How'd They Get That Sound?

The Beatles (1967), David Bowie (1976), Stevie Wonder (1970) Getty Images.

Whether it's cutting up the speaker in a guitar amp, using a cassette recorder to make an acoustic guitar sound electric, or slamming a mixing console almost to the point of explosion, musicians have long used and abused their gear in creative ways in order to find distinctive and unconventional sounds. Even on some of the most famous recordings of all time, there may be a lot more going on than meets the ear.

Here are some examples that may just give you some ideas on what to incorporate into your next project.


The Beatles - "Revolution" (Single)
Guitar and Drum Sound

The Beatles - "Revolution"

A lot of people came back to the record store after they listened to this B-side to the song "Hey Jude." The searing and explosive sound they heard coming out of their speakers made them assume their vinyl was defective, and it wasn't just the sound of the guitars that fooled them. The drums were compressed and put through limiters to make them as claustrophobic as possible. While a normal practice today, especially in the heavy-hitting beats of hip-hop, this was not common at the time.

The guitar sounds were achieved by plugging straight into a recording console. Engineer Geoff Emerick then chained together two of the tube preamps on the EMI REDD desk, overloading the first, and running that signal into the second preamp to distort it even more. Lennon played an Epiphone Casino guitar that was professionally stripped of its paint, potentially like walls of living rooms where the record was played.

What you could try: Chandler Limited REDD.47 Tube Mic Preamp, RS124 Tube Compressor, Epiphone USA Casino.


Rolling Stones - "Street Fighting Man"
Guitar and Drum Sound

Rolling Stones - "Street Fighting Man"

As Keith Richards puts it, "Street Fighting Man" was made with a bunch of toys the band had laying around. Aside from Charlie Watts' recording the drums using a practice kit from the thirties that could fit in a suitcase (the suitcase itself doubling as a kick drum), Richards tracked his guitar by overloading a small Phillips cassette player. More modern cassette players started to come with limiters so that users couldn't overload them when recording. At the time this track was recorded, however, Richards was able to push his machine to overload when tracking an acoustic guitar, so that it sounded electric when played back.

In the studio, he plugged the cassette player into a small extension speaker and recorded the larger extension speaker, so that the sound gained a little breadth and depth. He used the same process for guitar on this track as well as on "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Gimme Shelter," sometimes layering as many as eight tracks of guitar for the final mix. The only electric instrument on the "Street Fighting Man" is the bass.

What you could try: Tascam Porta 02 Ministudio, Orange PPC112 1x12" Cabinet, suitcase kicks.


The Velvet Underground & Nico - Peel Slowly and See
Guitar, Viola, Percussion, and Crashing Sounds

The Velvet Underground & Nico - "Venus In Furs"

The Velvet Underground's first album was recorded at three different studios in New York and Los Angeles. In one of them, the musicians had to literally watch their step, and not just around some femme fatale who might break their heart. There were holes in the floor. This was a fact that certainly made an impression on VU member John Cale. In different interviews, he mentions a torn-up floor in at least two of the three studios where the album was recorded. It was likely only Scepter Studio in New York, however, that had the pleasure of possessing that not-so-elegant form of sound diffusion.

The sound of the album is due in no small part to the fact that it was mostly recorded live, with minimal overdubbing and a healthy dose of microphone bleed. Its unique sound came from a few places, not the least of which was drummer Maureen Tucker's disinclination toward the use of cymbals. John Cale's amplified viola, strung with mandolin and guitar strings, also contributed by giving some 'jet engine' menace to songs like "Venus in Furs" and "Heroin."

Lou Reed's guitar on the album was a detuned Gretsch Country Gentleman. Reed famously tuned all its strings to the same note for the songs "Venus in Furs" and "All Tomorrow's Parties" because of the slight drone that can be utilized in that tuning. The album's last track, "European Son," boasts the cacophony of a chair being dragged over aluminum studio plates. Cale describes it as being like the sound of a "plate glass window being smashed," ending the album quite some distance away from the delicate sound of the celesta featured on Side A, Track One.

What you could try: Gretsch G5120 Electromatic, Pianoteq Celeste Virtual Instruments.


