One way to get creative with an arrangement and add that missing element to your home studio recordings is to add some tinkly sounds to the mix.
Perhaps you’re a bit like us… when you listen to a well-produced pop song, you start taking the song apart with your ears, admiring the creative production ideas and signature moments in the performance. I’ve dubbed it the “curse of the studio,” and depending on my mood on any given day, it’s a sort of glass half full/half empty deal, meaning I can’t just listen to a song and tap my feet.
While there is no denying the raw power of a great song performed in a bare bones manner – think Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” as a prototypical example – there is no limit to the many ways a savvy engineer, producer, or artist can add some secret sauce to their latest studio creation. Whether or not you too have the “curse” and can’t help taking tracks apart with your ears, if you do any of your own home studio recordings, we’d like to share some interesting instruments and techniques that go beyond the standard bass, drums, guitar, keyboard, and vocal. A lot of them are percussion instruments that nearly anyone can make music with. Experiment with these ideas and spice up your next recording and provide listeners with a little extra goodie in your tunes.
What are “tinkly” sounds?
Whether it’s the standout theremin on the Beach Boys’ timeless pocket symphony “Good Vibrations,” or the soda bottles that serve as percussion instruments that drive the opening of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” sounds that stand out from the usual family of musical instruments can help your track develop a sonic “hook” that is often added on top of the track’s innate musical value. I like to think of these as “tinkly” things, a sort of sonic whipped cream that can be added to float on top of or inside a track. We’re going to take you on a tour of these types of sounds in the hope of sparking your own creative imagination for your next home studio recordings.
The glockenspiel, German for “bell play,” morphed from a 19th century mechanical accessory to the organs used in classical and sacred concerts to a small metal instrument comprised of graduated steel bars mounted on a frame, and best known for being a part of every high school marching band. However, due to the pure clean tone that results when the glock’s bars are struck with a mallet, it’s often used to add that bell-like shimmer to an existing musical line. Of course, it can be overused and so it’s up to you to determine how much of it to add and where to position it in the mix. While Springsteen’s iconic “Born to Run” comes to mind, the Boss used it in a Phil Spector-ish way throughout nearly the whole tune. Another song, “Someone Great” by LCD Soundsystem, uses the glock similarly, as support for the main melody.
It’s also nice in a more understated role, as a little can go a long way when it comes to the glock. Check out The Decemberists song, “The Engine Driver,” another engaging story told in the form of song. They hold off on going all glock all the way until the third verse (2:23 into the song) and then use it to introduce a delicate countermelody that moves the listener and the story along toward its conclusion. Tasteful, indeed!
Finger cymbals can often be found for a song at garage sales and flea markets. Once again, the bell-like tone of these instruments, which are used throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, can add a nice high-end sound, depending on how they are recorded and mixed. Perhaps one of the best examples of a tasteful use of finger cymbals is on the Beatles track, “Norwegian Wood.” The song was a worldwide Top 40 hit during the Beatles ride as the most popular group on the planet, and is better known as introducing the sound of the sitar – itself full of very rich high frequency overtones. But listen closely, 1:22 into the track, Ringo starts playing finger cymbals to accent the rhythmic patterns nicely. Notice that they are set comfortably in the mix, not way out front.
The afuche-cabasa (cabasa for short) is an instrument invented in the ’60s by Martin Cohen (Latin Percussion founder) to emulate the sound of African gourds that were encircled by beads strung around their outer surface. It has metal beads around a metal center drum and a handle. With just a bit of practice, anyone that can keep a beat can use the cabasa to add scintillating sizzle to a track. Perhaps the quintessential application of using the cabasa is the part that kicks off Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Give the opening a listen and hear how the funky, highly syncopated synth bass line and ghostly synth stabs merge with the cabasa, which is accenting the steady four on the floor drum beat to create an unstoppable groove. Jackson’s producer, Quincy Jones, reflected that he didn’t think “Billie Jean” was on par with the rest of Thriller – didn’t like the bass line and thought the intro was way too long. In an interview clip with Jones for the 25th anniversary special edition of the album, he laughed as he remembered Michael explaining to him the absolute necessity of the song’s groove and lengthy intro: “That’s the jelly. That’s what makes me want to dance!” Quincy got it, the song stayed intact with cabasa, and the rest is music history.
