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What's that sound?

Have you ever listened to a track and not been able to put your finger on a certain instrument? Thought you recognised a certain noise but couldn’t quite work out where from? Or heard the strangest sound and wondered how on earth it was made?

In an age when an entire album can be made with just a laptop, sound manipulation and synthesis that not so-long-ago was beyond conceivable can be done with the swipe of a finger. It is easy to forget some of the more interesting and creative techniques artists and producers have been forced to use in order to achieve the sounds they were searching for. Here, in this article, we look at some of the oddball techniques that made their way onto some very famous songs.

The Beatles – Strawberry Fields Forever

The off-kilter flute introduction to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ sounds as unique today as it did 50 years ago. In a period renowned for the famous four’s experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs, the track perfectly captures their psychedelic sound. The song actually began life very simply, with John Lennon singing and playing acoustic guitar. However, unhappy with its skeletal structure, he began looking for a new sound to flesh it out – but it was Paul McCartney who came up with the simple but distinctive layered flute melody that gives the song it’s charm, and he did this with a secret tool.

The Mellotron was an instrument way ahead of its time, originally created as a way to replicate the sounds of an orchestra, it works in a similar way to how a sampler does now. It is an intricate instrument which uses a keyboard to trigger pre-recorded tape loops of other instruments such as; flutes, brass and choirs. The Mellotron’s lack of digital synchronising, originally thought of as a disadvantage, is what gives the instrument it’s warbly character with the loops being triggered by hand and often slightly out of phase with each other. McCartney’s use of this, combined with the use of reversed tape loops and George Harrison’s new lap steel guitar, helped make one of the most recognisable songs of all time.

The instrument’s difficult maintenance and unpredictability means working examples of the original models are now very rare, and when they do appear they usually have a five-figure price tag. That said, if you did want to try one out for yourself Mellotron have released an excellent digital recreation of the instruments called the Mellotron M4000D, or alternatively several 3rd party companies have created software versions based on the instrument.

Audioslave – Cochise

Reining through as the rock heavyweights of the naughties, Audioslave were forged of the late grunge pioneer and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell and the remaining members of the highly politicised rap-rock veterans Rage Against the Machine. As talented as the late Cornell was, it was guitarist Tom Morello who was responsible for much of the band’s song writing and signature sound. Known for his unorthodox techniques he is highly regarded as one of the most talented and influential players in rock with guitarist’s such as Matt Bellamy and Jonny Greenwood listing him as a hero.

The opening track from their debut album Cochise was a fan favourite and setlist staple for the entirety of the bands carrier. The song is recognisable by its distinctive ‘helicopter’ sound which dominates the introduction. Known for their political and social leanings, combined with the controversial military actions taking place at the time many presumed the sound was a sample used in direct reflection.

The sentiment may well be true, but the ‘helicopter’ sound itself actually came about by accident when Morello was taking notes while playing guitar. He had his guitar plugged into a delay pedal set to a short fast repetition when he accidentally hit the strings with his pencil while moving his notepad causing the repeating flutter. Realising it’s potential, he used the technique in the studio to record the track, running this through his well documented Digitech Whammy pedal to slowly alter the pitch up and down.

Joy Division – She’s Lost Control 

Although it has been nearly forty years since Ian Curtis’ death, Joy Division have remained one of the most notable bands in the history of popular music, with a legacy that has gone on to inspire countless artists. Their debut album Unknown Pleasures has gone on to be one of the most influential albums of all time, but it’s sound is famed as much for it’s infamous producer Martin Hannett as it is for the band themselves. Known for his eccentric personality and recording techniques Hannett led the way in the pioneering albums experimental construction.

Amongst many other things, Hannett was heavily credited for the drum sounds on the album which he achieved through his combination of live and electronic instruments and heavy sound manipulation. The album track ‘She’s Lost Control’ is one of the band’s most regarded and instantly recognisable, especially for it’s ‘hissing’ snare drum which has since been heavily sampled.

The snare was actually created by layering the sound of a Syn Drum; an early electronic drum pad, with the sound of an aerosol can of tape head cleaner being sprayed. Before the days of Pro Tools or even reliable triggers, the spray had to be recorded live while being played in time to the initial drum track. Due to Hannett’s obsession for isolated recordings (a technique used to ensure their is no ‘bleed’ between instrument tracks) it is rumoured that drummer Stephen Morris had to play the respiratory blocking percussion while shut in a small recording booth.

Pixies – Cecilia Ann

The Pixies third album Bossanova is known for it’s rapturous pace and heavy guitars, it’s sound was inspired by singer Frank Black’s interest in Surf Rock and Space Rock and it is the former of these which likely encouraged the band to open the album with ‘Cecilia Ann’ a cover of a Surf Rock song by the (appropriately titled) band The Surftones. The track starts with a speaker rattling crash which sounds as though it could have been a recording of thunder, a falling tree or the start of the apocalypse.

The monstrous sound heard on the opening of ‘Cecilia Ann’ is actually guitarist Joey Santiago being rather heavy handed with his (luckily fairly cheap) Peavey Bandit guitar amp, a trick which he occasionally likes to recreate live, much I’m sure to the delight of many sound engineers.

Many guitarists like to use reverb to give a perception of space to their sound and many analogue guitar amps incorporate a reverb ‘tank’ into their design. These tanks contain a spring which is fed the vibrations made by the low level output signal of an electric guitar, the prolonged signal which comes out of the other end of the spring is then amplified to create a sound known as…. spring reverb. Many guitarist and recording engineers may be familiar with the often expensive side effects of dropping one of these tanks, which result in the spring vibrating much more than when being fed by a low electronic signal, when these vibrations reach the amplified end of the spring -well just listen to the track below.

The crashing sound created by this technique has since become confined by the by the guitar and electronics manufacturer Danelectro into a specially design effects pedal named the Spring King which can be stamped on to replicate the noise without the need for a soldering iron and replacement speaker.

Buddy Holly – Everyday

What did you achieve by the time you were 22? I racked up a significant amount of student debt for a degree I’m still yet to find a use for, just about figured out how to use a washing machine and developed a pretty erratic sleeping pattern. Buddy Holly on the other hand – before his untimely passing – helped define popular music, directly influencing countless artists including The Beatles and Elton John and created a back catalogue of some of the most timeless recordings of all time.

Recorded in 1957 ‘Everyday’ was written as a B side to arguably Holly’s most well know song ‘Peggy Sue’ but has gone on to become a classic in it’s own right. In an age when instrumentation in commercial music was still being solidified it features an acoustic bass, acoustic guitar, vocals and an odd keyboard come glockenspiel hybrid called a Celesta. But it’s the curious percussion that is not quite rigid enough to be a metronome, not quite snappy enough to be a snare rim, and too damp to be a wood block that draws the case into question, what is it? It’s actually the simplest so far.

In the days before multi-tracking, songs had to be cut live using one microphone to record the band and vocals in one take, this meant that instruments could not simply be turned up or down in the mix to balance them out. To counteract this recording engineers would use a proximity effect to balance the level of the band, placing the loudest instruments further away from the microphone or behind baffles to dampen them and physically move musicians closer and further away from the microphone in certain segments to adjust their volume.

However with the low volume of the acoustic instrumentation being played by the rest of the band it must have proven tricky to allow a percussive instrument of any volume. So when percussionist Jerry Allison found the perfect sound to keep the rhythm of the song it was quite literally a knee slapping moment, (well close enough anyway) the momentum leading the tempo of the song is actually him slapping the side of his thigh.