Sound Advice: Jonnie Common's Guide to Making Music

Want to make use of your student freedom to craft an amazing album, but worried you don't have the kit you need? Jonnie Common is here to tell you not to worry, and also to pick up your phone

Feature by Jonnie Common | 14 Sep 2018

When it comes to Jonnie Common, best thing to do is expect the unexpected. The Save As Collective and Song, by Toad musician has been responsible for some eye-opening musical ideas over the years – his Kitchen Sync record was made entirely from sounds recorded from old kitchen equipment, and for the 150th anniversary of the McManus Galleries in Dundee he was tasked with composing a new piece from the sounds of the building and its exhibits. Naturally, when tracking down advice on making music on a low student budget but with a high degree of student enthusiasm, he was the man to email.

The Skinny: I am a student, and I want to make some music or record an album with my band; what equipment do I have access to that I'm almost certainly overlooking?

Most likely your phone, your tablet or your laptop, no matter how crummy it is. I used to carry around a mini-cassette dictaphone and, while some of the recordings had their own charm, most of them were migraine-inducing. The mic on an iPhone sounds positively hifi by comparison and you could do a lot worse.

There are many multi-tracking apps that will enable you to layer and arrange sounds you are creating IRL – GarageBand (free), FL Studio Mobile (£14) – and even more that will let you create or sequence sounds generated inside the apps themselves [like] Figure (free), Akai iMPC (£3), iMini Synthesizer by Arturia (£10). Animoog is a belter if fate blesses thee with a £30 iTunes gift card at any point.

There are also apps like Audiobus that let you route audio from your iMPCs and your Animoogs back into your Garagebands and your FL Studios. Which opens up a world of possibilities. And there are inexpensive interfaces like IK iRig (£30) that enable you to plug any physical instruments you already have into a smartphone or tablet.

Another, more outsource-y approach would be to seek out audio engineering students in need of musicians they can practise recording and get yourself some free studio time. That is a thing.

Which cheap or free pieces of music-making software are particularly useful for beginners and novices?

If you’ve got access to an iPhone / iPad / Mac, GarageBand is free. I’ve never used it myself, but I know loads of people who started out with that or even still use it (often as part of their songwriting process, to experiment with things that will end up being recording in a studio later, but still). I pretty much live inside a piece of software called Ableton Live so that’d be my top recommendation. I think it does a great job of making its tools very accessible which keeps the learning curve gentle.

Live Intro costs €79 BUT there are a lot of wee things out there, like USB midi controllers, keyboards and drum pads that cost less but come with a serial number for a marginally more limited version (Live Lite). So that’s a potentially more affordable route that gives you some buttons to bash. Reaper is also an extremely powerful piece of multi-tracking software and a steal at around £50.

Kitchen Sync was made entirely on kitchen appliances and gadgets; how did that work in practice, and what tools did you need to record all of the sound? Besides, obviously, the kitchen appliances...

I initially started that album so long ago that, for the first couple of tracks, I was still using Cubase (my copy of which fell off the back of a lorry) but the rest was done in Ableton. It features a great instrument called Simpler, into which you can drag a recording of anything you like and make it very “playable”. For two of the tracks, I was living on an island with no access to my interface or microphones, so I actually recorded some kitchen sounds with the standard voice memo app on my iPhone and emailed them to myself. I thought I might replace the samples with better recordings later, but there was no need. They sounded cool.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone looking to record some tracks for the first time, what would it be?

Generally: get stuck in and just address uncertainties as they arise. Ask a pal or post on a forum. Best way to learn some things is to attempt them and this is very much one of those things. But do make time for both angles. Try not to pitch your problem-solving brain and creative brain against each other by making them work too hard at the same time. I do this way too much cos I’m an idiot.

More specifically: review stuff on speakers or headphones that you are familiar with. I mixed my first few things through the no-frills stereo I got for Christmas when I was 15. There was no substitute for the fact that I knew when something didn’t sound right on those speakers.