On Sonic Scavenging

One tried and true production workflow is to make field recordings and then incorporate these into a piece of music to give it an injection of a real life, acoustic soundscape. Many musicians believe that field recordings imbue a track with vividness, a bespoke aura, and intentionality impossible to achieve by other means. For both creative and copyright reasons, it’s common to heavily process field recordings so as to disguise them, make them unrecognizable. One might sample a voice off the TV, Ringo’s kick drum, or birds from the backyard and then mangle these sounds, or even combine them into a composite sound. This leads to an interesting duality: as the original source of a sound becomes less and less important, the processed sound becomes a one of a kind beauty.

In an interview on the Tape Notes podcast (November 23, 2021), the producer Jon Hopkins was asked about how he created timbres on his most recent album, Music for Psychedelic Therapy. Hopkins explained how he often creates sounds by resampling a part already in the track. Resampling is the process of field recording in the computer, where one re-records a track in order copy it onto another. Producers will often process a track with effects, resample it, and then process the resampled track again, to create variations of the original. “It’s possible” says Hopkins as he explains the genesis of his album’s ambient tonescapes, “that some of these sounds are versions of the original sounds, they’ve just been taken really far away from it.” For example, Hopkins might begin with a recording of an acoustic instrument, such as the piano, copy the track, and then stretch and re-pitch the copy to make a drone-type sound that is distinct yet still related to the original piano sound. Other times the generative sources of a soundscape are audio samples that Hopkins somewhat randomly came across on his computer. He explains that for one sound 

“there’s a vocal sample, but I don’t actually know where this is from. You have a browser in Ableton and you can search for any word and I think I typed in ‘vocal’ and I got millions of things with that word. And I picked one and put it into this huge chain of effects.” 

The important thing, Hopkins notes, is realizing “that it almost doesn’t matter what the source is, if you’re using this amount of processing.” In the music producer’s world, processing renders timbre elastic: with enough craft any sound can become any other sound. 

In sum, while the Tape Notes interviewer seeks specific answers as to how Hopkins created his sounds, at times Hopkins can only provide a bird’s eye view of what he remembers from the composing sessions. “When I work I tend to get into a trance state” he admits. This disjuncture between questions seeking workflow specifics and answers treading in workflow generalities points to the fact that for most musicians, there’s rarely a single way to reach a musical goal. New ideas typically emerge in the midst of a workflow, while tinkering around, where certain options are close enough at hand to warrant trying, while other options are not. Hopkins explains that the majority of the time, his next production step to generate a new part involves altering a sound he already has. “Maybe one of the most common methods I use is to take something that’s there and process it into the next thing” he says. To return to the resampled piano example above, instead of synthesizing a drone sound from scratch, one finds a way to use the piano’s audio as a drone generator. (The adventurous might even use the audio to create a wavetable file in a wavetable synthesizer.) In this sense, producers are skilled scavengers continually seeking ways to repurpose what they have into new artistic material. In production, scavenging has an ear out for adjacent possibles, working with whatever can be found to further grow a piece of music. 

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