Zen of Recording

Music From Another World

I love walking my golden lab, Max. Not just for the fresh air, sunshine, and chance to stretch one’s perpetually studio-bent legs, although those are obvious benefits. I dig the symbiotic nature of it all: he needs me to walk him, I need him to need me to walk him… it’s all good. We walk a familiar two-mile route, often with the baby in his stroller, watching the clouds roll by overhead. Max periodically “checks his messages” and leaving a few along the way, with me randomly stopping to catch the odd photograph, but we always manage to move along at a pretty good clip. If only Rocky Road ice cream metabolized like rice cakes… (sigh).

Sometimes, Max and I hop in the car and go to a different neighborhood, just to change it up a little and keep things fresh. I’ve found some of my best photos and “found sounds” on these journeys “off the beaten path.” Perhaps it’s the unfamiliar surroundings that perk up our ears and open our eyes, our heightened awareness attempting to drink in all this new information with each new step we take.

That’s why I like doing unorthodox things in the music and audio realms: there are all these new possibilities and discoveries. What might be an effective but all-too-familiar instrument in an arrangement can be re-invented and repurposed, either by finding new “wrong” ways to use it or by further manipulating it with other sonic  “treatments.” Increasingly, I have found my music writing, performing, and production work taking an increasingly more “textural” sensibility overall.

Just as the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of a song’s performance all serve a unique role in the way it is received by the listener, so too do the tones and timbres that distinguish and personify each voice or instrument. When listening to an arrangement, you may find different frequencies being “weighted” a certain way. Maybe a “heaviness” can be implied by lots of bass and low mids, or elevated by some airy highs.

Sometimes it’s not about pristinely beautiful recordings, either. Sometimes it’s about distressing, distorting, and otherwise disfiguring your audio into something with a decidedly different flavor. Producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck) is amazing at it. Ditto the production team of Mitchell Froom & Tchad Blake (Crowded House, Los Lobos), who endeavored to “create new sonic worlds that have never existed before” with each new album.

My recent studio work with Swiss artist Hans Rotschi allowed us to venture down some really cool new “rabbit holes” via FutzBox ($249 Retail, $199 at McDSP.com; HD or Native), a lo-fi distortion effects plug-in that allows all you audio maniacs to strangle and mangle audio by running it through pretty much anything with a speaker attached: telephones, radios, bullhorns, and even Mason jars are available to do your bidding via just a few clicks of your mouse!
Once you’ve installed and authenticated the(iLok) plug-in, simply instantiate the plug-in to a track or bus. Upon opening the plug-in’s interface, you are presented with a bold, funky set of easy-to-read and understand “modules” that all contribute to a patch’s sound. The look is simultaneously retro and futuristic; friendly on both the eyes and the user.

The upper left portion has an input volume knob next to “Sim” module, featuring a visual representation of the type of speaker that you are currently running through (the patch “Dad’s Radio” for instance has “Black Transistor Radio” selected and pictured) scroll buttons easily allow you to audition any of the speaker types available. The top center of the interface’s display houses a “Lo-Fi” section, where you can “bit crush” audio by changing its sampling rate and bit depth. A filter is also provided for fine tuning the damage. To the right of that are two large graphical displays that correlate to the Filters and EQ/Filter modules, allowing you to visually confirm what effect they are having on the audio. Input/Output meters follow and at the far right are “Out” (level) and “Mix” knobs.

The center of the FutzBox interface is where most of the “heavy lifting” happens, with the previously mentioned Filters (for shelving lows and highs) and EQ/Filter (selectable frequency cut/boost) flanking the “Distortion” module, with its three controls: “Amount,” “Intensity,” and “Rectify.” These control the level and character of the signal’s distortion.

“Noise Generator” and “Gate” round out the appointments, with the former allowing you to throw even more salt into your audio wounds, with the gate helping clean up any extra trash in the signal during silent passages.
I found using the FutzBox to be very easy and intuitive. Simply auditioning through the plethora of presets gets you most of the way there. Then, once you’ve selected one close to what you’re looking for, you can fine-tune and dial-in your tone quickly from there.… That’s it: grab, tweak and season to taste!
Most of the time, effects like this are found on vocals, drums or mixes… for a vibey intro or breakdown, which has become quite a popular production trick over the last several years. Personally, I found it great for reinventing familiar sounds like Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos, organs, percussion, guitars, and vocal pads. So many new textures have been stumbled upon and run with during this latest album that I can’t even begin to imagine how many more of my recording projects will benefit from the FutzBox treatment in the near to distant future. Suffice it to say, it feels like reuniting with a long lost arm for me. McDSP has made a customer for life!

Gotta run… Max is at the front door holding his leash!

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer with over 300 recording credits. He is also a singer-songwriter, putting the finishing touches on a new album, Monarch, which he recorded with Seaholm Mackintosh, due late April.

  • September 2016

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