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Archive for the ‘How Do I Sound Like…’ Category

How Do I Sound Like The Knife?

Posted by Fix Your Mix On March - 26 - 20095 COMMENTS

theknife_promoIn 2006, The Knife’s Silent Shout was received with near universal acclaim. Pitchfork, who honored the Swedish duo with the title Album of the Year, recently hyperbolized that the siblings had created a masterwork that “arguably sounded like nothing before it.”  Indie rock critics’ penchant for overstatement aside, the group does have a distinct sound—one that peculiarly hasn’t been co-opted by imitators at large. 


Perhaps it speaks to the reverence hipsters have for their perceived groundbreakers, or maybe it just means that the gear they use is too obscure to reproduce.  If voice transformers were as ubiquitous as Auto-Tune, would we be hearing The Knife pull a T-Pain on MTV complaining that they had been swagga-jacked?  Well in honor of the release of Karin Dreijer Andersson’s new solo project, Fever Ray, I’ll demystify some of her and her brother’s sonic magic.


Very rarely is a band’s unique sonic character defined by a single effect but honestly, all songwriting and execution aside, there isn’t much that is wholly distinctive about the group insofar as sounds are concerned.  The beats aren’t revolutionary and could very well have come from any can of prefab loops.  The synth sounds are fairly generic and not treated in any inventive new way.  The album itself is fairly quiet by today’s standards, perhaps attributable to a Swedish mastering job.  The swelling synthesizer in “Silent Shout” actually pops out quite sharply and distinctly from the rest of the mix showing that the tune is not overly compressed.  The tracks are immersed in several very artificial sounding reverbs, but that is not uncommon for electronica tracks.


voicelive-largeReally, the only thing that grabs me about this group from a sonic perspective is the haunting vocal timbre.  Layers of vocals with pitch-shifting, formant-altering effects contribute to this ethereal tone as provided primarily by the TC-Helicon VoiceLive.  This handy little box allows the user to input a source program (instrument, microphone, etc.) and alter the pitch up to an octave in either direction, adjust the formants, loop, and add reverb.


Throughout the record, the sub-octave is the most used effect, although parallel 4ths and 5ths are occasionally audible and the super-octave is mixed in for flavor.  In some instances, the “MIX BALANCE” fader is all the way up to 100% effect output such that Karin’s natural tones are inaudible.  Other times they are mixed in tastefully with the dry vocal track.  The sheer prevalence of this effect contribute to the conspicuous absence in the tracks where the vocals are unaffected.  Songs such as “Keep the Streets Empty” sound all the more stark and vulnerable whereas the effected tracks have more body, presence, and strength.


One of the greatest tools in this gizmo is the formant filter.  Formants are intrinsic resonances from an acoustic sound source.  These in tandem with spectral content are what allow us to distinguish between human voices in the same range singing the same note or tell a Stradivarius from a Yamaha.  The formant filter allows the user to alter the sonic quality of the output, thereby creating the effect of different singers and thickness or various otherworldly sounds.


It isn’t immediately clear to me whether or not the looping functions were especially useful to either The Knife or Fever Ray since looping facilities were surely available in their DAW, but the applications are very intriguing for live performance.  An extant device that I like to use to a similar end is the Electroharmonix Microsynth.  It has some of the same facilities although it doesn’t allow you to loop.


The use of such a filter is not unprecedented. Apollo 440 used the same device to similar effect back in 1990.  Brian Eno famously used formant filtering in his 2005 release entitled Another Day on Earth.  He has even accomplished similar ends with his famous suitcase ring-modulator that he has used throughout his storied career. So even though the predominant discriminator for both The Knife and Fever Ray is the vocal effect and even though there isn’t much that is revolutionary about their instrumentals, something in their approach to songwriting is what contributed to many critics touting them as some of the most unique sounding artists of our time.  With all this in mind, it is important to stress again that there is a marked difference between obtaining an artists sounds and sounding like that artist. 

How Do I Sound Like Angus Young?

Posted by Fix Your Mix On March - 19 - 20093 COMMENTS

Angus Young is a dangerous musician to talk about in this column—there is a wealth of knowledge out there on Angus’s setup and for no one else has so much been written about so little (check out this crazy little diagram of his standard set-up). SG, cable, Marshall stack with the output all the way up. Can it get any simpler? No pedals, no effects, no muss, no fuss. Still, the questions keep coming so clearly there is something else that people are missing when trying to replicate his sound.


Did you know that there are actually TWO guitar players in this picture??

