4 tips for creating original sounds (on a budget)

Illustration: Michael Haddad

Most producers value the idea of originality when making music.

Understandably so, since creating original sounds can get you closer to a ‘signature’ sound as an artist, while avoiding the murky waters of copyright infringement.

For producers at the earlier stages of our journeys, however, originality can feel like an elusive idea. If we think about it along the lines of “making sounds from scratch,” two factors might deter us from exploring originality further: 1) the financial costs of recording, and 2) the time commitment involved in recording or synthesizing your own sounds. The time spent weighing these factors might even block us from starting our work.

The good news is there’s a time-and-budget-friendly middle ground that’s easy to overlook, but can get you closer to unique sounds without the significant investments of a studio. Let’s explore four tips you can use to generate creative original sounds with limited resources.

1. Record what’s within reach

Never underestimate the power of capturing what’s within reach. For this, all you really need is a microphone and an idea of what you’re likely to record. The latter is very important: awareness of your goals should inform your decisions around gear.

Before you start recording, identify what element(s) your track needs. For example, does it need a texture or a melody? Could your drums benefit from less processing and more genuine attack? Once you know what you need, scan your immediate environment and identify objects that emulate the sound of your desired element. For drum and percussion sounds, locate objects that slam, click, crackle, rattle, and pop like cabinet doors, bottles, tin foil, pots, and pans. For melodies and synths, consider using your voice. Don’t hesitate to get creative and experimental.

Find the right microphone

If you’re going to record very loud sounds (e.g. slamming or banging), consider a dynamic microphone like the Shure SM57 ($99). Alternatively, if you want to capture detailed or nuanced tonal and percussive elements, try condenser mics like the MV5 ($100), Blue Microphones’ Spark Digital ($100, with USB and iPad connectivity), or Blue Microphones’ Yeti ($120). Condenser mics tend to have USB compatibility, which is useful if you’re interested in a portable recording setup with an iPad or iPhone. They’re also likely to have faster transient responses (how the mic responds to quick, loud bursts of sound) than dynamic mics.

One last word on mics — if you choose to go with a dynamic microphone, keep in mind you’ll need to invest in an audio interface. Forcusrite’s Scarlett interfaces are an industry standard with great options across various price points. M-Audio’s Fast Track Pro is another specific budget-friendly option for beginners.

Maximize your recordings

Once you have the tools to record, be sure to track and organize in a way that allows you to re-use sounds regularly. Here are some quick tips:

  1. Record each sound as a one-shot (for use in sampler instruments) or as a loop. Export each individual audio stem to a folder on your computer and enter descriptive information like instrument type, key, and BPM (if it’s a loop) into the file name. Store the folder in a place that’s easy to access on your computer, or add it right into your DAW (e.g. Add Folder in Ableton). Save wet and dry versions of your samples, too.
  2. If you’re using Ableton, drag and drop your samples into your favorite drum racks and sampler instruments, and hit the floppy disk icon on the top right corner to save them as presets. For easy access, locate a saved preset (User Library → Presets), right click, and add it to one of your color-coded Collections on the top-left corner of the DAW.
  3. In today’s day and age, you can capture some pretty quality recordings using your phone. If you have an iPhone, Voice Memos is a decent free application (external apps are equally limiting, as they still rely on the phone’s built-in microphone). Be sure to maximize Voice Memos by ensuring your recording settings are set to Lossless. If your recordings have unwanted background noise, try the Repair Assistant in iZotope’s RX 7 to clean things up.

2. Focus on what you know

If you can’t be the best, be interesting. While this sounds like classic middle-school advice, this mindset translates to the world of sound design pretty well if you know your strengths and weaknesses. Build your tracks around your strongest skills, and then work around your weaknesses.

If exploring different processing techniques feels more inspiring than recording, it might serve some of us better to focus our time and energy on manipulating existing sounds over capturing new ones. The techniques below work well if 1) you’ve recorded your sounds and want to adjust or enhance them, or 2) you prefer to work with royalty-free samples as your starting point. Here are a few approaches to explore within the DAW.

