How’d They Get That Sound? Part II: The Gear Behind Three More Distinctive Records

Sometimes it’s a chair being dragged across aluminum plates. Sometimes it’s a sample of a cheap organ’s drum machine, or that obscure synth that delivers the exact characteristics you need for your project. Whatever it is, creating unique sounds requires a unique approach to gear utilization.

In our first “How’d They Get That Sound” installment, we looked at the recording craft behind six landmark records. Today, we’re investigating three more albums with absolutely unique sounds and textures. Who knows, maybe these examples can provide a jumping-off point in your search for the right gear for your next recording.

Radiohead – “Kid A”

Guitar and Synth Sounds

An album that was supposedly named as a dedication to the first human clone, “Kid A” was done by manipulating and creating sounds in Pro Tools and Cubase in order to make an album that sounded like nothing the band had done before. Though you’ll hear string arrangements, performed in a 12th Century abbey by Oxford’s Orchestra of St. John, some Charles Mingus-influenced, freestyle jazz horn arrangements, and some other acoustic instrumentation, every track on “Kid A” is largely about synthesis and digital manipulation.

Many of the unorthodox and synthetic sounds on the album were done with a Moog Rogue, but not exclusively. The album’s opening track, originally recorded with a Fender Rhodes Mark 1, was performed on a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 that was further manipulated in Pro Tools in order to give the part a futuristic sounding timbre. Given the band’s intent to venture into unfamiliar territory, another synth featured heavily on the album was, appropriately enough, an Ondes Martenot. The Martenot is a cousin to the Theremin, and a precursor to the modern synthesizer. Invented in the 1920s, it was famously used for a futuristic sound in the opening theme music of the original Star Trek series. It found use on “Kid A” for the vocoding on the title track, the lofty synth sound heard throughout “How to Disappear Completely,” and for the sound hovering over the distorted bass line (distorted with a Lovetone Big Cheese pedal) on “The National Anthem.” The swelling synthesizer melody of “Idioteque” is actually a sample from Paul Lansky’s “Mild Und Leise.” Composed in 1973, it was created with an IBM 360/91 that had a whopping 1MB of memory, and used punch cards to communicate with Music 360 computer language. After the sound was generated, it was output to digital tape. It’s worth noting that Yamaha’s DX7 series of synthesizers use a similar FM synthesis to what was used in the creation of “Mild Und Leise.”

The Velvet Underground & Nico – “Peel Slowly and See” (a.k.a “The Banana Album”)”

Guitar, Viola, Percussion, and Crashing Sounds

The Velvet Underground’s first album was recorded at three different studios in New York and Los Angeles. In one of them, the musicians had to literally watch their step, and not just around some femme fatale who might break their heart. There were holes in the floor. This was a fact that certainly made an impression on VU member John Cale. In different interviews, he mentions a torn up floor in at least two of the three studios where the album was recorded. It was likely only Scepter Studio in New York, however, that had the pleasure of possessing that not-so-elegant form of sound diffusion.

The sound of the album is due in no small part to the fact that it was mostly recorded live, with minimal overdubbing and a healthy dose of microphone bleed. It’s unique sound came from a few places, not the least of which was Drummer Maureen Tucker’s disinclination toward the use of cymbals. John Cale’s amplified viola, strung with mandolin and guitar strings, also contributed by giving some ‘jet engine’ menace to songs like “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin.” Lou Reed’s guitar on the album was a detuned Gretsch Country Gentleman. Reed famously tuned all its strings to the same note for the songs “Venus in Furs” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” because of the slight drone that can be utilized in that tuning. The album’s last track, “European Son,” boasts the cacophony of a chair being dragged over aluminum studio plates. Cale describes it as being like the sound of a “plate glass window being smashed,” ending the album quite some distance away from the delicate sound of the celesta featured on Side A, Track One.

Portishead – “Third”

Percussion, Synth, Acoustic Guitar, and Vocal Sound

To paraphrase member Geoff Barrow, Portishead didn’t like the idea that their music had become so tightly embraced by an “aren’t we clever,” background at a dinner party crowd. From the abrupt stop of “Silence” to the brutal percussive phrase of “Machine Gun,” which was made by sampling the drum machine on an Orla Tiffany 4 tweaked with a flanger at the end of each phrase, “Third” doesn’t sound much like dinner party music.

For vocals, in place of the AKG C414 the band had used on their earlier records, singer Beth Gibbons opted for a Rode NTK valve microphone with a Great British Spring reverb from the ’70s to create ambience and echo. The arrangements on the album include a EMS VCS3 synth, a Korg MS20 synth, a hurdy-gurdy, a baritone sax, an organ, and a ukulele among other instruments. The acoustic guitar part on “The Rip” was played on a cheap beginners instrument. Guitarist Adrian Utley liked the fact that it produced a sound that took up a narrower frequency range than a nicer guitar generally would, allowing it to interfere less with other instruments in the overall mix. It’s worth noting that some fretwork was done on the guitar to make it easier to execute a more sophisticated part than a beginner would generally attempt. One of the more unique sounds on “Third” can be heard on the track “Plastic,” where an ARP 2600 synth was used to create a swirling, helicopter type of sound.