What's That Thing?

Confronting sonic strangeness and exotic musical objects that few have heard, let alone recorded, is the pinnacle of artistic experimentation — not only for the musician, but the recording engineer. Just how do you go about recording experimental textures and instruments while faithfully capturing their “proper” intonation and natural resonance? Is there really a “normal” or “correct” way of utilizing and interpreting these odd sounds on the road to exploration? Let’s find out.
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Confronting sonic strangeness and exotic musical objects that few have heard, let alone recorded, is the pinnacle of artistic experimentation — not only for the musician, but the recording engineer. Just how do you go about recording experimental textures and instruments while faithfully capturing their “proper” intonation and natural resonance? Is there really a “normal” or “correct” way of utilizing and interpreting these odd sounds on the road to exploration? Let’s find out.


How does a musician, living in the year 2007, interpret, conjure, and capture the ancient world? Composer Tyler Bates (Dawn of the Dead, Rob Zombie’s Halloween) was faced with just such a question when he was asked to compose and record the score for Zack Snyder’s historical film 300.

A successful score filtering the aggressive, cutting-edge sensibilities of modern rock through Asiatic and Mediterranean motifs required a kind of virtual (and musical) time travel. “I needed to create a kind of rock, with textured layers and rhythmic counterpoints, that would embrace the heaviness of modern bands out there today,” Bates says. “But I needed to relate that, musically, to 480 B.C.”

Bates was able to slide through a sonic wormhole of sorts by tapping an arsenal of experimental and rare instruments. At his disposal were a Bulgarian woodwind called a kava, detuned guitars, a Chinese xaphoon, a broken piano (which was used in the writing of some of the more obtuse melodies of the score), and a variety of other instrumental oddities.

“It was a challenge to capture some of the instruments, because they are sharp and transparent,” says engineer/mixer Robert Carranza (The Mars Volta, Los Lobos). “If you can’t capture the instrument’s resonance, you’ve completely missed the point. You are only getting the attack. That’s why with something like the taiko drum, for which the sound envelope seems to open something like 12 feet from the drum, we had to use three mic setups: a close perspective with Sennheiser 421s; mid-range with Neumann 269s; and omni [Neumann] U47s for the room.”

Fittingly, Bates re-imagined both a classic and modern rock sound. Snare drum-like cracks were actually produced by goat nails slamming up against a frame drum with the help of percussionist Greg Ellis; Led Zeppelin-esque kick-drum thumps were remodeled via Japanese taiko drum thunder; and catchy themes typically found in today’s Hollywood movie scores gave way to rhythmic-based cues elevated by the evocative vocals of Iranian/Indian singer Azam Ali. Bates added an extra sonic dimension by employing an obscure custom instrument called a GuitarViol, a hybrid viola-electric guitar designed by luthier Jonathan Wilson. Like the score itself, the GuitarViol is a marriage of contradictions: It’s fretted, yet it can be bowed, and its onboard electronics (EQ, preamp, and BOWD Horizon bridge/pickup system with adjustable string saddles) are sensitive to glissando runs yet offer guitar-hero vibrato. “I looked at it and said, ‘What is that thing?,’” says Carranza. “After hearing it, I thought it was mid-rangy, like a guitar, but generated low-mids on the order of a traditional acoustic instrument, like the viola.”

“There’s nothing fancy about the recording process in my studio,” Bates admits. “I recorded the GuitarViol and all of the standard electric guitars with a (Shure) SM57, played through a Peavey Classic 4x10 combo, a Marshall half-stack, or a Z.Vex Nano Head amplifier — which is a pretty cool character. The guitars were all played through an Electro-Harmonix POG (Polyphonic Octave Generator) to help create a primitive sound.”

“Nuance seemed to come from Tyler’s fingers,” Carranza says. “Tyler took [the GuitarViol] in another direction. He treated it like a hybrid guitar synth.”

“The GuitarViol was recorded without preamp distortion of any sort, but, honestly, on occasion I’ll use a tiny Guyatone analog delay pedal,” Bates adds. “I applied a generous amount of rosin to my bow, coupled with some fairly dodgy bowing technique to create the distressed sound of the GuitarViol. Every signal passes through either a [Universal Audio] 610 preamp, or API 512C preamps harnessed in a Lunch Box.”

