Do the Wrong Thing

Engineers, producers, and musicians have been coming up with nonstandard recording techniques to create original sounds since the early days of multitracks.

Engineers, producers, and musicians have been coming up with nonstandard recording techniques to create original sounds since the early days of multitracks. Jimmy Page got his fat, distorted guitar sound for the main riff in the Led Zeppelin classic “Black Dog” by plugging directly into the studio's tube console and overloading the input, rather than using a miked amp. In the Lovin' Spoonful's “Summer in the City,” engineer Roy Hallee created the reverberant, door-slamming sound in the intro when he placed a mic inside a garbage can and recorded the sound of somebody hitting the outside of the can.

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Engineer Michael Brauer, who''s worked with such artists as Coldplay, Aimee Mann, and Luther Vandross, says engineers should not be afraid of breaking the rules in their quest for a good-sounding track.

More recently, Tom Waits began tracking vocals using an expensive large-diaphragm condenser mic patched through a cheap boom box (which he refers to as his “Secret Weapon”), and then into a pricey tube mic preamp. It's not what you'd call a textbook signal path, but it has helped him achieve his signature sound.

Seat-of-the-pants engineering was particularly necessary in the early days of multitracking, when there were few effects and not many sonic options. Today, with all the plug-ins, multi-effects processors, and digital-editing tools available, improvisation is less of a necessity. Adventurous recordists, however, still find plenty of ways to break the “rules” and discover new sonic territory, just as the participants in each of the above examples departed from convention to achieve original sounds, even if they had to reject what was considered the “right way” of doing things.

World-Class Rule Breaking

“If you like the sonic result of what you're recording and the band does, too, then it's all okay,” says master engineer Michael Brauer (, whose mixing credits range from Luther Vandross and Aimee Mann to Coldplay. Brauer, a veteran engineer who earned his stripes at New York's legendary Media Sound working beside Bob Clearmountain, Ed Stasium, and Tony Bongiovi, took a break from his Manhattan penthouse studio to talk with me about audio rule breaking.

“I encourage you to break all rules! I learned the rules real well so that I didn't screw up. It means that you record any way you want to as long as it sounds great. If one engineer gets great sounds by miking drums from above the toms, you can bet that one of the other guys will go out of his way to get great sounds miking from underneath the toms. Everyone's always experimenting.”

Brauer's current mixing arsenal includes an encyclopedic array of compressors through which he submixes different musical elements before they are blended into the final mix. Based on the various compressors' tonal signatures, he decides which ones to use for which elements. Brauer developed this unorthodox but effective mixing method in response to producers' requests for more bottom-heavy mixes.

“I was doing a good job of mixing in the style taught to me, until the sound of music changed. I needed to find a new approach,” Brauer says. “There are all types of toys and plug-ins out there that can help you get the sound that is in your head. After all, that's what it's all about, isn't it? You have an idea in your head, and you want to hear it recorded. How are you going to accomplish that?”

Who's in Control?

If you're going to follow Brauer's advice and use plug-ins and other digital audio gear for sonic experimentation, keep in mind that the user's experience is very different than with analog equipment, in which every parameter is controlled by physical knobs and faders. Analog twiddlers can simply grab the controls and twist to get the desired result; they can even grab and turn two knobs simultaneously if necessary.

Digital twiddlers, especially those dealing with computer-based software instruments and effects, generally have a tactile control that differs from that of their analog counterparts. That's because they're using a mouse and a computer keyboard instead of knobs. They're relegated to auditioning presets, typing in changes, and sitting back to hear what happens. In short, their experience is less gratifying and more boring. In that environment, the digital engineer is at a disadvantage when it comes to experimentation.

Fortunately, a more analog-like experience can be attained by using a control surface or MIDI-controller keyboard that has knobs, sliders, and switches. Even after you establish manual control of your virtual equipment, however, there's still no guarantee that it will respond the same way as its analog counterparts do. Although analog and digital gear may ultimately yield similar results, they operate on different principles underneath the surface. As a result, doing the “wrong” thing means breaking different rules, and therefore coming up with different results, depending on the type of gear you're using.

The following are some of my favorite out-of-the-box engineering and production techniques. For the sake of organization, I've broken them up into three main categories.

