Tool making vs. music making

Hi everyone! Long time reader, first time poster.

I identify strongly as a tool maker. Less so as a music maker. For me being musically creative means designing an opportunity space where some music might exist and thinking through how deliberate design choices could alter that space. I’ve published some of these tools over the years but finding an audience for them is not necessarily something I derive a lot of satisfaction from. It’s more about enjoying the process.

I’m often disappointed to find that I sit down to make music and instead work on mundane aspects of these tools or daydream about new ones. Like I’m missing an opportunity to have simple fun and record some tunes. My skills as a designer and engineer far outweigh my skills as a musician, so that is definitely a contributing factor.

For the self-identified tool makers out there, I’d love to know: does this dichotomy exist for you? Or does it all work in harmony? How do you approach thinking about the tools you make and the music you make (with or without those tools)?

I love that the ethos behind monome products is to blur this distinction and so I know that many folks in this forum will have experience grappling with this creative mode. Keen to hear from professionals in the audio software world as well!


As a concrete example, my latest obsession has been dusting off an old browser live coding environment I built called lissajous and extending it to send audio and CV into my modular via an ES-8. It’s proving to be an incredibly powerful tool and yet I haven’t managed to make any music with it!

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I can definitely identify with this! When I first started getting into Max/MSP in the early 2000s, I looked up and realized I’d spent a year making a lot of Max patches, but very little music. That was a wake-up call for me to realize that, while I enjoy making tools, I also really want to stay focused on making music with them.

I had a similar realization when I started with Eurorack in 2017. I spent the first year buying a module or two at a time, slowly building up a small system. By the end of first year or so, I hadn’t really made anything worth putting on a release, but I did have a significantly deeper understanding of modular thinking (patching between things, using modulation, etc).

I have swung back and forth from those periods of intense tool-building to strict music making, and I feel like I’m now in a pretty good place of balance. My work with North Coast Modular Collective allows me to play with ideas for tools (whether hardware modules or software) but not to the exclusion of making music (I’ve released 2 EPs since 2018, with lots more in the pipeline).

I think being frank with yourself about what your goals are is important here: if you strongly identify as a tool-maker, perhaps that what you might choose to focus on, maybe in community with a group of artists who are interested in using the tools you make.

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If you can make music as well as the tools to create it, this means that you are extremely multi talented. Both music making and tool creation require a wealth of different skills to come together successfully and it usually takes years, if not decades, to master either.

My advice would be to not put yourself in a box by defining or identifying yourself too strongly in any one direction but rather explore everything that your talent has to offer you. Just the fact that you are alive means that you’re not missing out! Just keep enjoying the process whichever way it takes you and trust that your increasing experience will eventually make you able to nudge it in the direction of your goals.

So much of what we do as individuals in one little corner these days required lots of people in massive buildings filled with equipment not so long ago. It’s no wonder that it takes time to refine the process.

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I expect a lot of folk here fit that category…

I like making tools, but have realised I don’t really enjoy making them usable by others! Takes too long and I get bored…

So now I think of every composition as a custom tool or system, and this makes it easier for me. It also shifts the focus back to the music, but still lets me try exciting new things.

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This resonates with me.

Over the past year or so I have been more intentional about the lifespan of the tools that I write. Knowing that I will throw a tool away (or at least not continue working on it) after the weekend I have spent building it, lowers the pressure to perfect the tool and allows me the freedom to explore the bugs idiosyncrasies in a way that is ultimately more creative to me. It also means I have a reasonable catalogue of tools I can use as prior-art further down the road.

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I had this problem when I started learning Pure Data. I felt like I had never got to the point where I was able to compose or perform, because I could always think of more puzzles I could solve or abstractions that I may need or optimizations that were going to make future work easier. But I never made any music for years. I eventually lost interest in Pure Data and got away from it for 5ish years.

