Limited tools, unlimited creativity?
A small but significant secret to boundless creative output
Watching this interview with veteran record producer and engineer Susan Rogers, I was curious what her experience was like working with Prince in sessions at Sunset Studio.
This clip includes interesting discussion about his particular way of arranging songs for recording, but what got me was her response to the layup question of “And he loved his Mesa/Boogie amp for guitars, correct?”
“That was his choice, yeah. Funny thing about that is people often in interviews will talk about him being experimental with his sounds and stuff, and I would always say “no, it was absolutely the opposite.” Because he was so creative, he needed his methodology to be a pretty narrow lane. Because if his creativity had drifted outside of those lanes to finding new guitars and new guitar sounds and all new keyboards and all new drum machines, it would’ve tapped resources that were being devoted to songwriting. So he wanted his tools to stay exactly the same, because he was so hyper-creative with the same tools, he could draw and paint for years.”
It’s easy to assume that Prince was wildly if not ridiculously experimental with developing sounds just by listening to the results, but with this in mind, I can see now that it wasn’t so much experimenting with tools or sounds but instead with songwriting and theory.
I’m no musician, but from what I can tell, the Mesa/Boogie amp is a no-brainer for guitarists. Tune it to your tastes and off to the races, every single time. The LinnDrum drum machine, while innovative in the early ‘80s is actually quite primitive, especially when used in a basic musical arrangement. It’s no substitute for live instruments being played by humans, but the power of the LinnDrum comes from drastic reduction in time to completion.
Since Prince was a proficient drummer himself, he knew where the boundaries were and was free to focus on how to push past them lyrically and thematically. It makes sense that he would prefer working with a limited-but-highly-efficient set of tools allowed him to keep sketching out ideas.
I’m convinced this is something all artists sometimes struggle with at some point. I’ve been guilty of it myself, whether it’s fussing over which program to use for a design project, comparing specs on AV gear, or even what I’m doing right now—looking for the best fit in a goddamn ink pen.
I hate that I find myself obsessing over something that is 99% not going to affect my work whatsoever, other than keeping me from actually doing it. The temptation to believe that you could do better work if you just had the exact right tool is 100% counterproductive. Sometimes it’s better to just to settle for whatever’s available and doing your best with it, right?
Check out so much more of Susan’s stories on her experiences in the music industry in her upcoming book “This Is What It Sounds Like”
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