In today’s modern age of technology and modern music, it’s easy to take things for granted. The vast supply of millions of unique samples and loops we can pull from to put in our productions gives us endless creative possibilities. Need a crazy pirate bell in your track? Here’s a sample! Want your vocal to sound grittier? Here’s a plugin! We at NRG have lived through these musical production and recording shifts, but we also know all too well how it used to be. If an artist was after a sound that was never done before, then it would be up to you to achieve the impossible, resulting in mass experimentation and standard recording techniques we use to this date. In this article, we’re going to be diving a little bit deeper in how engineers before the time of technology, used bizarre out of the box recording techniques to achieve the sound they were looking for.
“Yellow Submarine” was finished after just five takes on 26 May 1966, in Studio Two at Abbey Road Studios. However, an array of special effects was added to the recording at a later date. Beatles’ Engineer, George Martin brought in various objects, which included chains, a ship’s bell, tap dancing mats, whistles, hooters, waves, a tin bath filled with water, wind, and thunderstorm machines, as well as a cash register, which was later used on Pink Floyd’s song “Money” (1973). Lennon blew through a straw into a pan of water to create a bubbling effect; McCartney and Lennon talked through tin cans to create the sound of the captain’s orders; at 1:38-40 in the song, Starr stepped outside the doors of the recording room and yelled like a sailor, acknowledging “Cut the cable! Drop the cable!”, which was looped into the song afterward; and Abbey Road employees John Skinner and Terry Condon twirled chains in a tin bath to create water sounds.
“Tomorrow Never Knows“ inspired a range of incredible discoveries as Lennon told producer Martin that he wanted to sound like a hundred chanting Tibetan monks, which left Martin the difficult task of trying to find the effect by using the basic equipment they had. The effect was achieved by using a Leslie speaker, in which the sound is emitted by a rotating horn which creates a sound that is constantly changing pitch shifts, which result from the Doppler effect. When the concept was explained to Lennon, he inquired if the same effect could be achieved by hanging him upside down and spinning him around a microphone while he sang into it. The engineer on the session made a connector to break into the electronic circuitry of the cabinet and then re-recorded the vocal as it came out of the revolving speaker.
As Lennon hated doing a second take to double his vocals, Ken Townsend, the studio’s technical manager, developed an alternative form of double-tracking called artificial double tracking (ADT) system, taking the signal from the sync head of one tape machine and delaying it slightly through a second tape machine. The two tape machines used were not driven by mains electricity, but from a separate generator which put out a particular frequency, the same for both, thereby keeping them locked together. By altering the speed and frequencies, he could create various effects, which the Beatles used throughout the recording of Revolver. Lennon’s vocal is double-tracked on the first three verses of the song: the effect of the Leslie cabinet can be heard after the (backwards) guitar solo.
The inclusion of reversed tape sounds on “Rain” (specifically, a portion of Lennon’s vocal part) marked the first pop release to use this technique, although the Beatles had first used it, in some of the tape loops and the overdubbed guitar solo, on “Tomorrow Never Knows”. The backwards (or backmasked) guitar solo on “I’m Only Sleeping” was similarly unprecedented in pop music, in that Harrison deliberately composed and recorded his guitar parts with a view to how the notes would sound when the tape direction was corrected. The band’s interest in the tones that resulted from varying tape speed (or vari-speeding) extended to recording a basic track at a faster tempo than they intended the song to sound on disc.
During the sessions, Emerick recorded McCartney’s bass guitar amplifier via a loudspeaker, which Townsend had reconfigured to serve as a microphone, in order to give the bass more prominence than on previous Beatles releases. Although this particular technique was used only on the two songs selected for the May 1966 single, an enhanced bass sound was a feature of much of the album. Emerick also ensured a greater presence for Starr’s bass drum, by inserting an item of clothing inside the structure, to dampen the sound, and then moving the microphone to just 3 inches from the drumhead and compressing the signal through a Fairchild limiter.
The legendary Michael Jackson was known for his unique spin on music production and live performance. Not only did he ensure that every appearance by him was memorable, but he also applied this same philosophy to his productions. Beginning with one of his classics, “Billie Jean”. The producer Quincy Jones had Jackson singing his vocal overdubs through a six-foot-long cardboard tube. Jackson’s entire lead vocal was performed in one take; he had received vocal training every morning throughout the production of the song.
The song was mixed by Bruce Swedien 91 times, which was unusual for Swedien, who usually mixed a song just once. Jones had told Swedien to create a drum sound that no one had ever heard before. The audio engineer was also told to add a different element: “sonic personality”. “What I ended up doing was building a drum platform and designing some special little things, like a bass drum cover and a flat piece of wood that goes between the snare and the hi-hat” Swedien later wrote. “The bottom line is that there aren’t many pieces of music where you can hear the first three or four notes of the drums, and immediately tell what the piece of music is.” He concluded, “But I think that is the case with ‘Billie Jean’—and that I attribute to sonic personality.”
