When you’re an audio professional without much music experience, finding a creative outlet with music can seem like an uphill battle. But you’re not alone – there are hundreds, if not thousands, of producers and engineers with little to no music theory education.
Even still, these individuals find ways to succeed in their music careers without the ability to play an instrument or sing a tune. The computer and their DAW is all they need to achieve their vision.
The lessons we can learn from these individuals extend well beyond the mentality that “anybody can make a hit” though. Their ingenuity in the studio and ability to push the envelope of music production can help even the most skilled musicians realize that there’s more left to explore.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common ways these producers and engineers are getting creative and finding inspiration within their sessions (most without having to play a single note on an instrument).
Patches & Presets
Especially in digital-focused genres, producers can actually end up spending more time diving through the sounds available to them than they do playing out a melody or drawing notes into their session. Finding inspiration by repeatedly hitting the C note on a MIDI controller and the “Next” button in a plugin might seem tedious, but it can easily be one of the most rewarding tasks when you come across the right thing.
A patch for a synthesizer can act as the inspiration for a melody or completely turn an existing performance on its head. With such a wide variety of tonal options, synths are still largely uncharted territory. Instead of opting for the more common pianos, brass instruments, and strings found in traditional arrangements, modern producers are looking for new and unique sounds for their libraries.
Newer subscription sites and marketplaces have taken these options to new heights by constantly updating their library of patches, presets, samples & loops for aspiring producers. Whether you prefer to start from scratch when building a synth patch or you use a preset as your baseline, there’s certainly no shortage of available sounds to inspire the sounds in your sessions.
Beyond creative patches for synths, there are tons of tonal options for programmed and live-recorded instruments through the use of manipulation plugins. These are the plugins that intentionally work to transform your sound – taking the sonic characteristics of your sounds and morphing them into something completely different. These plugins are usually anything but transparent and a great way to ignite a creative spark.
Pixelator is a great example of a plugin that manipulates your audio, specifically the resolution of it. By sample-dividing your audio or reducing it’s bit depth, you’re able to create some uniquely lo-fi sounds and audio distortions that sound more like a video game than an overdriven guitar. It’s a super cool effect that doesn’t work for every song, but can fit perfectly in the right scenario.
Manipulation plugins run the entire spectrum of audio and will often contain parameters and controls that you’ll never see anywhere else. They’re designed to add a “weird” element to your sound, which is why they’re so popular with the sound design community.
PRO TIP: If you’re ever in a situation where you want to use a manipulator plugin but the effect is too obvious, try adding it to your mix in parallel with the unprocessed source. Some plugins like Pixelator have a Mix knob to do this right in the plugin, but setting up a send/aux track is a relatively simple process that adds a lot of flexibility to your sessions.
While crazy presets and out-of-this world manipulation plugins might seem like logical tools for drastically different sounds and inspiration, the more common tools in your mixes can add a great dynamic as well. Things like EQ, compression, reverb & delay have everything you need to completely change the way something sounds.
We see this all the time. Compressors are used to create pumping effects and distorted sounds. EQs are used for low pass filtering to make things darker and high pass filtering to make things sound thinner. You can push these tools further and further with automation – sweeping up and down and morphing the EQ curve on the fly for a sound that’s constantly changing.
Your tonal options really are endless, and these common processors are proof that you don’t need anything more than the stock plugins in your DAW to make it happen.
New To Sound Design?
Crafting your own sounds for a session can be daunting for the inexperienced, but there are some basic practices you can follow to get the perfect sounds into every session.
If you could use some help with finding the right sounds, download a copy of our eBook, The Producer’s Guide to Synthesizers & Sweeteners. This 50-page guide has everything you need to get started implementing sound design seamlessly into your productions.