GAS, what most musicians know as Gear Acquisition Syndrome. That never-ending feeling that you have to have the latest and greatest in gear to make your music better. It’s something we all struggle with, and it can be both a blessing and a curse.
There’s no denying that new gear helps trigger fresh bursts of creativity, just the mere fact that you’re forced to be in front of the gear as you check out your new toy means that it’s forcing you to actually sit down and do something musical. New gear means new ways of working, so it’s not surprising that you’re bound to come up with something new, results that you perhaps have not achieved before with things you currently own.
In the short-term, this has the effect of validating the purchase. You think “hey, this is great, this new bit of gear helped me come up with something I never would have before”. Well, possibly, but sometimes you really need to step back and look at the underlying cause of that too. Certainly the newness of it means that it’s exciting, you’re using tools that you aren’t familiar with, so it can be more fun.
Often times this initial discovery period becomes the sole reason for the purchase, that time when everything you do musically seems fresh and exciting. And it is exciting, there’s no denying it. But how often has that feeling faded faster than you expected? How many times have you completed a couple of projects with your new toy, and then your attention starts to wander again?
Not to get too deep here with the comparisons, but in a way it’s not much different than dating someone. It’s fun and new at first, everything feels great and you couldn’t be happier. But then the magic fades, your attention wanders, and you start looking at what else is out there. Sure you could go through life jumping from one partner to another, but many people (myself included) will tell you how shallow and unfulfilling that is in the long-term, and how much more satisfying it is being with that ONE special person. When you become a team and work together, you’re rewarded with things you never imagined early on.
Musical instruments are the same way. It’s easy to be tempted by the latest and greatest, but sometimes you need to step back from the marketing hype (and they sure know how to hype their new products!) and re-assess what it is that a new purchase will bring to your studio in the long haul. All too often I see people get wrapped up in this, asking other musicians “Should I get music equipment x,y,z?” Or “I have $500 to spend, what should I buy?”.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with asking other people what they think about a particular instrument, but at the same time realize what you’re doing. If you have to ask someone else what you NEED, then chances are you really don’t NEED anything at all. New gear purchases should always be obvious to you, they should fill a real need in your workflow, or add something to your studio that you currently don’t have.
Oftentimes just taking a deep breath and thinking about how your current tools could be pressed into doing the same thing, will cause you to realize that perhaps the need you thought was there is not so great after all. By re-looking at the gear you have now, and how it could be used in a new way, you’d be surprised at how you can channel that same type of excitement new gear brings.
We all have instruments with features that we don’t use that often, so by digging in and re-evaluating how we use our tools, we not only get the chance to work in a new way, but we also come to master our tools more than we thought we had. And in the long haul, THAT can be more exciting and fulfilling than a short-term fling with something we really don’t need.
Now if you’ll excuse me, the latest Sweetwater catalog just arrived and I can’t wait to go see what new toys were released recently 🙂
First up, if you haven’t seen the new teaser for the Elektron Octatrack, it’s definitely worth a look:
Obviously I’m a huge Elektron fan already (owning a Machinedrum and Monomachine, as well as moderating the Elektron-Users.com forums), so I’m interested in the Octatrack a lot. Thinking it might let me use all hardware again to play live, leaving behind Ableton and my laptop for samples of my studio work.
Which brings me neatly to my main topic, the simplicity of the laptop, and why I’ve never been able to completely embrace it no matter how hard I try. Like a lot of musicians, I went through a phase early on of owning a lot of studio gear to make music. Multiple racks, keyboard stands with multiple synths, grooveboxes galore, you name it. Then of course the digital audio revolution happened, and slowly but surely I started selling things off and moving more and more to producing entirely in the box.
Of course, in many respects this was really not at all that different from having lots of hardware initially. Like so many others, I became obsessed with ‘collecting’ plug-ins. Dozens of dynamics processors, too many softsynths, and more than a couple DAWs. Slowly, I realized I was turning to a select few plug ins though, and I began to whitle down my collection.
