Flanging’s Greatest Hits

Still working my way up out of the grumpies, so a list it shall be…

Flanging (pronounced “flan-jing”) is an audio effect produced by mixing two identical signals together, with one signal delayed by a small and gradually changing period, usually smaller than 20 milliseconds. This produces a swept comb filter effect: peaks and notches are produced in the resultant frequency spectrum, related to each other in a linear harmonic series. Varying the time delay causes these to sweep up and down the frequency spectrum.Wikipedia

Still not sure what it is? Do you remember the first time you heard the song “Killer Queen”, and when Freddie Mercury sang “dynamite with a laser beam”, you went “YEAAAAAAAH!” because “laser beam” sounded SO FRICKIN’ COOL?!

That, my friend, was the work of flanging, the playful porpoise of the audio world. In sound production, if reverb is meat and EQ is bread, then flange is cheese sauce. Healthy? Mostly not. A responsible choice? Nope. But it can instantly make anything taste good! And when applied deftly and in moderation, you could almost call it noble.

Of course everyone has strong opinions on the subject, but below are the indisputably top five best songs that feature flanging:

  • 5. “Tomorrow Never Knows” – The Beatles (1966 – Revolver)
    I would have made it #1, except that it’s more convenient to place it here in order to explain flanging’s origins (for those who didn’t read the Wikipedia article). The effect is credited to Abby Road engineer Ken Townsend, who was asked by John Lennon to get the sound of double-tracked vocals without actually singing them twice. That’s right: laziness created flanging, making it that much more awesome.

    Basically, the effect was originally achieved by pressing a finger down on one of the rims of a tape machine’s reels (the “flange”), setting whatever’s being recorded slightly out of sync (it’s now more common to use processors to mimic the effect). In the case of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, the first Beatles song to use the effect, it significantly contributed to its swooping trippiness. The effect also appears in moderation throughout the album, and like everything else the Beatles did soon appeared throughout the pop music world. Case in point: the next song on the list.

  • 4. “Itchycoo Park” – The Small Faces (1967 – single)
    This was the song that made me think to put together this list, and is credited as the first pop single to use flanging. A jaunty pop tune with the hippie turned up to eleven, its main message is how awesome to go the park, get high, and feed ducks. Psychedelic as the song is, a long, sweeping flange is liberally applied throughout the song, and most notably during the bridge sections, to augment the point.
  • 3. “Kashmir” – Led Zepplin (1975 – Physical Graffiti)
    Once again flanging contributes to a sense of hazy, gauzy mental alteration, this time sweeping back and forth across the drums. Mental image? An army of orcs on the march after devouring a barrel of ‘shrooms.
  • 2. “Are You Gonna Go My Way” – Lenny Kravitz (1993 – album of same name)
    This one’s a guilty pleasure for me. Yes, I know it’s derivative of other songs (most especially “Cross Town Traffic” by Jimi Hendrix, both sonically and thematically), but DAMN is it catchy. And its use of flanging during the guitar bridge? Yeah, it makes you want to take a running leap off a steep canyon edge and FLY, MAN, FLY!

    It’s also notable in that flanging had mostly gone out of style by the early 90s, or at least was much less prevalent than in its 70s heyday. But with the explosion of digital effects processing in the time in between, it’s no surprise that flanging waned: why risk nipping your finger on a machine to get a cool sound that’s been overused when you can push a few buttons and have access to a virtually unlimited number of freaky sounds? But Lenny knew better.

  • 1. “Life in the Fast Lane” – The Eagles (1976 – Hotel California)
    Speaking of flanging’s heyday, this one sits at ground zero–peak flange, if you will. The song rocks along masterfully, a mix of well-crafted verses, b-sections, hooky choruses, and guitar solos. But for how long is that interesting? About three minutes and thirty-eight seconds, right? Right. And that’s EXACTLY when they mash a finger down on the flange, dropping the floor out from the bottom of your ear’s mind and making room for another minute of easy rockin’!

There you have it: the definitive and unchallengeable list of the best songs with flanging, ever. Hopefully this exercise has been educational, not only for revealing the wonders of flanging, but as another example of how to analyze, in tedious detail, small but terrific corners of the world that could otherwise just be experienced and enjoyed, without thinking about them.

But where’s the fun in that?

One Comment

  1. Wayne D.
    Posted May 11, 2011 at 12:28 am | Permalink

    At work there’s some loud HVAC units outside that put out a source of what we’ll call white noise for simplicity. If I stand outside facing them, with my back about 1 foot from the building, I can move my head back and forth and hear a (very cool to my geek/amateur-musician’s mind) flanging effect. The motion changes the phase relationship between the direct and reflected sound.

    (The joy wears off quickly, but it’s cool.)

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