Know Your Limitations

One of my favorite ways of coming up with new ideas for songs, is to limit the options or tools I use during the composition process. I’m sure a lot of this is born from earlier times when I first got into music making, as I just didn’t have the money to spend on a lot of gear (and back then gear was expensive!). So I’d have no choice but to plumb the depths of whatever I was using, doing my best to write complete songs and not get bummed out by my lack of gear.

I used to get so frustrated with that too, not being able to follow through with an idea because I was already using my one EQ, or didn’t have another free input on my tiny Mackie 1202 mixer, whatever. Of course the flip side of that lack of gear, was that I was unknowingly learning the gear I did have really, really well.

Fast forward a few years and the whole concept of limitations was foreign to me, as DAWs with the unlimited choices they offer will do that. As many effects as I wanted, tons of free synths, plenty of free tracks, you name it and it was largely possible. I’d even go so far as to try and write songs using as many tracks and effects as I possibly could, just because I had that option open to me.

Like any new idea though, eventually this concept of throwing as much as I could at a project slowly began to fade as a source of inspiration, and I once again found myself struggling to think of ideas for new songs. It was around this time that I started playing with the idea of imposed limitations as a source of inspiration. By limiting my tools, I was forced to use what I had at my disposal in new ways. More importantly, it made me re-look at my working methods, and come up with new ways to do things.

You see, I firmly believe that we do our best work when confronted with a challenge. When taken out of our comfort zone and the creative repetitiveness that tends to breed, we begin to come up with new ideas we would not have arrived at earlier. So I began to look at each song as a chance to solve a new problem, and these problems were always self-imposed. Sometimes the challenges I set myself were not too difficult and affected only part of the writing process, other times I made myself work to achieve a task I knew could be extremely hard to complete.

For instance, here some of the things I would do to limit my options:

– Try and write a complete song using only a drum machine and nothing else. Double points for using only drum synthesis to create the sounds, and not samples.

– Use the song mode on a piece of hardware instead of my DAW, even though the DAW was much easier and faster to use.

– Try and mix a song using only one type of each effect. IE, pretend I still only had one EQ, one compressor, one delay, etc. Trying to figure out where to best use those effects can be very challenging.

– Create a song using nothing but a guitar, including the drum sounds.

– Create a song using only a short 4-5 second snippet of audio. Could be a field recording, or a sample of a record, whatever. The point was to deconstruct that one sample and use it to create a whole palette of sounds for the song.

– Record a solo for one of my tracks using a MIDI drum pad instead of a keyboard.

– Create the drum sounds in a song using only a single monophonic synth. The simpler the synth, the better.

– Use a pair of headphones to record all the sounds for a track. No going direct or using a real microphone.

– Let my room mate or girlfriend chose all the sounds for my song, no matter what I had to make it work with whatever they picked. At the very least this can lead to some pretty funny results.

– Play all the piano parts in a song using only my toes. (Ok, that’s a bit extreme, never really did that).

You get the idea.

Like I said, almost all of my songs these days start as some form of limitation I’m trying to make myself overcome. It forces me to learn the gear I have in new ways, and really opens up possibilities I never would have thought of otherwise. Of course the key is to set yourself a challenge that you can likely actually achieve, and not set yourself up for failure and endless frustration. I recommend starting with limiting yourself during small tasks at first, during small parts of your writing process.

Try choosing just one synth for all your sounds, or work only with midi instead of audio like you usually do. Eventually you’ll get better and realizing what kinds of limitations will help spur new ideas and working methods, and what limitations just lead to banging your head against the wall. Like everything, the more you do it, the better you get.


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Just Because

Before I get started with the topic this week, it appears I need to make a clarification on the purpose of this blog.  As with my Production Guides, this blog’s only purpose is give me somewhere to voice my thoughts on different topics.  I’m not trying to say my ideas or working methods are the “right” or only way to do things.  No need to send me a bunch of emails telling me I’m wrong, or you’re successful using some other method or style of music making.

