Conversing with Giants (Bonus)

In “Conversing with Giants,” EM interviews They Might Be Giants in the midst of their 25th-anniversary concert tour.
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This online bonus material supplements the feature story “Conversing with Giants” in the March 2008 issue of EM.

TMBG''s Top 10 List of Unsung and Underappreciated Gear

By John Flansburgh and John Linnell

1. Empirical Labs Distressor. While it''s a bona fide piece of rackmount gear, there is nothing retro going on here—no tubes, just crushing amounts of warm, harmonically rich compression that makes guitars sound as big as a house. Engineer Pat Dillett says he can get compression so intense with the Distressor that he can hear the singer''s thoughts.

2. Dubreq Stylophone. This pocket-size keyboard made in Britain in the 1960s looks like a transistor radio. It is played with a stylus and produces a harsh buzz, but its unpretty sound is a feature, not a defect. Ours came with a 7-inch record of Rolf “Tie Me Kangaroo Down” Harris lovingly extolling the Stylophone''s virtues.

3. Audio Ease Altiverb. This digital reverb plug-in is more expensive than some, but other plug-ins just sound anonymous in comparison. Based on physical impulse responses, Altiverb delivers sounds with real character and clarity. Our faves are the Capitol Records chambers for authentic ''60s-era splash, and Joe Gore''s amp-based reverbs always deliver head-turning sonic funk.

4. Auratone speakers. Beyond Yamaha NS-10Ms, Auratones are the perfect reference speaker for TV work. Nothing really sounds good on these odd, contact-paper-covered speakers, but if the mix can survive the Auratone test, it will work in any setting.

5. Crane Song Dark Essence. Tape-emulation plug-ins are the kind of black-box item we normally wouldn''t even bother with, but Crane Song''s Phoenix bundle, and specifically the Dark Essence plug-in, has proved consistently helpful to us for thickening up vocals. Its design is also so simple that you''ll know in less than a minute if it''s bringing something useful to the party.

6. Korg microKorg. This portable, battery-powered synth has a lot of fun sounds—both retro and highly contemporary—and with good old-fashioned knobs, everything is easy to tweak. It even has a little microphone on a gooseneck, so you can sing through the vocoder.

7. Korg KAOSS Pad. Rub your finger around on the x- and y-axes of the glowing pad to control two functions at once. It''s mainly used in techno and other kinds of music that we don''t know much about, and it''s designed mostly to process other sounds. In our live show, we use the oddball built-in sounds. It''s hard to control precisely, even with practice, and yet this limitation is its greatest strength. They don''t call it the Orderr Pad.

8. Cycling ''74 Pluggo. Unlike many software effects you can buy, the Pluggo plug-in package is not constrained to subtlety or good taste. Many of the included effects are so bizarre that the sounds you get don''t sweeten the mix or nestle comfortably in the background. Some of our favorites, like Space Echo, are unpredictable and must be wrestled to the ground, but they''re well worth the trouble.

9. Panasonic cassette recorder. Flansburgh won''t go to a recording session or get on a tour bus without his trusty tape recorder to document that fleeting idea, and all with no fear of demo-itis. This thing sounds rough!

10. DigiTech MIDI Vocalist. When you need inspiration or if you''re just feeling lonely, there''s nothing like the crazy five-part harmony coming out of this box to lift your spirits. You can set it to automatically harmonize whatever you''re singing into it, or you can control the backing vocals with a keyboard. It''s also fun to sing the most transgressively sick things you can think of and have it come out sounding like the Beach Boys.