A collector of guitars. Owner of Major Label and Ecco-Fonic Records. Record producer and engineer at his Ecco-Fonic Studios. Band leader. Guitarist. Author of two volumes of The Strat in the Attic. This guy, Deke Dickerson, does a lot of things. We met up for breakfast on a rainy Portland morning and, at the end of our interview, what did we do but to head downtown to look for the plaque (at 411 SW 13th Avenue) where The Kingsmen recorded "Louie Louie!" How appropriate.
Thanks for meeting up to do this interview.
I have to say, I, in no way, consider myself to be an engineer, producer, or a full-time recording studio guy, like many of the people you talk to, so I sort of don't feel like I'm qualified to be in your magazine. I'm obsessed with records, old and new, and to me there's a fascinating process of listening to those records and thinking about how they made them. I feel really proud of being able to come up with some really cool sounds of the past and present in my recordings, as well as in some of the other things I've produced.
I think that makes you someone worth putting in Tape Op! How does work come to you? I'd imagine that people come and search you out?
Yeah, [that's what happens] whenever I get hired to out-and-out record or produce somebody. But it seems like a lot of these sessions are things that I come up with in my head, like, "The Trashmen must make another record!" Then I realize that nobody's going to support that, unless it's me. So I do everything out of my pocket, just to make it happen. I did a record with Nokie Edwards from The Ventures. That one turned out really cool.
To some, these people are bygones, but they're stylistic icons to us.
That's the thing. It always pisses me off when you talk to 20-year-old know-it-alls, and they talk about guys in their sixties, seventies, or eighties as being all washed-up has-beens. Nokie Edwards has magic in his hands. He will come up with licks that you never could have come up with.
How did recording music enter your life?
I never really set out to record. I was in a band, and we did the whole thing where we saved up a bunch of money and went to a local recording studio. But after, we were like, "Man, this sounds like crap! We just spent a bunch of money, this guy seemed like he knew what he was doing, but it sounds like a Steely Dan record or something."
Was that with Untamed Youth back in Missouri?
Exactly. It all boils down to the fact that you have to have somebody on the same wavelength. The guys in Missouri were all competent engineers; but they were hippie guys, and they recorded blues and hard rock. So when I moved out to California, I discovered this whole new world of people, like Wally Hersom, Tim Maag, and Mark Neill, who I wound up recording several records with. It was like this blanket had been lifted, and I could actually make records that would sound good — or, should I say, what my personal taste thinks is good. I thought that was something that had literally vanished forever. You start realizing that it's really an approach to recording, and by using certain pieces of gear, that you can achieve those sounds. Right around the time that eBay started was when I started picking up pieces of gear, because I found them for cheap.
You'd always been involved in finding guitars, instruments, and amps, like you talk about in your book.
I was always a junk hound, so I figured that I should really focus my energy on picking up recording gear when it was cheap. I just had this feeling that it was all going to go sky high, which it did. I was lucky enough to pick things up, like an RCA 77[-DX ribbon mic] and a Sony C-37A [mic] at a flea market for a couple hundred bucks each. I started watching the local Recycler [classified] paper, which was one of the things that predated Craigslist. I picked up a couple of Ampex tape recorders, a couple Altec mixers, and some other basic items to start with. That's when you have the harsh realization that this is not plug-and-play. It starts you down this whole path, where you realize you have to learn about +4 and -10, balanced and unbalanced. And if you're using tube gear, you find out what a world of difference things like quality capacitors, resistors, and low-noise tubes make. Tube gear, when it's well maintained, can sound shockingly good. On the other hand, I've been to a lot of studios that have some noisy old tube gear that sounds like crap because it all needs to be rebuilt. I do think I'm lucky, in that I was sort of the last generation that learned how to record audio with reel to reel tape recorders. I used to do this radio show back in Missouri. They had a production room with all these ReVox tape recorders and a Studer mixer. I spent hours in there with these guys teaching me how to chop tape, as well as clean and demagnetize the heads.
Even how to feed the tape through the rollers?
