Most of us who use computers for music production are caught in an unending spiral of upgrades and migrations and searching high and low for new toys. But in this high-tech maze of almost endless possibilities it’s easy to forget that limitations can be a source of inspiration.
My main system is a 2010 quad-core with 8GB RAM. Despite being three years old (and an AMD), this machine is still so powerful that it handles everything I throw at it without even breaking a sweat. The largest and most taxing projects I have push it close to 60% CPU usage, but that’s about it.
Which is great of course, but I find it hard adapting to this luxurious abundance of processing power. Throughout my life as a computer user I’ve always battled the hard limitations of my systems. CPU, RAM, graphics cards, hard disk space. It seems there was always something that required just a little more than my machine could handle, forcing me to spend crazy amounts of time streamlining and optimizing every little tweakable detail of my OS. Living on the edge, so to speak.
These days I can do pretty much whatever I want without having to worry about my computer suddenly shitting its pants and falling over, and this on an OS (Windows 7) that I haven’t changed a single thing on except cosmetics and usability since I installed it a year and a half ago. The only bottleneck in my system is my Geforce 9600GT which is starting to show it’s age, something that is obviously only apparent in newer games.
Oddly enough this hasn’t made me any more productive. On the contrary I find myself getting increasingly caught up in little details like, say, finding the perfect effects chain for a 2 second transitional sound effect in a song, or choosing which synths or samples to layer for that string pad that sits behind everything else. When what I really should be doing is finish that damn song already and worry about the mixing and production bits afterwards.
Simply put, having this much power at my fingertips encourages me to tinker rather than make music.
Then a few days ago, on a whim, I decided to use my laptop for laying down the basics for a song idea that’s been spinning in my head for a while. My laptop, unlike my stationary machine, is definitely at the bottom end of the spectrum. It’s a budget ASUS from 2008 with a 1.5GHz Celeron processor and 3GB RAM, running Windows XP. Not a terrible computer overall, it’s snappy enough for everyday tasks, but for DAW work it’s pretty pathetic.
I’ve had this lappy for a year and a half or so (my girlfriend gave it to me as she wasn’t using it) and yes, I have used it for some modest music making tasks all along. But I’ve always been frustrated by the fact that it can’t handle the stuff I’m used to so it’s been mostly a musical scratch pad, something for capturing rough ideas when I’m away from my main machine.
This, however, was the first time I sat down with my laptop with the clear intention of using it for more serious work. And after the initial hurdle of letting go of most of my favorite plugins and sample sets and picking some more CPU and RAM-frugal alternatives… it was a ton of fun!
Suddenly I found that this limited setup had a lot more speaking for it than I could have imagined. Not only did it allow me to dust off some oldies that won’t even run on Win 7 x64, like my trusty old Yamaha S-YXG50 and a plethora of early/mid 2000’s freeware VST’s and DX’s that I hadn’t seen or even thought about since I started working with plugins.
It also forced me to focus on the important stuff. When you can’t just add things without suffering a noticeable performance hit, you start thinking a lot harder on the value of the parts in your arrangement. You tend to forego all the extraneous fluff for the sake of making the other parts sound the best they can. And that, my friends, was a valuable lesson to me.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going make my lappy my main music production platform. But I will certainly not disregard it again as a serious tool for music making, despite its seemingly measly specs. It also made me realize that there’s value to be found in the forgotten, outdated plugins of yesteryear and keeping an XP machine around that will run them is probably not a bad idea.
This whole thing also inspired me to embark on a more extreme retro-computing venture, but that is another story.
It’s easy to be seduced by the power of modern computers and if you don’t possess a stronger sense of determination than mine they will sidetrack you and make you forget why you’re using them in the first place.