The original series as written by the mysterious Jetphase
As recording engineers, we are faced with the challenge of finding new sounds: A different electric guitar sound, a standout vocal sound, a snare drum sound that cuts through the mix, and all with the character to make it special. Sure, we're all familiar with the classic gear: Urei 1176, Neve 1073, Fairchild 670, Neumann U47 and U87, and Lexicon 224.
They all deserve the reputations that they've earned. But, by limiting equipment to the classic pieces, we're also limiting ourselves to capturing the same sounds that have been recorded over and over. Top producers and engineers have many tricks and techniques that they employ in an effort to make their recordings stand out from the thousands of songs that are recorded every year. One of these is the use of "little black boxes."
Little black boxes are those oddball pieces of gear that have a unique sound unto themselves, yet still haven't been discovered by the general recording public. They're the special compressor that you only use to crush a mono drum microphone. They're the gritty sounding microphone preamp that only sounds good on a snare drum in a song with a fast tempo. They're the flanger that sounds terrible on guitar, but when you put it on the hi-hat track, it's magic. Most of all, little black boxes are the equipment that can help make a good recording sound great.
In this guide through mysterious, unknown gear, I'm going to attempt to familiarize you with some of the coolest, funkiest, and possibly the strangest equipment out there. It'll be less of an article, and more of a listing and users guide.
It all starts with the microphone
In the quest to capture unique sounds, the microphone is king. The microphones we choose to use have a huge impact in determining what the final product will sound like. They can capture the true sound of the instrument, down to the most minute details. But they can also be chosen to accent only certain aspects of the sound and help to create a sound that is unique in the mix. Here are a few of my favorites.
Altec 633A "Salt Shaker": This is a great little dynamic mic that looks kind of like a hand grenade. The cool thing about the 633A is the fact that it has a slightly limited frequency response (35Hz-12kHz), which makes it great as a room mic for drums. The rolled-off high end of this mic helps to insure that the cymbals tracked through the room mic don't clash with the cymbals in the overhead mics. I've also use this mic successfully to capture a gritty, semi distorted tone on bass. Mic'ing an acoustic guitar with a 633A can help to capture an old-timey bluesy vibe, which can definitely help to lend some authenticity to a recording. Try it inside of a kick drum as well.
Altec M11 "Coke Bottle": This tube omni-directional microphone got its common name from the fact that it resembles one of the old style Coca-Cola bottles. It's unique in that it has a glass diaphragm. These mics are very realistic sounding in that they give an accurate representation of the sound source, albeit slightly enhanced. They're great as drum overheads, on acoustic guitars, as well as most other acoustic instruments (mandolin, dulcimer, etc.). Just remember: Since these are omni mics, they'll also capture that sound of the room that they're in.
LOMO 19A9: This is a Russian made condenser microphone came out in the early 1950s. While it does give a fairly accurate representation of the sound, the mic has a nice low end. This is a great alternative microphone to the usual Neumann U87 for things like vocals, electric guitars and even on drum overheads. It doesn't have the hyped high end of the U87. Thus, it's a bit warmer sounding than the Neumann.
RCA BK-5B: A fairly unknown ribbon mic that really should be a classic, this mic is absolutely phenomenal when placed in front of a guitar amp. Geez, if I could only put into words the things it does to the sound.I guess the words impact, warmth and fat could all be used.
Eletro-Voice Model 635A: Here's a mic that used to be quite popular, but seems to have been forgotten over the years. Use it anywhere you'd normally use a Shure SM-57.The thing that makes the 635A interesting is that it's an omni-directional dynamic mic, so it really doesn't exhibit the proximity effect that most cardoid mics have. I like them on guitar amps, and even on the snare drum.
Boss TU-12 tuner: It's not a typo, I promise. The Boss TU-12 tuner has a microphone built into it, which is intended to be used when tuning acoustic instruments. However, by placing the tuner in front of a drum kit and running the output into a compressor, you can get some truly wicked sounds out of it: Dirty, low-fi, cool. Crush the sound with a good compressor and mix it in with your other drum mics for a unique, ballsy drum sound. Oh yeah, it's cool on lo-fi vocals as well.
Shure 520-DX "Green Bullet": This mic is intended for use as a harmonica mic, a job that it excels at. However, if you want to really have fun, sing into it, or put it in front of a guitar amp and plug it into your favorite overdrive or fuzz pedal. The extremely limited frequency response (100Hz-5kHz) and omni-directional pattern lend a unique, almost A.M. radio type quality to any sound source. This is also a great mic to make your Taylor acoustic guitar sound like an old beat up Stella for those acoustic blues recordings.