Have you ever noticed how some signature sounds become an indelible part of how a song is remembered? There are just some unique sounds that are so distinctive, that they become permanently associated with the song, forever. Any attempt to cover the song, without its signature sound, leaves the audience wanting more. The song and the artist are immediately recognisable, from just a bar or two of the signature sound.
Examples of signature sounds might include the choir sounds from the introduction of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the vocoder vocal in Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, or the fuzzy opening riff from the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”. Kylie Minogue’s “Cant’s Get You Out of My Head” has a very distinctive bass line, played on a sampled organ, articulated on the usually unaccented beats of the bar, which immediately identifies the track. There are many examples. You always know them when you hear them.
As a song writer and music producer, the signature sound can be a platinum award winning song hook, but it’s a double edged sword, in some ways. The use of particular, contemporary pieces of music technology to create that signature sound can very quickly date a song, making it seem very old fashioned, after a while. As those pieces of equipment become obsolete, you can find yourself scouring museums and second hand sales sites, to buy a single working example of the gear that is necessary to let you create what has become your professional, audible calling card. On other occasions, a signature sound can make a song live forever. You can never tell.
The use of a signature sound takes that sound out of circulation, thereafter. Any other artist using the sound will be immediately and unfavourably compared to the extremely popular song that brought the sound to prominence. It also tends to place the context of the more recent song in the timeframe of the older, more popular song, thereby making the new song seem dated and less relevant too. You can’t even use your own signature sound in new songs much more, yourself, as an artist, without making it appear that you haven’t had a fresh, original and exciting idea in years.
Music producers should be very careful, when employing a signature sound in a record production. It can either become a stamp of undeniable originality, staking out some piece of sonic territory forever, or else it can backfire and make your track sound derivative, facile, copied and unoriginal.
The problem with many sound libraries sold to music producers, to use with popular sampling instruments, like Kontakt, is that they sell themselves on the basis of reproducing signature sounds. The same applies to synthesiser sound sets. Be careful when using these sounds. They’re likely to make your brand new music sound like a copy, not an original.
Indeed, among guitar players, there is a whole industry producing the same guitar, amplifier and effects as one famous guitar player, or another. They claim to allow you to reproduce their signature guitar sounds and so you can, if you want to be seen as coming second and as a cheap, knock-off copy of these guitar players. The only justification for buying signature models is so that you can take that artists’ signature sound and bend it into something uniquely your own. You have to transcend the sound they got with that same gear, somehow.
These distinctive sounds are called signature sounds, because they are analogous to a painter signing their painting. It’s a shorthand aural stamp to instantly bring to mind the artist that made the music. Consequently, musicians should choose and use their signature sounds with care.
You can’t use it everywhere, because if you do, you look like an indiscriminate graffiti artist, tagging everything in sight. People tire of it quickly, if overexposed.
You also have to be able to live with it. There is no point deciding you hate making your signature sound, later in your career, because you’re going to be stuck with it. It’s your signature. You’ll be forced to embrace it, whether you like it or not.
A signature sound can backfire on you, too. If, later in your career, as an older man, you find yourself singing what have become politically incorrect or age inappropriate lyrics, because people want to hear your signature sound just one more time, that can strip you of any vestige of dignity and credibility you had left and leave you looking like a sad, old man, rather than a cutting-edge, youthful rebel. Don’t marry your signature sound to a song that has questionable lyrics.
If your signature sound is very distinctive, it becomes difficult to move on and develop as a musician, because every new signature sound you come up with is going to be compared against the standard you already established. Eddie Van Halen initially had a hard time of it, when using synthesisers in what ultimately became some of his most popular songs, because everybody was expecting to hear searing lead guitar. The uniqueness and memorable qualities of the opening synth phrases of “Jump” took a while to be accepted. Now, they’ve been cemented into fan consciousness and the opening notes alone can identify the song and the artist.
I don’t know if artists are always aware that they are creating something with a signature sound. I suspect not. I don’t think it is common for a music producer to deliberately go after a new signature sound and end up finding it. My belief is that there is a lot of “happy accident” about it and a lot about the way the musician plays that is as important as the gear they happen to be using to produce their sound. I’ve heard lots of people with identical Joe Satriani guitar rigs, down to the same plectrums and gauges of strings, who nevertheless, having bought the signature model guitar, effects and amplifier, utterly fail to sound anything like their hero. There’s more to a signature sound than the equipment in use. It’s down the notes played and how they are played.
Would I advise identifying and highlighting a signature sound in your music? Yes, I would, but with reservations. You have to be careful. A signature sounds is a bit like a tattoo. They’re really hard to get rid of, if they’re no good. Use them with judiciousness and caution and they can serve your musical career well. If used recklessly, though, they can become a stone around your neck.