Recording Wild

Feb 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Sarah Jones


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Guitars on ice: The Antarctic team jams atop their research tent.

Last year was my fourth year working as a research SCUBA diver in the U.S. Antarctic Program. I was also moonlighting as producer, soundtrack composer and underwater cameraman for a new Werner Herzog feature for Discovery Channel International that was filming at the same time down there on the ice. After my science boss, Sam Bowser, made a new scientific discovery about single-celled foraminifera eating larger multi-cellular creatures, what else was there to do but go up on the roof of our field camp's tent, next to the frozen Ross Sea where our diving takes place, and play loud electric guitars? Werner and his cameraman Peter Zeitlinger naturally had to film this peculiar activity in the clear and frigid Antarctic air. Werner had been using a fancy Cantar recorder to record the sound, but its user interface seemed to be only comprehensible to those whose native language was French, so at this point in the filming, he discarded it and recorded directly to the Blu-ray disk in the fancy new Sony HDV cameras that we were using. The real trick down there, both for recording and for playing, is not to freeze your fingers.
Henry Kaiser

Click here for extra pix from Fiddlers on the Roof.


EM Tips on Radical Recording

In the pursuit of a gong/cymbal replacement, I turned to my metal patio furniture. The round, roughly 6-foot tabletop is fortunately not connected to the legs. It has rounded edges and a hole in the middle for an umbrella. The first challenge was figuring out how to mount it. Lifting it up and shaking it produced a wonderful thunder-sheet effect, but I also wanted to take mallets to it. I found that the large drum tube hardware normally used for tom-toms worked nicely. My crescendo roll produced a deliciously unique “trash gong cymbal” sound with a quick decay. When my young son came in to play, he, of course, opened up my percussion toy box and we discovered that the Japanese bowl resting on top of the café table made a wonderful racket. I just made sure my two small-diaphragm condensers captured every nuance in stereo.
Tom Zehnder

Team Fat was booked to play in the guise of a surf band for the Classic Games Convention. It doesn't really matter that in the Classic Gaming era we dominated the American PC game audio business for, like, five years. Team Fat playing as a surf band is kind of like Buckaroo Banzai's Hong Kong Cavaliers band playing a gig: Nobody knows who the heck we are, nor do they care. “I don't care if you drove through solid rock this morning; in my joint, there'll be no trouble.” This is fine with us; we're just goofin' anyway.

But the band that promised us that we could use their equipment spaced and left early with pretty much all of the gear. We talked them into leaving some drum set parts that they kindly trusted us to ship when we were done with 'em. Seth Sternberger (8-Bit Weapon) and I had just met — we ran around the conference looking for things to use as a bass drum. We ended up using his keyboard case. No bass drum means no mount for the toms, so the chairs were used as stands. Also, the keyboard case had to be roped to the chair to keep it from slipping.

Team Fat’s surf band at the Classic Games Convention

The guitars were then plugged into Seth's P.A. I had a POD, which is cool, but Joe had no effects. And as Mix readers know, there's nothing less surf-like than a guitar gone straight into the P.A., but there was pretty much nothing we could do about it.

Then Kevin and Dave realized that they had “free weekend minutes,” whatever that meant, on their fancy new cell phones. So for a couple of tunes, we had Dave call Kevin, and one assistant held one phone to the P.A. speaker and one held one to the announcements mic. The sound came out the speaker, into one phone, beamed to outer space, bounced off a satellite, came out the other phone, into the mic, fed back into the P.A. and — presto! — space-age echo. It sounded awesome.
George Sanger (aka The Fat Man)

First, I duct-taped a cheap guitar to a long cable…then I recorded it through a Marshall stack as it bounced down three flights of stairs. Then after it landed, I tightened the strings until they snapped while the thing fed back like crazy.

Now that's a crash-and-burn ending!
Anthony Resta

While producing in Australia, we were doing a song about driving your car into the ocean. It needed a big finish: We sunk a shotgun mic (covered in plastic, of course) into the studio swimming pool and loaded a Marshall combo (thankfully not vintage) on to the diving board. As the guitar player hit the last chord, we bounced the amp into the pool, recording the aquatic barrage and ensuing explosion! I don't think you could do that in the States.
Jordan Tishler

One of my main clients is the model train company Lionel Trains. We develop unique sound effect systems for Lionel's products. The systems are not simple playback loops, but rather complex simulations of a variety of sound sources (engine sounds, compressors, brakes, whistles, etc.) that can be triggered in various ways in response to the operator's commands. Lionel ships a unique set of sounds with each model, and we always strive to use authentic sound sources for these products.

