TMBGís Top 10 List of Unsung and Underappreciated Gear

Electronic Musician, March 2008
by John Flansburgh and John Linnell

1. Empirical Labs Distressor. While itís a bona fide piece of rackmount gear, there is nothing retro going on here--no tubes, just crushing amounts of warm, harmonically rich compression that makes guitars sound as big as a house. Engineer Pat Dillett says he can get compression so intense with the Distressor that he can hear the singerís thoughts.

2. Dubreq Stylophone. This pocket-size keyboard made in Britain in the 1960s looks like a transistor radio. It is played with a stylus and produces a harsh buzz, but its unpretty sound is a feature, not a defect. Ours came with a 7-inch record of Rolf "Tie Me Kangaroo Down" Harris lovingly extolling the Stylophoneís virtues.

3. Audio Ease Altiverb. This digital reverb plug-in is more expensive than some, but other plug-ins just sound anonymous in comparison. Based on physical impulse responses, Altiverb delivers sounds with real character and clarity. Our faves are the Capitol Records chambers for authentic í60s-era splash, and Joe Goreís amp-based reverbs always deliver head-turning sonic funk. man playing accordion

4. Auratone speakers. Beyond Yamaha NS-10Ms, Auratones are the perfect reference speaker for TV work. Nothing really sounds good on these odd, contact-paper-covered speakers, but if the mix can survive the Auratone test, it will work in any setting.

5. Crane Song Dark Essence. Tape-emulation plug-ins are the kind of black-box item we normally wouldnít even bother with, but Crane Songís Phoenix bundle, and specifically the Dark Essence plug-in, has proved consistently helpful to us for thickening up vocals. Its design is also so simple that youíll know in less than a minute if itís bringing something useful to the party.

6. Korg microKorg. This portable, battery-powered synth has a lot of fun sounds--both retro and highly contemporary--and with good old-fashioned knobs, everything is easy to tweak. It even has a little microphone on a gooseneck, so you can sing through the vocoder.

7. Korg KAOSS Pad. Rub your finger around on the x- and y-axes of the glowing pad to control two functions at once. Itís mainly used in techno and other kinds of music that we donít know much about, and itís designed mostly to process other sounds. In our live show, we use the oddball built-in sounds. Itís hard to control precisely, even with practice, and yet this limitation is its greatest strength. They donít call it the Orderr Pad.

8. Cycling í74 Pluggo. Unlike many software effects you can buy, the Pluggo plug-in package is not constrained to subtlety or good taste. Many of the included effects are so bizarre that the sounds you get donít sweeten the mix or nestle comfortably in the background. Some of our favorites, like Space Echo, are unpredictable and must be wrestled to the ground, but theyíre well worth the trouble.

9. Panasonic cassette recorder. Flansburgh wonít go to a recording session or get on a tour bus without his trusty tape recorder to document that fleeting idea, and all with no fear of demo-itis. This thing sounds rough!

10. DigiTech MIDI Vocalist. When you need inspiration or if youíre just feeling lonely, thereís nothing like the crazy five-part harmony coming out of this box to lift your spirits. You can set it to automatically harmonize whatever youíre singing into it, or you can control the backing vocals with a keyboard. Itís also fun to sing the most transgressively sick things you can think of and have it come out sounding like the Beach Boys.