The Kinks - "You Really Got Me"
Guitar Sound

The Kinks - "You Really Got Me"

Dave Davies said the sound of this track came about because he couldn't afford a Watkins Dominator or a bigger amp at the time. He ended up making it with a Harmony Meteor guitar, plugged into a small Elpico amplifier. The output leads of that amp were then plugged into the input of a Vox AC-30 amp.

For distortion, Davies sliced the speaker cone on the Elpico with a razor blade, and punctured it with knitting needles so that the fabric of the speaker rattled, then he kicked it around a little bit. Shel Talmy, the engineer on the recording session for the song, used two microphones on the speaker of the Elpico, so he could bring the sound up on a couple of tracks at once, limit one of them heavily, and mix the limited track just below the non-limited track.

What you could try: Harmony Comet, EHX Ripped Speaker pedal, Vox AC4C1-12.


Led Zeppelin - "When the Levee Breaks"
Drums and Harmonica

Led Zeppelin - "When the Levee Breaks"

When it comes to inventive recording techniques, there's a whole lot happening on the closing track to Led Zeppelin IV. The unmistakable drum part was captured in the historic Headley Grange house into the Rolling Stones' mobile studio truck, with John Bonham laying into his kit at the bottom of a three-story stairwell.

There are some conflicting reports as to the exact placement of the microphones, but they were certainly placed about halfway up the stairway, which accounts for the huge, distant sound on the final track. The harmonica part was recorded with a reverse echo effect, and all the instruments were manually slowed down prior to the recording of Robert Plant's vocals. This created the eerie, warbly space heard on the record.

What you could try: Beyerdynamic M 160 ribbon mics, Echo Fix EF-X2 Tape Echo with Reverb, Ludwig Vistalite Reissue Zep Set.


The Strokes - "Is This It"
Vocal and Drum Sound

The Strokes - "Is This It"

Julian Casablancas was looking for a vocal tone that "had its tie loosened" on The Strokes' hit 2001 album, Is This It. A mix of four ice cubes, two fingers of Jack Daniel's whiskey, and a splash of water might also have been an appropriate metaphor. He and engineer Gordon Raphael found what he was looking for in two different ways.

The first was to run an Audio-Technica 4033a, a microphone known for a silky, detailed, and warm sound, through an Avalon 737 preamp, twisting knobs for a long time before finding something suitable. The other way they did it was to run the Audio-Technica into a Peavey practice amp that was about eight inches tall, and place a Neumann TLM103 microphone in front of it in order to pick up some exact detail from its small speaker.

For those wondering how the band got that gated snare drum sound on some of the songs on this record: Fabrizio Moretti adjusted his playing so that he could put the hi-hat on the opposite side of his kit, minimizing its bleed into the snare microphone during recording.

What you could try: Audio-Technica 4033a, Focusrite ISA One preamp, Blackstar HT-1R MKII.


Amy Winehouse - "Rehab"
Drums

Amy Winehouse - "Rehab"

If you're familiar with the Brooklyn-based band Dap Kings, you'll know that they were the musicians sought specifically by producer Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse herself to arrange her hit song for the album Back to Black. The Dap Kings brought much of the '60s, Wall-of-Sound feel to "Rehab," with both their playing style and recording methods. The drums, piano, guitar, and bass were all performed together and recorded to tape in one room at the Dap Kings' studio in Brooklyn. When listening to "Rehab," it's almost impossible to believe that the drums were recorded with only one microphone to only one track.

The contemporary feel of the album's drum sound was produced via mixer Tom Elmhirst's collaboration. He added bass and snare drum samples using Sound Replacer, a sampling program that triggers samples from the sound of whatever signal is fed into it, in Pro Tools. Elmhurst brightened the original drum track with EQ to get as much of the original snare sound onto the track as possible, and used a snare sample as well as a combination of two bass drum samples to round out the rest of the drum sound.

The live drums, snare sample, and one of the bass drum samples were processed through a Neve 33609 compressor, hit hard with a quick release, and then fed through a Prism EQ. A bass drum sample Elmhurst had put together himself was untouched and balanced back into the mix after the rest of the drums were processed. An Empirical Labs Distressor on British Mode added a bit of bite, and a touch of spring reverb (some of which was added before mixing by the Dap Kings) contributed to the retro vibe of "Rehab," with the samples adding a dose of hip-hop to the final mix.

What you could try: Mojave MA-200 tube condenser, Empirical Labs EL8, Slingerland drums.


