Yes, the “Five Dollar” Studio… How to create an electronic music studio setup on the CHEAAAP, and look like a champion while doing it.
Here’s a fun motto: if it can plug in, you can play it. All I need is something with buttons and a USB chord, and I don’t even have to re-engineer it!
So, before I get into this article, I would like to point out a couple of things – first of all, yes, five dollars for an entire studio might be a bit of an understatement – but, not necessarily. And also, it might help to have a computer or a laptop to start out – but, again, it’s not completely necessary. It IS possible to build a somewhat decent music-making set up on the cheap! There are many different avenues to explore for setting up a recession-era music factory, and I’ll explain some of the ways this is possible. There have been articles written about setting up cheap studios in the past, but I thought I would expand on this idea, and put all the techniques I could think of into one article.
1.) Gameboys & Chiptune
If you’re so inclined, you might take a look at some of the many fine chiptune songs that are out there. I remember going to an underground club in Lansing, Michigan, that my homie, Angryrancor, told me about. He said the dude was playing a Gameboy, and I was like, “Oh… well, alright…” and he reassured me that, “Actually, it’s really cool, man!”
I was skeptical until the show started and I saw a guy on stage rocking out with his Gameboy plugged in to a sound system – and goddamn! – it was actually really well done and enjoyable. Sequencing was done entirely on a cartridge that he did beforehand, and he had put in that cartridge in the back of his Gameboy and played it out live, improving as he went along. I’d always heard about that kind of music, and I’d listened to songs made that way before, but until I saw it live – and saw how it could truly rock the club – I didn’t really think it was worth its salt. But it IS.
It’s a great example of how you can make music on the cheap – because tons of folks have old Gameboys lying around their house (or their parent’s houses?) and borrowing one, or even buying one, isn’t as expensive as it would have been fifteen or twenty years ago, that’s for sure. There’s even a cartridge for Gameboy specifically designed for music sequencing. You definitely want to get something like that – though that might be a bit pricier to track down – but, you can always get an emulator for your computer, if all else fails.
So, every year, new keyboards are created, and sell for hundreds of dollars. Yet, at the same time, there are tons of keyboards sold for next to nothing, all the time, too.
A used keyboard, bought at a thrift store or a yard sale, can be cheap as hell. With most of ‘em, however, you still get a range of different instrument settings with most of them, and hey – if it looks really beaten up and shitty (which would actually give it more of a vintage/indie look) you can always just cover it with stickers, and make it your own.
Keyboards really range in price, and it depends on who’s selling it to you, how old it is, how good it is, and how badly they want to get rid of it. If you look around with patience and diligence, you can usually find one extremely cheap.
3.) Electronic Toys
I’m not going to get into circuit-bending (though that’s something else that you could do, and a quick google search will give you help there) but even just having some old Spell’n’Speak, or whatever that thing is called, can work. Almost everyone has some old toys somewhere in their house or in their parent’s house – the possibilities with this are endless. Remember those old toys with the string in the back? You can pull it back at varying speeds, and try to ‘improvize’ with that for a little while, providing any tune with some real novelty. It’s actually a lot of fun to mess around with some old toys. All the 90s-Kids have grown up, and we all love being reminded of our childhood by seeing someone whip out an old Bop-It, or one of those infuriating Simon-Says machines with the colorful and huge buttons.
Also, with enough tinkering, you could turn one of those into a fun little midi pad, though it would take a bit more work than the following example of home-made-midi-controllers:
4.) The Number-Pad Midi-Drum
I have one of these, it was given to me for free (my dad had some leftover computer equipment from the last couple decades) and I’ve seen them at thrift stores for extremely cheap “we-have-to-sell-it-for-SOMETHING” – type of prices. Again, like the keyboards, you could put all sorts of stickers on it, if you want to.
Personally, I LOVE it. I don’t know why, but I do. I link it to ableton and trigger a bass kick to one of the buttons, a snare to another button, and a hi-hat to another button, and I can just sit there and make my own grooves, automagically. It’s not as if I’ve never went out and bought an actual midi-trigger before, because I have – but this little thing is still just so fun to have around! It’s got around twenty different buttons, so I can put a whole drum rack on it if I need. You can get these from thrift stores, friends with a lot of excess computer equipment, friends with dads with a lot of excess computer equipment, etc. There’s something extremely novel and fun about having a tiny little midi drum at your disposal.
The number of people who have a turntable might surprise you. What might surprise you even more is how quickly you can destroy a record needle by scratching. Sure, the Qbert’s and DJ Babu’s of the world might use some real high tech turntables that were designed to be durable and hold up against any hip hop improvisation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with an old record player until you accidentally break it, right?
