It’s perhaps the biggest paradox of music production that the more transparent our digital audio tools have become, the more we crave the opposite. Now that pristine audio quality is finally within the reach of the bedroom producer, we’ve developed an obsession with noise, environmental sounds, and unpredictable analogue tones – the very same sounds that our technology was once celebrated for eliminating.
While pro productions from the 70s to 90s tended to prioritize clarity and ‘neutrality’, there has always been an undercurrent of producers ready to remind us of the beauty and wonder inherent in certain flavors of audio detritus – gradually placing “neglected moments of noise” front and centre in the contemporary musical aesthetic. From Basinski to Burial, Pharell to Timabaland, and even Hans Zimmer, many of today’s most influential producers actively seek to blur the lines between sound and music.
So embrace the noise: Check out some of our favourite spots on the web for atonal, arrhythmic, and downright abrasive sound sources – all for free.
Yellowstone National Park Sound Library
From bubbling geysers and singing lakes to the sound of grizzly bears and squirrels, this remarkable library of field recordings “allows listeners to immerse themselves in the aural landscape of America’s first national park.” Sounds are royalty-free, arranged in alphabetical order, and even include useful descriptions. This library encompasses both environmental and animal recordings – with an unlikely standout for us being the rhythmic sounds of a horse-drawn wagon.
Create your own noise and ambience
White Noise Generator is a musically calibrated online tool capable of recreating the muted hue of a rainy streetscape; soothing, amniotic washes; and impressionistic ambiances. Adjustable sliders and thoughtful presets (check out ‘ear massage’) afford deep control over discrete frequency bands, with scope for organic, generative variation over time. Also available as a browser add-on, White Noise Generator runs endlessly on command and offers mp3 renders of your creations.
As well as providing a wonderful bedrock texture for ambient sound design, white noise is also a great way to drown out unwanted office noise (or the annoying whine of tinnitus).
NASA’s sounds from outer space
In the words of Sun Ra, “Space is the Place.” Indeed, if ever a dance music cliché remained evergreen, it would be that of outer space and the bold exploration thereof.
NASA’s archive of memorable historical sound bytes ranges from the eerie tones of deep-space to the now-infamous “Houston, we have a problem!” The site also links to a Soundcloud page with even more sounds and additional information. Everything is easy to preview and download in compressed mp3 and m4r formats. Just be sure to take a look at the Media Usage Guidelines before using anything in the archive for commercial purposes.
The ubiquitous Freesound.org is well-loved in the electronic music community – and with good reason. Arguably the best known database of Creative Commons Licensed sounds, it’s a portal to everything from high-fidelity recordings of flushing toilets to curious vocal noises, natural materials, ambient sounds and hits.
The Conet Project
Forming part of the wonderfully curated Free Music Archive, the Conet Project is a collection of surreal shortwave radio transmissions used by the world’s intelligence agencies to transmit secret messages. The audio material here is every bit as weird as it sounds – from random strings of spoken dialogue to bizarre melodies and tones, these are authentic records of international espionage.
Honorable mention: UbuWeb sound archive
From the left-field pop experiments of Laurie Anderson, to obscure spoken word recordings from Yoko Ono, the UbuWeb sound archive showcases the dazzling scope of experimental audio history. It’s not royalty-free, but this sizable archive affords such a delightful listening experience that we had to share anyway – and it is free to access. From rare and forgotten sounds to pivotal moments of the avant-garde, UbuWeb is perfect for hours of personal immersion.