As engineers, we are naturally drawn to recording because of our love of music as well as our pursuit of sonic perfection. But after we've mastered the craft of making records, it's easy to forget that perfection is relative. Sometimes we have to break the rules to get the right sound.
I relate recording and mixing to filmmaking: I stage every song like a new scene in a movie. In that light, adventurous production techniques can be an effective vehicle for transmitting the emotional core of a song.
In this article I will share some of my favorite techniques for getting unusual sounds. Some of these ideas may seem absurd or gratuitous, while others you may have seen before. But all of these tips can be used within the context of a mainstream recording, providing subtle ornaments to a more traditional approach.
The only rule I'm not willing to break is that the song always gets priority. If something I do obscures or detracts from the song, I nix it. Everything else is fair game.
Microphones are addictive to many engineers. But even though I love the usual suspects, such as a Neumann U47 or an AKG C12, they can be a bit boring at times. Why use what everyone else uses? That's why I collect odd mics (see Fig. 1): from vintage Soviet tube mics to flea market specials, every microphone has an unusual character that you can exploit.
FIG. 1: Many inexpensive microphones have bizarre characteristics. You can often find such mics at flea markets.
Although many of these low-quality mics have ¼-inch plugs at the end and offer instrument-level output, that's not a problem — just run them through a stompbox. A lot of engineers would consider my inexpensive Realistic dynamic mic useless for recording, but I typically run it into a pedal effect, then into a DI, and finally into a mic pre. It sounds a bit noisy at first, but because the mic itself is not capturing anything above, say, 8 kHz, you can aggressively EQ out the top end without affecting clarity.
I also use old Dictaphone microphones on various sources because they have a low threshold for volume and an extremely limited frequency response. Recording piano with only the Dictaphone mic gives me a built-in narrowed bandwidth simply because the mic is not very good. The resulting sound is arguably more organic than what I'd get from electronic methods of filtering. Of course, you can use this setup as a supplement to a normal miking scheme as well.
When I use the Dictaphone mic as the trash mic on a drum kit, I usually wrap the capsule with a dense towel to lessen cymbal wash and dampen the harsher frequencies. Then you can compress the signal liberally to increase the energy of the track. Compression also tends to raise the midrange frequencies of certain instruments, such as piano and guitar. In addition, the attack transients will often become aggressive, which can help the instrument sit on top of a dense arrangement.
Other mics you should consider trying are carbon mics, crystal mics, and the often-overlooked electret condenser. Whether you use them exclusively or to complement a normal setup, these mics will give you spectacular distortion when driven hard. And when they're used irresponsibly, they provide character that nothing else can come close to replicating.
Tone on Contact
Contact mics are a seemingly infinite source of fun. Rather than picking up airborne sound like a regular mic, they transmit vibrations from solid surfaces, giving you an entirely new perspective on whatever it is that you're recording. You can plaster them virtually anywhere, and most contact mics distort beautifully under duress.
FIG. 2: Harness your DIY powers and build your own contact mic to explore unusual sounds. Piezo discs are inexpensive when purchased online. All you need is a 2-conductor cable, solder, and a soldering iron. This homemade contact mic took only a few minutes to assemble.
Building your own contact mic using a piezo is simple and inexpensive (see Fig. 2), and there are online sources that show you how. You can also purchase them premade: my favorites are from Cold Gold.
Because of their strong transients, drums are often a great candidate for contact miking. One method is to tape the mic onto the drumhead, although this will affect the drum's sound. (That might not be a problem because we're not going for pure drum tone here.) If that's not an option, tape the mic onto the drum's shell. In both cases, you'll get an excellent thwack along with the intimate resonances of the drum itself. Shape the results with EQ and compression, and don't be afraid to get heavy handed when necessary.
Contact mics work extremely well on resonant surfaces such as cymbals, a guitar body, or the back side of a piano. I've had some success affixing them to a singer's chest or throat, and even on a drummer's sticks. (The latter technique requires a bit of caution.) Anywhere you put them, contact mics provide a much different perspective of an instrument.
In some studios, the venerable tape machine has been relegated to archiving duties or, worse yet, the junkyard. But in my studio, these old beasts are used as an unparalleled vehicle for sonic manipulation. From subtle color to outright destruction, tape recorders are your most trusted accomplice in the quest for quirk.
You can find a unique and usable trait in any tape machine, whether it's a shaky transport or a slightly overdriven front end. Many decks allow you to adjust the equalization and bias for alignment purposes; be sure to tweak those parameters. And if your older machine has a tube circuit, check out how it distorts.
