Top 5 Unusual Recording Tips & Techniques You Should Try
Sometimes it takes more than a good mic and traditional recording techniques to get that special, elusive sound your song may need. Modern technology has opened a world of possibilities for any recording artist, but these unusual tips & techniques, used by many recording legends in the past, could also serve as inspiration for you!
1) BINAURAL RECORDING (as used by: Lou Reed in Street Hassle, Take No Prisoners and The Bells)
Binaural recording is a method of recording sound that uses two microphones, arranged with the intent to create a 3-D stereo sound sensation for the listener of actually being in the room with the performers or instruments. The results can surprise you, giving a more naturalistic feel to your sound. Lou Reed used the technique on a trio of albums in the late seventies, including Take No Prisoners, considered by some one of the best-sounding live albums ever, as it really puts you in the middle of the audience.
To achieve a realistic binaural sound is not very straightforward, hence the fact this technique is not too popular. You could try to mimic it with two microphones placed 18 cm (7") apart facing away from each other, but this method will not create a real binaural recording. The distance and placement roughly approximates the position of an average human's ear canals, but that is not all that is needed.
Usually, the best way is to use a Dummy head stereo microphone, such as the Neumann KU100 (pictured above) which replicates as well as possible how the sound travels in the human ear.
A more affordable option is the Roland CS-10EM Binaural Stereo Microphones & Headphones. Binaural works particularly well for live recordings and to create more intimate-sounding acoustic guitar recordings... and is certainly a very interesting technique to try out!
2) SINGING IN THE BATHROOM (as used by: legendary producer Joe Meek, The Black Keys)
Singing in the bathroom is not just for X-Factor daydreaming! The legendary British producer and bona fide eccentric Joe Meek was famed for his sonic experimentalism, and would often record artists in his bathroom, to use the distinctive reverb a small, tiled room can create. Sometimes Meek would place the singer in the bathroom, and sometimes he would simply place a speaker there and mic it. The Black Keys also used the reverb of a tiled bathroom on their hit album El Camino.
In this day and age where you can buy an excellent reverb pedal for not much money, and access tons of great reverbs using plug-in software, it may seem unnecessary to experiment with recording in a bathroom. But reverb is not just an "effect" you add to your music, but something naturally ocurring in any space where sound is reflected by a surface, so the more you understand it, the better! Many professional producers and musicians can instantly recognise whether the reverb in a room will be suitable for their music. When Led Zeppelin chose old Bron Yr Aur cottage in Wales, to record some of their most famous albums, one of the reason was that as soon as they got there, they liked the reverb sound produced those walls.
Recording in a bathroom (preferably using a condenser microphone) could train your ears and help you to develop as a producer, as it's usually the room with the most distinctive reverberation in any normal house. Besides... recording in the bathroom can be FUN! (if it's clean...)
3) DISTORTED VOCALS (as used by: The Black Keys, Jack White, Thee Oh Sees)
Sometimes a crystal clear, perfect-sounding vocal is not what a song needs. If you're into blues, garage rock, psych, you may find having a "dirty" vocal sound will work pretty well, giving it a more vintage, warmer vibe. There are many ways you can chieve this. It's reported that on the first Black Keys album, Dan Auerbach would plug his microphone through a valve guitar amp, to get his distorted vocals. On more recent efforts, such as Brothers, he used a Shure SM58 and a Soundtoys Decapitator plug-in to get his dirty vocals.
A great new option is the TC Helicon Voicelive Play Electric Guitar multi-effects pedal, which features vocal distortion effects.
Jack White and Californian psych-rockers Thee Oh Sees often use a Shure Green Bullet microphone. The Green Bullet is a harmonica mic which can distort your vocals and is perfect for a "lo-fi" vibe:
Any old, vintage harmonica vibe can be suitable, too.
4) MAKE YOUR ACOUSTIC GUITAR SOUND "EVIL" (as used by: The Rolling Stones)
If you want to ROCK, you gotta play an electric guitar, right? Well... not if you're Keith Richards, who, in the late sixties, discovered how to make his acoustic guitar sound "evil": basically, on tracks such as 'Jumpin' Jack flash' and 'Street Fighting Man', the distinctive guitar sound is courtesy of an acoustic, not an electric, guitar.
Keef would record his acoustic on a portable tape recorder, then play it back via extension speakers ("for more breadth and depth" according to Richards) which were miked - basically, recording his first recording. By overloading the mixing desk, this second recording would sound more distorted, creating that rich, fat sound which is not like that of an electric guitar, and certainly not like most acoustic guitars you've heard, either!
This technique is not the same as just plugging an electro-acoustic to an amp. The best way to do something similar today would be to record your acoustic guitar using a portable recorder, then playing it back through a monitor or amp, miking it to your multitrack recorder.
5) IF EVERYTHING FAILS... TRY BRIAN ENO'S OBLIQUE STRATEGIES CARDS (as used by: David Bowie, Talking Heads, Coldplay, Phoenix)
The Oblique Strategies cards were a deck of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt and first published in 1975. Each card offers an aphorism intended to help artists (particularly musicians) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.
Sounds crazy? Well, they have helped many top acts to create successful albums: Davie Bowie used them during the recording sessions of his classic "Berlin" albums (Low, Heroes, Lodger) and Coldplay used them on Viva La Vida. French band Phoenix used the cards during the recording of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.
Oblique Strategies is now available as an iPhone app or online, so pretty much anyone can have a go, now!