Found Sound, an article by Lomea
The term ‘Found Sound’ refers to recorded sounds of a non-musical origin, when used in a musical context. This can be anything from field recordings of birdsong or a busy train station, to the sounds of a ball bouncing down some stairs to literally any sound that can be somehow incorporated into music.
In the 1940s and 50s, composers of the European avant garde such as Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry and Karlheinz Stockhausen began to experiment with non-notational music. Music in which the notes of a score were no longer an integral or even necessary part of a composition, as they pioneered novel ways of using microphones, room acoustics and early electronic sound manipulation processes to create wholly new sounds. This movement became known as Musique concrete.
Steve Reich’s 1965 piece It’s Gonna Rain is comprised of a recording of a street preacher in San Francisco, looped over and over on two separate tape decks to create phasing effects. The background sound of a pigeon flapping its wings as it prepares to fly away, adds an accidental percussive element. This piece and others like it (as well as the nascent ‘sampling’ technique it employs) would be a profound influence on dance music in later decades.
In more recent times, artists like Matthew Herbert, Matmos and Amon Tobin represent some of the wildest expeditions in this area. Herbert, a prolific producer and collaborator with the likes of Bjork and Roisin Murphy, has made entire albums with subject-specific sounds, often with a political message attached. His 2005 album Plat Du Jour is oriented around food; each track representing (and made from) sounds derived from - among other things, coffee, sugar and bottled water
Experimental duo Matmos have occasionally trodden a similar conceptual path; their 2001 album A Chance to Cut is a Change to Cure being constructed from sounds of plastic surgery.
Amon Tobin’s 2007 album Foley Room (named after the place where sound effects are recorded for films and TV), uses sounds as diverse as a tiger’s roar, a combination of bees and motorbike engines and ants walking on tinfoil to create all manner of bizarre, ear-tickling textures and rhythms in Esthers (below).
Other electronic artists such as Clark, Jon Hopkins and Gold Panda all use found sounds in slightly less overt (but no less interesting) ways. Clark’s tracks have featured snow being trampled, chairs dragged over a floor and myriad other things, while Jon Hopkins’s album Immunity makes cunning use of scissors opening and shutting, the ambient sound of the London street where his studio is located and many things besides.
Which is not to suggest that the use of found sound is limited to contemporary electronic music or the avant garde. Simon and Garfunkel’s classic The Boxer has an iconic, powerful ‘snare’ sound in the chorus which was achieved by drummer Hal Blaine slamming a heavy chain against the concrete floor of an empty storage closet. The intro to Money by Pink Floyd utilises a tape loop of cash register sounds, before that famous riff makes an appearance.
For my own tracks, I often find myself going out into the city with a portable recorder and seeing if inspiration strikes. Sometimes this is with the intention of gathering certain types of sounds, and sometimes just on the off-chance that I’ll hear something that could be useful or interesting for a new track. For instance, I might go to the countryside specifically to record sounds of leaves being crunched underfoot, twigs snapping and similar. Often these sounds make their way onto my tracks in subtle ways instead of being the focus, usually as extra layers to augment and add interest to percussion parts. The ultra-crisp sound made when you snap a dry branch can add a certain liveliness and energy to an otherwise dull snare sample for example, and mundane household things like slamming the door of a washing machine has provided an occasionally useful ‘thump’ component for kick drums. My track Warmest Diamonds contains a ‘snare’ sound made from layered and downpitched handclaps recorded in a nearby rural train tunnel. Other sounds include hitting a vase, a train approaching (and rushing overhead) and fireworks exploding on bonfire night, all in a percussive context.
Another bonus of field recording in my opinion is the near-inevitable occurrence of happy accidents, or the recording of things you hadn’t meant to record but which add a certain something. The heavily reverbed voice of someone shouting out, while you intended only to record a train leaving the station platform for instance.
Electronic music can sometimes seem somewhat homogenous and lacking in personality or creativity (sonic and otherwise). I find that using found sounds can open up entirely new avenues of inspiration, and it can help give your music a genuinely unique sonic identity. It makes you acutely aware of the boundless possibilities of sound design in music and most of all, it’s fun.
Lomea ‘Otherness Reworks’ is out now on Here & Now Recordings.