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By Niall McCallum
There’s never been a better time to get into beat making. Editing software and audio processing tools are better, cheaper, and more readily available than ever before. Not to mention that publishing and exposing your tracks to an audience of just a few friends to many thousands of people worldwide is easier than ever.
This abundance generates certain trends running through the global music production community, introducing shared ways of thinking about and making music. In such an environment, it can be tricky to express a unique voice through your sound.
Today, let’s explore a subject that will open up creative avenues for any producer facing this conundrum: recording your own found sounds.
This process can be as simple as downloading a sound recording app for your phone or as complicated as using your extensive location recording rig and bespoke software package to hunt down and edit sounds in the great outdoors. One of the many benefits of including found sounds in your work is that they can be adapted to suit any and all workflows, as well as production styles.
In his new Mainstage course, Beat Making in Ableton Live, instructor Dan Freeman shows just how easy it is to take a found sound — in this case, a seal from Antarctica — and build it into a drum beat.
I’ll introduce you to the general concept from the perspective of creating a percussive beat, then you can see where it might fit into your production process. Hopefully, it will spark some ideas as to where and how you might begin to collect your own found sounds.
1. Assemble Some Tools of the Trade
First things first. We need to find something that can record sound and deliver it into your computer’s DAW for editing and eventual incorporation into a production. As I mention above, many widely available smartphones come pre-packaged with fairly good-quality microphones and sound recording apps these days, meaning anything you can point your phone at can become a potential sample source.
At the other end of the scale, you could invest in a studio-grade microphone or portable recorder. The trade-off between these two approaches is inevitably tied to your budget and production goals, though there can, of course, be artistic reasons for using cheap equipment to capture found sounds.
Alternatively, you could track down a hard-disc dictaphone or even root out your parents’ old tape recorder. Anything with a headphone output can be sent into a computer’s microphone input or a USB audio interface for digital capture and transferred into your beat making software.
2. Collect Your Sounds
The next step is, naturally, figuring out what the heck to record! From the sound of your fingers tapping a banister to the click of a dolphin, the world really is your oyster.
We’re going to keep things fairly straightforward and grab a few sounds from around the house. Even this more homely demonstration illustrates the endless possibilities of sounds.
A helpful way to go about sourcing is to think of replacing all the usual sound identities in your standard drum kit. I’ll start where I’d start when beat making — with the kick drum.
It might seem obvious, but boiling these sounds down to their essential characteristics will pay dividends when searching for sounds with which to replace them. So, kick drums are low-pitched (duh), contain lots of low-frequency energy, and typically only last a few hundred milliseconds.
Which household items might approximate these qualities? How about the slam of an oven door? Sounds pretty good to me:
Next, I need to source something that can mimic a snare, clap, or rim shot. So I begin by hitting a piece of firewood with a metal poker for a sound that’s short, snappy, and contains a good level of low-mid energy:
As a final addition to our beat, let’s source something like a hi-hat. You might think a hi-hat sound would need to be short and high-pitched, but we can use amplitude envelopes and high-pass filters once we’ve transferred our found sounds into a DAW and sampler and be quite a bit more experimental here.
I want something that’s deliberately textural and won’t sound out of place but will be odd enough to capture the listener’s attention. Here’s the sound of a water bottle being squeezed:
Now that we’ve collected some sounds, let’s sculpt and shape them into something we can work into a beat.
3. Augment Reality
I’ve recorded my sounds into a DAW and done some basic editing, cutting each sample tightly to the very beginning of the sound information and leaving plenty of space at the tail for the natural impact to fade out. Now they’re ready to be thrown into a sampler for processing and arranging. [I’m using Ableton Live 9 for this task, but you can just as easily use Logic, Reason, Cubase, or any other DAW. For a comparative rundown of DAW software, read our article “How to Choose a DAW.”]
Let’s start with our clanging kick stand-in. Here it is as used in a basic, four-on-the-floor rhythm, loaded into an instance of Simpler in an empty Drum Rack slot:
I chose this oven-slam recording because it already contained lots of vital low end, but kicks can always use a bit more thump, especially judging by today’s bass-obsessed standards!
So, using Ableton’s EQ Eight, I can boost up the fundamental frequency with a notch filter at around 56 Hz, as well as boosting the lows much more generally with a 2.4dB gain increase on a low shelf at 100 Hz.
Scooping back a little of the high frequency information with a high-shelf drop of just 1.4 dB at 5000 Hz also helps to accentuate the lows of this sound.
Here’s how things stand now:
Hear the difference? The sound is instantly more kick-like, and yet, it retains the same interesting texture and character of its original source.
I’m going to apply the same process to the wooden hit and bottle squeeze samples now. First, I’ll make sure we have energy in the areas I want, then use EQ to boost the important areas and deemphasize the others.
Here they are after my tweaks are applied:
In more extreme cases where your found sounds are perhaps a little further away from the target sound design, you can, of course, bring filters, transient shapers, and more into the mix, but I’m quite happy with how things are sounding.
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4. Tweak Your Rhythms
I’m going to cook up a pretty simple, lightly swung house beat so you can get an idea of how these sounds might function in the context of a track:
I like where this is headed, but I feel the beat is still a bit too sparse. I’ve sourced another household sound, a firm tap on a large plastic container, which, when programmed into my rhythm, sounds like this:
Now we’re cooking!
One thing that always strikes me when using found sound in this way is the strangeness of how uniform each individual hit is. We’re used to hearing drum-machine sounds in this manner but not more organic material. Reduce this stilted, robotic quality by making duplicate copies of all your sounds, processing them slightly differently, and then divide up your MIDI notes between the originals and the copies.
Here, I’m just going to apply some slightly different EQ as well as subtle pitch shifting of no more than 25 cents away from the original sample pitch to demonstrate. The effect is subtle but, I think, important. Here’s how it sounds:
We’re almost there with our beat now. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could use this rhythm as a song starter in its current form.
A technique I find to be particularly useful in pushing things up to release standard, however, is layering your found sounds with real drum sounds. Of course, we don’t want these far more obvious sounds to drown out our characterful material; we just want them to add some body and presence to proceedings.
I’ve found some drum sounds I’m happy with from my own soundware developer, ModeAudio’s Hybrid Drums — Live & Electronic Drum Samples sound pack, pulling up the “Hybrid House Kit 1” Drum Rack that comes packaged in the Ableton Live version of the release.
Adding a little reverb to the higher pitched elements of the beat and carefully mixing between the found percussion and drum hits gives us this:
There we go. I feel this beat is really going somewhere now, and all it needs is for me to throw some bass and synths at it for things to take off!
A natural extension of this concept is to treat any and all forms of sonic media as potential sources of musical instrumentation, from TV-ad audio and YouTube videos to radio signal and static, and far beyond. There may well be copyright implications if you incorporate such sounds into a beat you want to sell, but that shouldn’t deter you from thinking outside the box when it comes to seeking out raw-sound material for your music.
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Niall McCallum is co-Founder of ModeAudio, a soundware developer specializing in royalty-free loops, samples, synth presets, and field recordings.