As it irrevocably mutates, the audio recording landscape is fragmenting into different camps and styles. Retro lovers, hell-bent futurists and all sorts of hybrids have staked their niches, hoping to be on the crest of the next wave. And, while there's no doubt that in today's generically marketed world “same-old, same-old” often rules, the arena remains wide open for those who dare to experiment. No matter what the format or instrumentation, and no matter what the market resistance, musical creativity and sonic inspiration always survive and eventually surface. Here, Mix gleans some thoughts from a few of the audio adventurers making waves on the current musical scene.
TCHAD BLAKE'S PIPELINE TO STRANGE SOUND
Contrarian Tchad Blake has long been recognized as a radical recordist. His extensive discography ranges from Crowded House, Los Lobos, Sheryl Crow, The Bangles and T-Bone Burnett to the soundtracks for There's Something About Mary, Dead Man Walking and The Truth About Cats and Dogs. We found him ensconced at Sunset Sound Factory's Studio B, where he took a break from mixing the debut release for Virgin Records' Miranda Lee Richards to talk about some of his ventures into alternative recording.
“I always connected to music more aurally than lyrically,” he recalls. “I gravitated to records for the sounds. And, when I was growing up, I was really influenced by some of the English progressive stuff, like King Crimson, Hatfield & The North, Van Der Graaf Generator…by today's standards, they wouldn't be called well-recorded. They always had a weird, quirky sound — maybe a boxy drum sound that had one thing distorted on it, or a section where the hi-hat was so ridiculously loud that it was exciting. I also liked using atmosphere for ambience — like Pink Floyd used outside sounds from traffic, birds, whatever. I have recordings from back when I was an assistant where I'd put all the tracks through a speaker into a room and re-record them with stereo mics. Back then, of course, those recordings never got me any work!”
Blake's work with his frequent recording partner, musician/producer Mitchell Froom, on Los Lobos' dense and impressionist Kiko became the first record where Blake was able to stretch out with recording methods. “We decided to go for the sounds that we wanted, without worrying about trying to sound like anybody else,” he recalls. “And one of the things that we did was to make a contrast between really lo-fi and hi-fi.”
Some of the techniques used by Blake on Kiko, as well as on many later projects, involved miking reflected sounds, then enhancing the signal through the use of pipes, or, as he calls them, “mechanical filters.” “I often used sound that was reflected off of boards, metal plates, glass,” he explains. “For a long time, I had a huge metal plate that we called the ‘Yucca Bone’ [named for Hollywood's Yucca Street, where it was found] that we'd set up in front of the drums. It was about ¼-inch thick, with a curve to it, and it acted almost like a parabolic reflector. Along with that, I had a series of pipes that were loosely tuned to different notes. I'd put them up in front of the mics and mix that in.”
Blake credits his piping inspirations to engineer/author Barry “Sherman” Keene. “He was a tech at Wally Heider's who also taught a class where he explained that all microphone diaphragms were made in omni, and that it was the internal plumbing of a mic that made it directional. I guess I took him literally and started using plumbing to make my own patterns for microphones — and also my own filters. Instead of using electrical filtering to take off the top and low end, I'd record something through a pipe. The pipe takes off top and bottom but also creates a resonance within itself so that you get a bump at a certain frequency — basically a mechanical filter. I also used digiridoos. I'd put them up against the glass in a studio; the reflections would come off the glass through the digiridoo into the microphone, which you could move in and out for tuning.”
The advent of the SansAmp, also much used on Kiko, helped cut down on the amount of plumbing supplies and sheet metal that Blake had to carry to sessions.
“It was a big thing for me,” he admits. “I used it mainly on drums and bass. I could put the kick drum through the SansAmp, hit the Phase button and it would drop the kick drum something like an octave. It would also put this really weird top on it, this little bit of distortion. So that became my new filter.”
