When recording song demos at home, I find often find myself wanting to add a flavour of the textures and excitement of a live performance, looking for some way to smooth the transition between dramatic dynamic shifts, or just hankering for some crazy noises to add some interest.
Using direct recording techniques, or recording at the low volumes that home recording often requires, it can be hard to replicate or capture the unpredictable excitement of a cranked, live guitar, and while many DAWs and third party plugins provide some interesting options, I’m always keen to come up with something organic and replicable before I resort to digital trickery. And besides, making noise is fun!
With that goal in mind, this tutorial will introduce you to some of my favourite techniques for creating textural interest and special effects with a typical home demo recording set-up.
The whole idea here is creating something that you can replicate, whether for live performance and rehearsal, or for future recording sessions, so making use of whatever gear you have lying around is key. Depending on what equipment you own, you might not be able to recreate all of them, but hopefully you’ll be inspired to come up with your own techniques to exploit your favourite gear.
1. The Gentle Beating
This is an easy way to coax anything from a subtle hum to a sustained, machine like whine out of your guitar. You may even already do this to help you create feedback in live situations, but with a little reverb and some experimentation, it works nearly as well when recording direct, too.
You’ll need to dial in a fair amount of distortion and, ideally, add somewhat more reverb than you might normally use (a dab of delay or echo can work well, too). Keeping your hands away from the strings, drum your fingers up and down the back of the guitar’s neck. You should begin to hear the sound of the guitar vibrating.
Vary the force and, as you progress up and down the length of the neck, listening carefully for a “sweet spot” where the vibrations seem to multiply and reinforce themselves. Try tapping the body as well, either on its own or at the same time as the neck.
2. The Spring Scraper
An idea I pinched from Helmet’s Page Hamilton, this trick will produce a much louder, harsher feedback-like effect. You need a guitar with a vibrato system for this one and, as the name suggests, you’ll need to be able to get at the springs.
Again, it works best with fairly high gain settings, and a decent amount of reverb, delay or echo will enhance it a great deal. With your hands clear of the strings, take your plectrum (or even the edge of your thumbnail) and rub and scrape at the springs that hold the bridge in place. As before, it’s all about the vibrations, so try to find a rhythm and level of force that produces the best effect. It’s a great way to ruin a plectrum, so you may want to use one you don’t mind wrecking!
For added goodness, you can fret a note or chord (ideally on the bass strings) while doing this to try to focus the sound at a target pitch.
3. The 3rd Bridge
This is a technique popularised by Sonic Youth, borrowed from Glenn Branca, and is good for producing a fairly wide range of different effects, ranging from a sitar-like drone to weird plunky sounds and feedback-like whine.
Quite simply, take the shaft of a screwdriver, or a pen or pencil, and insert it under the strings. This sounds scarier than it is, but take reasonable precautions against damaging your instrument. You might want to use a cloth to protect the fretboard, and maybe don’t do it on that 1953 Gold Top you spent your retirement fund on.
It’s a good idea to start at the 12th fret, but since we’re getting all experimental here, don’t be afraid to mess around. Try plucking, rubbing and lightly beating on the strings at different points along their length, in front of and behind the “3rd bridge”. The range of effects you’ll get depends a lot on the guitar and, as before, gain and reverb help.
As well as being handy tricks to add a “live” texture to what might otherwise be sterile sounding home recordings, these techniques can also be employed to create whole, soundscape-style compositions. No, really!
To prove it, here’s an extract one of my very first home recordings, consisting of (I think) 4 tracks of guitars, all prepared with the 3rd bridge technique, being battered, smacked, stroked and plucked in various ways.
So, there you have it. A little bit of guitar abuse can really add some edge to your recordings, and with only a little effort you can create some interesting noise-scapes. Dig in!