Over the Top

The first category comprises effects created from too much level. That technique is commonly used with analog gear, but you can get some cool effects by overloading digital equipment (a real no-no according to conventional thinking). You have to tread carefully, though.

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FIG. 1: If you experiment with overloading effects plug-ins, it''s useful to put a limiter, such as the Waves L1, at the end of the chain.

Level playing field

Over-loading an analog preamp, compressor, or equalizer can produce a pleasant-sounding distortion that retains some of its musical qualities. Specifically, the overload induces even-order harmonic distortion, which can be quite pleasing to the ear. Digital gear has an upper-level limit beyond which it ceases being musical and begins to be intermittent or grossly distorted (in a nonmusical way). For that reason, level abuse of digital gear is unpredictable.

If you want to mess around with overloading the signal path in a DAW environment, put a brickwall limiter, such as the Waves L1 (see Fig. 1), at the end of your plug-in chain. Doing so will let you apply large amounts of level through the plug-ins while keeping the output under control. Turn down your monitors and keep pushing the input level. Although this technique yields effects that differ from analog overloading, it can intensify certain modulation and distortion effects and create a pumping, overcompressed AM-radio effect if you vary the limiter's release time.

If you want a more authentic-sounding analog response on your digital system, consider using a plug-in such as MacDSP's AC1 (TDM, RTAS, AudioSuite), which emulates an actual analog console channel and produces a soft limiting on overdriven signals.

It's the fuzz

In my 4-track days, I could produce a superfuzz bass or guitar by cranking up the preamp on my multitrack cassette deck. I'd plug in, turn the preamp trim knob all the way up, and record the signal with the VU pinned. If you're working with an outboard analog preamp, or if you have a bus to record through, you can still create that kind of distortion before the signal hits your digital recorder's A/D converters. Overload the preamp to get the desired cranked-up sound, and then use the preamp's output knob or the bus output to control the level going to your digital recorder.

If you'd rather create a distorted input signal in a more conventional way, consider using a preamp with tube circuitry, such as the PreSonus Eureka. It has a control that allows you to adjust the amount of tube distortion to your taste.

Saturation point

Roy Thomas Baker, best known for his work with the Cars and with Queen, consistently shocked conventional engineers by recording with the VU needle deep in the red zone. His signature sound was tape saturation.

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FIG. 2: This graphic shows the signal path for using an analog reel-to-reel as a tape saturation effect.

Many engineers routinely pinned the needle of the VU meters (particularly when recording bass- or kick-drum tracks) to take advantage of the resulting tape-based compression. They exploited magnetic tape's own limitations to create the desired sound. If you're working in the accurate but unforgiving digital world, you have two ways to get that saturated sound.

The standard approach is to open up a tape-saturation plug-in, slap it across your digital mix bus, and lay down your mix. The unconventional way requires that you use an analog tape machine in addition to your digital rig. Patch the signal out of your DAW and into the record inputs of the tape recorder. Then connect the output from the tape machine's repro head, press Record on the reel-to-reel, and record the results back into your DAW. As long as you don't overload your digital input, you can drive the tape as hard as is necessary to achieve the desired effect (see Fig. 2).

Out of Order

In this second category, rule breaking consists of putting gear in the incorrect order, place, or both.

Return to sender

Traditional engineering practice holds that there's a strict division between effects that work as sends and returns and those that work as channel inserts. Generally speaking, compression and equalization should be dedicated to individual channels or across busses, and reverbs should be used as sends and returns.

Try turning that concept upside down by using traditional insert effects as send-and-return devices. To add low frequency to your mix, for instance, set up an aux send to an equalizer dialed in to a bass boost that's stronger than what you'd use on an individual instrument. You can then generate more bass energy by turning up the appropriate send. Try sending some signal from a synth bass or a kick-drum track to add a darker feel without altering the basic sound of the instruments. You'll be able to bring in a different tone color, but it won't destroy your original equalization. Since it's on a send, you can easily apply this effect to any track in the mix.

Another counterintuitive technique is to configure a compressor as a send-and-return effect. You can send any track to it, and you can select your compression based on its sound or on the particular brand of snap it brings to the mix.

You can obtain the sound of compression while leaving the source track uncompressed by bussing the track's signal through a compressor and bringing the compressed sound back into the mix on its own fader. Slam it or gently squeeze it, and then blend the squeezed and unsqueezed sounds. If you're working with a DAW, it's even easier. Just duplicate the track, squash the copy, and blend as you see fit.

