for folks sake
March 5, 2007 3:16 AM   Subscribe

How do I make new folk music?

I write and play folk music but also very much love electronica and would love to combine the two al la Tunng etc. This year I'd like to make folk influenced music using simple acoustic instruments (guitar, jews harp, autoharp, harmonica, zither etc) but would also like to run it all through technology. I have a spare room, an ibook and powerbook at my disposal as well as access to bootleg copies of most major music making software.

Question: what would you add to this and what else do I require to make some home-made, lo-fi but fine sounding music? Suggestions as to effects, hardware, software, links to basic techiniques etc most welcome.
posted by brautigan to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Throw out your computers and software.

Or, at least, don't record a note on them. Maybe use them to make some rhythms, or to process your sounds in real time and output them to speakers to record. Or hit them rhymically with a brick while the tape's running.

And tape is the key. Get yourself a multitrack tape recorder. 4-track cassette for something real lo-fi, 8-track for something a little more useful. Spend most of the money you have to spend (say, the money you've saved by not purchasing all that software) on a nice old mic. This will make things sound good.

And get to it. That's my suggestion. Stay as far away from the technology as possible; make sure you route it through something lo-fi first.
posted by Jimbob at 3:58 AM on March 5, 2007

I agree with Jimbob about computers being generally useless for making or recording folk music. But their allure for the casual hobbyist is undeniable, for cost and maintenance reasons. If you're going to use the stuff you have, however, be aware that you're choice of tools ultimately shapes your creativity as much as your conception and musical talent tends to do so. So, you may find your interests drifting from traditional music, as you learn sequencing programs and MIDI interfaces. Eventually, you may be able to make sounds like Doc Watson, but nobody will mistake you for Doc, or even Merle, by that route.

Analog tape is the preferred medium for people that are serious about traditional sound, but getting tape and tape recorders is going to get more and more problematic as time goes on. If you're serious about this, however, plunk down some money on a 1/2" 8 track reel to reel machine, in good working order, and lay in a supply of quality tape, while you still can. Have the tape machine biased for the type of tape you use, and don't change tape brands. Get good mics, and a decent mixer.

Spend the real money on instruments, and consumables such as strings, reeds, bows, etc. And then get to playin'! You need to play the music, on acoustic instruments, not try to edit it into existence. If you can't play it straight, you should spend time practicing playing, not editing. If you can play it, you'll probably come to hate editing, any way.
posted by paulsc at 4:50 AM on March 5, 2007

Best answer: Umm, depending on your definition of Folk (see Wikipedia), a computer is a *fine* instrument to make folk on. Especially considering the ready availability of computers, as opposed, to, say, balalaikas and mandolins.

If you really want to write *new* folk, by, of, and for our age, the computer is the perfect way to do it. Old folk didn't get written on banjos because people were rejecting the tech of their age. Use the operating systems everyone is using, use the software everyone is using, and so on.

If I were you and I wanted to do this, I would get a USB preamp and microphone, and a copy of Ableton Live to arrange it in. That's your best, simplest, and most accessible computer setup.
posted by fake at 5:16 AM on March 5, 2007

Start with the songs.

Write melodies you can sing to a single acoustic guitar and sing or hum or whistle unaccompanied in the shower. If the music needs lyrics or a drum machine or a particular electronic effect, something is wrong.

Write words that tell a story everyone can feel. Love and happiness and work and sadness and death. If the words need music, something is wrong.

Pluck strings. Blow horns and whistles. Beat skins. Ring bells. Build instruments from junk. Look into Harry Partch. No electricity.

Create automated rhythms using metronomes, wind-up clock mechanisms, water clocks, sand clocks, steaming kettles, and machines of the sort designed by Heath Robinson and Rube Goldberg. Amplify with metal horns (like an old phonograph). No electricity.

OK, maybe now electricity, but try to restrict it to, for example, a rhythm machine built from an old record player that makes a noise when the tone arm hits a bump or notch you have glued to or carved into a flat disc. Build an electric kalimba. Make a card-reading drum machine. Figure out how to build your own tube amps (there are amp kits for beginners). Scavenge microphones from old telephones or maybe try to build your own. Avoid canned sounds from electronic toys and games.

