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Rock Around the Clock

Article from Home & Studio Recording, February 1986

An interesting approach to experimental music using clocks as a basis for rhythm generation. Digital watches are right out.

Steve Taylor comes up with some suggestions for experimental pieces using the rhythm of clocks.

Obviously rhythm is about time, and time is closely connected with clocks. To start from basics, even by bringing a few clocks to the microphone you can create some rhythmical sounds which, though mechanical by birth, are not entirely dissimilar from electronic sounds.

There are many ways in which the sounds of a clock or clocks can be treated or combined, many of which render the original sound impossible to identify, and at the same time create rhythm patterns and sounds which even the most accomplished drummer could not match.

The method by which the effects are achieved involves a combination of multiple recordings at different speeds. This, of course, virtually dictates the use of an open reel machine since only a few cassette recorders have two speeds and certainly never three. Also it's usually easier to be creative with tape when working with an open reel machine. The procedure is based on the use of one twin channel recorder although the same results can be achieved using two machines. In fact this opens up more avenues of exploration, such as panning. Nevertheless in the case of two twin channel recorders both stereo reverberation and image shifting effects can be achieved with ease.

The first step is to select a clock with a loud and interesting tick so digital watches are right out. The microphone should be placed as close as possible to the clock and adjacent to the highest source of sound. Doubtless some experimentation will be required to determine the best point. The aim is to obtain the highest ratio of wanted to unwanted sound and the provision of screening will undoubtably help in this respect.

"The recording can be allowed to run wild or the tape ticks can be synchronised by slurring the tape a little in order to match the beats."

Slowing Down Time

Once satisfied with the microphone position, try the following procedure to give you an idea of what can be achieved. Select the middle speed (if using 3-speed machines) or the highest on a 2-speed machine and record about 30 seconds of the clock sound as a basis for your piece. Rewind to the beginning of the tape and reduce the tape speed to half of that used for the original recording, which is now replayed and transferred across to the second track whilst adding the live sound of the clock.

The recording can be allowed to run wild or the tape ticks can be synchronised by slurring the tape a little in order to match up the beats. The latest recording is rewound to the beginning, the speed is doubled back to the original speed and the results judged. If the outcome is promising, try a third input. This time the highest tape speed should be selected and the procedure for the second recording is repeated. The final rhythm is composed of a base sound of normal tempo and pitch, plus one at twice tempo with a doubled frequency, and the other at half tempo and halved frequency. The sequence in which these tracks are recorded is only a suggestion. An alternative would be to start at the highest speed and work down. This, when played at the highest speed, would provide normal, double and quadruple speed and frequency combinations.

"The addition of effects units into the recording chain opens up a whole new field of possibilities, as does the use of alternative sound sources."

Once the possibilities have been explored, a longer piece suitable for the basis of a complete composition may be produced. The finished 'clock' rhythm can be shifted across to another track whilst adding a bass line and the two tracks can then be replayed together to create an echo effect since the track shift creates a delay due to the staggered position of record and replay heads.


So far, only references have been made to the recording of a clean signal. The addition of effects units into the recording chain opens up a whole new field of possibilities, as does the use of alternative sound sources. When contemplating the use of another basic sound, listen for distinctive percussive sounds with a 'clockwork' regularity. Sound sources might vary from a dripping tap to a weaving loom (you must have one lying about somewhere —Ed), and both the pleasing and infuriating thing is that, until it has been recorded, exactly how good the results are is never known.

Further treatment involves using a digital delay to create syncopated patterns and, if you have a DDL with a hold facility, you can store a section of the sound and loop it, possibly altering the speed too. With a little experimentation you can produce sounds that even a multi-thousand pound synthesiser could not hope to imitate.

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Publisher: Home & Studio Recording - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Home & Studio Recording - Feb 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Feature by Steve Taylor

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