Most musicians and producers sensibly rely on musical instruments for the sounds they need. Sometimes, though, it's far more interesting to work with
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Most musicians and producers sensibly rely on musical instruments for the sounds they need. Sometimes, though, it's far more interesting to work with


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Author Benjamin McFarlane created this piece with the sounds he recorded during the writing of this feature.

Most musicians and producers sensibly rely on musical instruments for the sounds they need. Sometimes, though, it's far more interesting to work with sounds from the nonstudio environment: found sounds. Sounds come from anything that can move or vibrate, and found sounds are what sci-fi and horror sound effects are made of. In those cases, it is difficult to guess their source just by listening to them. They tantalize and terrorize audiences, and if used tactfully, they can entertain listeners.

Although found sounds have been used almost since recording began, the first keyboard samplers made their use more practical. After the Fairlight Computer Music Instrument (CMI) in the late '70s, E-mu made three versions of the Emulator, the first polyphonic sampler to be somewhat more affordable, in the '80s. It sampled at 8 bits/ 27.5 kHz. The first Emulator could load eight samples from a floppy disk (the big, bendable ones).

Since then it has become steadily easier to work with unusual found sounds. With all the new portable field recorders that record digitally to flash memory, it has also become easier than ever to capture these sounds. So in order to examine some of the most convenient and innovative technologies available for recording and producing with found sounds, I decided to create a song using nothing but the resonance of random objects not designed for music. Of course, that is not a new idea. Among many others, the pioneers of musique concrète explored that decades ago. The character Peter Sherwood did it unimpressively in a lousy 1988 movie called Still Life, and Matthew Herbert has probably done it in the most listenable and danceable way throughout his career.

Normally, there are no rules to producing with found sounds, but rather than be bogged down in infinite possibilities, I self-imposed some rules for this project.

  1. Samples cannot be subjected to drastic changes in timbre due to excessive stretching or effect layering. Effects must be more or less transparent, such as subtle reverb, delay or flange.
  2. Sample waveforms can't be used as oscillators for synthesis. That would go too far afield.
  3. Musical instruments are okay only if they're used creatively to produce sounds that don't normally come from them.
  4. Envelope, pitch, formant and filter modifications are fair game if they don't interfere with the essence of the original sampled content.


To collect found sounds, nothing is more convenient than a portable recorder. I used the Edirol R-09 and was surprised at how tiny it is: roughly 2-by-4-by-1 inches — small enough to fit comfortably inside a pocket. It has easy controls, two built-in omnidirectional condenser mics and switchable gain levels and auto-gain control. Perfect.

Wandering through the neighborhood and around a nearby shopping center with the recorder, a hammer and some gloves, I recorded much of the percussive song content in one session. Thwackable metal objects turned out to be the most pleasingly resonant objects. A set of goal posts at the end of a nearby football field produced a nice, cold-sounding pohhhhh when I covered it with a glove and start banging away with the hammer. It sounds quite a bit like the ping of submarine sonar, but it's louder and has a bit of a choruslike effect to it. It could make a decent crash.

I repeated that same process with other items, including large metal bins and — perhaps the coolest of all — parking-lot light posts. They're extremely tall, and the waves traveling up the metal pole and away from the recording source make a distinctive blaster-bolt sound like you'd hear in a sci-fi movie. After a while, I had percussive content to fill the stead of a crash, snare and toms, which I can later load into a sampler. But the hi-hat was still missing.


Especially for percussive loops, Propellerhead ReCycle ($249; is well worth its price. It is the alternative to time-stretching a sample and a flexible way to reorganize grooves via MIDI. With this program in mind, I recorded the final percussion element

I used a simple alder branch for a hi-hat substitute. Taking the branch to a quiet spot away from the traffic and streetlight hum, I set up the R-09 and swung the branch in front of it numerous times. With lots of sprigs on the branch, it had a pleasant swish, and I tried to give it an accent here and there by speeding up and slowing down. Tempo is not too important at this stage because that will be set in ReCycle. When the branch broke, my first recording session ended.

After loading all my percussive samples into the computer and monitoring them, I was satisfied that the audio quality was sharp enough. There wasn't too much handling noise on the R-09 (something I carefully avoided). The condenser mics sounded fine. With so much ambient noise coming from traffic, machines and wind in the samples, it's hard to comment meaningfully on the self-noise in the R-09s condensers, but for these purposes, they seemed fine. See Figures 1 through 4 for how I edited the samples.


Time stretching is a strong ally of creative production. Usually, it's best used on an element that just barely falls short of correct timing. Stretching algorithms rely on a process of analyzing existing signal content and repeating that content in the form of grains — very small particles of sound — to produce longer note values. If something is stretched too far, then the algorithm becomes conspicuous in the form of digital artifacts. Quite often it can introduce a whole new synthesis and mask the timbral qualities of the original material. While that can be fun, I avoided it here. (See Figure 5.)


While E-mu's hardware Emulator sampler is long gone, E-mu has kept in the game with one of its most recent innovations, the Emulator X2 software sampler, which is perfect for wrapping up this project. A top-flight soft sampler, Emulator X2 ships with 3 GB of sampled sounds and a simple 2×2 MIDI interface, which acts as the software dongle. It handles 16 MIDI channels, it has convenient sample-looping features, and its “synth swipe” allows for easy and comprehensive sampling of other hardware synths or samplers. Emulator X2's Z-plane filters are the most complex, innovative filters I've seen to date, and they sound great.

For these humble purposes, the most interesting things about Emulator X2 are the quick keyboard mapping and positional crossfading. For this section, I enlisted the help of the Celemony Melodyne plug-in.

I didn't want to use bottles, but after prowling endlessly for good melodic sounds, I resorted to the somewhat-cheap trick of blowing on bottles to get melodic sounds to load into Emulator X2. I found three different-size bottles in different pitch ranges that resonated well. With a jug of water and the R-09, I started blowing over the bottle tops. Beginning with the biggest bottle, I alternated recording and filling the bottles with water until I reached the top of their ranges. (See Figures 6 through 9.)


A clean and appealing bass frequency was the second most difficult thing to find. After a while, I found the perfect sound from a piece of 2-by-4 wood holding up a shelf stocked with electric guitars in a stock room. By hitting it with the side of a closed fist, it produced a usable bass tone. Better still, with a box resting against the side of the 2-by-4, striking it produced some nice overtones as well. I recorded both versions of the sound and headed for the studio. (See Figures 10 through 11.)


One thing to take from this experiment is that production is blindingly fast compared with yesterday's standards. Especially when it comes to integrating chaotic sounds that don't originate from a musician's chops, the tools at a producer's disposal are unprecedented in flexibility and ease of use. It takes some money to get up and running with the tools used here, but in comparison to the cost of setting up just a decade ago when there was nothing comparable to Melodyne, Live or Reason, it's not a lot of cash. Also, you can approximate many of these tricks with less expensive DAWs and plug-ins. So count your blessings; musical creativity has never had it this good.

To hear the song the author produced from this article, go