Jack Fletcher was running out of time to make music. His old method was to sit at his computer, “surrounded by synths and other toys, working and reworking the same tunes for hours on end.” But after his baby son arrived, the UK musician had only brief moments left for playing. He found himself drawn to small, battery-powered instruments.
One day, those limitations inspired a breakthrough: Fletcher took his gadgets to a nearby park, set up a video camera, and recorded improvisations, mixing in the sounds of nature. The resulting YouTube channel, “Batteries, Beats, and the Great Outdoors,” is one of my favorites. (See tinyurl.com/batteriesbeats.)
Fletcher’s instruments range from a Teenage Engineering OP-1 to a Nintendo Game Boy equipped with a Nanoloop cartridge (see Figure 1). A Korg Volca and Monotron Delay came along for a beach trip, as shown in Figure 2. (One viewer quipped, “The sound of the sea is a great way to drown out the noise of the Monotron.”) Soon, Fletcher mobilized other synths, powering them with a 9V battery pack designed for guitar pedals.
Zoom with a view
Fletcher’s productions have a charming simplicity. He captures the video on his Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphone and the audio on a Zoom H6 six-track recorder. Its line inputs handle the electronic instruments while its stereo mics add the sounds of the ocean, forest, or Fletcher’s rainy back yard.
Afterwards, he loads the files into Adobe Premiere and syncs the Zoom’s audio by sliding it along the timeline until it lines up. To add visual interest to the static camera recording, he cuts in other video clips filmed on location, timing the transitions to the beat. In one mellow video, he overlays time-lapse ocean scenes recorded with a $2.99 Android app.
Natural sounds contribute more directly in his newer recordings. An autumn excursion used two bird samples as oscillators, with percussion built from rustling leaves and snapping twigs (see Figure 3).
The more I watched, the more inspired I got. You don’t even need a multichannel recorder: Just record a synth into a smartphone camera with a simple interface like a Line 6 Sonic Port, then add prerecorded ambient sound later in a video editor. Or for synchronized sound, run a separate stereo recorder for the synth, use the camera’s mics for the environmental sound, and match up the external audio visually during editing. (I line up the first note in the audio track with the moment I see my finger hit the instrument.)
You can also get more adventurous on the video side. YouTube artist Perplex On records amazing jams with two video cameras hovering over his iPad (see tinyurl.com/perplexvid). As far as I can tell, there’s no environmental sound, just lovely, dark ambient music recorded outdoors on the iPad itself.
As for Jack Fletcher, he writes, “I’m having so much more fun making music this way than I have in ages, so I really recommend trying to simplify. It’s too nice out to always make music at a desk.”