Week 3: Putting a tool aside

I’ve been working on the ideal small scale music setup, that is both compact and powerful. This week, I’ve been working on stripping things down, which led me to a simple concept that is surprisingly difficult for me to put into practice: knowing when to put something on the shelf for a while.

While I was assembling my “desert island rig“, I originally planned on having several small synthesizers as part of the setup. I am a big fan of the Roland boutique synths, especially the SE-02. However, I ended up putting the SE-02 away for the time being. Why?

  • Clutter. I found myself focusing more and more on my small Eurorack system, the “Palette 101” (Atlantis + Maths, inside an Intellijel Palette 62 case). The SE-02 was in front of the Palette 101, and I kept bumping into it by accident.
  • Focus. By taking away the SE-02, I could concentrate on learning the Atlantis + Maths in greater detail. I’ve owned Maths since 2012, but never really dug into it in depth. Limiting myself to the Palette 101 setup forced me to focus on learning these tools.
  • My own habits. I think the SE-02 is an amazing synth – it’s like a tiny little Minimoog! However, I have owned it for a few years, and haven’t made any good music with it. When I use the SE-02, I find myself dialing in Minimoog cliches, simply because I thinks that what the synth should sound like. I decided to put the SE-02 on the shelf for now, with the idea that in the future I can try it again with a fresh approach.

When gathering together tools for a creative project, we’ve been finding it helpful to not only think about the tools needed for a project, but also the tools that could be put aside on a temporary basis. We’ve discovered a number of good reasons to put a tool back on the shelf for awhile:

  • Decluttering your work space. It is nice to have a clean area to do your creative work. I’m not saying it is EASY to do so, but this is a goal.
  • Fewer tools = more energy to concentrate on learning and using the tools you have in front of you. I’ve found that when I have a bunch of awesome synths at my disposal, I get less work done than when I have one or two nice synths to work with. It is easier to know what to focus on when you have less things to focus on in the first place.
  • Use the tools you find yourself using the most, versus the tools you think you should be using. There are all sorts of fantastic musical tools out there, but just because a tool is great on paper doesn’t mean that it works for you. Or, you might find that a given tool doesn’t work for you at the current moment, but has worked in the past and may again in the future. There’s no shame in putting something away for the time being, if it isn’t inspiring you at the current moment.
  • Portability. This is less of a concern in February of 2021, but we are all hoping that we can become more mobile at some point in the future. Less tools = easier to move around. Even if you are moving from one part of your house to another, shaking up your visual environment can help spark creativity, and it is easier to move around with a smaller tool setup.

What are some tools that you can put on the shelf for now? Putting something aside for the time being doesn’t mean that it is a bad tool, so much as a tool that isn’t working for you, or distracts you, or that you feel you should use because of its reputation.

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Comments (3)

  • Harri

    This is a GREAT point! Limitations breed creativity. I’ve managed to gradually fill my tiny home studio with a lot of synths, and I’ve lately noticed that I actually feel a bit of pressure when I sit in the middle of all the gear. At the same time I love it, but there is a nagging feeling of …I don’t know, like I’m neglecting all the synths, I’m not living up to them.

    On the other hand, I like to have everything connected and ready to go when the inspiration strikes. I don’t like bouncing many tracks from one synth, because I tend to sculpt tracks for a long time and change chords (& key/mode) quite often along the way. So… not quite sure yet what I’m going to do, but I am considering something along these lines 🙂

  • Dylan

    Lots of great advice and ideas here. Making music on your own is pretty complex, creatively and technically. It’s easy to get overwhelmed or just kind of mentally cloudy, particularly around tools and methods.

    A source of dissonance I had about my own set-up was a need/want to be minimal for idealistic or aesthetic reasons (this is not at all dig at your small scale plan). I put a glass ceiling on my process and in the end, while I sort ‘felt’ creative or inspired when I looked at my tools and space, it definitely was not a very productive time for me.

    My mindset now is almost the opposite of minimal, I want my set-up to feel like a huge but well organized workshop. In the end I only use a handful of deep, workhorse tools (like yours), but I like having the ability to get something ‘off the shelf’ (virtual or real), depending on an idea or my mood.

    “There are all sorts of fantastic musical tools out there, but just because a tool is great on paper doesn’t mean that it works for you.”

    Wow! This is so important. It’s almost infuriating to see it summed up so succinctly.

    Part of being comfortable with a lot of tools (and being okay with shelving them) is really learning them deeply and knowing the gap each fill. Identifying the gaps in your creative process is the really hard part, as a clear creative direction is a prerequisite.

  • gollumsluvslave

    100% agree with this, and i think ‘option paralysis’ can manifest itself in many different way in the studio (and other creative pursuits).

    To this end, i’ve adopted a number of ‘rules’ i’ve set myself in my wee home studio, to try and mitigate

    1) Anything that hasn’t been used in the last 12 months, I sell (with a couple of sentimental exceptions)
    2) Commit to decisions as quickly as possible for that use case – if I’m wanting to record a bassline, then try and decide on the bass/recording chain etc before i’m starting to record, to keep tweaking to minimum. I find if I start auditioning different pedals etc I go off piste, come up with a new riff or whatever (which is not inherently a bad thing, but can be a distraction and you lose focus)
    3) Try not to mix up my use cases – if I’m tracking try not to get bogged down by mix considerations etc etc, this helps focus the tools for any given task in my experience.
    4) Similar to point 1) try and understand the use case for any new gear purchases, and make sure you can justify it. But rule 1) can help with the ‘man I don’t why but I just need that’ type purchases.

    The flipside of some of this, is to realise that, hey you can always break your rules, don’t get TOO rigid – sometimes going off on a tangent is incredibly rewarding, and you learn something unexpected about a tool.

    It’s always a balancing act.


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