In the last two years, I got back into it in a major way and these two things happened:

  1. I taught a course in Pure Data for some undergraduates, and discovered in doing so that all of that time spent building tools gave me a really solid foundation to build a course on for total beginners to PD (and to computer music in general).
  2. I had two friends (whom I hadn’t known in my earlier period of PD obsession) who noticed that I never actually made music with PD, and they pointed this out to me.

I began to reflect on what my friends said, and realized that part of what was going on was my own anxiety about not being an Expert in a field where I had no formal training, no mentors, and no community (I learned PD on my own while attending a small college in a very rural and poor area). Another part of this anxiety was my own fear in the face of so many possibilities.

To explain that last bit: when I sit down with the guitar, I can draw on a lifetime of hearing rock and pop and folk and jazz guitar, and a lifetime of playing and performing with the guitar. I know what guitar music tends to do, and I also have a good sense of what it could do. And, I’ve been playing long enough that I know where I stand in relation to those two points. However, when I sit down to make something with PD, or with a modular synth, or really with any instrument/system/software, I get intimidated by the sheer possibility of it all. And especially when we’re considering electronic or computer music, part of that sheer possibility comes from how radically open-ended the formal possibilities are. Of course this goes for any instrument, including the guitar, but while I grew up immersed in an audio culture that deeply imprinted on me certain idioms and forms for the guitar, the same cannot be said, in my case at least, for computer music and electronic music.

So, all those years of me obsessively making tools and consistently avoiding making music with PD were, I think, the result of my anxiety about literally not knowing what to do, and lacking the confidence to do something anyways.

I’m still working on this. Some things that have helped:

  1. Listen to so much more music all the time from everyone and everywhere
  2. Find a supportive network of artists and musicians who are all continuously working on what they do and who have abandoned the stymieing pretenses of Expertise and Mastery
  3. Make a piece of music that is tiny and silly and un-optimized and sloppy and show it off to a loved one and pay attention to how they react and notice their genuine interest, support, care

I hope this makes sense. I’m half awake and needing coffee. May revise later after the rest of me wakes up.

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@msh it’s scary to imagine you being any more articulate :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: what you’ve written resonates with me deeply, especially the point about pulling others into your process more often to get that hit of support you need. I am bad at this! Going to take it to heart.

So true, and I can’t help but get frustrated knowing that creativity in one area comes so much more easily than the other even though they seemingly have so much overlap! There was a thread here a few weeks back about fighting perfectionism and the need to always be creating the “best thing” you’ve ever created, and that is an active struggle for me on the music-making side. I’m lucky to have a lot of incredible musicians among my friends and I have to resist the urge to set my own quality bar against them.

Thanks all for the thoughtful responses so far!

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I oscillate between tool building and composing in my own practice. Right now I’m in a tool building phase and have a half-finished instrument sitting on my kitchen table like it pays rent. It’s on its third rebuild and might get finished in a few days or a few weeks. I haven’t made all that much music while this project has been ongoing.

At other times, the work is almost exclusively focussed on exploring musical ideas, and the tools seem almost incidental.

For a long time, I would get frustrated when I wasn’t making enough music, even though it seemed like I was spending all of my time on activities under the umbrella of music. It really is two different lines of thought even with all of the overlapping intention between the activities.

This is absolutely priceless advice. And like most great advice, it is something that feels obvious, but might just need to be heard about 200 times over the course of life. I’ve definitely fallen into phases where a lot of what I’m doing is “about music” but isn’t necessarily musical per se, which usually only comes with listening or playing.

@kylestetz great topic!

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One thing I’d recommend - when you’re building and testing the tools, do so musically and record, edit and categorise what you make in that process. Often the tools (at least mine!) sound different along the way. Then when you find the time / space / whatever for music making you have a library of recordings to draw on without getting caught up in the tool making distraction.