Portishead - Third
Percussion, Synth, Acoustic Guitar, and Vocal Sound

Portishead - "The Rip"

To paraphrase member Geoff Barrow, Portishead didn't like the idea that their music had become so tightly embraced by an "aren't we clever," background-at-a-dinner-party crowd. From the abrupt stop of "Silence" to the brutal percussive phrase of "Machine Gun," which was made by sampling the drum machine on an Orla Tiffany 4 tweaked with a flanger at the end of each phrase, Third doesn't sound much like dinner party music.

For vocals, in place of the AKG C414 the band had used on their earlier records, singer Beth Gibbons opted for a Rode NTK valve microphone with a Great British Spring Reverb from the '70s to create ambience and echo.

The arrangements on the album include an EMS VCS3 synth, a Korg MS20 synth, a hurdy-gurdy, a baritone sax, an organ, and a ukulele among other instruments. The acoustic guitar part on "The Rip" was played on a cheap beginner's instrument. Guitarist Adrian Utley liked the fact that it produced a sound that took up a narrower frequency range than a nicer guitar generally would, allowing it to interfere less with other instruments in the overall mix. It's worth noting that some fretwork was done on the guitar to make it easier to execute a more sophisticated part than a beginner would generally attempt. One of the more unique sounds on "Third" can be heard on the track "Plastic," where an ARP 2600 synth was used to create a swirling, helicopter type of sound.

What you could try: Korg MS-20 FS, Rode NTK, Gamechanger Audio Light Pedal Optical Spring Reverb.


The White Stripes - "Seven Nation Army"
Guitar/Bass Sound

The White Stripes - "Seven Nation Army"

As payment for helping somebody move back in his days in Detroit, Jack White became the surprised and proud owner of a 1950s Kay hollow body guitar. Originally finished in a tobacco sunburst, the guitar had been covered in kraft paper, but White loved it. It was equipped with a single DeArmond pickup, an on/off switch, a spruce top, maple sides and back, and a floating rosewood bridge.

Though the White Stripes weren't as allergic to the bass guitar as is sometimes reported, the opening riff to "Seven Nation Army" was actually played on this guitar. White ran the guitar through a DigiTech Whammy pedal. Usually using this pedal to achieve searing, octave-up leads, he set it to a lower octave to service a riff that would be howled at sporting events for years to come.

What you could try: Kay K100 Vanguard, DigiTech Whammy 5.


Radiohead - Kid A
Guitar and Synth Sounds

Radiohead - "Kid A"

An album that was supposedly named as a dedication to the first human clone, "Kid A" was done by manipulating and creating sounds in Pro Tools and Cubase in order to make an album that sounded like nothing the band had done before. Though you'll hear string arrangements, performed in a 12th Century abbey by Oxford's Orchestra of St. John, some Charles Mingus-influenced, freestyle jazz horn arrangements, and some other acoustic instrumentation, every track on Kid A is largely about synthesis and digital manipulation.

Many of the unorthodox and synthetic sounds on the album were done with a Moog Rogue, but not exclusively. The album's opening track, originally recorded with a Fender Rhodes Mark 1, was performed on a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 that was further manipulated in Pro Tools in order to give the part a futuristic sounding timbre.

Given the band's intent to venture into unfamiliar territory, another synth featured heavily on the album was, appropriately enough, an Ondes Martenot. The Martenot is a cousin to the Theremin, and a precursor to the modern synthesizer. Invented in the 1920s, it was famously used for a futuristic sound in the opening theme music of the original Star Trek series. It found use on "Kid A" for the vocoding on the title track, the lofty synth sound heard throughout "How to Disappear Completely," and for the sound hovering over the distorted bass line (distorted with a Lovetone Big Cheese pedal) on "The National Anthem."

The swelling synthesizer melody of "Idioteque" is actually a sample from Paul Lansky's "Mild Und Leise." Composed in 1973, it was created with an IBM 360/91 that had a whopping 1MB of memory, and used punch cards to communicate with Music 360 computer language. After the sound was generated, it was output to digital tape. It's worth noting that Yamaha's DX7 series of synthesizers use a similar FM synthesis to what was used in the creation of "Mild Und Leise."

What you could try: Moog Rogue, Yamaha's DX7, Sequential Pro 3, Prophet-5 Rev 4 Reissue Desktop.


