“If you always put a limit on everything you do, it will spread into your work and your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them”. – Bruce Lee
I have thought long and hard about limits, and I have come to the conclusion that when speaking of limits, I am not speaking about an abstract idea, but about a tool. I am not talking about the limits in the physical sense, so much as the limits I place upon myself as a musician. I tend to keep every tool I have at hand because you never know which one will be right for the job. And I am not just talking about VSTs or sample libraries. I am talking about concepts, about ideas, and about the execution of those things when creating a track.
For me, it is one of the trickiest elements of creating a piece of music, and it is therefore one that must be considered very carefully. The musicians I admire the most are the ones that manage to break boundaries by going past the limits of what has previously been done, and yet still manage to keep the music within the limits of the scene it is in.
Good examples would be Nine Inch Nails in rock, Skrillex in dubstep, The Panacea in drum’n'bass, or Hyper On Experience in Hardcore. But the ultimate boundary breaking artist in electronic music would have to be Aphex Twin. These artists are wildly different in every way, but all of them are absolutely willing to go into realms others barely hint at, and often enough don’t dare go to at all.
I suspect that they all do this instinctively. I don’t think any of them sit down and really consider how to bend the rules, but I could be wrong on that score. Every artist approaches his art in his own way, and I doubt any two are similar.
As for me, I am always thinking about how to bend the rules, and yet keep the music I am working on within the boundaries set by the scene itself. This is no easy feat, and it is one I fail at far more often than not. It is essential to keep the music within the boundaries, because if I make a hardcore tune with a violin at 120bpm, it will no longer be a hardcore tune, no matter what other elements I put in there. However, the actual boundaries are always changing, and it is impossible to draw a line and say “this is hardcore” and then work to that because 6 months later the line wont be in the same place anymore. It cannot be defined. So the question of limits is more complex than expected. You can never be exactly sure where the line is drawn, and so you can never really be certain when you cross it.
When I think back over the many tracks I have made, I come to the conclusion that I have only really managed to get the “limit” balance right about three times. Piano Progression, My Angel, and Fuck Me Egyptian Style. Each of these tracks fit into the hardcore scene, but they are all beyond it, or outside it, because I have pushed the limits of what is possible to the very edge without going over it and into the abyss.
I should probably make it clear that I am not afraid or worried if I do end up in the abyss – there is much to be learned by going too far. And I am not saying these are the only three tracks I have made that are good. But they are the three I am most proud of. There are others that come very close. Mindrider (with Dj Bexxie) was nearly right, and Wot For, Not Sure (with Dj TC) also rates highly with me. But as I had help with both of those tracks, I cannot claim the credit for getting the limitations correct.
These examples are all tracks that I consider to be my most innovative, and they are so because I have pushed my limits just far enough. And here is where the question of limiting yourself becomes tricky, because it isn’t always a good thing to push past the boundaries. Sometimes, the opposite is true, and the application of limits makes for a better track.
Are you confused yet? I hope so. Its a very confusing topic, and probably not the best one to start off a series of writing about music, but its the one I think about most often.
What I am trying to say is that you have to:-
a) Know the limits of the scene you are working in.
b) Know your own limits.
c) Know when to push past both and…
d) Know when not to.
When I first started making music, I was limited by equipment. I couldn’t make a track that was 15 minutes long because my Atari simply couldn’t handle it, unless it was 15 minutes of the exact same loop going around and around. Likewise, I had a limit to how many samples I could use – the Akai S1000 had limited space. This meant that there was only so far I could push a track. And this is why Hyper On Experience really were an amazing act. If you put aside the composition and musical elements for now, and consider that they managed to fill their tracks with an enormous amount of samples and ideas, and to this day I wonder how many samplers they must have had – perhaps they had unlimited money? Or unlimited time? I don’t know. But I do know that when everyone else was releasing music that might have 4 main parts repeated, their tracks would constantly evolve and often not repeat at all. In this day and age, thats hard to do. Back then? It was close to miraculous.
As equipment evolved, so did the electronic musicians ability to push past previous limits. Time stretching meant that we no longer had to just speed up vocals by pitch. This was a big deal. Modern producers don’t seem to realize that the “mickey mouse” high pitched vocal wasn’t a deliberate style, more just a side effect of not being able to do anything else. Most of the vocals we sampled were sung much slower than hardcore’s 160bpm, so all we could do was speed the vocals up.
Each time a technical innovation was made, another wall fell down, and there were fewer limits as to what the producer could do. This is undoubtedly a good thing, yet to my eyes it had at least one negative side effect. The lack of limits seemed to make some producers get more reserved rather than less so. How else to explain the fact that the music fragmented so much, and so many rules were put in place to define each style?
