Creating music on computers is an exercise in parsing. There are limitless ways to combine sounds and instruments, mixing and matching and guessing and fussing and tweaking. Main software programs like ProTools, Live, and Logic all come with their own instruments and sounds and effects. Companies like Native Instruments and Waves and Camel Audio sell more instruments and sounds and effects. There are analog and digital external devices to add even more flexibility. Plus, recording new sounds has never been easier–a fantastic digital recorder is only a few hundred dollars, thus putting every sound within the grasp of even the most pedestrian musical adventurer.
All of this is, of course, duh. And equally duh is the fact that those choices end up being more of a curse than a blessing, since unlimited choice means unlimited uncertainty that YOUR choice is the right one. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve spent hour upon hour fiddling with the settings on an instrument, continually second-guessing my choices, convinced that THIS or THAT tweak will result in the perfect sound, only to rethink that change in favor of yet another change, and on and on until, again, duh.
And so I know that the #1 job for an electronic musician is to forcibly reduce those choices. Don’t use every instrument or sound or effect. Focus on a few. That’ll not only save time but will save sweat and blood, as well.
And so I did that: I limited myself to certain tools and tried not to go outside those tools. The trouble was, I started to create a song, and suddenly there was a sound I wanted that my limited tools could not provide. So I went back and tweaked, tweaked, tweaked, or I broke my rules and used new instruments or effects and tweaked, tweaked, tweaked.
In other words, I was addicted to the post-scarcity musical universe.
However, I found a solution to my addiction, and it came in an interesting way. I created an album, Riverrun. It’s available now. I really enjoy the songs on that album, and I hope you do too. But one thing struck me recently while listening to those tracks for the 47th time: there was too much variety. The drums sounds were different on every track. The bass and lead and pads all changed from one song to another. The is a consistent mood and feeling to the album, but within the songs, there was too much variety for my taste. I didn’t think the album really fit together as well as it could have, and I think this was caused by my unlimited choices. Since each song could use different sounding drums or whatnot, each song did use different sounding drums or whatnot.
I compared Riverrun to recent albums by some of my favorite artists–Jon Brooks’ Music for Dieter Rams, Pye Corner Audio’s Black Mills Tapes, The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, Leyland Kirby’s Sadly, the Future… These are all different in a number of ways, but the thing they have in common is each works from a singular sonic map. The songs on each album feel connected to one another, and that sense of connectivity is due largely to the fact that the songs are using only a handful of instruments, and those instruments can be heard and felt all the way through.
And, yes, you’re thinking, duh. What did you expect? When Bruce Springsteen records an album, he uses the same instruments he always does–drum, bass, guitar, keyboard, some sax, a few other things thrown in. Each album uses those elements, yet each of his albums is unique. Most artists do this–heck, almost all. But it’s easy to forget that fact when surrounded by choice after choice after choice in a computer-based environment.
So the lesson I learned was simple: treat electronic music the way that all other music is treated. Use a few instruments, and use them well.
Another side-duh I discovered recently came courtesy of a Dubspot video I was watching about some electronic artist (I don’t even remember his name now). But the video spoke about this guy’s virtuosity with a particular Roland synth. The guy is a self-taught musician, and all the music he creates comes from this synth. He’s learned how to use that instrument so well that he doesn’t need anything else. The video also mentioned how the electronic artist Squarepusher only used this one type of sampler and his bass guitar to create all his weird, wild stuff. Then I remembered that Moon Wiring Club only uses samples and some Playstation music game to create his stuff, Monolake uses only Ableton Live’s Operator synth to create a lot of his music, Pan Sonic use only analog synths they create themselves (along with a sampler), Augustus Pablo used a melodica to create most of his music, and I could go on and on. Artist after great artist pick an instrument, learn it, and use it.
Abundance was getting in the way of mastery. I had too many choices. I tried to learn too many different things instead of focusing on really learning a few.
So my plan was set: find some instruments, master them, and then use them.
The first step was finding the right instruments. And here I have decided to do a full about-face with computers and use actual hardware with real knobs and everything. I’ve found that using hardware instead of software not only limits the choices down for sound selection, but it also allows for better and more interesting improvisation. I can use automation in Ableton Live to create a semblance of improvisation, but every time I do improvise something using a softsynth, I end up editing it to death before I create a mix, and that effectively kills the spontaneity of it all.
So, what instruments? Well, first I wanted a drum machine to help me create popping noise like Pan Sonic. I wanted a real drum machine, an analog one. I found it in the Vermona DRM1 mkIII. It’s an awesome beast, and you can read all about it if you want to know more. The second had to be a synth, and here I had my choice. I ultimately went with a Meeblip, a monophonic device that creates crackly, crunchy sounds that can go anywhere from harsh noise to soft bass lines. I picked it for two reasons: it was cheap and it was simple to use. It was only an added bonus that it produces awesome sounds.
So those are my instruments. Now, bear in mind that I am still learning these instruments; I’m nowhere near mastery. And part of that process is discovering what I can and cannot do with these instruments. I have been a little concerned that the Meeblip won’t be able to generate as many of the softer, richer tones that I’d prefer to include in my music, so I have considered adding a third instrument to my collection in the form of a polyphonic hardware synth (perhaps the OP-1 by Teenage Engineering). But I’m holding back for now because I really don’t know what the limits are for the Meeblip. I know I can’t create chord progressions too well, but it can create a lot of complex sounds. How many sounds? Do they work for the music I want to create? I’m not sure yet. That’s what the learning stage is all about. The same goes for the DRM1. It only has 10 sounds total, but there are so many knobs that create so many different variations that 10 sounds might as well be 10,000,000, and while I’ve tweaked the knobs on that instrument over and over, I still find myself amazed by the variety of sounds I can produce.
I’ve started creating some music with these instruments, and I’ll be showing it off soon enough. I like where I’m headed, at least, though it has been a bit difficult to stick to my rules. I’ve actually sampled sounds from the Meeblip, put those sounds into Ableton’s Simpler or Camel Audio’s Alchemy and modified the sounds to into softer, more sustained tones. And I like the results of those songs. However, when I listen to those songs against others that used only the DRM1 and the Meeblip, I find that they don’t quite mesh the way I’d prefer, the way Pye Corner Audio’s music all meshes together so nicely. So I won’t be using those other programs any more, and I think my music will be better for it.