“If somebody’s too neurotic, I’m out. I think music is supposed to be fun, reactionary, and impulsive.”
Dave Cobb’s great record production for Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, The Secret Sisters, Brent Cobb (his cousin), the Zac Brown Band, Rival Sons, Shooter Jennings, and many others have been both artistic and commercial successes. A student of historic recordings, as well as an equipment connoisseur, his minimalist real-time approach alongside such stellar engineers as Vance Powell [Tape Op #82] and Matt Ross-Spang [Tape Op #117] helps right the crucial relationship between singer and track. It was a joy to get to converse with Dave, first in his Helios-equipped home studio and again in Nashville’s RCA Studio A, built for Chet Atkins in 1965 – the perfect venue for this accomplished, brilliant, and unassuming gentleman.
AH: Why did you move to Nashville?
This town is the most amazing, supportive community I’ve ever been in. You can make phone calls, and in five minutes literally everybody shows up. I’m from Savannah, Georgia, but I lived in Los Angeles for 11 years before moving here. Every time you meet somebody in L.A., the first thing out of their mouth is, “So, what do you do?” It’s never because they want to be your friend, but because they want to further their career. Coming here was the exact opposite. I think this is the only place in the world where art meets commerce. In L.A. I saw the studios go down one by one, the labels move out, and the industry really shrink and die. In New York they were writing checks, but there were no studios in New York. I think this is the only place [where] it’s viable to be an artist, have a career, and not die. Besides country music, there’s a great rock scene, as well as Americana and folk. It feels alive. I’m not old enough to remember London in the ‘60s, or California in the early ‘70s, but it feels like that environment here now. It feels as exciting.
HTK: I read an article that said
you played on almost everything you produce.
Yeah. There was a guy, Jimmy Miller, who I love. Jimmy produced the best Rolling Stones reords; Exile on Main St., Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers – he did all these records. Those records had a groove – a swagger. That’s because Jimmy Miller was a drummer. He’d get in there and play drums, or play shakers with the band. He always seemed to find the pocket. I completely rip him off as much as possible. When a band’s playing, I’ll play something, whether it’s guitar, or percussion, or bass – just something. I wind up playing on a lot of records strictly as a metronome.
AH: Do you do that live with the band?
Yeah, I hate cutting separately. I can’t stand it. It obviously works really well for a lot of people. One thing I really try to do is keep all live tracking vocals. Even if the band nailed it, I’ll keep cutting takes just to get the singer’s performance.
HTK: So the whole record’s live?
Almost every record I do has live vocals. If the singer’s singing live and they go for it, the guitar player will come down in volume when they’re singing. When they’re not singing, they come up. I think when I get to mix, I don’t have to mix as much. They self-balance. I noticed I can create the perfect track; then, when I bring the singer in, it’s hard to make it sit in the mix. But if you let people in the room mix it themselves – as they play and work out their dynamics – it’s almost like cheating. It takes a little longer going down, but it saves a lot of time later. I can’t punch it in. It won’t sound natural.
HTK: The drums on Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music are magical.
It’s the drummer; the way he plays. I met Miles Miller when he was a kid – just 16. We’ve been force-feeding him records, like Hal Blaine and Richie Albright – who played with Waylon Jennings. If you hear the tuning on the drums it sounds so terrible and goofy, but he’s just barely hitting them. It sounds big because he’s barely hitting. If somebody hits hard, things collapse.
MR: A lot of people think John Bonham was just pounding away.
He wasn’t. I got to make a record with his son, Jason Bonham – and Glenn Hughes from Deep Purple – about a year and a half ago. He came in here and sounded like those records. He’d grown up playing with his dad; he hit medium, but he wasn’t killing the drums. He said his dad’s favorite drummer was Mick Fleetwood, which I never would think. His dad would say, “Listen to that,” to a really basic thing. “Listen to that groove. That pocket. That’s what it’s about.” He was infatuated with how simple and straight some part was.
AH: And a good drummer will play at the right volume for the room.
