How’d They Get That Sound? Studio Tricks on 6 Famous Records

Whether it’s cutting up the speaker in a guitar amp, using a cassette recorder to make an acoustic guitar sound electric, or slamming a mixing console almost to the point of explosion, musicians have long used and abused their gear in creative ways in order to find distinctive and unconventional sounds. Even on some of the most famous recordings of all time, there may be a lot more going on than meets the ear. Here are some examples that may just give you some ideas on what to incorporate into your next project.

John Lennon Casino

The Beatles – “Revolution” (Single)

Guitar and Drum Sound

A lot of people came back to the record store after they listened to this B-side to the song “Hey Jude.” The searing and explosive sound they heard coming out of their speakers made them assume their vinyl was defective, and it wasn’t just the sound of the guitars that fooled them. The drums were compressed and put through limiters to make them as claustrophobic as possible. While a normal practice today, especially in the heavy-hitting beats of hip-hop, this was not common at the time. The guitar sounds were achieved by plugging straight into a recording console. Engineer Geoff Emerick then chained together two of the tube preamps on the EMI REDD desk, overloading the first, and running that signal into the second preamp to distort it even more. Lennon played an Epiphone Casino guitar that was professionally stripped of its paint, potentially like walls of living rooms where the record was played.

Rolling Stones – “Street Fighting Man”

Guitar and Drum Sound

As Keith Richards’ puts it, “Street Fighting Man” was made with a bunch of toys the band had laying around. Aside from Charlie Watts’ recording the drums using a practice kit from the thirties that could fit in a suitcase (the suitcase itself doubling as a kick drum), Richards tracked his guitar by overloading a small Phillips cassette player. More modern cassette players started to come with limiters so that users couldn’t overload them when recording. At the time this track was recorded, however, Richards’ was able to push his machine to overload when tracking an acoustic guitar, so that it sounded electric when played back. In the studio, he plugged the cassette player into a small extension speaker and recorded the larger extension speaker, so that the sound gained a little breadth and depth. He used the same process for guitar on this track as well as on “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Gimme Shelter,” sometimes layering as many as eight tracks of guitar for the final mix. The only electric instrument on the “Street Fighting Man” is the bass.

John Lennon Casino

The Kinks – “You Really Got Me”

Guitar Sound

Dave Davies said the sound of this track came about because he couldn’t afford a Watkins Dominator or a bigger amp at the time. He ended up making it with a Harmony Meteor guitar, plugged into a small Elpico amplifier. The output leads of that amp were then plugged into the input of a Vox AC-30 amp. For distortion, Davies’ sliced the speaker cone on the Elpico with a razor blade, and punctured it with knitting needles so that the fabric of the speaker rattled, then he kicked it around a little bit. Shel Talmy, the engineer on the recording session for the song, used two microphones on the speaker of the Elpico, so he could bring the sound up on a couple of tracks at once, limit one of them heavily, and mix the limited track just below the non-limited track.

Led Zeppelin – “When the Levee Breaks”

Drums and Harmonica

When it comes to inventive recording techniques, there’s a whole lot happening on the closing track to Led Zeppelin IV. The unmistakable drum part was captured in the historic Headley Grange house into the Rolling Stone’s mobile studio truck, with John Bonham laying into his kit at the bottom of a three-story stairwell. There are some conflicting reports as to the exact placement of the microphones, but they were certainly placed about halfway up the stairway which accounts for the huge, distant sound on the final track. The harmonica part was recorded with a reverse echo effect, and all the instruments were manually slowed down prior to the recording of Robert Plant’s vocals. This created the eerie, warbly space heard on the record.

The Strokes – “Is This It”

Vocal and Drum Sound

Julian Casablancas was looking for a vocal tone that ‘had its tie loosened’ on The Strokes’ hit 2001 album, Is This It. A mix of four ice cubes, two fingers of Jack Daniel’s whiskey and a splash of water might also have been an appropriate metaphor. He and engineer Gordon Raphael found what he was looking for in two different ways. The first was to run an Audio-Technica 4033A, a microphone known for a silky, detailed and warm sound, through an Avalon 737 preamp, twisting knobs for a long time before finding something suitable. The other way they did it was to run the Audio-Technica into a Peavey practice amp that was about eight inches tall, and place a Neumann TLM103 microphone in front of it in order to pick up some exact detail from its small speaker.

For those wondering how the band got that gated snare drum sound on some of the songs on this record: Fabrizio Moretti adjusted his playing so that he could put the hi-hat on the opposite side of his kit, minimizing its bleed into the snare microphone during recording.

The White Stripes – “Seven Nation Army”

Guitar/Bass Sound

As payment for helping somebody move back in his days in Detroit, Jack White became the surprised and proud owner of a 1950’s Kay hollow body guitar. Originally finished in a tobacco sunburst, the guitar had been covered in kraft paper, but White loved it. It was equipped with a single DeArmond pickup, an on/off switch, a spruce top, maple sides and back, and a floating rosewood bridge. Though the White Stripes weren’t as allergic to the bass guitar as is sometimes reported, the opening riff to “Seven Nation Army” was actually played on this guitar. White ran the guitar through a DigiTech Whammy pedal. Usually using this pedal to achieve searing, octave-up leads, he set it to a lower octave to service a riff that would be howled at sporting events for years to come.