Use What You Have

Use what you have. That has become my motto of late, particularly in regards to music equipment. As a gear junkie, it’s easy to get trapped in the mindset that just one more piece of gear will spark some sort of creativity, crush any writer’s block, make me ultimately happy and solve all the world’s problems! Okay, maybe not that last one, but you get the idea. It’s easy to allow the desire for some piece of new gear to get in the way of, or the “latest and greatest” software release to distract from, the fundamental reason I’ve invested in musical hardware and software: making music.

I remember as a young teenager trying to eke every bit of functionality out of my first real synth, a Korg Poly-800. I learned to program my own sounds, to program the step-sequencer and to record it via a poor man’s multitrack (i.e. two separate cassette decks feeding into each other). It was all that I had and could afford at the time. When I had few choices in regards to gear or functionality, I was (if I’m remembering non-nostalgically) more creative. Nowadays, with the wide availability and affordability of powerful soft-synths and the myriad functions they come with, there’s almost too many choices to make when using a software instrument. They come with such an array of features and sounds that it would take a person years to explore it all. Now this is great for those just starting out in this crazy world of music-making as it provides a big bang for the buck, particularly if one is a cash-strapped teenager. But once you’ve spent some time creating music, you begin to realize that too many choices can lead to a stifling of creativity. More isn’t always better.

The DAW (digital audio workstation) that I use for recording, like most software, has periodic updates, typically on an annual basis. And like most software, there is usually a fee for major updates. This year however, I decided to break the cycle and stick with the previous version. Yes, the update that was released has new features I’d like to have and could find useful. But here’s the thing: “last year’s” version is really all that I need. Indeed, it’s much more than I need as there are features buried in it that I’ll likely never use. Can I record and mix audio? Yes. Can I record and edit MIDI data? Yes. Can I do pretty much everything I need to do from a recording studio standpoint with an older, non-current version of DAW software? Yes.

Another driving force for me putting off any new purchases and to use what I have is that, over the past several years, I’ve been moving back into the hardware world. Don’t get me wrong, software plugins sound great and are economical when compared to hardware, but the tactile thing is not there. And as a musician, I miss that. Sitting in front of a computer and mouse-clicking around in the GUI of a soft-synth program feels too much like work. Also, as operating systems are updated, the soft-synths I have today may not run on a future OS due to potential incompatibilities. At least hardware instruments, barring any breakdown in the components, will continue to be playable for decades. That’s not being seen, at least yet, with software instruments.

For me, the solution is a hybrid setup of things I already own: select pieces of quality hardware instruments combined with a few pieces of powerful software. I have not only the immediacy and tactility of hardware instruments but also the convenience and power of software. For me, a focus on just one or the other is unduly limiting. A hybrid setup is, to use a well worn cliche, the best of both worlds.

At the end of the day, it’s not the hardware, it’s not the software, it’s not the latest and greatest gear that makes music. They are just tools that are useless without someone to play them. Take a second look at those tools currently at your disposal: the older instruments, that “out-dated” software, your aging computer. Squeeze every last ounce of creative juice from them to achieve your creative goals. Use what you have.

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