Exactly. I feel like I was lucky to have a hands-on experience with all of the analog stuff. When the whole digital thing came around, I wasn't helpless. At some point I decided I wanted to start recording bands so that I could learn how to use some of the gear I'd gotten together. My first few efforts were atrocious. I like to think of myself as a fairly intelligent guy, so I sat down and tried to figure it out. I thought, "If Sam Phillips, or any of these guys I idolize, were able to make such great-sounding records with so little equipment, what is it that I'm doing wrong?" Eventually you start figuring out that it really has to do with the musicians and the sound that's coming out of the instruments, along with their performances and musical interaction. The gear has a little bit to do with it, especially when you're dealing with chasing a tone. Mark Neill was the guy to teach me this. He comes across as a real hard-ass a lot of times, because he'll tell musicians, "You're not good enough to play on this recording." A lot of times, he's right. I took notes on that.
But, on the other hand, you and I are also fans of garage bands from the '60s. How did those records get done?
I really love extremely well produced records that are played by virtuoso musicians; high-fidelity and magically great records. Think about those incredible records produced by Bill Porter in Nashville in the 1950s and '60s — Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers, that Nashville period of Elvis Presley's. Those recordings are shockingly good, from every aspect. They're perfect records! On the other hand, I really love messed-up sounding records, and I think there's a whole art and science to messed up sounding records. For me, when I've recorded bands in the house, I always try to ask myself, "Is this guy really not a good musician, and should he not be on this recording?" Versus, "I don't want to be the guy who stops the next Velvet Underground from happening." What if the Velvet Underground had walked into a studio, and they told them, "You guys suck! We're going to get some studio musicians in here and let Lou Reed sing." I always try to ask myself if things are actually working and genius in their own way, or if they actually need to be improved.
What's your home recording setup like?
I was really lucky when I bought my house, because I was planning on converting the two-car garage into a floating-floor type studio room. But first I started doing some band rehearsals in my living room. It's wood all around, with hardwood floors, wood on the walls, and a vaulted wood ceiling. All of us were like, "Damn, it sounds good in here!" The last four or five albums I've done there, with the band in the living room and all of my gear set up in one of the bedrooms. I wouldn't go so far as to call my setup a full-on commercial studio, but I've got top gear and a good sounding room. I'm open for business!
You've got a label, your writing, the various combos you put together, plus recording and producing people — you've got all these different ventures going, but are you making a living?
Well, yeah. The reason I do all those different things is to attempt to make a living. Most of the guys I know who quit their day jobs have to find out some way to juggle all the bills and make it happen. For me, the whole record industry thing sort of imploded around 2000.
Were you in a genre or niche that used to see more money, like from direct CD sales and such?
Yes and no. I was on HighTone Records, which was a mid-sized record label. I signed with them in 1998, and when the first record came out, it was all the good, old classic record label deal. I got a good-sized advance, they did a radio promo, took out ads in local entertainment magazines when I went on tour, and they gave me some tour support money. Within two years, by 2000, it had turned into one-third the size of the record advance, and nothing else. It was like the entire industry had back-ended itself in two years. You can sit there and drive yourself crazy thinking about, "Man, if I had only gotten signed six years earlier." I realized I was a good hustler of merchandise, so I started putting out my own records. The first record I did after HighTone was a record called [Deke Dickerson] In 3-Dimensions! I sold 9,000 CDs all on my own, without taking out ads or anything like that.
Are you still on a quest for perfect guitar tones?
The funny thing for me is that, especially in this digital age, people think that some gadget, some plug-in, or some effect is going to make things sound better. You avoid the basic building blocks of whether the guitar is good or the singer is good. What's the actual sound that's being produced from the beginning? As the old saying goes, you can rub it and you can buff it, but you can't shine shit. The other thing I found is that the simplest path you can take gives you the best guitar tone you can have. There are so many guys who go overboard, not only with effects on their amp setup, but also with effects while they're recording, just loading it down with everything under the sun. For me, if the guy can get a good sound in the room, then a really simple path of a microphone into a good preamp straight to tape can't be beat. It took me forever to figure that out.
With you, being a guitar player, and on a quest for guitars and amps, what have you found, as far as sounds go, while searching for some of the more obscure amps and guitars?
