Whether you follow a deliberate, manifesto-based approach to music production, or you just make beats in an ad-hoc way, you have a sound that is uniquely yours. Beyond the instruments, melodies and grooves you choose in your music, the production techniques you use distinguish your sound from that of other creators, and stamp an indelible fingerprint on your songs. In the case of some producers this is noticeable immediately — as with electronica demigod Aphex Twin, EDM pioneer Skrillex, new wave star Suzanne Ciani, or super-producer Max Martin — but often it’s more subtle and hidden.
This fact is especially obvious when listening to the content of sample packs made by other artists. Auditioned in isolation, the constituent sounds often seem like they’re lacking something. Maybe a kick drum will be missing the extreme low end, or a snare drum will sound strangely snappy, or guitar/keys loops are compressed to death. This is because they are taken out of context, but when combined, they form the perfect blend. This exercise is useful to us as producers, as it tells us a few things, and can save us hours of anguish in the music-making process. Once you realize that each sound in isolation needn’t sound full, rounded or face-melting in its own right, we can concentrate on the thing that matters most: the mix. It also helps us to discover hidden tricks in others’ productions.
Every producer’s sonic outlook is different. Imagine giving five different producers an assignment to make a track using the same, limited amount of sounds. Apart from the musical component and arrangement of the song, each version will sound different, and that’s because we are human, and we all experience life (and music) in our own distinct way. There is no right or wrong.
If you’re a newcomer, and you want to carve out your own niche in the expansive landscape of modern music, one of the best ways to start is by using the oldest trick in an artist’s playbook: stealing. Creators in all artistic disciplines have been stealing other peoples’ ideas for centuries, from classical composer Stravinsky to writer T.S. Eliot. The phrase ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ is born out of this concept of copying or borrowing from others. Auston Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist, takes this conversation further. In his TED talk, he says that the key to creative theft is not to imitate, but to transform, “taking the things you’ve stolen and turning them into your own thing.” This concept can help you find your own sound pretty simply.
Take a critical listen to some productions you like and appreciate, and analyze what it is that you really like about them. Maybe it’s the powerful negative space in minimal techno, the in-your-face drums of Top-40 pop music, or the ethereal spatial effects in ambient and electronica. Once you have identified your favorites, try to emulate them in your compositions. Although the ideas aren’t completely original, the combination will be uniquely yours, and you will have, by borrowing ideas from others, found your sound.
Once you have the skills to process sounds in your unique way, it’s time to apply those skills to your beats, loops, samples and other sounds. When we make music, we take ownership of every element of our songs, from the grooves, melodies and rhythms, to the effects and dynamics processing, and of course the final mix. Then there’s the artwork, promo campaigns, collaborators… the whole package — it’s ours. Even when we sample recognizable chunks of existing songs, and declare / clear them before release, the end result is always in your new form, having been written, arranged and mixed by you. But what about the individual sounds? The raw materials used in our compositions are often not all original — unless you’re in a bare-bones punk band or you create all your samples from scratch — so can we still claim full ownership when we use them in our music? The short answer is, of course, yes. But there are deep and meaningful reasons as to why, when we use sounds available to other people in our productions, it’s totally fine to claim full creative ownership of the end result.
Lots of producers start with sound sources that are not originally theirs: be they loops sampled from someone else’s record, a sample pack from a company such as Samplified, a vocal a capella, or even a drum machine like the TR-808 or Linn LM-1, with its limited set of built-in sounds. But what follows the process of loading other peoples’ sounds into your DAW, is where that initial building block gets placed into a new context and mixed among an infinite number of other musical elements.
For the remainder of this piece, we’ll cover some ideas for using different production tools to your advantage, in order to make a sound that is wholly yours. Remember that your sound can change and adapt, so you should embrace all your creative ideas down the line.
