Expanding on Traditional Folk: Electronica and The Studio as a Tool

Bon Iver

Telling stories and letting people know you’re mad – folk music as we have known it has focused on lyrics and is a genre embarked upon by people who have something to say. As a practice based on folklore that comments on the social and climate the author experiences, it is no surprise that contemporary folk delves into the world of technology and, in turn, the studio.

As electronic manipulation further proliferates our collective music psyche, it becomes a favoured technique in extending creativity beyond the croaky lyricist with an acoustic guitar. In the immortal words of folk pioneer Bob Dylan, “The times they are a-changing”, and so is the music that represents the voices of our generation. Here are some ways these voices are making it happen, and perhaps some creative ideas for you to adopt in your own interpretation of folk music.

Bon Iver

Whether you’re looking to tell stories in new ways or explore the depths of emotion that folk facilitates through new means, here are a few ways to expand on the traditional genre.

Multi-layering vocals

From John Lennon to Elliot Smith to Sufjan Stevens, vocal layering has been used throughout the decades to make an arrangement appear more full, and allow for the nuances of the voice compliment each other (or as in the case of Lennon, cover each other up). The result may vary from being virtually unnoticeable, to an emulation of an instrument performing a duet with itself.

A possible technique to get the most out of multi-tracking is to record the takes in different places or with the mic at a different distance to get different resonances and tones out of the performances. Or perhaps with a different mic all together – a ribbon mic recording on top of a crass dynamic makes for a subtly interesting sound.

A common practice, specifically vocally, is to record the harmonies twice, the performances being quite close to each other, and then pan one track to the left and the other to the right. It is important to find a place in the mix for each version of the track to avoid the result being wishy washy, or even just too much.


Pop artists ranging from Tash Sultana to Ed Sheeran have brought looping to the fore in recent times, giving audiences a firm reference point in recognising these methods in audio tracks. Though it may be presented in these cases as an expression of musical dexterity, the place of looping in the studio is still as a powerful creative tool.

Whether it is to perform a multi-tracked piece, or to layer and fill out a piece, loops can sound beautiful as each element intertwines, and the prominence of each layer is emphasised by the repetition of the last. Like dance music’s repetition allows each change to be felt intensely, so can the technique in folk.

A fantastic example of this is Heavenly Father from Bon Iver’s new record. The track revolves around a loop of layered vocal samples and wind instruments – as a result you can hear the lyrics more starkly, and every introduction of a new layer is poignant. Looping is a fantastic to sonic base to build upon, or to take a song to another place.

Warmth Through Synthesis

For a contemporary folk tune, an easily achievable addition to a simple song structure is creating warmth underlying the basic texture of the instrument and voice. Synthesisers and pads are fantastic ways to beef up a song or tie everything together, and can sound very unique if you tweak and layer your sounds. While initially the addition of your average synth sound may appear overbearing or cheesy, consider adding it very subtly to add texture to your mix.

For a quieter song you may be more inclined to alter the volume envelope of the instrument, whether in post through creative compression, or altering a MIDI instrument, slowing down the attack, and upping the release on a synth sound (the second option is definitely easier).

If it still isn’t right, carve the tone with EQ and take out some of the frequencies around where the voice and instrument sit to give it its own unique place in the mix. Adding a reverb tail can also make it more digestible. All of these options can help create a nice frame for your lyrics and the atmosphere of the song.

Another idea for creating warmth in a folk song is adding field recordings or ambience. If folk is often a reflection of your world, consider adding a piece of it in your tonal palette. Noise is comfortable to humans, from the calming sounds of the womb to the songs you listen to during a workout. Sometimes when sitting down at a DAW to create a song, it can be like looking at a blank piece of paper – uninspiring or devoid of feeling. Starting with a field recording can inspire you, and create space for you to explore melodically and rhythmically.

Take a portable mic, or a popular cheap field recorder like the Zoom H1N1 out to the local park, or a train station, or even record the noise of you making chicken noodles. The interesting sounds around you can lend to folk’s personal expression and make for a more unique piece. Even if you take it out of your final mix, the whole song will have an extra element of cohesion and will be coloured by the sound world you curated.

Doom Folk

To finish, perhaps the most striking and effected folk music to spawn from the contemporary age is doom folk. Inspired by the sludgy roots of doom metal, the genre uses electronic manipulation to create a very wide and textured sound, coloured by dark, melancholy timbres.

Doom folk still retains the folk aesthetic with acoustic guitars, mandolin, and other roots instruments, and lyrics, while sometimes blurred, that are still poignant. A fantastic example of this is They’ll Clap When You’re Gone by Chelsea Wolfe, which uses a barrage of time based effects like reverb and delay to create a cavernous sound with a slow build of multiple layers that swim around the evocative lyrics.

Wolfe also uses a sample of a mandolin as the looped basis of one of her songs The Warden, and uses extreme distortion on her angelic vocals – a fascinating example of contrast done right.

If you’re at ease with a simple two dimensional folk piece and want to delve further into the depths of the genre, creating a palette of new textures like in the examples above though electronic manipulation and studio experimentation can give you the power to influence folk like never before. If we need new ways to tell stories, this is a great place to start.

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