I'll just say this, I'm definitely a nerd about that sort of thing. If I hear a record that I really like, I'll sometimes try to chase a tone and figure out how they got a sound. If you don't have the right gear, you spend a lot of time and effort trying to chase that sound. If you figure out a sound that you're going for, and then you get the exact same gear that was on the recording, it's always mind-blowing to listen to the gear and hear the sound. It lives! On a new record that I did, there were a few places where I was trying to chase these elusive rockabilly guitar tones. There was a guy named Grady Martin who played a lot on Owen Bradley records in Nashville. He had a Bigsby double-neck guitar, which he played through a Magnatone amp, with an RCA mic on the amp. It was an old tube studio and a pretty primitive setup. They'd use a second microphone direct into the mic preamp of an Ampex 350 [tape deck] for the slapback, and they'd mix that in as a separate channel on their console, as opposed to [using] an aux send or something. On this record, I was lucky enough to have a Bigsby electric guitar (which is really rare), a Magnatone amp, an RCA microphone, and an Ampex 350. I set that whole signal chain up, and then all of a sudden there was that exact sound. I'd spent all these years trying to chase that exact tone with other guitars and amplifiers.
That is a cool idea, a second mic feeding a delay. That's a whole different ball game.
Exactly. I've seen so many guys who try to get old recording sounds and tones using modern techniques. If they had a slapback echo, they'd literally have to put a second mic on the amp, send that through a second slapback tape recorder, and put that through the mixing board — this actually sounds different.
It could be a phase situation too, depending on where the mics are.
True. I study old photographs to see how everything was set up in old studios, and there's a really interesting photo of Buddy Holly recording at Owen Bradley's studio in about 1956. There's a [Neumann] U 47 hanging from the ceiling, and an Altec 639 butted up underneath it. I remember seeing some guy on the Ampex forum a long time ago saying, "Well, they did that because they'd combine the signal of the bright Neumann and the warm signal of the Altec microphone." I'm like, "No, dude; one was the echo mic!" The 639 was going into a tape recorder for the echo. Then you get into this whole thing of, "Wow, the tape echo actually sounds different because the tonality of a 639 feeding it is different from the tonality of a U 47 feeding it."
It's so simple, but it's probably something people wouldn't necessarily set up.
If you come from the modern standpoint, it's so out of the realm of thinking that they'd ever do this. Then, when you realize old boards didn't have aux sends, you get really archaic about it. You realize why people did it, and why things sound like that. You also realize that some of those tones you think were so amazing weren't even deliberate. Again, to use the Owen Bradley rockabilly example, I spent a long time trying to figure out how they got the echo sound on the drums that they did — and eventually I realized that it was just leakage into the vocalist's echo mic on the other side of the room. It's always the simplest thing. Those guys back then had about 15 knobs on their entire recording console. Amazing sounds came from the most primitive of setups, mostly by accident.
You can even listen to some old recordings and kind of guess where they were done because of the techniques or the sounds of the room.
Absolutely. The main thing I learned from Mark Neill, just by watching him work, was controlled leakage. Controlled leakage is the secret to all those great recordings. When I first started recording in the '80s, it was when people were starting to isolate every instrument, close mic everything, and put the drummer in a separate room with a door. It took me a long time to realize that there's magic with everybody playing in the room together, as well as having controlled leakage going on to help things. It's amazing how much leakage from the drums will help your drum sound, as long as you have a good drummer who's not bashing the shit out of the drums.
When you start studying older records, you can pick apart what you're hearing on them. One of my favorite conversations I ever had was with Cosimo Matassa, the guy in New Orleans who recorded all the great music. He's such a low-key guy, and I was trying to pick his brain. He basically said that it was all the musicians, and he didn't have anything to do with it. That's very true, but then he told me that he only had one condenser mic, and that was an Altec M11. The Altec M11 has a big omnidirectional field. He said he'd actually have someone in the studio while the band was playing who would swing the microphone over on a boom to the saxophone for the saxophone solo, and then swing it over to the drums after the sax solo was done. I went and listened to a bunch of Little Richard records after he told me that, and you can hear it! That's literally the only microphone that you could do that with. You have this giant field, and it almost acts like a compressor, because the drums go down a little bit when he swings it by the saxophone. It's genius.