Other equipment Blake has used as filters includes resonators from old radios (“I put microphones on the edges and use them in front of the drums.”), reduced-frequency — okay, bad — microphones, line outs from voice recorder tape decks and esoteric compressors.
“I have a collection of really funky compressors that do nice things when you filter and EQ them. I have a couple that were used for the P.A. system in a submarine, and I have a Shure Level-Loc. It's a mic-level compressor made for speech; it craps out with drums at any level. Take a microphone, stick it in the compressor, put it in the drum room and the thing will distort — there's nothing you can do about it. But it's really cool to just mix in small amounts.
“A lot of people think I'm anti-reverb,” he notes. “But that's not true. I like to get the sound of it with compression or distortion or something else. Reverb, itself, to my ears, often takes up too much space, so I only use it when I can't create that effect with anything else.”
Often there will be a happy accident, and I'll get somewhere that I hadn't expected. I think, in the studio, your attitude is more important than the equipment you use.
— Tchad Blake
Although lately Blake's pipe collection remains mostly in storage, he always carries at least one short travel-size one with him, just in case. Then there are techniques such as putting baby guitar amps into trash cans with the lid on, and he hasn't stopped building: A recent invention started life as a large, square, olive oil can and has morphed into a kind of spring reverb. “I put a speaker in it,” he explains. “Then coming off the speaker are a bunch of springs that attach to the sides of the can. When you put sound into the can, it makes both the springs and the can rattle. Instead of having a surface-mount transducer, the speaker actually makes the whole can shake.
“When I try these things, I try to keep it spontaneous,” he concludes, “and not to think about it too much. Often there will be a happy accident, and I'll get somewhere that I hadn't expected. I think, in the studio, your attitude is more important than the equipment you use.”
THE SONIC MAYHEM OF CHRIS VRENNA
An avowed sonic envelope pusher, Chris Vrenna honed his chops creating madness and mayhem as a drummer and programmer with Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. From those NIN days at Nothing Studios in New Orleans, where he became known as a master of distortion, through his work with beats, loops and samples for Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson and Smashing Pumpkins, and his remixes and productions for bands like Cold and Methods of Mayhem, one thing remains obvious: This guy just plain digs creating sounds. These days, Vrenna works from L.A. where he balances his penchant for the weird with his skills as a songwriter and producer.
“So many people are trying to be weird these days that I've changed my direction a bit,” he says with a laugh. “My new twist is just to think of cheap, cool ways to be really good.”
Although still an electronic music enthusiast, Vrenna now rarely uses stock samples; instead, he creates his own with the help of the artists he works with. “Using all the toys but making the person the signal generator, as opposed to a sample loop or a synthesizer, that's probably my latest one-sentence summary,” he remarks. “I try to use each band in their own aesthetic as much as possible, making them the source material for all the bizarreness that we come up with together. That might be building an ambient bed from picking strings at the neck of a guitar, then washing it out through reverb and delay, because they hate synthesizers, or having their drummer strike his snare in a garage, sampling that and programming it.
“On one project, instead of using a drum kit, we had the drummer play his fiber road cases, empty and upside down on the floor. Because of their different depths, they're pitched: A floor tom case makes a great kick drum and a baby tom [case] makes a cool snare. It's a nice ‘thucky’ sound. We put foam rubber on the cymbals so they matched. And then, of course, I ran the whole kit through whatever pedal I was into at the moment. I went through a love affair with all the Electro-Harmonix reissues — the Micro Synth, the Bass Micro Synth and the Frequency Analyzer. For about six months, everything I did was through those three pedals.
“The cool thing about pedals is that they're cheap, relatively speaking, compared to a plug-in. I love Amp Farm, SansAmp, moogerfoogers and all the Bomb Factory stuff. But not only are plug-ins expensive, you need to own Pro Tools to use them. So when people ask, my advice is: ‘Go buy four distortion pedals’ — a Boss, a Big Muff; just pick four. Sixty bucks a pop, none of them will sound the same, and chaining them together will be infinitely crazy.”
