I want to give you an exercise to try to show you new ways to think about your music. Some of the best artists in history have found new ways to create when they are restricted by certain circumstances. Use limitations to see how far you can get to your desired goal. Use what you already have to work around these limitations. Come up with new ways to achieve those results you normally get with special tools that you have. We can get lazy and stuck in a rut because we are too comfortable. Restrict yourself to grow as an artist.
Think about all the great music made in all of history. We only have a relatively small amount of it created with the latest technology and access to almost anything we need to be delivered to our doorstep. I want to give you an exercise in limitations. What can you learn about yourself and your music by putting certain limits on your creative process?
Stop using that special plug-in or effect unit
Try researching how that plug-in or effect works or what it is based on. Odds are, it is based on a process that tons of producers used before digital recording was even a thing. Find out how to do that process yourself so you have a better understanding on how it all works. You might find that you like the old way better than the new way. Your favorite flanger pedal, for example, is based on a recording process where people pushed down on the flange of a tape machine to slow down the tape. Pressing and releasing the tape would cause that weird sound that we all know as a flanger now. You might not have a tape machine available to try this. However, it is always good to understand where these sounds originated from.
Some of these sounds were an accident even. Use this exercise to see what you can learn from our past inventors of sounds. Pick your favorite plug-in or effect pedal and find a way to recreate the effect the “hard way.”
Use less strings on your guitar
Remove strings from your guitar to see how you play it differently. Look at The Presidents of the United States of America for a great example of this exact thing. They made a career out of using limited string instruments and had several hit songs.
Go back to the early roots of blues in the south and you will discover an instrument called the diddley bow. This instrument was basically a piece of wire wrapped around two nails and played with some kind of slide. The slide might be a bottle or a piece of pipe. The early creators of these instruments might make these out of a piece of scrap wood, or even nail the wire to the side of their house. It is one string, but the slide gives them almost infinite notes. Using this restricted instrument would make your brain work in a different manner. You will find that you break out of your normal ruts and find new ways to play your instrument.
Same idea, but different instruments
This can work with any instrument. If you are a drummer, take away some of your kit. One of the best drummers I have seen live was the guy who played with Junior Brown. This drummer had a crash cymbal and a snare. I was at a sold-out show where I was on the side of the stage and couldn’t see the drummer at first. It sounded like a normal drum kit was being played and he sounded huge. Later, I was able to move around to the front of the stage and had to ask my friend if he saw what I saw. We both couldn’t believe this guy was getting these sounds on just two pieces of drum equipment. He even performed a drum solo. It was eye-opening and made me rethink what equipment is really needed.
Cut down on the number of control knobs
Our gear can have so many controls that it becomes a distraction. Put tape over one of your control knobs so you can’t adjust it. This exercise will make you an expert in your gear. Pick a knob that you use a lot to make this assignment interesting. Adjust everything else to see how it reacts with your STUCK knob. What do all those other knobs do? Really dig deep into what the other knobs do and how they affect your tone. If you have access to volume still, then see how things sound at all levels of volume.
Odds are, you will notice a big difference between quiet and loud volume. This is due to the physics behind how speakers work, but it is still a great example. Then work through the other controls to see how each one affects the overall tone. You will find new sounds. Some will be great, and others will be awful. The point is to find out why some sound good and others sound bad.
Limit the amount of tracks during recording
We have the luxury of having hundreds of tracks available in our modern DAWs. This can be a great thing! This can also make us sloppy. Warren Huart talks about this here. Early recordings were only a single track recorded with one microphone. If you wanted to mix volumes of instruments then each performer had to position themselves are the correct distance in order to achieve proper levels.
Bluegrass performances sometimes use this technique to this day. Each performer will move toward a central microphone to perform a solo and move back when they want their overall volume to decrease after their solo is done.
Later in history, more tracks were added which allowed for musicians to overdub sounds, etc. Each new breakthrough allowed the production of music to change. Is the new way, better? That might be a matter of opinion. Great music is great music no matter how it was created or recorded. Give yourself a track budget and see what you can do with only that amount of tracks. You will find that you have to be very picky about what gets put into your song. Each track is now very precious, just like the early years of recording. If nothing else is learned by this, you will have a new appreciation for having all of those tracks available in your DAW.
Limit your senses
Let’s try something really limiting. Try to think of a sense to eliminate and see what happens. Some of the most amazing musicians were blind, so try blindfolding yourself. Do you notice that your hearing is better once your eyesight is gone? The Grateful Dead tried this for their IN THE DARK album. They recorded in a dark venue to try to recreate the magic they experienced live on a dark stage.
Maybe try using only one hand if you normally use two. Tony Muggs from The Muggs learned to do this after he suffered from a stroke. Rick Allen from Def Leppard also learned how to play drums again when he lost an arm in a car wreck. What would you do if you couldn’t physically play this same way?
The extreme case would be to see what music comes out when you can’t hear it. Pete Townsend, Jeff Beck, and many other rock legends suffer from tinnitus. Although this is not the same as being deaf, it is a form of hearing loss. The music they make is still amazing. For instance, Beethoven still wrote several pieces of music after he loss his hearing as well.
Retrain your brain
These are all experiments to get you to retrain your brain. All of this will help you think of music creation in a new way. Giving yourself limits will prove to be very rewarding in your growth as an artist. It allows you to focus on the creative process more. Let me know in the comments below what things you are limiting or what you learned from this exercise.