I first met Randy Kohrs years ago at the Summer NAMM tradeshow in Tennessee. Randy is known as a hotshot player; a multi-instrumentalist who's respected for his resonator guitar/dobro abilities. But he's also a Grammy award-winning producer, recording engineer, and studio owner at Slack Key Studio in Nashville. Along with a number of solo releases, he's performed and recorded with Continental Divide, Dolly Parton, John Fogerty, John Cowan, Hank Williams III, Jim Lauderdale, and many others. And he continues to stay busy, saying, "I'm constantly going back and forth between tracking and mixing. Right now, we have 12 records going for people. Anytime that there's a down day that's not booked to track, I'm mixing." Randy might be well-versed in old school music, but his embracing of some helpful plug-ins, as well as many newer mic choices, are smart and refreshing. As if all of this wasn't enough, he even has a signature EQ guitar pedal coming out from Benado Effects! I was excited to pick his brain about mic'ing techniques, and I learned a lot during our chat on a hot, muggy summer afternoon.
You started out as a player and a songwriter, right?
I sure did. Getting into recording for me was buying a pair of mics and a stereo preamp so that I could record myself and make sure that I was a better player when I'd get called. It made me sharper. A lot of live players don't take the time to do that, and I was converting from being more of a live player to becoming a session guy.
That's a smart way of approaching it.
Yeah. It's that Midwestern work ethic. I'm from middle America; south-central Iowa.
What happened when you first came to Nashville?
I went to work playing on Lower Broadway; me and an acoustic guitar. When I'd see other singers come into the bar to have a drink, or in between shifts getting ready to play, I'd say, "Hey" and we'd hang out. I'd get them up to play my guitar and sing, and I'd play dobro. People would see me playing other instruments besides acoustic guitar, and I turned into that "utility" guy.
Had you built those skills up on different instruments in Iowa?
Yeah. There weren't that many people up there to play with. If I could play instruments that weren't in a [traditional] band, then I'd get hired more. The more instruments I played, the easier I got the gig. I'd reinvest in nicer instruments, and it snowballed.
So, you had a pretty good collection by the time you hit Nashville?
I did. I hooked up with [luthier] Tim Scheerhorn shortly after I moved to town, and he made my collection of guitars pretty powerful. We've gotten to be such good friends. I still call him sometimes for advice. Half my collection of lap steels I went out to his shop and built myself with him watching over my shoulder. Life lessons that I'll never forget.
We learn by mistakes, that's for sure.
It's the same way with recording. You're not going to come out of the chute and make the most incredible sounding record the first time out. You're going to have to stumble and fall. Especially when it comes to new software. I use Steinberg Cubase here, and their VariAudio system is so wonderful for time alignment and polishing intonation. I don't like to get carried away. I would rather make a singer sing a lot and then make a great comp. It's all budgetary. If there's not a budget for a singer to sing a song for an hour or two, and you have a lot of takes to pick from, then it comes down to having to use software more. I have to weigh my options against the budget every time.
I know there's a wide variety of sessions you do.
Yeah. More so than ever. When I first moved to town, I played on quite a few bluegrass records. Obviously, the resonator guitar is a very notable instrument in the world of bluegrass.
Right. You became mostly known for your dobro work early on.
Right, and high harmony singing. Those were my two big calls. I started getting work on a lot of records. At one point in the ‘90s, I was on almost all of the prominent records that were done by individual acts; ones that weren't bands that already had a dobro player.
Right, or they hired Jerry Douglas.
Well, Jerry kind of bowed out right in that era. He said, "Hey, there's this new kid who moved to town. Here's his number. You won't regret it." Jerry was so nice to me.
You don't even need a business card if that happens!
Exactly. Of course, Rob Ickes has been here in the scene, and Andy Hall was here for a while. There have been some wonderful players, and we all learned off of each other. I don't feel a competitive bone in my body against any of them, because we are all working.
What were you picking up about recording techniques in studios as a session player?
For some of my favorite records that I got to work on, Chuck Ainlay [Tape Op #97] or Ed Seay were engineering. One of my favorites is Gary Paczosa [#108]. I learned a ton from him. I would wait until after the session and limit myself to asking one thing each time so that I wasn't bombarding him with questions.
You're not "that guy."
That's a good way to not get called back to a session! He was always very forthcoming, and he helped me so much.
You recorded and played with Dolly Parton in the early 2000s.
That was done in East Tennessee actually, in Knoxville. Gary Davis was the producer and the banjo guy in the band. Dolly called the band The Blueniques. Her whole premise was she wanted to make a record that was still bluegrass but very unique to her. It's mountain-y and folky.
There's a series of her records around then that are in that vein.
