Covert Ops

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There have always been peculiar bits of kit that are dear to my heart — certain drum machines, microphones, preamps or compressors — and various instruments have accompanied me to sessions in all corners of the United States, various Caribbean islands and even southeast Asia because I knew they would deliver the goods when needed. In the mid-'90s, I produced an album in Haiti for the Voudou dance band Kanpech under fairly primitive conditions: flaking, over-recycled 2-inch tapes on a beat-up MCI 24-track recorder; no outboard gear; a crackly old live-sound reinforcement board and constant electricity brownouts. But when we won song of the year at the following Karnival, I was proud of the quality of the recording we accomplished with a trusty set of AKG 414 microphones — my battle-tested “desert island” microphone ever since.

But beyond the go-to tools for fearless guerilla recording, there is another class of gear: secret weapons. I use the word “secret” loosely because I believe that to withhold knowledge or tools from a colleague with the intention of leveraging an advantage over another musician, engineer or producer is antithetical to the spirit of creativity, not to mention that anyone who feels they need an edge is already wallowing in insecurity and a lack of real skills. A person's real secret weapons are their ears, mind, creative vision, heart and soul.

However, the following secret weapons are relatively unknown pieces of equipment whose magic has helped me in one way or another over the years. I hope that readers will find similar value in these tools, as well as finding some inspiration to dig up the gear in their own secret stash. Your own secrets may be sitting in the back of a neglected storage closet, so keep your ears and mind open.

We all have favorites. An old B&K 4006 microphone has been a trusty standby of mine for years. I pull it out when whatever mics on hand aren't cutting the mustard, and its huge, flat range and omnidirectional response lets me do crazy things such as capture an entire drum kit with one mic. The 4006 invariably pulls a great sound from an instrument that refuses to cooperate with the usual mic suspects.

Along the same lines in terms of sheer utility and performance, some other cherished gear has included a trusty pair of sweet Lexicon reverbs (PCM-80 and PCM-90) with my own custom settings that make it easy to get familiar room sounds no matter where I was mixing. I still miss the old Hohner D6 Clavinet, Hammond Organ and old tube amps I left in San Francisco a few years ago due to lack of storage. Certain instruments have such a great sound that they practically play themselves.

Nowadays, for better or worse I record and mix mostly in Pro Tools, so things like those Lexicon reverbs aren't as crucial as they used to be for mixing a song anywhere. These days, most of us have what is essentially the same set of tools at our disposal, so the kind of gear that makes a good secret weapon has changed. Each wave of digital revolution brings inexpensive multitrack recorders, drum machines, samplers and synthesizers to the masses. Over the years, standards ranging from ADATs, Mackie boards, E-mu SP-12 samplers, Roland TR-808 drum machines and many other tools all the way to the current multiprocessor DAWs that can emulate anything have enabled a huge portion of hip-hop, dance, techno, ambient and other vital forms of music to be born and to flourish. But such parity also puts many of us at a disadvantage in terms of standing out from the crowd sonically, musically and conceptually.

The following atypical instruments and devices do things most people still can't do without them and includes some unorthodox approaches to spicing up your music with organic analog and digital flavors.


Lexicon chose a fitting name for the Vortex, a quirky and complicated yet very rewarding digital effects processor that has some of the most radical configurations of delay and modulation you'll find anywhere, each incorporating an envelope follower for dynamic control of each effect. To get some flow going with the Vortex, however, you have to read the manual — it's only got a couple of knobs and buttons on the front, but there's a lot going on inside this little black box that needs to be understood to effectively harness its psychedelic power in the studio or onstage.

First of all, as a radical effects send while mixing, routing to the Vortex in place of a more typical digital delay or even a reverb will add all kinds of movement and shimmering glimmer to your sound. The Vortex has 16 algorithm sets from which to start your tweaking, and names like Aerosol, Cycloid, Fractal, Maze and Centrifuge give a reasonable idea of the kinds of processing on hand. Each effect type is a fairly complicated chain of echo, panning, modulation, vibrato, detuning and resonance processes, lots of which loop back and feed into each other again.

One cool thing is that the Vortex is a discrete dual-mono-in device, which means that many of the settings operate as two mono-in, stereo-out processors, and in some the dual mono inputs even interact with each other. Add Audio Morphing, Lexicon's trademarked process for transmutating from one algorithm to another, and you get some unexpected sounds to say the least. You can control morphing — and any other effects parameter — with an external expression pedal, which lets you sweep between entirely different algorithms with sometimes sublime, often outrageous, places in between.