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I can definitely empathize with your feeling, though I haven’t followed the same route. In particular I have an engineering background and have consequently deliberately avoided any aspects of music making (in particular programming) that will pull me into that way of thinking and working. This is because my intent in music was quite specific: to develop hands on skills for realtime performance with others. This was, in part, based on a desire to distance my personal and professional work. Despite that, I have always been interested in the confluence of art, science and technology.

This raises a second point: why make music? I have seen a lot of sentiment in the music tech loving community, about a necessity to make music. Feelings of guilt around owning a slew of instruments but not making any real music. To me, this arises from a disconnect between the actual motivation of the individual and the motivation they tell themselves. They tell themselves they buy the latest instrument to open some musical door to become the musician they always wanted to be, then they become disillusioned. In contrast, their motivation might be a desire to collect, an enjoyment in experimentation or something else. In buying the gear they feel they have to adopt the label “musician” but then don’t feel they live up to it.

Moving on to tool making, and where that fits with music and art: Why do you make tools? My hypothesis is that there is a disconnect between your actual motivation and the motivation you tell yourself you have. The claimed motivation is to fill a gap in your music making landscape: to open the door for you as a musician. If this is the motivation you experience then the result would inspire you to make music. If your true motivation is to explore a different creation process, perhaps a desire to refine the workflow or allow new ways to make sounds, then you may feel disillusioned; you acquired the label of a musician who also makes tools, but really you are a tool maker who enjoys making things to make music. You could tell yourself that the tool creation is the “artistic step” in the process, but if what you enjoy is the tool creation, then why berate yourself for not making more music: why not accept that the tool is the output of your art/craft and any music you make is nothing more that a secondary artifact.

A way in which you might bridge that gap its to work closely with a musician (or musicians) who creates music that inspires you and for which your tools may be appropriate. This would allow you to get more specific requirements and direction (meeting an engineering need) while also creating something that gets a platform to be used. I think this could help you face the dissonance you feel.

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I actively struggle with what I would call “compulsive tool-making”. All of my computer-based music is done using bespoke music software I’ve developed over the years. It’s been very difficult for me to break away from the “cool proof-of-concept” demos, and into musical works that have more substance to them.

Maintaining a healthy balance between tool-building and music-creation takes a lot of discipline and restraint for me, and is still an ongoing process. I’m very selective now with the tools I build and maintain. The novelty that comes with making music with homebrew software has long worn off for me, so now my efforts are more focused and thoughtful. I also (try to) push myself to write compositional etudes with my existing tools rather than give in to my temptation to write more tools. It takes a huge amount of willpower to do those, but I’m always glad I do it in the end.

A related concept I’ve been developing this year is my toys not tools mantra.

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definitely been feeling the dichotomy lately. so much progress on ambitious exciting tools in the last year = little progress on music.

I think a lot of us can agree that the time & dedication it takes to finish a really complete version of an idea that’s hyper-worthy of sharing often outlasts our own excitement about using it once it’s all wrapped up - so there’s a push-and-pull.

making really quality tools is cool & super beneficial to a community but I think since making music is leaning toward being priority for me I want to start warming up to a small & sharp tools philosophy - just building out the minimum, focused version of something that I want for a piece or project & skipping the extra features & flexibility & ease of use stuff that other people would want or need to use the thing. and probably a few people will still use that style of tool if I choose to share, or maybe they can adopt the code to their needs, or just be inspired to make a small thing themself ! that’s always seemed like more of the monome philosophy anyway : )

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I think there is an interesting split between analog and digital tool makers. I read that Émilie from Mutable doesn’t use any of her modules in her rack, as they cause her to think about code instead of music. I don’t have this issue with my modules, but all of my modules are analog, so it is less distracting. I’m able to turn off that AI side of my brain when I am making music, and I wonder if it is because my tool making is totally divorced from my music making, wherein if I were a coder or MAX developer etc… it would be impossible to untangle the two.
I don’t know if that helps at all, but perhaps a good guidance would be to make music with things that are not your tools? Or in an environment wherein the tooling is not able to be done? IDK if any of that helps at all :{

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