For real though, it is really easy to break those needles. Just remember that…
The “Scrape Table Geniuses” broke a needle after just an hour of freestylin’ – that’s the name me and a friend of mine sarcastically gave it to our turntablist ‘group’ we started, jokingly, when we discovered it was fun to mess with our buddy’s little record player while he was at work. Well, the band was broken up after not too long, and a new needle had to be purchased.
Many old records are cheap as hell, too (or free)
6.) Boom Boxes & Tape Recorders
Mixmaster Mike originally started out making music by manipulating a tape-player stereo. With this option, it really depends on how in-depth you’re willing to go. If you spend enough time with it, you can really do some cool things. Think of it as an analog to record players. (heh, get it? Because tape players, like record players, are also really analogue? … Why isn’t anyone laughing? …Ok, sorry…)
You can use it as a sampler, you can beat juggle between two different tapes, you can even pitch bend – in fact, DJ Screw, the legendary producer who created a whole genre of a hip hop, began doing his thing by sticking a screw in the back of a boombox to slow everything down.
(Warning: though it’s probably obvious, I should point out that for all these types of technological manipulations, you’ll want to have everything unplugged FIRST before you go in and mess with the wires and bits in the back. You don’t want to challenge electricity in a way that might be physically harmful to you – and that goes double for circuit bending…)
If you have an old tape, and I want to take out a particular sample and start looping it in an authentic and analogue way, you can cut that little 4 or 5 second part of the tape (the actual tape inside the cassette) and tape the end of the sample to the beginning, cutting everything else out, and put that back onto the spindles in the cassette, and then start playing the cassette and hear a single sample, played over and over and over again!
It’s the very same technique that hip hop artists back in the 80s used to incorporate, when they weren’t relying on DJs spinning records. In fact, thousands of releases from twenty to thirty years ago relied on this very process.
Another interesting thing you could try would be to create these basic loop tapes, and have one for every note on the scale – rig ‘em up so that you have access to as many notes on the scale as you deem important for whatever track it is you’re working on, and then play them, improvisationally, behind your vocals. Cut back and forth – speed them up, here and there – tap and re-tap the pause button on rhythm; do whatever you gotta do to make something entertaining.
I always thought it would be cool to create a kind of tape-manipulated blues improv song, using this technique. Plus, if you use your numerical pad as a midi trigger to play one-shot beat drums, you could have a whole performance ready to go! Time to get wonky!
7.) Video Game Controllers & Joysticks
There’s a French glitch hop duo, MC2, that do some insanely sick things with joysticks. I couldn’t believe the level of complex and hi-fi fanfare these dudes were able to achieve with just a few devices designed for a game like Flight Simulator. Remember that motto? “If it can plug in, you can play it.” There are tons of buttons on most video game controllers these days, and many of them plug in with USB, which makes everything so much simpler! If it doesn’t have USB capabilities, you can get converters – or you could just keep looking until you find a controller that has what you need to plug it into your laptop.
Don’t forget, you can attain tons of samples for very little money too. Many samples are free (and there are links for them throughout this site – especially in the store section) and there are other samples that cost money, but if you look around, there are usually samples available that don’t cost too much (again, uh, there are links for them throughout this site – especially in the store section…)
When it comes to creating a cheap studio, it’s really about using your imagination. Entire genres have been created by manipulating old technology. That’s not an understatement, either – to put it another way: entire careers and fortunes have blossomed because of musical structures that were developed by using pre-existing technologies in ways that were not originally intended.
Acid house was created by messing with a TB303 the “wrong” way; hip hop came about by manipulating old funk records; turntablism came about by GOING EVEN FURTHER to manipulate old funk (and rap) records; chopped ‘n screwed music was developed by messing up a tape player; 8bit and chiptune were musical styles created entirely with Gameboys; grime rap is what happened when the British tried to make hip hop (I kid the British! I love grime!) but really, if you think about it, most forms of art and music come out of rearranging or reinterpreting older forms of art and music from the past.
Now, I don’t want to get into this point too much more, but I just want to point all this out, because if you really try out some of the things I’ve mentioned, maybe you’ll find some new form of music, or carve out your own creative aesthetic and give the world something truly “new,” keeping in mind that everything “new” is really just a different version of something old. Or, hell, maybe you’ll just find some entertainment with some of these musical techniques and ideas, for a few hours. That’s cool, too.
Happy mixin’, everyone!