Once upon a time, if you wanted to record something at home, chances are that you had to do it with a clunky four or eight track portable studio set up. My first was a Yamaha unit from the mid 80s, which I bought second hand out of the local paper when I was 14. I logged hours and hours of time on that thing, bouncing down tracks, faking a bass by manipulating the tape speed, recording backwards solos, and generally making a whole lot of noise. One time I created a Ministry-esque rhythm track and recorded Simpsons quotes directly off the VCR, relying on my mad pause button skills to ensure the ‘samples’ were recorded at the right point in the song. Today even the simplest computer can be an entire recording studio, and the rules have changed. You no longer have to worry about losing a little bit of treble every time you play your track, like you would with a cassette. And if you flub a part, it’s really easy to fix a note or two. Try that on a tape deck.
For the last year or so, my recording system of choice has been Pro Tools LE. I’ve stumbled upon a few cool tricks which apply to pretty much any digital work station, so feel free to try these at home. Just don’t hurt yourselves.
TWINKLE PANS: Record a stereo track of a single chord with a panning effect moving from left to right, timed to sweep the sound from one side to the other over the length of each bar. Then chop each bar up into 8th notes, and juggle them around randomly, so you get the chord sort of ‘twinkling’ across the stereo spectrum. You might hear a slight clicking sound at the start or end of each 8th note. If that’s the case, just draw in the tiniest of fade-ins and fade-outs at the start and end of the note, and you’ll be fine. You can also try using a tremolo effect, which you can lock to the tempo of the track, and set to fade in and out of the note naturally.
RHYTHMIC TREMOLO: Similar to twinkle pans, chop a bar into 8th or 16th note segments, but this time, instead of moving them around, delete some of them, to create interesting rhythms. Be a little bit lateral and see if you can find interesting polyrhythms or syncopations you might not have come up with any other way. Even if you’re not sold on the tremolo sound, you can still use it as a songwriting tool to write new riffs, which you can then play ‘manually.’
INSTANT KEYBOARD, JUST ADD REVERB: For fake keyboard sounds, use a reverb effect with the mix turned to 100% effected sound and a second or so of reverb time, then tremolo-pick single notes or octaves as fast as you can. With the un-reverbed note and any sense of definite rhythm removed from the signal, you’re just left with the general harmonic information. If you bring down the bass and treble frequencies and notch up the upper mids a bit, you can create a very interesting texture underneath extreme metal riffing.
DELAYED EFFECT: For a unique delay sound, copy the guitar track to a second track, move it back by 1 or 2 beats compared to the original track, then apply effects only to the shifted track, so you can have, say, flanger or pitch shifter happening only on the delays. Imagine your original melody line being repeated as a diatonic harmony, or drenched in deep vibrato.
THE MULTI AMP VIRTUAL RIG OF DOOM: Many amp modelling programs feature the ability to use two virtual amp rigs at once, but if that’s just not enough, or if your modeler only offers one sound at a time, copy and paste the same guitar part onto multiple tracks, and process each one differently to achieve otherwise unattainable sounds. This is especially fun for getting vaguely Frank Zappa-ish sounds: Try separate tracks of a completely uneffected guitar, a distorted guitar with a very short delay, a distorted guitar with a stationary wah effect, and a distorted guitar with an envelope filter, all at once, panned to various points in the stereo spectrum.
LOOK MA, I’M A SYNTH: Lock a modulation effect’s tempo to the speed of the song and feed it into an envelope filter for crazy synth-like swells. Try it on two tracks, panned hard left and hard right, with the modulation tempo set to quarter notes on one side and whole or 8th notes on the other; set each envelope filter to emphasise a different frequency; and compress the hell out of each side. You should get a phat, rhythmic ‘wub’ sound with a million and one uses, from Tea Party-style post rock apocalyptica to rave freakout.
I hope you have fun with these, and are inspired to come up with new editing tricks of your own.