Found sounds: you need GoodLuck to record music in a Namibian desert | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 13.11.2013
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Found sounds: you need GoodLuck to record music in a Namibian desert

In an unusual African safari, South African electronic band GoodLuck took their studio into a Namibian desert to record their new album. The desert was better than a traditional studio.

The desert is a desolate place - hot, dry and far from civilization. But for GoodLuck, an electro-pop group from South Africa, it was also the perfect location to record their latest album.

The band's three members, producer Ben Peters, lead singer Juliet Harding and saxophonist Raiven Hansmann left their recording studio in Capetown and drove to the deserts of Namibia this summer. There, they not only rediscovered their creative spark after three years on tour, but also recorded the sounds of nature for use in their new songs.

"For me it was just, let's get out, let's step outside the box," Ben Peters told DW at an electronic music conference in Amsterdam. "We kicked down the four walls of our studio and let the rest of the world in."

Recording in the desert

You might think the desert's a less than ideal place to record music - especially when compared to a soundproof studio. But the trio, whose music combines electronic beats with live vocals and musical instruments, discovered that the great outdoors was better - in places - than a padded room.

"You're outside, there are no walls to mess with your recording. Exactly what comes out of the instrument goes into the microphone," says Peters. "So you get an absolutely pure recording. That's what studios have been aspiring to achieve since the invention of the recording studio."

Peters designed a special mobile recording studio complete with solar panels, a laptop and microphones to capture Harding's vocals and Hansmann's saxophone riffs.

Ben Peters told DW at an electronic music conference in Amsterdam (Photo: Carl Nasman)

Ben Peters at an electronic music conference in Amsterdam

The group recorded in the Republic of Namibia, the world's second most sparsely populated nation.

This meant no sounds from cars, people or other parts of modern life.

A lack of desert wind during the summer helped create ideal outdoor recording conditions.

Sound safari

GoodLuck's album begins with the sound of their car creeping to a halt in the desert. The engine sputters and crickets chirp in the background. The following songs feature even more creative acoustics.

The group crisscrossed the desert on a "sound safari," recording natural sounds as substitutes for what would normally be created electronically.

Along the way, Peters found volcanic rocks with a high metal content. He struck them with drumsticks, turning the stones into an impromptu xylophone.

For use as background noise, the group recorded waves crashing on a shore and the crackle of a dying campfire.

"[We thought] if we're going to go out there, then we should at least try to find some interesting things," Peters recalls. "I don't need a synthesizer to do that. There's the ocean right there, there's the wind right there. That is real white noise that exists in nature. You don't need a little piece of electronic equipment to do it for you."

Duet with a zebra

The album is titled "Creatures of the Night," and in fact, one song features the vocals of a zebra, recorded with a directional microphone as the band's caravan became surrounded by a herd of zebra in a nature reserve.

At the conference: a video of Juliet Harding recording her vocals in the desert (Photo: Carl Nasman)

At the conference: a video of Juliet Harding recording her vocals in the desert

"There must have been about 1,000 of them and they were just kicking up a storm and screaming at each other. It's a crazy, crazy sound, it sounds like someone whooping," says Peters.

By chance, the zebra calls matched perfectly with a few bars of a trumpet the band had recorded earlier.

Peters simply pasted the zebra sounds into his audio editing software and mixed them with the trumpet to create an upbeat, staccato duet.

"I think it was - for me - the cherry on the cake of the whole production to have this sort of moment of luck."

The group also took advantage of the natural terrain to achieve sound effects normally done on a computer.

To record a delay effect on Harding's vocals, they lowered a speaker into the Fish River Canyon, the second largest canyon in the world. As Harding sang, the canyon walls reflected the sound, producing a three to five-second echo. Peters recorded the effect with a microphone suspended in the canyon and the result is a lo-fi vocal track that would be the envy of any digital sound engineer.

The electronic band Depeche Mode used a similar technique when it recorded at Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin in the 1980s, dangling microphones from the top to the bottom of the building.

"We're all making the same music"

GoodLuck believes their desert recording sessions demonstrate how technology can help bring natural sounds back into electronic music.

Now that almost anyone with a laptop and synthesizer software can create a hit song, Peters believes the genre is becoming dominated by electronic sounds and beats that sound similar.

GoodLuck's desert recording studio in Namibia (Photo: GoodLuck)

Raiven Hansmann (far right) prepares to record his saxophone in a Namibian desert

"Everything is a homogenized result of a synthesizer that everybody owns. We're all making the same music because we're all using the same tools," says Peters. "The first electronic guys were sampling funk records that were played by these crazy artists from the states and from all over the world. And nowadays, no one's doing that anymore."

Found sounds

You could say the band is part of a countermovement in electronic music, emphasizing real world sounds.

Most recently, so-called "found sounds" have been used to great effect by Berlin DJ Paul Kalkbrenner, who recorded the sounds of Berlin's S-Bahn commuter trains for one of his songs. The Danish group Efterklang recorded their album "Piramida" on-location at an abandoned Soviet mining village and British DJ Matthew Herbert based an entire album on the sounds of the life cycle of a pig. But no matter how bizarre these real world sounds become, the music still has to sound good.

"At the end of the day, music is about songs and that's what the public loves," Peters said. "It doesn't matter if you're putting in zebras or recording outside or recording in your little bedroom. If you're not making really good songs, you're not making really good music."

As the technology behind electronic music continues to evolve, it's impossible to predict where the genre will go next. But GoodLuck hopes more DJs will venture out of their studios and discover the sounds of the world around them.

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