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Jack White Talks About Recording 'Blunderbuss'

June 30, 2014
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Making a gut decision has never been hard for Jack White. “If somebody asked me, ‘We’re going to record a guitar part in a hotel room: What do you want in the room?’ I’d say, ‘I want a 15-watt amp with a reverb, that Supro guitar, a ribbon microphone, and a reel-to-reel,’” he reveals. “Somebody else would say, ‘Why don’t you bring down ten of my Les Pauls, three Stratocasters, a Tele, four of the Silvertones, the Marshall, a Twin Reverb, six other amps, and we’ll record 45 guitar tracks. And then I’m going to go on vacation and you engineers pick the best one.’”

While many famous guitar players like to surround themselves with nearly endless options, that’s not a process that appeals to White. He’s most comfortable making resolute selections made in the blink of an eye. “I make my decisions early on and eliminate right from the get-go so I don’t have to make those choices down the road, because that just makes it harder on you,” he says.

The youngest of ten siblings, White took on a love for rock, blues, and country and started out as a drummer in local bands in Detroit. The singer and multi-instrumentalist has since paid his dues leading the White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather, and he’s collaborated and/or produced artists ranging from Alicia Keys and Loretta Lynn to Conan O’Brien, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and even Insane Clown Posse. His latest project is his first solo effort, Blunderbuss, which debuted in April and was his first album to hit Number One on the Billboard 200 chart.

He also heads up a record label and store, Third Man Records, as well as his own studio, Third Man Studio, in Nashville. He loves vinyl, and he likes to produce expensively made novelties such as liquid-filled and triple-decker records. “I want to make those things exist,” he says. “I want to put vinyl in kids’ hands.”

White is also an analog-tape loyalist, nostalgic for the days before the advent of DAWs. “You just didn’t have any choices to labor upon back then,” he laments. “When people say, ‘I like this guy’s record, but it’s overproduced,’ as a producer I think, ‘What does that mean, overproduced?’ I wouldn’t want someone to say that about my music, and I don’t even know what that word means. All I can think of as a synonym of that word is ‘opportunity.’ And that can be a bad thing for some people.”

The former chief engineer for Blackbird Studio in Nashville, Vance Powell—who engineered and mixed Blunderbuss at Third Man—is a bit more outspoken on the subject of “opportunity.”

“To me, the biggest thing destroying modern music is that no one will make a f**king decision,” Powell says with a laugh. “‘I’ve gotta have all these tracks and all these playlists of different takes ’cause we might want to change it later.’ No! Don’t do that. Just say, ‘Yes! I boldly go forward with this.’ And that’s the great thing with Jack is that he makes bold decisions.”

To Powell, the lack of commitment in recording these days stems from fear. “That’s what putting off those decisions is,” he says. “I have this motto, and that is, ‘Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.’ Just because you can align and tweak and tune and make a performance perfect, that doesn’t mean you should do it. Humans are humans. The world I live in and definitely the world Jack lives in, sometimes the warts are the diamonds, so to speak.”

Powell also believes the old tools to be tried and true: “Egyptians built pyramids, and they didn’t have any laser saws or huge trucks or anything. And those things are pretty cool. [Laughs.] Let’s put it this way: We sure haven’t built anything cooler that will still be standing in 5,000 years.”

Recording in an analog studio, it helps that White is a confident guitar player and musician and doesn’t mind losing good takes. “Many times I have actually recorded over something we liked,” Powell says. “We’re working on a tape machine that works ludicrously slow, and it’s just really hard to punch in and out on. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t. There have been times when we didn’t and I’m like, ‘Well, we really liked that part, but now it’s gone. I’m sorry.’ And he’ll just go, ‘It’s okay. We’ll just do it again better.’”

While White goes with his gut, he’s also apt to change his mind about things like arrangements. And when that happens in an analog studio, it’s nothing like a quick Pro Tools Shuffle. It takes hours. And when he doesn’t change his mind, he’ll occasionally regret it later. “There’s a consequence to making quick decisions,” he says. “But it’s like any mentor or parent will tell you: Just go with your gut. You’re going to be wrong sometimes, but in the end you’ll at least know that you went with what you felt was the right thing to do at the time.”