While it’s not quite as easy to master as the cabasa, a triangle is a time-tested accent instrument that goes back to ancient times. It can be used to reinforce a beat or accent pattern, or simply used in one particular part of a song to cue the listener to remember that section. The classic take on tasteful triangle is Joni Mitchell’s original recording of “Big Yellow Taxi,” where she only uses it on the two-bar pre-chorus to memorable effect. Check out how nice a sonic color the triangle adds (:24 in), even though it only appears for a few seconds each time for the pre chorus.
One of the most fun instruments to experiment with is the toy piano. We hopped onto Amazon and bought one for a little over $100 to use in researching this piece. Don’t expect it to work like a real piano, and you’ll need to get comfortable with the slightly out-of-tune sound, but a toy piano can add a very original and fresh sound to your tracks. The classic example of a pop song that leans on the toy piano is Seals and Croft’s “Summer Breeze,” which went Top 10 in 1972 and is still a stable of easy listening oldies radio station. They go to it a lot throughout the track, sometimes using it to double the vocal melody and at other times using it as a sonic accent. For a newer example, check out Lenny Kravitz’s “I Belong to You,” which uses an electronic toy piano throughout. The melody it plays could not get any simpler, and it pulsates through the whole song adding a bit of interest to the soulful soft-rock tune.
Tambourines fit the bill for tinkly sounds and come in many different sizes and types, from plastic or fiberglass models with no head, to the high-quality wood models with a nice natural or synthetic head. Many classic tracks use the instrument in different ways: either as a key element in shaping the rhythmic pulse of the song, or as more of a special effect, with one whole note hit every first or second bar – and then drenching the tambourine in an ocean of reverb.
First, let’s consider three rhythmic examples. Ringo Starr, a solid percussionist, uses tambourine to great effect on “Run for Your Life” off of the group’s 1965 Rubber Soul album. It’s classic rock tambourine on the backbeat, and he edges ahead now and then to keep the track leaning forward. The jingle pattern he keeps up in between the hits on two and four add to the propulsive effect. The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” uses a different approach from the same time period. Instead of keeping and influencing time, the Stones use the tambourine as a memorable accent sound to help keep what is a very repetitive song from becoming boring. While the part played is quite different from the two and four backbeat use in terms of what beats it plays on, the actual result isn’t that different than on “Run For Your Life.” The tambourine on “Satisfaction” plays a three note pattern on the “three-and-four” beats every measure. After a few bars of this, it becomes a part of the steady pattern that forms the bed for Jagger’s memorable vocal.
However, for a real master class in making the most of the tambourine’s possibilities, cue up Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and the expert work of Motown’s legendary tambourine man, Jack Ashford. Like numerous other tracks that originated out of Motown’s funky basement studio, the rhythm section and handclaps define the tune’s steady backbeat, leaving Ashford’s inspired tambourine part to fill in the spaces with his offbeat accent pattern. It serves the same musical function as the cabasa does in “Billie Jean,” creating a groove that you absolutely cannot resist.
We wouldn’t be doing the circular instrument justice if we didn’t also cite the “big tambourine” sound that has been used on countless ballads over the decades. Especially effective on songs whose arrangements have lots of open sonic space, the big tambourine part is often swimming in an ocean of reverb, and even better when a short pre-delay is added to give the reverb decay more detail and shimmer. Check out the uber-tambourine that enters on verse two (1:04) of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” to hear how percussionist Ray Cooper uses the instrument to add character and depth to this classic. Note that Cooper lays out in certain sections so that when he comes back in, the tambourine gives a sense of being back home again to the listener.
What appreciation of interesting instruments would be complete without at least one song that shows off Phil Spector’s famed Wall of Sound? “Be My Baby” performed by the Ronettes, is considered one of the most classic Wall of Sound tracks Spector ever created. One of its signature sounds is the castanet, a tricky instrument to play, but one that really shines in a very full array of percussion on “Be My Baby.” Note how the repeating pattern is fit nicely among the soundscape of the verse. Maracas provide the steady pulse, leaving the snare and castanets to provide the “oomph” on beat four throughout the verses. While this works beautifully on the sparse (for Spector) verses, when the sing-along chorus arrives, the castanet part switches to a galloping, syncopated rhythm that adds more spice to the chorus as it repeats throughout the tune.