Look at pictures of the Wrecking Crew – the drummer’s right there in the middle of the entire band. They’re all there together. I’m completely fascinated with records that were made with no headphones, in the same room together. I think you get this human interaction that can’t happen the other way around. I always think it’s weird how people go into the studio: say you’re a young band who’s never made a record. You’ve been playing together in the rehearsal room, but when you go into the studio, they put you in different booths away from each other. All of a sudden, they put this crazy monitoring over your ears. Everybody has themselves cranked at their own headphone stations. I don’t think you can feel music the same way with headphones. I think headphones are borderline evil. If the drummer can’t hear the singer, he’s playing too loud. If the guitar player can’t hear the singer, he’s playing too loud. That’s kind of the rule, for the most part. I say that, but I do use headphones sometimes. With some singers, I’ll put a monitor right next to them as we track.
HTK: How do you think singers react with headphones?
I think they sing way better without them, and their pitch is way better. You put headphones on somebody and they start going sharp or flat, based on volume. You turn it down, and they get flat. You turn it up, and they get sharp. I feel like when I’m tracking live vocalists I get these great performances with the band in the same room. But if you do it the other way around, or you have to fix something or change a lyric, I put them in the booth and I find we start doing multiple vocal takes. It’s so hard to get back to that same thing that happened so naturally and easily when they weren’t focused on the vocals. It’s a really weird concept that the band cuts a song, and then the singer goes and is by him or herself. The band’s all watching and waiting for the singer to get that magic take. I think it’s a lot of pressure on the singer.
AH: When was the last time you recorded someone who wasn’t a good singer – someone who couldn’t nail a live take with the band?
It’s kind of a rule not to do that anymore. I’m attracted to great singers. I think you can have an okay guitar player, but if you have a great singer then it’s awesome. An okay bass player and a great singer is still badass. But if you have a great fucking bass player and a shitty singer, it’s still going to sound like shit.
MR: When you’re listening to records to establish the right environment, what have some of those records been?
That record right behind you, White Mansions, changed my life. That was the first record that really got me into country music. It was produced by Glyn Johns [Tape Op #99] at Olympic Studios and written by an English guy, Paul Kennerley. He had a dream cast of country characters on it: Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Steve Cash – and the band is Eric Clapton’s band. It’s just sonically a masterpiece. The feel is incredible. The strings are really simple and haunting, and the piano parts are kind of low-held piano chords. The way everything weaved and bobbed on that record was life-changing. I probably owe 90 percent of my career to copying shit from that record.
AH: When you say copying...
The essence and the feel of it. There’s a lot of tension on that record. It’s a concept record, but there’s so much restraint in it. They’re really waiting and building the tension. They had the most badass players on the planet on this, and no one showed off. I think that’s a really important lesson.
MR: What’s the typical amount of pre-production you do?
I think pre-production is a silly concept. Maybe if you don’t have a studio you can record in, then I understand it. You’ve got to go into a big studio and have everything prepared. I was in bands for years, and I know whatever your newest song is, it’s your favorite song. Whenever you hit that right tempo or get that signature riff… whenever you play it the first time, you play it the most passionately. If you take that song on the road for six months and tour with it, you’re over it. We’d get this magic in pre-production when I first started, but we couldn’t get it back in the studio. We’d be chasing this whole thing. “What’s the tempo? Pull out the metronome. Let’s find out where we were at.” You’re chasing a fucking dragon that you’re never going to get again. You’re never going to get the vocal to feel the same way again as when you were writing the song. I keep tape rolling the entire time when I make records – all day. I think it desensitizes the band, because they just forget that it’s rolling. We may be in there working on a song; when we first started at the beginning of the day, we may get that magic bridge. Then we work out a whole different part, but we have that other thing captured. When we get the final master, we just chop it into it.
AH: Do you mean edits?
Oh, yeah. I don’t have anything against editing. I don’t care if a band gets it all in one take. I prefer it if we get most of it in one take; but if we’re missing a part of the song, I’d rather have the band cut it one more time and maybe we’ll get that one part of the song.
AH: But you have them cut the whole song each time?
A lot of times. If it’s a really difficult part, and people often forget it by the time it gets to it, we’ll just do the one part – kind of ramp up to it and splice it in. I’d be a hypocrite to say I never tuned anything, or adjusted time, or something like that. It’s whatever makes it feel right. Even if we do edit or move something, it’s to try to make it feel as if it were played naturally. I say all this shit, but I’m full of shit too. If it needs to be done a certain way, we do it. It’s whatever peoples’ headspaces are, and whatever it takes to keep things moving fast.
AH: If you’re rolling tape and capturing every performance, or capturing moments when the band is working out something, how do you go back?
