5 versatile sound design tips from Michael Bruner

Michael Bruner is an up-and-coming indie artist from Bloomington, Indiana.

While he wears many hats in the creative process, Michael Bruner is best known for his intricate production and gentle vocals.

In celebration of the release of his new Focal Point sample pack, Michael Bruner sat down with us to share five versatile tips around his favorite techniques in sound design—read on for highlights.

1. Experiment with miking

When thinking about sound design, many of us may focus on software synths, effect plugins, and features available in the DAW. However, the process can start much earlier, even at the stage of capturing an acoustic sound source.

Michael Bruner recommends experimenting with microphone placement in particular to achieve a wide array of sounds. “A few years back, I started recording vocals in closer proximity to the mic,” he tells us. “I love the noise and detail it brings out—it has a similar effect to ASMR. I also use a lot of close-miked found sounds. I’ve always loved exploring syncopated rhythms in my production, so that’s where the intricacy shows.”

“I also enjoy exploring unorthodox setups and recording techniques. One time, I made a binaural recording rig using two lavalier mics that went into my field recorder. The lav mics were clipped onto my winter hat. I went around my college campus recording just about everything.”

Choosing the right microphone for the job is also key—and sometimes, the best option is the ‘worst’ one. “‘Sanity’s Sake’ is a song off of my debut EP, Time With You,” Bruner says. “It contains a lot of intricate sound design and dynamic sections. It began as a challenge to see if I could write a full song using my worst microphone. It was super noisy. I decided to lean into the noise it generated—it became the textural backbone of the production.”

2. Find creativity in limitations

Sometimes, having an infinite amount of creative options can be paralyzing; those who have stared at a blank project without knowing where to begin know this best. If you find yourself in this headspace, Bruner encourages creators to spark creativity by establishing some sort of limitations to work within—in his case, this often means sampling.

“I was probably 16 when I heard ‘Recurring’ by Bonobo,” he recalls. “I was floored. I had to understand how those sounds were created. That song alone gave me the motivation to learn production and embark on my own sound design journey.”

“Another point of early inspiration was J Dilla’s album Vintage Vol. 2. I had been mainly focused on guitar and playing live up until that point, but sampling techniques quickly became a conscious pursuit after hearing those legendary producers.”

“In retrospect, I believe my fascination with sampling is related to the limited control. Working with a sample forces me to manipulate and reshape an existing sound source in surprising and unexpected ways. It’s sometimes less daunting than staring at a fretboard with so many possibilities.”

“I used to try auto-tuning my parents’ tea kettle and seeing what key center it fell within. That kind of stuff is just fun. Those experiments can be very librating if I don’t have any ideas off the top of my head. You let your environment choose for you, whether that be the digital realm or your immediate surroundings.”

“Having said that, one thing that bothered me about sampling was the risk of copyright infringement. But, I soon realized that I could sample myself and still achieve that sampled vibe. I’d sample old recordings of myself, write songs just for sampling, record jam sessions with field recorders, and record just about anything that sounded cool to me. I began to see the world through the lens of ‘is that sample-able?’ Later, I would import those sounds into Ableton and start chopping them up with simple clip editing or use Ableton’s Simpler device to trigger different transients in the recording with a MIDI keyboard.

“In 2017, I actually took an unexpected trip to China and decided to leave my guitar behind due to a wrist injury. Instead, I brought my field recorder (Zoom H1), HP ProBook laptop, and a Novation Launchpad. It was a beautiful way to redefine my sonic identity and see that I didn’t have to just be a guitarist in order to create music. I still have those recordings in my sample library to this day.”