Bates further experimented by mutating and synthesizing sound textures and then formatting them for his EXS24 sampler. “I will look at anything for its sonic potential,” Bates says. “Texturally, almost all of the sounds in the movie are hand- crafted — they don’t exist anywhere else. Of course, a lot of those textures were performed and they became collages of performances. Sometimes I will send some sounds through a Distressor or use Serato [Pitch ’n Time], and pitch something down to give it a little more depth. It is really about experimentation.”

“My job as a mixer is to create a hybrid score that works,” Carranza adds. “I wanted the mix to be aggressive but not too sharp. I like to use compression, so I used a Boiler Ultra Compressor from Ridge Farm, which is really more of a Distressor than compressor — it’s like a compressor on ‘10.’ It is one of my secret weapons. The other is the [Thermionic Culture] Culture Vulture — a serious distortion box. You add that kind of distortion to a percussion instrument, and you have one hellacious sound.”


Montreal-based percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Ganesh Anandan dabbles in recording what he calls “comprovisation” (a hybrid approach of composition/improvisation), only nominally framing his music before hitting the studio, and thus chooses instruments that allow his music to be composed largely by chance. “[Chaos] is not a bad thing,” Anandan asserts. “That is kind of the point of this music.”

On his 2006 solo release doUble IdenTity, DoUbLe IdeNtiTé, Anandan hammers a two-octave metallophone (pitched aluminum slabs encased in a resonating box) while plucking, picking, and striking his custom Shruti Stick — a 12-string, 22-fret instrument outfitted with two piezo pickups, tuned to a Gamelan mode. Because these unconventional instruments produce unexpected rebounding tones, micro textures, and gong-like sustain, they can easily become unruly. So how does engineer Dino E. Giancola harness this?

“I’m not afraid to use a piece of foam or tape to balance out the instrument, to help dampen it,” says Giancola. “The problem is: You want all of the attack of the instrument, but you can’t get too close to it either . . . especially with the Shruti stick, as the piezos alone, while sensitive to the string vibrations, don’t do the instrument justice. So I put two stereo mics up in front of the metallophone, spaced a good distance from the instrument and apart from one another — you want to get in there without impeding the movements of the musician.”

“When we had a slight phasing problem, the decision had to be made whether to switch the phase on a channel or readjust the mic placement to correct any anomalies,” Giancola continues. “You can correct any sounds later, but this deteriorates the sound quality of the metallophone. For instruments like this, I try to keep the recording chain short to preserve the integrity of the signal — which for these instruments was from the preamp directly to disk using SAWStudio.”


Matt Hales, the mastermind of British band/one-man project Aqualung, uses the studio as his experimental instrument. For his latest record, the subliminal sci-fi inspired Memory Man, Hales transformed himself from a mere piano man into a knob-twiddling, multi-instrumentalist who managed to complete the entire project in his personal studio, with a live room that is barely the size of an isolation booth. “It is small — the size of an average downstairs cloakroom,” Hales admits. “You could just fit a small drum kit — a kick, snare, and two toms, if they were small enough, and maybe one cymbal.”

Despite the squeeze, Hales constructed an expansive, oxymoronic distant-yet-emotionally complex pop record of cinematic proportions. Rousing melodies, delicate tickling of the ivories, experimental atonal undercurrents, and Hales’ forlorn voice combine to make deceivingly complex ear candy that falls somewhere between The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Coldplay’s X&Y, and David Sylvian’s Secrets of the Beehive. “I decided early on that the album would be based around piano and voice,” says Hales. “But I was asking myself, ‘How far can this music be taken and still be recognizably me?’”

To help create the “noisy” atmosphere of Memory Man, Hales relied heavily on the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man (hence the record’s title). “[Memory Man] is sort of a cybernetic record,” Hales says. “It has a robot brain with human legs. When I was doing a song called ‘The Lake,’ I was re-amping the unfinished tracks, as they were, through the control room monitors, placing a mic in front of them, which generated an eerie feedback-laden drone that could be tuned by adjusting the delay time on the Memory Man. There are a variety of sounds that I made through re-amping and adding the Memory Man to the signal.”

Through further effects processing, Hales turned even the most prosaic, commercial instruments into something virtually unrecognizable. On tracks such as “Pressure Suit” and “Garden of Love,” Hales designed and engineered such sonic vehicles as “ghosts” and “pretend orchestras” (a tapestry synthesized via Native Instruments’ Kontakt). “Noise, in general, is significant to the atmosphere of the record,” says Hales, who in addition to his studio explorations, plays such offbeat instruments as the glockenspiel, vocoder, and a broken synthesizer. “I found that there was an awful lot of potential to be had from recording something and then processing, and reprocessing, that sound through several generations of manipulation.”


