Sometimes in our recordings, we need to break out of familiar patterns to get new and more sonically interesting results. With digital recording workflows we often default to convenient and time-saving options instead of more creative ones. This is why it can help to take a more experimental approach to the recording process to see what happens when we just try things out without a specific outcome in mind. This is truly a case of the journey being the focus rather than the destination.
Not knowing what you will end up with is all part of the intrigue, and will also likely improve your engineering and production skills along the way.
The following ideas can be used in combination – there are no right or wrong methods. Just starting along one or more of these paths may send you down some interesting byways in the hope of sparking some inspiration to create some unique and distinctive sounds.
1. Seeking out new sound sources
This encourages us to venture outside of the confines of the home studio. Take some time to listen and make note of any interesting sounds that you could record in your local environment - either inside or out. This could be something as simple as a household appliance [coffee grinder, boiling jug etc] or a creaking oven door. Also check out the neighbourhood or central city for construction noises, traffic, or street conversations.
Generic examples of these environmental sounds are available in digital libraries but they will be more unique and you will be more invested in them if you recorded them yourself. Remember sounds of short duration can be looped to create recurring or longer phrases. All these sounds can be captured in good fidelity on something as simple as your phone or even better with a portable stereo digital recorder like the Tascam DR-05X.
So keep your ears open for what is going on outside the studio and let your imagination roam.
2. Using unfamiliar or found instruments
Sometimes it’s beneficial to challenge ourselves by using instruments that we have little technical facility or comfort around playing. This allows us to approach the instrument in a fresh way without our usual familiarity and set habits. Don’t be concerned with playing the instrument correctly. The idea is that your non-ability opens up possibilities for different sonic results. Go for simplicity!
Equally, look around for ways of making sounds from non- instruments. This could be anything that can be banged, ground together, twanged or whatever -basically any combination of items that could create something interesting. These sounds may not be a feature element in your mix but could be added in as ambience or as a sound effect.
Remember you can manipulate these sounds further on your computer later.
3. Using guitar pedals as sound processors
If you are a guitarist or a keyboard player chances are you have some pedals lying around. Think of these more as sound processors and then use already recorded tracks that you may not usually pair them with – perhaps vocals or drums - and make the pedal settings quite extreme. This could be anything from fuzz to pitch-shifting/octave pedals – anything where the sound can be drastically altered.
Although it may not sound so great on its own, in the context of a mix or added in parallel with an unprocessed version of the same source – it may be just what is needed to provide interest.
Pedals are generally designed for Hi impedance guitar signals so you will need an impedance matching box to take the line-level signals from your DAW to the pedal and back in again. Re-amp boxes work well for this like this one from Radial Engineering.
4. Tonality and speed changes
This covers a wide palette from radical EQing and extreme filtering to techniques such as changing track speeds and reverses.
Radical EQing by applying heavy high or low pass filters or very narrow bandwidth filters create some quirky results. For example, if you remove the fundamental frequencies of a particular source ie cutting most of the lows from a bass instrument or cutting all the highs from a treble rich track and then experiment with how that could be used in your session. Creating a narrow bandwidth of only mid frequencies will give the classic telephone sound.
Changing speed includes recording at half and/or double speeds and then reverting to normal speed to create octave changes. Reverses are also fun to play around with like reversing vocals for an unworldly sound. Most looper pedals have this function and I recommend the 720 Stereo Looper Pedal from Electro Harmonix if you are on the hunt for one.
5. Using a cassette or tape recorder
If you have an old cassette player lying around consider sending one or more of your recorded tracks to cassette tape for some natural tape compression. Sending one or more already recorded tracks out of your DAW [perhaps a drum group or background vocals] and out of your interface to the cassette player and then re-recording the result. This becomes even more distinctive if you repeat the process in and out a number of times so the track becomes increasingly degraded with each analog generation.
There are plugins that simulate this but you will likely learn more by getting hands-on with an actual machine. Alternatively, record a track or two directly onto cassette via an analogue mixer and then add it to your session. Some cassette players have adjustments for bias and trim so play around with these functions to see if that alters the sound even more.
Finally don’t be afraid to be extreme with the manipulation of your source sounds. Remember they may not be front and centre in your final mix but perhaps blended in as ambience, or brought in and out in certain sections. Then again they may be a major element. You probably won't know how prominently they will be used until mix time.
The overall aim is to create characterful and unique final productions and also to have fun and learn some new skills along the way.
About Jim Leaderman
Jim Lederman is a Wellington-based musician and home recordist.