Every day, I wake up in one of my recording studios. It’s sort of a necessity, because my bed is there and because it’s my bedroom. This probably sounds familiar to most indie music producers. There’s a whole world of sound and music that can be packed into a laptop and taken just about anywhere, thanks to the rise of and currently incredible quality of Virtual Studio Technology - VST’s. I use these to write and record music all the time, but I frequently find the end product to be lacking… something. The absence of “real” instruments fairly often translates to flat, bland sounding music. I can’t prove this — but I feel any listener, on a subconscious level, can detect fake sounds. Lend me your ear and let me show you how I overcome this, injecting realism and life back into the music and washing away the artificiality.
I’d be remiss to skip the obvious — a song sounds better with recordings of real instruments that make real sounds. Of course it would occur to a guitar player to record a guitar part for a song, but I don’t think one necessarily needs a talent to record on an instrument! Sometimes it’s the sound, not the performance, that’s important. Recording a solitary note, tactfully placed in a song, can sound incredible. If there’s a piano around, I find myself drawn to use it. I’m not the greatest at playing a drum kit, but I frequently use real drums (and other percussion like tambourines) recorded individually, part by part, to layer in to a beat. What happens when I don’t have access to any real drums? Let me tell you a secret.
Everything is a drum. Little kids understand this way better than adults do. There is no shame in recording a spoon hitting a coffee mug as a percussion part, I do it all the time and it sounds great. Playing the environment around me creates sounds that are completely unique. One of my favorite percussion instruments is an improvised shaker — a cup with ice in it. I love to layer this with a snare drum to give it a funky punch.
There’s another instrument I always carry with me, and would even if I weren’t a singer: my voice. I don’t always sing melodies because the voice is also an amazing percussion instrument. It helps to be able to beatbox, but the most important thing is recognizing and recording the peculiar sounds, totally shamelessly. Weird and rhythmic heavy breathing recorded into a beat can sound incredible! I love stuff like this… A loop out of context that sounds like an insane person can, within a beat, make it distinctively funky and full. Reggie Watts is a master of this technique. I love to do this, it’s extraordinarily liberating. Check your inhibitions at the door, record some vocal weirdness, and you’ll be surprised and amazed like I was when I first tried it.
If there’s a virtual sound that I’m using in a song that just needs an extra push of realism, many times I’ll send the synth to be played out of a real speaker or amplifier and record that. The synth plays out of the speaker, into the mic, and it’s the subtle sound of the air moving around in between that immediately anchors the part to reality. I like a less direct approach when I do this kind of thing, and sometimes I’ll put the mic away from the speaker to record the room in general, then mix that sound quietly in with the original virtual sound to give it a sense of space.
Whenever I get stuck, I think about how the world is full of sound and I only have to go out and record some of it to breathe some life into a tepid sounding mix. A soundscape is right outside, just waiting to be recorded. Once I realized everything is an instrument, my musical world opened up. Don’t accept the limitations of creating music on a computer. Get a little weird with it.
Breaking out of LA’s bustling music scene comes newcomer The Sometimes Island, the moniker of Austin born Matt Blankenship Jr. Fusing electro beats with breezy, layered lyrics, this is a form of dance music meant for the new generation. His 7-track EP titled ‘Bad People’, a catchy brand of beach pop covered with a fog of ethereal, dreamlike vocal layers, drops July 28th.
For fans of: Generationals, Spoon, MGMT