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Musical Creativity: Born Out of Limitations + Restrictions

In today’s editorial piece, guest contributor Brian Funk (aka AfroDJMac) has put together a great overview of the creative process from the perspective of a musician and producer. Learn how to take advantage of limitations, set goals, and impose intentional obstacles to get the most out of yourself. Read how to force musical creativity from circumstance, fight Rapid Gear Acquisition Syndrome, and more.

Header photo credit: Emoh Instead’s (What So Not, Flume) balcony studio, as featured on Pulse Radio’s DJ Cribs Vol 1.

Good Old Days: When Technology Was The Limiter

Four Track recorder

At 15 years old, I got my hands on a four-track cassette tape recorder. With a $20 microphone and a guitar, I spent my free time recording songs, ideas, and jams. Back then, I dreamt of infinite tracks and effects, pristine quality audio, millions of sounds and samples to choose from. In the age of software DAWs, my dreams have come true. Ironically, I find myself with more unfinished tracks, half-baked ideas, and hours lost fine tuning the compression on the snare drum. What happened?

I realized that creative output was not limited by the lack of gear; it was enhanced by it. I couldn’t spend time testing different microphones for my guitar and various amp simulations. I couldn’t waste an hour compressing drums perfectly because I didn’t have a compressor. I had to use what I had available and move forward. Today, I can spend hours searching for the perfect kick drum sample only to realize that music production time is up and adult endeavors (going to work, buying groceries, doing laundry) have to happen. I leave the studio empty-handed.

Wisdom From the Wise: Musical Creativity from Limitation

“A lot of people think that creativity is about freedom, freedom to act on your ideas and imagination. But I don’t think that is true. I think true creativity comes from restriction and limitation.” – Paul Schrader, in the below video:

When there are fewer options, you must think of inventive ways around problems or just accept them and move forward. Countless times I’ve been online, lusting after new gear, (that will finally let me realize my creative visions!), only to come across an interview with an artist who is ten times as prolific as I am, using one tenth of the gear I have.

The reality is you already have everything you need. If you feel otherwise, you are experiencing what Steven Pressfield refers to as “Resistance” in his book The War of Art. Resistance is anything that prevents you from getting to work on your creative endeavor. It is logical, it is persistent, and it is completely destructive, and it lives inside of us all. Attempting to realize your creative missions is a monumental task; it is scary. Resistance knows this and will do everything in its power to prevent you from acting.

Recognize Resistance and Overcome It

Choice Paralysis - Image via http://www.thomasvan.com/
Does browsing your sample library ever feel too much like a supermarket?

Here are some common forms of resistance that musicians and producers face:

  • Paralysis by choice: Ever spent hours testing out every preset on your virtual synth? Stop it! Pick a sound and move forward. It’s better to have a song with crummy sounds that you can later change, than to have one really nice sound with no song.
  • Gear Acquisition Syndrome: “Once I get this new (insert any piece of gear), I will be able to finish my project!” Not true. You already have everything you need, don’t convince yourself otherwise. The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper’s on four track reel-to-reel machines (see video below). If you have an iPhone, you are worlds ahead of them.
  • Research and Education: Are you searching the internet and watching tutorials to learn new techniques? This is Resistance at its best, because you feel like you are being productive. In reality you are avoiding work. Stop thinking you don’t know enough; get to work!

While there are benefits from these pitfalls, they should never take the place of getting to work. Set aside some additional time to explore them; do not give up your precious studio time for them.

Setting Limitations In Musical Creativity

clock-vinyl

When I tell my high school students they can write about anything they want, they often sit there with blank pages, scratching their heads. But if I say, “Write whatever you want, but your writing must include three vocabulary words and a wild animal. It must start at the climax of the story, and the first draft is due in 30 minutes,” they are able to unleash their creativity.

Here are a few ways you can restrict yourself to set your musical creativity free.