Use this same track-cloning concept with other types of effects as an alternative to inserting them on the original track. Let's say, for example, that you wanted to put a low-fi effect, such as Apple Logic Pro's Bitcrusher or Cycling '74's Degrader (from Pluggo), on a vocal track. You can get more control by copying the track and heavily processing it (while leaving the dry track alone [see Web Clip 1 href=""]) than you would get by inserting it.

Experimenting with effects in nonstandard configurations works equally well with analog and digital gear. If your audio interface sports a few extra analog ins and outs, consider incorporating some analog gear into your digital signal path. As long as you can route signals to and from those additional outputs, you can access your favorite analog effects and even overload them if you want to.

As you tweak the analog knobs, remember to take notes on what you've done and keep in mind that there is some latency involved in getting signals into and out of your DAW. Many digital audio programs automatically compensate for latency. If yours doesn't, you'll have to manually adjust the timing of tracks that pass through your analog gear. Digidesign's latest Pro Tools HD systems feature adjustable compensation, specifically for inserts to outboard gear.

Patch it up

This next technique involves MIDI instrument sounds. Everyone who works with MIDI has had the experience of pressing Play on their sequencer when an instrument is mistakenly set to the wrong sound. The results can be drum parts triggering power-chord samples, keyboard parts played by horn-section sounds, two-note bongo parts triggering tuba sounds, and so forth. Although such a scenario can result in sonic disaster, it can also produce some cool-sounding surprises.

Why wait for dumb luck to unleash this creative chaos? “Misassign your MIDI sounds intentionally. Make a habit of routing your drum sequences to a bank of ethnic percussion sounds, or listening to your bass line interpreted by a baritone sax. Build entire alternate instrument sets for your MIDI compositions and experiment with combining them with the original patches. You might find a replacement for an overused sound or a great sonic change-up for a bridge, breakdown, or remix.

If you have the time and the patience, loop your MIDI track and start randomly flipping through patches on your synth or sampler. You never know what you might come up with, and you're sure to have a few good laughs along the way.

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FIG. 3: Try using inexpensive consumer electronics, such as this Radio Shack Karaoke Mic Adapter (that features echo), as insert effects during mixdown.

Use the Wrong Thing

The third category involves using audio gear for purposes it was never intended for. The possibilities are limited only by the size of your budget and the depth (and in some cases depravity) of your imagination. Seemingly inappropriate items can inspire new sounds and be used to create fun and unusual effects.

Shopping trip

If you're in a creative frame of mind, a trip to the local electronics outlet, discount toy store, thrift shop, or flea market can be almost as rewarding as a stroll through the music store.

Many items that are ripe for this treatment have no natural place in a recording studio and would seem more at home on a playground or in a karaoke bar. On a brief visit to the local discount electronics store, I looked around for the most inexpensive gear I could find. I bought a $20 pair of walkie-talkies (which will surely find their way onto an upcoming rap vocal session), and a cool battery-operated Super Spy listening device, complete with ear buds for $9.95. (“They'll think you're listening to music,” says the package.) With the purchase of the pocketful of adapters required to plug it into a mixer, the Super-Spy device could become a room mic with lots of gain and an extreme automatic level control (see Web Clips 2 and 3).

In the karaoke section of the store, I discovered the mysterious “vocal-eliminator” devices. Made to facilitate the performances of semiprofessional singers by canceling out center-channel vocals, many of these boxes come equipped with CD players, digital effects, and multiple mic inputs. Dig deeply enough into your cache of adapters, and you could turn a box like that into a unique reverb or echo device (see Web Clip 4).

You can hook it up just like any other analog effects device: patch an available aux out into the mic input on the karaoke box (see Fig. 3). Return the signal to your mixer from the box's output. Dial up your desired effect, and turn up the appropriate send. Keep in mind that you may have to crank your send levels to get a usable signal at the mic input. Now you're equipped to cut karaoke-style lead vocals using the box to get those cheesy effects.

Reevaluate all of the electronic gear that you've recently replaced with software. Dig out the old stuff from the back of the closet and invent new uses for it. Reconsider your abandoned stompbox guitar effects as potential vocal treatments or snare-drum inserts. Vocalize into that old speakerphone handset, and mic up the speaker for a “telephone-voice” effect that rivals that of any plug-in. Jack those ancient headphones into your guitar amp, wrap them around a microphone, and play your solo. Once you start down this road, you may find it hard to turn back.

