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48 Tips To Make Your Band Sound Better
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Spice Up A Song With Sound Effects!

1:28 pm Home Recording, Songwriting

Most songs we write and record have instruments and/or vocals, but nothing else. Let’s face it, the most exotic sound on most of our recordings is a tambourine. This is not necessarily a Bad Thing. After all, “instruments and/or vocals” takes in a pretty wide range, from Gregorian Chant to Smooth R&B and everything in between! But every now and then, just for the sheer novelty value, you ought to consider using some kind of sound effects in one of your songs.

Some songs, like “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles, are positively filled with scene-setting sound effects. Birds twitter throughout “Blackbird” by the same band. More recently, digital mixmeister Beck and others have combined “found sounds” and other effects with musical samples to create audio collages in their songs. Of course, this is a technique where a little bit can go a long way. There’s no need to overdo it!

As a songwriter, you can specify what sound effects will be heard when by adding notations like (alarm clock here) to your lyrics sheet, or at least having a firm idea of what specific effects will be used where as you write the song. In this case, the effects would be considered part of the song. Alternatively, you can wait until you have your Producer hat on and decide whether and where to add sound effects when you mix the song. Here, the effects would be considered part of the arrangement.

Name That Sound

There are three main sources for sound effects:

• Sound effects CDs or websites
• TV shows, DVD movies, etc.
• Personal recordings

With sound effects CDs or websites, you get pre-recorded sounds of all kinds, with many variations, labeled as to subject and duration. You need the sound of a car starting up and driving off? There were a dozen variations of this sound on one CD I found. Need birds, or crickets, or elephants? Again, labeled samples by the dozen can be found on sound effects CDs. And there are whole CDs of rainstorms, jungle sounds, etc., ready for use!

Sound effects CDs can be found by the score at your local library - mine, a medium-sized branch, has drawer after drawer full of the things! For me, this beats the websites, which can be awkward to use and usually make you pay for your samples. If you’re in a real hurry, maybe try online, but otherwise just head on down to the library!

Another really neat (and cheap) source of sound effects is to record a movie or TV show as you watch it and then lift some of the effects you hear (or dialog - talking is a sound effect too!) by copying them over onto a flash drive or whatever you use to import outside audio into your studio.

Finally, one of my favorite sources of sound effects is to record my own. With portable, battery-operated recording devices like the Zoom H4 and others becoming available, it is a simple matter to get CD-quality recordings “on the fly” of anything from your very own rainstorm or your cute pet kitty to the crowd at a football game. A warning, though. Once you start thinking this way, it’s hard to stop. (”I could record an oncoming train! I could record a volcano!”)

Sounds I Have Known

Let me give you a couple of examples of songs I have written and recorded using sound effects. In “Things Happen Fast” (mp3, chords, lyrics), I wrote the sound effects in as part of the song. I knew all along that I wanted an old-fashioned car horn after the line about an “old Citation” (a kind of car), and a cash register sound after the reference to working at Wal-Mart. I found both of them on sound effect CDs from the library!

With “About To Get You” (mp3, chords, lyrics), I was already done with the song when I thought of adding in some sounds I had recorded a few weeks earlier of a plumber drilling holes in my studio ceiling (don’t ask). At the time, I didn’t know what use I would make of the sounds and recorded them just for fun since the guy was working right there in the studio. Only later did I realize that they would contribute to the ominous, veiled-threat mood of “About To Get You.”

(As always, enable popups for this site if the mp3 players do not appear, or just click the mp3 links to listen.)

About To Get You (Bendig) (mp3, chords, lyrics)
Mark Bendig: all parts

Things Happen Fast (Bendig) (mp3, chords, lyrics)
Mark Bendig: lead vocals, rhythm guitars, percussion
Jack Burgess: lead guitar, bass, backup vocals

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One Response
  1. Corinne C :

    Date: June 5, 2008 @ 8:16 pm

    I’ve added sound effects to a few songs. They’re fun! Of course, one doesn’t want to over-do it - ala Spike Jones! :-)

    Most are humorous songs, but I have one about The Beatles, where I added the actual screams from the Ed Sullivan show to the end of the song.

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