I have a stupid simple way of keeping a log. If I’m in the other room, I’ll yell out, “Hey, that bridge was really good.” Even if we’re rolling on tape, we’re capturing out of tape and into Pro Tools, because hard drives are cheap and tape’s expensive. The engineer will have a note of where we said that and log it. With singers, sometimes I’ll have a situation where the singer is on, right off the top, but the band isn’t. I’ll keep working to get the band in shape, even though we got the vocals on the first or second take. When I feel like there’s going to be that situation, I’ll put the singer in the booth or separate them. Then I can go look through those old takes and steal verses or choruses from other takes. Whatever makes the process easy. What’s really shitty for singers is when the band may spend two weeks on basics, and you have a handful of days left of tracking and it’s only vocals now. The poor singer has to sing all day. I think that sucks. By keeping vocals going down live, they’re cutting vocals as we go. It removes all that pressure for them. There’s nothing really left to do at the end, except maybe punch in a word or two if you change a lyric.
MR: You sort of know when you get a magical take. Is it just a feeling?
Yeah. A friend of mine, Greg Gordon, was a really big mentor to me. We worked together a lot in L.A. before I moved. He always talked about this thing, where for some reason the molecules add up and that specific take “sounds like a record.” I’m looking for that – whatever feels warm and fuzzy, like you’ve already heard it – like a record you’ve heard. I’m not a fan of figuring it out later. To be honest with you, I hate mixing. Obviously there are people who make records sound way better, like Vance Powell is unbelievable. But I hate that whole process of mixing. I try to make the mixing happen at tracking. It’s all about balancing. When you hear it, it sounds like a record. Even all the reverbs are committed. I come back to the Sturgill album [Metamodern Sounds in Country Music], because it’s an easy example. When we were doing his album, we were printing all the reverbs and delays live. That sounded like a record because it was live. It’s about treating it like performances and not going, “Okay, I’m going to get a mouse out and start automating all these things.”
MR: I have to ask what the reverbs and delays were on that record. Especially the vocal.
The vocal delays were a Studer A80 1/4-inch tape machine going into a [Studio Technologies] Ecoplate III in the other room, with 15 IPS pre-delay. That’s all the vocals on that. Also the Moog 500-series Analog Delay. All the weird psychedelic shit was Sturgill with a handheld microphone and a [Maestro] Echoplex – just riding pedals and Echoplex delays after we did the master tracks and were kind of getting stupid.
AH: Was that his idea or your idea?
My idea, but he was laughing all the way and just loving it. There was actually one little hiccup in the studio that day. There was kind of a fight between a couple of guys. It was me here going like, “Fuck, what do we do now?” I reversed the track we were working on, and that made this cocained-out, ‘80s sound. Sturgill came back the next day, heard it, and started laughing. We wrote a song based on the reversed song we’d already done, and incorporated that into it. Since it was already ridiculous, I thought it would be fun to start tape-reversing sounds, and then looping and creating organic shit on top of that. That’s all based upon Beatles songs, like “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Revolver. That’s all shit that was done in the ‘60s. Same thing – making tape loops and goofing off. If tape hadn’t been rolling all day, or this had been a pre-production, that probably never would have happened.
AH: What are some of your favorite mics?
The Coles 4038 is probably my favorite vocal microphone. It’s not sibilant; it’s got a really huge bottom end, and it’s really EQ-able. I’ve been going back to the [Neumann] U87 as a mono overhead [on drums]. I’ve got tube [Neumann] U47s, [Neumann] U67s, and [Telefunken] Ela M 251s, but I love ‘87s. Maybe because a lot of my favorite records in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were all [recorded with] U87s. I like the mono ‘87.
AH: Where do you place it?
Looking at pictures of The Beatles, you’ll see the microphone right at Ringo’s head. It’s the same thing with soul music; I’m a big Stax and Muscle Shoals fan. You’ll always see the mics right here, by the drummer’s head. I try to get it as low as I can. I like that really tight sound. I’ve tried a million different ways to mic. I’ll go through phases where we do the Glyn Johns mic’ing, and that’s cool, but all my favorite drum sounds I’ve gotten have always been the three-mics – just kick, snare, overhead, and then sometimes not even using the snare at all. I always put safety mics on toms, and then I’ll never use them. If I had to nail my favorite drum sounds on a record, it’s probably the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” on Sticky Fingers. The drum sounds are fucking insane. You can find pictures of it, and it’s that simple. I think there are a lot of people who are much smarter than me who can put up a lot of mics and make it sound good, but I just start not paying attention to the band. I start paying attention to engineering when I put too many mics up. If I only put two mics up, I’m concentrating on the song. When I first started making records, in 1997 or ‘98, there was this process. You had to have 12 mics on the drums and a big drum room. You had to cut to a click. But I don’t think anybody cares anymore. I like really simple recording.