Experimenting and coming up with your own conclusions and working methods is the only “right” way to do things.  If you have something about how you work that you think others would benefit from, by all means post it in the blog comments for everyone to discuss!  And so…

As most people reading this know, I run a studio dedicated to mastering and mixdowns.  I also offer a consulting service, where I listen to people’s tracks or look at their projects and offer suggestions.  One of the things I see a lot when people send me project files is how many effects they’re using in the project, and typically we’re talking about dynamic processors and compressors.  I’d say that 90% of the time things sound better when the effects are off.  The material never really needed that effect in the first place, and ends up sounding a lot better when we get rid of it.  Trying to fix something that wasn’t broken ends up actually breaking it.

When I ask the producers WHY they put the processors on there, they say “because I thought I was supposed to”.  They didn’t hear a need for the effect, they probably weren’t even listening to hear if there even was a need.  Instead they read an interview with producer x,y,z who used a bunch of compressors on their latest song, so they thing they have to do the same.  Certainly nothing wrong with giving it a go and seeing if it helps, but make sure it really IS helping.

A lot of times I see the make up gain on a compressor turned up a lot, but the threshold isn’t even set in the audible band.  In this case, the compressor is just another volume knob, and since it’s making the track louder, it tends to sound better.  This is a good reason to check your changes by A/Bing with an uneffected track at the same volume, especially when you’re first learning a new effect.  Most DAWs let you quickly duplicate a selected track with a CMD+D (Ctrl+D) keystroke, so it’s really simple to set up a quick comparison.  Make sure that you’re actually making things better, and not just louder.

Another example I see a lot in the mastering phase that reflects this sort of mindset, is people high- and low-passing their entire track with an EQ.  They read online that this is how someone did it, so now they want to do it too.  There definitely are some reasons to high-pass a track, but again, make sure you actually have signal down there that’s a problem, before you just do it as a matter of course.  Some of these high-pass filters are very steep, and you could actually be making things worse with phase-shift or pre-ringing.

Also, a common myth is that low-passing a track will allow it to be mastered louder. This is not true at all, and more often than not just makes the track sound a lot duller and more closed in (not open) than it should be.  If your high’s are so loud that you’re hitting the mastering limiter and can’t go louder, than your track is probably all sorts of messed up already.  The kick, bass, or vocals will 99% be the thing that determines how loud a track can be.  High hats or cymbals this loud would just be so obviously painful, there’s no way anyone would mix the track like that (I hope).  Still, if you have a real need for low-passing, then by all means do what you need to.

Remember, don’t do things “just because”.

Learn To Forget

Recently I was watching an excellent documentary on origami called “Beyond The Fold”, and in it there were a lot of parallels I found with people who make music.  One of the points that some of the ‘older’ artists brought up, was that people just new to the art form spent so much time concentrating on technique, versus emotional message.  They were more concerned initially about pushing the boundaries of how many folds their pieces had (because more is always better don’t you know!), and less concerned with pushing what the piece was trying to say.

In a lot of ways this reminded me of myself when it came to music production, especially when I made the jump from hardware to a software based set up.  Since I no longer had to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on each EQ or compressor I had at my disposal, I was MUCH more inclined to use as many as I could.  Not just those either, for the first time I had so much flexibility at my fingertips, that I needed to spend a lot of time and effort really learning what each tool did and how to use it properly.  Not to mention all the intricacies of digital audio recording.

I started on a crusade, a mission to learn as much as I could about about audio production and engineering.  I read every magazine I could get my hands on, front to back, even the sections about how country producers would DI a bass guitar, or how the FOH guy at a mega-church balanced the singers in the choir.  I borrowed old college text books from friends, I read every interview online I could, every white paper, you name it.  I was devoted to learning as many techniques as I could, it was an all encompasing life passion at that point.

And then one day a few years later, I had sort of an epiphany.  I realized that a lot of the techniques that directly related to my craft and the way I wrote music, well… I didn’t need to think about them anymore.  Gain-staging, recording a signal at the proper level, the basics of digital audio, etc, these things had all been practiced and pondered so much that I no longer was really devoting much mental thought to how I incorporated them in my writing.  They were part of my workflow, they were being used daily.