Bob Ludwig
In the Live Room Blunderbuss was largely tracked live at White’s Third Man Studio, with few overdubs. The studio includes two 2-inch 8-track Studer A800 tape machines and a stereo-modified Neve desk originally from a broadcast studio in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Studers run at the superslow rate of 7-1/2 ips. “You get an hour and six minutes on a reel of tape, and it has a dense, effected sound,” Powell asserts. “What goes in isn’t exactly what comes back, but what goes in is enjoyable. It allows you to be able to make a great-sounding rock record that can be played really loud if you want because there’s none of that digital harshness. We listened to 15 ips, and we were like, ‘Wow, that sounds great.’ Then we listened to 7-1/2, and we were like, ‘Wow, that sounds really . . . interesting.’”

Although only four of the 13 songs on Blunderbuss went to more than eight tracks (maxing out at 14), the track limitations still left plenty of decisions to be made. “You have to make hundreds and hundreds of taste choices all day long while you’re working,” White says. “If you’re recording one song, and you have a few musicians with you and a four-track, you have to decide the tone of the bass, the tightness of the snare drum, how long the decay on the ride cymbal is, what compression you’re using on your vocal microphone, and if you’re using real reverb compared to digital reverb. You have to make those choices over and over and over again.”

At Third Man Records, there’s a vault with tapes of outtakes. There’s not an abundance of extra material, though. “If you take a White Stripes album like Elephant: There’s only one take of every song,” White says. “That’s it. If it didn’t sound good, we just erased it.”

In the past few years, White streamlined his decision-making process even more by producing 45s for other artists. “I started this thing called the Blue Series where an artist—say, Tom Jones—would come into the studio in Nashville, and I would ask, ‘What do you want to work on?’ And he would say, ‘I would like to do “Jezebel,”’ this Frankie Laine song. I’d be like, ‘Okay, what if I got a harp player in here, pedal steel, a drummer, maybe I’ll play acoustic guitar?’ And I’ll start making some calls and see who’s in town and available.

“An hour or so later that day, a handful of musicians walked in the door to work on ‘Jezebel.’ None of those musicians knew they were going to be work on ‘Jezebel’ or Tom Jones’ record that morning. If I told them two weeks ago this is what they were doing, all these cats would have gone and learned ‘Jezebel’ off of YouTube, would have come with a preconception of what it would have been, and they wouldn’t have brought the urgency or excitement to that scenario.”

That sense of urgency played out repeatedly through the course of recording Blunderbuss. The album’s first single—a quiet, drum-less ballad called “Love Interruption”—was recorded live, in a 20x24-foot room, in one take. The full band recorded it once, but they ended up using the pared-down version with White on vocals and acoustic guitar, singer Ruby Amanfu singing backups, and Brooke Waggoner playing Wurlitzer. Clarinet/bass clarinet player Emily Bowland overdubbed her parts later.

For “I’m Shakin’,” a cover of the 1960 hit song written by Rudolph Toombs for Detroit-based R&B singer Little Willie John, White and a few other musicians rehearsed it, and the second run-through ended up on the record. “We had a talkback mic out in the room so that while they were rehearsing, Jack could shout out chord changes or talk to people in the room,” Powell explains. That setup—an Ampex mic going through a Union Tube & Transistor More line-driver pedal and plugged into an Ampex 672 tube-amp speaker with an SM57 miking the amp—was used for White’s vocals. “That amp is buzzing like crazy, but you know what? It doesn’t really matter,” Powell says with a shrug. “That happened. It was real, and I would never in a million years think of jumping through some hoop to get the buzz out.”

White also sings through a Neumann U47 or RCA 77, the signals for which go into the Neve console into a Universal Audio 1176 compressor or Neve 2254 compressor in the desk. “Often I’ll put the 77 and the 47 up real close to each other,” Powell says. “And if Jack decides he wants to use the 47, we’ll just swing the 77 out of the way at 90 degrees, and then I’ll use that as a room mic to get the sound of his room into the vocal. So there will be two vocal mics, the mic plugged into the amp, maybe an amp-mic DI, and a mic on the actual amp, and they’re all combined to one track to make the collective entire sound. That’s called commitment. [Laughs.]”