There's something to be said about making do with a limited amount of tracks, or a limited amount of inputs. He had one track to start with!
Plus, he was making records that were huge hits then and are still played today. That's what always blows my mind. I've wound up recording a bunch of modern rockabilly bands. It's always funny, because they come in, and I tell them, "We can do it live to mono tape, just like the old days, or we can do it in Pro Tools." Without fail, they go, "Oh, let's do live to mono tape!" Then, after about 16 takes of one song, they realize, "Oh, we can't go back and fix it. We can't overdub that." A lot of them aren't really good enough to pull out that magic performance. There have been half a dozen sessions that started out live to mono tape and wound up going to Pro Tools for fixing later on.
Have you forced yourself to work in that fashion too, as a performer? To go live-to-tape?
I've done a lot of things live-to-tape in the past. I like the way it sounds, but it's always a compromise when it comes to your own performance. You always have to settle. The vocals on one sound good, but the guitar's not as good as the one before. Actually on the first couple of records that I did, Mark Neill and I did a lot of splicing, which was another technique they did a lot in the old days. Those early Beatles records, like "She Loves You" and "Please Please Me," weren't made with overdubs or multitrack recorders, but they did have about a dozen tape splices in every single one of those early hits, cobbled together from various takes.
Your book, The Strat in the Attic, is about you and people you've talked to, as well as their quests and adventures in finding interesting new guitar equipment.
I tried to write this book so that even if you don't like guitars, it's still interesting to read. It's really more a collection of human stories about people being obsessed with something and taking it as far as they can possibly go. A Les Paul Standard from 1958 to 1960 is the most valuable electric guitar in the world. People lust after these guitars. But if you had a story that went, "Yeah, this is a nice Les Paul, and it's worth a bunch of money," it would be kind of boring. The story I put in the book is about a 1958 Les Paul sunburst that turned up where a guy had turned it into a left-handed guitar by sawing it up on a bandsaw and putting a whole bunch of extra holes in it and routing out this and that for a vibrato. He basically butchered a guitar that could possibly be worth as much as $250,000 into a guitar that's worth about $3,500. To me, that's a really interesting story. It almost makes you throw up. I tried to write a book that's full of funny, interesting stories. Not just people who are like, "I'm a lawyer, and I paid a crapload of money for this guitar."
There's a lot of that.
It's the same way with vintage recording equipment. There are a few guys who tend to buy up almost everything. The people who are more interesting to me are the guys who are still using something they bought 55 years ago. Kearney Barton was a friend of mine up in Seattle. It was so awesome to watch him using all this gear. Or people who have maybe one cool piece of vintage gear and learned how to use it really, really well. That's way more interesting to me than people who have every piece of vintage gear under the sun, and it's basically a giant dog and pony show.
You should do a book on finding vintage recording equipment next.
You know, the book I've always wanted to do [would be about] all the classic recording studios and how they were actually set up. The room size, ceiling height, what the echo chamber was like, what they actually had in the echo chamber, and what boards they were using at different times. Being the obsessive nerd that I am, I've been to most of these places. I went to Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico, and got a tour of the place. They had just gotten all the crap out of the echo chamber, because Vi Petty had been using it for 30 years as a storage room. Just seeing all these multi-colored tiles that Buddy Holly's family put in there — they were in the tile business and donated all these leftover tiles — made me think, "Man, somebody really ought to do a book and include all these obsessive details." That's one of my favorite things to do when I'm on tour around the country, or even over in Europe. I was just in New Orleans, and I went by the laundromat where [Cosimo Matassa's] J&M Recording Studio used to be. Or by the place in San Antonio where Robert Johnson recorded. It's amazing to see the building where it happened. One of the reasons Sun Recording Studios in Memphis is still in pristine condition is because nobody wanted it. No one ever bothered to tear out the acoustic tile on the ceilings. It's amazing. Whereas in Los Angeles, places like Gold Star Records are gone because the real estate got so valuable, and they just had to tear it out.