Vrenna feeds pedals direct from instrument outs or from the analog outputs of his Pro Tools. “I'll patch straight out from Tools with a guitar cable. I know — my impedences are wrong, nobody yell at me. The only thing you have to watch out for is that sometimes it's not really in time anymore, and you'll have to chop it and slip it up a little.”
Having run through most of the world's stomp boxes, Vrenna's new obsession is delay. “I've been into making really simplistic beats and melodies that are filled out by delay. You can play a simple eighth note thing and the delay makes a staggered 16th note dub feel that, because it carries it through, is writing the melody more than what you played.”
A favorite among the delays he's amassed is TC Electronic's new D-Two. “It's got 10 tap rhythms,” he explains, “so you can create really complex rhythms. It's got filtering and reverse, which I used a lot on a soundtrack I was doing for American McGee's video game Alice. Something like glockenspiel through reverse delay sounds really neat. I'm a big bang-for-the-buck guy, and the D-Two fits that bill.”
Having progressed from drummer to programmer to songwriter and producer, Vrenna now finds himself concerned with the big picture and preserving the integrity of the sounds he so painstakingly creates. “I'm kind of going the other way now,” he says ruefully. “I've become aware that, while it's fun to make things sound really gross, you've got to record them really well to appreciate the grossness. A lot of times I've been disappointed in what I recorded. Between the distortion and the filter sweeping, a sound would be shaking the windows, but something always got lost in the translation.”
Ironically, Vrenna finds that getting weird sounds on tape requires many of the same classic techniques that pristine pop does. “Level is really important, of course,” he notes, “as is having the best A/D and being able to slam that A/D with really good mic pre's and DI boxes.”
I've become aware that, while it's fun to make things sound really gross, you've got to record them really well to appreciate the grossness.
— Chris Vrenna
For DI, his current preference is an Avalon U5. “They have the most punchy, full bottom end I've ever heard,” he asserts. “I also like API and Neve preamps, of course. There really is a huge difference in using them rather than just patching straight into the line-ins on an 02R.”
There's no fear that Vrenna will turn into a classicist as far as recording goes, however. Those expensive preamps and DIs are very likely being fed with a very cheap mic. “I'm using a lot of horrible mics lately,” he states gleefully. “Lavaliers, little ones from Radio Shack — I'll try them on everything from vocals to the little mini guitar cabinets that I like. For Alice, I was trying to do a twisted, but organic soundtrack, so I got a bunch of RCA desk mics from the ’40s and put them through some lo-fi preamps. Rather than finding boxes to run through, I just bought the cheapest gear built in the era I was trying to emulate.”
SMART TIPS FROM BILLY BUSH
Up in Madison, Wis., at Garbage's Smart Studios, engineer Billy Bush has been working on that hard-to-define band's third CD. It's common knowledge that Garbage founder/producer Butch Vig and his associates are always questing for the unusual; recently, they've added some new pieces of esoterica to their arsenal. “The University of Wisconsin is here in Madison,” says Bush, “and every couple of weeks, they have a surplus sale where they sell weird stuff for next to nothing. The guys at the studio find all kinds of wacky things that they rebuild, and one of the cool things we've gotten lately is a wire recorder. We've got two of them here now; we started with four, but our Russian tech, Lonya, had to scavenge two of them to make two work. They were designed to be dictation machines, with a little handheld, intercom-looking mic, a weird crystal that's hard-wired to the recorder. You push the button and it does its thing, using spools of what looks like 12-gauge wire to record. Of course, the first thing we did was say, ‘Hey Shirley [Manson, Garbage's lead singer], try singing through this!’ She looked at it and said, ‘What the hell!’ We taped the mic on and gave it to her, and, of course, it sounded horrible — like the narrowest bandwidth filter you've ever heard. Really cool, actually, but it didn't handle volume very well. So next it was, ‘What if we just lob it right in front of the drum kit?’ And that was just the spittenist, most unbelievably blown-up sounding thing you've ever heard.”