  • Decide Your Goal Before You Begin: Maybe you want to make an ambient track using samples of ducks, or electro dance song with a sing along chorus. Decide that before you begin. I’ll be the first to admit that I love to get in the studio and “see where the vibes take me,” but usually when I do that I leave with yet another unfinished jam. By setting your sights on a goal, you will be narrowing and guiding your decisions at every step of the way.
  • Set Time Limits: If you’ve ever written a paper for school at 2am the day it is due, you know the power of time limitations. Most of us will waste time on a project until action is absolutely mandatory. When you are running out of time, you will be forced to only focus on those tasks that are most important towards completion. Check out 10 Minute Challenges from FACT Magazine, in which producers must compose a piece of music in just 10 minutes. I guarantee you won’t see anyone aimlessly searching through his or her library of 10,000 kick drums to find the perfect sample.

  • Set Gear Restrictions: Most of us have more gear, effects, and instruments than we know what to do with. Before you begin, decide what to use and be strict. Say to yourself “I will only allow myself to use a 909 drum kit, Ableton’s Operator, and AfroDJMac’s latest free Ableton Live Pack. This will force you to move forward and not get stuck trying to find the perfect sounds.

Being creative is tough and in many ways, you are your own worst enemy. Making decisions is exhausting, so do yourself a favor and limit the amount of choices. It is much easier to answer, “which Mexican restaurant do you to go to?” than “what do you want for dinner?” Limit your choices and your creativity will blossom, and ultimately, you will get more work done.

How do you set limitations and goals for yourself when DJing or producing?

Let us know your productivity tricks in the comments below. 

  • Chase Caffey

    Great read – Thanks for the post Brother!

  • Chase Caffey

    Torley! Hey bro I entered Sean Divines contest with you (also downloaded your Album from it) – I was reading this article and thought it was fun to see you on here, small world this internet of ours eh?

    Anyways I agree with you as well AfroDJMac.. Finished products bring new and fresh ideas! Don’t get lost in the “What If’s”!

    – Aloha,

    Chase Caffey

  • I can attest that limitations are a boon to my productivity as well as creativity. The more free time I have, the less I end up producing. Great article and discussion! Best to all, Shan 🙂

    • Yea I totally agree. I’m a high school teacher by day, and I have summers off. During the school year, I’m really pressed for time, so it is more valuable. I get a lot done oddly enough. I force myself to get to work.
      During the summers, time feels limitless, and I know I can wait to a little later. After the beach, I go out to eat instead and work later, I’ll meet up with some friends first and then get to work…. WRONG! When something isn’t precious you don’t mind wasting it. Think of how differently you would bathe or wash dishes if you had a major water shortage.
      Creating our own limitations and rules seems to be a necessity.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the article, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • looper1

    Excellent article. Thank you

  • Peter

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  • nucleartoaster

    #truestory

    i have been suffering from resistance and didnt even know.

    will give a shot to the idea of limitation. maybe ill get more stuff done

    • Good luck! We often lose our flow when making decisions. If you can eliminate decisions you can get to work!

  • Chris

    btw: true creativity
    i heard about some muses. The one for Music is named „Euterpe“.

    (maybe you had to by an special candle, or stuff like this

  • Quenepas

    Super agree on this in particular to get “bogged down by options”. Several months ago I did a “Top 10 free VST’s” and STILL haven’t even touched like 8 on them and I think I’ll never go over their full sonic possibilities either. With time and creativity you could make several multigenre albums with those free VSTs.

    • So true, I have a download folder loaded with things I’ve found over the last few months, and I still haven’t even gotten to them.

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  • sammsousa

    overall good article. but i dont if i agree with ALWAYS having a goal when starting a session. there are plenty of times where i start without an idea, but when i find a good sample or so, i let that decide in which direction the track should go. and only then will i decide what the final product should be.

    • I wouldn’t say ALWAYS. If I did, I’d be a liar! There are lots of times when I’ve gone in with no real expectation and caught an interesting wave that I never would have found with a set plan. But, probably more often, I wind up with another unfinished 8 bar loop.

  • Richard Schmidt

    This completely sums up my problem with music production. I have golden ears and can’t stand even the 300 kick drums in my library so I never produce anything. Of course, that could just be a glorified excuse for having no talent.

    • I know what you mean about the kick drums! I’ve spent sessions just cycling through them and getting nothing done. It’s a battle, or as Steven Pressfield says a War!

