How Many Creative Options Do You Need?

This is a hard lesson to learn for many artists, myself included. Here it is, though: adding more creative options only causes you to reach a point of diminishing returns quite rapidly. Beyond that point, having more creative options available to you causes you to create worse art, not better.

The reason this is true is that selection and trying out different options displaces the actual creative work. In music production, it means you spend more time auditioning and tweaking, rather than constructing the essentials of your composition. In painting, it might translate into dithering over colour choices, brush selection, lighting options, or different poses, rather than getting on with the painting.

In music production, I often see people spending literally hours crafting their own kick drum sound, so that it is just right. Now that people mainly produce at home, they’re not paying a fortune for every studio hour, but how you spend your time carries opportunity costs. You have to consider the activities you can’t and won’t do, while you’re perfecting a single drum sound.

I submit that crafting your own kick drum sound, if it takes more than a minute or so, is a colossal waste of time. It certainly won’t guarantee that any song that uses your signature bass drum sound will be a runaway hit. What you actually need is a kick drum sound that’s good enough for your purposes, which you can find and use quickly. Searching laboriously through ten thousand variants isn’t a good use of your time either. The beauty of the earliest drum machines was that they offered a very limited choice of sounds, if any choice at all.

No matter how good the sounds you select are, your music productions only begin to suck a little less if you make a lot of tracks and you become adept at serving the feeling of the song, instead of fixating on incidental minutiae. Similarly, you need to aim for mixing and mastering that’s close enough, but done and dusted in a reasonable amount of time. Don’t rush, but don’t dawdle either. Indecision doesn’t make the music better.

If your music is, by some happy miracle, really popular, most people will experience it through cheesy earbuds or tiny, tinny laptop speakers anyway. The difference between a good enough production and one that has been methodically and tortuously perfected doesn’t matter and nobody cares, even if they claim they can hear the difference. Rigorous blind testing reveals that most people can’t actually tell the difference between good enough and perfect anyway.

What audiences care most about is the quality of the song writing. They like lyrics that resonate with them, delivered with energy, vitality and originality (EVO). You need to surprise them with something they weren’t expecting, but which they find entertaining. The performance needs to be honest and authentic.

Burying those qualities under layer upon layer of precision digital signal processing often strips away the very imperfections that make a song appealing. It’s why overproduction is an actual thing, to be avoided. If you find yourself spending time chasing infinitesimal audio quality improvements, you have essentially lost the plot. Nobody will even know you have, in the unlikely event that you achieve them.

So, finish more tracks and songs. Get better at being faster and more creatively decisive. Let go of the obsessions the music equipment manufacturers and industry magazines infect you with, so that you keep buying more stuff. If anything, pare down your sonic palette to a few workhorse essentials and use other more exotic sounds like condiments. A limited sonic palette can force you into doing better things with melody, harmony, counterpoint and rhythm. In other words, don’t let your available creative options bully you into paralysis.

A standard Digital Audio Workstation programme comes bundled with more than enough creative options, these days. Add a decent sampler and sample library and a few instruments (actual or virtual) and you can make really interesting music. It’s unlikely you’ll ever exhaust the permutations and combinations of all the resources you start with, either.

As a young guitar player, with a single electric guitar and a wah-wah pedal, it was challenging, but immensely satisfying to explore how many different timbres and textures you could find with just this limited collection of gear. Invariably, you were forced to venture way beyond the obvious and trite usages, that everybody else had already found and put on record, to the outer fringes, where the interesting sounds were to be found. Who knew there were at least six ways you could play a guitar with a Philips head screwdriver?

As a painter, limit your palette to five colours, at most, when you make a picture and use only three or four brushes. It almost doesn’t matter which ones you choose. What counts is your imagination and all the ways you can find to get the most out of these limitations. You can always choose a different five colours and four brushes for your next painting.

When it comes to creative options, less is so often more. Whatever choices you make, use the hell out of them and move on. What people want to see are the amazing things you did with what you had; not how good you were at shopping.

Make every creative choice count.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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2 Responses to How Many Creative Options Do You Need?

  1. Liana says:

    Great take! Valuable perspective on simplicity that we overlook a lot.

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