From Grapefruit to Plastic Surgery: Experiments in Contemporary Musique Concrète

Brian Speise

Independent Researcher

DOI: 10.12801/1947-5403.2014.06.01.13

The Origin

Musique concrète has evolved a great deal since its beginnings in the late 1940s. Pierre Schaeffer used disc-recording lathes—and later, tape machines—to record the sound of found objects such as spinning toy tops and more conventional instruments like the piano. He then edited, processed and combined these recorded sounds to create complete musical compositions. Schaeffer’s compositions were experimental and avant-garde in nature, and he never intended them to be appreciated by a wide audience (Schaeffer 2012: 114). His music was simply meant to be an exploration of timbre and dynamics made possible through the use of recording technology. However, experiments with musique concrète that are presently occurring within the world of electronic dance music (EDM) and other musical genres are quite different from Schaeffer’s original work. Artists like Matthew Herbert and Matmos are proving that composers can make music out of nearly any recorded sound—accessible music nonetheless. For his One Club album, Herbert collected various sounds from the Robert Johnson Club in Offenbach, Germany and then processed them into electronic music. In the “Sonography” page of Herbert’s website, he lists the sound sources used on the album, which include people in the club stomping, clapping, texting one another and even kissing (2013). As mentioned in their 2004 article in Sound on Sound, Matmos recorded the sounds of plastic surgery—such as forehead lifts and liposuction—for A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure. Admittedly, the sound sources are bizarre, but they are also quite inspiring. The potential that Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) and software offer us in the world of sound is astonishing; even liposuction can be incorporated into music. This modern musique concrète is not necessarily danceable or meant to be played at clubs; however, the presence of tonal harmony and melody and dance rhythms separate it from the less-accessible, avant-garde musique concrète. I was recently inspired to try my own attempt at modern musique concrète, and what I learned was fascinating and incredibly inspiring.

The Methodology

Early last year, I was composing credits music for a short zombie film, and I thought the project would be perfect for experimenting with musique concrète. I should point out that this was not a work of dance music at all, but it had elements of electronic music that producers of EDM can appreciate. The first thing I did for this project was lay out a loose set of ground rules for myself. I wanted to record and compose with as many found sounds as possible, so I made this my focus. I decided I would capture sounds from everyday objects around my house and also from outdoor ambiences. My criteria for which sounds to gather were informal: if it was interesting to me, I recorded it. In general, I preferred using my Zoom H4n portable recorder to record individual sounds, due to its portability and ease of use. The microphones and preamplifiers are built into the unit, so recording a unique sound is as simple as pressing the record button. However, I also occasionally used a contact microphone plugged into the Zoom to extract unusual sounds out of found objects. This is a technique also favored by Matmos (Doyle 2004). As soon as I finished gathering the sounds for this project, I began the sound-designing phase. Sound design is traditionally a vital part of the musique concrète compositional process, so I wanted to closely follow that standard. Sound design involved editing and splicing the captured audio in my DAW and also processing it to enhance the sound and/or remove the association of each sound’s original source. My setup featured an M-Audio Fast Track Ultra connected to a MacBook Pro laptop running Ableton Live 8. Live was my primary software tool for sound designing and arranging this composition, based on its flexibility and ease at performing such tasks. I imported my field recordings into Live either as standalone pieces of audio or as samples loaded into software samplers. The following section highlights the recording and sound design processes that I used for various sounds within the composition.