  • BoldFaceType

    Great article. I whole-heartedly agree. I have a terrible case of gear envy and I waste a lot of time dickin’ around on the web doing exactly what you describe. Reading about doing cool stuff instead of *doing* cool stuff. Seminal classics have been written on the most basic gear. I have a LaunchPad S, LaunchControl, and Abelton Live 9.5 *LITE*. If all I do for the next year is focus on mastering the included instruments in the LITE version (DrumRack Impulse and Simpler) I’ll be far ahead of most producers. That’s everything I need to make a hit album or viral single. Sure there will need to be some work-arounds (8 tracks *is* limiting but not unworkable, Would love the multi-band comp, EQ-8, the looper and limiter too, but I can find some really good equivalents as free VSTs). LaunchPad95 is free and offers Push like functionality. Massive is great, but if the trend eschews presets for sound design than I think learning basic synthesis, and getting the most of out of a solid, free, VST synth would ultimately be more valuable. And for productivity, I’ve got Melodics, the free lessons are enough to get you pretty decent at finger-drumming, and there’s Weekly Beats which has been a God-send. You make a track every week, upload it to the website and once the deadline passes you can listen and comment to everyone’s submission. Wash, rinse and repeat. By the end of the year you should be a much better producer, in addition to having more than enough tracks to mine for a good debut EP/LP. Back to work…

    • Very true. The resources and tools are out there, and likely already in your computer. It’s a matter of putting the nose to the grindstone and getting to work. Sounds like you have a good attitude. I’ll have to check out weekly beats. Thanks!

      • BoldFaceType

        I got a little off the subject here. My whole point was that the
        limitations of Abelton LITE got me thinking more creatively about how to overcome those constraints. It’s the same when I’m actually producing. When I listen to producers like RZA, 9th Wonder, DJ Shadow, RJD2 and find out how much was done with so little, I realize that “unlimited” often has the same effect as “blank page syndrome”. Too much choice can be paralyzing. Limitation, in my opinion, is what inspires creativity for most people. Case in point, should you write a follow up to this excellent piece, I would suggest you include a challenge. Maybe a sound pack to remix with some limitations like: 8 tack max, 2 plug-in max, or some such.

        • I’ve been toying with similar ideas lately. It’s really helped me get stuff done. I’d like to do something like that. Been thinking about that a lot lately!
          Cheers!

          • Beats Walking By

            Nice piece, thanks for sharing. I am very much a victim of too much. I decided to limit my self to just the launch pad pro and 2 Novation controllers. The simplicity and lack of clutter has made my work environment more inspiring. Also stopped buy more VSTs and sound libraries. My new goal is to post a new track every week and see what happens from there. Making a to do list helps.

          • That’s a great challenge! Good luck!

  • Brian AKA AfroDJMac, this is a really beautiful and practical article. Thank you for sharing your perspectives.

    I’m glad you mentioned some of the behavioral psychology aspects that play a role in the creative process (or lack thereof when one is feeling blocked). Removing decision fatigue is a HUGE factor in being creatively uninhibited with a productive flow. Have you seen this article by Neal Stephenson? It talks about the importance of being able to focus http://bit.ly/1WgrTPI

    I’ve also found wabi-sabi http://bit.ly/1WgrWuP to be very useful. Sometimes half-baked ideas become the seed that fertilizes a mighty tree, or even a forest. Forgive yourself. Instead of seeking some sort of abstract and unattainable “ideal” of perfectionism, I choose to execute rapidly and lessen the roundtrip between internal conception and external delivery. Setting up an optimized workflow and being deep-versed in key tools is crucial to this, because it supports being able to experiment and be playful. (Which is not the same as feeling frustrated when you are meandering and not enjoying the journey.) A synth master like Vangelis realized the importance of this, and his style is based on being able to improvise as close to completion as possible — there are merits to step-time programming, but I feel especially with electronic musicians, realtime expression and performance is overlooked.

    Another thing I’d like to emphasize is: be self-aware of advice you see out there in the world, and be very critical about whether it truly works for you. A few misleading words can give someone (especially a newcomer) a very distorted and unhealthy misunderstanding of the field. There are overly reductionist aphorisms like “tools don’t matter” which aren’t helpful. Of course they matter, and cultivating a healthy relationship with toolmakers is vital to furthering our art — let them know you appreciate their instruments/effects, give feedback to improve the tools so they fit you better!