So it was, when Lionel recently inked a deal with the New York City Transit Authority to produce a model of one of their classic New York City subway trains that I was dispatched to the city to record sounds from a set of vintage subway cars. I grew up in the city, riding the subway to and from school every day, so it was a real treat to be given my own set of Red Birds (which is what this particular type of car was called), along with a conductor and motorman to take out on the BMT West End line in Brooklyn.

We had the center express track on the elevated line all to ourselves, though the D and M trains were still running on the outside local tracks. I ran the train through its paces as I hung out the door on the front with my boom in hand, recording the cacophony of motor sounds, track clatter, brake screeches and other marvelous noises. I even had them drop me off at an express stop station to do some run-bys and station stops. We had some puzzled subway riders wondering who the heck this guy was that seemed to have his own subway train to play with. I had much fun, got some great sounds in the can and my exploits even landed me on the front page of The New York Times.
Bruce Koball

When George W. Bush came for dinner with Tony Blair to celebrate the first nine months (to the day) of their Iraq war, Nigella Lawson, a UK celebrity chef (and daughter of Margaret Thatcher's economic advisor, Nigel Lawson), cooked a meal for the two leaders and their wives. (The women ate separately.) Food is about life, nurture, health, family, celebration, nourishment. I wanted to remind them and us, however, of the death, destruction and violence of their phony, duplicitous and despicable war. So I bought the best ingredients possible and a bottle of wine (French, of course, like theirs, although with just one glass as George doesn't drink). I then re-created their poisonous meal as a picnic and drove over it in a 1969 Sherman tank. I then had an advisor to the UK foreign office bake an apple pie (their chosen dessert) and flew it to America. There, an ex-military intelligence officer who served in Vietnam under Nixon took the pie to Manassas, the site of one of the opening battles in the American Civil War, and with a 1939 Nazi Luger, shot the pie. The results can be heard on “George, Tony, Nigella and Me,” the last track on my album Plat du Jour. (The CD's artwork is the remains of the pie tin.)
Matthew Herbert,

I once recorded an electric guitar part by locating the player's combo amp in the lounge and placing a mic face down in a dry, empty coffee pot. We were looking for an unusual sound, and we succeeded.

On another day of the same project, I located the guitar player in the studio office with his amp and wearing headphones to hear the cue mix. We called phone line 2 from phone line 1, and using the speakerphone function on the office phone, as well as a phone at reception, we recorded what the office telephone mic picked up by miking the speaker on the reception phone. Of course, there were some sync issues that were “fixed in the mix.”
Kent Holmes

Dielectric drone all-stars session: Five musicians are all individually invited into the studio to record an improv session. They don't know who is coming or what the purpose is. They begin arriving at the studio (a state-of-the-art digital room with a Studer D950 desk and a John Storyk-designed live room) and find a lovely, mood-lit setting featuring an array of microphones and — a toy train layout. The session comprises the musicians performing improvisational drones with the train as one instrument.

Dielectric minimalist all-stars session: Two musicians are contacted and told that they are wanted to come into the studio and record some material that will be used on a minimalist record. They arrive in the studio and set up drums, percussion, piano, stringed instruments, tree branches, stones, sand and leaves. They are told that another musician is in one of the blacked-out iso booths. They begin playing and the star mystery guest begins playing. The star guest? An old, thrift sale-purchased alarm clock miked with a Neumann M149.
Die Elektrischen

Back in the summer of ‘05, I was working on a King's X recording at Wireworld in Nashville with Michael Wagener. For some reason, we thought it might be interesting to try recording some drums outside in the parking lot, as there was a really cool echo between the studio building and another building on the other side of the parking lot.

I listened to the song, got the feel…took a snare drum and started walking around the parking lot, looking for where the echo would come back to the snare position at about an eighth note. I found the spot, we built the kit…miked the kit, set up a pair of ambience mics at about a 16th note but aimed them back at the kit so the echo off the far building would be in time with the echo that would end up in the overhead mics.

It was a beautiful summer day in July: The sun was shining, the birds and planes were flying overhead on a regular basis, the dogs were barking, the sheep bleating, it was about 9,000 degrees F with a drummer who probably hadn't seen the sun shine when he was playing in years, if ever. After soaking him down with like 90 gallons of water (internally and, if I remember correctly, externally) we got a performance from him.

I don't think any of us will ever try such silliness again, but it was a pretty damn cool sound…especially for such a hot day. (Note to self: Drummers should be kept at about 68 to 72 degrees F when recording.)

