Developing A New Sound
Finding Your Voice
Neil Grant aka Lo Five is a Liverpool based musician with 15 years involvement in the local music scene. Here he tells us about his recording methods, and how he made the jump from predominantly guitar based bands, to performing solo and experimenting with new instrumentation.
If you’re bored of the way you’re making music then simply make the leap. After playing guitar in various shoegaze/alt-country bands for the previous 15 years I got frustrated with how restricting the whole situation could be. Throw in the usual clichés of band politics, creative differences and the time commitment issues and I was ready to move on to something else.
The Ideas Stage
Before I started writing any music, I had the idea of using sounds that were relevant to my life. I also wanted it to sound as though it were being performed by a real person in a real location, rather than some ultra-slick thing that was beamed directly from a computer or synth.
Another priority was giving the album some sort of identity, so it was consistent – rather than a bunch of tracks that use wildly different instruments and drum patches (too much choice is a bad thing for me).
I began collecting sounds using my trusty Zoom portable recorder, taking it everywhere with me. If I heard something I liked I’d record it. It’s got a great mic built in and you can record in stereo.
I recorded loads of ambient sounds; outside my bedroom window on a sunny day, my back yard on a cold winter morning, a barn in the Lake District in the middle of a washed-out weekend. All of these spaces formed the ‘environment’ that the music happens in. In addition to that I recorded a lot of percussion sounds; my daughter’s toy instruments, draws being slammed shut, sounds from my kitchen. My toaster and bread bin are on there somewhere too…
Try recording at higher sampling frequencies, e.g. 96KHz. I like doing this then reinterpreting that audio to 44.1KHz to see how it sounds slowed down or reversed. This draws out the natural reverb of the room to twice its normal length, and sounds amazing.
Another tip is, create a bank of sounds you could draw upon whenever the urge to make music appears, so you can just jump straight in. I spent a while playing around with (usually free) soft synths, trying to find sounds that really appealed to me. I found a great sample pack of a Toy Piano that someone captured, which you can download for free here. I’ve since bought a Vilac toy piano which I’m going to mic up and record, or play in my live sets, using my SM58 mic.
It’s a good idea to spend time playing around with different sounds, to find out what appeals to you. In the past I’ve used different drum banks and instruments on every track – resulting in tracks that lack cohesion when grouped together for a release. Think about the producers you like, what is that gives them their signature sound? What gives you yours?
Break the rules
Think about how the technology or kit you use dictates the sounds you make. It’s good to be aware of how you can use it in a different way than originally intended, to get a different sound.
I realised that working within a DAW such as Ableton Live imposed subtle restraints upon me. Things like fixed tempos, quantization, grids etc. These are all put in place to make your life as a producer much easier, but be aware that they can limit you. I wanted to make music that was more akin to a live band, who may speed up for a chorus, or leave longer dramatic pauses on breaks. To get around this I approached my DAW as a multi-track tape recorder.
I stopped drawing in notes on a grid for melodies, and bought an Akai MPK Mk 2 midi controller. I found it a much more fun and expressive way of working, allowing me to jam on a section to come up with the melodies. It allowed me to capture all the dynamics and flaws that made it sound more human and personal – playing the notes when it felt right, rather than when the metronome/grid told me to.
Mix it up
I mix things as I go along, rather than do it all at the end. I recently bought a pair of M-Audio BX2 studio monitors, as I used to mix everything on my cheap headphones, then I’d be wondering why my music sounded crap in the car or on the radio. Decent speakers are key. The BX2s are designed to have a flat frequency response, meaning there’s not too much emphasis on bass or treble etc.
Failing that, get yourself some half decent headphones.
Ignore everything I just said
Everyone approaches music differently, but the important thing is to enjoy it. Try new things and see what happens!
Remember it’s not the amount of gear, it’s what you do with it.