First Take: Pack Rat

Read Gino Robair December 2008 EM Editors Note, Where He Writes About Reusing Your Old Audio Gear to Make New Fresh Sounds
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In the July 2004 feature “Keeping It Simple,” author Nick Peck offered his one-year rule: if you haven't used a piece of gear in the last 12 months, you should sell it and put the proceeds toward something you'll use now. In difficult financial times, it's tempting to follow that advice. Because of it, gear geeks (myself included) have scored some great deals (especially in the days before eBay and craigslist helped inflate the prices of vintage gear). And no doubt we've mistakenly let a few treasures go as well.

But as a lifelong pack rat, I have issues with the idea that you have to jettison things in the closet simply because you haven't used them in a while. It's one thing to finally toss out those Mac OS 6 discs and manuals because you don't have a compatible computer, but it's another to sell those cheapo stompboxes or dynamic mics for next to nothing just because they live in the bottom of a drawer and haven't been used in a decade.

John McEntire's comment (p. 44) about how he sometimes sets up a “mono mic somewhere weird” when tracking drums, to give himself the option of having an extra color, as well as Myles Boisen's suggestion (p. 58) about using “unusual mics … and unconventional placement” to add sonic spice to a mix made me wonder: which mic would I use, and where would I place it? I've been recording percussion overdubs for friends recently in my own studio, and I've started to dig a little deeper into my own mic drawer, which includes low-budget mics that went with old reel-to-reel and cassette players from the '70s. Some of them still work (or at least pass signal). Which brings up one of my personal tenets: it ain't broken if you know how and where to use it.

Often there's that precious last gasp right before a synth or pedal dies, when you'll hear a sound that you've never heard before or will never hear again. If you were lucky enough to record it, it could serve as loop fodder or a song starter. Circuit benders regularly embrace this aspect of an instrument's life span, but it's not limited to electronics. I've had this kind of experience with broken cymbals, where a crack causes a nice buzz but it lasts only as long as a few hits, as well as with an electric guitar in dire need of repair, which has a kora-like sound when played in just the right way.

McEntire's and Boisen's comments also reminded me of one of my favorite studio moments. While I was playing drums on an otherwise conventional rock session, engineer Scott Solter asked me to swap out my snare drum for a cardboard box. Although I've played time on detritus before (scrap metal, phone books, trash cans, and so on), I had never used cardboard as the “snare drum” within a traditional kit. And only by being struck on two and four did it actually seem to work in that capacity at the time. This kind of substitution is common when working with samples, so it should've been obvious in the studio with acoustic drums, right? Yet in this context it knocked me out!

Of course, Solter was looking ahead toward the final mix, where a dull thud with a high-frequency attack transient would suit the overall sound of the song while giving the drums some extra attitude. Because he travels with a number of vintage, tube-based filters originally built for audiologists in the '50s and '60s, he was able to sculpt the right kind of vibe from a paper-playing drummer.

We spend a lot of time in EM covering the latest technologies and how to get the most from them. However, it's often rewarding to revisit forgotten tools and explore directions in recording that seem just plain wrong for the situation — especially when you already have some keeper tracks but are looking for a sound that “adds the eyebrows,” as Zappa used to say.

If you're still disappointed by that pawnshop prize you picked up in the '80s, perhaps you just haven't run it through the right fuzz box yet.