How’d They Get That Sound? Part III: More Famous Studio Tricks (That You Can Try)

It’s easy to think that the big studios, with their armies of assistants and gobs of gear, have the market cornered on getting the most innovative sounds around. And certainly, there’s some truth to this idea: Your $100 mic isn’t going to beat a Neumann in a shootout.

However, it’s entirely possible that once you know how a legendary sound was achieved, you can go for it in your home studio. Will it sound exactly the same? Doubtful. But can you put your own stamp on it, be it trashy or sassy? You bet.

Here we present the inside scoop on six sounds forever stamped into popular music lore. Special thanks to Brandon Seyferth, creator of Reverb’s “How’d They Get That Sound” series, for giving the thumbs up to this special segment.

1) The Cars: Debut album background vocal sound

British producer Roy Thomas Baker, working with the Boston band on its first album, employed a vocal trick he used with Queen. A rare Stephens 40-track tape machine with Dolby SR served as his secret weapon to produce an explosive backing vocal mix. Cars leader Ric Ocasek (who just turned 65) told me in an interview how this sound was achieved—and it’s easy enough to take a stab at with a ProTools rig. I feel sad giving up this secret, as I’ve used it myself with success. But what is Reverb if not a community for sharing?

How Baker and The Cars did it:

A) Put three singers around a mic, and have them sing the same vocal part for eight takes. B) Repeat this process for the second vocal part. 3) Repeat for the third vocal part. This will give you 72 vocalists singing a three-part harmony, and 24 more if you add a fourth part. As Ocasek himself might say, let the good times roll!

2) David Bowie: Lead vocals on “Heroes”

One could rightly argue that Bowie’s vocal here is one of the most dynamic examples of “from a whisper to a scream.” But how was it done? Again, you could try this at home—or preferably a large hall like the one at Hansa Studios in Berlin. Bowie’s longtime studio partner is producer Tony Visconti, who cut the multi-dimensional vocal with just one open track on the 24-track machine.

How Visconti did it:

He set up three mics, one in front of Bowie, one 15 feet away and another way down the hall at a much longer distance. Here’s what he told Red Bull Academy: “I put a gate on microphone two and another gate on microphone three, so when he sang like this [deep voice] those microphones wouldn’t open up; you wouldn’t hear the ambience in the room. When he sang like this [loud voice], the middle microphone would open up and when he went [screams]—that’s called Bowie histrionics—all three microphones would open up and the reverb you hear on that recording is only that room.”

3) Roger McGuinn, 12-string guitar sound on “Mr. Tambourine Man”

McGuinn has given conflicting reports as to how this revolutionary jingle-jangle was achieved. For years, he stated that he simply plugged his guitar straight into a mixboard and compressed it heavily. (The Roger McGuinn Limited Edition Rickenbacker has a built-in compressor that emulates this effect.) But a now-defunct blog called Get That Sound supposedly cracked the code following a brief interview with McGuinn.

How McGuinn did it:

The first part of the signal chain consisted of a Rickenbacker 360/12 guitar and an Epiphone Ensign amplifier (like this one available on Reverb). If you can’t find one, most midline ’60s tube amps with two 10-inch speakers should do the trick. The amp was miked with a Telefunken U-47, the signal fed into the Columbia Studios console, then pumped through and two Teletronix LA-2A compressors in series. Granted, this isn’t easy to replicate. But you can try any Rick 12 with toaster top pickups, compressing via plugins and using a less expensive tube mic to achieve a similar sound.

4) Tony Thompson, drums on the Power Station’s “Some Like It Hot”

The ‘80s brought us way too many records with hyped drum sounds. But the drums on the Power Station’s debut are so big, they rival just about anything recorded in that decade—or any decade, for that matter. Theories abound as to how this was done, some citing half-speed taping and the like. But the best authority is the drummer himself, Tony Thompson.

How Thompson did it:

Here’s what he told Modern Drummer: “All it basically was, was a brand-new Yamaha kit, which I still play, in a very live, brick, recording studio in London called Mason Rouge. I hit the drums very hard. That’s it! [Laughs.] … So, bottom line, the sound came from a good kit, hit hard, in a nice live room.” Gated room mics also helped enhance the sound. So if you have access to the brick room, a great studio kit —and of course, a monster drummer—then why not go for it?

5) Nirvana, David Grohl’s kick drum sound on “Nevermind”

If any single sound helped usher in the grunge era, it was the drums on this record, produced by Butch Vig and engineered by Andy Wallace. Granted, some of Grohl’s drums were looped. (Listen to the duplicated snare rolls on “Come As You Are.”) But it’s still Big Dave pounding away, using a clever wrinkle that you can try to duplicate at your studio—if you have lots of spare drum parts to work with.

How Vig, Wallace and Grohl did it:

Vig used what he calls a “drum tunnel.” He extended Grohl’s kick drum (an ’80s Tama Grandstar) with a roughly 6-foot-long tunnel built from old drum shells. Explora writer Jaime Traba takes it from there: “The kick was then miked with an AKG D12 close to the beater, and a Neumann FET 47 at the end of the tunnel. Thanks to the tunnel, the FET 47 was able to create an exaggerated ‘kick out’ mic sound, basically extending the low end without picking up too much room sound or bleed from the cymbals.” Feel free to try the drum tunnel, but remember: “Nevermind” was recorded at the legendary Sound City Studios (the subject of an acclaimed Grohl documentary). So if you want the best recreation of that kick sound, take Vig’s advice: “Get Dave Grohl to play Drums at Sound City!”

6) Stevie Wonder, clavinet on “Superstition”

This song made the Hohner Clavinet famous, and it’s possible you have a similar sound on your own synth. What you don’t have, though, are the chops to play Stevie’s part. Nobody does. In fact, you’d have to find a musically gifted octopus to pull off this funkiest of funk grooves. But once you know the secret, you can leave the octopus for calamari and start having some multi-dexterous fun of your own. Yes, you can definitely try something like this on a basic DAW.

How Stevie did it:

Check out this YouTube video by a bearded dude known as “Funkscribe.” Mr. Scribe obtained the “Superstition” master tapes and pulls apart the clavinet monster track by track. As he reveals, the final is composed of eight different parts — though even the root part on its own sounds funkybutt as all get out. The last two parts have tape echo on them, and a ninth track of Moog bass blends seamlessly into the clavinet riffing. So go ahead, give something like this a whack. Just remember before you get started to wash your face and hands.

Lou Carlozo is a studio musician, producer and engineer based in Chicago. Despite recently breaking his left pinky, he just cut a bass track in his studio. Honest. Good thing it was a slow song.