The Experiment

Found Kick

One of the first sounds that I created was a kick drum sample. This “Found Kick” consisted of a recording of a grapefruit peel and a balloon. I recorded the grapefruit peel by pressing my contact microphone into the peel skin with one hand, and plucking the peel with the index finger of my other hand. Surprisingly, this produced a nice, low, thumping sound. The sample did not have enough attack to stand on its own as a kick drum sample, so I needed to combine it with another sound. A balloon might not be the natural sound choice in a situation like this, but it is what I selected. I inflated a balloon, mic’d it with my contact microphone, and struck it with the palm of my hand. The resulting sound had more attack and fewer low frequencies, so I suspected it would pair well with the grapefruit peel sample. Next, I imported both of the samples into Native Instrument’s software sampler, Kontakt 5, and added equalization to improve the attack and low-end. I designed the Kontakt instrument so that both samples would respond to the same note pressed on a MIDI keyboard; this allowed both of the samples to be played in-sync at all times. I also added compression and distortion to give the samples more impact. The result of all this sound design was a sample that, to my ears, sounded eerily close to a traditional kick sample. It certainly had a unique sound, but the amazing thing to me was how familiar it seemed as well.

Figure 1. Recording a grapefruit peel with a Cold Gold contact microphone. Photo: Speise (2013).

Figure 2. Recording a balloon with a contact microphone. Photo: Speise (2013).

Found Snare

Of course once I had a kick drum sample, I needed to make a snare sample to accompany it. I wanted the snare to sound a little “trashy”, but it also had to equal the Found Kick’s intensity. Junk percussion seemed to me like my best option, so I searched around my house for any sort of loud, percussive sound. The two objects that stood out to me were the door to my clothes dryer and my small, metal toolbox. I discovered that the slamming of the dryer door made a great percussive thud. It had a surprising amount of low-end as well. I recorded this in my basement with the Zoom H4n. Rather than cut and edit these samples into the composition by hand, I loaded them into Kontakt to combine with other samples. I also added some of Kontakt’s built-in effects, such as the tube distortion plug-in, to sculpt the tonality a bit. The other sound source, my toolbox, made a great crashing impact when dropped on the ground. I gathered the toolbox, a flat rock to drop it on and my Zoom H4n. My home studio has a fairly limited functionality, so I decided to record this sound outdoors. For loud percussive sounds like the toolbox, I found that it was better to record outside where there were fewer acoustical issues such as room reflections. However, recording outdoors had a much higher level of ambient noise, such as cars and wind. This was not a big problem, because the sound was sufficiently loud enough to overcome most ambient noise. After my toolbox recording session, I loaded three samples into Kontakt. Then—like the Found Kick—I configured my toolbox and dryer door slam samples so that they responded to the same MIDI information. I also pitch shifted the samples in different ways to create more sonic complexity. What I ended up with was a hard-hitting, junkyard snare. It certainly was not a conventional snare sound, but I felt like it worked quite well in the context of a zombie film score.

Figure 3. Capturing a sample of my dryer door slamming shut. Photo: Speise (2013).

Figure 4. Capturing a sample of my toolbox with the Zoom H4n. Photo: Speise (2013).

Tea Kettle Organ

By this point, I knew that it was possible to create big percussion samples out of found sounds, but I was not sure how feasible it would be to create tonal instruments out of them. In my search for interesting sounds, I recorded samples of my tea kettle boiling. I had no idea at the time how I would use this sound, but I recorded it anyway. As the tea kettle was boiling on the stove, I took out my cell phone and held the built-in microphone close to the kettle spout. It was an extremely low-fidelity recording. I later loaded these samples into one of my favorite samplers of late, iZotope Iris, and started designing a new instrument. I shifted the root pitch of each of the three tea kettle samples to give the “Tea Kettle Organ” a richer frequency spectrum. I also added distortion within Iris to create more tonal richness. A low-frequency oscillator (LFO) was useful for creating a vibrato effect, and I also added a sine wave generator to enhance the fundamental pitch of the overall sound. With all of the processing, these low quality tea kettle recordings were transformed into an organ-like sound. I was absolutely astonished by this. More importantly, the instrument was tonal enough that it could be used to create melody and harmony.

Figure 5. Recording a tea kettle boiling. Photo: Speise (2013).

