What would Mike Campbell do?
Tape Loving Dudes in Zippah’s Control Room. LtoR: Duke Levine, Josh Kiggans, Drew Townson, Paul Dilley, Ward Hayden
Producer notes by Drew Townson
Tape hiss. It doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I think of it as the canvas on which to paint your sounds, or the glue that holds a mix together. You will hear plenty of tape hiss on GGG’s new LP, "Love and Protest," and I’m both pleased and proud of that fact.
Doing an all-analog record for the first time in many years has been well worth the noise. Why? Because we captured real musical performances in a real way. There were limitations, decisions, immediacy, and a commitment to make it good, right then and there. You can’t postpone a decision. A (very destructive) edit involves splicing tape with a razor blade. There’s no CTRL-Z “undo” button. Your creative juices are flowing in to each and every moment, and you get to take a breath while the machine rewinds, making that wonderful burbling sound.
We had no computer screens, recording with our ears not our eyes. (Have you ever noticed that when a screen is in the room, everybody tends to stare at it?) On the studio’s un-powered flat-screen we taped a hand-scrawled sign that read, “What would Mike Campbell do?” There was no auto-tune; no plug-ins at all. Even the reverb we used was an ancient EMT plate. In fact, the only digital devices we used on this entire record were a vintage AMS RMX16 Reverb and a Lexicon PCM42 delay.
There was no comping together a deep playlist of vocal takes. We gave Lead Singer Ward Hayden two tracks to do two vocal passes on each song, and pretty much chose the keeper immediately after he sang it. You’re not listening for perfection in a take, you’re listening for energy, emotion, vibe, groove, mojo, balls. That’s what determines whether or not you go back and erase a take forever. Most of what you will hear on this record was performed live with the full band playing together in a small room. Even Duke Levine’s guitar solos were played live with the basic tracks. Our role as recordists was to put up some excellent microphones, hit the big red button, and get the hell out of the way.
|Zippah's racks of vintage tube limiters and there she is, Miss Studer A820|
What all this means is that we have a record of killer tracks that are completely real with 100% human honesty. Are there human imperfections in the tracks? You bet there are, and thank God for that. One of my long time mottos as a producer is “Don’t mess with the imperfection.” There are imperfections in the recording and production as well. There’s spill from the drums in to the upright bass mic, for instance. But y’know what? We LIKED the way the snare sounded in the bass mic. So we used it to our advantage. Happy accidents happen in an analog session. We ran out of tape near the end of a take, so guess what? That song has now become a fade-out. As it turns out, fading was better than ending on that particular song. We asked ourselves, “Is that hi-hat thing worth re-cutting an otherwise awesome take?” “Is that one spot where the steel guitar isn’t loud enough worth re-doing an otherwise awesome mix?” You’re forced not to over-think or over-cook the tracks.
Guess how many tracks we used for the drums?
When Josh didn't play toms, it was five. On the Gram Parson’s cover, the drums on the final mix is ONE microphone, a vintage RCA 77. From the gitgo we went minimal. Zippah Studios' Brian Charles and Miranda Giuffrida were instrumental in getting the simple and solid drum sounds. There’s one kick mic, as opposed to the typical two or even three. We summed snare top and bottom mics together to one track. When overdubbing an acoustic guitar, the solution was to use the vocal mic - a U47 - and stick it a foot in front of the guitar and don’t change the vocal chain settings at all. It sounded great that way.
We used no EQ whatsoever in tracking. We DID, however, use many colors of compression (including the tape itself), whose settings often varied from song to song. When we overdubbed a lead guitar solo by Cody which weaves in and out of Ward’s vocal part, engineer Benny Grotto actually RODE the guitar level going TO tape to make it duck up and down around the vocal. TO tape. On mix, that guitar fader didn’t move. That’s commitment! If we wanted an instrument muted during some parts of the song and playing in others, did we ride a mute button in the mix? Hell no! We went through and erased that sucker where we didn’t want to hear it. Gone-zo!
When you make a record this way, you know what happens? The songs virtually mix themselves. For real. You capture the songs with microphones on to tape and that’s the record. It’s done! Did I mention we did the whole 12-song record over 16 almost-consecutive days.Yep. Old school. Not enough time to fuck it up.
In the end, the GGG LP sounds absolutely amazing, noise and all. It was a honey-bath for my ears, and my mind as well. I can’t imagine doing another project any other way but analog now. It’s kind of like having a beautiful summer love affair up at the lake and then having to go back to school. Ugh!
Pretty sure we did what Mike Campbell woulda done.
Pretty sure we did what Mike Campbell woulda done.
I love you, tape hiss.
|Her Majesty of Mixdown, the 827. |
We printed final mixes on to an Ampex ATR102 half-inch machine.