Chop Shop - EMusician

Chop Shop

Use the cut-up technique to turn spare parts into gold
Author:
Publish date:

Whatever you produce — hip-hop, hard trance, ad jingles, etc. — you're going to be called upon to be creative — with melody, sound design, rhythm, effects and the mix in general. In production, as well as any creative field, that demands many hours of work, during which one's creativity can collapse into a formulaic rut. You can do lots of work by following a consistent formula, but little of it is satisfyingly fresh. There's something you can you do to fix that, though.

In 1959, Brion Gysin discovered that cutting up and rearranging bits of text at random often produced coherent phrases with definite, yet bizarre meanings. He discovered literary turns of phrase that he would not have thought of independently; a serendipitous literary collage. Beat poet and friend of Gysin, William S. Burroughs, helped to expose Gysin's method, called the “cut-up,” to the mainstream. Since then, it has been used in every corner of literature and has made its way into songwriting and music production.

There are several ways to apply the cut-up concept to musical production, and I explain three broad approaches: cutting up melodies using after-the-fact MIDI slicing and dicing; cutting up old audio files and rearranging them using a sequencer and effect plug-ins; and using mangled, randomized audio to create inspiration for new sounds and new melodies. Like Gysin's literary cut-ups, the desired results are diamonds in a vast rough. But with the patience to sift the good from the bad, here lies one sure road to creative inspiration.

SLICE 'N' SPLICE

Conventional uses of the cut-up in production include simple slicing and rearranging of existing audio. Perhaps the most notorious use of cut-ups in production was made by Negativland, who cut up songs such as “Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, to paste together phrases like “girls with blue whiskers tied up with noodles” from the existing lyrics. They also sampled from and poked fun at U2, leading to Island filing a heavy lawsuit against them, which U2 later apologized for after using the same methods to produce the album Zooropa. Public Enemy followed a similar impulse to create the collages of sound that made up their earlier productions — with similar legal consequences.

Those bands would often handpick samples with a plan in mind for their final result. A viable use for that approach would be strategically inserting a spoken phrase — perhaps a jab at an audience between songs or an excerpt from a poem — that introduces changes in the track.

Instead of sampling from existing, copyrighted songs, try plundering your own hard drive for forgotten treasures. I found a casual jam from about a year ago that was recorded through a Yamaha AW1600 with a few Shure SM58s.

The recording was condensed to about 16 minutes. I auditioned bits and pieces and heard a lot of potentially usable stuff. There were guitar runs and little combinations of chatting, plucking and thumping that sound bizarre when listened to separate from the rest of the recording. So I highlighted what sounded interesting and rendered it to a Cut-up folder that I created.

In the middle of the jam during a pause, I heard the voice clip I was looking for. It was the guitarist encouraging me twice not to worry about volume and to drum as loud as I wanted, the second time emphatically. “No, the drums are nice, they're nice. Don't worry if the drums are overpowering, they're fine; it's nice to have a beat.” Already I was scheming to back off the drums in a track in two stages and then use those two voice clips to reintroduce them. The second time, they'd come back in a big way. But thinking about the final product too much won't give luck a chance to steer me away from my typical routine, so it's time for some chaos.

ALL IN

The original purpose of Gysin's cut-up method was to rearrange text at random, leaving the job of composition almost entirely to chance. The same thing is possible with sound, and multitrack sequencers make it pretty easy to do. So I set out to create as much randomness and variety as I could with the materials already on my hard drive.

I started by multiplying the audio channels until there were about two dozen. Three or four channels stayed dry, but the rest I loaded with effects, varying the effects as much as possible. Then I chucked in whatever samples I could find. My hard drive houses hundreds of outrageous sounds from my own purposeless experiments that — with good reason — weren't ever used. For this experiment, however, I threw just about everything into the sequencer, letting it land wherever. I copied many samples over and over again, placing them on different tracks and letting them combine with whatever they lined up with on the timeline. Samples like “funkymando,” “happydragon” and “brainhernia” comprised just about every kind of sound there. Bits of the original jam session got strewn about, mixing with bizarre sound manglings that were layered over guitars recorded through choruses, delays, ring mods, etc.

Beyond cutting, pasting and copying, I tweaked effect parameter automation envelopes across the sequencer, as well as some of Ableton Live's clip properties (a feature that's like another set of automations at the clip level, rather than at the track level). Those endeavors included changing time-stretching algorithms, tweaking transposition and grain-size envelopes and scrambling sample warp markers (transients).

I auditioned the whole mess at numerous tempos. Predictably, most of it was trash, but as with literary cut-ups, you need to sift the good away from the bad. Whatever sounded passable, I rendered into my Cut-up folder, and slowly I built a sample sound bank that was as creative as — but perhaps less refined — than many commercial special-effect loop libraries. The raw material for a creative track definitely piled up.

SCRAMBLED MELODIES

Out of negligence, I once sampled a synth incorrectly so that the bass notes ended up on the treble side and the treble notes on the bass side. Any melodies played using that patch were all scrambled and transformed into bizarre, ethereal creatures. They were strange, but ultimately pleasing to the ear, so I decided to try something similar when revisiting some older productions.

Inside a rough Propellerhead Reason orchestral piece, I soloed the piano channel and recorded a few bars of the piano part. I tried cutting up some of the more complex parts of the piece, bringing one large section of the keyboard arrangement down three octaves, splitting the highs and lows, imitating my earlier botched sample job. From that lower octave, I experimented by bringing the notes up interval by interval. Unfortunately, it sucked. When I brought the notes up to a minor 6th, a few fleeting moments sounded almost musical, but the rest was garbage. Perhaps simple formulas are best for randomness. So I reverted to one of the simpler sections of the piece, rendered it for the record and set to work altering it.

I worked on making small changes to the melody, selecting whole rows of one or two notes in the piano-roll screen to create a new repeating pattern. I tried multiple permutations of the same melody, proceeding in the same cautious manner. Each time, something new and surprising occurred.

INSPIRATION FROM CHAOS

Amid all the snipped and mangled audio and all the improbable juxtapositions, you will hear ideas. While cutting up audio for this feature, on several occasions, I heard things that I thought would sound better reproduced from scratch. These were ideas for melodies and mixes that I would not have thought of on my own. The “brainhernia” sample, for example, is mostly garbage, but when I auditioned the cut-up sounds at a lower tempo, I noticed a discernible melody amid the chaos. Humming it to myself, I imagined the trashy aspects the sample cleaned up, and it sounded like the beginnings of a catchy track.

The lesson there is that cut-ups aren't just a tool for extracting raw materials for creative production; there is also an inspirational aspect to them. A low grumble may bear a vague resemblance to a bass line, and a noisy, scrambled synth might trigger an idea for a hook or a melody. Suddenly you're inspired — and you didn't even have to take a DEA-classified Schedule I drug.

If you ask successful artists and musicians how many of their best creations were accidents, you may be surprised at the number. Sure, iconic melodies are often divined in the mind of a wise composer, but unsuspecting musicians can just as easily trip over them by accident. Cut-ups are a way of catalyzing the latter type of creativity when you're feeling stagnant. Either way, there is no need to be creatively blocked. Just knuckle down, do the work and get out the scissor tool.

Hear audio examples from these cut-up experiments atremixmag.com.