Icing the cake is a footswitch-controllable tap-tempo function, which automatically locks all algorithms to your desired tempo, and the tempo can be seamlessly changed at any time. One of my favorite uses is to half- or double-time the algorithms for different sections in a song. But it is worth noting that each effect has two separate echo division controls, which are dialed in as fractions of your master tempo, and which will allow you to bust everything from funky-ass 6/8 polyrhythms to difficult-to-manifest time signatures such as 7/13, with ridiculously complex yet tight rhythmic foundations that would give any Indian classical musician a headache before the echoes even hit the sweeping feedback wash of detuners and panners.

Tuning in the dynamic response of the Vortex brings all of this DSP madness home to nirvana. A couple of good full-blown settings will transform your drum machine into a blooming freak machine that will leave scant room for other instruments; tap in the tempo and trigger the occasional morph, and you will have enough complexity and sonic ear candy flying around to step out for a smoke and chat up the cuties before anyone gets bored.

However, you can also reign in the Vortex a little — to mere shadowy shimmering and quietly fractalizing echoes — and you get the perfect dynamically-responsive processing to adorn anything from a lead vocal to ethereal synth pads in a high-fidelity studio mix.


The heavy-duty Pigtronix Envelope Phaser ($219;, aka EP-1, is ostensibly a high-end “boutique” stompbox for rock and jazz guitarists, bassists and keyboard players, but it has some very interesting applications for DJs, for practitioners of Remix-demographic musical styles and as a high-quality analog processor for recording and mixing. Although the EP-1 also has a bit of a learning curve, it sounds so damn good on so many things that once you get the hang of its unorthodox design, you will be in hog heaven.

The EP-1's high-quality, all-analog circuitry actually improves on one of my favorite effects ever, the Musitronics Mu-Tron Bi-Phase (which sparkles and shimmers all up in Parliament's classic “Clones of Dr. Funkenstein”), by widening the sweet spots and fattening up the low end. Basically, the EP-1 will fatten up and add some flavor to anything you run through it on the basic phaser settings, which can bust out anything from rotary Leslie/Univibe-type swirlys to dynamically responsive envelope following phase sweeps. Did y'all catch that second part? It's a pretty innovative concept, and it's much cooler than merely triggering wahs because transients kick your signal into intricately adjustable phase sweeps.

So in addition to doing all juicy sweetening and fattening — which it can also output in stereo for the studio — you can get some left-field Bootsy-isms out of this bad boy, too, which makes it fun for live funk-a-tizing fo' sho'. While it's a dream for guitarists, you can run anything through this sucker and get something sweet out the other end. As a subtle vocal processor, the EP-1's sheen in a mix has enough flavor to qualify it as a secret weapon, above and beyond all its live applications.

That is just the beginning; one of the wildest features of this big fat juice machine is its trigger input, which allows you to use, say, a drum machine or a beat off your laptop to kick in the envelope, while the phaser is processing something else. It is vaguely reminiscent of a funky sample-and-hold oscillator or arpeggiator, but it incorporates whatever sound you are running through the box. You can even control the envelope's trigger with a microphone if you want to really bug people out. Deep and sweet. Like the Vortex, it will also accept an expression pedal for further live-performance control.

Solidly constructed, clean and quiet enough to bring their analog smoothness to professional mixing situations and with plenty of features on top of great sound, the EP-1 justifies parting with your ducats.


I am always collecting little toys, tourist souvenirs and different kinds of instruments that I come across from around the world. Collectively, they serve as a useful secret weapon for adding texture and rhythmic spice to all kinds of records over the years.


This instrument is funky as hell on anything you have the guts to lay it down on. I first fell in love with the cuíca when I heard Funkadelic's “One Nation Under a Groove,” on which Larry Fratangelo squeezes some of the most deliciously nasty sounds I had ever heard with what I figured out was a Brazilian instrument. A cuíca is a small drum with a stick sewn into the middle of the drumhead, where it hangs off the skin inside the shell of the drum. You play it by sliding wet fingers or chamois cloth up and down the stick and pressing different parts of the drumhead with the fingertips of the other hand to change the pitch. Apropos of Brazilian culture, the cuíca's sound is rife with innuendo. It takes some skill and rhythmic flow to pull off, but it is sweet and badass when you get it right. Beck used a cuíca in his “Tropicalia” single and some other songs, but most people still have no idea what this sound is. Check out the examples

Jaw harps

My kubings from the Philippines are particularly prized possessions. They are long, buzzy bamboo jaw harps that sound similar to the metal American jaw harps — like what you hear occasionally in the background of a B-movie soundtrack when things are gittin' real backwoods and redneck-y. But the kubings have a much richer tone and better sustain. These overtone-rich instruments are controlled in terms of pitch by how you move your lips and cheeks, and with a little phasing and chorusing, they can sound a lot like a next-generation synth patch.

