I just got back from a fantastic trip to Berlin, Germany. I did lots and met some wonderful people, but the central purpose of the trip was to attend Ableton's new music event, Loop. Top to bottom, this conference was fantastic. Each talk was really inspiring, they had excellent live music all three nights, and it was the best networking event an electronic musician could ask for. Attendees were gently screened; you were only given the opportunity to buy a ticket if you could demonstrate that you are actively making music. Everyone I met was tremendously talented at something. The range was from really good to total badass. If you can get a ticket to the next one, just click pay and find a way to get yourself there.
I took a lot of notes and put them into Evernote on the plane ride home. There was a lot to be inspired by there, but now that I'm home it is time to share.
These are 10 of the most potent themes that kept coming up over and over and over. There's a loop joke in there somewhere. Hopefully you get as much out of this as I did.
1. Creativity comes from limits. This made it into just about everything I went to and took some heavy cues from Dennis DeSantis's book. It is important to have some concept of what you can do or what to do, but it is equally important to take some things off the table. I really enjoyed Matthew Herbert's thoughts on this. He lectured on how he has used a "creative manifest" to set his limits successfully. This is a really, really simple thing to do. You just write some constraints you want to explore before you even crack open the lid on the laptop. Keep it simple and don't spend a lot of time. Just get out a pen and paper and go. The reason this works is because as soon as you get busy on the computer, the software is subtly making suggestions that are at best an annoyance. At worst, they can completely take the wind out of your sails and derail any creative effort. Setting your terms ahead of time counteracts this to an extent.
For example, you open Ableton and by default it has the project set up to be in 4/4 at 120 BPM with lots of preloaded settings in any effect or soft synth you're going to open. Instead of fighting this, take the 30 seconds to (at the least) decide what meter and tempo YOU want to write at, then set the DAW up and stick to what you decided to do. Same thing goes for opening up a synth and immediately playing on the first preset that comes loaded up. Don't let the tools dictate what you make. Maybe even take some time to make 2 or 3 template projects that fit your manifest. The tools are better than ever and have less limitations than ever, but this can actually be a problem that smothers your artistic intentions. Try different ways of limiting yourself, but make sure they're your own.
Below are some examples of limitations that have helped me make stuff. Combine and manipulate as needed.
- Limiting the number of tracks I can use. If I can't make 8 tracks sound great, adding 8 more won't help. This track uses just three layers of audio and a global effect rack (hence the name)
- Using a preconceived form
- Making a track without quantizing anything
- Quantizing random events, noise, or banging on a piano.
2. People take physical presence more seriously.
So freaking much is possible these days with communication technology. I have a weekly Skype call with the Lucerne Festival Alumni Content Managers who collectively reside on three continents. It is amazing that this is even possible and opens some interesting doors. But, there is really no substitute for being physically in the same room as someone. The Skype/Facetime thing is great when presence isn't possible, but we should always try to make physical presence happen where we can. I made it a priority to meet with a few of the Lucerne Content Managers in Berlin because I thought it was an important thing to do. One of the principles behind Loop was that getting 400 producers together in one place will lead to special connections that can't happen exclusively online.
This even extends to physical objects. Stephan Schmitt (founder of Native Instruments) made it a point to develop physical hardware after another software project did not catch on quite as much as he had hoped. As Young Guru mentioned in another talk, the problem with plugins is not that they sound bad. It is that we're less inclined to play around with something that lives inside a computer. We like to play with tangible objects. The thinking behind the development of NI's Maschine is that by asking the creator to invest both money and space in a piece of hardware, he or she will also invest more time and creative energy. I have the original Ableton Push* and absolutely love it for this reason, it's so simple to just plug it in and be jamming in a minute or two. It physicalizes all those plugins just sitting on the computer.
*At the last talk, they announced the Push 2 which I've since had some time to play with. It is even better.
3. If you are not good at problem finding, your problem solving abilities don't mean much.
This one is a little more self explanatory. If you are the best problem solver in the world, it really means nothing if you are misguided in how to apply that skill set. Stomping on the gas pedal of a fast car and driving in a random direction does not get you to the destination you want.
For example, in Katharina Ernst, Kiran Gandhi, and Zach Danziger's talk on the relationship between acoustic and electronic/programmed drumming, Zach mentioned that the balance between different elements of a drum beat can have a drastic influence on our perception of how time flows. If something is out of wack with the time feel, it is really tempting to just start moving notes around on the grid when actually the solution is to adjust levels and not move a single note. Perception of a problem does not always clearly point to the root.
4. It's easier than ever to make vapid music, but making the good stuff is still hard.
We are all swimming in so many presents and nifty pieces of software that are more powerful than ever. You can make a whole record of electronic music without ever having to do ANY sound design yourself. Some people argue for this, some against it, it is one of those things that really has no right or wrong answer. Somewhere on YouTube there is a video floating around of a guy making a very vanilla trap track just by placing canned trap samples on a grid, without listening to it, then hitting play at the end. The results weren't good music at all, but everything was in key and relatively in time. Maybe do a quick mix and it could blend in with a DJ set without clearing the dance floor. But that's not artistic at all. Don't do things like this. This is why so many tracks on Soundcloud within a genre sound so similar. Sometimes presets are convenient time savers and sometimes we need to make things by hand to avoid sounding too formulaic and predictable. What makes one an artistic effort and the other a joke is how much risk is actually being taken. How much of yourself are you actually exposing just by throwing together some canned samples? I'd say very little, and that can be heard in the music. But then again, this is really up to the discretion of the artist.