3. Get intimately familiar with your tools

On that note, finding the tools that work best for you can go an incredibly long way in helping you design your best sounds yet. While the exact tools will vary greatly from producer to producer, Bruner shares the following as some of his own favorites:

  • Ableton Live is number one. It feels like a sonic canvas. I like how everything you need is at arm’s reach (i.e. no dialog boxes, menu diving, or plugin pop-up windows), so it’s easier for me to stay focused.”
  • Audeze LCD-X headphones—I use these almost exclusively for sound design, mixing, and mastering work. They’re big and chunky but their stereo image is insanely precise, they produce all the sub information I need, and they don’t fatigue my ears.”
  • RME Babyface Pro FS—this audio interface has never failed me. It’s never crashed a computer. It’s very clean, quiet, and portable. It has a loopback function in its console software that can allow for some amazing possibilities in the recording realm.”
  • Field recorders are a staple for me. They’re a fun way for me to engage with my surroundings. Also, it feels special when I sample things that I recorded. It’s like a sonic snapshot of the past.”
  • Third-party plugins I’ve been enjoying lately—Goodhertz’ Lossy, Wavesfactory’s Spectre, ToneBooster’s MBC, Gig Performer, and Xfer Records’ Serum FX come to mind.”

4. Engage with the physical world

In a past interview, Bruner cited his main source of inspiration to be physical movement—and this still holds true for him today, particularly when it comes to overcoming writer’s block.

“I would recommend physical movement and switching up your creative environment,” he tells us. “If you work inside, make a mobile setup to use at a local park. Check out the book Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande. She talks about wordless occupation—activities that keep your hands (or limbs) busy but allow your mind to wonder. Once you have an idea, pause the activity and write or record that idea.”

“Record rough ideas on your phone’s recording app,” he continues. “If you have an idea to record, how many elements of the idea can you reproduce with your voice or by tapping on a nearby object? If you have just a melodic idea, can you imagine what the bass notes would be doing? The chords? The drums? Transition moments? How much of an idea can you express with a simple voice memo? The more you can record in the moment, the more direction you have when you sit down to create a full track in your DAW.”

“Practice importing voice memos directly into your DAW. Line up the audio to the nearest BPM, create a rough form, and now you have a guide track for your song. You can start building out your track with your go-to instruments. If you start getting in your head about the direction, you can refer back to the original idea. I’ve actually written most of my songs using this method.”

“I’d also recommend collaborating with friends. You’ll be forced to break out of old patterns when you notice how other people create. It’s usually more light-hearted when creating with friends, which can help alleviate the pressure that might cause a creative block.”

5. Never stop learning

Last but not least, it’s key to always continue learning and experimenting with new techniques if you want to further evolve your sound design chops. Even when crafting samples for his latest sample pack, Bruner found himself discovering new tricks and processes.

This guitar chord loop is probably my favorite sample from the pack,” he shares. “I almost didn’t put it on the pack because of how much I personally enjoyed it. It’s the result of a new recording hack I discovered using my SP-404SX (Roland’s hardware sampler). It has a coarse pitch effect that I used to transpose my guitar in real time—I was able to hear a different key in my headphones than the key I was physically playing on the guitar.”

“This is dope because I can dial in a specific pitch center that feels good. It’s no longer within the confines of equal temperament (the standard 440 Hz tuning system that most western music is based on). Of course, you could just tune your instrument to a random pitch, but that would be very cumbersome. This allows me to do it on the fly. It also has a certain glitchy texture because the effect is trying to re-pitch the incoming signal in real time, which is a demanding task. I plan to keep exploring this real-time pitching technique. It makes simple ideas sound fresh.”

5 versatile sound design tips from Michael Bruner: Conclusion

And there you have it! Which of Michael Bruner’s tips was your favorite? What other topics would you like to see us explore alongside producers, instrumentalists, and artists next? Start a conversation with us and a community of other music creators via the Splice Discord.

“Make something weird,” Bruner says. “Laugh at your mistakes. Make a mess and see what you find.”

Incorporate Michael Bruner’s versatile sounds into your own productions:

February 22, 2024

Harrison Shimazu

Harrison Shimazu is a composer, content strategist, and writer who’s passionate about democratizing music creation and education. He leads the Splice blog and produces vocaloid music as Namaboku.