I like working within limitations when I make music, often creating my own self-imposed restrictions as a means to help spur on creativity. It also has the nice benefit of really forcing you to learn your gear, something I’ve talked about on the blog a lot over the years.
But a lot of people still struggle with finding a workflow they like when working with a limited set of tools, especially if they are coming from a modern DAW with near endless track counts, plug in options, and storage space to work with. Just because you have less to work with, either in terms of quantity or quality of tools, doesn’t mean you still can’t write incredible sounding songs.
As someone who spends a lot of my time writing music on portable devices like tablets and hardware grooveboxes, I’ve had to deal with restrictions a lot over the last few years. Here’s some of the strategies I’ve used to keep the writing process fun, while still getting results I’m happy with at the end of the day:
1. Drums. Most people these days take advantage of endless track counts to have all of their drum sounds on separate tracks, often with busses to process certain groups of drums sounds. Flexible yes, but not always practical if you’re using something like an iPad.
Instead try bouncing down all your drums to a single stereo track, treat them as loops and not individual sounds. It forces you to commit to a drum balance early on, uses a LOT less resources, and will teach you new ways to edit your drums for things like fills and drops. Or maybe just use simpler drum patterns, make the rhythms less of the focus of the song and concentrate on the other instruments instead.
2. Effects. We all have our favorite effects plug-ins, go to goodies that are unique or just special sounding. But often times CPU usage is a concern, or we just don’t have those tools on the platform we’re using. Instead we have to rely on the plug ins that came with the host, or are built into the hardware to do the same tasks. I’d never try and say that you can get the same results with simpler effects, but with a bit more time and some finessing, you can often get pretty close!
Alternatively, many synths (software, hardware, iOS, etc) have built in effects that we can leverage instead. Often these are extremely CPU light, and if nothing else they offer a different flavor to whatever plugins the host device might have. Try getting as close as you can with the effects built into the synth, and then you can capture those and free up even more CPU when you….
3. Bounce to audio right away. Live synths driven by MIDI tracks are much more CPU intensive than the same result recorded to audio. The sooner you can record the results to audio for arranging and tweaking, the sooner you can use that processing power for the next sound in your composition.
4. Limit tracks. Often we have no choice on this one, the device we’re using will have limited track counts in the first place. But even if you don’t have that in place, try forcing yourself to only work with 8, or even 6 tracks or less when writing your song. It forces you to eliminate all of the normal fill and arrangement techniques you might use, and instead focus on getting your message across as simply as possible. A technique that will come in handy even when you go back to your normal way of composing.
5. Write shorter songs. Often when I’m writing on something other than the studio DAW, I find that I gravitate towards shorter songs. It’s easier on the CPU, minimizes how much storage space you need for your audio and samples, and helps you to focus on finishing the song instead of tweaking it endless.
It’s also a really good way to play with new arrangement ideas, since many of the more common arrangements don’t work as well when you only have 2-3 minutes in the song. kind of hard to find space for multiple breaks downs, or long drawn out intros when working with a shorter song structure!
None of these are particularly earth-shattering tips I know, and most are quite obvious. But if you ever find yourself working on music with limited tools away from the studio, maybe one of these will help you to look past the limitations. Give yourself a chance to work in a new way, and often you’ll find yourself creating music much different than you normally would!
On that note, back to working on my iPad track….