Yeah. Jerry [Douglas] did the others, and I did the very last one, Halos & Horns.
Halos & Horns jumped out at me back then. I liked the playing on it.
It followed a pretty extensive year of touring. We had a blast and went all over Europe. There are some definite experiences from that tour that are very memorable.
Someone who hasn't delved into the bluegrass world would think it's all about live performance and blending everybody in the room, like the classic singing around the one mic. But I know from my experience that recording this style can be technical, as well as more about perfecting those performances in isolation.
It very much used to be about standing around one microphone. With the advent of technology, isolation rooms, and being able to overdub, bluegrass went the way of blues and jazz and other forms of music. I'll use Steely Dan as a perfect example. Those guys worked for a year carving, and making records, and replaying, and making it right. The Bluegrass Album Band [led by Tony Rice and J.D. Crowe] came before, but Alison Krauss had a huge influence. Alison's attention to detail and perfection, as well as Gary Paczosa's engineering, upped the whole ante on how records were done. She changed the face of bluegrass, in that regard. Some people – the die-hard traditional fans – question that a little bit. They want that raw and real thing. They want to hear Lester Flatt sing flat.
But other people carry those traditions on.
Right. Whenever I'm producing, it's whatever an act gives me the vibe of what they want to do. If they want one of those slick records, I'm all for it. I'll give you what you want. As a producer and studio owner, you've got to be a pleaser. It's their vision, not necessarily yours. It's your job to make it the best you can be.
Do you have pre-production meetings for a bigger project?
I like to sit down with people, and I tell them to bring 20 songs because we're going to strip it to 12.
What will you do during pre-production?
I like to set them up in the front room of the studio here, let them play, and feel them out. Sometimes I'll throw up a microphone in the control room and record them without them knowing it, and then play it back. That's the bulk of the pre-production. "How organic do you want this record to be?"
Or, "How much control do you want to have later?"
If they're wanting a pretty advanced-sounding, modern record, maybe we should be in booths.
Or, if you're doing a bluegrass-style session with a drum kit, then you've got to start thinking about how to isolate that.
Right. On the bluegrass records I do, there's never a drum kit. If they do anything, they'll put on a quiet brush snare drum after the fact. That mandolin chop's got the backbeat. When we're tracking, if they're wanting that tight, Alison Krauss-style, I'll use [Steinberg] Groove Agent or [Toontrack] EZdrummer.
Pipe a beat into the headphones?
Yes. Instead of it being one of those harsh "boop boop bleep" annoying metronomes, it's more fun to play with a drum kit that's playing a groovy train beat.
How did your studio come about?
I was touring with my own band, and I wanted it to be my recording oasis. I kept getting calls. "Can we come in and record? We love what your record sounds like." I was like, "You know what? That's going to pay the mortgage this month. Yeah!"
Your studio is in the basement of an old house.
Yeah. This whole place was built in ‘35. It was a makeshift studio to start with, and I've kept modding it until it worked.
But now you haven't done a solo record in about ten years.
Yeah, it's been a while. I've got tracks in the can. I've got an old-school country record, and I have a more modern Americana one, but I haven't mixed them yet. It's hard to find time. I got unmotivated. I had a few years of trying to figure out what I wanted to do.
Yeah. I had to face the fact that I got too old for a lot of major country deals and major record label deals. I had to face that inner rage. Then I started doing bluegrass; they'll accept you up until the day you die. Blues and other formats idolize their elders instead of putting them out to pasture like country music does.
You've done some great records with Jim Lauderdale.
I've done seven records with Jim. We've had an incredible working relationship for years. He was here a week ago. There's a band, Carolina Pine, from here in Nashville; a duo of Kennedy Fitzsimmons and Woody James. Jim came and they recorded an old Louvin Brothers song. Instead of it being a duo, like the Louvin Brothers, we turned it into a trio and had Jim sing the center part. They love Jim, so it was a big thrill for them. Jim's the most prolific guy I know in his relentless chase of different facets of music. When he cuts bluegrass, it's pretty strict old-school style bluegrass. In fact, the last record we did [Old Time Angels], we stood around a couple of stereo mics and did it. That was the first one I'd done in years like that. It was fun, and also unnerving!
It's like, "I can't fix this!"
Right. But we'd do another take. I think that a lot of people think it's going to be a lot cheaper, because they're not going to be doing any fiddling around in post. Well, no, because you're going to spend an extra day for those players to play those takes three, four, five, or six times each instead of one or two. The studio time doubles, and then you have to pay all those players instead of just the engineers. It balances out to the same price. It's all about the mojo and what you want to capture.
You can spend a long time perfecting overdubs.
