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Finding Your Signature Sound

I recently spoke at a panel presented by iStandard about “Finding Your Signature Sound.” The panel went really well but I feel like I could have talked about the subject much further. Fortunately, there’s The Pro Audio Files!

A “signature” sound is a set of attributes in someone’s music that identify the artist.

For Timbaland, it’s a mix of glossy, percussive drums, sparse arrangements, techno-ish sound elements, and a certain swing to his rhythms. For Jaco Pastorius, it’s the melodic voicing to his bass and the use of color tones. For Nina Simone, it’s her brassy tone, lower register, use of vibrato and a unique sense of theatrics to her delivery.

A signature sound is rarely one thing. It’s generally a collection of things that aren’t inherently unique to themselves, but come together to form something that is one of a kind. Great… so how do we go about finding a sound that is “ours”?

Unfortunately the short of the long answer is: time. Fortunately the long of the long can help expedite the amount of time needed.

Our signature sound comes primarily from three places.

1. Our Influences

There’s really no substitute for listening to a lot of music from a lot of different genres. While imitating is a “no-no” in finding our own sense of style — emulation is a “yes-yes”. It’s a must.

If you’ve never sat down and attempted to recreate a song you really like, you’re missing out on a huge part of personal growth. One of the absolute most important aspects of developing your own sound is finding the aspects of other music that you like and allowing that to be ingrained into your sensibilities.

2. Our Natural Tendencies

Whether we are vocalists, mixers, producers, bass players — whatever — we have certain things we do well. And there are certain things that we don’t do particularly well or don’t really enjoy.

While learning bass, I’m gravitating toward playing with my thumb and hooked index finger. It generates a brighter, more colorful tone than traditional index-middle finger style. Even though it’s a bit more challenging to play this way, I like that I can find my notes with cleaner rhythm. I can’t necessarily say why I’m moving that way or why I like it — it just seems to be something I dig, so I’m rolling with it.

Mixing-wise, I tend to be on the cleaner end of the spectrum even though I use a lot of saturation effects. There are mixers like Tchad Blake, who create mixes that I absolutely love and that I know I wouldn’t really make if given the same material.

It’s not that I don’t understand what he’s doing, I’m just not that great at that style of mix. Stylistically, I’m more of a Phil Tan or Fabian Marasciullo — even though I’d describe guys like Tchad Blake or Tom Elmhirst as influences. If that style is what I’m going for, I’m going to kill it because that’s where my ear takes me.

Ultimately, we need time to learn our own strengths and weaknesses (everything is a weakness when we’re just starting). But once you get that sense of self; whatever your natural tendencies may be, you’re best served by embracing them.

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3. Our Preferences

Sometimes there are musical attributes that just appeal to us.

For example, when I write bass parts I tend to leave space between the downbeat and whatever I’m doing to get back to the down beat. I use that space to build anticipation and leave room for something else to give the melody, and really punctuate the notes that I do play. It’s not that I don’t dig more continuous bass lines, and it’s not that I never write that way — it’s just a general preference.

I also prefer heavy transitions between song sections, and I prefer extended low end with primary tones in the sub-40Hz range.

Preferences are sort of a combination of our influences (the things which we enjoy) and our tendencies (the things we are most capable of).

In terms of mixing, I notice that my rhythmic elements tend to be in the center even if it’s at the expense of stereo width. I use very subtle saturation throughout my mixes because I like the way it brings presence and color to the sound — as opposed to using heavy-handed EQ or compression, or distortion. I tend to prefer drier, shorter ambiences, because I usually want the groove of elements to stand out as much as possible.

It’s not that I never focus on wide stereo images, or use heavy-handed compression or long rolling ambiences. It’s just not my general preference. And there are hundreds of these preferences that go into making “my sound.”

The crux of finding a signature sound is that it’s not something that you necessarily sit down and decide one day. It’s something that accrues over time, grows and changes.

Sure, there may be certain effects or a piece of gear that you consistently use that acts almost as a “signature,” but even that stuff is discovered over time with experimentation.

Point being: we don’t find a signature sound, we develop one.

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is the recordist and mixer for multi-platinum artist Akon, and boasts a Grammy nomination for Jazz & Spellemann Award for Best Rock album. Matthew has mixed for a host of star musicians including Akon, SisQo, Ozuna, Sonny Digital, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development and 9th Wonder. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com

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