AH: What about the rest of the instruments?
Guitar mics change all the time. Mark Neill [Tape Op #29] got me into transformerless [Shure] SM57s for a while on guitar. I like RCA Type 77 ribbons a lot on little amps. Sometimes it’s a Coles  or a U67. Really simple. I find when I put two or three mics on a guitar, I wind up muting them. I get really nervous about how to EQ both of them unless I can put them on the track together. I don’t like many options.
MR: How do you typically record bass guitar?
A friend of mine bought out a studio that was selling DIs, the Quonset Hut, here in Nashville. He was buying them just to get the transformers out of them. I kidnapped one and never gave it back to him. It sounds unbelievable. The Acme WolfBox is the shit too. I also mic bass. A friend of mine a long time ago showed me the trick of putting a large-diaphragm condenser right on the cone, right on the grill, but keeping the amp barely on. It uses the proximity effect and natural bottom-end of the microphone.
AH: What about preamps?
The Helios is the best console I’ve ever heard in my life. It sounds like a record, and that’s with no EQ. It’s really fast. It’s also soft in the top-end, so it never sounds sibilant or hard. The EQs are really natural, but I hardly ever use them. I have a Neve BCM10 that I’ll travel with sometimes. I just bought a bunch of Spectra Sonics modules. They remind me a lot of the Helios, but they’re very American and super fast – they don’t need any EQ at all. It just sounds like a record. They’re really easy to make things sound natural. You don’t have to add any high-end, because the high-end is so fast. You don’t have to add any low-end to the kick drum or bass, because the low-end is so fast.
MR: What’s the history of your Helios?
Mine was from Love Studio in Finland. Glyn Johns is my favorite engineer of all time. I’ve always read about Glyn recording these records I loved, and the common denominator was always the Helios. I killed myself until I could afford one, and I wound up meeting this guy, David Kean, in Canada who owns the Audities Foundation. He had the Rolling Stones Mobile [truck]. I started picking his brain and asking, “Hey man, can I buy some of the documents? Maybe I’ll try to have somebody rebuild modules.” He told me he had the Manor Mobile frame, but no modules. I bought the Manor Mobile frame. Meanwhile, Jeff Steiger of CAPI [Classic Audio Products, Inc.] said he knew somebody who owned a Helios in Tennessee. We went by this guy’s house and his console was working; it had been refurbed by Vintage King. I pestered him until he sold me the console. I begged, borrowed, stole, and sold a lot of shit to get it. That’s where all my tube shit went. I had a really good mic collection, and it all went away to buy this console. But you could buy another U47 someday. You can never buy another one of these.
MR: Everything you record goes through this?
Yeah. I love Jeff Steiger’s CAPI equipment; his VP26 preamps are fucking awesome. It’s either CAPI or the Helios. The Neve BCM10 I bought strictly because I felt like it was a good savings account if some shit went down. It’s cool, but it’s not a Helios. It sounds cloudy, comparatively, and you have to start EQ’ing. I don’t use a lot of compression. Mark Neill told me about those old records: you hear the vocal, and the reverb sounds so big, and lush, and beautiful. For years, I compressed the vocal pretty heavily, and the reverb just made things sound more distant, with reverb always there in the background. If you don’t cut with compression and you sing on the microphone, every time you hit that reverb hard, it comes in and out; and when you don’t sing hard, there’s none there. It rides itself.
MR: Other than Mark Neill, who have been your mentors?