Oh, yeah. I've done 150 takes of a flatpicking guitar solo before the guy's happy. I'm over that. I'd rather hire somebody who's great and gets it in a few passes. But when I'm working with bands, I realize that those guys aren't recording every day so it might take them longer. I'm more patient with bands than I ever would be with session guys. The guys that I usually call for sessions around here, I'm never waiting on them. They're insanely good.
One of our jobs as a producer is to be the resource that hires the proper players.
Call the right person. That's the most crucial element. One wrong call and all of a sudden the whole band is rickety and isn't what it should be.
Being that you record so much acoustic-based music, I'm curious about some of the mics you use.
I'm happy with a lot of the modern takes on microphones. They're doing beautiful work. I have 33 ribbon microphones, and I use nine-tenths of them pretty regularly. They're a big part of my sound. I like pairing them with acoustic guitar, for example. I'll use two Peluso P-28s [small diaphragm mics] top and bottom, at the 10th or 12th fret. Back by the player's right hand, where all that thump comes from a Martin [acoustic guitar] – especially when you're recording bluegrass, where the guitar has to be chunky and percussive. I'll put a Royer mic back there so it's getting all that meaty wood sound and blend that in. A lot of people don't want to work that hard with three microphones, but I make sure that everything is in as close to phase when we track as I can, and then I'll use [Sound Radix] Auto-Align to make them tight.
Does Auto-Align work well on multi-mic'd acoustic guitar?
It sure does. It's wonderful. It looks at where the mics are spaced and lines them up. Even a few samples makes a huge difference. Ten milliseconds of delay one way or the other on a microphone, and it starts...
Yeah. For me, phase is like looking through binoculars that aren't dialed in yet. Once you start getting that phase right, then all of a sudden you're seeing a much clearer picture that is richer. All the bottom-end is properly captured. All of a sudden that guitar that was woofy is no longer woofy, and that bottom is completely smooth and controlled. I do that with upright bass too. I have a bright pencil [small diaphragm mic] up top to capture the fingertip noise of the right hand.
On the fingerboard?
Yeah. If the bass player's right handed, striking the strings. Some players have gut string basses and some players have steel string basses. They'll show up with one or the other and surprise me, so I tend to have a ribbon mic and a condenser ready.
Do you put something down near the f-hole of the bass?
I use one of the passive Cloud [44-A ribbon] mics right in the f-hole, and then down a little bit farther in front of the bridge I'll use an Audio-Technica AT4060 [large diaphragm tube mic]. That's a very underestimated microphone. It used to be my main vocal mic before I got more high-end choices. What's shocking about an upright bass is how bright you truly need to record one before it sounds detailed in a mix.
You've got to be careful though.
It's murky, yeah. That's why I use three mics. The Cloud ribbon mic gives me all that 40 to 60 Hz push and powerful, thunderous, controlled bottom end. Then the 4060 will give me all those beautiful mids. With upright bass, there tends to be a cloudiness with every one of them in the 200 to 240 Hz register. Upright basses are also notorious for all their D-notes to jump out. It's the string with the most tension, so it speaks louder. A lot of the guys who are in the know have controllers on the bridge that make the tension even right behind the bridge. Then it's much easier to record, and you're not wrestling it in post. I've recorded some doozies, where I had to go through and every time they played a D note I'd "clip gain" and drag the volume down.
I saw a drum kit here with mics set up.
That's my house kit. I've got it pretty dang dimed for that room. I've got my drummer list, about five or six people on average. Most of them are right-handed, so the kit somewhat stays the same. I usually keep 17 mics on the kit. This past week I was recording Natalie Brady & The Nite Owls. The drummer was playing excellent, but, for whatever reason, I wasn't getting enough ghost notes. I said to my assistant, John Osborne, "Let's get out that Copperphone [mic] and put it above the kick drum, pointed at the snare." All of a sudden, all those little rolls popped. I made the right call and felt blessed.
You can have a lot of high-end mics on a kit, but there're still times where some of the subtleties of the playing will disappear.
For rock and blues records, I'll put a PZM mic underneath the floor toms and back away a foot or so. It's catching all that noise and all that vibration going on in the floor. Sometimes I'll use that in post, and sometimes I won't. It's easy enough to shut it off, but you can't add it if it's not there. Why not have another mic going if you've got enough mics, preamps, and space in the room.
Mandolins always present their own issues when recording.
Yep. Mandolins, when they chop for the rhythm, they tend to be very percussive. Then when they pick [notes] they nearly disappear, because their volume cuts in half. I will use a matched pair of Miktek C5s or [Neumann] KM 84s. I actually have a pair of some Shannon Rhoades [MicRehab] modded [Mojave] MA-100s that I use on mandolin a lot, and I will throw up my [stereo] SF-12 Royer.
When you're using a pair of small-diaphragm mics on a mandolin, where are you placing them?