FIGS. 3a and 3b: I used a trash can as a filter on a piano (3a). Notice how the mics are pointed away from the source to catch reflections off the bottom of the can (3b).
Tape itself is very durable and can withstand quite a bit of abuse, so don't be afraid to get physical with it. For example, while recording the Portland, Maine-based band Timesbold, I wanted an “underwater” vocal sound for one of the songs. To get this effect, I spooled about 3 minutes of ¼-inch tape to the floor, scrunched it up in my hands, and wound it back onto the supply reel of a friend's Voice of the Music 2-track machine. Next, I recorded the isolated vocal part from Digidesign Pro Tools onto the scrunched-up tape. Then I played the recording back into Pro Tools and edited the timing so that the vocals were in the right place. The result was the creepiest and most unsettling and warbled sound I've heard (see Web Clips 1a and 1b).
Cassette machines are also useful audio processors because of their inherent design limitations. Many of the old consumer decks include features such as a limiter, noise reduction, and EQ options, all of which you can misuse. For instance, the built-in limiters are usually of poor quality, but they add plenty of vibe to a track. If the deck has a built-in mic or mic inputs, try recording through the device in real time. By simply sending audio through the input circuitry, you're bound to walk away with something interesting.
Filters aren't new, but we mostly use them as passive utilities instead of active tools for recording. One of my favorite implements for filtering is a metal garbage can.
On a recent session at the Clubhouse in Rhinebeck, New York, with the band A Million Billion, I suspended a large, perforated garbage can above a grand piano (see Fig. 3a). Inside the can, I placed two Oktava lavalier mics as a spaced pair (see Fig. 3b). I pointed them toward the bottom of the can, away from the piano. (I also miked the piano in a traditional way.)
I ran the trash-can mics into my modified Scully mic preamps and then into Pro Tools with no additional processing. The sound was incredible (see Web Clip 2). The holes kept the garbage can from having an inherent pitch or sympathetic resonance, but it retained all of the interesting reflections that galvanized metal provides. By adding a bit of slow compression, I was able to create the longest and spookiest sustain I've ever coaxed from a piano. At times you can even hear the handles on the can rattle, which adds some extra fuzz.
I've also used sheet metal as a reflective source. Place a piece of thin sheet metal underneath a snare drum, and aim a mic at the metal itself. This trick works great when you need a bit of spit on an otherwise mundane snare-drum track. You can accentuate the effect by running the track through an aggressive limiter. It'll also put a little hair on your kick drum sound because the snares vibrate every time the kick drum is hit.
When I used this technique on a tracking session with the Brooklyn band Stars Like Fleas, the new drum sound immediately changed the direction of the song. We'd created something like a strange, short reverb, without taking up the space that a normal reverb would (see Web Clip 3).
You can use other common items to create twisted reverb sounds. For example, a piano is a great resonator. Try putting a small amp or speaker under the lid of a grand piano, or in front of an upright piano, facing the strings. Send some audio into the amp, and when you depress the sustain pedal, the piano strings will vibrate sympathetically. Mic the opposite side of the soundboard and print the track. Swapping positions of the mic and speaker will yield different timbres. Try loosely weaving aluminum foil through the strings to get light buzzing and rattling.
A large drum, such as a double-headed kick drum or floor tom, also works well for reverb. Aim the speaker at one of the drum's heads and mic the opposite head. Adjust the tuning of the drum to get the desired tone or resonance.
A classic reamping trick is to send individual drum tracks out to a speaker that is aimed at the appropriate drum, while miking the other side (see “Better Tone Through Reamping” in the October 2008 issue). This can quickly add fullness to anemic instruments.
Sometimes I find that a simple experiment can lead to a windfall of new timbres. For instance, try building a song with adventurous sounds from the ground up. You'll find that the track will take on a much more specific direction right away, and you won't spend as much time trying to find one down the road.
Don't be afraid to commit to sounds. If you like it, print it. Don't get squeamish and print a “clean” version for safety. The only way you can move forward is if you get rid of old habits and think in new ways.
Similarly, it's good to move quickly and not overthink what you're doing. The more you analyze, the less honest and direct the results will be.
Be sure to let the musicians hear the sounds you're recording while they play, no matter how weird the sounds are. They'll react to what they're hearing and play differently, giving you a more engaging performance.
Above all, don't be afraid to experiment. Ideas that may sound dumb and useless on paper will sometimes be the funnest and most rewarding to try. Just keep an open mind and try something new. You'll be glad you did.
D. James Goodwin is a producer-engineer in Woodstock, New York. He is also the cofounder of the independent-music consortium the Satellite Union. Visit him at www.djamesgoodwin.com.