Limitation as a force of creativity

Not so long ago I had it all. I spent my days and late nights in a separate set of rooms filled with the latest flat screens, multi core macs, pro tools system, professional mixing console, beautiful Genelec speakers, full phrase parametric tuning by the master Bob Hodas, acoustically treated walls and floor, Neuman Microphones, German mic stands, Manley and Avalon mic pre amplifiers, a Urei DJ Mixer, a TR-909, 808, 707, 727, 606, TB-303, SH-101, Juno-60 with the MD8 DCB to Midi conversion, Jupiter-8, MKS-50 with the PG-300, Sequential Pro One, Akai S-6000, Emu E6400, SP-1200, three racks filled with analog delays, and all sorts of wonderful outboard gear – A pair of Urei 1176 compressors, ADA Delay, Roland Space/Chorus Echo, an MPC-4000 and more. There was more.

The whole thing was wired between rooms with Mogami cables through vintage TTY patch bays. On the hard drives I had samples from all the records I could managed to scramble together. I spent years diving through bins and pulling anything and everything for lone drum hits, little fills, stabs, voices, loops, and everything that was interesting. I had a complete TDM Pro Tools system with all of the plugins. I would sequence in Logic Audio (6-9) because I really loved the Emagic version of Logic where I could spend hours programming the environment pages to control and macro control things as I learned about how to program them. Logic’s strength under Emagic was it’s programability, key commands to make the workflow lightning fast, and the ability to get under the hood and build whatever midi and audio based objects I needed. All the VST, TDM, and Audio Unit Plugins I could get my hands on.

Sounds like a dream doesn’t it? Just an ideal situation for anyone who loves production, recording, mixing, and electronic music right? There’s one serious thing wrong with my previous situation: I didn’t make any music.

The process of curating equipment is a potential dead end. We all get gear lust, and new things are coming at us all the time. Big companies are making wonder boxes, and little analog outfits are hand soldering gizmos, and modules which promise to deliver things which we’ve seen and heard and didn’t understand how to do. It’s a renaissance at the moment for electronic musicians. The devices of our wildest dreams are happening now, and it’s totally thrilling.

But in the midst of this I can’t help notice that there is a growing trend of machine operators. People looking at electronic devices as if they were laptops, or effects units. Filling cases wildly and then scrambling it all together and making wonderfully hideous noises. Culture is rising up around this, and while it sounds like the new soundtrack to a skate ramp, and the dude factor is quite high at the moment, remember that nothing leaps out of the laboratory without an angry, and loud bust of energy. These are early days. We haven’t even mastered the art of walking and using a cell phone yet. All this blocking of doorways, missing our stop on the bus, crashing our cars, and communal isolation proves that we are merely at the stoop of the house of technology. There’s a lot to learn, and we’re gonna learn it all the hard way. Seems to be the only way anyone really, truly learns anything. But we are going to learn, and it’s going to be ok.

Rather than buy a few thousand dollars worth of Eurorack modules based on instagram clips and youtube tutorials, make the same bleep bloop sounds that everyone else makes, and then when your partner threatens to leave you, you sell it for half of what you paid for it on Reverb (because you get totally lowballed by offers, and no one else wants to buy it) and get depressed and bitter about how lame that was, let me share some of my process with you:

I initially bought a Doepfer Mini case. I promised myself I was buying a set of additional oscillators for the Dark Energy so that I could make chords, and that was all. Well that became a 3U 84 HP case which I immediately filled, and that became a 7U 84 HP case which I spent a year rearranging, and inevitably filling, and then I added a second 3U 84 HP case and immediately filled it up with an idea I had before I even ordered the case, and then I wanted more.

From this desperate and needy place of lack, I made a radical decision. I sold almost everything. Everything I didn’t completely love and use every day had to go. It was depressing. I was sad. I had all the cool stuff, and I was actually packing it all up and shipping it off in a dozen different directions and feeling really blue about it.

I did replace a few things which I’d felt were errors in the first place – IE: Upgrading from 2 VCA’s to a Quad VCA, etc. But for the most part I left the case scaled back.

The most interesting thing happened: I began to make a lot more music.
I learned more deeply about the modules that I had. I discovered what the FM inputs on the Dixie II + were all about and how to more effectively use my attenuators. I learned to transpose sequences, and started to help others get started. New sounds were now coming out of my studio which I’d never made before. Instead of looking for new things to make different sounds, as I’d been so nicely trained by a capitalist society to do, I was exploring the mechanics of what I already had and developing my own sound with the tools in front of me.

So the heartbreak of parting with my treasures and the re assembly of my instruments has become a fantastic teaching tool. Limitations actually seem to drive the force of creativity within me.

But this wasn’t the end… My cases filled back up, and I “upgraded” many things which then needed to either be downgraded again, or further upgraded. It’s easy to mistake the MkII for an improvement. Not everyone works the way you do, and the marketing is often pointed at a broader, less focused audience, so an updated version of a device may actually be a dumbing down of that device, with more layered, complex features, and better computer connections – that may get you cheering at the ceiling, but for me – I don’t use a computer for musical purposes at all. I’m interested in one knob per function, but I love small things, and I’m interested in CV control, sequencers, and the best, most flexible way to make the most of these things over the course of a 2-4 hour live performance. I’m not looking for samples, pre sets, computer integration, or layers of any kind. I want something more like a modern version of the MMT-8 or better yet, the CSQ-600 than a complex, digital paged, menu driven anything. So one person’s upgrade is another person’s nightmare.

