‘Find your own sound’ is one of the most well worn pieces of advice to beginners in electronic music. Behind such a simple phrase is a complex mix of intentions and techniques. With so many people now making music, how do you find a sound that is yours?
Making electronic tracks it’s easy to focus too much on the equipment, but what’s far more important in getting to your own sound is your taste and judgement, the decisions you make about your music. That said, equipment is important in music production, and it’s never been more accessible and available than it is now. Thousands of plugins, hundreds of hardware synths, are all available and it’s hard to know where to start. This opens up an effectively infinite palette of sounds to producers. While the early pioneers of acid house had just a 303 and a drum machine to shape their sound, we can use virtual versions of almost any equipment we like.
This situation would have blown the minds of early electronic dance musicians, but so many choices can make it really hard to make the decisions that shape your sound.
In his interview with EB.TV Tech Talk, George FitzGerald describes sculpting the sound of his first album by choosing to only use hardware analog synthesizers and setting up a studio with a relatively small selection of them. Using hardware is one way of limiting the options but he goes further than this, describing how each synth has it’s own place based on the things it can do really well that other’s can’t. He points out that most synths can create a wide range of sounds, and there is considerable cross over. What George has done is get to know each machine well enough that he can use it for what it does uniquely well; a Moog Sub Phatty for sustained bass lines, a Korg MS20 for metallic, character filled leads. The resulting album he made at the time of this interview has a really cohesive sound, and you can hear the different characters he describes in the video almost as if they are members of a band.
Members of a band is, I think, a good way of looking at it. You don’t need the same sounds on every track you make, but spend the time setting up the band and choosing members for particular roles and you are well on the way to crafting a sound. Pick mediocre members, or put the right character in the wrong role, and that sound won’t be what it could. Spend the time getting to know them, and deploy them where they can play their own special part.
What does this mean practically when, without the budget for a room of synths, you are faced with a blank DAW project and a folder of plugins?
Firstly, limit yourself. Explore the ocean of instruments out there, but set a high bar and stick with a small number that really suit your tastes. Secondly, really get to know them. Dig into sound design on them and figure out what they do best for you. Thirdly, don’t start with that blank project. Set up a template with all those instruments on channels labelled for their role. Load the template each time you get started. If you’ve got a track already made that represents your sound, delete the arrangement and re work that into a template for your band.
The danger is letting this get stale, and there are plenty of producers who go too far and all their tracks sound too similar. Mix it up, experiment, try new effects and new instruments. Evolve the band and your template each time you start something new, but start with a solid foundation rather than re-forming the band every time you write a new track.
There’s lots more to finding your own sound, but thinking of your studio as a band is something I’ve found really helpful in building that consistency. We have infinite options for sound creation these days, and in that environment it’s judgement and decisions that count in making interesting music. Setting up your own constraints and the environment you work in is an important part of that decision making.
Also published on Medium.