Timeliness is often so much better than fidelity, which is why I always carry a stereo digital voice recorder with me. It really paid off last summer, when the director of an upcoming movie called American Zombie asked me to contribute some music. I told my 4-year-old son about the assignment over dinner that night, explaining that the music needed to be scary yet touching, and he started improvising a tender song about zombies on the spot. Grabbing the voice recorder from my pocket, I captured the moment and then e-mailed the audio file to the filmmakers as a joke. They loved it so much they plan to run it over the end credits.
David Battino,

I was recording a hard rock band, and one of the tracks was an instrumental piece driven by some really nice, warm, overdriven guitar. The bridge of the piece settled into the lead guitar and a light pad underneath it. It was meant to soften the piece until it exploded back into the main theme. On our first listening, we all agreed that something was missing. Nobody could put his or her finger on exactly what it was, but I decided to give something a shot. I got my hands on every acoustic guitar that was available to me (13 in all, including a Martin Backpacker) and set them up on guitar stands about 10 feet from the overdriven guitar amp, all with their soundholes pointing toward the cone of the amp (forming a semi-circle with a radius of 10 feet). I then placed a lavalier mic inside the soundhole and within the resonating body of each guitar.

I asked the guitarist to play the same bridge part again (it was very melodic and simple, so it wouldn't be hard to match the previous take we used), but this time with the amp jacked up to 11. While tracking, it wasn't exactly clear what was going on, but after he played it, I asked the bandmembers to give me 10 minutes. I called them back in and played the part for them and they loved it. The acoustic guitars had acted as drones, and all of their strings had been vibrating sympathetically along with the notes being played by the guitarist through his amp. I took each of those drones and set the automation to have them moving around within the stereo field so as to give it a sweeping kind of effect. I also used a lowpass filter on each one to cut out the high frequencies and give them a more even sound altogether. The levels weren't too loud and so they just sat between the pad and the guitar. This sweeping, droning effect provided exactly what was needed to fill in what was missing! After that, the guitarist went on to claim to people that he had played 14 guitars at one time, although he could never tell anyone how he did it or else he'd have to kill them.
Daniel Shatzkes

On a lark, I once recorded a drum kit through a piece of PVC pipe I had laying around the studio. I miked up the kit in the traditional sense, but took an Earthworks TC40K (any skinny mic will work) and duct-taped it to one end of the pipe, the other end pointing directly at the front of the kit from about five feet back. This produced a plastic-y/metallic, swirling pitched effect that was very interesting and just so happened to work with the track. It was, however, just a bit under pitch, so I shortened the tube with a saw and then re-recorded until I got something I could loop and was pitched perfectly with the key of the song. I took it into Pro Tools and cut a four-bar section with good tempo and made it the bed track for the song that recurred at various points, especially at the intro and outro.
Kevin Becka

Q: What do you do when an amp is vibrating on the low notes?

A: That's what drummers are for.
Mauricio Domene

I had been working on an album destined for a vinyl-only release. The music was taken from two 40-minute-plus improvised jams that were recorded with a single stereo mic setup placed within the large room so as to obtain a natural balance between the instruments. We needed a way to cut the best bits into usable chunks for old-school 22-minute album sides. Of course, the issue then is how can one make interesting intros and outros (something more engaging than simply fading the tracks in and out)?

Because the original recordings had a nice, cohesive, almost “big-band” quality to them, the idea of putting obvious overdubs seemed crass. The music itself, however, was relatively surreal and avant-garde, so it begged for something weirder. I decided to get my intros and outros by copying bits of audio from the beginning and ending of each jam, tweaking it heavily and crossfading the copies with the original tracks. One example was making the end of a track die out by re-recording the ending of a track onto a portable cassette player, then running the tape back using a DC-variable transformer to power the cassette deck. The deck, which has a 6VDC power input, could then be underpowered very precisely, which slowed the tape speed and degraded the response. At about 3 VDC, the deck would conk out. I simply mixed that back with the original signal. Another variation on this theme was blasting the tracks at too high a level through an old boom box to obtain heavy distortion and re-recording by carrying a stereo mic and walking around the front and back of the boom box.
Rich Wells,

I had built a studio called Mediasound, and we had Mel Brooks come in. This was 1970, and he was very up then for the Thousand Year Old Man. It was before The Producers or the new things that he's done. So the advertising agency brought him into the studio to do a commercial and I was the engineer. Mel is a very, very unusual person; he's a funny guy. So he came into the control room, the advertising people introduced us and we talked. The microphone was open in the studio and I could hear them because I was going to record them. And then he says, “I don't know…” “What do you mean, Mel?” “I don't know about the engineer.” And the ad guy says, “What do you mean, you don't know about the engineer, Mel?” “I don't get good vibes on the engineer.” The people asked him, “The engineer owns the place, Mel. He's here to record you. You just met him and you say you don't get a good feeling about him?” “I think he's on the take.” “What do you mean by that?” And then I go down my chart, and I'm ready to go, and I say, “Take one.” And he says, “I told you…”
Harry Hirsch

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