Every year the world becomes more complex and new technologies arrive that make certain tasks easier at the cost of hidden complexity. Life becomes easier until a software bug pops up or your OS is upgraded and breaks the link with your audio devices. It’s an inevitable process that we can’t avoid because of quarterly profits and planned obsolescence. We are flooded with more products, more choices, and more complex decisions. We search for the right melodies and chord progressions, the right studio gear, and then we must troubleshoot when things go wrong. Why isn’t this part of the song working, why isn’t my gear working?
Stephen Hawking calls this century the age of complexity. While the past has been bound by biology and physics, today is about navigating complexity and quickly making the right decisions. How can you make reliable decisions that you won’t regret? How can we make amazing music and stay in flow without overthinking the process? Here are five ways to improve your approach towards complexity in the studio.
1) Reduce your choices and reduce the variables
Sell, store, or donate unused gear. If it’s taking up physical space in the studio, it’s taking up space in your subconscious mind, so remove the clutter. Less gear means less cables, less updates, less moving parts, and less points of failure. If you don’t love it – get rid of it. Last year I switched to using CDJs from Ableton Live on tour. Instead of traveling with two laptops (one for stage, and one for production), I only bring one computer. A simple change like this means less international power adapters, less software installations, and less weight. One choice simplified things by several factors.
For composing music, work with one scale that you love, one time signature, and three or four chords. For the bridge, just change the order of the chords, rather than adding new ones. Pare down your sample libraries and synth presets by removing the sounds you don’t love, instead of endlessly scrolling through them. Move your unused plugins and applications to an unused folder. Take the time to cut the fat and remove the excess. Instead of endlessly layering sounds you’re unsure about, mute layers and boost the elements you love. Every song follows the process of elimination as you experiment and things finally click into place, but you’ve got to work quickly. Less choices will help guide your process.
A more complex song doesn’t mean it will resonate with more people, and hit songs rarely use complexity. Try to use the “Rule of Three” when writing music and strip it down to the essentials. Does your song really need to be 4 min 30 secs long? A bloated arrangement of your song can keep it from being heard and finding an audience. Is that precious 1 minute intro really worth the price of obscurity? Remember: a song is done when nothing else can be removed.
2) Return to first principles:
Challenge the default state. Make a habit of questioning the common assumptions and myths you often hear. Business as usual doesn’t cut it anymore. You don’t need a vocal booth to record great vocals, you don’t need a big expensive studio to make hit songs, and you don’t need a major label to have a music career. Yesterday’s common barriers to entry have been replaced by today’s new challenges like defining your brand, breaking through a saturated market, and engaging the new guard of digital gatekeepers. What first principles have been overlooked?
3) Encode your environment:
The brain first sees color, then shape, and then identifies meaning. Color code and label your studio cables, templates, and drives for a faster workflow. If you don’t optimize your environment, it’s like swimming upstream. Better to work with your brain’s natural processes (and tendency to conserve energy) than go against the grain. Create a nomenclature system to attach novelty to series of devices (i.e. name your hard drives after Marvel characters), write symbols on them, and color code them for categories. Label both ends of the cables so it’s crystal clear which power/data/audio/MIDI cables are attached. Chunk series of numbers, or even chord combinations in groups of 3 or 4 for easy processing.
3) Decode the units and language.
The only way to make fair comparisons between products is to compare common units, apples to apples. Are you comparing drive speeds and different connection types like Thunderbolt? Convert Mbps to MB/s. Assume that manufacturer advertised claims for CPU processing, drive transfer speed, and battery capacity are way off the mark, because they usually are. Do your own real world tests. Drag a folder of hi-res WAVs or an entire Rekordbox library to a flash drive and manually time it, rather than relying on some 3rd party benchmark software. Take your most demanding session and see how it performs on different computers. Test what matters to you because manufacturer stats are fabricated in a lab, and use deceptive terms like “speeds up to..”
4) Find the sweet spot and avoid diminishing returns
Every time I purchase a new computer, it’s tempting to splurge for the very top model – but it’s usually not worth it. Keep in mind this computer will be obsolete within a few months and likely sitting in a landfill within 10 years. Find the sweet spot where you’ll get the most bang for your buck. Check the specs and see if that additional $2000 CPU upgrade will even matter. Will DAWs like Ableton Live even take advantage of all those cores? Talk to software companies and ask hard questions before you buy hardware. Never rush into upgrading your OS before it’s been thoroughly vetted for compatibility, with the exception of small security updates.
5) Identify and invest in the bottleneck
What bottleneck in your system is worth upgrading – hard drives, memory, cables? Invest in the weakest point in your setup, before trying to squeeze out tiny upgrades with diminishing returns. A to D converters are now incredibly competitive. A $10,000 converter will not provide 10x the sound of a $1,000 converter. It’s easy to get caught up in benchmarks and speed comparisons, so think practically about your needs before spending. Do you need to have pricey Thunderbolt 3 drives to transfer audio sessions, or will that USB 3.0 drive work just fine? By understanding the real priorities you can eliminate choices that will cost you time and money.
So there you have it – 5 ways to reduce complexity. Follow these tips, and you should be able to write music faster, troubleshoot problems more efficiently, and plan for any technology speed bumps in the future.
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