The old maxim is still very, very true. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
5. Make stuff often and accept that a lot of it won't be good. (But only publish when it is.)
Again, only publish the good stuff. Be critical. That process of questioning things, holding them into a bright light to examine them is part of making good art. But it is also really dangerous to do that so much that we never practice finishing things. It is a waste to practice starting projects and then floundering until we start yet another project we aren't going to finish. I think it is healthy to finish tracks often and practice the entire process of producing. Not all of it will be awesome. Some of it might downright suck. That's a normal, healthy part of the risk taking necessary to making great things.
But, when it comes to promoting things, only publish when you have something you really believe in. I'm very much guilty of putting things up on the internet that were not at all ready for primetime and I hope to Jesus and all things holy that they aren't mirrored somewhere (they probably are). Avoid my mistake. So many people are taking the route of just throwing things up on the internet to see what happens. Now that I know a bit more about how things work, I'm sorry I ever did it. Also, its a MUCH nicer place to be in when you have a bunch of material to pick from and need to decide what is best rather than having a handful of clumsy tracks that you put on Spotify, just because.
6. Commit to things by any means necessary. Use deadlines, deliberately pick equipment that is difficult to use, leverage social pressure, whatever you want, really. The principal is the same. Since we can save and undo endlessly, it is easy to go in circles when we must move linearly to get anything done. This came up over and over again and part of each artist's work was how they forced themselves to commit to things.
Team Supreme did it with a beat making contest. There are limits (see #1) and a deadline to turn in a one minute piece of music. Over time, this made everyone become much better because they were finishing things often, always moving from A to B, not dancing around A endlessly.
James Holden uses lots of analog synths to force commitment. No presets, no save button, no undo button, and they're not always predictable even for people who know what they're doing. Sometimes you bump a knob and that beautiful sound is lost forever. No matter what you do, you can't get it back. They demand that you are completely in the moment. James being the brilliant guy he is also has a way of tracking tempo from a live musician so he can improvise along in time. Oh, also, Improvising in real time is a GREAT way to force commitment. You have another musician relying on you for input in the moment.
7. Don't ask people what they think of your music. Just play it for them and watch. If they like it, you'll see it before they say anything. When they do speak, you'll undoubtedly hear the enthusiasm in their voices. When people dig music, they immediately want to share. Good music is a powerful connector between people so you will not need to ask for praise, only criticism.
I was really lucky to have had one of my tracks played at a listening session moderated by patten of Warp Records. The audience to be critiquing it was entirely other producers. I'd be lying if I told you my heart wasn't pounding when I saw my USB stick get picked out of the pile. But it went well. I had some useful feedback, both positive and negative. More importantly, I learned just as much by watching everyone's behavior as it played. Several guys were nodding their heads along with the tune. A few made it a point to seek me out and meet me. They wanted to tell me how much they enjoyed it. What they said was helpful, but seeing a reaction and an urge to connect said much more.
Young Guru told a fun story about this, from the reverse perspective. He was working with an artist who was trying to pursue a lame idea and wasn't budging on it. Guru had to physically remove him from the studio, play the track for a local dance party, and have him watch people leave the dance floor. This is obviously a huge problem if you're making tracks to be played in hip hop clubs. The idea just wasn't mean't to be and nobody had to say anything. Their bodies did all the talking.
Speaking of ideas..
8. Don't get too attached to your ideas.
Going along with #7 and contrasting #6, just accept that ideas are cheap and abundant. And lots of them won't work. Or you won't be able to make them work for whatever reason. Life gets a lot easier if you can crank out lots of ideas and move on when something isn't looking good rather than cling to something that was maybe doomed from the start. Don't be SO committed to finishing something that you end up trying to polish a turd.
For example, my original concept for Monat Mai was just too expensive, technical, and complex for me to pull off. It still is. This is totally fine. Maybe one day I'll be able to do it but for the moment I have lots of other interesting places to take the project that are within my reach.
9. The stuff that seems kind of boring and formulaic to you might be REALLY exciting to other people. Most of the time, I'm not particularly excited about the fact that I'm a bass player. I get excited about making music, collaborators, certain pieces, opportunities, but not by the fact that I am able to consistently have some control over the sounds I make with a bass. I've been waking up and doing it almost every day for over a decade. At this point, I can say I've played instruments well for the majority of my life. But for people who don't come from an instrumental background, couldn't ever master an instrument, or who simply work in a different genre most of the time, the fact that I can play classical music and improvise is incredible to them. I can go warm up on my worst day and these people will think it's amazing. They can probably have the same effect on me with their skills that aren't part of my daily life. This doesn't make anyone better or worse, just differently talented. This is where working with collaborators of different backgrounds and having a diverse circle of friends can really be helpful. The perfunctory quirks of one person's day could be inspiring and enlightening to someone else.
It was particularly eye opening to hang with the controller people. Folks who primarily build and/or play controllers. Some of these people are inventing other worldly ways of playing electronic music and talk about it very casually. It is literally all in a day's work for them, but for someone who focuses quite a bit on one instrument with a really traditional interface, this work is mind blowing.
10. Doubts and failures are essential to making great music. If you think everything you make is awesome, you're either an extremely rare genius or need to re-evaluate your quality control. If you aren't failing or doubting yourself, you aren't taking risks. If you aren't taking risks, you're probably writing very square, safe music. You won't make anything new. It was a great reminder to watch so many brilliant people speak so candidly about their failures. They don't make great music and products in spite of the failures, they make these things because of the failures. It is the same lesson I had in art class when we would make things out of clay and fire them in the kiln. Not all of the clay bowls we made held up in the heat of the kiln. The only way you learn how to make something that lasts is having a few projects crack and explode in the fire, figure out why that happened, then go build it again and again until it is right.
Robert Henke put it really well. Failure and success are not opposites, they're siblings. Hell, the title of his talk was "Failure = Success".
So there you have it. I hope anyone who reads this decides to go and get their hands dirty making something. Today.