What would you say if I offered you a piece of technology that never ran out of batteries, had unlimited undo yet has no electronics, never needed an upgrade, only cost a few dollars, and was future-proof? You’d probably buy it in a heartbeat right? It’s the simple pencil, and it’s a 500-year-old technology that we still use every day. In an era of digital disposability, where a social media platform is here today gone tomorrow (see Vine, MySpace, and Friendster).
All your devices eventually end up in a landfill, but analog is forever. Server space costs money and those ephemeral digital assets you take for granted are wiped clean. They aren’t yours anymore unless you saved local copies, yet analog media persists. In Walter Isaacson’s new book – he takes you into the mind of Leonardo Da Vinci, analyzing his journals, revealing his process, emotions, and his genius in intimate detail. Da Vinci wrote in mirror-script Italian, so you need a translator, but the point is he laid everything bare – journaling until his very last day. His journal of 20,000+ pages lasted over 500 years! What if he had kept everything to himself? I love the African proverb – “When a man dies a library burns.” Oral tradition isn’t enough – you need to record and preserve it in ink or pencil.
Da Vinci’s Journal
In the past, analog music gear that we now describe with so much nostalgia had a lot of pain points and inevitable friction in the recording process. Hardware synth presets couldn’t be saved, sampling time was non-existent, MIDI wasn’t invented yet, tuning was unstable, some synths would even catch fire (the infamous CS-80), and most cost more than a car. A Synclavier went for $200,000. Vinyl required painstaking mastering so the needle wouldn’t jump out of the groove. Tape required huge machines and lots of maintenance, and editing required a razor blade. Recording technology and digital instruments were a pain compared with the simplicity of an acoustic guitar. Those analog limits inspired creativity, but now we have cheaper, more efficient tools.
Now with our new digital tools we’ve advanced much farther and the quality is better than ever. But something is missing. We’re spending more time clicking, troubleshooting, and upgrading software. We take the old analog tools for granted, but we don’t have to choose. We can use both! We don’t have to live in the 2D world of software. There is huge value to the 3D knobs on the interfaces of analog synths. It may be slower than assigning a macro that controls 20 variables, but sometimes slower is better and it provides focus to the task at hand. But why go analog? Isn’t that backwards? It turns out there are massive gains from using analog tools for the creative process. So let’s dive in and look at 5 ways you can use analog methods to improve your process.
Above: analog tools from the excellent Baum Kuchen store
1) Create An Analog Workspace:
In “Steal Like An Artist,” Austin Kleon describes creating a dedicated “analog space” in your work area, free of digital distractions. The idea is to use this analog zone as your sandbox and keep the digital domain at bay somewhere else in the room. Think of the analog workspace as a zone where ideas germinate (Check out the excellent podcast Hurry Slowly) and develop. The process is messy and non-linear, but playful and productive. We are more free to make mistakes and the brain can relax. Later with digital tools we can capture, edit, revise, and share our creations. But the real juicy part of the creative process happens at inception – where ideas mingle, merge, and mutate into new forms. Analog tools often work best for this stage.
2) Journal To Clear Your Mind:
Use a notebook to write morning pages, to-do lists, questions, and worries. Handwriting vs typing achieves a very different result because it’s slower and activates the brain in different ways. Lists are also great for keeping lyric ideas and phrases in one place. I call these “song seeds,” and will often write them down in a notebook and digitize them later. I like keeping one small pocket-size notebook handy for ideas (less rude or distracting than using your phone while with friends) and one large legal notebook for morning pages and massive to-do lists. I’ll use the morning and evening to really embrace these analog methods as they help clarify my thinking and provide creative momentum.
My favorite method for brainstorming an album release, song lyrics, studio changes, or pretty much any topic is mind maps. These non-linear bubbles organically develop from a central idea. These are great to start in pen, and later can be digitized with programs like Realtime boards that will automatically scale and re-size digitally, since you’ll often run out of physical space as ideas develop on paper.
4) Physical knobs and Dual Controls:
The knobs of hardware synths will inspire you to create new sounds and change the way you approach synthesis. Twisting different combinations of knobs will offer different results than soft synths, and the constraint of using two hands vs assigning macros will provide clarity and focus. It’s also more intuitive working with two hands rather than clicking with one finger. My favorite technique while I’m DJ’ing is to combine two knob movements to create a new effect. For example: I’ll raise the reverb effect level on the DJ mixer (DJM900 Nexus2) while shortening the room size to create a unique pitch shifting effect. This is great for adding tension and smoothing transitions between songs.
5) Use Controllers:
Step back from the computer and use a hardware controller like Ableton Push or Native Instruments Maschine. These provide a more tactile approach, while working in tandem with your DAW. These can dramatically change how you program beats (especially velocity), structure chord voicings, and modulate plugin parameters with more humanlike expression. It’s often faster to perform automation changes with a knob rather than clicking them in with the mouse. Using a dedicated workstation can provide focus, since your computer will often distract you with crashes, update notifications, and other flow-killers.
6) Label favorite presets on the synth:
Use painter’s tape with a Sharpie or a china pencil right on the surface – to mark your favorite presets on the synth. Later you can remove the tape and store in a notebook, if you change your mind or want to archive them. China pencil marks can easily be rubbed off without damaging the surface. It’s more intuitive to have your preset favorites on the actual synth than on your computer.
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