Limit Yourself

While it may sound contradictory, limiting yourself when producing music can give you the creative freedom you need. How? Here are three tips to illustrate how restricting your choices can be very productive.

Limit yourself

Are You Building a Tool Kit or Collecting?

More than ten years ago, a friend gave me some burned CDs with lots of cracked music software (I was young and poor). I spent the next two weeks installing everything and checking out all the apps. The most noticable thing that happened was that I didn’t make any music at all. After two weeks I felt frustrated and uninstalled everything again, but I’d learned a very valuable lesson. Don’t get too much new gear or software all at once and take the time to really get to know them. Otherwise you’ll end up skipping them for things you are more familiar with and they will just collect dust.

These days, both software and hardware to make music with are quite affordable. I know a lot of producers who keep buying more and more plug-ins, sound packs or synths. Have you ever spent an entire evening just looking for the right bass sound and got nothing done in the end? This is what happens when you’ve got too much choice. So think twice, if a new piece of equipment will broaden your toolkit or if it’s just another toy to have. And if you’ve already amassed lots of plug-ins or packs, maybe it’s time for a little spring cleaning. Have a look at what you actually use and what stays untouched.

Limit The Parameters

This doesn’t just go for gear. You can set parameters for the song or track you want to create. What instruments, what key, time signature and tempo and so on. Removing all other choices can be freeing as now you can concentrate on the myriads of things that will still require a decision in your production.

One producer who’s taking this to the max is Matthew Herbert with his P.C.C.O.M. manifesto.

I like challenging myself, so I generally start by setting limits. Like only using sounds of things mentioned in my lyrics or any noise associated with it for the beat. So a song about having a hard time waking up from a dream got everyday morning sounds for the rhythm, brushing of teeth, espresso made on the stove, zippers etc. For another song I decided that everything needed to be based on the play with polyrhythms and polymetrics. I finished it very quickly and am very happy with the result. It turned out to be a rather mesmerising song.

This is also a good way to start expanding your skill set. You want to learn about a particular technique? Write a song or track around it. Learning by doing.

This is the song with the morning field recording beats. Can you tell what all of the sounds are?


In the old days, before music technology became affordable, there was no time to dillydally. A day in a studio was too pricey for most to waste any time. Nowadays a lot of us have home studios. So once we’ve covered the rent, there is no extra cost which often makes us too perfectionist, fiddle too much with details and at times even take out all the life of the song or track by overworking it.

One way I found to counter this tendency is to resample the parts I’ve finished to stick with decisions I’ve made. Of course, I’ll save the Live Set as a new version beforehand, but just knowing that I’d have to open an older file to make changes prevents me from doing so unless there’s really something that clashes with the intention of the music later on.

We also no longer record onto tape and disk space is getting cheaper and cheaper. So we can record endless takes. But have you ever noticed that quite often the first takes are the best? So try to limit the amount of takes. Three to five often suffices. And if none is right in the end, you can still record more later.

If you have someone else to play or sing a part, do a test run with them, but secretly record it. Odds are, this might turn out to be the best take as they don’t feel the pressure yet.

So commit to your musical decisions. Dare to keep minor flaws and irregularities. Your music will sound more alive if it’s not all perfectly quantised and phrased anyway.

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7 Responses

  1. Good article. I myself have fallen into the abyss of trying to learn endless pieces of software and hardware. I would say learning a variety of environments has really broadened my skill set. But all that time spent learning new tech meant that I wasn’t improving my fundamental skills as a musician. Pretty hard to make the most of your gear if you can’t play anything musically interesting on it.

  2. Hil Madelaine. I do have this problem right now. The thing is that Im used t record guitars and bass and vocals. I do it on my own with a very humble home studio. I would really like to know if ableton is the right choice for me. I thought about this because I would also like to start playing with midi files more often but Im starting to think that I should have given my time and efforts to a less ” electronic oriented ” software. What are your thought on this? I could show you what I do if you care to listen. Thank you.

    Ignacio ( Argentina )

    1. Yes, I mixed it in Ableton Live. I had it mastered by others though as I wanted a fresh set of ears. These days I mix and master in Ableton Live. Although I may run everything through the analogue gear we have here in the mastering stage.

  3. Great article Madeleine, I thank you. My thoughts were drawn to the area of producing around a theme, well this is great atleast in a sense for my wandering mind. I would love to put more time into gathering tracks that i have created prior and maybe use as a sort of Live Set to manipulate, especially after a long day of making the sounds fit in the mix… and effect some change to an already clean track and already decided path. I have also found what you said about committing to musical choices interesting, cuz i i loose time and creativity trying to scrambling recording takes in the arrangement view. Thanks i might try some of these mentioned techniques and creativity from you part and get back to you with smiles and sounds, p.s i have found the first takes the best. Thats why i need to audition myself more… sneak it in!

    1. Glad to hear you find these tips useful. Auditioning myself doesn’t work too well for me unless I’m still in the writing process as I’m less critical then, but it works well with others. Great if it works for you. 🙂

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