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The phrase “noise music” seems like a contradiction in terms, much like the idea of a “weed garden.” After all, the definition of a weed is simply any plant growing where you don’t want it. Yet a garden is an organized and intentional group of plants, so how can you have a weed garden?
The same with noise music. My personal definition of music is kind of similar to a garden: it’s different sounds that you have tamed and made to work together in harmony. Yet noise typically refers to unwanted and untamed sounds.
So technically, noise music is not noise, although that can be a difficult corner to fight. Noise music is more like creating music out of sounds and approaches that have been overlooked in the past. It’s taking sound and leaving it untamed in an intentional way. Or sometimes it’s taming sound so it sounds untamed to the untrained ear. Either way, you’re not likely to hear it on the PA while you’re shopping at Target.
So how do you go about making noise music?
First develop your musical palette by listening to as much noise music as possible. Then you’ll need the basics of music production like microphones (dynamic mics are usually best for noise), an audio interface, and software. Next, you’ll need to build your collection of pedals, synth, and circuit breakers to provide the noise you’ll need.
That’s the quick answer but we’ll take a much closer look at everything you need to know.
Listen To Noise Music To Develop Your Taste
Once you start to dive into noise music, you find it’s one of those gifts that keeps giving. Perhaps in defiance towards anyone who dismisses it as, well, noise, noise music has endless subgenres. As many ways as there are to create noise and approach taming it, you may find yourself heading for cut-up, drone, laptop noise, or more.
(For the record, if anyone gives you a hard time for getting into noise, the fact that there is an artist called Flying Testicle should silence any critics.)
So with so many ways to approach noise music, it’s hard to simply answer the question “how do you make noise music”? That said, I’ll start you off with some of the most basic things you need to start putting your own noisy masterpieces together.
This might sound so obvious, but I want to drive the point home. If you want to make great noise music, listen to loads of noise music! I have a strong belief that anyone can be a great artist, in any medium. The only two necessities are taste and time. If you have good taste, and you spend lots of time trying to satisfy your own taste, you will make great art. And the way to develop good taste is to consume- in this case, listen to lots of noise music! You will naturally start to understand what goes into what you like.
If you’re not sure where to start, then consider starting with legends like Merzbow:
Producing Noise Music
After you’ve gotten a feel for the style and genres of noise music that you like and want to create on your own it’s time to start producing.
Say what you will about the state of technology and society in the modern world. But it’s never been easier to buy and learn professional equipment, including for recording music. Just a generation ago, recording equipment would cost thousands of dollars, fill a room, and take a technical education to operate. Now, an unbelievably minimal setup can get you professional results!
Here I’ll give a rundown of basic music production equipment that’s useful for almost any genre.
This is your essential piece of gear. Audio interfaces route mics, instrument inputs, speaker and headphone outputs, and more through your computer via USB. Focusrite are industry leaders of simple, affordable interfaces ideal for your first purchase. The Scarlett Solo is extremely popular in home studios for a reason, and I’ve also written an article about great alternatives to the Scarlett line.
Not all noise music involves a microphone. It could involve just synths, or other instruments plugged direct-in to your interface. But with a microphone, you have the power to capture any sound or instrument to add to your noisescape. The microphone market is huge, with thousands of options.
A large-diaphragm condenser is the best all-around mic for most home studios, as it will capture nearly any sound or instrument with detail and fidelity. The Audio Technica AT-2020 and Lauten Audio LA-220 are some of my favorite budget LDC mics.
But noise music frequently involves loud, harsh, distorted sounds or vocals. A dynamic mic might be a better choice here. They are cheaper, and better for close-miking loud sources like amps or shouts or screams. The Shure SM57 and SM58 are workhorses. Despite their low price tag, even the most serious pro studios are likely to have a few of each around. They are legendary for their ability to withstand abuse- sonic as well as physical.
