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Combining organic and electronic sounds in your recordings

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Blending acoustic and electronic sounds can open musical doors and take your songwriting and production in unexpected and adventurous directions.

Whether you gravitate towards pure, all-acoustic string quartets or heavily processed electronic drums-and-synth grooves, producers and artists of nearly any genre can benefit from experimenting with new ways of sourcing sounds.

That’s why New York producer Justin Goldner recommends alchemizing the best of both worlds. Creatively blending acoustic and electronic sounds can open all sorts of musical doors, he says, and help you take your songwriting, production, and performances in unexpected and adventurous directions. Here are a few tips from Goldner to get you started.

Turn to everyday objects for your source sounds

“I’ve always been interested in ways of taking organic sounds and combining them with processed, effected timbres,” says Goldner, “and in doing that, I’ve had lots of luck getting interesting, usable source material out of objects that are just lying around the house.”

Whether it’s a tea cup or cat scratching post, rubber band or blender, it’s possible to pull interesting tones or textures out of nearly any object you can lay your hands on. “It’s just a matter of banging, strumming, tapping, or otherwise ‘playing’ something in an interesting-sounding space and capturing that sound with a microphone,” Goldner says. “I try to listen to things that grab my ears as I’m walking around, and note the sounds that make me feel something — which often come from everyday objects. Then it’s just a matter of finding a place for those sounds within a composition.”

As an example, Goldner describes a track he recorded recently where he used the sound of bowls rotating on the floor. “When you drop a bowl or cup and it spins and takes some time to settle, that can create some really interesting extended sonic textures. I was able to position those textures within the song to highlight or set up a drum break, a vocal entrance — pre-existing elements of the composition.”

Start small with signal processing

Do an Internet search for “effects plug-ins” or “guitar pedals” and you will get more results than you could likely use in a month of recording.

“The amount of plug-ins and effects pedals out there in the world can be overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to figure out which tools to use in certain places in your work,” says Goldner. “I’ve found it helpful to get to know one effect or plug-in very well. Then, once you know it top to bottom, whether it’s a distortion plug-in or a single stomp box or amplifier, move on to another. Having thorough knowledge of one thing is way more helpful when it comes to blending organic and processed sounds than having shallow knowledge of lots of things.”

Don’t fear if the first effect, amp, or plug-in you choose to dive into seems too simple or straightforward; with enough experimentation, you can often get some of the most surprising sounds out of the seemingly simplest of tools. And, as Goldner says, every piece of gear or software you master will be a building block to help you learn the next tool you choose to tackle.

Mix clean and processed signals

“As a guitarist, I know a lot about running my sound through a signal chain that involves pedals and amplifiers,” says Goldner. “You can take a basic sound, like an acoustic or electric guitar, and process it in all sorts of ways — and you can do the same with pretty much any sound, whether it’s a cello you’re miking or a toy piano you’re hooking up with an electrical pickup. The interesting part happens when you use both the raw and processed sounds in parallel and take advantage of both of them at the same time.”

In practical terms, Goldner recommends recording the processed and clean signals of the same instrument on two separate tracks, and then experimenting with cutting between the two sounds. “Use one on the verse and another on the chorus,” he says, or simply blend the two together and see what happens. “This is a great strategy if you want your song to go from something very ambient to something very grounded.”

Goldner has used the process he describes with vocals, having the effect-laden, ambient vocal track fade down just as the clean version of the vocal performance fades up. “In that particular song, adding that morphing between tracks really augmented the gesture that was already there in the songwriting.”

Go low-fi

“A friend recently brought me a cool clay bell as a souvenir from a trip to Japan,” says Goldner. “It makes a certain sound, which I really like, but I’ve ended up using it in some more processed ways as well.”

In particular, Goldner likes running the bell through a low-fi sampler. “I have a bunch of little sampling keyboards from the 1980s, like the Yamaha VSS-30. Recording a sample of the bell in the VSS-30 and then using the keyboard to play melodies with the sampled bell sound can create some really interesting results. During the sampling and playback process, artifacts are created from the transition of the sound from analog to digital, and from the re-pitching that the keyboard automatically does — and it’s those artifacts that I find really interesting and inspiring.”

In your own work, try running interesting acoustic sound sources through low-fi samplers, whether attached to physical keyboards or not, and see what interesting new sounds you can come up with.

Go hi-fi

While keyboards like the VSS-30 may represent the funky low-fi end of signal processing, there are tons of sound manipulation tools on the tweaky and powerful hi-fi end. Case in point, granular synthesis.

“When you use a granular synth, it takes an audio file that you choose, chops it up into tiny, microscopic bits, and then the parameters of the granular synth engine let you tweak the order in which they’re played back, the pitch of each individual grain, the volume of each, and so on,” says Goldner. “You can re-shape a sound in dramatic ways. I like using granular synths to take an organic sound and retain some of the original acoustic properties, but give it very different characteristics as far as the shape of the sound.”

To learn more about granular synthesis, and how you can apply it to your own music making, check out these links:
What is granular synthesis?
Granular Synthesis: How It Works & Ways To Use It
Introduction to Granular Synthesis

For more on Goldner, visit funkybutter.com.

Do you have your own tips for blending organic and electronic elements? Tell us in the comments below!

Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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