that weekend on different speakers, listening for changes in sound. He would stop and rewind to different parts and criticize his work, while his friends and family, unable to find fault in his piece, listened in approval.
Yet, after a certain point, they began to wonder what all the repetition was about.
“It’s one of the first songs by me they’d heard, so of course they’re like, ‘Oh man, this is good,’ but after four times it’s like, ‘Yeah….you’re still listening to it?’”
After a million and one edits and listens, Williamson says he arrives at what is for the most part, a finished piece of music. Yet, he admits that he never feels “finished” with any song he produces, and the only time he will call it the end for piece is when he, or a contest deadline, forces him to be finished.
Williamson says it’s a struggle all artists face. But when he listens to the final composition of something that began as only a fragment of music, he is less critical, and proud of the work he’s done. “You have to force yourself to be finished with it, and then you can appreciate it.”