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Loop Your Dishwasher

August 1, 2005

In this era of recycled and quoted sounds, everyone is scavenging for the next cool sample to loop, process, and remix. Record shops are receiving healthy doses of cash for selling classic vinyl records. (Just how much are you willing to pay for Bernstein's vinyl recording of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony?) But if you need fresh sounds and don't have a budget for vintage vinyl, don't despair. There's a universe of loop sources all around you. All you need is a microphone and an inquisitive pair of ears.

A Well-Stocked Heritage

Follow the example of Karlheinz Stockhausen when he created Mikrophonie in 1964. Using a variety of objects — glass, cardboard, metal, rubber, and anything else he could find — Stockhausen manipulated a tam-tam in a variety of ways, including striking, scratching, and rubbing it. He moved a microphone around the gong as if he were using a stethoscope, examining the sound from different positions and distances. The microphone signals were sent through all manner of filters and ring modulators.

FIG. 1: Children''s toys are a great source of sounds. Shown above are three “instruments” used in Web Clip 7.

Want your own indeterminate metallic sound? Try jingling some wire coat hangers together. There are many ways to jingle hangers, and there are just as many spots to place the microphone. Jingle the hangers for a minute or two, save the recording as an audio file, and open it in an audio editor. (Hangers, like some other household items, are not high sound-power output, so you may have to amplify the results.) Pick through the file, highlight the parts that you like the most, and save them separately. A long tinkling passage might work for an ambient background, whereas a single hanger collision may be a good substitute for a hi-hat or a rim shot. How do the recordings sound with echo, chorusing, an amplitude or modulation envelope, or reverb? Experiment with those effects and any favorites that you may have. In addition, try overlaying different versions of the audio — for example, play one sample along with itself in reverse. If that's not the effect you're looking for, what other items do you have that sound metallic?

All Greek to Me

Look around your home to find other things that might sound interesting. Listen to your vacuum cleaner, coffee-bean grinder, milk frother, electric razor, hair dryer, dishwasher, drain, and garbage disposal. Think chimerically: how can you put sounds together in new, unnatural hybrids? Try crossfading the sound of boiling water with an electric razor, and then cutting quickly to the sound of water rushing down a drain. By varying transpositions and effects, you can create a useful library from just a few sounds, and you won't even have to worry about copyright issues.

I once heard a great kick-drum sample that was made from bouncing a basketball in a gym that had a wooden floor. The ball was bounced at various places on the court floor, with the most resonant-sounding bounce giving excellent punch to a drum track. I got pitched percussion from a hollow railing on a Brooklyn-beach boardwalk. Rapping my knuckles on different spots of the railing with varying intensity produced different steel-drum-like pitches. Once transferred to the computer, each recording was transposed by a few semitones, creating a scale suitable for percussion melodies. And one of my all-time favorite sounds was a Jew's harp boing. After transposing it down an octave, I reversed it, added a slow LFO on the lowpass-filter's cutoff, and applied a slow-attack amplitude envelope. The result sounded like a gigantic mutant bullfrog.

Reverse reverb is a classic trick. Take your favorite sample and reverse it. Then put some reverb on that reversed sample, with at least a second or two of reverb time. Reverse that, and your original sound now plays in forward motion, but the reverberation is in reverse. It precedes the sound by a second or two, so the sound gradually becomes clear.

FIG. 2: Apple''s Soundtrack Loop Utility allows you to set a number of file descriptors. Most importantly, it allows an audio file to be saved as a Loop or a One-Shot. The clip''s assigned number of beats and tempo are also saved, along with data classifying instrument and genre.

Feeling Loopy

Web Clip 1 is a rhythmic loop that was created by putting various water sounds into a sampler, writing a sequence to create a rhythm for the water, and then adding a synthesized xylophone with some echo. Web Clips 2 through 6 are sounds from miscellaneous noisemakers, including a plastic toy tube that makes a squawk reminiscent of an analog filter sweep when inverted, a Remo Thunder Tube that makes nice ominous rumbles, and a dolphin pen that makes Flipper-like squeaks and chirps when its lever is pressed (see Fig. 1). Web Clip 7 is a copped Apple GarageBand loop that was re-created using the three aforementioned toys.

Need more ideas for useful sound sources? Join the Yahoo! Nature Recordists Group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/naturerecordists). You may find some interesting sounds there.

Loop programs such as Sony Acid and GarageBand give you increased flexibility when working with audio. Those programs use loop files that are stretchable and bendable. Properly prepared loop files will time-stretch or compress to match changes in a project's tempo, and they can also have their pitch adjusted. Acid automatically converts imported WAV files to Acid Loop format. Mac users can download the free Soundtrack Loop Utility (http://developer.apple.com/sdk/#appleloops) and save audio files as Apple Loops for use in Soundtrack or GarageBand (see Fig. 2).

The MIDI Treasure Trove

As you look for source material to plunder, think MIDI as well as audio. Try visiting the Classical MIDI Archives (www.classicalarchives.com) to see what's available. (As of this writing, the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony is not there, but there are hundreds of other great pieces.) Download a file, open it in your sequencer, and extract the bits that you want to use. With MIDI, you are free to extract, transpose, reverse, and process in a variety of ways.

For example, try the retrograde function on a bunch of MIDI notes. Or take a phrase and copy it numerous times, transposing each copy and overlapping it with the last copy to make a phrase melody. Now mix up the orchestration — how does a string tune sound when played by a timpani or a shakuhachi? You can get additional mileage using customized SoundFonts as your sound source. (See “Experimenting with SoundFonts” in the April 2005 issue of EM, available online at www.emusician.com.)

You can also record and extract with MIDI. Put your sequencer into Record mode, and then flop your hands randomly on your MIDI keyboard so that you record random jumbles of notes. Now bring up a percussion patch and listen to your handiwork. You can cull bits that can be used as rhythmic licks, creating a library of short MIDI sounds. Now cut and paste some of those jumbles into a loop using your sequencer's Song mode. Now you've combined order and chaos, playing excerpts of chaos in rhythmic sprinklings. Web Clip 8 is a passage created by implementing that method; it uses a xylophone patch with samples of wooden boards being whacked together for accents.

Want to create your own personal sound? Use the microphone as a stethoscope, consider the world your patient, and become an audio doctor. It's great fun, and there's no such thing as a misdiagnosis. A host of pleasant surprises await.


Mark Ballora teaches music technology at Penn State University.

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