Mike Propst User Experience

The enemy of done

I'm sure that you've heard, at some point, some wizened sage say a thing about how limitations are helpful when it comes to creative endeavors.

Probably it was someone like Frank Zappa who didn't practice what they preached, but this isn't just "good for you" advice; it can be fun.

What simplification means in a creative sense can be up to you: it could mean limited tools, a smaller palette, a shortened time frame, or really impractical and artificial constraints meant to "get the juices flowing" (e.g., I'm only going to use MS Paint or build a song with presets from early 90s synths). But as an exercise, it's one thing; adopting simplicity as a way of working is a freeing experience.

After a some great frustration playing in a large band with intricate arrangments, I decided to simplify my musical existence by going back to a one-man show for a while. But that tends to be a rabbit hole for me. I love choices and hate limitations. I don't necessarily feel like I need to use my whole toolkit in every project, but I want to know I can start anywhere. The problem often is in starting, though. A limited palette can make that easy.

So I've created a much smaller subset of tools: two sampled analog drum kits, a Volca Keys, a '73 Roland SH-1000, a Reaktor-based Minimoog emulator, and a MeeBlip SE. It's a kind of weird hybrid of real and simulated analog, and it's all really cheap. It also feels like a pretty wide sonic palette right off the bat, but I do need some kind of variety because I tend to write synth lines based on the qualities of a particular sound. The Minimoog has enough variety to spark something unique, but picking from two drum kits means I'm laying down a beat in 5 minutes instead of auditioning sounds and building kits for 40.

Over the weekend I wrote a complete song during the baby's nap time. A couple hours and everything was done. Beat, bass, lead line, effects, tricks, vocals. Done.

A nice side effect

Something that I discovered from going limited is that simplicity isn't the only benefit — the inability to achieve perfection has opened my mind quite a bit. I've kept the SH-1000 out of my sets for anything other than some noisy filter effects because it's monophonic, hard to play, hard to keep in tune, and doesn't have MIDI or the ability to save sounds. With Ableton, I don't need MIDI or patches: as long as I can adequately play a loop one or two times through, I have a bass or lead line recorded as audio. The key here is adequate. It's not going to be perfectly synced, and even if I played it perfectly it wouldn't necessarily register with the 40-year-old raggedy-ass keys and the tuning would still be wonky. The Volca's similar: it can be synced to MIDI, but it can't save sounds either and the tuning tends toward unpredictability.

So this stuff means my music isn't perfect. But it's also got some character as a result. Aside from how you feel about tweaking sounds or cutting loops precisely, whether these things improve your music, there's one thing you can't argue with: I finished something. Quite a few somethings.

There's a saying that "good is the enemy of great." That's true, and you should always keep your standards high and your goals lofty — but remember also that perfect is the enemy of done.