  1. Granular synthesis: Warp fractions of an existing sample and turn them into their own glitched-out sounds via a process of experimentation and randomization. If you use Ableton, all you need are its native ‘warp’ settings and a VST like Max for Live’s Granulator II.
  2. Reversing sounds: Reversing sounds is an easy way to create some unique timbres. You can try taking things further by layering the original with the reversed sample, or by chopping it up.
  3. Distortion techniques: Transform your sounds via effects such as reverb, delay, and arpeggiation. Pitch and filter automation in sampler instruments (e.g. Ableton’s Simpler) can also lead to some surprising results.

While each technique deserves an article of its own, for the purposes of keeping this guide simple, just know that each of these can lead to distinct sonic elements, cool accidents, and sounds that are legally safe to use if the source is royalty free (or your own).

Lastly, getting creative with sound design also helps avoid the conundrum of sharing a key sonic element from a popular sample pack with other producers. In line with this, be mindful when digging for samples. Don’t just use the first drum sound or loop you find — think about the sonic properties you’re looking for, and let quality be your guide. If you throw the highest quality sounds into your DAW, you’ll definitely save time in the mixing process.

3. When in doubt, synthesize

Synthesis is the process of blending multiple sine waves and parameters to shape a complex sound. If you’re looking for a cost-effective way to synthesize your own sounds, consider using the plugins in your DAW like Ableton’s Operator or third-party soft synths like Serum.

A note of caution: while using plugin presets is acceptable for producing music, if your goal is to create or distribute samples of any kind, avoid using any VSTs that have an end-user license agreement that prohibits using the tool to create samples and generate your own source material instead. This usually means staying away from sampling presets, stock sounds, and plugins that are meant to represent or sound like acoustic instruments (e.g. a keyboard, orchestral percussion, etc.).

Instead, focus on:

  1. Getting to know the basics of FM synthesis (frequency modulation synthesis) on relatively accessible plugins like Ableton’s Operator. Focus on exploring the synth’s oscillators to generate waveforms, adjust their waveshape and frequency, and then use modifiers like filters and LFOs to shape characteristics like pitch and timbre.
  2. Synthesizing your own kicks and percussion sounds via subtractive synthesis. There are a range of nice drum synth plugins out there that can help you generate unique sounds, but remember to focus on their synthesis tools over their presets if you’re making samples. If you’re using Logic, Ultrabeat is great for this.
  3. Layering your synthesized sounds with some simple recorded noise to give them more character. Layering synthesized sounds with each other can generate interesting results, too.

4. Collaborate

This last tip is probably the most obvious one. It may also be the most budget-friendly out of all the options — and timely, if you know what you’re looking for. Collaboration is a great way to pool together the resources and skills of a community, or find skillsets that you may not have access to.

In some cases, it might make the most sense to partner with someone who already knows how to record high-quality sounds, has a studio or recording equipment, or knows how to do something more efficiently than you do. If you can’t find a specific sound in sample packs, find someone who knows how to make them. If you know what you need to record but don’t have a mic or an interface, reach out to a friend who does.

Ultimately, identifying your needs might require checking your ego and being honest with yourself about the skills you have, the skills you want to learn, and most importantly, the time you need to get there. The key is knowing what you bring to a collaboration, and knowing what you need from your collaborator.

The big picture

In conclusion, while recording and designing sounds can reignite your creativity, remember that organization is half the battle. It’s pointless creating your own sounds if you can’t find them. Let organization be the foundation of your exploration as you define your sound.

It’s worth reiterating again here that if you’re making samples for distribution, always create original sounds that don’t infringe on others’ copyrights or the end-user license agreements of other companies, and be able establish all of your source material when making packs (e,g. project files, session agreements, etc.). Additionally, while royalty-free sounds are typically acceptable for other commercial and creative work, strive to design them so they sound like your own creations.

Lastly, while exploring original ways to create sounds, don’t let fear or industry pressures drive you. Focus on having fun, experimenting, and evolving your skillset over time. If you’re not already doing this, getting to this place might require you to try out all the hacks in this article. Explore a combination of these tips and decide what’s best for your goals and workflow.

September 23, 2019

Ayesha Chugh Ayesha is a DJ, music producer, and former talent booker based in New York City. She is currently working on the Content team of Splice.