Greg Gordon, who I told you about. Greg worked with Rick Rubin for lots of years. He recorded LL Cool J back in the day. He was from Michigan, so he learned from the Detroit guys. He was the first guy who really taught me about tape effects – how to flange, phase, and delay. I carry a lot of information with me from that guy. [Another mentor is] my buddy Vance Powell, here in Nashville. Also Darrell Thorp, who was Nigel Godrich’s engineer for a lot of years. Those guys get sounds in a matter of ten minutes with a full band. There are guys now making great records. Nigel Godrich is incredible. Ethan Johns [#49] is a badass. I’m a big fan of the way those Muscle Shoals records sound. I was recording The Secret Sisters there [at FAME Studios]; as I was putting a compressor on the microphone, [owner] Rick Hall looked at me and said, “Are you going to put a compressor on that?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Oh, we don’t do that around here.” I was like, “Man, walk me through it.” The drum booth wasn’t a proper booth for a while, and he walled it up. I asked, “When did you do that?” He said, “I reckon about 1964.” “Why’d you do it?” He replied, “Well, as soon as I could get those motherfuckers out of my vocal microphone, I did it.” I asked, “How did you mic the drums?” He said, “I didn’t give a shit about it. I put one on the top, one on the bottom, and walled the motherfuckers up. They were there to keep time.” I would also say that Tom Dowd is one of my heroes. A lot of the classic guys. The Ashes & Fire Ryan Adams record that Glyn Johns recorded and produced is a perfect sounding album. It freaks me out. It’s perfect. He schooled everybody, again.
AH: You also spend a lot of time doing your own research and looking for photographs.
I’d see pictures of Elvis in RCA Studio B. Why is the mic like that? Elvis is right here, off-center, for figure-of-eight reasons. [Utilizing the null rejection. –ed.] The backing singer is angled another way for figure-of-eight reasons. Okay, now it makes sense. I started setting up rooms like this, and lining up the nulls of the mics. That’s how I learned how to record in one room. I learned a lot from pictures; it’s like a lightbulb going off. I steal a lot from this shit – no doubt about it. Those guys were real engineers. I think my generation are people who can turn things on and put mics up. Those guys actually had educations as engineers.
MR: You’ve taken residence in RCA Studio A.
I get kind of freaked out every time I walk in here. For years I tried to imitate Waylon Jennings’ records, like the song, “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” – the guitar sound, or the room sound. Or [Dolly Parton’s] “Jolene” – the crazy sound of that record. It’s like, “We’re in that room, and all we need now is Dolly, Waylon, and the great players who were on that.” It’s really humbling. I haven’t gotten used to it yet.
MR: Do you have moments of recognition when you bring up a fader and think, “There it is”?
You know, the room definitely has a sound, and we try to take advantage of it nonstop. We leave the doors open, and everybody’s in the same room together. It’s really easy to have a lot of people in one room, as well as to have incredible isolation even though they’re bleeding into each other. I think the room was designed so that you could have a vocalist near a drum set and it wouldn’t be too bad.
MR: How would you characterize the sound of this room?
It’s not very live. It’s really very controlled, contained, and focused. Studio A was built at a time when “Nashville Sound” was next door [at RCA Studios, later renamed Studio B] and Columbia was down the street. The Nashville Sound was making so much money that they wanted some Sinatra and Dean Martin money, so they built places like this to hold an entire choir and string section, full rhythm section and band, and singer all in the same room. It’s amazing that you can actually get away with that all in one place, and it doesn’t sound like you’re bleeding poorly into everything.
MR: The room is a mixer.
Absolutely! Mark Neill told me a long time ago that the sound doesn’t come from the control room. It comes from the live room. I completely agree. I think you can accentuate or change it a little bit, but the sound comes from human beings who are playing, as well as from the room itself. You know what’s weird about this place? Normally I go into a room and the first thing I do, if it’s drums for instance, I’ll walk around the room and hit them, and see what sounds right. This room is really weird. No matter where I put them, it kind of sounds the same. It’s bizarre. I’ve never, ever experienced this in any other studio. Maybe these guys were a lot smarter than we are now.
MR: Very possibly. Although, in a way, I guess that takes away the ability to move something around in a room and change its sound.
We’re also sometimes having Vance Powell record drums in the booth, so we can keep vocal takes if we need to fix anything, and he just re-amps the drums back in the room. The room is our reverb. Some of the sessions we do 100 percent in the room together, but the drums are in the booth and we re-tie it back together on some of the other sessions. If you clap in here, it’s just the right amount of live, but it’s weird. It’s such a weird room, in the best possible way.
MR: Have you been looking into the history of this room?
