How setting limits in the studio can lead to creative success

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Creative limitations in the recording studio5 ways to improve your recordings by setting limitations in the studio

In a creative space, endless options can drive us crazy.

This is especially true in the studio, where expectations run high and budgetary and time restraints amp up the pressure.  In this environment a limitation can be the very thing that keeps you sane.

Ever seen The Five Obstructions? It’s a great film, and a great illustration of how arbitrary obstacles can help us focus and push beyond our habitual moves.

If you’re about to head into the recording studio, consider some of these creative limitations:

1) Set a maximum track-count before the session begins — It’s not uncommon these days for Pro Tools sessions to have 100 tracks. Sure, if you’re Dr. Luke recording the next #1 single for Katy Perry, go for it. But if you’re squeezing in recording time on the weekends, do you really want to have to sift through all those tracks every time you open your session?

Instead, set a rule for yourself: no song on this album will have more than X tracks. It could be 4, 8, 16, 24,… whatever. [But if your session is taking up more than 24 tracks, you’re not exactly limiting yourself, are you?]

So try to put your minimal hat on. It’ll force you to boil things down to their essentials, and save you lots of time and worry when you get to the mixing stage.

Hint: if you’re approaching your track limit and still need room for an extra kick drum, maybe you can bounce/ping-pong the string quartet or the six backing vocals down to a stereo track. Which brings us to… 

2) Submix, submix, submix — If you’re working with a grouping of instruments that all belong in the same universe, create a submix of that grouping (strings with strings, brass with brass, background vocals with background vocals, drums with drums, etc.). Once you’ve got the right blend for each grouping, print it to tape (or computer) and commit to it! Again, this move will save you time and stress when it comes to mixing, and open up more tracks if you need to add more instruments.

Hint: if you’re really second-guessing your submixes when it comes time to create the final mix, you can always go back into your session (unless you’re recording analog!) and create a new blend. Though that DOES kinda defeat the whole purpose of submixing in the first place.

3) Set rules for instrumentation and sonic palette — Before you begin a recording session, decide what instruments will be used, what effects, what samples, what sounds,… and stick to it for the whole project without introducing any other elements. Maybe you want all drums to be a vintage 808, but with real shaker and tambourine. Great. Sounds cool. But you can’t add real snare or cymbals later! Maybe you wan to use a clean sounding telecaster with some delays. Sweet! Forbid yourself to use any kind of distortion pedal for the whole album, and rely solely on the amp for crunch. By setting these ground rules, you get more creative with the instruments you ARE using (in order to diversify the songs across the album), AND you end up giving a cohesion to the project as a whole. These kinds of limitations are often what gives great albums a certain “feel.”

4) Give yourself a finite amount of takes per part — Nothing is worse than listening back to 20 guitar solos to find the magic moments of each that can be comped together. Voltron tracks are for suckas! Don’t be a robot. Be a human. Say to yourself, “I’m going to nail this guitar solo in 3 takes. If I don’t, I’m moving on to something else and coming back later.” Then, if you don’t get something that sounds right, delete those tracks. Begin again tomorrow.

5) Leave something out — Sometimes a song can take on a whole new life when you remove an element you’d previously thought crucial to the overall arrangement. What if you removed the synth pad from your latest hip-hop song and relied on the drum loop, bass, and samples to do the work? What if your acoustic guitar, accordion, and cello lullaby was actually more interesting without the acoustic guitar? Experiment with removing things. Give the song some breathing room. You might find that less is more.

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For an in-depth discussion about WHY the creative process benefits from limitation, and to hear some specific suggestions on how to stir things up in the studio, check out the interview below with legendary composer and record producer Brian Eno:

What are some of YOUR ways for staying sane, streamlined, and creative in the studio? Let us know in the comments below.

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[Picture of keyboard with stuck key from Shutterstock.]

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  • I start with the presumption that I want to perform the music live, with a limited band configuration. Hence, overly complicated arrangements are an exception to my process. I began my recording experience on four track cassette portastudios and find that I get the sound I want on limited tracks. I’m rarely over ten tracks on any given song I produce and have had success with this philosophy.

    Unlike number four above, I never limit my takes on vocals, I do those until satisfied, acoustic guitar parts where picking is involved is given the same liberty. I particularly agree with number two and three in the list, great advice.

    Finally, I experiment with vocal effects prior to committing to takes. I find that previously unexplored melodies or harmony parts will present themselves when I do this in advance of recording.

  • ontheforum

    If you are a perfectionist in the studio like me, then spending more money that needed is also becomes an issue when recording. Many great songs that were recorded did not require many takes, just a well rehearsed Artist! Thanks for the well thought out tips in this article.

    Warm Regards,

    Terrance
    http://www.3000records.com

  • Ah, yes. I’ve run into the trouble many times of spending past my budget on records. Glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for commenting!

    @ChrisRobley

  • Nice. So do you print your effects to tape? That’s another GREAT suggestion for saving time later in the mixing process. “Don’t like it? Tough! It’s permanent!”

    @ChrisRobley

    • Sometimes I use VST effects and sometimes my outboard processors. If I’m not sure how it’s going to go later in the mix I just record a dry track at the same time where vocals are concerned, that way I have both. As for acoustic guitar effects I add them (chorus, flanger, phasers special EQ’ing) in the DAW. Electric guitar effects are always committed in the front end of the recording process for me. Mixing with less tracks to deal with makes the process pretty straight forward so I never feel too pressed when it’s mix down time.

  • Sounds sane. Thanks for sharing.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Man, what an interview there! So many good points that’d be really unfair to single out just one. It’s 1h20, but it’s definitely worth every minute of it – even the questions are really good!

  • Oh yeah. That interview is great. He’s amazing, and I thought she did a really awesome job asking interesting questions, and knowing the subject.

    @ChrisRobley