I've always been a big fan of Gillian Welch's albums. She and her musical partner, Dave Rawlings, made two records (Revival and Hell Among the Yearlings) for Almo Sounds with producer T Bone Burnett [Tape Op #67] that I enjoyed. But it was the next album, the Dave Rawlings-produced Time (The Revelator) on their own Acony Records, which put them onto my desert island list. It's quietly stunning, both musically and sonically, and Gillian's new album The Harrow & The Harvest is equally as strong. I got a chance to speak with them while they were on tour supporting Buffalo Springfield. At first they seemed a bit bored by yet another interview, but when I mentioned I wanted Dave to stay in the room so we could talk about recording, they both visibly perked up. Although Dave is credited with production, Gillian also has some deep knowledge and opinions on recording. As befits two people who have worked together for over a decade, they often finish each other's sentences and thoughts. Their strong connection as musical partners is evident.
Time (The Revelator) is one of my favorite records. I think it's a classic album.
G: We made it in the old RCA [Studio] B in Nashville that was built in the late '50s. It had no gear in there.
D: We were looking for a recording space and I had been driving around Nashville trying to find an old studio to rent, or possibly buy. One day I drove by Studio B and the door was open. I thought, "Oh my God, that's Studio B. I've never been in there." I walked in, heard my footsteps on the floor and knew that I liked the sound of the room. Bob Moore was there that day — Elvis's bass player. He just happened to stop by. I was really interested in [renting] it. I then found out that the Country Music Hall of Fame — who had been running a lot of tours through it and whatnot — were building the new Hall of Fame. In the interim they were going to be too busy to do anything with RCA B. We approached them through a friend who was on their board and they said would it be all right if we brought our gear in and rented it on a monthly basis. They treated it as a donation to the new Hall of Fame, which was real nice. We rented it out for about 14 months. When we first got in there, I spent a month or two cleaning out the troughs and I fixed the plate reverbs. The place hadn't been used much as a professional space in quite a while.
G. It had not been a functioning studio.
But they had a little bit of gear, like the plates?
D: They had the plates in the other room and they had somebody doing some karaoke sessions out of the live room. The control room was basically empty.
G: The speakers were still there.
D: Oh yeah, the old Altec 604s were still there, but they needed to be fixed.
Is that what you monitored on?
D: It was mainly [Yamaha] NS-10s and the Altecs. What we ended up bringing in was all the gear from the home studio — stuff that we've assembled over the years. Our tape machine is a [Studer] A800.
Is it 24- or 16-track?
D: 16-track. I actually bought the headstack before the machine. I found some unused 16-track heads when I was buying some other gear, and I threw those in. Then I found a 24-track machine. What else?
G: The Neve desk.
D: Yeah, we started buying [Neve] 1084s really early on. I bought a BCM-10 frame and every time we went on tour I would come back and buy a couple more modules. I found some other 1084s from the next console made, so the serial numbers were still pretty continuous. We hadn't filled the frame for ...Revelator, but we had enough — we only needed four or five.
G: That board came out of WGBH Boston. It was the old Sesame Street board.
So it had a Muppet vibe.
D: Yeah, rubber ducky. I got this other old BCM-10-style console made by Neve that has 1055 modules in it; they're the wide, black ones with three fixed bands. They basically have a high, low and a mid — you can't select the frequency — and 10 dB steps. They are very unforgiving with transients; they really don't like anything barking. There is distortion all over our records because of those modules.
Does it squash the transients or distort?
D: They break up in a weird tear-y way. If you hit them with the top of a vocal it will have a little "kkkrrrrrr" on it. I would go through those, as well as the 1084 at line level to get five dB gradiation; as a buffer stage. I had some 1084s that bypassed the fader, and those were the ones that I used before the tape machine. So the signal chain was two [Neumann] M 49s, a [Sony] C-37a on my guitar and an M 582 Neumann on Gil's guitar. There are other setups: "Dear Someone" would have been an Altec 639a, one of those birdcage mics, with a [Neumann] U 67 right on top of it. They end up perfectly out of phase and you just flip them. We were in there and we would have to break down every couple days 'cause they would run a tour, so we weren't able to leave the mics set up or anything. It was a difficult process.