Well the first thing we have to do is make sure that we separate the Brothers Young. AC/DC is a band known for its stark simplicity and so the casual listener who likes the face-melting loudness of the band and can name only one band member (and maybe that one guy who died) may not realize that a lot of the big ballsy hooks that we remember and associate with Angus, like the opening to “TNT,” are actually played by his brother Malcolm. Some of the hooks are a combination of both of them playing the same thing such as in “Back in Black.” Of course all these videos are from live performances and there is no real way to know who plays what in the studio. To me, the quintessential Angus Young sound is the opening of “Thunderstruck” that really captures the dryness, the raunchy nasal tone of the SG, and the surprisingly clear tone that he has.

I found this great website, which is really intended for guitar instruction, that attempts to separate the parts of various AC/DC tunes. The site invites you to pick a song and “pretend you’re Angus and play solos over Malcolm’s giant riffs!” Again, there is no real way of knowing if Angus didn’t record all the parts while Malcolm sat in the corner and self-flagellated. But given Mike Fraser’s comments after engineering Black Ice, the band is as no frills as they come—“They plug in, turn up… and there you go, you’ve got AC/DC comin’ atcha…” That would lead me to believe that most of the rhythm parts are handled by Malcolm with Angus chipping in where possible since they probably track live and Angus needs to do his soloing thang (using mostly pentatonic and hexatonic, I don’t want to waste too much space talking about his note selection since it is so simple).

So let’s face it—when people say that they want to sound like Angus Young, some of them probably just mean they want to sound like that guitar thingie from AC/DC, which in the end is a combination of at least two guitar sounds in many cases.

Sound like any artist just by purchasing this!

Sound like any artist just by purchasing this!

Furthermore, in AC/DC’s megahit, 1980’s Highway to Hell, it is likely that these simple punchy parts are the product of numerous guitars stacked on top of each other as a result of engineer/producer Mutt Lange’s “penchant” for “overdubs.” According to Alex Call of the band Clover, Mutt would often have them sing eight tracks of backgrounds going “oooooh” and then bounce them down to a single track, then do it again to make a stereo double. Just imagine the mountain of guitar tracks he probably had for a “guitar group.”

Regardless of production techniques though, it is clear that AC/DC are able to get pretty close to their signature sound that exists on tape when they perform live. So if that is the case, how can they get two guitars to sound so damn loud? I think a lot of it comes from the orchestration of the tune. As a “guitar rock” group, there truly isn’t much else to them. The drums are ridiculously simple, short, dry, and don’t take up much space in the mix while the bass in many songs is practically non-existent. The guitars are titanic in the mix compared to everything else.

With the drums and bass being so small, there isn’t much lower mid and low frequency content. I’m still working on this metaphor, so forgive me in advance: Think of a mix as a closed box filled with sports equipment, bassy sounds are like big Pilates balls whereas treble-y sounds are like ping pong balls. Think of loudness as filling the box as completely as possible. You can make something loud and bassy, but you won’t have much stuff in the mix. Or you can make something loud and treble-y and you can have a whole lot of stuff in the mix.

Moreover, the guitars are very nasal in timbre. Angus’s SG with nickel humbuckers is very treble-y without a whole lot of bass content until he gets that amp crunching with the big chords. Malcolm’s Gretsch Firebird Jet is of a similar tonality although he often plays different voicings to give thickness. He even took out his neck and middle pickups just to focus on that present lead tone. Ultimately, what this means is that there is a whole lot of upper-mid and high frequency content.

Contributing to presence, Young is known for using heavy picks and having a very strong pick attack. On the surface, this may not seem like much since Pete Townsend is also known for having a strong pick attack and they have different sounds. However, Angus’s SG uses low output humbuckers, which are clearer and have more note definition. This also allows him to drive the power tubes harder and the preamp tubes not so hard, whereas Pete Townsend uses high output pickups (like p90s) and drives the preamp tubes more.

Recording 101 tells us that putting reverb on a track has the effect of pushing things into the background. So the utter dryness of AC/DC’s guitar parts contributes to the presence of their sound. Many less professional players balk at hearing themselves play with nothing extending their sounds, whether it be compression, reverb, delay, or anything else. But that is how AC/DC rolls. No effects, the only compression that would come would be from the tubes in the Marshall stacks.

Since there is no reverb, the decay on the guitars is very short. And since the rest of the band is not really filling in the holes that much, especially on the intros that define the band’s most memorable moments, that leaves a whole lot of room to compare how loud the guitars are to total silence. With an album like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, there is so much going on all at the same time that there is never any reference to silence to let you know just how loud everything is. Your ears adjust. Have you ever rocked out while driving down the highway, then parked, got out of the car, came back, turn the car on, and gotten blasted by how ungodly loud you were listening to that record? Well with the orchestration of AC/DC tunes, namely in the first 20 seconds where it is just big guitar hits over drumming, it’s the same effect, you start the record in silence, hear the big guitar hit, then go back to silence, then back to another hit, and so on. Your ears never adjust to a new baseline.