Donno and udu drums

Often called a “talking drum,” the donno from Ghana is an hourglass-shaped, double-headed drum and another versatile pitch-changing percussion instrument played with a stick while squeezing the laces to change the pitch. These instruments appear in different-size versions in Nigeria and Senegal and are definitely not for amateurs, but in the right hands, they can be used to play melodies or to make funky envelope-follower patterns with a huge frequency range.

Udu drums are also called chatan, as popularized by the great Senegalese percussionist Aïyb Dieng on many of Bill Laswell's productions. They are large clay pots with holes that are covered and/or tapped with palms to produce booming, ultralow-frequency, pitch-shifting bass tones that can take a good groove to the next level by several degrees of magnitude. The amount of low-frequency energy generated is not to be underestimated, however, and is easily capable of blowing monitors, not to mention overloading microphones and preamps.


Shakers can alternate or blend with high-hat sounds to create subtle but clear delineations between musical sections. For example, they can set a chorus or a bridge apart from a verse in a song structure or build up rhythmic energy as a song develops. The problem with shakers though is that the metal or plastic egg-type shakers have almost become a cliché, and drum-machine shakers often don't have the same “live” feel and excitement that real shakers can bring to a mix.

Alternative shaker instruments include gourds with beads and seeds, Quaker oatmeal containers and grits and the plethora of cheap maracas that are sold in tourist stores throughout the Caribbean. If you have a bunch of different shakers and rattles to choose from (I have a box with about 30 usable, different-sounding shakers), you should be able to find the right texture and frequency range for any mix of instruments. I often end up using two or three different shakers in each hand, for a more complex and softer sound than your standard egg shaker. Also, use a dynamic (or better yet, a ribbon) microphone instead of a condenser, which will often give you too much bite and not enough textural body for your shaker sounds.

Bim and flutes

The snake-charmer flute from India, called a bim, among other names, have always been a favorite. They each sound different, but they definitely get that serious “exotic” thing going on with just a few notes. My latest one is polyphonic and pretty mellow sounding, and while it doesn't have the same bite and insane foaming-at-the-mouth-possession sound my last one had, it generates great drone basses that sit nicely in the background and also beg for flanging.

I have always loved the sound of bamboo and wooden flutes, particularly because the inherent noise component — the sound of air rushing over the blowhole — is such a rich and textural sound. While I am no flautist by any stretch of the imagination, I have a bunch of little flutes, ceramic whistles and various Native Central and South American, Asian and African flutes from which to play the sweet, mellow, rich and organic little phrases that melt over an ambient chill-out groove like butter. There really isn't anything like the raw textural richness of some kind of wind-blowing instrument to offset all those carefully tweaked synth pads into textural bliss.

Claves, bottles and cans

Multiple West African or Caribbean-style bell and clave parts can add a percolating, polyrhythmic groove to lift a good beat to the heavens, and anything from a pencil on a Coke bottle to a fork handle on an empty can of beans can be the “right” bell sound when you need variations from the standard cowbells, gonkoguis and agogo bells. I also have made various sets of claves out of unorthodox woods, including some birch claves with the bark still on them that sound very smooth.

One of these days, I plan to make some nice keyboard sounds by doing some multisamples of different pitches created by blowing over the tops of root beer bottles, and when I get around to doing the same thing with glass harmonica — the sound you get when you wet your fingertip and rub it around the lip of a nice wine glass — I will have a couple of fat, resonating and textural sounds that will be a future secret weapon when the time is right.


Of course the most important secret weapons of all are our ears, minds, emotions and the accumulated skills that allow the magic that is in each of us to come forth from our souls. You can't employ a secret weapon if you don't have the fearless vision to try something unexpected and the flexibility, open-mindedness and confidence to appreciate the potential in incongruities and happy accidents as they arise.

Listen to audio examples of everything discussed in this article; many of them are also available as Acid-format sound files.


Year released: 1993

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Recent eBay final bids: $127, $134, $155, $250

Pros: Radical configurations of delay and modulation. Audio Morphing. Rhythmically stimulating.

Cons: Large learning curve. Lack of MIDI integration.