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Getting The Most Out Of Your Gear

Tips & Techniques By Paul Ward
Published October 1994

Following his article on the unconventional use of signal processors as mix automation equipment in our July issue, Paul Ward takes a general look at using equipment in ways that probably never occurred to the designers...

An unintentional 'feature' of a piece of equipment can often be exploited to produce some interesting and useful sounds. A prime example is provided by the early valve amplifiers, which, when deliberately overdriven, offered many players a new and emotive range of tone colours. I have come to rely on a few unconventional methods of my own to help me get the right results to tape.

Positive Feedback

One of the simplest forms of creative abuse is to send the output of a piece of equipment back into its own input. Guitarists are well aware of the creative potential of this trick, which they know as 'feedback'. By cranking up the volume and holding the guitar near to the speaker, a whole range of exciting howls and squeaks can be coaxed from the tortured hardware (and, in some cases, the audience). However, the technique is not exclusive to axe‑wielding Hendrix sound‑alikes — it can be applied to any instrument output by use of either an auxiliary send from your mixer or, where available, a 'sniff and break' (or half‑normalised) patchbay point, which takes a 'sniff' signal back into the gear without losing the audible output. At a pinch, you could use a 'splitter' cable to do much the same job. Echo and reverb machines are ripe for this kind of treatment, (see Figure 1), and by sampling the ensuing cacophony, you can capture some very rich and powerful textures. Try 'seeding' the effects processor with a specific sound as you begin it looping, either by playing an instrument or just singing/speaking into a microphone — the end result will retain some characteristics of the original signal.

Putting two cassette decks into record and plugging them into one another can produce some interesting results. For the truly adventurous, try putting all four tracks of a portastudio into record and feeding adjacent tracks into one another a little at a time. The ever‑changing phase characteristics of the ensuing feedback can almost be 'played' from the mixer, allowing a wide variety of rich waveforms to be created and sampled for later use.

The looping of outputs to inputs works well on analogue synths with external input sockets. The MiniMoog is particularly helpful in this respect, since it offers two output jacks at both high and low signal levels. Whilst monitoring from the high output jack, the low level output is well suited for plugging back into the synth. The resultant fat, distorted sound (due to the Moog filter being overdriven) is inspirational. If you plug an effect such as chorus or pitch shifting into the loop, things can become even more interesting. I've created some very usable results by inserting a wah‑wah pedal. If a reverb or echo device is used in the chain, the synth's envelope will 'gate' the effect, allowing it to be heard only when a note is playing. This is a handy way of creating a huge lead sound without cluttering up the general mix, and is also good for hiding hiss and hum from noisy effects pedals. And whilst on that subject...

Using Effects Pedals

Using guitar effects pedals with synths and samplers is becoming a little passé now, but a fuzz box or distortion pedal certainly makes a synth sound considerably more aggressive. Another use for a fuzz box is as a psychoacoustic enhancer. By taking a feed of a signal to the fuzz box and mixing a judicious amount of the distorted sound back in with the original, the resultant sound often appears to be subjectively cleaner and sharper. This is due to the high‑frequency harmonics generated by the clipped signal peaks. Indeed, this is precisely the principal upon which the earliest enhancers were based. I have found this method to be particularly effective in beefing up bass parts, although I also use it on snares, kick drums and even vocals to good effect. It sometimes helps to remove some of the low‑frequency content from the fuzzed signal by use of a high‑pass filter or the mixer's EQ.

A fuzz box can also be used to clean up tired timecodes. Whenever a portion of tape is run across the playback head, there is a small amount of degradation of the recorded signal (which gets worse if you fail to demagnetise your heads regularly!). Over time, this can have a detrimental effect — particularly on timecodes. The nice, sharp‑edged waveform starts to become slightly rounded, and, in extreme cases, causes the timecode interpreter to misread. If you feed the timecode through a fuzz box, you can often reshape the signal sufficiently to get around the problem. In practice, it's a little hit and miss, but in one instance I was able to record the fresh timecode to another tape track, which saved a great deal of time and heartache.

Noise Gates

Noise gate 'chatter' is caused when very fast attack, hold and release times are employed. With a low‑frequency control signal present, particularly responsive gates (Drawmer's ubiquitous DS201, for example) are prone to re‑fire on every periodic waveform peak. In most cases this is an undesirable effect, but it can be exploited (see figure 2). Set up the gate for side‑chain control, with its fastest attack, hold and release times, and feed the input with a continuous mid‑ to high‑frequency noise — I find that a looped cymbal sample seems to work well. Now feed the side chain of the noise gate with the bass line (raspy synth bass sounds seem to work best). By tweaking the threshold control, and maybe filtering out some of the key signal's low frequencies, it should be possible to get the noise gate to 'chatter' at the frequency of the incoming bass notes. You should begin to hear an odd pattern of pitched noises appear as (in my example) the cymbal sample is switched in and out very quickly. Try changing the gate's attack, hold and release values to alter the 'waveform' of the sound, and use the sound on its own or mix it in with the bass line. This effect can be either outrageously un‑musical or strangely effective. Definitely one for an avant‑garde moment!