At about the same time I realized this, I also noticed just how much effort I was still putting into trying to learn as much as I could, about everything music related.  It’s a neverending task, and got to the point where I had maybe stopped trying to progress as an artist, and had spent too much time trying to progress as an audio engineer.  Pretty sure this portion of the epiphany occurred after finishing a hellish 8 hour session in the studio where I had worked furiously to create two little drum fills.  I mean, I’m sure they were really good, but was getting THAT wrapped up in hyper-editing and trying to cram as much as possible into 1 measure really helping me progress as an artist?

So, I took a step back and re-looked at the situation.  I made a conscious effort to stop putting the technique first, and instead really think about what it was I was trying to say with my music.  I started reading interviews with artists not to see what gear they used, but instead focusing on why they make music.  Or what advice they could offer in regards to creativity, regardless of the medium they preferred (painting, dance, architecture, etc).

It’s been a real struggle at times too, as I’ve learned to really embrace the less is more mindset.  My music is often a lot simpler, and dare I say it, less polished sounding now.  But on the flip side, I hear a lot more of ME in my music these days too.  And it’s more fun as well, as I stop worrying about if I’m doing things the ‘right’ way, and instead just focus on having fun and creating in general.

I guess what I’m ultimately trying to say is this.  It can be good to spend a lot of time learning the tools and techniques of your craft, but there comes a time when you have to step back from all that and forget what you’ve learned.  Practice it to the point where it becomes second nature and facilitates your art, instead of using those techniques AS your art (*cough* wobble basslines, stutter edits *cough*).  When the nitty gritty details become so ingrained that you no longer need to think about them, the more mental capacity you’ll have to make something truly unique and reflective of what you’re trying to say as a musician.  That I think is the real journey we’re after, what it really means to be an artist.


If you like the blog so far, please pass it on to a friend or post it on another blog/website/forum for others to read.  To avoid coming across like I’m spamming, I’m soon going to stop posting on the various forums I have been when new articles go online.  Be sure to sign up to the RSS or Twitter feed to get notifications of new posts.  Or send me an email to be added to my mailing list, as I continue to try and get an easy to use Email widget going for this site.

Peace and beats,

Quit your day job?

Right around the beginning of the year, when everyone seems to be making new resolutions and goals, I tend to get a lot of people asking for advice on how to get a career in the music industry.  What do you have to do in order to quit the day job, and just do something music related for a living?

Notice that I didn’t say “write music for a living”, because in all honesty, I think the days of being able to make a living solely off creating and selling your own music are all but gone.  Sure, there will still be a few people who do it, but for a while now the majority of professional artists releasing material have been making their money from touring and playing live, versus selling actual records (CDs, downloads, whatever).  And unfortunately, record labels have caught on to this as well, and most now require a cut of touring revenue, further eating into artists’ pockets.  If you want to make a living making music, make sure you can play live too, simplest advice I can give there.

Still, that leaves a lot of other careers in the music industry, far too many to really mention here in fact.  Rather than trying to go into specifics for landing a gig in each of those (since those specifics will likely be outdated in a couple years anyway), I thought I’d focus on some more general concepts that I’ve learned about over the years in my struggle to achieve “the dream”.

– It’s about hard work.  When I first thought about actually making a living from music somehow, I was pretty young and happened to run across an interview with BT in some magazine.  They asked him the same question, “How do you get to a point where you’re making a living from music?”  His answer, “You have to be prepared to work harder than everyone else.”  It sounds simple, but it’s true.  You may dream of just sitting in your studio writing the occasional tune that the world goes crazy over and will pay you dearly for.  That will not happen  (fun daydream though, no?).  Even the most gifted musician has to deal with the fact that they run a business, and all the work that involves.  Even paying others to handle this for you involves a lot of work, especially to get to that point.

