We have a wealth of choice in music tech today - thousands of astonishing plugins, programs and devices for producing music pretty much anywhere. The scale of options can however, occasionally paralyze us. The paradox of choice is a very real thing - most notable in a takeaway or restaurant with a large selection of things on offer and a limited time to choose before we starve to death.
This paradox of choice can arise when making music too, alongside a possible undertone of guilt at having all the possibilities in the world and no new ideas coming to mind. In the past, access to gear, software, and music making tools was highly limited, but even so, hugely iconic, emotive, and expressive music was made. With that in mind, we're going to take inspiration from the constraints on music making in the past to focus our minds, optimise our time, and boost our creative potential.
Note: This may appear to be an overly taxing and (possibly painfully) restrictive challenge on the face of it, but I assure you; having achieved your aim, you'll gain many new perspectives for making music.
Floppy / Zip Disks
It may be hard to believe, but the humble floppy disk has a standard storage size of 1.44 MB, which meant that all data had to be optimised, trimmed, and down sampled to be contained on one. In later years, the ZIP disk came along with what was then a massive 100MB of space which eventually increased to equal that of a CD ROM (700+ MB). There are now very few limits on storage.
Limit your song file/folder size - Easy: 50MB / Medium: 15MB / Hard: 5MB
All DAWs are different, so setting your own parameters for this is what's necessary - you may want to consider whether to include limits on contained samples, VST instruments, and the project folder. In most cases, MIDI notes and CCs will be minute in comparison to samples, so downsampling your sounds will be necessary. Not only will this save space it'll also affect their tonal quality, which might just give your sound a new flavour. Alternatively, use wavetables instead of samples.
Many sampler fanatics will tell you that drum breaks were simply too big to fit on floppy disks, but if you pitched them up, saved them, then played them on lower notes they would fit on a disk - with all the lo-fi artifacts adding to the charm. Ingenious! Artists like Pete Cannon are still using this technology to wondrous effect:
Our time here is limited; which means we all have a great incentive for a sense of urgency! With this in mind, how about limiting your track making to a finite amount of time? Note that Andrew Huang recently made an entire album with Rob Scanlon in 12 hours - though they're pretty much super-human at this stage so I'm not sure it counts!
Limit your track making time - Easy: 4 Hours / Medium: 1 Hour / Hard: 30 minutes
This could be set out in terms of a week - perhaps a 1 hour session each day to make a track, or like FACTMag's Against the Clock Series; go hardcore and limit yourself to 10 minutes to get something rolling. You'll find a restriction on time gives you an exceptionally focused approach, prioritising what is absolutely essential to get a track together. Likewise, you could set yourself a more protracted time-specific goal like MATTHS has done in 2021 - releasing one track each month for a whole year. A video review of this process is apparently on the way!
Here's FactMag's 'Against The Clock' with Rival Consoles:
7" records used to be the standard release format for singles - with an A-side featuring the hit release and an often more experimental and freeform B-side on the flip side. The limitation this format brought was that songs were confined to being just over 3 minutes long - the reason that to this day, many radio edits are of similar length.
Limit your track length - Easy: 1 minute / Medium: 2 minutes / Hard: 3 minutes
In the modern 'Tik-Tok' world we may be used to making short musical bursts of 1 minute or so. In reality, while it doesn't translate too well to a full release, it's not actually far off matching this particular challenge. Limit your track to 3 minutes to say all you need to say. Many producers use the same session to track a radio edit alongside a more extended club version - so if you like what you've made you can always take it further.
Music gear has been continually released over the last 40-50 years, with a huge uptake in options since software joined the party. We see new synths, samplers, sequencers and much more on a daily basis now - but it wasn't always this way.
Limit the era of production tools - Easy: Pre 2010 / Medium: Pre 2000 / Hard: Pre 1990
Limiting your options to a particular era is a fun and often inspiring way of making music. For example, focusing on synths (or soft synths) made between 1990-1995, or the DAW of a particular year (who remembers Making Waves - the software behind Daniel Bedingfield's Garage-Pop hit 'Gotta Get Thru This'?). You could try making music with things released up until a specific point, or only after a specific point - this may not be limited to gear, but could even be early versions of VSTs: Native Instrument's Pro-53 anyone?. For the most dedicated, this will mean running virtual machines and antique operating systems, but you'll be surprised what still translates. Just remember there's no time stretching!
Like Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet did for their hit single 'Don't Go'... you could limit yourself to what is available in 1982. Sounds pretty good to me!
Limited Synths / Sound Sources
We've all been in the position of owning our single first synth - digging in deep with it and experimenting with the diversity of sound possibilities held within. Many people have attempted to make an entire track or album with one synth or piece of gear - youtubers have taken on the challenge (see below) and I myself have done this numerous times for the Synth Explorer range of sample packs.
Limit the amount of gear - Easy: 3 Synths / Medium: 2 Synths / Hard: 1 Synth
Finding ways of making basses, pads, leads, kick drums, snares and (often a challenge if there is no white noise) hi hats is a hugely rewarding process - and you'll be surprised what ingenious techniques you come up with. For an expert guide on designing drums, have a look at the manual for the Waldorf Attack soft synth, which details how each type of hit can be generated. Going back to a full setup after doing something like this suddenly makes your usual process seem immeasurably easier. You'll find your sound design skills grow exponentially with this task!
Here is Cuckoo making an entire song out of the Typhon synthesizer.
With such a wealth of processing options available right now, we can transform a single sound into a myriad of things - Beardyman is known for doing this with his voice alone to astonishing effect.
Limit the number of Samples - Easy: 10 Samples / Medium: 3 Samples / Hard: 1 Sample
How about taking one sample, and using it to make an entire track - perhaps a vocal sample, or something recorded from your home? Processing programs like Paulstretch will immediately give you a wealth of options, as well as resonant filters, pitch changes, harmonisers, and the (now obligatory) downsampling. It may sound like an impossible challenge off the bat, but what better way to get engrossed in sound design, and test your skills?
Here's Yan Cook making an entire Techno track with one sample:
Hardware sequencers, tape recorders, and many software DAWs came with limited track numbers and channel options. Early tape machines had one or two tracks of recording, DAWs were originally limited to 16 tracks of MIDI only (with no audio or VST tracks) and chip music is often limited to just 4 channels. Each of these restrictions result in our musical dexterity being challenged as well as our problem-solving skills and resourcefulness.
Limit the track count - Easy: 8 Tracks / Medium: 4 Tracks / Hard: 2 Tracks
Try using 4 tracks of audio only; you'll find that limited resources mean you have to think of ingenious ways to make things work - much like chip music producers still do. For a more modern challenge, restrict the number of tracks for VST instruments and nothing else! Go the extra mile and remove the option for effects sends, for minimal additional processing - or enforce zero master channel effects.
Something not for the faint hearted - here's DJ Scotch Egg playing live with four GameBoys at Boiler Room Berlin, while wearing a rather dashing pinafore!
So, there are some novel approaches to inspire, refine, and refresh your music making! Hopefully it'll instigate some new ideas and help you see things from a fresh angle. You might want to think about limiting processing power such as CPU usage or for the very brave: no saving at all; render export only! Time to fire up a five minute floor filler and get your groove on over just four tracks!
Do you have any particular techniques to limit your music making?
What other limitations might inspire creativity?