In other articles I have addressed various techniques to offer the mix engineer a variety of perspectives from which the final mix can be sculpted. I explored close, then distant perspectives, and brought up the concept of what for lack of a better term I called “altered” perspective. What child hasn’t at some time listened to the world through an empty toilet-paper roll held up to his or her ear, and marveled at the way this alters the perception of the audio universe?
When I began recording, the tools I could afford were so marginal that lo-fi recording was the only type of recording I could ever hope to make. (Little did I know that since then lo-fi has gained some measure of respectability, at least in some circles...) All this while I hoped to work in a “real” studio where I could begin to make my recordings sound more like the “hi-fi” albums I grew up listening to.
When I finally began working regularly in well-equipped studios, I never looked back at my lo-fi roots until I had the distinct good fortune to work as a musician on a project engineered by Tchad Blake. Tchad’s discography is long and distinguished. At the time I worked with him, he blew my mind, using a variety of “mechanical filters” and various cheap microphones, stomp boxes and other cheesy tools, some of them commercially available, some made by him in his home workshop. After working with him, I realized that lo-fi sounds are just as valid as any hi-fi tool in the engineer’s toolbox.
The toilet-paper roll is a great example of what I mean by a “mechanical filter”. When sound passes through it, the signal is indelibly altered. Depending on the size, shape and makeup of a mechanical filter, various resonances and phase distortion can radically alter the essential nature of the sound passing through it. For some it’s an acquired taste, to be sure, but if you have an active imagination, this kind of sonic manipulation is literally as near as your recycling bin—you just have to play around with how it can make your recordings more interesting.
Hanging around my studio are all sorts of bits and pieces of pipe, fittings, and doodads made of brass. Ever find yourself with a little time to kill? eBay is a great source of inexpensive random objects! Out of respect to Tchad, I won’t give away any of the filters he used on our project. However, I will give away the secrets to a couple of my most favorite such implements.
I had the great good fortune to be asked to compose and produce the underscore for the Sony Pictures Classics film, Masked & Anonymous, starring Bob Dylan and a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood. In one of my cues, I was looking for a way to make the drum kit more interesting. I wanted it to have a transformative property. So...!
I went to my recycling bin and grabbed a two-liter soda pop bottle. I cut off the bottom. I grabbed one of my Shure SM54s and moving from the bottom of the bottle to the neck, connector end first, stuck its body through the neck, then duct-taped the two together so they would hold their relative positions.
I attached a mic stand adapter to the mic, and focused the bottom of the former pop bottle on an area of the drumkit where kick and snare were roughly of the same loudness, then went to the control room to complete this science project. I plugged the mic into a Tech 21 SansAmp (with all credit to Tchad for this particular step), then passed the signal through a UREI 1176 on the way to Pro Tools. With credit to the performance of drummer John Hanes, the result is a myopic, unusual sound which fit the visuals perfectly to my taste.
I live in an area in which there are many antique shops. In particular, one of these shops is into old audio and film equipment. I found a beautiful old horn from an original Edison Dictaphone at this shop. The complexity of this horn’s shape imparts an indescribably interesting character to the sounds that travel through it. Recently, working with Camper Van Beethoven bassist and solo artist Victor Krummenacher on an upcoming album (as yet not titled), I shaped the entire character of one of the tracks with the sound of the drums through this horn. Once it’s released, if you get a chance, check out a track called “Queen City”. Just a DPA IMK4061 crammed into the narrow end of the horn, focused on the trapset from about ten feet away, and fed into a Universal Audio 6176 with plenty of gain and in the “All-Buttons-In” setting. This one ingredient helped push the production of the entire track in the direction it needed to go.
Let your imagination be your guide!
Bruce Kaphan is a freelance producer/engineer/composer/musician living in the San Francisco Bay Area. His pedal steel playing can be heard on the recordings of Sheryl Crow, R.E.M., Jewel, American Music Club, The Black Crowes, and others. He “adapted the underscore” to Bob Dylan’s Masked & Anonymous and has toured with David Byrne & American Music Club.