There’s a common misconception that compression is just about squashing the dynamic range of a signal so that its amplitude remains at a steady level, so that it doesn’t get masked by other instruments in the mix. But compressors, gates and expanders (which all follow the same audio-processing principals) can be used to masterfully shape and sculpt your tones, and in doing so, create a unique sound. Using one sound to process another — using the side-chain input of a compressor — is a great way to personalize your productions. And don’t be scared to think outside the box with compression, especially when using software like Ableton Live or FL Studio, where you can make drastic changes and complex routings without overloading your signal paths. Parallel-path compression can help to blend the up-front sound of compressed signals with the naturally dynamic tonality of the raw sound.
Effects have been known to define complete genres of music. Take gated reverb as an example: its brutal sound was so new and unheard that it came to define 1980s pop music, and put Phil Collins’ and Peter Gabriel’s happy studio accident on the music production map. Similarly, the production team behind Cher’s ‘Believe’ were famously the first to noticeably use Antares’ Auto-Tune as a vocal effect (though they didn’t admit to it at first). Twenty years later, the same vocal process is still commonly called the ‘Cher Effect’ (though T-Pain is in the running). But you don’t need to pioneer a completely new sound with a megastar, you just need to find the right combination of effects that work well in your tracks. Don’t be afraid to push effect parameters beyond their natural limit, double up effects instances in FX Racks, and create unusual chains of weird and wonderful plugin processors. Thanks to the potential of modern computer systems and DAW software, the possibilities are limitless.
Though it’s reasonably common for producers to record their own found sounds to build drum kits and sound effect libraries and suchlike, the actual content of one artist’s found sound library will always be different to another’s. You don’t need high-end gear to capture found sounds — every smartphone has decent audio-recording facilities — although a good mic with a windshield and a stereo recorder with headphones will bring more reliable results. Whatever your recording system, make it a habit to record a couple of snippets for your found sounds library when you’re going about your day-to-day. Using these in your compositions will help to define your original sound.
Though they can help you get half-decent results quickly, plugin presets are, by their nature, not unique to your productions. One worthwhile way to help define your sound is to take time to create your own presets. These are the things that, used repeatedly in your work, will stamp your songs with recognizable and unique tonal properties. That’s not to say you should avoid using presets altogether; you might be lucky enough to find plugin presets from artists you wish to emulate. However, if you’re trying to make your sonic mark, a personalized set of sounds and effects are one of the easiest ways to get ahead.
Unusual equipment can really help you to define a distinct timbral flavor. And it doesn’t have to be expensive; already-loved flea-market effect pedals or a family hand-me-down guitar amp can be integrated into your setup to provide an unusual sound palette. Building your own percussion instruments from household items such as discarded metal containers, dried beans or lentils, and glassware, is a fantastic way to add totally unique sounds to your setup. Record a few passes of homemade percussion over every track on your next EP and you’ll be sure to create an exclusive audible effect.
Same goes for unusual production tricks. You’ve seen the videos of open-reel tape delays and hand-cranked music machines, but simpler and equally quirky production methods can be used to add uniqueness to your production style. If you have a snare drum, a mic, a spare speaker and an open channel on your interface, you can add a buzzy, distorted tonality to your sound by re-recording sends from your DAW through the speaker and mic combo (picking up the acoustic reaction of the snare drum) in a way that will guarantee a unique tone. That’s just one example of many, but the key to creativity is thinking outside the box. Take a look around your studio and follow your ideas!
To wrap this piece off, take a moment to refer back to the opening lines at the top of this page. Remember that, while going through the motions of defining your sound, your new creations and processes might, in isolation, seem and sound strange or unconventional — maybe totally bizarre! It’s important to remember that the final mix and tonal consistency in all your work is what you should focus on, rather than the individual production tricks you choose / invent / adapt. In honing your sound, high-passing your kick drum at 120Hz might be the norm, and that’s because you’re side-chaining a sine-wave sub-bass oscillator to the kick drum channel. And those over-compressed melodic instruments are squashed into oblivion because you want that ‘wall of sound’ effect to sustain the mid-range energy in your chorus. That’s all fine, but only ifyou say it is. It’s your music after all!