So lesson 1 is to he honest with yourself with what this involves.  You often see the easy side of the business, the DJ partying in the club, the band riding to gigs in limos, the singer doing her next album in some exotic location.  That does happen, but not before those artists put in massive amount of work to get to that point (and ultimately paid for all those perks and fun times out of their own pocket anwyay).  Not only is it a lot of work to get to that point, but also to maintain it.  It’s sooo worth it, but at the same time you gotta be ready to really bust your ass all the time, plain and simple.  No one is just going to drop an awesome job in your lap because you think you’re “THAT” good.

– You need to get lucky.  This isn’t some attempt to use FATE as the ultimate decider of who gets to be famous and who doesn’t.  Ask any successful artist how they got where they are, and I bet most will be able to look back to some point in the past when they got a lucky break.  But you can’t just stop trying, kick back your feet, and wait for these moments to find you.  The better and more skilled you can are, the more likely you’re going to be in a position to be there when your chance comes.

And not only do you need a lucky break, you need to be ready when it comes.  I know that there’s a few times in my life where I was presented with a good chance at meeting this dream of music for a living, and just wasn’t ready for it.  Sucks, but you live and learn.  Which brings me to….

– You’ll be in over your head.  When you do finally get a chance to prove your skills to someone in a position to advance your career, you’re almost always going to feel like you’re in over your head, like you’re not prepared enough.   You’re doing something new, and probably something you’re a little under-qualified for still.  Roll with it.  Don’t pass up the chance, just dive in and do your best, really give it your all.  Better to try and not do it, than to not even try at all.

The good thing about the internet these days, is that it’s usually pretty easy to find someone more experienced than you in your field, so help is often not more than an email away.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but don’t expect them to do your job either.  Keep your questions short and simple, and work fast.  In fact, having contacts like these before you need them is a good idea, saves you time when you need help NOW.  (and don’t email me, I’m busy, see point 1!)

The other thing you’ll notice about your first big gig is that you often have less time to get it done than you expected too.  Be efficient, stay focused, this is your priority.  Most of all, just have confidence in yourself, that all the training and practice you’ve put in so far (again, see point 1).

– To be a professional, act like a professional.  I know I’ll get flack from some people for this, but I see it all the time.  If you want people to take you seriously, and to put their money in your pockets, you need to be the type of person they can trust and feel comfortable around.  You can’t be a hot head, you can’t act childish, you don’t go online and act like an idiot, you never know who’s reading what you write.  You might feel like being online is a great place to express who you really are, where you can say whatever you want, and you’re right, it is.  But you have to look at it from the perspective of a potential client, or a booking agent, or an A&R person, etc.  They’re doing music for a living too, and like you want things to go as smoothly and simply as possible.  Why would they want to work with someone who acts like a fool, or always causes trouble for other people and is argumentative.

There’s certainly famous engineers and artists known for being complete pricks, but they’re the exception, not the rule.  You’re free to try that route, but you’re really limiting who you’ll eventually work with.  I can’t count the number of awesome situations I’ve been in because people thought I was a pretty chill, but informed guy (their words, not mine).  From being on the beta teams of some of the best gear ever made, to really awesome DJ and live gigs.  Be cool with people, and they’ll be cool to you.  Simple.

– Don’t give up.  It takes time, and there will be a lot of highs and lows along the way. When you get your first big break, you’ll feel on top of the world.  Then the reality sinks in that there’s now yet another hill to climb, another goal to achieve and maintain.  Keep at it, stay confident, have some faith that you can do it.  Keeping the proper attitude really reflects in how other people see you, the image you project of yourself.  Again, no one wants to work with the downtrodden artist who complains and whines all the time.  Stay positive!

If you have any comments you want to add, or other tips, please leave them in the blog versus posting them on any forums I linked the blog on.  One of the main reasons I created a blog when there’s already so many out there, is that I wanted a place where my friends from ALL the forums I frequent could gather to discuss music topics.

This way, everyone gets the chance to see any witty replies you might have too 😉

Peace and beats,


You have gas

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 🙂

Laptop, I love you, I hate you.

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 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.

Timeless tips

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.