(Literally) Making Garbage Music

Somewhere along the way I’ve become loaded down with apps. Much like a guitarist with a Cadillac sized pedal board or a drummer hidden behind a fortress of gongs and roto-toms, my iPad has become inundated with more apps than I know what to do with. Likewise, I’ve encountered the same option overload in my musical pursuits. As I move away from being an artist’s sideman and more towards my own material, I’ve found the freedom to be amazingly constricting. Previously a certain framework, such as a musical style or structure of a song, had provided boundaries for me to work within. For example, I would never play a polka beat on an R&B session; I’d be expected to work within certain musical parameters. The thought of absolute freedom on my own projects had enticed me for years, but oh how the grass is greener on the other side. With nothing to keep my in check, I find myself spinning my wheels on options while staying in park in terms of production.

The Tools Used to Create the Sound

I’ve been trying to establish rules for myself lately, which (for a self-employed musician riddled with ADD) is about as effective as starting a diet at Christmas time. However, the other day I stumbled across a set of boundaries that immediately made me want to explore it’s four walls. During a Labor Day group workout my gym, someone dropped a bar and accidentally broke in half a well-worn 25lb plate. Half-jokingly, I asked if I could take home the remains and attempt to put them to musical use. While permission was granted, I definitely got the vibe that others thought I either was up to my antics or a fool to think I could make music out of such a dull and lifeless looking/sounding piece of rubber. That perceived slight was both the motivation and boundaries I had been desperately seeking!

My visions of serendipitously discovering a new musical holy grail were quickly dashed as played with the weight at home. Usually found objects have some sort of unique tonal characteristic to them. The hollow bong from an empty 2 liter of Coke, the clank of a piece of scrap metal, the bass heavy thump from a large water cooler jug. Yea, this had none of that. No resonance, no shimmer, no nothing. It sounded exactly as lifeless as one would expect a dense scrap of rubber to. Perhaps those doubters at the gym were right.


Screenshot of Werkbench

Undaunted, I stretched for some unconventional solutions. The weight sounded and played very similarly to that of a drum practice pad, so I began my approach from a percussive perspective. Having just downloaded Werkbench, a unique sample-based beat making app, I decided to try learning it on the fly while working on this task. Within the first five minutes I realized two truths: a)this weight sounds nothing short of horrible and b)Werkbench is nothing short of awesome. There had to be something worthwhile existing between the two, right? I began hitting the weight with different types of hand strikes and other objects such as hammers, with slightly less bland results. The sounds began to develop a bit more character once I radically adjusted the eq settings of the microphone that was on the weight. Add some low pass filters and delays within Werkbench and I had a (very) poor man’s dance groove.



Moving along I wanted something aside from a percussive groove, but how could I do that with a lifeless instrument? Many producers have come across my same conundrum, particularly in working with less-than-stellar vocalists. While neither were even within 30 years of being the first to use the technology, vocoders are often described as the Cher “Believe” or T-Pain effect. Essentially a vocoder modulates the pitch and tone of the signal running through it. It can be used gently to help make a flat singer sound sharp, or more aggressively to create that robotic T-Pain effect. I choose to explore the extreme ends of the Voicesynthvocoder app and after about 20 minutes of experimenting, developed a setting that would make the weight sound more like a bass synth. I hooked up a keyboard controller that allowed me to control the pitch of the vocoder and pounded out some surprisingly interesting synth lines. This actually sounds like it could be used in a musical setting!

I had a few semi-musical nuggets, but how could I piece them together? There was no way one could deduct that these sounds came from a weight plate simply from hearing it; they’d have to see it. I only have a tiny pocket cam and my computer is down, so how could I shoot and edit video, let alone sync all the different pieces? Keeping the formula as simple as possible, I decided to shoot three short examples with the audio out of my Alesis IO Dock going to the audio in of my Zoom Q3HD. I then imported those audio examples into my iPad via the camera connection kit. I used Vjay to glue all of this together, which was no small task given syncing multiple performances on the fly.


After several hours of wrestling with finding ways to create sounds and methods of syncing them, I stepped back to asses the results. Could I find a way to actually create a worthwhile song using just one found object? Perhaps, but would it be worth the time and effort? Probably not. Instead, I decided to view this as an exercise in establishing boundaries and working within them, which I previously had been struggling with. By no means is this exercise profound in any way, but simply a reminder how liberating restrictions can be.




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