Bob Ludwig’s tape mastering rig.
Let It Bleed For White’s solo work and the last Dead Weather record (Sea of Cowards), Powell sometimes used two tracks for the drums, giving the kick drum its own track to “really punch it to tape,” he says. But oftentimes, as with the Lone Ranger soundtrack they’ve been working on, the drums get bounced to one track to leave space for the unknown, such as strings. While Powell uses gobos in front of the drums and bass amp, there’s still a lot of sound melding together. “The bleed is what makes the record sound right,” Powell says. “That’s what glues the whole thing together.”

White’s drum kit is a ’60s-era, four-piece Ludwig kit with a 22-inch kick (no hole). Powell miked the kick drum with a Klemt Echolette ED12 mic (a modified AKG D12). He also placed a Shure SM57 on the top of the snare, SM57 on the bottom, an occasional AEA R92 ribbon mic for the rack and floor toms, and an AEA R88 overhead mic. For compression, Powell used an 1176 for the top snare, an 1176 or Fairchild on the kick, and a Neve 32609 or RCA BA-6A as the final compressor to tape. Bouncing everything to one track, Powell was careful not to make the snare too loud: “You only have so much flux on the tape, and since it’s running at 7-1/2, you’ve got to be careful that you don’t crush the transients,” he says.

One challenge Powell had while managing bleed was with the parlor-sounding double pianos on “Hypocritical Kiss.” White, drummer Carla Azar, Waggoner, and guitarist Olivia Jean tracked it with White playing electric bass, as upright bass player Bryn Davies was on her way from another session. Waggoner initially played piano on an upright Steinway (miked from behind on the soundboard with a single mono U47 fet). “When we played back the take, I noticed that there were a lot of drums in the piano track,” says Powell. “Carla played pretty loud, and Jack has this huge 26-inch ride cymbal that is the loudest ride cymbal on the planet. It’s coming through everything. I was like, ‘We should really clean this up,’ and he said, ‘Well, we’ll just have Brooke play it.’”

As this was a live take, Waggoner had to contend with an inexact time frame while recording her overdub. “She was having a hard time nailing it exactly, but she ended up playing this cascading part where she’s playing an eighth note or a quarter note behind her original track,” Powell explains. “Then when we were mixing, I fooled around with having the pianos panned left and right and having the drums in the middle. But when it got to the solo at the end, the piano washed out the drums. So I panned the drums to the right, and the tracking piano with the room and the drums to the left, and then I put Brooke’s piano on the right with the drums. When you listen to it, it sounds like one huge piano, but it’s really a double track.”

Because there were so many commitments made early on, mixing Blunderbuss was not a long, arduous process: mainly panning, levels, and a little bit of parallel bus compression via an Acme Opticon. “There’s not a single song on this record that took more than four or five hours to mix tops, and that’s with us going to lunch in the middle of it,” Powell says with a laugh.

Blistering Guitar One of the most powerful guitar parts on the album is the riff on “Sixteen Saltines,” which White happened upon by accident. “That’s really funny because I was testing a ’60s Fender reverb tank to see how long the reverb was lasting for whatever we were going to record that day,” he says. “It has a Dwell knob, and I was trying to see where to put it. So I played that riff on my Telecaster because I wanted that riff to stop, and I was like, ‘Man, record this riff real quick. I’m starting to like it.’” [Laughs.]

Vance Powell
Powell miked up a ’63 Fender Vibroverb with a Neumann U 67, White played it twice, and Powell panned the tracking guitar to the right and overdub double—played through the More pedal for a clean gain—to the left. “The amp was on the floor, and I put the 67 right on the speaker, right on the outside edge of the cone,” Powell elaborates. “That’s a single 15-inch driver. That U 67 went to Jack’s Neve 1073, and I go in the line input, not the mic pre, because the 67 has enough level that you don’t need the mic pre. If I pad the mic, it always sounds bad, so I’ll use it without the pad and just go in the line input.”