Tales from the cowbell

Lately, I've been playing around with some inexpensive lavaliere mics that I found in an electronics surplus store. In search of a new perspective on percussion miking, I attached one of these mics to the outside of a cowbell with gaffers tape, grabbed a drumstick, and took a whack at it. The omnidirectional mic produced an intensely present and close-up sound with just a bit of room tone.

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FIG. 4: This nonstandard miking method features a handheld ­lavaliere mic used for capturing maraca sounds.

Miking the inside of the bell gave a more resonant sound. It's worth trying on other hand percussion instruments, such as claves or cabasa. With a little effort, it's possible to hold a mic that small in the same hand that's shaking the tambourine or maracas (see Fig. 4). You'll be able to move freely while playing, instead of being rooted in front of a standing mic. A great way to deal with a roaming percussionist who is playing multiple instruments is to tape a PZM mic to the performer's chest. The mic will be in a perfect position, always facing the same direction as the player.

Mic positions that you would be reluctant to try with your precious AKG 414 may seem more reasonable with a cheap dynamic mic acquired from the local discount store. A mic like that can be placed inside a conga, duct-taped to the underside of a piano, or wrapped in a balloon and submerged in a glass of water. It could be the mic you use as a beater for a cowbell or a drum, or swing around over your head for a live rotating-speaker effect (see the sidebar “A New Spin on Vocals” to read about John Lennon's idea for such an effect).

Start Your Engine

One of the great things about recording is that even if you violate every audio concept you were ever taught, if the end result sounds good, you've succeeded. Sure, you'll sometimes come up with hideous results, but that's part of the fun. You might also hit upon something brilliant. So roll up your sleeves, fire up your gear, throw out the rule books, and let the experimenting begin!

Julian McBrowne is an engineer and producer who lives in Southern Vermont. He is also the home-recording guide ( Thanks to David Simons for historical information.


Back in 1966, when the Beatles were recording Revolver, John Lennon was reportedly fascinated by the sound created by recording guitar and vocals through a rotating Leslie speaker. According to engineer Geoff Emerick, Lennon proposed taking the concept to the next level by suspending himself from a cable affixed to the ceiling of the Abbey Road studio, and swinging around a stationary microphone while he sang. A bit extreme, perhaps, but many of audio history's greatest advances have resulted from ideas that seemed insane at the time.

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FIG. A: The Beatles'' Revolver featured ­pioneering use of Artificial Double ­Tracking, which was born out of ­engineer Ken Townsend''s ingenuity and John ­Lennon''s dislike for doubling his vocals.

Lennon didn't end up carrying out his “human-Leslie” scheme. But his intense dislike for the process of doubling his vocals on a track led Abbey Road's chief technician, Ken Townsend, to experiment and to come up with another new technique, Artificial Double Tracking (ADT). ADT went on to become a standard studio technique. The original process involved taking two signals from the same recorder, one from the record head and one from the playback head, with Townsend delaying the former until the two signals were just slightly out of sync. Dig out your copy of Revolver (see Fig. A) and listen to the pioneering examples of ADT.


Here are some of the less-than-conventional techniques discussed in this article:

  • Overload one or more digital plug-ins, but have a brickwall limiter at the end of the plug-in chain to keep the signal under control.
  • Get the sound of analog distortion into your DAW by overloading an analog preamp on the way in.
  • Route your mix or track out of your DAW and into the inputs of a reel-to-reel deck in Record, saturate the tape, and use the output from the repro heads.
  • Use traditional insert effects such as EQs and compressors as send-and-return effects.
  • Duplicate a track in a DAW, and then insert effects (such as those from an inserted stompbox) on only the copy. Achieve the blend you want by varying the level of the dry and wet tracks.
  • Randomly misassign sound sources for your MIDI tracks.
  • Use cheap and cheesy consumer electronics devices, such as karaoke boxes and speakerphone handsets, as input or effects devices.
  • Insert stompbox effects into your DAW signal chain using your audio interface's analog I/O.
  • Tape inexpensive lavaliere mics inside percussion instruments.
  • Swing a really cheap mic around your head while recording for a rotating speaker effect.