Like authenticity, inspiration can't be bought and sold. Instead, it hides in all sorts of strange places and the only way to find it is to look...
When making music in the home studio environment, you'd be forgiven for sometimes feeling that your options are limited. It's easy to get stuck in a rut, following the same familiar process in assembling a track, or letting your hardware and software make decisions for you. Many's the time I've been led down the primrose path of tweaking and fiddling, kow-towing to my 'user friendly' software, only to end up cold and alone on the windswept shore of mediocrity wondering where I made a wrong turn. So how do you spice up your recordings? Though it's tempting, new gear is not necessarily the answer. Before you reach for your wallet, ask yourself whether you've fully explored the potential of your studio and your home.
While it's certainly worthwhile creating a dead or neutral acoustic for live recording, don't disregard other parts of the house. It's said that John Bonham's oft-sampled thundering drum riff in Led Zeppelin's 'When The Levee Breaks' was recorded on a kit set up at the top of a huge staircase. (I've also heard a version of the story in which the drums were placed under the staircase, but such is the dubious nature of rock & roll legend). Now, you may not have a country mansion and a team of engineers at your disposal, but common-or-garden bathrooms, cupboards and hallways all provide interesting live recording options. So break out the extension leads, set up your amp, vocalist or instrumentalist and take the time to experiment with different combinations of close and ambient miking. Be imaginative and try not to worry about what you think will and won't sound good. Trust your ears to tell you that.
I once recorded some spooky backing vocals by singing into an old coffee tin at a slight angle, with a mic pointing over my shoulder into it. With a little EQ to take off some bass, and a bit of tube preamp emulation for edge, I got myself a pretty unique sound. Now, I'm not advocating a completely wacky, lo-fi approach. Even if you're aiming for a slick, professional-quality end product, with a bit of sensitivity and careful mixing you can avoid sounding gimmicky and heavy-handed while still incorporating highly original sonic elements that make the listener sit up and listen. And after all, they'll never know how ridiculous you looked standing in the bath singing through a colander.
Guitar effects pedals are a great source of new and interesting sounds when put to use as the manufacturer never intended. I've got fantastic results using a very ordinary and uninspiring keyboard played through a Boss TR2 tremolo and a dodgy £19.99 distortion pedal to create a really skanky, searing synth sound, playing with one hand and adjusting the tremolo with the other. The great thing about using guitar effects in this way is that, firstly, it's a satisfyingly hands-on experience and, secondly, while the knobs are right there to twiddle, there aren't that many of them. This may appear to be a strange thing to say, but sometimes there's nothing more liberating than having your options limited.
Once you hit that brick wall and realise that you have to make do with what you've got, you can get back to the business of the actual music, which, in the end, is what you're trying to record. If you're acting as both performer and engineer, then getting bogged down in technical concerns can take all the excitement and urgency out of your playing. Although there is of course a balance to be struck between the two, I think the average listener responds more to an energetic performance than to immaculate production values. Sure, Bonham got that drum sound through recording his kit in a certain way, but it was that and the way he played it, with power and attitude.
The way to breathe new life into your recordings is to change your working practices. Try to find new ways of approaching the recording of a song or piece of music. Change the order in which you lay down your tracks. See if there are any ways of using your equipment that you haven't already tried. For example, I once discovered that by usng a one-second delay, with feedback set on maximum, and striking a chord on my guitar with the volume all the way down, then bringing it up swiftly, I could produce a constant, chiming pad, with the delay capturing both the sustained chord and the volume swell. I loved the sound so much, and the idea of using one instrument to make a sound more often associated with another, that, for a while, I tried to use it on everything I did. Although I came to realise that in most cases, it was inappropriate, it was one more idea to file away and then dust off when the right time came.
The process of music production, from start to finish, is a series of choices and in order to make informed decisions, you need to know what your options are. So go wild, experiment, and don't be afraid to do what you 'shouldn't'. You just might find the inspiration you're looking for.
When not finding things to make and do in his home studio with sticky-backed plastic and old cereal boxes, David Greeves is Staff Writer for Sound On Sound.