G: With us, millimeters of difference in the mic setups are huge because the picture is so affected by overall phase between our four mics.
D: Everything is pretty close together.
How far apart are the two of you when recording?
G: Two and a half feet. As close as can be.
D: Some days we would set up, the phase would be great and everything would click in. Then a tour would come through and we would have to tear down. We got a little rug with everything spiked, but we would have to get within millimeters. That's the difference with this new record. Since we were finally working in our own studio, we set up and we never touched the mics.
So a lot of the same gear has made it from record to record?
D: Yeah. There are two tracks on Hell Among the Yearlings that we did at home on those same preamps. By then we also had the [Neumann] M 49s. That was the beginning of what I look at as that incarnation of duets, like "Miner's Refrain" and "Rock of Ages." "Rock" is a banjo song, so it's a little different because I used a [Neumann] U 47 on the banjo.
You had 14 months to make Time (The Revelator). However, it wasn't really 14 months because you were constantly interrupted?
D: We made that record in five weeks. Most of the album was probably created within three weeks, and then there was a little bit of time on either side. I also produced part of the first Old Crow Medicine Show record in that time period. We just happened to be renting the studio for that long.
How long did Harrow & The Harvest take to record?
G: Four weeks. That's about how long our records take.
Is everything recorded live?
D: Yeah, everything is live. It is pretty much all from takes one, two or three. Very few mixes. This is the first record we've done that Stephen Marcussen [our mastering engineer] listened to and said, "Okay, Let's transfer it." We didn't compress or EQ anything. Just transferred it from a machine of his that we really like, through the nice converters and a clean signal chain.
When you are two-feet away from each other there is no way you are going to punch in and fix a part.
G: We have never done that.
D: About half the songs on the album are complete takes. Five of them are composites of adjacent takes. G: Edits between takes.
Edits on the 2-inch master tape?
D: Yeah, I do a lot of 2-inch editing. I've always done that.
G: Dave's really good at editing. I'd put him up against anybody at this point, because he's not even getting to cut on drums. [Drums make it easier to find the edit points. -ed.]
D: I know where the edits are on this record, but they are pretty hard to find. I bet you can find a few on ...Revelator.
G: But I don't even mind. I like the sound of a tape edit.
Sometimes they're cool. It can totally change the ambience in an unexpected way.
D: Yeah, as long as it's musical.
What speed, 15 ips?
D: 30 ips. I think Soul Journey was at 15, but everything else we have done was at 30.
Why 15 for Soul Journey?
D: Drums. There was more of that vibe. There might be a couple [of songs] at 30, but I just wanted to try it. But that was a very different rig. That was mostly [Shure] SM57s and API preamps.
Was that still mostly tracked live with the band?
D: Yeah. The only thing I should say is that I overdubbed some organ on a few things. I'm a terrible [Hammond] B3 organ player, but if I get one pass at something I usually do a really good job. So I go in, do one pass and that's it.
G: One band song went down without any singing and I had to go back in and sing.
D: We were jamming with the chords of it and it sounded good, but then I think we used your scratch vocal to see if it worked.
Do you have an engineer helping you?
D: We have worked pretty closely with Matt Andrews in Nashville for a while now, and our methodology has developed around the three of us. I'm not in the control room while we are tracking, so we rely on Matt, to some degree. We have some sense of whether or not we are getting there, but it's always good to have another set of ears. If we are going to be editing between takes, it's generally good to get parts from adjacent takes. I suppose I handle most of the responsibilities that you'd associate with a producer.
G: We all listen and weigh in on what the good takes are. Happily, we pretty much agree. It's pretty evident.
Do you do the mixing?
D: I do a lot of mixing. On The Harrow & The Harvest, we weren't really moving faders very much — we never really ride stuff. For most mixes we set the faders and let them run. It's very rare for there to be fader moves within a song. Matt did a lot of live mixing, where he would get the picture a particular way. If we liked it when we came in, we might only tweak things slightly. He did a lot of riding the preamps and then we would adjust from there as far as color and compression.
