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Recording Mythology, Pt. 38 / Busted Headphones Present New Opportunity


Not too long ago, my Sennheiser HD260 Pros began to fall apart. Although they were okay, I felt that they were a bit bottom heavy, which made me want to mix my stuff a bit bright. I looked forward to marrying up to a better pair anyhow. But I don’t just throw junk away when it expires. Hell no. I tear it apart to see what makes it tick, maybe salvage some usable parts; even though one thing craps out, the rest of the components are fine. I was primarily interested in the 40mm drivers. How could something so tiny sound so big? If by design, I simply had to find out.

I want to take you to the place in my head where the concept of making great personal tones still exists. There, it is possible to make David Gilmour’s guitar rig sound like an ice cream truck, or make Left Coast badasses like Ross Robinson cry and apologise to me for producing such limp-wristed bands as Korn. I run this universe.

Whereas most home recordists make money at their day job to simply run out and buy some damned plug-in to augment their hobby, recording is my day job. Being ‘old school’ represents something real to all analogue freaks: It means that when it’s on tape, you physically did the thing. It means milking an outdated and el-cheapo piece of gear for all it’s worth. It means creating a bastard piece of equipment that will sound unique among ones peers, thereby making the creator peerless.

Something that rock pioneers once used which defined their trade-mark sound, was their own echo chambers. This wasn’t in-line or outboard equipment that they ran out to Guitar Center to buy, this was the sound that people invented. And the secrets to getting those trade mark sound effects were protected like they were yellow cake Uranium or black tar Heroin.

Remember when you were a kid and you were told that if you held a Conch shell to your ear, you could hear the ocean? That was my introductory course to echo chambers and mic bleed. I remember my roots.

Back when, reverb tanks were nothing more than an honest-to-god, big-ass empty tank that was once used as a container for some product or the other. A speaker was fastened into one end and a microphone in the other and that was your reverb/echo chamber. Back then, shit was personal. Lee Hazlewood used a two thousand one hundred gallon tank at Ramsey’s to record Duane Eddy’s guitars. Les Paul built his own units, as did Joe Meek, Phil Spector, and Sam Phillips. Using or copying someone else’s sounds in those days would’ve meant labeling oneself as philistine and disingenuous in the artistic sense. In those days, it was like, “Phil’s got killer reverb? Oh, yeah? Well, I’ll make one better.”

I pondered the failed Ambiophonic reverb system at Abbey Road. What a catastrophe. The problem is, you never know until after you get something built as to whether it’s going to have that Golden Tone, or be off one thousandth of a millimetre and just be the ultimate Black Hole. Everything in life is a crap shoot, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

These days it’s so panty-waist. Virtual Lord-Alge-in-a-box. Virtual cutting-and-pasting. “Oh, don’t worry, we’ll fix it in ProTools.” Loops and beats. Even talentless hacks can now have virtual talent and do virtual work. Piss on that noise.

But I don’t want to get started on Adidas rockers or the hot-air Rhymstas.

Getting back to the Conch shell thing, I still hold all kinds of stuff up to my ear these days, except now I know what I’m listening for: the fundamental tone. I’ve got a wire milk crate full of glass bottles that I play percussion with, plastic and metal cans that I’ll sing or play harmonica into, and rosewood claves that I’ve drilled and filled. There’s coconut shells I’ve bored holes into, door saws, a rubber duck, and a locomotive whistle, plus other junk that contains very exceptional fundamental tones. I figure that everything is simply waiting to be mated to something else in order to form a perfect union. The 40mm drivers may well find their soulmate waiting in my wire crate. I’ve done it before.

I’ve got a Dremel, black Permatex Form-A-Gasket, and a gob of different gauges of enameled coil wire. I can build anything. Once I took apart an old DiMarzio single coil pickup and supersized it. I wound it with coil wire that gauged more like piano wire. I added bar magnets, and rather than re-potting it with a wax dip, I packed it with white lithium grease. I wound it backwards, though. I soldered it into my poor old Telecaster. When I played through it, it sounded like a huge chorus of angels routed through a ring modulator. I took it on to a gig that evening where I raised the dead. Later, a well known guitarist engaged me in conversation, inquiring first about my guitar, then my pickups; finally pleading with me to sell him the hybrid pickup, but I refused. Success, damn it. I took that pickup out of my guitar without ever playing another note on it, and deposited it in my odds and ends box, where it collects dust to this day.

Anyway, I got those headphones taken completely apart. It took me a couple of days. The transducers resemble large, semi-rigid microphone diaphragms. These, along with their specialised frames, and wiring, go into my odds and ends box, while I roundcan the fatigued and broken items. Turning my attention to the build of the transducers, I began to imagine how I’ll eventually wind up using them.

All of this seems kooky if you think about it.

See, we have one diaphragm, a speaker, used to create (or re-create) a sound, then, we immediately place another diaphragm, a microphone, directly in front of it to convert it back into what we just converted it from. Is air really that special? I mean, except to breathe? It must be, because DI boxes generally bite the bag. I’ve been trying to find the perfect DI box, but until then, I’ll build stuff in order to get tones. I consider close-miking. How close can we get the two diaphragms and still get the air groove? I’m wondering if anyone has actually attempted to kiss the two units when- boom– a flash. What if I wired the two units – speaker and microphone – together, incorporating a single diaphragm? What if I sealed this diaphragm into a tank? What if I made stereo chambers, installing the diaphragms in stainless steel tubes, both of whose length could be changed, sort of like two trombones, and called it Sound Binoculars? Might it possibly result in the Holy Chalice of Tone? Would I get my picture in the paper? No, that wouldn’t work. Become a millionaire, maybe? I’d settle for a thousandaire. Perhaps it would only hear itself and create everlasting feedback from hell. The prospect beats copping out and buying someone else’s pre-packaged bake & serve tones.

I need to quit writing and get back into the studio and fire up my soldering iron.

Remember, nothing ventured, nothing gained.



About Johnny Nowhere

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer and owner of Hell Paving Company, music publisher. Johnny doesn't really exist outside of the music industry and Facebook. He is simply a figment of my imagination.

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