Friday, August 7, 2009

Make It Organic!

For all its many strengths, one of the problems that can plague electronic music is that synths can sometimes sound a bit static and lifeless - at least compared to 'real' instruments.  This can actually be cool, imparting music with a stark, emotionless mood that can be very effective in the right context, but it can also drain the life out of an otherwise great song.  So today, I'm going to throw out a couple of suggestions for ways you can add an interesting "organic" edge to your synth sounds.

• Go Lofi
Nowadays it is almost effortless to get perfect, clean recordings of your synths (especially if they are softsynths).  For some applications, this is great, but there is something to be said for the character that was imparted by old methods of recording.  So if you have a synth part that sounds a bit too perfect, take advantage of some of these old technologies.  Buy an old cassette recorder or dictaphone type recorder, record your synth to it, and dump it back into your DAW to drop into your track.  Especially try intentionally recording it too loudly for some nice overdrive. Have an old VCR you never use?  Try recording  onto a VHS tape, then pull the tape itself out, crinkle it up, rethread it, and play it back for warped, Boards of Canada type effects.  Try recording onto your cell phone's voice mail and bouncing it back into your DAW.  Dig out that ancient hardware sampler you haven't used in ages and sample sounds through it, especially playing around with lower sample rates.  Find a Casio SK-1 if you can.  It completely messes up whatever you sample into it and the result sounds nothing like what you're sampling.  Look for whatever 'imperfect' and 'obsolete' recording mediums you can find.  Chances are they'll be super cheap and it will add a really unique edge to your tracks.

• Texture Loops
Instruments like the Roland D-50 made a huge splash when they first appeared because they combined traditional subtractive synthesis with sampled real-world sounds.  Many of the most memorable sounds utilized looped samples from organic sources that, when placed behind a simple sawtooth pad, suddenly made it sound very modern and unique.  So the next time you have a synth pad part that could use a little more interest, try sampling yourself making a long exhale, record the sound of change jingling in your pocket, or that ugly set of wind chimes Aunt Helen left you in the will.  Find as smooth a loop you can, program the amplitude envelope to match the sound you are layering it with and suddenly your boring old pad sound is a lot more interesting.

• Organic Attack
Another option is to do the opposite of the above and use a real-world recording at the beginning of a sound to add an organic attack component to the sound.  There have been studies that showed that the timbre of a sound's attack is extremely important in allowing us to identify what it is.  They made recordings of various acoustic instruments, then edited out the attack portion of the sound to just leave the sustain and decay.  They found that most people had trouble identifying these ordinary instruments without their attack portions.  So adding a recording of an acoustic attack transient and layering it with a synthetic sound can make more realistic sounding synthetic emulations of real instruments, or it can allow you to play Dr. Moreau a bit and create hybrids of instruments that never existed.  Or, take it in the other direction, and do what those scientists did - sample a real world instrument, and set your sample start point a little bit past the beginning of the recording to eliminate the attack portion entirely. 

•  Get Real
When sampling first appeared on the scene, musicians got really creative with it.  Artists like Peter Gabriel and Depeche Mode would sample anything that made a sound and twist it into something new and musical.  One sound Depeche Mode used on "People Are People" and a few other tracks was a sample of a string on an old guitar being plucked with a German Pfenning coin.  On my upcoming album, I spent several days making recordings of myself striking our washer and dryer with various objects, banging pots and pans together, and just generally being annoying to the neighbors.  Layered in with some synth parts, it really added an extra something special to the sounds.  Head out to a pawn shop and see what old, busted cheap instruments you can find.  Take a single sample of it and use that as the starting point for a new synth sound.  Time-stretch it, transpose it outside its natural range, filter it, reverse it, and drown it in the weirdest effects plug-ins you can find.  

•  Speaking of effects...
There is a goldmine of unheard sounds waiting to be discovered just via the extreme use of effects.  Try recording two layers playing the same part.  Leave one dry, and then feed the second one through a reverb set at a 100% wet/dry level.  On one of the tracks on my upcoming album, I had one instrument playing the part, and then recorded the same part with a different type of sound sent through a nice long delay set so only the wet signal came through.  So essentially, you get the gist of the melody from the main instrument meshed with the echos from an entirely different instrument.  There is almost no limit to how drastically you can alter even the most mundane sound just by experimenting and twisting it with as many effects as you can throw at it.

What's your favorite method for adding life to your synth parts?


-sihiL said...

I like to push a lot of stuff through Native Instruments' Guitar Rig 3. It's great piece of software! The amp models and the tape delay can add a lot of life to the sounds.

Also, when I program some synth patches, I set LFO:s modulate the pitches of oscillators just a little bit at a time, quite slowly, for a more analog feel. It's better to use a less traditional waveform for the LFO, something that resembles a sine wave but is a bit more asymmetrical.

Tom said...

@Sihil - Agreed. I use Guitar Rig all the time!

pugsfly said...

I like to record my soft synth playback from the monitors/small desktop speakers using a variety of mics, and then eq/pan them for a wall of sound.

dave romero said...

cool tips! esp. Texture Loops & Organic Attack

here's one I discovered playing golf. my ball strayed (as it's wont to do) and hit one of those huge electrical towers. it sounded immense.

put a zoom H2 (or other portable) about 50 yards away and strike the tower with different metal and wood objects. Then do the same right underneath it. mangle the results