By Maureen Droney
Feb 1, 2005
AN UNUSUAL SEARCH FOR SOUNDS
It's a fact, right? Creative recording is a dying art. With the bulk of the music business still dominated by quarterly statements, cookie cutter soundalikes, desperate litigation and low-talent video star singers, there's a lot of paint-by-number recording going on. Hey, it's the music business there's no time for experimenting! But don't despair there are a few Don Quixotes out there recording for the love of it. This year's Radical Recording panelists are proof that there are still brave souls in the trenches, pushing the creative envelope and searching for sonic nirvana. Here's to an infusion of inspiration for us all.
HI-FI MEETS LO-FI
Artist/producer/engineer John Vanderslice gained fame as an indie pop/rock innovator with his band MK Ultra and critical acclaim with his three solo releases, including Cellar Door in 2004 and the notorious single Bill Gates Must Die from the 2000 Mass Suicide Occult Figurines. The San Francisco-based Vanderslice remains addicted to analog: A 24-track Studer 827 holds place of honor at Tiny Telephone, his 1,700-square-foot studio that's been dubbed, by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Best Studio to Record Your Indie Masterpiece. TT hosts an eclectic roster of in-house producers and engineers, including Justin Phelps, Bob Weston, Chris Walla and Vanderslice's partner-in-crime, Scott Solter, ensuring constant traffic from some of the hippest bands around. Vanderslice himself just naturally thinks outside the box: A goldmine of tips and tricks, he dug into his bag to share a few.
One frequent Vanderslice/Solter recording strategy involves what they call the wild card track. Say you're recording drums, Vanderslice explains. We usually try to limit ourselves to four or five mics on a drum kit, but we also use an aux send to bus the drums to a Spectrasonics 610 compressor or an Ampex MX10 mixer that we'll hit really hard. That gives us an explosive sound that we can blend in under the normal hi-fi drums. A UREI 1176 will work for this, too, but the 610, especially when the red lights are going off and the meter is buried, is the best. Blending in this wild track provides a lot of sonic tension or dissonance. It's great for texture. A little goes a long way.
A variation on the theme works for horns. For a small horn section or solo trumpet, a track distorted through an Ampex 351 mic preamp gets comped with the clean tracks. We mix it so you don't hear distortion, Vanderslice relates. What you get is a thickness, like the gutsy sound of a late-'50s recording.
For strings, Vanderslice suggests doing two passes, using small-diaphragm condenser mics Schoeps 221s or CMC65s for the first pass and ribbon mics like Beyer 160s on the second. When they're combined, he says, the ribbon mics fill out the midrange nicely. They're softer and they carry the low mids differently than the condensers, making for a much richer sound than you'd get with just condensers.
A Neumann SM69 stereo mic with rotating capsules lends itself to some cool variations. Vanderslice aims both capsules at the same sound source, then records one clean and one processed. This can be very effective on vocals, he notes. One capsule can be compressed and the other left flat. When you blend them, you retain all the transients of the uncompressed track.
Passive filters are a favorite Tiny Telephone tool; Solter has a collection of antique ADC and Cinema Engineering theatrical filters that are, Vanderslice notes, basically just shelving EQs. We'll take one or two of the drum kit mics, put them into the filters and take off a lot of the top end. That gives a murky, submerged sound to the drums, something that's neither modern nor old-timey-sounding. It's just unplaceable, very useful when you want some atmosphere.
TT boasts an EMT 140 plate reverb, which, because it's housed in the live room, gets some non-traditional use. If something loud is playing, like drums, electric guitar or timpani, Vanderslice notes, it will bleed into the plate. When you check it out in the control room, it can sound very beautiful.
Going analog means access to varispeed on the tape recorder, another TT signature tool. We do off-speed recording on instruments all the time, he says, sometimes by only five to 10 percent. When you bring those varispeeded instruments back to normal pitch, they sound a little bit skewed. An acoustic guitar recorded up 15 to 20 percent will sound very rubbery when you bring it down to normal speed, almost like a baritone guitar.
How to keep those off-speed instruments in tune? Don't be shocked We tune by ear, Vanderslice confesses. Sometimes it will be off a bit, which gives a chorus-y, bizarre kind of pitch that you won't get tuning normally to A440.
Other analog tricks involve TT's 1940s Masco P.A. head, Solter's TEAC tape decks and overloaded circuitry. They're capable of very nice distortion, Vanderslice notes, probably because they're completely overwhelmed by the input level. The holy grail for us is high-quality distortion. It sounds funny, but that's actually difficult to get.
Acoustic guitar often gets the benefit of some high or low! quality distortion using a Schoeps 221 mic in omni mode. You can put it in front of any acoustic guitar, Vanderslice offers. The quality of the instrument hardly matters because you're going to destroy it. We'll put it though a Neve 1073 at a very low gain stage, maybe -30 dB, then send it into an Ampex MX10 or an Ampex 351 tube mic pre. We'll tweak the input of the Ampex against that of the Neve until we get the right gain matchup those tubes want to see some heat! Then you back down the output of the Ampex or maybe send it into an 1176 so you have some control. Or you can scale down the input on the MX10 and get a really thick, syrupy hi-fi guitar tone. There's a lot to play with, between slightly overdriven distortion and 100-percent saturated.
There's a tremendous amount of noise from hitting the tubes so hard, so you do have to gate it. The beauty of this technique is that you can work the input and output of both mic pre's until you find exactly the right amount of distortion for your application. It's a very flexible way of using both a solid-state and a tube mic pre together to find that sweet spot.