Creating a unique identity and sound is a crucial step to becoming an artist, but it is one often overlooked by electronic musicians. Sometimes it’s helpful to look to other disciplines for insights in to one’s own, so I wanted to share some ideas I’ve had that are influenced by the way composers and instrumentalists in jazz and classical music work to develop their individuality. This process is different for everyone (by definition) but these are some thoughts that have helped me as I try to develop my sound.
First I should clarify what I mean by “electronic musician.” The words “producer,” “beat-maker,” and even sometimes “DJ” seem to have all evolved from distinct entities into general terms for people who create music using some combination of electronic and acoustic instruments. These individuals will do any combination of the composing, arranging, performing, mixing, and mastering of their work, often collaborating with other musicians or engineers on various parts of the process. Nowadays most will use a computer to sequence their sounds even if most or all of them were created “outside the box,” which is why I generally refer to them as “electronic musicians” or “computer composers.” While electronic music was initially confined to electronic instruments, these composers are in the amazing position of being able to use any audio that they can capture (legally…), whether it be from synthesizers, drum machines, live instruments, or found sounds. This allows for much more variety and ultimately more individual expression than previously possible.
Although there is such a wide range of possibilities, it is still more difficult for a computer composer to achieve profound individuality than for an instrumental musician. An instrument that is controlled directly by the body, whether it is with the lips or the fingers, will always reflect the personality of the performer. When composing with electronics, the instrument will sound the same no matter who is pressing the keys, especially when quantization is brought into play. As a result, artists in electronic music must work even harder to consciously create their own identity. In the same way an instrumental musician spends years crafting their tone into a distinct sound, a computer composer should work to create a style that will be recognizable as their own. Even drummers will constantly work to find just the right combination of shells, cymbals, heads, and sticks that work for them, I think the equivalent for electronic musicians would be amassing an extensive library of sound files that they have collected and created.
So where do these sounds come from? The hip-hop tradition of digging in the crates has become a little outdated as it is now legally impractical, but I think the idea of a producer spending countless hours searching for and creating his own samples is still relevant and important. Effects are so powerful and diverse that the search is simply for some kind of source material that one can take into a program and tweak to personal preference. For more standard sounding drum hits, record sampling can be fine if the samples are changed beyond recognition. There are also a number of sample packs on the internet that have decent free demos. These original sounds might not be so great, but by isolating the interesting parts of each and piecing those together it’s possible to make some very usable hits. However, if you can start recording some of your own samples and mashing them with these more traditional ones, it’s possible to make some truly individual sounds.
There’s a belief that to do this you need to spend lots of money, but I disagree. You can get a decent mike for a hundred bucks (the Shure SM58 is a classic), and that in itself opens up every sound in your home. I think the most exciting recent development in the evolution of sampling is the quality and relative cheapness of handheld recorders. For $300 you can get a microphone that fits in your pocket and records full-resolution .WAV files, making high quality sampling possible anywhere. If you combine these found sounds with more traditional samples, you will have a collection that is not only unique but has been personalized to your own taste. To me, the idea that every sound in the world is available for use is incredibly exciting and seems like the perfect evolution of the art of sampling.
These sounds definitely do not have to be limited to drums and percussion, sometimes a weird, grainy, ambient sound thrown in the back of a mix will give a track just the right attitude. This can come from anywhere, even recordings made on cellphones can sound great if you put them in the right place. Every sound in a mix doesn’t have to be of the highest quality for a song to sound “professional.” The real trick is finding the right balance between clean and dirty that will make a track listenable but intriguing. Some artists that do this very well: Radiohead, Little Dragon, Danger Mouse, Gorillaz, Dilla, Black Keys, Manu Chao, Outkast….
Many contemporary classical and jazz composers are using found sounds and sampling as part of their compositions, both in recording and performance. Sometimes they even take recordings of their live compositions back into the computer for manipulation, essentially sampling their own work as a part of the same work — a remix within the original song. It seems this is finally an intersection of hip-hop, jazz, and classical traditions that is based on mutual respect, this sense of equality is already creating interesting new influences in all of those genres. Some artists that are using these ideas: Nico Muhly, Wayne Horvitz, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Theo Bleckmann, The Le Boeuf Brothers, and Flying Lotus.
Talking to others about this is always a learning experience for me, so I would love to hear any responses to my opinions or reflections on your own experiences!