Swedien and Jones stated that Vincent Price recorded his introduction and voice-over rap for “Thriller” in two takes; Jones, acknowledging that doing a voice-over for a song is “difficult”, praised Price and described his recording takes as being “fabulous”. Swedien said of Jackson recording the song, that, “I tried all sorts of things with Michael – for instance, he would sing the main vocal part and we’d double it one time and then I’d ask him to step away from the mic and do it a third time and that really changed the acoustics in the room so it gave Michael’s vocals a unique character … We recorded some of those background vocals in the shower stall.
Throughout the song, sound effects such as a creaking door, thunder, feet walking on wooden planks, winds and howling dogs can be heard. Bruce Cannon, a sound effects editor for “Thriller”, said that, “Things like the lightning may have come from old Hollywood movies – we’ll never know which movies – but the best sound-effects editors do go out in the desert and find a coyote, so I have a feeling that was a real howl.” It was later confirmed that the initial plan was to record show dogs howling at the moon late at night. Sadly the dogs never released a howl, leaving Swedien to come up with a completely different way. He ended up recording Jackson doing howls himself, which was used in the final mix.
The first versions of the track “Start Me Up” was recorded between the January and March 1978 sessions for the Rolling Stones’ album Some Girls. The song was at first cut as a reggae-rock track named ‘Never Stop’, but after dozens of takes the band stopped recording it and it was shelved. “Start Me Up” failed to make the cut for the album, being shelved into the vault.
In 1981, with the band looking to tour, engineer Chris Kimsey proposed to lead singer Mick Jagger that archived songs could comprise the set. While searching through the vaults, Kimsey found the two takes of the song with a more rock vibe among some fifty reggae versions. Overdubs were completed on the track in early 1981 and Kimsey was able to revamp this 3-year-old vaulted recording into to song that made the cut for their record.
The infectious “thump” to the song was achieved using their mixer Bob Clearmountain’s famed “bathroom reverb“, a process involving the recording of some of the song’s vocal and drum tracks with a miked speaker in the bathroom of the Power Station recording studio in New York City. It was there where final touches were added to the song, including Jagger’s switch of the main lyrics from “start it up” to “start me up.
If any single sound helped usher in the grunge era, it was the drums on this record, produced by Butch Vig and engineered by Andy Wallace. Granted, some of Grohl’s drums were looped. (Listen to the duplicated snare rolls on “Come As You Are.”) But it’s still Big Dave pounding away, using a clever and unique technique that would later be replicated by many engineers.
Vig used what he calls a “drum tunnel.” He extended Grohl’s kick drum (a ’80s Tama Grandstar) with a roughly 6-foot-long tunnel built from old drum shells. The kick was then mixed with an AKG D12 close to the beater, and a Neumann FET 47 at the end of the tunnel. Thanks to the tunnel, the FET 47 was able to create an exaggerated ‘kick out’ mic sound, basically extending the low end without picking up too much room sound or bleed from the cymbals.”
As engineers, we know that the location of your recording plays a huge role in the final result of the sound. Leif Mases, engineer for Led Zeppelin’s record “In Through the Out Door”, knew this all too well. He recorded their entire album inside of Clearwell castle in the woods of Gloucestershire in an effort to isolate themselves and escape civilization. This later became a the Lez Zeppelin’s favorite place to record.
Clearwell Castle wasn’t the only unique location the band decided to record in. Headley Garage was used to record the beginning of their 3rd album “Led Zeppelin III. It was another environment they felt comfortable in as it resulted in complete isolation from the public. The results of their 3rd album had been so successful, that they decided to record “Led Zeppelin IV”, “House of the Holy”, and “Physical Graffiti” in this same garage. The old broken down garage is located in the Hampshire, United Kingdom.
Led Zeppelin’s lead guitarist Jimmy Page has this to say: “Headley Grange was somewhat rundown; the heating didn’t work. But it had one major advantage. Other bands had rehearsed there and hadn’t had any complaints. That’s a major issue because you don’t want to go somewhere and start locking into the work process and then have to pull out. The reason we went there in the first place was to have a live-in situation where you’re writing and really living the music. We’d never really had that experience before as a group, apart from when Robert and I had gone to Bron-Yr-Aur. But that was just me and Robert going down there and hanging out in the bosom of Wales and enjoying it. This was different. It was all of us really concentrating in a concentrated environment and the essence of what happened there manifested itself across three albums”.
It’s daunting to think that most of what we take granted for today used to be done by hand. Many engineers we talked about pioneered the way forward with creative and unique ways to record their artists. The relationship between an engineer, the producer, and the artists is the heart and soul of every record. It was the curiosity, the ingenuity, and the hustle to push boundaries to where they had never before been pushed before. If there’s one thing to take away from this article, it’s that you should never stop experimenting and never stop trying new things.