The Insidious Burden of Choice
There are a plethora of music making machines and software programs out on the market these days, many snake oils and, myriad merchants of miracle mojo peddling them too.
The modern music creator is faced with a blistering array of choices and yet tends to overlook the simple fact that all this fantabulous choice might not be all that it is concocted to be. We are enamored of the big distractions in life, like our lack of time and energy, our work and Kids (capital K), low capital, and then the not so big distractions, like those gutters that need sweeping and these bicycle parts that need oiling, and this desk that needs to be maybe 2 centimeters more to the right – the light is better over here and then that big thing that needs doing can be done – and finally we can sit down to create (or stand depending on the vocation.)
But there is one little insidious beast that lies in wait beyond the Kids and Cat Litter that needs out, beyond the infinite, carefully constructed distractions of modern life and existential rearrangements of the furniture.
The beast plays as friend but steals your proverbial wallet when patting you on the back, and when I say wallet I mean time because that is money and we spend a lot of it on making choices.
Choice is a Beast.
Author Barry Schwartz points out in his TED talk, The Paradox of Choice, that as choices increase the ability to choose satisfactorily between them decreases. This is because as the range of choices multiply our greedy, barely post-neolithic cerebral operating system bugs out at the idea that maybe, just maybe the choice we are making now is not as good as that other choice we could be making later. Don’t even mention that guy Ogg with the bigger ridge of back hair who might make an even better choice and blow our chances with the females paying close attention over there.
The value of the choice we end up making then is often diminished as a result and for a lot of people this leads to a great amount of confusion, dissatisfaction and occasionally wooden clubs upside the head (especially when said females are involved.)
But are we even choosing at all?
If a stranger pranced up to you and asked you if you wanted to drink a cola or a cola, you would think them completely mad and bat them away like pesky gnat, but if the gnat were to name each as a different brand somehow a “choice” would emerge.
This charlatan’s trick never ceases to amaze me. We are merely preferring one nearly identical thing over another based on its name and how well the merchants of mojo have charmed our prejudices, and pandered to our egos for that week, hour or phase of creativity.
So what does this mean in terms of creating music?
Producers of all levels these days simply have too much “choice” between what amounts to the same thing — one flashy plug-in vs another, flashier plug-in — and rather than enabling creativity, it takes it out back and shows you its fabulous garden gnome collection until you are so numb from the excitement throwing out the cat litter actually becomes appealing.
These days, with most third party soft-synths up for grabs on torrent sites and access to high end software a mere download away it is tempting to have as many as possible, and indeed many people do, but I think creative quality and productivity are suffering as a result.
As with all creation what you choose to leave out is just as important as what you choose to leave in and that can extend to extraneous tools as well.
Creating music is already about making so many choices, why add more to the mix?
All this choice is not the creative juice it’s branded to be.
Kicking choice to the curb.
If you are a beginner start out with the soft-synths, plug-ins and samples that come prepackaged with the Music Software you buy. There is absolutely no need for fancy third party plug-ins just yet. The fundamentals of sound manipulation are fairly standardized so learning and mastering even the simplest devices that already come bundled with most DAWs is the best way to ensure easy adaptation to more “complex” iterations of the same ideas and functions without getting distracted or overwhelmed.
If you are an intermediate to advanced producer try sticking with the soft-synths, third party plug-ins that really resonate with you and dump the others, or at least consciously restrict using them. Take a mental note of those plugs you gravitate to instinctively and really get to know those intimately. One thing I have noticed with most professional producers I have worked with is that they each tend have one or two very specific pieces of equipment or software they love working with and they know how to use them very, very well.
One step further, if fortune allows, is to go and get the hardware version or equivalent and get some sunshine, tell your loved ones you love them and go do something else for a while too.
Inversely for many pros you need to get out of your comfort zone and do the exact opposite of the above advice. That is stop using the EFX you love and know so well and find inspiration and challenges in new areas.
Not a single vendor on this planet is going to step up and say, “Well, you know what? Maybe you don’t really need our new fancy Mojo that does it all and paints your house too, so please continue learning your existing tools and maturing a set of skills on those, and we won’t bother you until then.”
The cold fact is that beastly choice is the roommate who should have only stayed a week, found a place nearby and dropped by for tea sometime but has now genetically bonded with the couch.
Manufactured choice is here to stay so until then maybe getting the beast to play outside for awhile is our best stratagem.
Distracting the distractor might let that elusive creature called creativity drop by for a quick cup of productivity.