Less is More
It has a nice ring to it, but…..
It’s become a cliche in almost every field of expertise, but what does this actually mean
when it comes to Music Production?
The saying can be so vague that few people really know how to apply it out in the real world.
Because of this, I thought it would be a good idea to share the areas of music production I
have applied the concept successfully in hopes this popular saying actually has some
applications for you to put into use.
This is one place where the “Less is More” philosophy really shines almost every time.
Any time that you can reduce your options in a decision making situation, the faster
you are likely to make that choice and take action.
Analysis paralysis is a symptom of too many options. Let’s apply this to running a
T-shirt business. Let’s say we have a cool T-Shirt design & we want to sell it online.
Which option do you think would lead to more sales?
1. Offering an assortment of 15 color options
2. Offering only the 3 most popular colors
Studies show that less options lead to more T-Shirt sales. Why? Because when a
customer has too many options, they are afraid of making the wrong decision. They
may be trying to choose between 4 colors that they like & thus decide to make the
decision later, or maybe waiting to get someone else’s opinion.
For anyone who runs a business, we know that when someone leaves the website,
the likelihood that they will forget about it & never return are pretty high.
So back to Music Production….
If you only have 1 or 2 compressor options in any given situation, it’s going to be
much easier to choose between them. On the other hand, if you just downloaded
15 compressors that were suggested on a music forum, what are the chances you
are going to make a fast decision? Much less.
In fact, you my be so overwhelmed that you spend all your time trying to learn, test
& compare every nuance of every option you have, thus negating the whole purpose
you sat down at your DAW in the first place. I’ll assume that purpose is to finish songs.
Compound this scenario with delays, reverbs, EQs, distortions, choruses, Synths &
all the more experimental plugins out there & now you’ve become someone trapped in
“learning” mode in fear of making the wrong decisions in “creation” mode.
I know plenty of very smart aspiring producers who probably know much more about
all the options out there, but rarely finish any music. They are too busy trying to keep
up with new technology.
This concept would be a nightmare for a band. Imagine your guitarist changing their
guitar, amp & pedal choices at every rehearsal. You wouldn’t be able to get anything
done because the guitarist would never have a consistent sound to work around &
he would never learn any of his/her equipment deep enough to be any good with it.
You are always going to come across something shiny & new, but the truth is, any
artist who has developed a recognizable sound has made a choice of a few piece
of gear & then got to work exploring how much they can get out of these few choices.
The Doors were known for that very recognizable organ sound. They perfected that
& although you might think there are other artists who had a better organ sound,
nobody can deny that they created a signature sound.
My advice is to choose your tools quickly, learn them deeply & make changes very
slowly. No one says you can’t evolve, but evolve too quick & you’re no longer creating.
What if you make a quick decision & find out it’s a mistake?
Awesome! instead of sitting there paralyzed in the decision making process, you actually
made a choice. Making a bad choice teaches you much faster than the person who makes
no choices. The great thing about making choices is that you can always choose again
if one choice doesn’t give you the result you want. Stop being a chicken!
Are you fiddling too much?
You can apply the “Less is More” approach to how much you fiddle with a sound after
you have recorded it in, whether that be recording an instrument, using a midi tool or
dragging in a sample.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love to destroy my sounds to non recognition at times, to
get the results I am looking for. That is an art in an of itself, as long as there is a
purpose to the madness.
That said, there are certainly fundamentals that applying less makes them more
direct & powerful. Each effect in the chain can run the risk of muddying or washing
out a great sound. If this is what you are going for, great, but it’s always a good idea
to bypass the effects 1 by 1 to make sure effect part of the process is improving the
If you making a PB&J with grape jelly, but you prefer strawberry, it’s a bad idea to
start with grape jelly & then pile a ton of additional ingredients to obscure the taste.
Much better to start with the ingredient you are going for at the start.
Choose your sounds wisely & you won’t need to over process them to make them
work in your song.
Less is more with EQ
One big mistake I find with many aspiring producers is they overuse boosting EQ.
If you want a great sounding mix, it’s important that instead of boosting, you are
stripping away the frequencies that aren’t needed.
If you are a sculptor, you start with a big block of stone & you chip away what is
not needed until you have the desired result. The sculptor doesn’t have the option
to add more stone to the block.
The same philosophy applies to EQing. The sound you want is already there, in most
cases, nothing needs to be added. Always ask what you can remove before reaching
for the boost knob.
If you think of your song as a box of frequencies, you would understand that only so
many frequencies can fit in the box, so in order for every sound to fit, you need to
remove frequencies from one sound so another sound can fit.
A great mix relies on the power of reduction, not addition.
When we apply “Less is More” to the number of instruments used in a song we can go
back to the box of frequencies reference. If you have fewer instruments, each instrument
can take up more space.
Why do you think a 3 piece band like Nirvana or White Stripes sound so huge? They have
room in that box to go full frequency.
If you apply this to electronic music, the fewer sounds in a track, the cleaner & clearer
each track cuts through. In most pop songs, there are less instruments happening.
This makes the melody much easier to hear as well, because nothing else is getting
in its way. Popular songs are typically pretty direct, so it’s a good idea to study what
is actually happening & what isn’t happening in a particular song.
Also, if you only have 1 main melody in a song, you can stack that with several layers
& as long as they are all playing the same thing, you get 1 massive sound. That said,
you would still need to EQ each layer appropriately to get the desired effect.
Nothing really puts the “Less is More” philosophy to the test like having a deadline.
When you have less time to finish something, all the over analyzing goes out the
window & you are forced to make quick choices & take action, even if the first
choice is wrong.
When you have more time, you tend to do much less with that time. With less
time, you are usually amazed that you are able to finish in a day or 2 what would
usually take a week or more.
Less time forces you to stop looking for more options & to use what you’ve got
to the best of your ability.
When more is more
This post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging that sometimes breaking
the rules can get some interesting & even desirable results. I love the idea of
starting with one sound & ending up with something completely & utterly unexpected
on the other end of the processing chain.
There is a time & place to pull out those tools you aren’t familiar with &
misuse them to see what you can make them do.
I will usually set aside non producing days to just record myself experimenting
with sounds with no objective but to just play. By recording the whole process of
experimentation, I will usually end up with some very interesting samples that I
can use when I return to producing mode.
Doing this during a producing session will often take you down a never ending
rabbit hole & completely derail you from your goal of finishing what you started.
I urge you to put these concept into use & see for yourself the kind of improvements
it makes to you music making. If you can let go of your desire for more options, more
tools & more time, I am certain you will be happier with your productivity.
Happy music making,