Absolutely. If I wasn’t in music, I’d teach history. I love music history, and I’m fascinated with Nashville music history. I heard a story recently about this room. I don’t know the validity of it, but they said that Elvis came in here when he first started dating Priscilla. He brought her to a session, and she wanted to watch him produce. He’d already recorded the session, but he went around and said, “Let me show you what to play on the bass.” He grabbed the bass from the bass player, played the bass line, and the bass player said, “Good idea!” Elvis went around to everybody to “produce” the session, even though it was already recorded – just to impress Priscilla. There’s so much folklore in this town. It’s fun to keep hearing all the crazy stories. I think we’re calm now, compared to those guys. I think those guys had a lot more fun than we do now. They were doing drugs, and now we’re doing Vitamin Water and Pilates.
MR: That’s one of my theories, that to the extent that things have changed and maybe aren’t as good as they were, which is arguable. But I think one of the factors is a relative lack of lunatics today.
Absolutely. There aren’t a lot of Jack Clements [Tape Op #77] anymore. There aren’t a lot of Phil Spectors.
MR: Joe Meek. Sam Phillips.
Yeah, they were out of their damn minds. It’s fun though. I love that P.T. Barnum aspect to the music industry. Matt Ross-Spang took me to a Sam Phillips book event they had at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and Jerry Phillips, Sam’s son, was talking about his dad. He said Sam walked into Sun every day without a game plan. He knew who was coming in, but he didn’t know what song they were going to record, how many songs they were going to record, or who was showing up. It was very wide open, and somehow he’d walk out with [Jerry Lee Lewis’] “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and all these classic Sun tracks that we know. I steal from that a little bit. I never do pre-production. Hearing that Sam Phillips story gave me a little validation for being out of my mind. I think I stress artists out all the time, because they’ll send me a Dropbox full of tracks and I won’t really go through it until we get into the studio. They’re like, “Did you listen to everything?” They’ll get nervous. Then we just kind of wing it. If somebody’s too neurotic, I’m out. I think music is supposed to be fun, reactionary, and impulsive.
MR: How are you digging the console here?
It’s cool. When I was coming into the place, I wasn’t going to buy the console. I wanted to move my Helios here. Chris Stapleton – we did his Traveller album here – asked me if I was going to buy the console. I was like, “I don’t think so.” He said, “You’ve got to get it.” I said, “Why do I have to get it? It’s just an API. There are other ones out there.” He said, “Because that one has red, white, and blue EQs.” He was superstitious, so I bought it.
MR: I make my students guess what year it’s from. It seems obvious once you know.
Your students weren’t even around during the bicentennial year. That’s why it’s red, white, and blue. Gear is a weird thing. It’s really amazing with incredible players, a great room, and great sources. The rest of it’s kind of fun. Just icing. Sometimes I look at pictures of old studios and I’ll see a Spectra Sonics console with 12 channels, one EQ, and one compressor. I get excited about that; the minimalism of not having anything. But it’s also fun to hear new gear too.
MR: Is the design of the control room working for you?
Yeah, it’s great. This is a luxury. Aside from going to Sound Emporium, or other studios like that, I was doing 90% of my records in the back of my house, in a tiny control room that could fit four people. So this is nice. It sounds really good. I’m not sure when it was redone. I’ve seen pictures of it when it opened in ‘65, and it looked like an operating room. It was so sterile and white-tiled. Not in the cool, white-tiled way. It looked super bright. I think it was redone in the ‘70s. Whoever did it really knew what they were doing. It’s hard to mess up sounds in this room. You’ve got to be really shitty.
MR: Tell the story about the lighting
Oh, god. I guess Dottie West said that it looked like a grocery store in here, so she complained to the higher-ups and had these hippie steelworkers make the crazy lights above us. They say “peace and sex,” and have skulls and crossbones. There’s probably secret-society messages in them, and they just hung them up. We actually had to take them down when I first came in the building because some of them were about to fall.
MR: Have you had any evidence of the studio being haunted?
I think it’s a really happy place. They’ve always had a lamp in this corner, and they left it on for Chet [Atkins], so I’ve always continued the tradition. Maybe it’s because we leave a light on for him, it’s not felt spooky here.
MR: That’s a theater tradition, a “ghost light.” You never let a theater get dark.
Really? Well, it’s working.
MR: Have you found any newer techniques you’re using these days or gear you’re excited about?
