Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Magic of Tape Flanging

While it can be done electronically today, a studio technique that was occasionally used on rock ‘n roll records in the 60s and 70s was called tape flanging. Used as an effect on several hit records, flanging is often described as being "jet like" or like a whooshing sound. One of the landmark recordings that used tape flanging was Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park” – their only American hit.

The song features flanging during guitarist Steve Marriott’s vocals on the bridge where he sings:
“I feel inclined to blow my mind; get hung up; feed the ducks with a bun.
They all come out to groove about – Be nice and have fun in the sun.”
The effect continues into Kenney Jones’ drum fills. It returns during the ending choruses as well.  The song's flanging is accentuated in a stereo recording, as illustrated below.

The song is our third in our series of recordings this week featuring Ronnie Lane. “Itchycoo Park” was co-written by Lane and Marriott; on the recording, Ronnie plays bass and provides backing vocals. It is also is an example of an absent or obscured title that is not part of the song’s hook. In this case, the chorus is “It’s all too beautiful.” Since “Itchycoo Park” is found once in the song, it is an obscured title. Songs like Robert Plant’s “Big Log” and Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women Numbers 12 and 35” have absent titles as they never appear in the song’s lyrics.

“Itchycoo Park,” which got its name from the stinging nettles found in a park in Ilford where the band had hung out, was a number one record in Canada. It charted at 3 in the UK and was a top 20 record (#16) in the US. The main attraction to the song was the use of tape flanging, which provided a psychedelic feel to this 1967 hit. Similar to phase shifting and chorus effects, which generally process two signals electronically; flanging differs because the delay in those signals is much longer – usually between 40 and 50 milliseconds.

Phase shifting allows one signal (the wet signal) to be processed in and out of phase in intervals that can be controlled with the speed of the effect. The dry or untouched signal interacts with the wet signal to perform a Doppler or circular effect. Mechanically, early phase shifting was accomplished by using a Leslie rotating speaker. Most often used in conjunction with Hammond Organs, George Harrison often played slide guitar through a Leslie speaker.

Chorus effects have a shorter delay at about 10-30 milliseconds and the wet signal is delayed from the dry signal and can provide a fatter sound. When used on a single instrument, a chorus delay gives the appearance that one of the signals is out of tune. On a piano the effect creates a honky-tonk piano sound. At one point in time, I was using both a chorus and phase shifter simultaneously on my Prophet 5’s strings settings to make the sound much fuller. It worked in giving the string sound more presence in a live context.

For completeness sake, I should mention three other related effects: reverb, delay, and echo which can be performed mechanically or electronically. Reverb is a repeat of a signal with a short delay but a long decay of the sound. The effect can be generated digitally, through magnetic tape (as a feedback of the dry signal), or as in amplifiers - the wet signal is sent along a spring. The delay effect which can be produced digitally or via a tape transport is a longer delay of the wet signal than flanging and echo is even longer yet. In all three, the wet signal does not (typically) match or compete with the dry signal. It is used to enhance the dry signal and not to change the overall sound as in phase shifting, chorus, or flanging effects.

Tape flanging, the subject of today's post, is quite unique in its presentation and how it is generated. Flanging is accomplished by having two reel-to-reel tape decks of the song play simultaneously while the two signals are mixed down to a third record deck. The delay caused the jet like whoosh was accomplished by the engineer touching the edge (flange) of the take up reel on one machine to slow down the speed of one deck to create a delay and then he repeated the process on the second deck to return the machines to being in sync. The process of going out and back into sync created the distinctive sound.

It is said that the name flanging originated with Beatles producer, George Martin. Since the engineer touched the flange, George began using the term “flanging” for the process. Apparently, John Lennon popularized its usage outside of the Beatles’ circle of influence, and the rest they say is history.

Miss Toni Fisher: The Big Hurt

While there are competing earlier incidents of the effect being used, it is generally thought that Miss Toni Fisher’s #3 recording of “The Big Hurt” was the first use of flanging on a popular recording. David S. Gold and Stan Ross, owners of Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, acknowledge this claim and it is often cited in various books on studio recording.

The engineers at the session were attempting to create a stereo mix by combining two mono signals of the same recording. The original intention was to mix each deck’s signal down to separate tracks by placing one of the decks out of phase; however, the engineer summed the signals and voila – instant flanging. The whooshing sound which occurs throughout the song can be attributed to minor fluctuations in the speeds of the two master decks. No hand manipulation was used on this recording.

Eric Burdon and the Animals: Sky Pilot

Generally considered a Vietnam War protest song, Eric Burdon’s song about military chaplains is not overtly anti-war, but it is not pro-war either. The flanging effect is more like “The Big Hurt” than “Itchycoo Park,” as the effect is throughout the entire song and not controlled. “Sky Pilot” charted in the US at #14 in 1968. Back home in the UK, the song just barely hit the top 40.

The Doobie Brothers: Listen to the Music

From The Doobie Brother’s second LP “Toulouse Street,” “Listen to the Music” was their first top-40 single charting at #11 in 1972. What’s not to like about this song. It’s positive, upbeat, has a banjo, and features tape flanging. Although uncredited, the banjo was played by Patrick Simmons. The flanging effect here mimics the usage by Small Faces as it is only used on the song’s bridge.

Be careful of sites on the Internet that purport to have listings of songs with flanging effects. As I listened to many of these songs, I discovered that flanging wasn't being used - as it has a unique sound. For example, the Lemon Pipers' "Green Tambourine" is a song found among many of these lists - the effect used on that recording was tape reverb and not flanging.

When you spend 20 years in radio, you learn how to do interesting things such as this and I guess my first experience with flanging happened at WAMX in Ashland, KY in 1979. One night, the fellow who worked the graveyard shift (and went by the name of "The Mole") showed me how to do this with two records. So when I wanted to play around with it, I would put copies of the same recording on both turntables and let them whoosh. In the 21st century, flanging can be emulated digitally through filters and the whooshing sound can be synthesized; however, nothing beats good old-fashioned, mechanically produced tape flanging.

1 comment:

  1. We use to do it with two tape decks, two turntables with two identical albums on both. I even did it once with a local FM station playing the song and mixing the album locally on a phonograph (although this way was hardest to sync!).