A synthesizer with an external input can often be pressed into service as a noise gate. Some synths, such as my trusty Sequential Pro 1, allow the envelopes to be triggered from the external signal itself. Failing this, it is usually possible to trigger the synth from MIDI, either directly or via a MIDI/CV converter. A synth's envelope controls usually provide more sophisticated level control than a dedicated noise gate, and allow you to filter the signal at the same time. A high‑pass filter with a little envelope attack is an excellent way of removing vocal microphone 'pops'.


You can produce a more aggressive sound from your sampler by digitally mixing two copies of the same sample together, and deliberately setting the mix levels to produce a clipped result. Drums are prime candidates for this kind of treatment, though basses and even pad sounds can also benefit. If necessary, the sampler's filter can be closed down to reduce any fizziness present.

If your sampler has separate outputs, you can consider using one of them as a dedicated effects send. For example, consider a complete drum/bass/chords mix appearing at the sampler's main left/right outputs. By duplicating the snare, toms and cymbals, and feeding them down a separate output to a reverb device, only these sounds take on reverb. This obviates the need to take a separate output for each sound. Simply by adjusting the level of the duplicated sounds from the separate output, variable amounts of effect can be applied to each individual voice.

Rather than being a definitive guide on 'how to...', this article has really been aimed at expanding the way you look at your gear. I can't possibly anticipate the strange uses your own particular combination of equipment might be put to, but I hope I may have inspired you to find out for yourself.

Example Corner

As a prime example of my own peculiar brand of creative abuse, allow me to cite two brief true‑life cases. It occurred to me whilst working on a track in the studio recently that the rhythm was lacking a certain something. I tried creating a rhythm loop to trundle along with the main drum pattern. This was OK, but the loop took up too much space in the mix, so I then used a vocoder to impose the rhythm loop on an industrial noise sample loop, and then fed the whole lot through my little Tandy amp. The end result was perfect for the job, and actually became a major feature of the track, which can be heard on my new album, if you're at all curious (the track in question is 'Waiting for a Miracle').

On one other (especially desperate) night, I was prompted to attempt to use a pair of headphones as a microphone. I clamped the 'phones around the body of an acoustic guitar and mixed it in with the internal pickup's signal. Don't ask me how — but it worked!

Cheap Amps

One of the most oft‑turned‑to objects in my studio is my 4‑inch high Tandy bench amplifier. This cost me a mere £9 (oh, all right, plus a pound or so to fit a mini‑jack socket, so I could plug in a 9‑volt power supply), and by deliberately overdriving the input, the most amazing effects can be produced. The output signal can be retrieved either by use of the direct output or by miking up the little internal speaker. In many circumstances, it produces an excellent distorted guitar sound, and some guitarists I have introduced it to ended up using it in preference to their Marshall amps! Another amp that I regularly used (until it was stolen) was something called a 'Lunch‑Box' — probably because that's exactly what it resembled! The Lunch‑Box was particularly flattering to MiniMoog solos, and also did a lot of work at the end of a tiled corridor producing ambience for guitars and drums.

By overdriving tiny amps such as these, it's possible to produce some truly horrendous sounds that fit beautifully into a mix. This probably has a lot to do with the very nature of their restricted bandwidth. Whilst on this subject, don't let a broken speaker put you off either. One of the best‑recorded snare sounds I ever produced came from a flapping 12‑inch speaker!


Microphones are ripe for experimentation. One special kink I have is for fastening toilet rolls over the end of them [we'll be passing your details on to the local Chief Superintendent as soon as we can, Paul — Ed]. The effect is similar to putting a narrow band filter on the mic channel, but this is much more fun! Try longer or shorter tubes for various frequency bands, and try cupping/un‑cupping your hand over the end while you record the results! Don't forget to spin a tube‑bound mic around your head and sample the results (always a good one for 'guess the noise' competitions!). Interestingly, it was by this simple method (rather than by means of a horrendously complex modular synth patch, as most people thought) that the buzzing, whirring sound of the light‑sabres was created for Star Wars, 17 years ago.

Rather than sticking to a cylinder, you could also try funnel shapes. I find these good on vocals, where they produce a more 'intimate' quality to the recording. By fitting a flat collar around the head of the mic, it's possible to make the perceived polar response more unidirectional, since spillage from behind the mic is somewhat reduced.

Another short and simple tip involves miking drums — try taping a beer mat to the point on a kick drum head where the beater strikes. Put tape all around the edge of the mat, leaving a small gap to let the air escape. This will produce that satisfying 'click' that makes a rhythm track sound more expensive.

One way of overcoming a shortage of microphone inputs on your mixing desk is to use those available on other equipment. Samplers and DAT recorders often sport mic inputs, and these can easily be pressed into service by setting them to monitor the recording source and feeding the line outputs to the mixer. Cassette decks and VCRs can also be used in this manner, and those with automatic level controls can often be useful as a crude form of compressor, helping you out on less critical applications such as guitar chords or backing vocals.