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“Killing your darlings”

guest article by John P.

It’s a rainy day, perfect for holing yourself up in your room to work on a new song—and if you’re like most of the music-making world, that means firing up your Mac or PC, connecting your MIDI keyboard, hunching your neck and shoulders, and playing endlessly with your virtual drum machines, pianos, and saxophones.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Computer power has liberated home music producers in too many ways to list in this short article. Pair up some modest multi-tracking software with a basic six-hundred dollar PC and you can create sonic wonders. But this very blessing can be a curse. How would “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” sound if Eno and Byrne recorded it today? It would sure be easier for them. Maybe too easy. Without limitations to overcome, artists get lazy and bored.

I’m suggesting that you step outside of the box—the box being the virtual world where your instruments live, where your tracks are recorded, where your project is mixed and mastered. Aren’t you a little tired of editing those wave forms? Remember that old Tascam 4-track cassette recorder buried in your closet? Dig it out. Get out some real cables, by God. Your hardware misses you.

Or how about a sampler? Right—you already have one. Maybe it’s the NNXT that lives in Reason 4.

Why not get a hardware sampler with some real knobs on it? I’m a big fan of the Roland SP-404. It might sound crazy, but getting away from your computer screen can really help your project. A hardware sampler forces you to make edits with your ears instead of your eyes. Maybe that boring loop will come to life if you feed it into some hardware and tweak it away from the screen. Maybe even run it through some outboard effects. What ever happened to that old chorus pedal that you got for Christmas back in high school? Dig it out and give it a new 9-volt. Make some room on the kitchen table. Set up some real, physical audio gadgets and make some noise. You’ll feel like a kid again, I promise.

When you live inside of the box, you start to forget about the great big world outside. It’s easy. Your virtual guitars sound almost like the real thing. Why bother hooking up your six-string and playing the part live…it won’t sound as clean anyway.

That’s just the point, my friend. Maybe that computer is a little too clean. It might be sucking the life right out of your music.

Hear me out. The box will always be there. One of the most glorious things about the DAW is its non-destructive editing power. You can always go back. But for now, on a rainy day like today, why not dig out the old stuff…send that computer-generated drum loop back in time onto cassette tape…slow it down and make it grimy. Turn off the dbx noise reduction and let it crackle and burn. Ahhh, that’s just the spice your song was craving.

Now you can send your work back into the box. In the same way that travel changes a person, travel changes your sound. Sending your audio out into the real world will change it in subtle ways that you could never dream up in your DAW.

What William Faulkner said about writing applies equally to sound. “You’ve got to kill your darlings.” If you find yourself too in love with a sound, chances are good that you should kill it. Or at least maim it a little.

So take that perfectly clean loop that you love so much and kick it out into the real world. Don’t coddle it. Let it see that life is hard. You might love it even more when it comes back home.

15 Responses to ““Killing your darlings””

  1. John Montgomery says:

    Thanks for an excellent and inspiring article. Couldn’t agree more!

  2. Outboard Motors says:

    Found your site on today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later..

  3. The Human Errer says:

    Maybe you could do an article about computer-free electronic music production setups? Maybe showcase an inexpensive setup that can get the job done? Or maybe you have an article like that and I just haven’t found it yet… Either way, I like this article! 😉

  4. AngryMAN says:

    Good work!

  5. tun says:

    thanx for the article. its very inspiring. people rely on their pc’s/mac’s way too much (including myself), and it can take away the raw natural feel to the music, and sometimes the fun.
    but can you please explain to me why you have to “kill your darlings”.
    surely if your in love with a sound then chances are that other people will be too, and you should use this to your advantage???
    but im definately no pro, so please elaborate on this.

    thank you

  6. GYRE says:

    Very good article, i discovered this way of producing (roughing things up, showing your sounds the real world – putting your real life emotions into something as simple as a synth sound, drum sample).

    It has made a huge difference to my production over the years and has lead me down the wonderful and experimental side of music.

    Keep the great articles coming.

  7. lilo says:

    This is a great article, thanks! I had the same revelation about a year ago and have been more productive recently than ever. Tape loops, homebrew effects (passive ring modulators cost less than $5 to make)… All good things.

  8. Lonny Graben says:

    What a nice post. I just found your blog and felt compelled to tell you that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Anyways I’ll be favoriting your feed and I look forward to your next post.

