Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Tyranny of Choice

I remember reading an old interview with Phil Oakey on the making of the Human League's "Dare" album.    He was discussing the band using the New England Digital Synclavier and how it ended up being a hinderance because they'd waste an entire afternoon just auditioning different bass sounds instead of moving forward with the song.  This hit home with me, because I'd been guilty of doing the same thing.  Nowadays, with synths that ship regularly with thousands of presets, and hundreds of cheap or free softsynths and effects available at the click of the mouse, many of us have way more than we need.  And, perversely, it's making us less productive.  So today, I thought I'd offer some advice to help break out of this pattern.

• Have a Spring Cleaning of Your Studio/Workspace
I try to keep my studio fairly organized, but you know how it is. Receipts and invoices pile up, cords get re-routed and mixed up, and all manner of extraneous crap can invade your workspace.  It can make it unpleasant to work in, and, some believe, that disorganization may spill over into your work.  So while this doesn't have anything to do with having too many choices, I recommend it as a good first step in being more productive.  Your mileage may vary, but I always find myself more eager to work and more productive when my studio is clean and organized.

• Schedule a Spring Cleaning of Your Computer
Once a year, I sit down and have a "spring cleaning" of my plug-ins folder.  If there's an instrument or an effect that I haven't used in the past six months, it gets backed up and pulled out of my folder.  This can be hard to do at first.  It's easy to fall into the trap of "but I might need it later", but I think you'll find 9 times out of 10 you really don't.  And if you do end up needing it?  Just pull out that back-up and install it.  The benefits here are that it'll take you less time for you to find the effect or instrument you're looking for and you'll waste less time randomly trying different effects or sounds just for the sake of doing so.

• Trust Your Instincts
This is something it took me a long time to learn and an even longer time to truly implement.  When you've got so many choices in front of you, it's all too easy to waste a lot of time worrying about whether you chose the "perfect" string/bass/kick/kazoo sound.  What if there's an even better sound you could be using?! Don't get me wrong.  It's good to experiment with different sounds and effects and you can have many a happy accident this way.  But there is a point of diminishing returns where you're just spinning your wheels without any real benefit.  The same can happen with the songwriting process.  Who among us hasn't spent hours trying to find the perfect riff to accompany a bassline, only to return to what you originally had?  So try, at least initially, to be fairly quick and efficient in your decision-making process.  Don't over-analyze and beat yourself up worrying about if there's an "even better" sound you could be using.  Push forward and once you have something approaching a finished song, you can always make tweaks, if necessary.  You will probably find, however, that the song sounds pretty bitchin'.  I think the #1 thing that leads to that folder of unfinished 4-bar riffs that everyone has, is over-analysis and losing the initial spark of inspiration in a sea of self-doubt and endless auditioning.  Need evidence of this?  Guns n' Roses last album. 'Nuff said. Try the quick approach and see if it doesn't make you more productive.

• But Don't Totally Trust Your Instincts
Good instincts take time to develop for many of us.  So always have a trusted friend who will give you honest feedback regarding your music.  You don't have to agree with their opinion, but it may help you focus on some problem areas you never noticed you had.  It's extremely difficult to be objective about your own music.  So find someone who can be and let them help.  Knowing how the average person listens to your music can help you hone in on areas for improvement more quickly and can take out a lot of the guesswork that results in so much lost time.

• Impose Restrictions on Yourself
I know what you're thinking... "Musicians have dreamed of having a fully-stocked studio with every kind of instrument and effect available to them for as long as recorded music has existed.  Now that we actually have that dream available to us, we're supposed to restrict ourselves?  Screw you, Shear!"  Trust me on this one, though.  Try to impose some limits on how you're working on your current project.  Try limiting yourself to 1 or 2 synths and using those to produce all the sounds in your song.  Give yourself a time limit in which to complete a certain part of your song.  Write something using only the black keys on your keyboard.  Not only will challenging yourself in new ways make you a more well-rounded musician, but with all those choices narrowed down for you, you can concentrate on making music and getting that song across the finish line.

What are your favorite methods of being more productive?


Meta Sektion said...

Excellent essay, Tom!

To answer your question to the readers, I've found the best methods for enhancing productivity are:

1) Deadlines. Self-imposed ones are obviously not as potent as external ones, but whatever the source, any deadline that you take seriously will help to focus the mind on getting that song/track/opus finished.

2) A variant on the above is to just say "I'm gonna get something interesting done NOW" (or "today" or "tonight", depending on when you are working in the studio). Just going for it and not being precious can be exhilirating. Real-time rather than step-time input is a major help in that regard - if you've got the willingness to just slam some notes on your controller or instrument of choice, and with no audience (or inner critic) around to heckle or blow out that creative spark, the results can be very satisfying.

Anonymous said...

I simply can't overestimate the usefulness of your suggestions, Tom. Having all these VST resources along with multiple sequences and their own resources makes me engage in playing around with them for hours with no bottom line, but so rather vain satisfaction similar to that of a child playing with lego without actually building something...and with new VSTs coming out its actually getting worse...ah, all that money. More is less, I guess.

Neil said...

Great read, Tom.

To keep moving quickly I decide at the outset which instruments/vst etc are going to be used in a track and stick to it - no buts. If I can't get 'that' bass sound I want, instead of wasting time looking for a suitable preset amongst thousands, I am forced to make it with whatever I'm using (increasing my sound design skills in the process).

I also maintain a "Disabled VST" folder. Instead of uninstalling plug-ins I simply move them to the disabled folder and they are no longer available to my DAW. If I open an old project that requires one I can simply move it back to the in-use VST folder.

Joshua said...

I've been doing computer "Spring Cleaning" the past few days, myself...
I've found that even keeping things organized doesn't help much if you have a ridiculously huge VST collection...

I do what Neal does and have a disabled VST folder. I also have a "Favorites" folder in each category and have weeded out Instruments that are redundant or have less-quality sounds than my favorites.

Even among favorites, I try to find between 3-5 "Best" synths for each category of sound (Bass, Leads, Drums, Pads... or you might try different types of synthesis or whatever suits your way of thinking) and try to stick to just those. (FX categories, too). Of course if you have some quality, commercially bought synths/FX, this part is usually a no-brainer.

Aside from all of this: writing down a solid idea of what kind of sound you want a piece to have before powering anything up will save a lot of time, too. That way, you spend less time saying "what if" when you are actually putting something together. This is easier said than done, since it's actually more fun to audition things...but...

I could go on but really it all boils down to what others said: Impose restrictions. Either with deadlines or what actually gets loaded into a DAW or whatever.

A thought: Technology makes more things possible, and that's fun but one thing that gets lost on people is a sense of their own limitations. The computer isn't there to erase limitations, its there to help you create more interesting ones...