G: We did a lot of printing tracking mixes — this is very common for us. If we like what we have — even if we can narrow it down to one, two or three takes — we will print them that night.
D: We did that when we were at Studio B and we needed to bring songs back to the other room. We don't have automation, but I have a system of recalling mixes that is crazy accurate by using voltage to get faders in exactly the right spot.
Do you measure it with a voltmeter?
D: I measure the fader levels with a voltmeter. It's actually more accurate than any of those moving fader systems. I mean, you can be off a quarter or a half [dB], which, in our world, a quarter and a half is like...
G: A totally different mix.
D: I don't think we moved the reverb sends on this entire record. We moved as little as we could so we could get a consistent picture.
It seemed really consistent with ...Revelator. They seem to be a pair.
D: That's good, 'cause it's a different room.
G: You're not the first one to say that.
D: Soul Journey was intentionally a departure from the duet thing. Gillian had songs that we thought would be good with drums.
I'm assuming you work out the arrangements well in advance and bring them in?
D: Some of the writing goes down in the studio.
G: It's a very "in the moment" dynamic process.
D: The improvisation is usually better early on, and of course you always have time later if you fail.
G: I tend to be... the positive way to say it is that I'm really consistent. But once I've been playing a song for a while it tends to solidify for me. That can be a problem if we are having trouble recording something, as it's unlikely that I'm going to change what I'm doing enough to make a difference. Dave's really good at suggesting arrangements. But, even broader than that, he creates musical changes that really crack things open. For instance, having me move from guitar to banjo or totally recasting a song from major to minor. A lot of these songs are very spontaneous takes on a new arrangement or even new music.
D: "Hard Times" is the second time Gil ever played it on banjo. The first take is un-listenable 'cause there are so many chord mistakes.
G: It's clam city.
D: As the second take was going down, I knew it was magic. I actually cut the solo short because I didn't want there to be any more time — I wanted less time for things to go wrong.
G: He shot me this look of, "Start singing again."
D: Let's get through the fucking thing! It was moving me so much.
G: "Six White Horses" was maybe one of the first times we ever performed it, with me hamboning and with you at the rack [harmonica]. This runs through the whole record — it's very spontaneous
D: ...but only after quite a bit of writing and working. The studio time is the culmination of the writing. "The Way the Whole Thing Ends," has approximately 25 verses. The studio is where we figure out how long the songs need to be and where to cut them down. It was the same situation with "I Dream a Highway;" it's a very long song and I thought it was appropriate for it to remain long. Most of the time they get better if you shrink them, but that one seemed nice long.
G: We had only ever sung that twice.
D: I said, "We shouldn't ever play that until we...
G: 'Til we have tape rolling."
D:We didn't know if it would fit on a reel. I cut out a couple of verses in the final — that's a composite of takes one and two.
You've done enough records in this format, and it seems like it's quick to get set up with Matt.
G: The interesting thing about this record is that we had never had a room that was great sounding to do duet records in at Woodland Sound Studios [Gillian and Dave's studio].
D: We made Soul Journey in the A room at Woodland. We have tried several times to do acoustic stuff — even during the first record with T Bone. We worked in Woodland in '95 and tried to do some acoustic stuff, but never really got anything satisfactory. AES held an event where they brought in Glenn Snoddy, who'd built the studio. We looked at the room and realized that what we didn't like was basically a '90s renovation. So we took the B room and tore it down to studs. We took the wood floor up and basically restored it to how it was in the '60s, when it was built, with linoleum floor and acoustic tiles — basically the same construction as RCA B, which is what Woodland B was built to mirror. We didn't know what we were going to get. We came back, finished the trim, worked for a few weeks, buffing the floor with the same wax compound. Then we set up mics and did one take of a song that ended up being an outtake. The next thing we played was "The Way it Will Be." We did one take of that and it was a master. We felt like, "Okay, this room is working well." ...Revelator sits back in speakers in a very nice, mysterious way — The Harrow & The Harvest throws out the speakers and combines in the space you are in.