The Cars - The Cars
Background Vocal Sound

The Cars - "Just What I Needed"

British producer Roy Thomas Baker, working with the Boston band on its first album, employed a vocal trick he used with Queen. A rare Stephens 40-track tape machine with Dolby SR served as his secret weapon to produce an explosive backing vocal mix. Cars leader Ric Ocasek said to achieve this sound:

A) Put three singers around a mic, and have them sing the same vocal part for eight takes. B) Repeat this process for the second vocal part. C) Repeat for the third vocal part. This will give you 72 vocalists singing a three-part harmony, and 24 more if you add a fourth part. As Ocasek himself might say, let the good times roll.

What you could try: Antares Harmony Engine, Boss VE-20 Vocal Performer, Roland VT-4 Voice Transformer.


David Bowie - "Heroes"
Lead Vocals

David Bowie - "Heroes"

One could rightly argue that Bowie's vocal here is one of the most dynamic examples of "from a whisper to a scream." But how was it done? Again, you could try this at home—or preferably a large hall like the one at Hansa Studios in Berlin. Bowie's longtime studio partner is producer Tony Visconti, who cut the multi-dimensional vocal with just one open track on the 24-track machine.

He set up three mics, one in front of Bowie, one 15 feet away, and another way down the hall at a much longer distance. Here's what he told Red Bull Academy: "I put a gate on microphone two and another gate on microphone three, so when he sang like this [deep voice] those microphones wouldn't open up; you wouldn't hear the ambience in the room. When he sang like this [loud voice], the middle microphone would open up and when he went [screams]—that's called Bowie histrionics—all three microphones would open up and the reverb you hear on that recording is only that room."

What you could try: BeesNeez Microphones Arabella, Peluso Microphones P-87s, Eventide TVerb.


The Byrds - "Mr. Tambourine Man"
12-string guitar sound

The Byrds - "Mr. Tambourine Man"

Roger McGuinn has given conflicting reports as to how this revolutionary jingle-jangle was achieved. For years, he stated that he simply plugged his guitar straight into a mixboard and compressed it heavily. (The Roger McGuinn Limited-Edition Rickenbacker has a built-in compressor that emulates this effect.) But a now-defunct blog called Get That Sound supposedly cracked the code following a brief interview with McGuinn.

The first part of the signal chain consisted of a Rickenbacker 360/12 guitar and an Epiphone Ensign amplifier. If you can't find one, most midline '60s tube amps with two 10-inch speakers should do the trick. The amp was mic'd with a Telefunken U 47, the signal fed into the Columbia Studios console, then pumped through two Teletronix LA-2A compressors in series.

What you could try: Gretsch G5422G-12, Warm Audio WA-47, WA-2A Tube Optical Compressor / Limiter.


The Power Station - "Some Like It Hot"
Drums

The Power Station - "Some Like It Hot"

The '80s brought us way too many records with hyped drum sounds. But the drums on the Power Station's debut are so big, they rival just about anything recorded in that decade—or any decade, for that matter. Theories abound as to how this was done, some citing half-speed taping and the like. But the best authority is the drummer himself, Tony Thompson.

Here's what he told Modern Drummer: "All it basically was, was a brand-new Yamaha kit, which I still play, in a very live, brick, recording studio in London called Mason Rouge. I hit the drums very hard. That's it! [Laughs.] … So, bottom line, the sound came from a good kit, hit hard, in a nice live room." Gated room mics also helped enhance the sound. So if you have access to the brick room, a great studio kit —and of course, a monster drummer—then why not go for it?

What you could try: Yamaha Maple Custom Drum Set, Alesis 3630 Dual-Channel Compressor / Limiter with Gate.


Nirvana - Nevermind
Kick Drum Sound

Nirvana - "Come As You Are"

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 wrinkle that you can try to duplicate at your studio—if you have lots of spare drum parts to work with.

Vig used what he calls a "drum tunnel." He extended Grohl's kick drum (an '80s Tama Granstar) with a roughly 6-foot-long tunnel built from old drum shells. Explora writer Jaime Traba takes it from there: "The kick was then miked 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."

What you could try: Audix D6 Dynamic Kick Drum Microphone, Warm Audio WA-47jr.


