Combo Moves: The Cheat Codes of Creativity

Years ago when cheat codes dominated video games it was often a way for developers to debug games without having to play through entire levels. Press a sequence or combination of buttons and characters to unlock enhanced abilities like power ups, invincibility, and level skipping to bypass the built in constraints and difficulties of the game. These days those features don’t ship for free, and cheat codes were swapped for paid micro-transactions and the trend shifted towards achievement based gaming. However, creative fields like music and video creation have their own cheat codes that are incredibly powerful: combo moves. 

The Hollywood Secret

In Hollywood the most compelling shots are often a combination of techniques. Combining two simultaneous camera movements creates a much more satisfying result than a single move. If you’ve ever flown a drone, you quickly find that the best shots are achieved by moving the camera gimbal direction while flying forward or up, for example, rather than doing a straight flyover. Take a familiar shot and give it a literal twist. Doing an entirely original shot might be too jarring, but merge two proven techniques to create a fresh result. This also works for editing. For example: combine a match cut (match the composition of 2 shots by the action or subject matter) with a J-cut (audio arrives before the scene). Or combine a slow-motion video with reverse for a more powerful effect than one treatment alone.

Performance Gestures

In DJ’ing my favorite move is the “reverb pitch shift.” This is done by combining two controls: FX depth and reverb room size. Increase the depth while shrinking the size of the reverb, and you get a continuous pitch up that is great for chromatic transitions between songs in different keys. It acts as a palette cleanser and fills up the space in a “naked” breakdown. It is a performance, creating a living reverb that can grow or shrink to occupy the space, rather than a static FX blast. You are only limited by having two hands, but software takes this in a whole different level. There’s lots of ways to manipulate the pitch of a sound through echo plugins, but you have to automate multiple parameters to make it work. Check out Pioneer’s recently launched “merge FX” which allow multiple effect linking into one knob.

Macro madness

In DAWs like Ableton you can map an endless amount of controls to one macro knob, performing time based effect “throws” to reverbs and delays, or combining expressive control for filters, LFOs, wavetable positions, and more. Even just assigning two parameters to one movement is incredibly powerful. Rather than just map one parameter to one macro, use many – and allow the range of movement to achieve more expression. Hide the complexity into one movement, and you have a powerful tool for creating more engaging art. The biggest gain is that it speeds up the process. Rather than penciling in automation for each parameter individually in each lane, perform them with a multi macro that pulls several levers at once. Instead of buying new gear or plugins, use macros to make better use of your existing gear. Use them to create dynamic tension and release throughout the arrangement of your song.

Hide The Brushstrokes & Flip the cliche

Often times when we see how the process works, it breaks the fourth wall and pulls us out of the story. We want the art to directly affect a viewer or listener’s subconscious and be perceived as a singular piece of work cut from whole cloth, not a loose assembly of techniques and tricks stitched together. We want the work to trigger an emotion inside someone, not show off complexity for its own sake. So it’s important to hide the seams and not make the technique obvious. Use devices with intention but hide them when possible. In video editing you can hide an edit point in darkness, object movement, or motion blur. When you combine techniques in any field it’s hard to pinpoint the device used and it creates a seamless experience. 

When an effect is overdone and becomes cliche it sticks out. We’ve seen this movie before, heard that punchline, and can guess the rhyme scheme in a song. If you can guess the next line, there is no tension, and it’ll just pass people by. Cliches are worn smooth through overuse and lose all their edges that once created tension and demanded attention. It’ll pull people out of the experience even though it once worked. So remember to flip a cliche to make it more effective.  

In music the greatest illusion is weaving together tried and true influences of hit records, but making it sound new even though it’s just old methods combined in a unique way. There are no new chord progression. Use a diverse pool of influences. Steal from many and it’s original. Steal from one and it’s derivative. Steal from nothing and it’ll be unlistenable. Your individually comes from your strength as a curator that ties together your artistic choices and source material into one cohesive form. On the software side, most plug-in companies work with a modular technique: they license 3rd party components used under the hood, or use their own plugin components in a new combination under the guise of a simplified new interface. Dada Life’s Sausage Fattener and Endless Smile plugins were based on complex Ableton racks, now reduced to one knob interfaces.

Working with intention
In order to really make combinations work, you first need to experiment with combinations through trial and error and see what sticks. What are the most common but tedious step of treatments you make to a sound? What effects makes a sound compelling? Then you need to actively decide how to recreate that effect – what exact steps were used and combined, and what minimum and maximum values will you use for the range? Then structure it through a controller “performance” or macro chain. Start with the simplest combinations – two parameters for one macro, and go from there. What combinations will you discover? I’d love to hear your ideas. Good and luck and happy music-making!

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