Music Production Insights to be Learned from Bob Ross

Bob Ross painting a happy tree

Bob Ross painting a happy tree

For some reason I’ve always enjoyed watching episodes of Bob Ross’s “The Joy of Painting” when it airs on our local PBS station every Saturday morning.   All this time I could never quite figure out why I found this show so interesting.   Is it his 70’s era fro that could send the Brady Bunch into a fit of jealousy?  Or is it his Hoosier-sounding accent that reminds me of some of my relatives?   Or is it the peaceful way that he creates his art, allowing himself the freedom to make anything he wants in his world, happy trees, a mountain stream, a quiet meadow, in such an effortless way?  He even says that line that I like so much  “.. there are no mistakes, just happy accidents“.  How cool is that?  I should tattoo that across my forehead someday.  If only my boss had the same philosophy about my work?

For so long I could never pin-point the real reason that I like to watch this show until it finally hit me one day.   Much of the same mental process of visualization happens within my mind’s eyes & ears when producing a piece of music as it does in creating a painting.

If you think of songs as “audio paintings of sound”  then you can gain some insights by watching how paintings come together.   I’ve always tried to visualize my music in the same way, as if it is a painting in my mind that I’m trying to realize in sound.

  • There is often a background image that supports everything else, and provides the context for the other elements of the painting
  • There are supporting characters on top of that background image that add depth and interest, but are not the main focus
  • Then there is a central element of the painting that is the main focus, that could stand alone as a separate painting but usually much more meaningful and interesting in the context of the background image and supporting characters

In Bob Ross’s world this might look like the following:

  • Background:   The horizon is painted in faded hues, gradually going from light to dark to mimic the sky meeting the horizon in the distance.
  • Supporting characters:   happy trees on either side of a river, accented with shrubs, etc.  Mountains in the distance obscured by fog and clouds
  • Central element:   a waterfall running through the middle of the canvas

In a song this same world might look something like this:

  • Background:  slow strings or pad sounds from a synth.  Basic groove of the song runing through the whole piece (bass line, acoustic guitar strums, etc) This background image is often in full stereo surrounding everything else.
  • Supporting Characters:   Tremolo guitar playing accents and  fills, panned left.   Piano motif, panned right.   Percussion instruments accenting various phrases spread across the stereo field.    The supporting characters are often on the periphery and can be heard as separate elements from the background
  • Central Element:   a solo violin playing the melody panned to center

The cool thing about our “sound painting” is that, unlike a real painting, ours can change over time as the song goes from beginning to end.  Maybe “in our own little world”  our waterfall starts as a trickle at the beginning, then becomes a rushing torrent of water at the chorus section, then fades back to a sad trickle at the end for emotional effect.   Another cool aspect to our sound painting is that various characters in the sound-scape can come in and out of focus from the background as we wish.  For example, a tambourine may be more prevalent during the chorus section to add more drive, then become more sparse in the verse sections to decrease the energy level of the verse (making the chorus section stand out more).

Part of the reason that I like music production so much is this whole idea of playing God in our own made-up world of the sound-scape, and deciding how things will be presented to the listener.   The sound-scape is our universe and we can do whatever the hell we want.  It’s kind of like a song is a short scene of a play, and our sounds are the various characters and background props for the scene that is playing out in sound.

Going on the same line of thinking as our music-production-as-a-painting idea,  here are some things I like to keep in mind when I’m working out production ideas for a song:

  • Create your mix as if it is a 3D image in your head, utilizing both depth and stereo position to place your characters into the sound scape
  • Depth is often created by using reverb.  Normally I setup an effects bus with one main ambient reverb on it, then I vary the amount of reverb for each track depending on how far forward or backward I want that instrument to appear in my sound scape.  This also helps to make my tracks sound more cohesive since they are all living in the same ambient space (kind of like putting all the characters on the same stage).
  • The pan control on your mix is there for a reason.  Don’t be afraid use it!   Try panning various tracks in different positions in your mix, if only just to give them their own space, especially the supporting characters such as accent parts, fills, percussion, or other instruments that only make appearances on the chorus, etc.
  • Treat your central element in some special way.  For example, if your main element is a vocal, try to bring it to the forefront by using a little compression, less reverb, etc.  The right amount of compression on a vocal can make it completely intimate and up-close sounding.
  • If your central element is not standing out in the mix as the centerpiece,  then try using EQ treatments (often cutting frequencies rather than boosting) of your background parts and supporting characters to allow your central element to be heard as the focal point.  Sometimes the background tracks can take up so much sonic space that it obscures the central element .   Make all of your tracks support the song in some way!
  • To add interest over time I’ll often bring various tracks into and out of the mix at different times (even if tracked for the whole song) just to ad variety. For example, I may decide to thin out the verse sections of a song by pairing it down to a bare rhythm section and add in a supporting track at each new verse to keep things changing as the song progresses to the end.  This kind of treatment can keep the listener engaged in the song from beginning to end rather than wearing them out with each verse that sounds exactly the same as the next.  Make each verse add a new element to the listener, as if the actors are all on the stage and a new character or background image is appearing with them so that things are different from verse to verse.

Lastly, I’ve found some cool ideas for music production by listening to some of my favorite music while closing my eyes and trying to visualize the music as a painting.  Then as I listen I ask myself questions such as:

  • What is in the background?  What is making the sound?  How far away is it?   Is it busy (full of detail) or is it soft sound with less detail wrapping around the other tracks like a warm blanket?
  • What are the supporting characters and how are they treated?  Are they forward or pushed to the background, are they panned to one side, when do they make appearances and when do the go out of view?
  • What is the central element and why does it capture my attention?  Did they treat it in some special way (is it double-tracked?, is it more/less ambient than everything else? is it heavily compressed?  is it trippy sounding as if the sound is going around your head?)
Take a song like “Tomorrow Never Knows”  from the Beatles “Revolver” Album, put on your best headphones, close your eyes and go through this exercise.  This is the audio equivalent to going to an art gallery and analyzing a masterpiece.   Turn off your mind relax and float downstream!

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