Originally published by Earthquaker Devices May 21, 2021
In this time of stay at home orders and quarantine, I find myself looking for inspiration in two ways – songwriting and sounds. Once a song is written, the next phase is finding the sonic palette and creative side of producing a recording. What sounds represent this story, the mood or cast of characters that bring it to life?
There’s a way of finding those sounds that makes the process rewarding and seems even more relevant in a time of social distancing.
What if all you have on your deserted studio island are some coconuts and gravelly sand? That sounds like the makings of a vibey, gritty shaker! Jokes aside, using whatever you have nearby can bring up some of the most unique sounds and actually create a more intriguing track as a result. It’s also perfect if you are filling out a track but aren’t in a band, or have a limited budget, time or gear. This method also makes lemonade with the lemons of staying home for an extended time.
As a kid, I remember finishing the last piece of caramel popcorn in a big snack tin, thumping the bottom of the tin and hearing a hollow “doooom” sound. Combined with a four-track and RadioShack mic, that tin became the drums for a cover of “Sunshine of Your Love” – apologies to the late great Ginger Baker. This method started as a necessity but it also stretched my creativity and made the process of producing a recording even more fun.
Fast forward a decade later; a familiarity with using common objects as unique instruments helped accomplish another artist’s desire for a personification of his character-driven song, “The Ripper.”
A solo singer-songwriter, Colin De Los Santos, hired me to bring his songs into layers of audio – like a charismatic pantomime performer paired up with a set designer. For “The Ripper,” we created the main rhythm with a bajo cajon then layered messy metallic clanging and crashing sounds on top. Using my actual tool box as our percussion tool chest, we simultaneously dropped a bag of wrenches, the lid full of screw-drivers and banged different hammers and metal tools together. It gave the track an almost ghostly dragging of chains or approaching boogieman vibe that complimented the lyrics and ominous slide guitar.
Practical tip: Try setting up a pair of stereo microphones and move around the room for each “instrument.” Pretend you’re in your own orchestra and overdub each member’s part in their section.
While working on that same record, there was a song that called for a dreamlike, floating sound. There’s a big, wonderful world of midi sounds, but all I had on tap was an old Casio keyboard and some guitar pedals. Running the headphone feed of the keys through a tremolo, and stereo delay, then overdubbing guitar and bass in octaves made a ten-story tall “gentle giant” to periodically dance with the emotive, sparse acoustic guitar and vocal track.
Practical tip: Experiment with panning instruments opposite of their effect track to help create a psychoacoustic space with direct sounds.
Improvisation from what’s handy isn’t limited to non-instruments. If you’re a guitar player (and especially an acoustic guitar player) you’ve probably discovered the usefulness of playing percussion parts on the body of the guitar.
My wife, bandmate and co-writer of songs, Miranda Dawn, created a beautifully intricate guitar part for a song on our second record called “Lightning Strikes.” We typically sing harmonies and play different-voiced guitar parts – like a duo with four voices – but it seemed like a second guitar part would only dilute what she crafted. Instead, tapping a simple percussion part on the lower and upper bouts created a kick and snare rim sound.
Practical tip: Combining the direct 1/4” out of the piezo pickup and a pair of stereo microphones gave a full-range sound and made a nice foundation for shakers to accent the mandolin and upright bass.
How about beatboxing? What? Yes, beatboxing. I’ve never found proof but it sure sounds like Led Zeppelin recorded a whispered “shooka” part for the upbeat-accents on “D’yer Mak’er.”
It was exciting when another client, artist Lance Sitton, brought a song into the studio with the idea to make the main rhythm track a beatboxing part. Beatboxing wouldn’t fit every track, but it was an asset that set the stage and sentiment for his lighthearted, upbeat tune.
Practical tip: Use a dynamic mic with a built-in windscreen to help filter plosives or, in addition to a pop filter, experiment with a finger, pencil or pen held in front of the mouth to break the cloud of air directed towards a condenser microphone.
If you’re working in a home studio for any length of time, I imagine you’ve found some creative and inspired ways to make the most of what’s around. I hope these examples help encourage or validate your process even more.