Stevie Wonder - "Superstition"
Clavinet

Stevie Wonder - "Superstition"

This song made the Hohner Clavinet famous, and it's possible you have a similar sound on your own synth or computer. What you don't have, though, are the chops to play Stevie's part. Nobody does. In fact, you'd have to find a musically gifted octopus to pull off this funkiest of funk grooves. But once you know the secret, you can leave the octopus for calamari and start having some multi-dexterous fun of your own.

Check out this YouTube video by a bearded dude known as "Funkscribe." Mr. Scribe obtained the "Superstition" master tapes and pulls apart the clavinet monster track by track. As he reveals, the final is composed of eight different parts—though even the root part on its own sounds funkybutt as all get out. The last two parts have tape echo on them, and a ninth track of Moog bass blends seamlessly into the clavinet riffing.

What you could try: Arturia Clavinet V, Yamaha Motif.


T. Rex - "Bang a Gong (Get It On)"
Drums & Ambience

T. Rex - "Bang a Gong (Get It On)"

Ironically enough, there are no gongs in "Bang a Gong (Get It On)." But there are congas recorded with two microphones and bounced to a singular track at work in the sordid, syncopated rhythms that make this track really groove. Dynamic mics were used almost exclusively on the drum kit, except for the two Neumann U 87s on toms that producer Tony Visconti was known to insist on.

With all the instruments that were planned for the track's dense arrangement and a limiting 16-track maximum, the band and producer had a decision to make regarding the drum kit. They needed to choose one of two options: either mic the kick and pick up the snare with the stereo field mics, or do the opposite and mic the snares while picking up the kick with the field mics. They opted to mic the kick, and then recorded into a custom console at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco. The track was then overdubbed and mixed in England, where a grand piano, alto and baritone saxophones, and a simple but effective string part were added.

Some effects were applied in the mixing stage, such as a little slapback tape delay throughout. Many of the instruments were also treated with some phasing and flanging via a manually operated voltage controlled oscillator. Though Trident Studios in England had outboard compressors and two EMT plate reverbs, Visconti cleverly provided most of the ambience on the track with natural room reverb. For instance, he would often record hand claps and guitars with microphones placed 10 feet away from the source and pointed toward the studio window in cardioid mode, picking up only the sound reflections coming off the glass. Techniques such as this, as well as the Neumann U 87 open in the room when the band did their initial tracking, provide the distinctive feel of "Bang a Gong (Get It On)."

What you could try: Warm Audio WA-87, Walrus Audio Fathom.


The Beatles - "A Day in the Life"
Vocals & Final Piano Chord

The Beatles - "A Day In The Life"

When John Lennon first brought "A Day in the Life" into the studio for early rehearsals, he substituted a mumbled repetition of the words "sugar plum fairy" for a more conventional lead off. It was probably this natural wit and sly humor that enlivened the melancholy of his vocal delivery on the final track, while the delay effect in his headphones informed his phrasing. Both components, coming directly from the vocalist himself, endowed the track with a unique quality only enhanced by postliminary production.

According to engineer Geoff Emerick, as quoted in William J. Dowlding's Beatlesongs, they achieved the tape delay effect by using a mono tape machine with separate record and replay heads. The signal from John, likely singing into a Neumann U 47 tube condenser mic, was recorded to tape and the replay was then fed back through the machine. Emerick would subsequently turn up the record level until it began to feed back on itself. This method differed from the slapback tape delay achieved on Elvis Presley's vocals in "Heartbreak Hotel," the song Lennon referenced when describing the vocal sound he wanted for the track.

Another distinctive sound on "A Day in the Life" that found its way onto Abbey Road's Studer J37 four-track tape machine was the striking final, sustained piano chord. Originally, it was tried as a vocal "a-ohm," which all involved thought was a weak finish to the high-energy, unbalanced orchestral glissando that preceded it. The ethereal piano sound was obtained by banging out an E major chord on several pianos, three people to a piano, recorded one after the other. For additional tone, an organ was also added on the third of four tracks. Though the sustain pedal was held down on all pianos, Emerick wanted to increase the sustain of the final chord; he did so by gradually pushing up the faders on his EMI Redd 51 recording desk so that the quietest parts of the sustained chords could be heard. If you listen closely, you can even hear the floor squeak.


Lou Carlozo contributed to this article.

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