  9. Wunjo says:

    Hey thanks for the article I enjoyed it. I personally have found it best to combine both the hardware and software world. Hardware is intuitive as you can “feel” it out and software is limitless and infinite. But in my experience I would say that hardware actually makes people lazy and has them settle for less because of how hard it is to navigate through the 3X3 LCD screen to edit parameters and such whereas software eliminates that and you can move on to adding the next part. Creativity is in the eye of the beholder.

  10. ed nauen says:

    Wise words and true. All those lovely parameters in your DAW that you never get around to tweaking cos they are on an obscure menu etc. So much better when all your kit has it’s own knobs and you can play with effect chains by simply plugging and unplugging cables. Also, while computer samplers and digital synths are obviously groovy and wonderful,they are limited by their digital nature. Whatever anybody tells you, there still ain’t a soft synth on the planet that captures the essential instability of analogue devices and that is what gives them their creative edge(No, not even Native Instruments stuff all you PC geeks who have never really played with any real analogue hardware!)I would say that this is a limitation of digital kit in general, I love my Nord Lead but there is no sense of excitement when I switch it on_ I know exactly how it is going to sound(clean, professional etc. but maybe a bit too much so), if I switch on my slightly dicky SH101 however, I never know what ‘s going to come out of it next but I know it will probably have bags of character and I don’t have a lazy option to take (like using a preset) Get a few boxes out, wire the buggers up, hit record (and record everything if you can cos you know there will be never to be repeated happy accidents) and go for it- so much more fun than another day staring at a VDU! I would also say that although hardware can be expensive, you can also find bargains especially if you look in unusual places and don’t get too hung up on the idea of the latest pro gear(4 track tape machines are cheap as fook these days for example), I got a great sound out of a kid’s keyboard I bought for 2.50 in a charity shop through a couple of stompboxes.I would also say get yourself a microphone if you haven’t got one, you can open up a whole world of experimentation, I can’t play or sing but I use mine loads for things like: sticking it out of the window for extra ambience on a track, having a percussion jam with a few mates to create loops etc.

  11. anachronmaker says:

    I just discovered this website today and have been thoroughly impressed with how much I can learn.

    This article was very inspiring. I have experimented in the past, but now I’m asking myself where it all went! I feel I could do my music a lot of good just by bashing ordinary techniques. Who says music is made one way and one way only? It’s personal, and we should be able to do whatever we want, however we want! That’s the beauty of us musicians… We can manipulate sound however we want and the only feedback that matters is our own.

    Thanks for getting me thinking! I’m ready to work now!

  12. jenny says:

    Outstanding post! I’ve bookmark this site to return later. thanks!

  13. Aciphecs says:

    Great article! I personally have created my music PC free for years and only use my PC to burn the final CDs. It can be a headache but the limitations do invite new ways of thinking and playing.

    I agree with Ed’s comment on real analog too, I currently added a true analog beast to my rig and it opened up a whole new world of sonic expression and new ammo to load onto my sampler…all for just over $50. It’s the new Korg monotron and fits in your palm and will rip speaker cones if you let it!

    I’m just saying it doesn’t take much to “shake the cage” for musical inspiration.

  14. Gerber says:

    if ive learned anything in music its not what you make your music with its what you are most comfortable with.

    Grimes, Bjork, Sun Ra all perfect example of creating music from purely nothing other than feeling and intuition for achieving that sound through their feelings.

    even the tb303 has red light patterns that are visual and adjust the sequence for a unlimited possibility of sounds, its not different than a DAW, they are just different instruments.

    i honestly feel like its this type of view, thinking you need to step outside the box that only keeps you inside it.

    those who are considered “outside the box” were the ones who never cared about if they were outside of it or in the inside of it.

    i love analog do not get me wrong, but thinking analog or “table top” instruments will save you from being considered mediocre, its not going to happen.

    the same can be said about computers that can be said about analog instruments, all depends on who is using it and how well “to them” it makes sense.

    it shouldnt be about trying to be different one day, it should be about trying to find that instrument that feels like a new appendage you just grew out that youre so comfortable with using that you can practically get any sound you want out of it.

    ive seen too many do the same with computers and crappy instruments alike, i got real tired of the whole “out of the box” comment simply because it does not apply to any real musician at least in my eyes.

    if you are still worried about the box, i feel you have a long way to go musically, not only through professionalism but mentally more than anything.

    every person ive looked up to in life didnt care what they used and made it just fine if not far and way above fine but if you havent lived my life and met the people i have i guess all this can sound pretty dumb.

  15. Katelynn says:

    Pretty nice piece

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