Even if you don’t know how to play piano, many home producers end up learning some very basic piano skills so they can integrate a MIDI keyboard into their setup. This is a very useful tool for browsing sound patches and recording synths and sounds. A MIDI keyboard can act like a programmable, powerful musical control surface. The AKAI MPK Mini Mk2 is an extremely popular choice, and I’ve got an article about alternatives as well.
You can only make music as good as your ability to listen to that music. Otherwise, it’s the equivalent of preparing upscale coffee with unfiltered Los Angeles tap water or a similarly toxic substance.
Once you have your hardware in order, next is software.
Your DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation, is the brains of the operation. Like the software companion to an audio interface, everything gets routed through this app. You can record audio and MIDI, load effects to process the sounds, and mix and master your music. There are dozens of choices these days, but for beginners, I recommend Ableton or Fl Studio. Another compelling choice for more synth-based noise music is Reason, with a unique interface involving powerful emulations of rack-mounted synths and effects.
I personally use Reaper, which is slightly more time-consuming to learn. But a one-time payment of $60 means you legally own Reaper, which is a fraction of the cost of many of its competitors!
The DAW can also host third-party virtual instrument libraries and effects, usually in VST form. There are thousands of VSTs, that range from free to the cost of a beater Toyota.
I’d recommend checking out vst4free for a huge selection of free VSTs. There is a huge variation in quality, and I still use some of the best ones in my pro production workflow. Waves has good all-around effects, and they are a great deal when you catch them on sale (which is frequent.) I’ve never used them, but SoundToys is very popular with producers who love to push boundaries with their music production. Their Decapitator in particular is supposed to be a great sound-warper-and-distorter.
Now that you’ve got your basic physical and virtual set-up, it’s time to start exploring sounds. Noise music often overlaps with experimental, so this is a genre that will mostly involve your own experiments and explorations. But there are a few routes that are popular to go down.
Synths often play a vital role in noise music, although they are not always used by a long shot. Using Reason or a soft synth (virtual synthesizer) is a fantastic choice, because your money goes a lot farther towards more sounds. The Audio Damage Basic is a great, inexpensive, approachable first soft synth. But people just can’t resist the tactile fun of playing with analog synths, and they are still extremely popular. The Korg Minilogue and the Novation MiniNova are two of the best choices here.
While you might think of “pedals” in conjunction with guitars usually, the truth is you can also run vocals, synths, or pretty much any audio output through them. Particularly if your goal is to experiment with creating weird sounds.
But if this is the wormhole you are falling down, there are more sound-pulverizing pedals from small makers than I can possibly cover. Your own exploration will be richly rewarded here. For a couple of highlights: The Geiger Counter integrates an 8-bit computer for some really unique distortion avenues to explore. Simon the Magpie’s Patchbay DS-1 is like a starter circuit-bender, which I’ll get to in a bit.
Experimental noise-making tends to be accompanied with experimental equipment modding. At a certain point, pushing the boundaries of sounds is going to involve a soldering iron! A popular approach to this is circuit-bending electronics.
Essentially, circuit-bending means intentionally short-circuiting electronics (often toys) so they make sounds that no god or human ever intended for this world. A demonic speak-and-spell is a popular first circuit-bent project. To be honest, I’ve never circuit-bent anything. But the aspiring sonic-mad-scientist has a wealth of resources, including online guides like this and this, or video series if you prefer to learn that way.
How to make noise music? Tricky. This isn’t like playing classical piano, where there are right and wrong notes or hand positions. The only rule is that it has to be sound. Well, maybe not, considering I read one author defending that 4’33” counts as noise music. Because subjecting listeners to silence counts as a form of noise?
Anyway, maybe more than any other genre, noise music is subjective. Nobody can really tell you if you’re doing it right, as long as you are satisfied with the soundscape you are creating. And there are countless ways to create noise that I haven’t even started to approach. But it’s a pretty niche genre. Don’t be afraid to message your favorite artists and ask how they created particular sounds. There’s a decent chance they will be thrilled at the opportunity to talk shop. Keep working, and feel the joy of the music!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.