That wire recorder is now part of the regular drum miking setup at Smart, an array that generally includes approximately 16 mics placed both close and far, including Royer ribbons and an old Altec run through a Shure Level-Loc compressor (great minds think alike, see Tchad Blake). “The Altec through a Level-Loc is an instant drum loop kind of sound,” laughs Bush. “A Level-Loc is definitely going to be the new $500 item that you find on eBay — the funkiest-sounding piece of gear you've ever owned. It's only good for one thing — absolutely destroying drums.”
A lengthy search by the Smart crew for a hard-to-find Roger Mayer RM58 compressor was recently rewarded. “Butch had used it on, I think, a Freedy Johnston record, then he spent about three years after that trying to track one down,” Bush explains. “Roger Mayer was the guy who made crazy footpedals and fuzzboxes back in the ’60s. He also made this RM58 stereo compressor, which is great on drums; it shreds everything that comes through it. It does something inexplicable that has to be heard to be understood. Some sounds slide through and some are just slashed beyond repair. It's also completely random; you can run something through it twice, and it will sound different both times.”
DAVE SARDY: NO DRUMMER IS SAFE!
Just off of a busy 2000 that included production and mixing for Marilyn Manson's Holy Wood and critical faves Dandy Warhols' Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia, New York-based Dave Sardy was heading to London to record Bush when we caught up with him. A multi-instrumentalist, as well as a producer and engineer, Sardy is known for his open-minded approach to recording; his take-no-prisoners attitude has rewarded him with album credits such as “noises by Dave Sardy.”
“A lot of what I used to have to wrench out of a console or an EQ was because of bad mic pre's and bad microphones,” he admits, “but I didn't know that when I was starting out, so we'd do a lot of funny things.”
A number of those early experiments had to do with drum sounds. “I was recording at Dessau Studio in New York,” he recalls. “We wanted a German industrial, Einstürzende Neubauten kind of sound, and went rooting around in the basement looking for things that might sound cool. We found an entire high-rise building's worth of framed windows down there and lugged about 40 of them back upstairs, where we built a large glass box and put the drummer inside. It sounded amazing. Not inside of it, but outside.”
Back in those days, it took a courageous drummer to work with Sardy, who was often intent on using the environment to create the drum sound. “Some people just record dry and then mess around with it afterward,” he remarks. “I tend to record stuff to tape the way I want it to sound. When I first started, I never had any money to collect microphones or effects, so everything had to be organic. I've put drummers in closets and in vocal iso booths that were so small you had to use a floor tom for the kick drum and just one overhead mic. For one project, we got a really cool sound when we taped a PZM mic to the drummer's back and had him pound his chest in time with the kick drum. For a while I was living in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse with almost nothing in it; we recorded a lot of cool drums in there, just experimenting with close and far mics. And the first studio I ever worked at had a four-story steep marble stairway that was great to set the drummer up on using a mic at either end for the stereo.”
You never really lose trying these things, because a lot of what you're doing is getting everyone excited. Even if it doesn't work out, 10 minutes later you may get the best take of the record, because everyone is feeling in such good spirits.
— Dave Sardy
Not all endeavors turn out well, of course: For example, there was that disappointing venture into an empty swimming pool. “That one didn't sound as good as I thought it would,” Sardy recalls sadly. “But that happens sometimes with insane setups — they look a lot better than they sound. All that work to set a guy up in the pool, and it just sounded like a drum kit with a bad MidiVerb on it. Concrete, I learned, is not the nicest sound in the world.”
Still, those experiments are rarely regretted. “You never really lose trying these things,” he notes, “because a lot of what you're doing is getting everyone excited. Even if it doesn't work out, 10 minutes later you may get the best take of the record, because everyone is feeling in such good spirits.”