Nowadays there is virtually nothing you cant do musically, as long as you have a powerful computer and the willingness to learn how to produce. There are almost no limits at all.
The lack of any real restriction caused by equipment means that we are in a place where the question of limiting yourself has to be thought about. I find that placing restrictions on myself can be very useful. For example, if I am making an old skool track, it sounds much more authentic if I use the same equipment that I used back in the day. I cut the breaks up by hand, instead of using a VST. This is not as accurate, but it serves to give the track the right sound. Likewise, I use old samples rather than digital keyboards. Samples from records always have the sound of the needle in the groove on top of it, and add to that rough sound. I have even sampled a records run off groove and layered it onto a VST stab noise, just to make it sound “older”. It is a ridiculous thing to do, but it works. I have come to the conclusion that to get an authentic “old skool” sound, you need to use modern technology in a limited way. Its ironic in a way – I have to do much more work to get a much less refined sound. So for that style, applying limitations to yourself is useful. Its the easiest way to use limiting as a tool.
Slightly harder for me is to say to myself “I will not use a piano”. I limit myself this way fairly regularly, because piano’s are easy for me. At least, they are an easy thing to create and use, and it is much harder for me to get that “happy” sound without one. Many of the current producers do this with the “trance” sound. Its a good sound, like the piano. And when its used well, its very very effective. But, like the piano, it has been done a thousand times, and chances are the riff you just played or the piano line you composed is going to sound dated as soon as you play it. Relying on these elements for your track will almost always mean that your track will not break any boundaries. I want to emphasize that in itself, this doesn’t matter. Not every track has to change the world. But if you truly want to develop your music, its good to forbid yourself the elements that make it easy for you. Even just as an exercise.
But the hardest thing of all is to understand these limitations, to understand that doing things a certain way might work well but will almost certainly result in an “average” sounding track, and then to ignore the restrictions and do it anyway.
It is no surprise to me that of the three tracks I am most proud of, only one uses a piano. And even then, I took the idea of a piano and pushed it to a ridiculous length. At a time when most hardcore piano’s were 8 bars long, Piano Progression’s riff is 32 bars in length. Meanwhile, My Angel does nothing the right way. It has an electro beat that I sampled from Radiohead’s Idioteque, d’n'b stab noises, vocals from Marylin Manson, spoken vocals from a christian CD, and it doesn’t really fit in anywhere at all. Both tracks were not deliberately designed to be “different”. Rather, they were ideas I had pushed into other realms. I did this without thinking about it. It is only in the last few years that I have begun to analyze and question my own motivations.
Fuck Me Egyptian Style was different in that it was a deliberate effort. I wanted to push glitchy editing as far as I could, and yet still make it just about possible to dance to. Not easy. It took a very long time to make, and there are very few repeating bars in the whole track.
Are these three tracks my best work? Personally, I think so, but thats not the point. The point is that all three balance on the edge of the hardcore sound, all three are built on the principle of reaching the very farthest limit of what could be done by me at the time they were made. All three mange to just about stay in the hardcore genre, despite themselves.
This is why I think about limits. How do I reach those heights again? I cannot say, as there is no map, no guideline to follow, and no obvious answer. But whatever the answer is, I am certain the question is about limits.
Hyper On Experience – Lord Of The Null Lines:-
The thing to listen to here is how the track develops and mutates all the way through, and then remember this was made without any of the modern computer based cleverness!
The Panacea – Carborundum
Listen to how chaotic and violent the music is, it seems to be screaming all the way through. The use of samples and the amount of energy contained in the one track is outstanding.
Nine Inch Nails – The Great Destroyer:-
This track starts off as an almost standard rock tune, even though ti has some clever effects. But when it gets to the the 1:50 mark, it suddenly becomes ear candy for anyone who loves to hear drums pushed to the limit.
Skrillex – First of the Year
Okay, I know many people are anti dubstep. But Skrillex has pushed bass sounds further than any other artist in recent memory, and even if you hate it, you have to give the guy props for going so far in one direction that everyone else was left scratching their heads in confusion.
Aphex Twin – Windowlicker
You need to get past the first 5 minutes of swearing lol…Pretty much any track from Aphex Twin will bend your brain out of shape. I use this one as an example because not only is the editing incredible, he also makes the track go out of time and out of sync, which is incredibly difficult using modern equipment. And its even harder to make it sound right. I would also say that Aphex Twin is a terrible example of someone who knows his limits. All his tracks go way past that. But the fact that he sells so many records means that, no matter how much you want to say “he went to far”, he obviously didn’t!
Comments are welcome!