The power of immediacy & how to develop your sound
I am always thinking about the creative process. Especially when things aren’t working. In fact, recently I’ve been working on a song that’s been kicking my butt (yes, it still happens to me) and I have had to ponder why that is. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve got strengths and weaknesses in my own creative process.
See, I come from a background of being a guitar player with a fascination for electronics (well, actually my first interest was playing drums after seeing a local band playing The Clash – Police on my back, but that’s another story. Thank god I couldn’t afford drums, I would have been awful, but back to the story..). By the time I was in high school, I wanted to be a synth player, but my dad was a guitarist & gave my a pretty cool (and somewhat rare) electric guitar, so that’s what I played… for a while.
The thing about guitar, versus synths is that there was an immediacy to it. I didn’t have to dick around so much with the sound (in fact, most of the songs I played were variations of about 5 or 6 presets I made). Once I had an idea, I immediately was able to play it with a satisfying sound. I realized that once I had a good tone, I could play endless ideas. This meant that I never really bothered with much sound design at all. I had my tone & I knew it would always work within the sound of my band.
At that time, I never had gear lust & never felt the need to upgrade my equipment. I was happy just writing songs. Later, when incorporating synths in my band, I mostly used tweaked presets from my Roland U220. I had a Juno-106, but I mainly used it as a controller. It wasn’t that I didn’t love it, but that it was easier to just plug my headphones into my sound module. I couldn’t really afford the equipment necessary to be able to hear more than the U220.
So that was it, my guitar and 128 sounds. I accepted my limitations equipment wise & talent wise, and just got on with it. It was a productive time.
That began to change when I fell in love with fully electronic club music. So many sounds, so many choices. So much excitement. So much to learn.
So I was in a situation that I would guess many of you are in. In my case, I didn’t realize there was a problem until I tried to write with the same immediacy as I did when I played guitar.
Guitar is like Vanilla, not because it’s bland, but it pretty much will go with anything & still sound reasonably good. Making electronic music was a different beast altogether.
Just because something sounded great on it’s own, didn’t mean it would fit with other sounds in a mix. In fact, picking the right sounds had become the greatest contributor to whether a song would sound amazing or like total crap. You can have amazing musical ideas, but if you put the wrong sounds together, it’ll sound amateur & nobody will play your song.
Guitar bands have it easy I realized. A couple guitarists, a bass player, drums & perhaps synths. That’s your sound palette. Once you dial in your sound, it will pretty much always work. Every player is showing up with 1 main preset & a few variations & it just works.
For the most part, if a song is good, people except the tones whether it’s over produced of lo-fi as part of the bands style. Sometimes just vocals & an acoustic guitar is all you need.
Not so much with club music.
You need the right sounds that work on a dance floor & your production skills better be top notch as well.
Where people in bands learn their 1 instrument inside & out, many producer/DJ’s have to be a one man band excelling in all the instruments, while attempting to create a unique sound palette out of the literally millions of choices. Also, there is always the temptation to try to recreate someone else’s sound palette, but this puts you at a disadvantage. They’ve had a lot of trial & error getting their palette just right & when you fumble around jumping from 1 palette to another, you run a serious risk of always sounding like a budget version of the real thing.
Being a teacher can be pretty tricky as well, because I always want to share new approaches to making music that will inspired you, while at the same time trying to keep focused on perfecting my own sound palette.
If there is one thing I have learned through my long music career, it’s to choose the thing you want to get really really good at & don’t lose focus. You can only get better at your thing when you stop trying to switch your style every time you hear a song you love. Of course you can be influenced and I would encourage that, but just imagine trying to get into a band that didn’t develop a sound. 1 song sounds like Led Zepplin, the next like The Cure & the next song was dubstep. Even if all the songs were decent, you wouldn’t give anybody anything unique to grab on to. I’ve been guilty of this as well, so I know how hard it can be to make a firm decision on what you want people to remember you for.
You can always change you mind, or do side projects with other producers but doesn’t it make sense to get really good at one thing instead of average (or below average) a several things?
If you are still struggling to find your sound, I suggest you start to build your palette. Imagine you are creating your own sound module. This is going to be the only piece of equipment you make music on.
Now what would your module need? I can’t speak for you, but I can make some suggestions:
Now, your job is to find sounds that work great together. Be less concerned with doing your own sound design for now & instead, find & tweak presets you have in your library. Try making 3-5 of each category & test them with eachother. If something is not working nice with the other sounds, it either needs to be tweaked, or it needs to go. Soon enough, you will have all the sounds you need to make music & will have dialed in the proper EQ’s and effects that work with your style. If you want a really good way to get your Palette built quickly, you may want to consider my Ableton Master Template.
When you reach this point, you will have the immediacy you need for making music much more quickly, with the confidence that this sound palette will work for you time & time again. You can always expand your palette of course, but the more gradually this happens, the more proficient you will be with your tools.
Think of it like DJing with Vinyl (no flame wars ok? OK? Good). You had to choose wisely which records to bring, because you could only fit so many in your case. This meant that you got to learn these songs inside and out while slowly rotating new songs in & choosing which had to go.
So where are you at? Have you built yourself a workable template or are you drowning in an ocean of sound possibilities?
The way you answer that question might make or break your future in this industry.
Happy music making,