Now if you run your music through electronics, your recordings will still be built on great songs and low-tech or no-tech sounds that could have been created years ago.
posted by pracowity at 5:37 AM on March 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

for our absolutely favorite recording of folk-electronica fusion, see "Danubian Trances" by Cserepes. the CD might be hard to find in the US, but there are a few tracks on MySpace:

in this case, this is Hungarian folk music, and I believe that Cserepes has taken bits and pieces from old and new recordings of folk musicians here. but this might give you some fresh ideas on how to incorporate disparate sounds and elements.

this CD has been on our computers in pretty much continuous play ever since we got back from Budapest...
posted by barmaljova at 7:38 AM on March 5, 2007

Best answer: well, the whole folktronica thing out there that i've heard varies from subtle electronic manipulation to all out electronic sampling and looping mayhem.

I'd recommend ableton live for this sortof thing, because I think the work flow in it lends itself well to making organic sounding music, but there are plenty of good software options out there, from cubase and protools, to good freebies like audacity, that can meet your needs.

I'd suggest getting a good firewire sound card (maybe an echo audiofire2 or a presonus firebox) and a condenser mic, you can make it sound more lo-fi or whatever when mixing it down, but you want the instruments to sound as good as possible when recording them, then eq the shit out of them later to get the sound you want.

there are a million good sites about home recording, one is tweakheads, it has some great, easy to read info thats not as 'gear snobbish' as some of the sites you find.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 12:07 PM on March 5, 2007

PS -- It doesn't matter what you record on. There is something really perverse about needing to spend tons of money on obsolete gear to get an "old" sound. If the folk had money, they'd use a digital audio interface and a laptop too.
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:01 PM on March 5, 2007

i use 100% free software (and a free OS ala Ubuntu) to make my special brand of harmolodic and misanthropic folk rock

of course I have pretty decent external hardware (condenser mics, preamps, compressors, eqs etc)

also, its not coming out until april but check out UbuntuStudio -- 100% open source

as far as writing goes... just pretend you're bigger than jesus... a little confidence goes a long way
posted by Satapher at 1:05 PM on March 5, 2007

Yeah, there is some crazy talk on this thread. You do not need analog equipment to make folk music! As has been said, the whole spirit of folk music is using whatever you have handy. If that happens to be a computer, so be it.

But maybe I'm unclear on your question. If you want to imitate the sounds of old folk musicians, that's something different.

If not, all you really need to do is develop your own voice, which is easier said than done. It might help if you were ignorant to the conventions of classical music, but that's pretty much impossible. So it might be in your best interest to study those conventions so as to better devise ways to flout them. That's what most musical movements do; the classicists were reacting against the parallel perfect intervals of medieval music, so they made those forbidden. The romantics were reacting against the rigid structures of the classicists, so they dispensed with those, etc.
posted by ludwig_van at 4:29 PM on March 5, 2007

Wow, what a dogma-filled thread! Don't let the naysayers discourage you. Use what you love; if you love technology, then it's absolutely not wrong for you. Make the sounds you love. And listen to Momus, especially his beautiful album The Little Red Songbook, to hear some really eloquent/expressive/quirky music along the lines of what you're talking about.
posted by allterrainbrain at 9:14 PM on March 5, 2007

Response by poster: I might need to look at clarifying my questions when I post here! I was really looking for tech help and advice (software, equipment, techniques etc) on recording and creating folk music with electronica and laptops. Kinda hard to do if I throw my computer equipment out the window :) And as I said, I already write and play folk music on several instruments so advice on how to actually make Folk music wasn't really needed. Fourcheesemac, you were of no help at all on anything! But thank y'all very much for your time and input and I'll check out your hints n tips regardless.
posted by brautigan at 2:36 AM on March 6, 2007

You're not welcome, dude! But as Charles Keil once famously asked, "Who needs the folk" (when you've got "folk" music)?

Party on. The real folk are playing techno.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:49 PM on March 6, 2007

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