Back in the good ol’ days when I was a kid and had to walk endless miles, fighting wolves and snow storms just to get to school, it was easy to find the sound you needed for your music project.
You put your microphone in front of the guitar amp or the piano going the acoustic route, or auditioned the whopping 32 presets of your sound module. Then you hit record on your 4-track tape recorder. After your first take you maybe quickly fiddled with a couple of knobs and buttons to shape the sound the way you needed.
There were limited options and this “forced” you quickly back to making music.
Today, you have multiple hard drives filled with Terrabytes of exquisite samples – the finest instruments played by the best musicians in awesome locations, recorded on incredible gear by talented engineers. All that awesomeness right at your fingertips – and what do you suffer through?
Analysis paralysis on the one hand where you don’t even know where to begin and not finding what you need quickly enough to capture your inspiration on the other hand.
To be honest, I never had to fight with wolves on my way to school. However, there was this one huge Dachshund (or maybe it was a Beagle, I don’t remember) I needed to pass on the way that seemed like a wolf to me when I was 6.That counts, right? Since it’s confession time: in winter it did snow quite a lot, but not in Arctic dimensions, and the way to school wasn’t measured in multiples of miles either.
And by the time I really got into music the digital revolution was well on its way with preset banks and increasing ROM and RAM. Megabytes only, but nevertheless.
Just saying… feels good to come clean. But the intro sounded dramatic and pulled you into the article – hey, after all, you’re still reading this. 🙂 Now, it’ll get more actionable and less fiction-like, I promise.
The Problem with Having Too Many Sounds…
With so many cool new sound libraries coming out all the time, it’s easy to give in to temptation and purchase new toys. Yes, you need high-qualitity sounds to stay competitive.
- But how many different music box and xylophone libraries do you really need?
- How many synth plug-ins are really necessary?
- What’s the 17th compressor plug-in doing for your music that the other 16 aren’t able to?
There’s something called opportunity cost – and it’s not just about money. You need to install software and keep it updated, there might be plug-in conflicts and technical issues. Solving those issues can take a lot of time. Time you could (and should) be creating music instead.
And there’s mental overhead involved as well. You need to learn to use different software with different features and parameters. It takes time and effort to get familiar and comfortable with different user interfaces.
With increased options it becomes more and more difficult to decide on which tool to actually use. This might sound ridiculous, but don’t underestimate the psychological factors involved. Studies suggest that we seem to have a limited amount of willpower and each decision we have to take has a cost attached to it. Read more about Ego Depletion on Wikipedia or in this interesting NY Times article about Decision Fatigue.
So, the process of trying to find the perfect sound for your project can drain your creative juices considerably leaving you with no energy left for actually moving your track forward.
And the more different libraries and software applications you run the less you know each individually – which increases the time needed to get the job done and also creates frustration.
But hey, there was a special sale going on – and it ONLY cost xx$ – and you couldn’t resist.
I hear ya. Been there, done that myself more often than I’d like to admit.
Here’s the scenario…
You just bought a new multi-GB library. After installation you are eager to try it out.
And here’s the problem…
Since there are so many sounds to check out, you rush through them, trying to get an overview. The most distinctive sounds you might notice and remember, but a lot of sounds slip under your radar and you don’t give them the attention they deserve.
You play a few uninspired notes. It doesn’t sound like much so you move on to the next preset. After all, you got plenty of those waiting for you.
Be careful with snap judgments. Why not have a second listen to the sound to see if there’s some hidden qualities waiting to be discovered?
How Many Great Sounds?
How many great sounds are hidden on your hard drive collecting cyberdust?
Let’s find out.
Set aside some quiet time. Choose a library you want to focus on. If it’s an extensive library, put a limit on the number of presets you are going to check out. Too many and they start to sound the same, anyways. Don’t rush!
Really dig into the individual sounds. Experiment with various playing techniques and styles.
- legato vs. staccato
- piano vs. forte
- slow vs. fast
- use different textures like clusters or open voicings
Keep your ears open. Listen!
- What’s the timbre?
- What’s the mood of the sound?
- Do the timbre and mood change when I change my playing technique?
- How responsive is the patch to dynamics?
- Are modulations already programmed? If yes, how do they behave?
- Do I like the sound? Why or why not?
- What can I do to improve the sound?
Keep asking yourself those questions until the process becomes automatic and subconscious.
Add/remove effects. Effects can have a powerful effect (pun intended) on how you perceive sound. Learn to know when to use a specific effect. And don’t go overboard – apply effects tastefully. No effect is an option as well.
Whenever you come up with something you really like, save your new creation.
Most DAWs have some sort of Media Management system, like the Media Bay in Cubase, where you can tag and categorize your sounds for easier retrieval. Kontakt has the QuickLinks system, Omnisphere the ratings and project folders, Reason has the Favorites system built into the patch browser, etc…. Start to use those systems or keep some sort of sound journal – a paper notebook for the old-school way or an Evernote note where you collect your findings.
Here’s how this works in Omnisphere:
Get a Feel for Your Sounds
Do this regularly and you’ll get a much better feel for the sound palette available to you. As a side benefit you’ll also sharpen your listening skills. This definitely never hurts.
Additionally, depending on how much you get into tweaking and fiddling, you’ll also gain a better understanding of your sound modules and effects processors.
Sooner or later – most likely sooner – the next impossible production deadline will loom over your head. Knowing what sounds are available to you and how to get to them will help to meet the deadline and make your project shine.