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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9 Replies to “Know Your Limitations”

  1. Awesome post. I have recently found myself struggling for ideas, and seeing as how I have a massive amount of vst’s, synth’s, and effects, i think I’ll try this.
    Thanks dude.

  2. Great blog, I find myself doing these things all the time. I think a challenge creates inspiration, no matter what limits you set but when you up the stalks and it just naturally inspires.

    Great Idea’s

  3. Top notch writing again Tarekith, once you have enough articles you need to compose a book of your wisdom 🙂

    Or you need a column, most useful advice I ever read 🙂

    Big ups!

  4. Nice column. Keep these coming. No one I can find can touch your approach … beaking down the production process and presenting in an entertaining. way.

  5. Thanks everyone, glad you find the writings entertaining. I have a whole list of ideas for future postings, so I’ll keep at it as long as I can. Don’t forget you can now subscribe to the blog via email as well, links to the upper right.

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