Then I made the jump from a desktop to a laptop, and suddenly things changed. I realized that here was a really compact means to making and performing music. This one tool reduced clutter and cable nests, removed the need for external monitors, keyboards, and mice. Paired with something like Logic or Live, I could basically create anything I wanted with such a simple, and yet extremely powerful toolset. It was a sort of revelation, and in the years since prompted me to sell more and more gear, to the point where my studio looked more like a beginner just getting started, instead of someone with almost 2 decades of experience.
There was a problem though. Despite achieving my dreams of a minimalist set up, I really wasn’t enjoying the music making process anymore. At the time I thought it was the lack of physical controls that was throwing me off, and thus began the great MIDI controller experiment. I think I must have tried dozens of MIDI controllers trying to find one that reminded me of using a groovebox. Sadly, nothing ever really worked like that, at the end of the day a laptop is still a computer, and a generic MIDI controller still requires too much configuring to be useful in the heat of the moment. I didn’t want to stop to remap every parameter I wanted to control when I thought of it. Even things like Novation’s Automap just didn’t sit well with me, very unpredictable in use.
So for now I’ve accepted the fact that I just can’t work with only a laptop, I need at least a few pieces of hardware to use when making music too. Someday I hope a more elegent solution is found, in the meantime I’ll have to live with the love-hate relationship when it comes to the laptop.
I was going through some old archives of mine, and I ran across a list of my top ten pieces of production advice, something I had written years ago. Struck me that I probably wouldn’t change anything even after all this time.
1. Less is almost always more. Turn down the effects, back off the compression, use less EQ and reverb, get rid of tracks that don’t really add anything important to the song.
2. Don’t force yourself to write only in one genre (blasphemy, I know). Variety is the spice of life, so experiment with other genres/styles, it’ll only make you a better musician/producer.
3. Learn at least basic music theory. You may never, ever use it, but it’ll help you understand how we got to where we are, and might just help you out in the future.
4. Don’t force yourself to write if you’re not feeling it. Go outside, take care of your errands and BS, and come back to it when it’s fun again. Even if that means a month long hiatus (or longer).
5. Do it for the right reasons. Make music because you love the process, not the hopeful outcome. Never make music thinking you’ll make money, cause you won’t 99.999% of the time.
6. Understand it takes years and years to get that polished and professional sound. It’s not down any magic plug ins or settings. An experienced producer can make a pro-sounding tune no matter what the gear. It’s the ears, not the gears. (trademarked) The only way to get to this point is practice, plain and simple.
7. Learn to calibrate people’s comments about your tunes. There’s a fine line between solid, unbiased production advice, and personal preferences. Listen to what people say, and then judge if their comments are expressing their own personal preferences, or if it’s a genuine advice from an experience producer. Listen either way though, both kinds of advice can be helpful if taken in the right context. On that note, your friends will always tell you they like your tunes.
8. Learn to play a real instrument.
9. Interviews with other producers are the best source of production advice. Especially if they produce a completely different genre than you.
10. Slim down your studio. Kinda ties into #1 above, but the less gear you have, the easier it is to learn it, and the farther you can take it. Especially with plug ins.
Well I finally got around to setting up my own blog, something I’ve been wanting to do for too long now. The main intention is just to get some discussion going on mostly music-related topics, though who knows where it will lead. Same rules as all the forums I help run: no religion, no politics, and no flaming/trolling. Act like a grown-up, simple enough.
Of course, things are never as easy as they seem, so in the process of creating a new blog, I ended up redoing my entire website as well. If you get any errors or notice a dead link, please let me know so I can correct it as soon as possible.
First up then, do you think the roll your own midi device trend will continue? So many controllers coming out that seem to lack any form of inputting very much physical input. Lots of grids of button and shiney touchscreen. Is this really the way things should be going? Do musicians really need to worry about crafting their own instruments now? It sometimes makes me wonder if there are people out there who just like creating systems instead of music. The idea of having to actually ‘code’ something I need to make music makes me shudder 🙂 What do you think?
Deeper discussions on production coming up soon, I plan to make this a pretty active blog, so subscribe and check back often.
Peace and beats,