How’d They Get That Sound? Part IV: Uncovering Studio Magic on Four Records

If you’ve been following our “How’d They Get That Sound?” series, you probably already know that there are tons of different ways to create interesting, dynamic recordings. Everything from spring reverbs to voltage controlled oscillators to drum samples, depending on processing and usage, will get you a myriad of different results. Creative uses of tape machines, electronic field generators, and a simple outside-of-the-box mic placement might get you something totally unique as well.

In our fourth installment of the "How’d They Get That Sound?" series, we take a deeper look into how producers, engineers, and musicians build the characteristic sounds in some of their most famous songs through varying approaches to recording, mixing, and gear selection.

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

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 U47 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.

The Beatles - "A Day In The Life"

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.

Bon Iver - "Flume"
Vibrating Lead Guitar

"Flume," the first track off Bon Iver’s debut album, is characterized by Justin Vernon’s lonely falsetto crooned into a Shure SM57 mic, the acoustics of a completely untreated room, a sole female vocal, and the thrum of a low frequency drum. Discerning listeners will likely know most of the sounds on this wistful, ghostly track - but then there’s the vibrating guitar string sound that hovers violently atop the track, cutting through the rest of the mix.

Bon Iver - "Flume"

This sound was simply achieved with an EBow, or “energy bow,” on guitar, recorded into an old Mac and Pro Tools LE. For those unfamiliar with the EBow, it’s a tool originally designed to allow players to mimic strings, horns, and woodwinds that the guitarists hold with their strumming hand over the strings. Using a 9v battery, the EBow creates a magnetic field that causes a string to vibrate or sustain indefinitely. However, if you smack the string lightly with the magnet, it can cause the string to sound as if it’s about to break. A diverse range of artists from Jerry Garcia to Nine Inch Nails have used the EBow in their music. Bon Iver uses it to great effect in this track, contrasting the agitated, almost piercing sound of the EBow with the more dulcet arrangement underneath.

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

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 U87’s 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 sixteen-track max, 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 for the former, 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.

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

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 a manually operated voltage controlled oscillator, or VCO. 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 ten 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 U87 open in the room when the band did their initial tracking, provide the distinctive feel of "Bang a Gong (Get It On)."

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 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.

Amy Winehouse - "Rehab"

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.

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