This post focuses on creating engaging sound for music production by combining pretty sounds and ugly sounds for contrast.
Something that the most successful producers understand is the importance of both pristine, pretty sounds and awful ugly, sounds. There have been countless examples of moments where engineers, producers, and artists have strived for creating something that is only pristine. Generally these sorts of projects fall short of the intended quality. When everything sounds good, it does not sound good together. This is one of music production’s dirty secrets. When Rupert Neve abandoned his iron-laden transformer preamp designs to achieve low-distortion preamp results, they didn’t have the bulky sound that people relied upon from Neve components. When solid state guitar amps hit the market, people bought them but discovered they didn’t have the same pleasurable distortion as tube amps.
The best producers know how to make pretty sounds sound really pretty by pairing them with really lo-fi sounds. A master of this philosophy is Nine Inch Nail’s own Trent Reznor. Take a listen through The Fragile and you’ll hear some of the ugliest sounds you’ve ever heard contrasted with some of the prettiest sounds you’ve ever heard.
Ideas for Grunge
Some tricks for achieving a lo-fi sound are:
- Spiking the midrange with an EQ that has a lot of character such as SSL G series (plugins or hardware) or Waves’ Renaissance EQ.
- Stripping the highs and lows by throwing up lowpass and hipass filters.
- Piping the sound through a lo-fi speaker and miking it.
- Running the sound through a distortion or overdrive box like the Big Muff or Boss Overdrive or amp / speaker cab simulator like Native Instruments Guitar Rig.
- Use a lo-fi microphone like the Green Bullet or even use a speaker or pair of headphones as a mic.
- Throw it through some lofi tape machines or a really old-school tube preamp.
- Strip the bit depth down to 8 bit or less using your DAW.
- Get some lofi delays like an Echoplex happening.
- Get rid of half the output of a stereo sound to reduce its space in the stereo image.
- Cover things with blankets, record it from another room, attach a chain to it… whatever. Be creative!
- Move things further back in the mix to reduce the Fletcher Munson curve effect.
Ideas for Pristine
Being dirty is often more fun than being clean, but clean can often be more challenging.
- Use condensor mics, especially reference style small diaphragm condensors like the Earthworks QTC40 or DPA 4003 / 4012 paired with…
- a transformerless or high efficiency transformer preamp design with lots of clean gain such as most of the Avalon line.
- Try using a modern ribbon mic – they’re one of the simplest designs and can produce very low distortion signals.
- Use a DI and plug straight in to achieve a very dry, unaffected sound.
- Use chorus or delay to fatten up a signal in the stereo image.
- Boost presence (often found around 5khz or 10khz) to make the sound stand out or reduce low mids (300khz to 1khz) to reduce its muffle. It helps to use a really hifi sounding EQ like an API 512 (plugin and hardware).
These are just some ideas. Be creative and come up with your own solutions to creating diversity.
Remember, small sounding things properly contrasted make big sounding things sound HUGE. Our minds and ears work off of contrast. If you can master the art of juxtaposition between ugly and pretty, your work will be juicy and fun to listen to.