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Phantom Power: Beats From Nothing

December 1, 2008
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Here is a challenge for all you budding remixers: Take a song from a genre typically not associated with electronic music, such as classic rock or punk (it's particularly challenging — but fun — to work with a musical source that you don't personally like). Rip it apart so much that it not only takes on new life as a purely electronic-based track, but also that if you played your Frankenstein creation for the original musicians, they wouldn't be able to tell that their track was used.

I'm not talking about just grabbing some loops and time stretching them a little, or running them through a comb filter or ring mod. I'm talking about getting out the scalpel and microscope (aka your audio editor of choice), isolating the smallest pieces that even vaguely resemble parts you would ordinarily look for (kick drum, hi-hat, etc.). Next, tune, stretch, process, reverse and do anything else your needs and heart dictate to compile enough samples to build entire new drum kits and other sounds (even loops) from which to create an entirely new beast. Sound crazy? Not if you have a lot of patience and imagination. I have done this — much to the surprise and delight of the original musicians. My source in one such case was a space-rock band in the vein of Tortoise, consisting of a kit drummer, bassist and guitarist laden with lots of reverb. Working only with BIAS Peak and Logic Studio — no outside samples or audio instruments — I translated one of their tunes into a banging, glitchy tech-house track in a style reminiscent of early Warp Records or Matthew Dear.

SLICE AND DICE

The point behind my narcissistic rant is simple: Nearly anything can be used as musical fodder for your next electronic work. Here's another example: One of the band members from the previous story gave me a CD full of samples he created. Some of the left-field sounds on the disc included crumpling paper, rapidly snipping scissors and stones scraping together. Taken as-is, the sounds might — and I emphasize might — have worked okay in a sci-fi B-movie, but the key to using such unusual sounds is to select just the right portions that work in the chosen context and then fine-tune them as your intuition dictates.

For example, an isolated single scissor snip might be normalized, pitched and equalized to sit in as a tight hi-hat. In my remix, I cropped out a small solo section of the bass guitar. I pitched it down an octave or two without time-stretching it, ran it through a medium decay reverb and finally smoothed the fade-out to arrive at a Moog-like sine wave stand-in that worked great as a tight bass line in the final techno setting. The end result sounded nothing like the original Fender electric bass.

There are a few crucial tools for creating your samples. The first is simple: a good audio editor that provides lots of interesting or purely utilitarian plug-ins. And although it is nothing new (and perhaps because it isn't the “latest and greatest,” it may be overlooked nowadays), Propellerhead ReCycle is still a formidable tool for chopping loops or weird sounds such as crumpling paper into fresh new bits. Among other things, ReCycle can automatically find slice points in audio files by detecting sudden-to-subtle dynamic changes, then export those individual “slices” as separate, individual audio files. You can also manually insert or delete individual slice points for fine-tuning. Aside from allowing you to transparently “borrow” your favorite kick drums or snare hits, it does one hell of a job at grabbing those sounds from places where you might least expect to find them. There's only so much I can describe here, but take ReCycle for a test drive; within minutes you'll be smiling with fresh new ideas.

SCRAP THE SAMPLE CDs

If you like the idea of crumpled paper and want to know where you can get samples like that, then the next “instrument” you should consider is a microphone. Get one and point it toward just about anything around your house. A cat scratching the carpet is a new sample source. Hit various mugs and glasses with a pair of chopsticks for a set of custom cowbells like no other. Remember when you were little and splashed water in the bath? If you play a bathtub full of water like a conga, the colors of sound you can record (and then manipulate) are endless, depending upon how soft or hard you hit, whether you flat-slap or cup your hands and so on.

Perhaps a field recorder will be your ticket. You may run out of ideas at home, but I dare you to say that about the great outdoors. You can record birds one day, a cop car the next and the neighbor's wind chimes after that. The thing to remember though is that once you have captured the source, your work isn't done. There are plenty of hip-hop and other types of tracks with a police siren in them. But how about just the first half-second of that siren, pitched down three octaves, played in reverse with a steady fade-in and sharp drop-off at the end of the sample? That may or may not still sound like a siren, and that's precisely the point. Truly original electronic music from the likes of Autechre, Four Tet or Björk doesn't just rely on the latest $3,500 synth on the store shelf. Just like the Beatles or Pink Floyd in their heyday, forward-thinking music now comes from minds that aren't afraid to take wild chances or work hard on originality. In the end, you may be the only one who knows how much sweat you put into every little detail, but believe me, those are the tracks you'll treasure most over time.

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