Think about this for a second: someone had to be the first person to eat a lobster. (Don’t worry, this is going somewhere.) They had to think, “Yum, this big sea bug just might be good to eat.” The point is, there are a lot of things that may seem crazy at first but turn out to be awesome. Some might argue that the first person to dip that lobster in butter was the true genius, but you get the point. Which brings us to the topic at hand.
Every once in a while, someone will do something that seems completely insane in the recording studio, only to discover an amazing new sound or effect. We’ve put together seven studio techniques that seemed crazy at first, but turned out to be pure genius.
1. Rehearsal Reversal
Sir George Martin was a recording legend and 6-time Grammy winner. But he is probably best known for his adventurous work with an upstart young band known as the Beatles. For example, he loved to play with the miles and miles of audiotape the studio generated during a session. While working on the song “Rain,” he showed John Lennon how to cut and splice the tape sections backward so that the ending vocals ran in reverse. “Rain” became one of the first songs to employ what is now infamously known as “backmasking.”
“From that moment they wanted to do everything backwards,” George once said in a BBC interview. “They wanted guitars backwards and drums backwards, and everything backwards, and it became a bore.” The reverse taping effect would go on to appear in many Beatles hits, including George Harrison’s backward guitar solo in “I’m Only Sleeping” and Ringo’s backward cymbals in “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
Fortunately for us, digital technology makes this process so much easier. The next time you’re in the studio, layer in an extra rehearsal track or two and reverse them to see what you get. You just might discover your next new sound.
2. Mic-infested Waters
Everyone has heard the story about George Martin wrapping one of his beloved Telefunken U48s with a condom and dropping it into a bucket of water to record vocals for “Yellow Submarine.” While George’s attempt wound up on the cutting room floor, it was not in vain.
The “mic in a bucket of water” technique actually adds a deeper, wavy effect to kick drums. Simply place a well-wrapped mic into a bucket of water, and set it at the base of the drum. Experimenting with metal, wooden, and plastic containers can produce subtle variations as well. You can also add channel modulation effects; for example, adding a phaser accentuates the aquatic atmosphere. This technique has been used recently by Island’s producer Ant Whiting in his work with pop up-and-comer John Newman to create a “lovely, wobbly, sub thing.”
3. More Voices for More Choices
In 1975, the English group 10cc wanted to make a love song, but not just any love song. They wanted to avoid all the typical cliches that most love songs fall into. Band members Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman tapped into their pop songwriting and producing expertise to create a snappy bossa nova acoustic guitar number called “I’m Not in Love.” But fellow band members Kevin Godley and Lol Creme were pulled by their artistic songwriting experience to push things one step further.
After some deliberation and collaboration, the group decided to slow the tempo and create an ethereal background for the lyrics. For three straight weeks, the band recorded themselves singing “Ahhhhhhhh” at various pitches. Then they layered 256 voices onto 16 tracks. The end result was an infinite loop of voices that could back any instrument and any note. Each voice in the chromatic scale was loaded into the studio’s mixing desk. As the song progressed, these voices could be manipulated with the faders, transforming the entire soundboard into an instrument all its own.
As a side note, during production they also called the studio’s receptionist, Kathy Redfern, into the studio to breathe what is now the most famous whisper in music history: “Be quiet, big boys don’t cry.”
The result was borderline symphonic. The song was an immediate hit and has racked up more than 3 million plays on US radio since its release.
4. Less Togetherness
Producer-extraordinaire Brian Eno was never afraid to experiment in the studio, and working with an exciting young band like David Byrne and the Talking Heads was like a blank check. Brian and David constantly tried to shake things up in the studio, searching for new sounds and techniques. For example, while recording the band’s signature hit “Once in a Lifetime,” they experimented with a multiple-rhythm style. Each band member started their part on a different note. To complicate matters, Brian had the musicians record their parts without hearing what the other members of the band had recorded. Later, he mixed these “blind overdubs” to create the synchronized chaos that took the song to the top of the charts.
5. Empty the Junk Drawer
Sometimes the coolest sounds can be made with the stuff you have lying around the studio. Pianist Hauschka has made a name for himself by “preparing” his pianos. (Bear with us, piano players, while the rest of us catch up.) A piano is prepared by manipulating the strings with objects such as forks, blocks of wood, ping pong balls — anything you can find — to make the notes sound entirely different. Even if you’re not a piano player, guitars and drums can be prepared in the same way.
Production legend Quincy Jones was also not afraid to incorporate found objects into his recordings. One of the most mainstream examples is in the Michael Jackson megahit “Billie Jean.” While this song is probably best known for one of the stickiest bass line hooks ever, there is a subtle touch where Michael can be heard singing, “Don’t think twice” in the background. Quincy achieved this effect by having Michael sing the line through a 5-foot-long cardboard tube.
6. Musical Instruments
Yeah, we know. But we’re talking about the children’s game “musical chairs.” What would happen if your band swapped instruments? After all, you’re all musicians. Slide the guitarist behind the drums. Hand the flute to the bass player. Give the keyboardist the bass. You get the picture. As crazy as it sounds, this technique has been pulled off successfully by a major artist — Bob Dylan. The story goes that Bob was recording “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” with a group of Nashville studio musicians. To generate a rawer, more casual vibe, he had the musicians switch instruments for several takes. The result was an instrumental that was as slurred and wobbly as the town drunk. Did it work? The song made it all the way to #2 on the Billboard charts.
7. Let’s Get Physical
Sometimes the right vocal sound is elusive. Rather than trying take after take, why not shake things up a bit? When sound engineer Sylvia Massy was in the studio with Tool, she wanted to capture the energy of the band in concert. At one point, she had lead singer Maynard James Keenan run five laps around the studio building before recording vocals for the song “Crawl Away.” Maynard returned winded and ready to punch someone in the face — the perfect mood to generate his concert-quality screams.
Occasionally your mind will cook up a sound that no piece of gear can capture. That’s when you may need to put in a little sweat equity. For example, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline was recording a jazz album with his own band, the Nels Cline Singers. He was looking for a particular swirling sound for the song “Harbor Child” that tremolo just couldn’t hit. What did he do? Nels set up a guitar loop and hoisted the amp over his head, gently waving it between two mics. Along with a set of sore shoulders, Nels created this:
That’s the true beauty of recording — there really is more than one way to achieve the sound you’re looking for, and it isn’t always the “right way”. The next time you’re in the studio, why not get a little crazy on a few takes. Sure, it doesn’t always work out, but when it does, it’s wonderful.