I do top and bottom. I like to put them at the f-holes. Right in front of the right hand. That's where all the pick definition will come from. If you can find that happy medium between the f-holes and where the front of their hand is, you should be able to get a pretty good sound from that. Then I'll use the Royer lined up to the right of it (if you're looking at the Royer), where it's capturing lots of warmth and fatness. A lot of times I'll be able to use just the Royer for the chop.
Right, which will feel a little softer.
I'll have them on a group channel where I can run that, and then have the pencils on another group and be able to automate those. When it comes time for the solo, I can bring up the brighter mics, and all of a sudden that pick articulation cuts through.
I was going to ask if you do that.
Oh, yeah. It makes mixing go twice as fast.
Yeah. Letting the mics do the work.
Exactly. It still sounds natural. If I'm graceful with automation, I don't hear a tone change either.
With banjo, you've got the resonant head and barky tone. What mics and placement do you find helps to sit right in the mix later?
I'll do two different styles. If the song is a ballad, and I know I'm working with an act I'm going to be recording a lot of ballads on, I will do a single condenser microphone, about where the head and the neck meet in that join [where guitar necks meets body -Ed.]. Then I'll take a figure-8 Royer and do mid-side. Banjos are so full of transients and they're so pointy. It's easy to get them to poke out in the mix, but when you want to bury the banjo in the back to get that beautiful roll, it's much harder when you use super-directional microphones. But with mid-side I'll record the track twice [two instances] and pan them left and right, hard. I'll flip one of their polarities, and I'll put them on a group. I'll have my main banjo mic and then I'll have the stereo feed of the mid-side. I can move those two faders, and there's my blend. You can recess a banjo back by pulling that main mic down and bringing the mid-side up. You can feel the banjo slide to the back of the mix. It's so great.
I'm going to try this out.
Oh, it works like a charm! Especially the more clangy the banjo. Even if you have a hard-driving track that you're featuring the banjo on, and you want it to spike and be the front part of the mix, that mid-side will still make it bigger and wider. You're probably not going to use as much of it as your direct mic, but it will make it sound as big as a house because you're giving it that natural psychoacoustic thing going on in the track.
How much compression are you using while tracking?
I'm not going to bash other engineers, but for some reason engineers despise transients. They're always attacking them so they can make their source louder, I guess. Banjos are loud enough as it is for me. The sound of a banjo played properly is all about the transients. It's the sparkle and those fingerpicks hitting the string and the pinch of the hand.
That little bite of metal sound there.
Yeah! You take that away, and for me it's no longer a banjo sound. I guess I'm much more of a purist when it comes to that. I have 40 compressors in here, but I'm gentle with them. My favorite engineers are the same way. It's more for the transformer colors, the richness of the transformers, tubes, op-amps, and FET color that I like. Good players here in Nashville are playing a $250,000 Lloyd Loar mandolin, or something equivalent. Those instruments are so beautiful sounding. Why would you want to over-compress them and choke them out? They sound unbelievable. I have to be careful in a session not to offend anybody. I've had to ask engineers, "Hey man, I don't know what's going on, but that compressor is messing with my timing. Can we back it off a bit?" It's always awkward to tell somebody how to do their job.
You shouldn't have to.
But when it's affecting yours, you must. Finding a nice way to do it is artful.
What about recording players who are a little bit less experienced? I'm always trying to keep people from moving too much on upright bass, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and banjo.
That is always a challenge. Even singers! A lot of singers, if they know the songs, they'll close their eyes and drift. I hate having singers feel like they're being interrogated, so I have soft lighting with purple lights up that have a nice, soft ambience. I'll record with a bright condenser and a ribbon mic, and I'll capture vocals with both at the same time. I have that tonal option in post after I've Auto-Align'd both of those mics so they're dead in phase. But it's very apparent when they start moving.
Especially a ribbon!
Yeah. I'll hear the tone change because they've gotten more over on one side of the mic than the other. I'll have to stop and speak up.
What about with instruments? Do you have to go in and double check where they're standing?
Yeah. It's natural to move a little bit when you play, especially with acoustic guitar and mandolin. When I hear records with moving around like that it feels organic. It doesn't feel like a staged recording. On the last Jim Lauderdale record that I did, everybody's standing around a couple of microphones and we're moving in and out. We're automating ourselves.
A classic technique.
That's way harder than it looks. Listen to Flatt & Scruggs records, and they're nearly perfect. They sound automated, they're so good. It's like, "How in the world did they do that?" They played every day together, sometimes three or four shows a day on radio shows. They were traveling, living, and breathing the same air. There's something to be said for that.
It's a different level.
Yep, it is. They morph into one entity instead of being individuals.