1. Know yourself, and your process. Get to know yourself and your process and then challenge it. Push at the edges of what you already know, and learn all you can. This means spending time with what you have. Even if in the end it turns out to be a complete dud, and you just hate yourself for shelling out $569 for it, and another $32 for the power supply, it was time well spent. A priceless exploration which will inform you later on.

2. Make mistakes. Break your heart wildly. Fuck it up completely. Humility comes as the result of a good deal of humiliation. Stubborn as I am, I am also often quite wrong. And I bash against ideas, new and old, and in the end, exhausted, I learn and grow. These things don’t happen to us, we are collaborating with them. So ask all your questions, perform all of your experiments, and show your work. This is how the language is learned, and how the music is made. Gone are the days of getting stoned, and sitting down to a drum and playing until you’re famous. I’m not actually sure those days were ever actually real, but that never stopped anyone.

Like the tide, the ebb and flow brings new ideas to the shores of our deserts. From here, it’s all about establishing your criteria and creating relationships. This is true if you have nothing, are working strictly within the computer, and even if you’re sitting in an impressively appointed collector’s studio filled with the very best gear in the world. If you can do “anything” then chances are you are going to do nothing.

1. Choose a few things. A drum, a bass, a pad, your voice. And with only those things, write something.
2. Make a looping pattern, and then add to it. When you’re sure it’s garbage, step back. Take a break.
3. Pull at the ends of this idea, and give it life over time. Create the intro, the breakdown, and explore it some more. Live with it. Give it a moment to learn to fly.
4. Review, and refine.

It’s ok if you decide to add an orchestra to this composition. There aren’t any rules. But the idea I’m attempting to impress upon you is that there is nothing (no thing) which will do this for you. Strip away the distractions, and get down to the composition. Technical accidents have proven to make amazing novelty singles, but basing a career on buying and selling the next popular module, and then this record sounds like Clouds, and that record sounds like Chords, and the next record sounds like you got a Voltage Block and we are dated, uninspired machine operators. It isn’t at all what the device can do, rather, what we are doing with our devices.

I did this back in 2005 and produced my first solo album called ‘Seven Tracks In Seven Days.’ I gave myself 24 hours to produce a track, and did this every day for a week. The rules were that I couldn’t use more than 5 devices per song. For better or for worse, I did it, and it was fun, and it brought me forward, up and out of the stuck place I described. Because let’s face it, adding another track and loading up another plugin is easy. And in the end, most of the time, it doesn’t sound very good. But stripping it all back to the beat, and messing around with the bassline opens up your head man. We start hearing agogo bells, and backing vocals, and the whole things shifts, and creativity becomes a vibrant force which is just missing from a long list of plugins, and the oppression of a screen.

You may not dig my sound, there are a lot of people who like technique, others want to see what gear does, and other just want to dance. Some people want music to beat the crap out of them so they can’t feel anything. Some people only want to hear music they already know at a volume which isn’t “too loud” and don’t have any shame about asking the DJ to play something “good.” It’s a big huge world, and it’s filled to capacity with people who watch too much television, and ache to be just like those people. So our frustration is natural (because imitating art is unsustainable) and so you’re going to have to find your own road stylistically. The tempo, the impact, the content, the shape and sound of your music is yours to explore and share. I’m not preaching style. I’m talking about musical content, and technique here.

Master your devices. Push them in directions that you wonder about, even if you never share these experiments with anyone, if you have a question – determine the answer. Satisfy your own curiosity. You never know when this will come in handy.

For more info about my personal background, and how I got here from there, watch the film HOME. It’s a killer document of the 2016 live ground tour, and what that was all about. The director Martha Traer did a superb job on this film, and I think it’s time well spent.

I hope this story helps you on your own adventures.


  1. Scott Wozniak:

    Absolutely. I’ve always been the most productive when I’ve had just a few choice pieces. I also limit my plugins to just a few great ones, otherwise I get option paralysis.

  2. dr_rek:

    Harry Shearer has been quoted to me by a former college professor many times that if you don’t have a box of constraints to work within, the unlimited possibilities can be counter productive to creativity.

  3. Matthew Anderson:

    Thanks so much for this piece of writing. It is right where I’m at now, noticing how I am always watching for the next awesome tool but not working with the tools I have long enough to get really good at them. I feel like you’ve inspired me to keep pushing to make better music and have fun with what I have. Thank you!

  4. Peter Vincent:

    amazing breakdown.. just what i need as i’m still considering eurorack.

  5. Sonya Rodgers:

    And oppression creates action. If it weren’t for strife we would have given up the fight long ago in favour of comfort.

  6. Pat Hilander:

    So much truth in that! The best piece I’ve read on music creation in quite some time!!!

  7. Jonathan Condit:

    GAS affects everyone, but the strong minded resist. Not more gear, just more music!

  8. Brent Northey:

    Thank you Sunshine!

  9. William Farkas:

    Yes and yes that’s the way I’m rolling!

  10. Edward Jacobson:

    I am there.

  11. Patton Gibson:

    Wow. This is wonderful and sound advice. Ill be sharing it with my 15 yr old producer friend I introduced you to. ♥

  12. Bryan Olivas:

    Flowers can still grow in boxes.

  13. Tensai Cirno:

    Beautiful read

  14. djjadc:

    More funk less tech

  15. Axe:

    This is a big challenge to me. I’ll do my best – because all that gear does make it harder to focus on getting things done. Surprised I don’t see a newsletter-email-opt-in. Thanks for all your articles.

  16. Sunshine:

    @Axe – you can follow my physical endeavors here:
    There is a mailing list there which I very infrequently communicate with.

    Here is a repository and notice board for articles, ideas, and announcements. It’s for love, as a form of memory, rather than money or notoriety.