Lastly, looking at the gear list for Compass Point Recording Studios in the Bahamas, which is where Back In Black was recorded, I see a standard collection of solid-state gear, very high-fi with lots of head room. But another thing that I see that is somewhat uncommon is the Aphex Aural Exciter, which became very prominent in the 80s to give things presence and bite. I wonder how much of that was used in the tracking/mixing.

Well, so much for an article about an SG, a cable, and a Marshall amp. Even the simplest set ups can spawn a lot of academic items to ponder and perhaps with the emergence of home recording and hobbyist recording, we could stand to put a little more science and analytics into engineering.

How Do I Sound Like John Bonham?

Posted by Fix Your Mix On March - 12 - 200914 COMMENTS


I hold no pretense of being a Led Zeppelin expert, however John Bonham’s drum sound is one that practically everybody wants to emulate.  Whether you actually want to play like him is another story, but it would seem like every drummer would love to be as bombastic and aggressive as Bonham.

The truth of the matter is that if you want to sound like John Bonham, you really need to play like him. You probably shouldn’t be ripping off 32nd note paradiddles at 140 BPM on your Iron Cobra. Moreover, your playing style, the orchestration of your tune, and your own nuances will directly inform the possibilities for your sound. This isn’t to say that you need to be on the same level as Bonham to sound like him, but there are songwriting elements that anyone can use to help accomplish a desired sound.

Listen to any Zeppelin record and you’ll notice that he is very, very simple with his beats in the vast majority of his tunes. Sometimes he only hits the kick drum twice in a measure. This leaves a ton of room for him to have that gigantic bass drum sound that we all know and love.

In most of his kits, John Bonham had a kick drum well over the standard 22” in most commercial kits these days. His bass drum was truly a bass drum often measuring 26 inches. His kick sound is very open lots with of ring and resonation without much dampening. This was pretty normal in a lot of records in the 60s to mid 70s.  In all likelihood it would’ve been similar in much earlier recordings if the technology existed to reproduce those low frequencies.

In the 70s, dance music reduced the kick drum to a very tight, short tick as opposed to the bass foundation for the tune. This kept mixing kick drums simple, the dance beats driving and easily distinguishable, and allowed tunes to be more lushly orchestrated (especially in the bass range which was great for diversity in the dancehall).  However, it put the idea of a big bassy bass drum on the back burner in favor of a more punchy kick sound.

Now to sound like Bonham, you don’t need a 26” monster of a kick drum. What I do is take out all of the dampening in the bass drum:  pillows, towels, everything. Put single ply heads on the kit so that they resonate more (single ply heads have longer sustain, multiple plys are used to make things more durable). Then, detune the kit as low as possible without it sounding like hitting loose paper (more on this in a later article on tuning drums for the studio). The aim is to achieve a deep, long, low sustain. Once you’ve achieved the maximal effect like this, you can tailor the decay by applying dishtowels or something light to the front heads to dampen slightly.

Look at the picture above.  You’ll notice two microphones on Bonham’s kit in the studio.  One is a U87 and the other looks like  a Unidyne 57.  You’ll also notice that he has no hole in the front head and doesn’t have a D112 shoved up in at and against the beater head.  This provides a barrier that reduces the tick of the beater and increases the boom of the resonations from the head and drum bodies.

If you are ripping off 32nd note paradiddles at 140 BPM, there is simply no room for you to sound like John Bonham with this kick drum sound—it’ll end up being a gigantic bass wash. All that steady low-end will severely restrict the amount of loudness you can get out of your song since low frequencies take up such a huge portion of the power spectrum. Because of this, either your kick drum is loud and your tune is quiet, or your tune is louder and your kick drum is quiet. Let that kick drum resonate, give it space to be appreciated and you’ll start moving closer to that Bonham sound.

It is also crucial to understand that in a mix, no sound is an island. In order for something to be big, something else has to be small. So when you listen to a Zeppelin recording, you’ll notice that there is an awful lot of space in the other instruments that frame the drums very nicely. Jimmy Page doesn’t just machine-gun power chords through the Big Muff which would result in a gigantic square wave. He has a lot of single line melodic elements that are often in the higher register that juxtapose Bonham’s big boisterous drum sound (see “All of My Love”).

Try approaching your tunes with some prior planning—if you think you’d like a John Bonham type of drum sound, then orchestrate the part like it would be a Bonham tune. You’ll find that from the onset, your drummer will sound more like Bonham and your engineer should have an easy time getting the sound you want out of whatever mic set-up you have—no matter where you recorded it, no matter what gear you used.

Oh yah, and smack the shit out of the drums…Bonham would be proud.


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