What’s wrong with clipping?

Whilst composing I often find new ideas are born out of what I like to refer to as happy accidents. Something somewhere goes wrong and all of a sudden a new sound I wouldn’t have found otherwise pops up. Often times the sounds are unusable but occasionally something with fantastic potential will present itself. I am a big fan of happy accidents as these failures often challenge me to take works in new directions. Usually I will try to work out why something went wrong so I can exploit the process with new sounds to generate more material. It can often feel like I am collaborating with the computer rather than telling it what to do.

When capturing sounds for composition I always work very hard to minimise the possibility of mistakes. When things do go wrong I usually delete the file without listening back to it, fix the problem and start again to try and capture the sound perfectly. Despite the fact that I am happy to embrace flaws when editing audio I don’t do the same whilst recording and I’m honestly not sure why. Usually I justify this to myself by saying “if I capture the sound perfectly now I can always do x, y or z to it later” but this doesn’t explain why I completely disregard anything that has gone wrong without considering its creative potential. Perhaps it is simply a hang-up from recording bands – where audio is generally required to be as flawless as possible – but I think potentially it may go somewhat deeper.

I don’t think that this is a problem that only I suffer from. Most books and courses I’ve read/taken on creative recording have offered the following method:

  1. Find an interesting sound
  2. Record it in high quality
  3. Manipulate it in a creative way

Although this method works and has produced many excellent results it can’t be the only method. Music concrète was born out of studio experimentation pushing the limitations of what can be done to recorded sound. For many years composers have continued doing this. But very few composers have examined how they record sound and looked to push these limitations.

Whilst in the studio or out field recording I often give little regard to how I am recording. Generally I don’t treat recording and capturing sounds as a particularly creative process. Instead I focus on quickly capturing lots of sounds in high quality so that I can get to work manipulating them. But why can’t this process be creative? Yes if I record something that has imperfections those imperfections are (generally) permanent and that might be limiting, but limits often promote creativity. I am not trying to denounce recording sounds in high quality and suggest that we all try to record sounds with as many mistakes as possible. I’m simply suggesting that maybe it is about time we started letting happy accidents happen in the studio, treating these as part of the creative process instead of something to avoid.

Once we come across failures in the recording process we should be looking at how these can be recreated and utilised creatively. Once we are done recording in high quality maybe we should see what happens if we record the same sound but run the preamp a little hot. Or experiment with broken cables so that the sound intermittently cuts outs to generate rhythmic patterns. How can phase issues be intentionally exploited to create interesting effects? Do we always have to point the microphones directly at what we are recording, what happens if we point them at the wall instead? Is there a way to control the write speed of a hard drive so that writing audio in real time creates glitches? Strange reverberations, electronic interference, capsule distortion, crackling pots and all other issues we try to eliminate offer untapped creative potential. There is no reason not to experiment when recording.

It would be drastically incorrect of me to assume that I was the first person to come up with this idea. I am sure that there are plenty of composers who are treating the recording process as an entirely creative one. However I don’t think enough composers are doing this (I know I’m not) and really there is no excuse for this. Clipping can’t always be a bad thing, but if we keep all levels below -4db we will never know if it’s worth using.