Additional Instruments and Sound Design

Particularly for the end of my composition, I wanted to create an eerie soundscape that would fit the mood of a zombie film. As I was gathering sounds for the project, I experimented with recording outdoor ambiences. I made one of the recordings while wandering around the University of Colorado’s campus in downtown Denver, Colorado, U.S.A. I heard interesting sounds coming from the woodshop of the fine arts building, so I immediately made a short field recording from where I was sitting in a nearby computer lab. The recording picked up the distant droning of saws in the woodshop, but it also picked up the sound of air circulating through the lab and nearby conversation. Those sound sources do not seem as if they would make an interesting recording, but with some signal processing applied, they created a subtle, horror-like ambience. Within Live, I filtered out unwanted frequencies in the recording and I also applied one of Ableton’s stock plug-ins, Resonators. This gave the ambience an eerie, pitched quality. The overall soundscape was sounding a little thin with only one sample, so I augmented the woodshop ambience with an Ableton software instrument called “Steam Pipe Effect”. This instrument had similar sonic characteristics to my recording and seemed to pair well with it. I also added an ambient recording of rain falling on the top of an outdoor space heater. One evening while it was raining, I taped my contact microphone to the underside of the heater and put it out into the rain. The raw recording sounded vaguely like rainfall, but it also had a pronounced metallic clang. I imported the sample into iZotope Iris and pitch-shifted it down several octaves. I also added chorus and reverb to increase the perceived depth of the sound. The metallic clang of the original now sounded more like the distant, pounding feet of an army of the undead. My intent in combining all three of these sounds was to create a creepy, horror movie ambience to finish off my composition.

In addition to the found sounds already mentioned, I also used more traditional, recognizable instruments. These helped to thicken the sound of the composition. I added floor tom and crash cymbal parts for percussive accents. These were recorded in the University of Colorado Denver’s recording studios. I used acoustic baffles and close-mic’ing techniques to achieve fairly dry samples. This allowed me to more effectively add reverb to the samples and blend them with the found sounds. I also used a software organ in Native Instrument’s “Vintage Organs” sample library to create bass lines. I was surprised with how well these instruments seemed to blend with my found sounds.

The Aftermath

The elements that make up my composition may seem strange. Mic’ing grapefruits and balloons is admittedly not standard procedure, but the end result is not so odd. I used all of the found sounds that I recorded in the service of conventional Western melody, harmony and rhythm. What the listener notices is not where the individual sounds come from, but the overall musical effect. Essentially, the individual recorded sounds are musical building blocks, much like sine waves and sawtooth waves are building blocks for the creation of synthesizer sounds. Unlike the more traditional means of synthesis, musique concrète requires the element of sound recording. Composers are forced to explore their surroundings and search for sound. As I found out from my own experience, the process of finding sounds is exciting and inspirational. The results of searching are often unexpected and somewhat serendipitous. I found interesting sounds when I least suspected them; by carrying my Zoom H4n recorder with me at all times and actively listening for sound, I opened myself up to the possibility of finding useable material. Once recorded, there are an endless number of ways in which material can be processed. I was amazed at how transformative sound design and processing could be with the current technology available. Particularly with software, turning nonmusical sounds like a boiling tea kettle into a tonal, musical instrument is now well within composers’ grasp. The result of transforming these sounds is unique; they are much more individualized and unusual than a synthesizer sound created with basic waveforms. Thus, to anyone involved in EDM production, I highly recommend exploring musique concrète. It incorporates recording, composition and signal processing in a unique way that invites experimentation and exploration of the unpredictable world of sound.

Author Biography

Brian Speise is a graduate of the Master of Science in Recording Arts program at the University of Colorado Denver. He recently completed his Master’s thesis, which explores the relationship between current music technology and musique concrète. He currently lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where he is active as a musician, composer and audio engineer. Email:


Doyle, Tom. 2004. "Matmos: The Art of Cut & Paste." Sound On Sound, May. <> (accessed 28 October 2013).

Herbert, Matthew. 2013. "Sonography". Matthew Herbert. <> (accessed 28 October 2013).

Schaeffer, Pierre. 2012 [1952]. In Search of a Concrete Music. Trans. Christine North and John Dack. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.


Herbert, Matthew. 2010. One Club. Accidental (CD): AC44CD. <>.

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