Updated: Jan 30, 2022
One of the most simultaneously liberating and challenging aspects of composing music in a DAW in the 21st century is the sheer number of presets, patches, and instrument tracks to choose from – there are literally thousands, perhaps millions of sounds available, with an equally vast number of ways to manipulate those sounds and create even MORE sounds and effects. It can be overwhelming and often takes a great deal of time to audition patches and find the perfect sounds for a project. Sometimes, patches will work beautifully and be exactly what I need for a particular composition. Other times, I will stumble upon a sound that doesn’t fit at all.
On the other hand, some very funny things can happen during this process. I was once working on a project while I was studying music production that was a simple, classically inspired piano piece and loaded a patch in Logic that sounded EXACTLY like the squeak of a circus clown’s nose. It was late at night and as I listened to the playback, I was practically rolling on the floor with laughter hearing the piano arpeggios and swelling, orchestrated strings suddenly being interrupted by the sounds of a little clown with a squeaky nose, circling around on his bicycle at the circus. It was totally NOT the mood I was going for! Yet I couldn’t stop listening to it because it was so funny and it broke up the monotony of searching for the right sound while giving me a good laugh in the middle of my workflow. That’s the thing with us composer-sound designer types: we have such a love affair with sound, that everything we hear, whether it’s a movie score, a great pop song, the din of faraway traffic or even the duck bomb video is completely enthralling. It also provides a reminder that even though the work might be serious, we don’t always have to take OURSELVES so seriously.
Guitarist Marty Willson-Piper of the Church once said something to the effect that limitations can help inspire creativity – this really rings true for me. It is not the number of sounds we have or can create – it is what we do with them that matters. Classical music and the days of yore when composers could ‘only’ write for a full-scale orchestra being a case in point.
Brian Eno seems to concur: "In modern recording one of the biggest problems is that you're in a world of endless possibilities. So I try to close down possibilities early on. I limit choices. I confine people to a small area of maneuver. There's a reason that guitar players invariably produce more interesting music than synthesizer players: you can go through the options on a guitar in about a minute, after that you have to start making aesthetic and stylistic decisions. This computer can contain a thousand synths, each with a thousand sounds. I try to provide constraints for people."
While I am a fan of both guitar-oriented and synth-oriented music (and currently compose the latter), both Eno and Willson-Piper make good points that serve as great reminders for musicians (and for that matter, artists in any field) to work with what we have. With all the sound libraries, synths and modules out there, it is tempting to want to go crazy collecting them all in order to create our own plug-in palooza just for the sake of owning all the latest sounds. After all, what musician doesn’t want more gear? Embracing limitations -- or forcing constraints upon ourselves like Eno suggests -- can be a real way to stretch and flex our creative muscles, and a great tool to help us create better music.
1. Latta, W. (2010, January 20). Using Ambient Techniques For Composing. Retrieved from: https://music.tutsplus.com/tutorials/using-ambient-techniques-for-composing--audio-4017