My biggest discovery with gear in the last couple of years is the Spectra Sonics 610. I can’t believe I never dug into them. I’d seen them forever, but I probably got my first one about three years ago. I’ve got a whole mess of them now. Those things are just super hip. If you could carry one compressor around, that might be it. They can blow sounds up, but also with that peak limiting, just seeing the light barely come on, it can make things seem somehow bigger and wider, as well as taking off the harsh transients. I don’t think any other compressor does that that way. I love that Chandler Limited RS124 [compressor], and their TG1 [compressor] is excellent. It’s a real renaissance in gear. I love vintage gear, but I don’t like maintaining vintage gear. It’s really exciting that there are new pieces of gear that are coming out that are just as good as the best equipment that was ever made.
MR: I agree. I think some people can’t figure out how to use a 610 just by looking at it.
The trick is to have really good engineers who you work with, like Matt Ross-Spang, who know how to use the gear! But, really, it’s about just barely tickling it. You don’t even see the meter even move. I just make sure the red light on the right doesn’t clip and the input just tickles the yellow light. Usually the slope is all the way to the right, somewhere around there, and I play with it. It’s impossible to actually explain how to do it without showing somebody how to do it.
MR: They never stopped making them.
Bill Cheney [Tape Op #102], the guy who owns the company now, is making them exactly the way they used to. The past few years I’ve been really getting into mics again. I think that’s a great place to spend your money. They seem to retain value more than anything else.
MR: What have you been excited about?
I’ll hear all these really nice mics, and then sometimes a Shure SM7 just might be the thing that destroys most everything. It’s bizarre that $250 mics sometimes beat out your Neumann U47. I like the Neumann M49 a lot. I think there’s some good newer mics being made too. Those Josephson [Engineering] e22S condensers are super hip. That’s a newer mic company that’s kicking ass. I think it’s great on acoustic and electric guitar. It’s great as a room mic. I don’t like overly bright mics. I don’t know what to do when the top-end gets too bright. I’m not a good enough engineer to start multiband compressing everything and de-essing like crazy on cymbals, so I like things semi-dark.
Jake Giles (Netter at RCA Studio A)
MR: It’s great to see you making records in this classic studio.
I feel like I’ve been really lucky to be part of a team of great people around me: Matt [Ross-Spang], Eddie Spear, Gena Johnson, and Vance Powell. It’s a lot of good people to help. This doesn’t happen with one person; I’ll tell you that. It’s a whole team of people who have your back and allow you to be crazy. But, in my head, I fantasize about what people did 50 years ago. I wish we could get away with doing those tricks. I love the way that people who came before us made records. Mark Neill took the time to get to know Bill Porter and these legendary engineers. He worked with [Frank] DeMedio. He took the time to get to know where we came from; these icons in this industry. I feel like our generation really got screwed. [Back in the day] you worked at Abbey Road as a tea boy, and you worked your way up. You really got to see how professionals work. My generation learned from going to Guitar Center, buying an ADAT, and figuring it out by reading books. I don’t think we had the apprenticeship that those people before us did. I think that’s great what you’re doing with The Blackbird Academy, because it’s kind of like what it would have been like, had you worked at a major studio back in the day. But the majority of my generation, and probably kids now, are laptop learning. For years I was scared to mic a drum set. Nobody really showed me how to do it, and I felt like I was always getting it wrong. It never sounded like the records I liked. Then I realized that all I’ve got to do is maybe measure it a little bit better; things that I just wouldn’t instinctually find out. I think I’ve failed more than I’ve learned by myself. I’m really good at watching and learning from other people. I feel like the thing that I do is a culmination of copying everybody who I love hero-wise, like John Leckie [Tape Op #42], George Martin, Eddie Kramer [#24], and Glyn Johns. I’m not as good as any of [those guys], but an amalgamation of all of it.
MR: It’s amazing that we’re in this building that almost got destroyed.
We did Chris Stapleton’s Traveller here because it was going to be destroyed. Chris really wanted to work here, and we thought we were going to be the last people to work here. Never in a million years did I think that a couple years later I’d be in this room. I remember walking in this room the first time and thinking, “This is one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. Ben Folds is a lucky joker to get to come in here regularly.” This lives out a lot of my dreams. It’s amazing that somebody could pay for this place to be built. I was told that RCA had one of these in Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, Mexico City, Cuba, Italy, Los Angeles, and New York. They’re all gone, and this is the last one. Supposedly they were made when an RCA artist was on tour, and they needed to recut a vocal that they’d cut somewhere else; they could have the same gear and similar acoustics so that it would be unrecognizable that they didn’t record it that original day. It’s pretty special.