    And when in doubt, Oblique Strategies! http://bit.ly/1WgsDUM

    • Love that idea of Wabi-Sabi. Very interesting, and could certainly make one less hard on himself. Oblique Strategies are very helpful, kind of remind me of the Magic 8-Ball. Check out this site that gives you a random strategy every time you load the page: http://stoney.sb.org/eno/oblique.html
      Great article by Stephenson, I’ve never seen it. Thanks! I think I use email as an excuse to feel productive without really doing anything. It’s easy and has a little thrill to it. But if at the end of the day all that I’ve done is check email, that’s kind of a sad day. Thanks for sharing that!

  • Dubby Labby

    Fast prototyping mind. Do what you can with what you have at hand now then show us (the world) something at the next meeting point (jam or whatever), take feedback for improvement until it get ready (worth the penny) to record it into dead medium (including live video recording) and back to Start…

  • Pingback: Musical Creativity: Born Out of Limitations + Restrictions – dPico AUDIOS()

  • Great article, some really nice tips. Thanks for the Liberatum film too!

    • Thanks Tarekith, Love your work man!

  • Victo

    Nice article, it resumes perfectly why i din’t finish some project.
    Next gear to buy : a countdown and a finish line 🙂

    • Don’t feel alone, we all go through it!

  • Agree totally on many points here. At first it is normal to surf around catching every wave, then later you become more selective.
    I break the whole process down into different sections and have learnt to be aware when the right time is to do these sections.
    1. Listening to music.
    2. Creating samples and phrases. (Using iPad for this as I can be anywhere and create).
    3. Use just one machine to create a heap of loops and collections of sounds that can be later arranged with other machines to create my live set. If required sit down in a session and just load samples onto samplers that need new or more samples.
    4. Sit down with Ableton and create my live effects environment and map to controllers.
    5. Hook up machines I want to only focus on for the next live project and begin to organise the patterns that go together. Do this through jamming the different patterns together and fine tune and adjust.
    6. When I am happy with the patterns I then jam and record those patterns and listen back to them to get further ideas and adjust.

    • I love the idea of separate session for separate jobs. I often find myself one minute motivated to, say, create presets on a synth, then suddenly inspired to start writing a song, then suddenly inspired to record it. A lot of times I end up starting a little bit of everything and following through on nothing! Great advice, thanks 🙂

      • Cool 😉
        The aim is to always have positive output for finished tasks. This way every step is completed and it makes you feel good. Even down to the point of sitting down with one app on the iPad for an hour and catching a heap of samples is a positive output that leaves you feeling like a win!

        • Dubby Labby

          Live looping with LoopyHD later load these into remix decks or Ableton… 😉

        • Beats watching an hour of TV

  • Erin Tarn

    I think one of the issues with treating every creative endeavor as one that must bring about a finished product is running into stress from not ‘completing’ anything. I’m not advocating abandoning your passion but perhaps sometimes we can lust after gear and noodle around with expensive plugins and not have to reach any destination.

    I believe the biggest limiter of creativity has been the ‘Save’ button (or whatever version of this mechanic fits the era: cassette tapes, records, etc.) that takes the emphasis away from performance and makes it more about creating products.

    • That’s a great point. There is a real joy in just pointlessly and aimlessly playing. l really love playing a new piece of gear. It’s one of the things I love most about making music. I’m definitely guilty of feeling like I should have something to show for my time spent with music. But sometimes the experience should be the end in itself. Maybe it is a symptom of the world we live in, where capturing an event is just as, if not more, important as experiencing it. Certainly food for thought.
      I hear you on the Save button too. I’d like to throw in another culprit, Undo. The Elektron Analog Rytm at first drove me crazy because its undo functionality was kind of weak. But now I sort of appreciate the fact that it forces you to commit.

      • Dubby Labby

        I bias this with loopyHd performing. Live looping at home preparing the backing tracks for my songs at home but with some room in live gigging to add new layers or full improvisation from the void without goal other than enjoy playing and share the joy with my surrounding space…