Writing a song inspired by pencils

I’m in a music theory discord that does weekly challenges, alternating between original composition and arrangement weeks. I’ve been doing them pretty consistently over the last year.

Each week has a different prompt. Recently, we did this prompt during an original composition week:

Object theme composition prompt

We’ve composed themes for places, battles, people, monsters, love, etc. Now it is time to make a theme for an object. Some object ideas to inspire people:

– a legendary sword
– cursed treasure
– a wedding dress never worn
– some macguffin everyone is trying to get
– a magic ring

I was joking around with ryelle about ideas for my piece that week, and she suggested making a song entirely out of samples of a particular object. Which, you know, is freaking brilliant. I ended up choosing the humble pencil as my object. As I wrote in the score I submitted alongside my piece:

From the humble pencil comes magic. Writers create vivid stories, artists draw masterful pieces, and composers put song onto page. In honor of the pencil, every single instrument in this song has been created using pencil sounds — scrapes, scribbles, and taps. From synths to drums, the pencil can do it all.

Folks were like “how the hell did you do that,” so I figured I’d actually write down my process, if only so I can refer back to it later when I inevitably forget. The melody itself is pretty lackluster, but the techniques I used to generate each instrument were pretty fun.

Here’s what I ended up submitting:



I’d originally planned on recording my own pencil samples, but I ended up getting tight on time, so I opted to search through https://freesound.org/ for some different pencil sounds. They have a CC0 search which has come in handy for a lot of songs! I searched for a few different kinds of sounds, like tapping, scratching, heavy writing, etc. I figured a different range of timbres would give me the best possible starting points.

Once I found some samples, I dropped them into Ableton and started cutting them down with different instruments in mind. For example, looking for sounds I could transform into a high hat, bass drum, and snare for the drums (because of course I’m going to do drums). Those needed to be short, clear sounds, but my synth samples could be a little looser.


After cutting down my samples, I moved on to sound design and processing of each sample. This part of the process was a lot of playing with audio effects and plugins in Ableton, as well as warping and distorting the clips to create interesting new sounds.

All of the samples got really heavy-handed EQing to narrow in on specific ranges (high for my high hats, lows for my bass drum, mids for my synth, etc.). My drum parts got additional saturation and Ableton’s overdrive effect to oomph up the sounds, a little bit of reverb for resonance. I also used Couture by Auburn Sounds to create snappier transients. My snare and bass drums also got some additional sound shaping through Diablo by Cymatics.

Everything got compression — usually a glue compressor at the beginning of my effects chain and a regular compressor at the end.

To make my lead synth, I used Ableton’s stock resonator to build some harmonics into my sound and then tuned it to a single pitch using Melodyne. The synth also got some overdrive, saturation, and a bit of character from Baby Audio’s Magic Switch and Magic Dice. I also made a bass and sub-bass from the same clip, just using different EQing. I tuned those as well, and played around with some of Ableton’s pedals and the drum buss effect to accentuate the low end.

I knew I wanted to add in some ear candy, so I also took some samples and did a lot of stretching, squashing, and reversing to find interesting sounds. These also got EQ, overdrive, saturation, and a ton of compression, along with some other pedal and phaser effects in some cases. Once I felt good about my sounds, I recorded them each onto new tracks. I threw these frozen samples into Ableton’s drum rack, and sampler instrument for my synths.

I needed to do a lot of volume adjustment in my drum rack to get the different clips a little more normalized. I still don’t think it’s a super cohesive drum kit, but at some point you just need to move on, you know?

Sampler is great because I was just able to set the initial pitch for it to extrapolate everything else from, and then boom, instant synth. Both my lead synth and bass synths got additional EQing and compression. At some point later in composing, my piece felt a little bare, so I created two pad synths using the same kind of techniques and different samples I’d isolated earlier. I also added Bittersweet by Flux to each pad.


The actual composition of this piece was absolutely second to the sound design, oops. I made a really repetitive, bouncy, simple melodic line an ABAB structure with a little drum break in the middle. I used maybe five chords in the entire song, using my pad instruments.

The bass I got a little funky with. I started by duplicating my melody, adjusting the rhythm, and adding passing notes between the root notes. I wanted to bring in more bounce. Once that was done, I doubled the part an octave lower for my sub-bass.

For drums I just busted something out that played on the rhythm I’d established on the bass, then added and subtracted some notes to introduce more variation.

Once I had the actual song composed, I took all my different FX noises and scattered them throughout the piece to give it more texture. Some of the samples still sounded like pencils, so I used those to start and end the piece to establish the theme.

Mixing and Mastering

My mixing for this was pretty simple, mostly just some volume balancing and reverb (Valhalla Super Massive) and delay (stock Ableton). I also sidechained my pads and bass to my kick drum, using Ableton’s stock sidechain compression setting (honestly because I was lazy and didn’t want to configure ShaperBox).

✨ c h a o s ✨

I use the same mastering chain for most of my songs: EQ, saturator, glue compressor, and Ozone Elements by Izotope. I struggled a LOT with finding a good preset to adjust in Ozone — the sounds in this are so weird, it just didn’t know what to do with them. Eventually I got something that mostly works okay and kind of dialed back on some other settings.

“Pencil” again, in case you want to take another listen for any specific parts.

Finally, I threw together a slapdash score in Musescore and submitted my piece! I got a pretty decent rating for the week, too:

prompt: You got an average score of 4.86
score: You got an average score of 3.67
overall: You got an average score of 4.00
Your total average was: 4.20!

Now, onto the next prompt 🙂

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