Seriously. If you don’t happen to have any percussion kit available and think that adding some sort of high frequency element to your track might help it out, try taking out your key ring, assuming it has a few different keys on it, set up a mic, and use the keys as a shaker. The amount of high frequency content that a shaken key ring has is amazing. Doing a session many years back with producer Richie Ray, he suggested adding this effect to a track we were doing and I was stunned with the added dimension it added to the track. However, just a little bit went a long way as the timbre can be overwhelming sonically.
Rock’s most popular instrument, the guitar, has had its fair share of effects, stomp boxes, and studio wizardry applied to it over the years. We’ll touch on just a few of the simple techniques you can use to add a bit of high frequency magic to your next track. Starting with the basics, check out Buffalo Springfield’s classic protest song, “For What It’s Worth,” for the straightforward octave-jumping harmonics that provide the haunting feeling on this classic. A single note, played as an E harmonic at the 12th fret, then up an octave at the fifth fret, with some steady Fender tremolo applied gives this song its signature sound. The slower tempo gives the notes space to ring out, a totally different approach to the use of guitar harmonics than the blinding speeds that often characterized the harmonics that interspersed the fretwork of Eddie Van Halen and other shredders a few years later.
To get a more pronounced tinkly guitar effect, depending on your electric guitar’s set up, try plinking the strings above the nut up near your tuning keys. This results in a very high pitched, bell like sound that can be fun to use as an effect. It can add a distinctive tonal quality that is not really tonally centered (this will work in any key, for the most part), and if you throw on some repeating delay, it gets even better.
Next, let’s consider taking a page out of the past when it comes to tinkly electric guitar sounds and check out two tunes that show how one could get a “how did they do that?” reaction using variable speed recording in the days of analog tape. The granddaddy of multitrack recording, inventor of the modern electric guitar and all around gizmologist, Les Paul, caught the listening public off guard when he released the song “Brazil” in 1948. Featuring Paul playing all the guitar and bass parts, the song required him to map out in advance just how the complex harmonies and lines would fit together, and then play some of them at half speed, and then overdub others at regular speed. Take a listen for yourself and see. Of particular note is the offbeat comping pattern that sounds like a munchkin keytar! As the song progresses, he adds soaring, high-pitched lines that no other recording of that era could compete with. By recording at reduced speed (in this case, half speed), Paul and partner Mary Ford ended up mystifying listeners with their finished product.
Guitarist and producer Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac is also well known for using the varispeed feature to create new timbres and textures for his guitar parts. Check out the band’s Tusk LP for how he creatively broadens the sound palette that we normally associate with the electric guitar. He goes even further on his solo LP, Out of the Cradle, where he uses varispeed on drums and vocals, as well as many guitar parts.
Studio tricks were the stock in trade of another British pop group, 10CC, who often added interesting sounds like backwards autoharps, and heavily compressed vocals to their songs. They too liked to use varispeed and on the song “Life is a Minestrone,” from their 1975 album The Original Soundtrack, make the most of adding sped up supporting melodies to the song’s catchy chorus. Jump ahead to :52 into the track to hear how the sped up guitars add a zany sonic element to the Roald Dahl-like food based lyrics associated with various stages of a person’s life! Without the high pitched, varispeed guitars, the chorus wouldn’t have the same feel.
Today, nearly every DAW program has some type of a pitch-shifting feature that will allow you to easily emulate the varispeed techniques used by The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and 10CC.
Les Paul, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Phil Spector and 10CC all shared one common belief when it came to creating memorable recordings. Take some chances and add some unique and fresh sounds to your tracks to create sonic “hooks” that will give listeners a familiar sound that they can identify with your song and even a particular section. It worked well for them, and it can work well for you. For one last listen, check out the Beatles’ “In My Life” piano solo played in real time, then sped up using varispeed effect on this YouTube clip.
Photos of percussion instruments used courtesy of the Percussive Arts Society’s Rhythm Discovery Center.
Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to the Disc Makers Blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He has also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry, which just came out in its third edition, and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.
Robert Bassett is a freelance engineer, producer, and bassist living in Southern California. He teaches music and plays regularly around the region with a variety of groups.
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