Jazz-trance-jungle artist Ben Neill plays a triple-bell, acoustic/electronic hybrid horn instrument of his own creation, appropriately dubbed the Mutantrumpet, which triggers stored tones (AIFF files that are then imported into Ableton Live so tempos and pitches can change when necessary). Neill elaborates: “I use my pitch-to-MIDI device to play soft synths and samplers live in Ableton from the Mutantrumpet. [Live’s] MIDI ‘scale’ and ‘chord’ effects are very useful for modifying the MIDI input — particularly the ‘scale’, which prevents triggering unwanted notes. I use continuous MIDI controllers to process the audio tracks that are playing back. My MIDI notes also trigger MIDI sequences, which are usually audio control, but also video control that is sent to Modul8 (a VJ software application) running on another computer. I process the acoustic sound of the Mutantrumpet through various plug-ins that I’ve set up in Live as well, and use the MIDI controllers to vary and tweak the plug-ins.”

But doesn’t Neill get lost while recording? “Getting all of these matrices going, where I can get all of these software applications doing different things and, in some cases, doing things that I don’t know absolutely what the outcome will be, is where it is at for me,” Neill says. “I’ll use Logic for sequencing and Live to re-time and quantize audio tracks because it seems to handle that job better than Logic. I also like some of the native sounds from Ableton, such as the resonators, so I use Rewire to patch those back into Logic.”

Engineer/producer Eric Calvi (Miles Davis, Tommy Boy Records) works closely with Neill to shape his recordings. “The Mutantrumpet is a beautiful acoustic instrument first and foremost,” Calvi says. “To make sure that his expressive playing comes through we record him with a [Neumann] SM69, which is a cardioid stereo mic I set to mono, then feeds into the pres on a Neve 1073 console. I use only one mic so I can avoid phase problems, especially because the instrument has many different sound sources; you want to avoid as much sound cancellation as possible. Above that, the key element is compression, as it fuses all three frequencies [emanating from the three bells]. We also use the 1073’s EQ, which gives a wider body in the broad lower [end].”


Futureman (a.k.a. Roy Wooten; RoyEl), drummer/percussionist for Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, has been playing his custom, guitar-shaped synth (dubbed the Drumitar) for over two decades. The Drumitar features a number of brightly colored trigger pads that activate stored percussion samples, and, as engineer Robert “Bert” Battaglia (Wall of Voodoo, Kenny Loggins) tells us: “He blends [samples] ahead of time, so the snare sound, for example, comes from several [synth] units.”

Futureman adds to his palette by playing an acoustic drum kit in the studio. “For the band’s latest record, The Hidden Land, Futureman actually sat behind his kit with one hand on a stick and the other on his Drumitar,” says Battaglia, who earned a Grammy for the record. “For the kick, we’ll have two mics inside his custom-made shell, and one on the outside away for the room, all running through airy, earthly pres like Millenias and APIs. We were going direct to Pro Tools, so I wanted to go into mic pres that had some fidelity in the electronics.”

And for tracking the Drumitar? “There are 16 stereo outputs [on the Drumitar], so [Futureman] was employing a 24-pair snake cable, 2" thick, for all of that information being sent in direct.”


“One technique that Bill Porter (the famous RCA house engineer) teaches [when recording experimental instruments] . . . is to actually put your head down where you want to place the mic and move your head around until you hear what sounds like the best location to you,” says Nashville engineer/producer Neal Merrick Blackwood.

“One of the things I learned was to get the right mic in the right place, rather than trying to dial it in with all of this gear,” says drummer/producer Russ Miller, who recently tracked percussionist Pete Lockett in his Chatsworth, CA, studio. “When you get a look at Pete’s homemade bottle cap instrument or some of his other assorted percussion, you just say, ‘What is this thing? How am I going to [record] this?’ What I did was just put up a mono mic in the front. It is always better to have the mono signal than to try to stem something out of that stereo pair. I put up two room mics, which were Shure KSM 44s. Everything goes through API 312 mic pres into the original API 550a EQs that I have here; room mics go into 560as, which are graphic, while the 550s are parametric. I also have a pair of Empirical Lab Distressors, just to get some kind of compression. But if a percussion sound is not real loud, I roll back the compression and just let the percussionist fill the room with sound. Because, a lot of times, with these weird instruments, you have to stand back five feet to hear what it is doing in the room.”