It's far too easy nowadays to walk into any music store on the planet and become overwhelmed by the dizzying quantities of high-dollar outboard processors, plug-in bundles or any of the other overpriced gizmos currently flooding the market. It's all packaged and marketed to tap into one of our most base desires as musicians, gear lust. Is that thousand-dollar reverb plug-in really the missing link standing between your pathetic life and multi-Platinum stardom? Probably not. Sure, everyone gets in a creative rut if they don't switch up the way they work now and again. But gear lust is a trap no different from that dark, apathetic hole that comes from the overconsumption of animal tranquilizers: You have to fight your way out. So here is a quick rundown of some lo-fi, low-cost additions to your sonic palette, as well as a few tricks that should yield plenty of creative bang for the buck.
First, why do you use effect processors? Simple: to twist your sounds into something new. That's it. With that basic fact established, the possibilities are endless; anything from a kid's tape deck to an answering machine can, theoretically, be used to bring new life to whatever signal you're running through it. So instead of dragging your feet through your local music store, make your way toward the pawn shop and the flea market. Often, untapped resources for cheap outboard effects are used guitar stompboxes, which you can find for less than $30. Some of the best brands are Electro-Harmonix, DOD, Digitech, Zoom, Ibanez and Boss, to name a few.
These slick, single-serving signal processors are available in every flavor imaginable, from distortion, overdrive and fuzz to chorus, flange and even synth modeling. (For those who have ever wondered what some of those wonderful effects contained within your synths, samplers and hard-disk recorders are based on, here you go.) Most run on either 9V batteries or supplied power adapters, and they include, at the very least, a single ¼-inch input and output jack; a few have stereo outs.
You can either patch these between the output of your synth, sampler or groove box and your recording rig or use a dedicated effect send on your mixer, allowing you to mix the wet and dry signals. And you can literally string a hundred of these things together, creating some totally unique and bizarre sonic fodder. However, be careful of the following: Don't use a balanced output with a stompbox. Sure, technically speaking, you will get some interesting sounds, but the mismatched high and low impedance will cause timing problems. Also, watch your noise floor; an analog effect pedal will augment both the good and the bad — an outboard noise suppressor or noise-removal plug-in could prove to be a lifesaver.
One great example of combining effects consists of running a dry vocal track through a chorus, a tremolo and an overdrive pedal (the Icebox chorus by DOD is a personal favorite). Start with just a little of each and slowly increase the amount of depth, speed and gain, respectively, on each one and listen to how the track's place in the overall mix changes. A great example of this can be heard on the track “Lost Without You,” by Jayn Hanna, from Sasha and Digweed's Northern Exposure: Expeditions (Incredible, 1999). This may sound like old news to those of you who use equivalent digital effects and plug-ins, but there is something to be said for the presence and impact that only analog processing affords. Also, as you record, try adjusting the knobs either in time with the beat or try working off the individual syllables of the vocal track itself for some extra character.
Your options really are limitless. Try routing some tired drum loops through any of these pedals, or liven up an old square-wave synth patch with something like a Boss Hyper Fuzz. At only a few bucks a pop, you can afford to be a glutton; the idea is to mix and match. These same stompboxes are also great in live situations, and, again, keyboards and samplers are a natural fit. Just be sure to experiment ahead of time with levels and potential feedback issues. If you're planning to do the live thing, a great investment (and starting point for your signal chain) is a good compressor/limiter pedal. This helps to ensure that the signal hitting your array of stompboxes isn't going to walk over the rest of your mix. Using these kinds of effects in a performance environment with a live vocalist, however, is completely different; to make a long story short: Don't try it.
NO MIDI, NO PROBLEM
Factory synth and sample libraries usually start sounding tired and played out by about your second month with a new piece of gear, and you can only get so far by recombining this patch with that effect and so on. So a great way to expand your sound library without breaking the bank is to stop looking in the obvious places. Why spend hours downloading the same updates that everyone else already has when other options abound?
So it's back to the flea market. This time, instead of guitar pedals, the search is on for kids' toys. Specifically, what you should be looking for are any those old Casio-style toy keyboards that everyone had at some point while growing up. The best ones for your purposes should have at least a headphone output. And, yeah, these keyboards sound awful in the conventional sense, but they're a great building block for new sounds. Obviously, you can just plug one in, start playing and tweak the sound like you would with a live instrument, or you can take the time to sample some of the more choice patches for use later on. Just record a few seconds of middle C into your software or hardware sampler and tweak away. Of course, not everything you pick up is going to be a winner, but you could easily stumble onto a few diamonds in the rough.
Working in the same vein, your VCR and DVD player are two more potential sample pools (and VCR and DVD audio are recorded at 16 and 20 bits, respectively). The idea here is not the cliché William S. Burroughs sound bite. Rather, grab literally anything from your video collection and patch the audio outputs of your VCR or DVD player directly into your recording rig and just start recording. After you have 30 minutes of material or so, start going back through and marking things that catch your ear. A car door slam, for instance, if properly gated and EQ'd, might work in place of a tired-sounding hi-hat. A sample of an actor breathing could be pitch-shifted down a few octaves and used as texture to fill in some bottom end. Hard drive space has never been cheaper, and you owe it to yourself to at least experiment with the things you already own.
When you're recording synths and drum machines, particularly on a computer-based digital audio workstation (DAW), the overall sound often tends to take on that small plastic-sounding and dull feel that analog purists take delight in pointing out. One way to liven up your sound is to not only take it out of the digital domain but also take it out of the box entirely.
This is a simple trick that professional studios have been using for years to add a little punch to cold digital drum tracks. Start by picking up a good pair of dynamic mics (two Shure SM58s with stands and cables can be found for about $200 used). Next, set up a pair of studio monitors, consumer speakers or even a P.A. somewhere in a room, a bathroom or even a club. Position the mics about four to six inches from the speakers, aiming them halfway between the center and the edge of the woofer cone, at about 4 o'clock. Now, when you run your synth drum tracks through the speakers and record them through the mics, you're not just recording the drums; you're getting the sound of the speakers and the room, as well. If done right, it's possible to get some absolutely sinister drum sounds that will work especially well for drum 'n' bass artists. You should also experiment with your mic placement, the kind of speakers you're using and the room. But those can be a lot of fun to play around with.
You can also achieve similar results with bass and lead synths by routing them through guitar amps, miking them and recording the results. Some artists even run songs in their entirety through a club P.A. — Depeche Mode's “Little 15,” though a bit dated, is a perfect example of this technique.
MORE DIY THAN LO-FI
Hopefully what you've gleaned from this article is more than a hankering to pick through your neighbor's trash in search of recording gear. The bigger idea is that you can stretch your resources a great deal further with just a little ingenuity. And in the end, the payoffs can be huge. Perhaps the next time you buy a sample CD, it will have a patch that sounds remarkably like something you cooked up in your own studio — as opposed to the other way around.