G: ...Revelator you have to listen into more. I feel like this new record comes out.
Tell me a little bit about working with T Bone Burnett. How did the transition go from working with him to essentially producing yourselves?
G: I kind of learned how to make records from him. Rik Pekkonen (engineer on Revival) and T Bone came up with our mic'ing rig.
D: From the first days of Revival, we had Gil sing into a [Neumann] [U] 47, [U] 67 and an [M] 49. It was pretty apparent to everyone that the 49 was a great mic for her. When we got done, Rik Pekkonen sent me a very nice list of, "This is what you would need to buy in order to make professional recordings." We started out with an [Ampex] ATR-102 and a couple of U 67s.
G: T Bone is really the one that pushed us to have a recording rig in our house.
D: ...and the methodology when it comes to tape editing. That's how T Bone was working at the time. In my mind we record in a mid '70's methodology, and I think that's the pinnacle of fidelity in the recording world.
G: We have to capture a performance and T Bone got that. That's why he said, "Have a way to record in your house."
It sounds like he really encouraged you guys to move into producing yourselves.
D: In a way, he forced us into it. He was not around at the end of either of the first two records. We mastered Revival without him. T Bone is an incredibly talented, fantastic producer. Listen to his track record and listen to his music. But oftentimes he is working on a lot of things, and he had a lot more energy at the beginning of these projects than he did at the end. There are tracks on Hell Among the Yearlings that he never heard before the record was out. That's just the truth of it — we needed to finish the record.
G: You would be hard-pressed to find someone who commences a project with more inspiration and enthusiasm than T Bone.
D: The man is a genius.
G: I think it is part of his process of how he goes to the next project. He has to mentally get out of the one he is in. Sometimes that happens before the record is done, if that makes sense.
Around the same time you started your own record label?
G: Yeah, Time (The Revelator) came out on our label.
How hands on are you with the label?
G: Pretty hands on.
D: We were walking around one day and I said, "I don't know how we're going to sign with another label that we can be sure we'll be with in another five years." 'The industry was so volatile and that became reason enough to start our own label.
Is there anyone else on the label, besides you two?
G: Both of our records.
D: We did a project with a friend of ours' named Morgan Nagler; her band is called The Whispertown 2000.
Was there a flip-flop of roles with the Dave Rawlings Machine, A Friend of a Friend album?
D: There was in terms of the musical thing. It was a difficult record to produce because it was one more layer of, "Oh god. I'm listening to myself."
So you [Gillian] didn't kind of chip in a bit?
G: No, I'm really not a producer. There is a reason why the albums say, "Produced by David Rawlings."
D: It was harder to do, but it was a lot of fun. We did that pretty quickly in RCA B. I didn't know how we were going to do it, but we ended up with all four vocals around an [Neumann] M 49 in omni mode, a couple of low instrument mics and a mic for the bass. There wasn't much to mix or fuck with.
Do you rent Woodland Sound Studios out to other artists?
D: Robert Plant made his last record [Band of Joy] there, but we don't really rent it out.
G: I wouldn't really call it "eccentric" gear-wise, but it's not a commercial studio.
D: It works for us. There isn't a [Pro Tools] HD rig. We have a decent complement of mics. G: Buddy Miller [Tape Op #34], who recorded that Robert Plant album, totally understood that. He's local, so he brought in the gear he needed, knowing that our equipment would be available for him to use as well.
What was the history of Woodland Sound before you bought it?
D: They made [Kansas'] "Dust in the Wind" there and [Neil Young's] Comes a Time. It was a very hot studio in Nashville — maybe the hottest studio in the world, as far as pop music from '73 to '83 — all the "urban cowboy" country.
G: And [The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's] Will the Circle be Unbroken.
D: You can read up on Woodland — it's interesting. It was also Denny Purcell's — he had a mastering suite there, as well as two studios. If you look at the logs, they were running 24 hours [per day]. You may have noticed the studio business in the last decade hasn't been so good. The only reason we could buy this building in 2001 is because it had been on the market for two years. No one wanted it — it was going to be a Walgreens.
G: Who wants an enormous old studio?