Audio Week: 5 Examples of Music Technology Used the Wrong Way to Magical Effect


Using technology the “wrong” way is at the heart of modern music. Artists have proven time and time again that when it comes to creativity in music, there are no rules. For example, the Roland TB-303 Bassline Synthesizer was originally marketed to solo guitar players as a way to simulate playing along with a real bass guitarist. But in practice, the unit didn’t sound much like a bass guitar, and didn’t do very well commercially. However, electronic musicians started picking up the TB-303 in the used market and, eventually, its trademark squelchy bass sound became a foundation of electronic dance music genres such as acid house and techno, and has inspired many clones.

Roland Boutique TB-03 Bassline Synthesizer

In the same spirit, there have been instances in which microphones originally intended for broadcast vocals have become staples of the music recording industry. One such example is the Electro-Voice RE20. Although it’s marketed as a “Broadcast Announcer Microphone,” and used by the majority of the on-air talent at NPR, it’s also become a go-to for music producers and recording engineers. The RE20 can be found on countless records, famous for its round and full-bodied low end, perfect for recording bass guitar amps and kick drums.

Electro-Voice RE20 Broadcast Announcer Microphone

One of the most recent examples of using gear the wrong way to magical effect involves Antares Autotune. Launched in 1997, Autotune was originally intended as simply a tool used to correct mistakes in the pitch of a singer’s performance. But everything changed in 1998, when Cher released “Believe,” a song that featured use of Auto-Tune not as a corrective tool, but as a deliberate modulation of the vocal sound, creating a robotic effect that soon became known as the “Cher effect.” Even though music fans and critics thought this was just a passing fad, and many criticized its use as being indicative of not being able to sing in tune, by the late 2000s, hits by artists such as T-Pain, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne solidified Auto-Tune as a standard effect that, as many have argued, augments the creative expression of the vocalist, much like the wah pedal does for electric guitarists.

Antares Audio Technologies Auto-Tune Pro - Pitch and Time Vocal-Correction

A relatively early success story that involves musical gear being used in a way other than originally intended can be traced back to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the mid-1940s. Junior Barnard was an American Western Swing guitarist who was a member of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Barnard was known for his solos that featured a distorted “fuzzy” guitar sound that no one had ever heard before. He achieved this sound by cranking his low-wattage amplifier up all the way, pushing the vacuum tubes to the point of overdrive, and changing the sound of the electric guitar forever. It’s unclear exactly which amplifier Mr. Barnard used, but soon guitarists everywhere were turning their amps up to 11 in order to achieve that aggressive, crunchy growl that we all know and love.

Perhaps my favorite historical example of music tech being used the “wrong” way to glorious ends takes us back to the early 1970s in the South Bronx. At legendary parties, DJ Kool Herc used two ordinary turntables in tandem to isolate, and effectively extend the “break” sections of songs like James Brown's "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose" and Jimmy Castor's "It's Just Begun." As one record on one of the turntables reached the end of the break, he cued a second record on the other turntable to the beginning of the break, which allowed him to create percussive loops that were ideal for breakdancing, and rapping. This technique created the backbone for hip hop, and revolutionized music as we know it.

Technics SL-1210GR Direct Drive Turntable System

Have you used your musical gear in strange and exciting ways? Let me know in the Comments section, below! Interested in expanding your knowledge, fine-tuning your workflow, or figuring out what gear to get? Visit B&H’s Audio Week page to read tutorials, comparisons, and buying guides about audio for video, podcasting, live sound, music recording, and more.