A mansion in the hills, a large budget and plenty of time: For a producer like Sardy, Marilyn Manson's Holy Wood project was a dream — or a nightmare — come true. What was the real deal with those U67s left out in the rain? “They were the mics that were right by the door when it started pouring, so we used them,” he says. “We were already recording [guitarist] John5 playing an acoustic outside so we'd have the traffic in the background. All of a sudden, the sky opened up with a thunderstorm, which is so rare in L.A. We were in a canyon, so it was reverberating all over the place — an amazing moment. You can hear it in the song ‘Valentine's Day.’” (While you're listening, see if you can hear the moment when Sardy and his crew relented and threw plastic bags over the 67s in the hopes of salvaging them.)
Microphones were sacrificed to both fire and rain on “Valentine's Day,” as Manson screamed into a burning microphone at the “Fall of Adam” section. “It sounds like he's singing into a walkie-talkie, but it's actually a tiny old desk microphone,” Sardy notes. “We doused it with lighter fluid, put it in front of him and set it on fire. The last moment of that microphone's life was Marilyn screaming his head off a couple of inches from it.”
“Disposable” microphones are a regular part of Sardy's arsenal. “I'm the guy who at the swap meets sees someone with a pile of old microphones and says, ‘How much for the whole pile?’ A really easy way to vibe things up on a session is to use messed up old microphones in tandem with really good ones. If you put a C12 and a screwed up microphone right next to each other, a singer can hear the difference when he or she moves their head. They can get into playing around with those different sounds themselves, as opposed to you doing it all.
“What it comes down to,” he concludes, “is that you're trying to create an environment where the band feels like they're in their bedroom. At a live show, you have the energy and excitement of the crowd, but the studio is an abstract environment and not always the most conducive to creativity. It can feel like you're performing under a microscope. So what you want to do is make people feel comfortable, get everybody's energy up and have fun.”
Maureen Droney is Mix's L.A. editor.
HOMAGE TO BRIAN ENO (COMPLIMENTS OF KEN KESSIE)
Need more RadRec? Here are four tricks donated by engineer/producer Ken Kessie (En Vogue, Tony! Toni! Tone'!, Until December) that are bound to liven up a boring evening in the studio.
- drone generator: Feed a synthesizer into a digital delay set for a very long delay time (four to eight seconds). Run the output of the delay through a compressor, then back to the input of the delay. (Note: This is a feedback loop. Keep your monitors on low to avoid speaker, ear or equipment damage until the system is stabilized.) Start feeding some sustained sounds into the delay, and slowly raise the level of the feedback loop until the system self-oscillates. Add compression until the system regenerates but doesn't increase in volume. Now the fun begins: Add new patches, octaves, volume fade-ins, until you have a thick soup of new and very regenerated sounds. Record everything on DAT, and you'll be sure to have some gold in there somewhere.
- lead guitar spice: I discovered this trick while working on an industrial rock number that was stuck with a lackluster guitar solo. It saved that song and could save yours, too. I bused the guitar into two SPX-90s panned left and right. Each was set for 1/8th-note delay. I pitch-shifted one side up a semitone, the other side down, with lots of feedback. As one side kept feeding up higher and the other lower, this created a stair-step effect. Used like a reverb wash, it retained the clarity of the original sound but surrounded it in a mysterious spiral.
- light stuff: Place a guitar on its back and get it really loud with a fuzz or distortion pedal (or an amp right near the feedback point). Take a steel blues guitar slide and rub it back and forth on a single string near the bridge using a very light touch. The sounds will amaze you. Be careful! A loud attack on the string might rip your head off.
- “flatline”: I once needed a flatline sound for a song about someone dying. I wanted three elements — a machine tone, high angelic voices and a granular cloud. I took a sustained note, fed it through a Harmonizer pitched up one octave (all effect, no original signal), then fed it into itself so it kept looping higher and higher. I sent this into a long digital reverb with a very diffuse setting. To make the effect wider and increase the weirdness factor, I took one finished side of the stereo patch, pitched it down an octave and then back up the octave again.