Guitar solos tend to be blisteringly loud on Jack White’s albums. “I will push back on that sometimes with him and be like, ‘Do you think it’s too loud?’” Powell says. “But he’s like, ‘It can never be too loud.’” One happy accident really pushed a solo to the extreme: Powell intended to send the guitar signal through the line input for “Take Me with You When You Go”—but didn’t. “That’s a patching mistake,” he admits. “We’d been using this ribbon mic for some fiddle and mandolin, and I wanted to use it on his guitar solo. We’d used a couple of Helios modules as EQ on another tracks, so they were set up to go into the line input, which was perfectly great because I knew the level coming out of this mic would be loud. He was playing that riff, and I patched into the Helios and slowly turned the fader up, and when I did, I realized that it was patched into the mic input. Out on the floor, we have a remote mic pre for the ribbon, so the ribbon was sending a huge, line signal into the mic pre, and it was blowing up the Helios module in a most unbelievably fantastic way.”

Compressionless Mastering One stipulation White had for mastering engineer Bob Ludwig was that he wouldn’t use any dynamics processing in the mastering process. “There was a study from Earl Vickers [sfxmachine.com/docs/loudnesswar] about the ‘loudness wars,’” Powell says. “As the loudness war escalated, record sales went down. I’m not saying we’re killing the volume war. But I think it’s a very bold move for Jack to say, ‘I realize that there are records out there that are going to be louder, but I don’t care.’”

Mastering without compression is something that White wanted to do for a while. For years when he asked engineers about it, he didn’t get a definitive answer. “I read this book, Perfecting Sound Forever [by Greg Milner], and it was very interesting, talking about the loudness wars and the speed wars back then—33 versus 45 [rpm]—and how history has gone through all this bizarreness of trying to get the best-quality sound. So this album came up, and I was like, ‘Can we just not change the dynamics of the song? Just make it louder, but don’t compress or limit it?’ Bob Ludwig was like, ‘Of course we can do that.’ And I was like, ‘Why the hell didn’t anyone tell me that you can do that?! I’ve been asking this question for years!’” So the master came back, and it sounded great. There’s nothing squashed or lost in the dynamics, and it still sounded really loud.”

While leaving dynamic processing alone, Ludwig did have to do a double session for Blunderbuss. “Jack wanted to have a vinyl record that had no digital processing whatsoever on it,” he says. “So he wanted to record from the one-inch to another one-inch. I haven’t done that in, wow, a pretty long time. And of course to make CDs and downloads, I also recorded at high-resolution digital, at 96/24. Mastering in this case was basically just signal path integrity, level rides, and equalization.”

Ludwig’s studio has two modified Ampex one-inch, 2-track tape machines. “Tim de Paravicini of Esoteric Audio Research [EAR] used to make these beautiful tube electronics that we used on one of the cuts,” he explains.

“Our machine has different sets of playback electronics: his tube and then Mike Spitz’s Aria Electronics with the solid-state, Class-A electronics. And then the recording machine was an Aria Class-A machine, as well.”

For the analog session, Ludwig used Manley Massive Passive, George Massenburg, and SPL EQs. “If it was something that was a clinical thing that needed a cleaning up, I used the Massenburg or SPL,” Ludwig says. “And when it was an overall, fat kind of sound, it was the Massive Passive.”

For the digital pass, Ludwig used a Pacific Microsonics digital converter and a Merging Technologies Pyramix digital workstation. In order to match the one-inch sound as closely as possible, Ludwig did careful alignment. “When I did the EQ master for the one-inch, I went through five alignment tones—the 1k, 10k, 15k, 100Hz, and 50Hz—to make sure that the playback of it was as accurate as I sent to it.”

Ludwig spent some time doing subtle gain rides to push choruses and splicing together edits of different mixes. As the album had to be mastered twice, it also had to be edited twice, so much of his work went to splicing into the one-inch master and then editing again in the digital domain. On “Freedom at 21,” Ludwig spliced in one of the background vocals from the vocal-down mix for just one second. Another microscopic fix on a song was a popped “P” on the word “Put.” “I had to do a separate pass using the Manley Massive Passive with a 122Hz hi-pass filter to get rid of the pop and edit in the 100 millisecond fix into both the one-inch and the digital,” he says. And “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” required multiple versions. “Jack went through it with a fine-tooth comb until every mix and every note was just right,” Ludwig reveals.

In the end, White was pleased that he was able to avoid compression overload for Blunderbuss. “Nowadays when you’re recording,” he says, “you put a compression pedal on your guitar going to your amp. The microphone from your amp to the tape has compression on it. Then you compress in a submix to another track. Then you compressed it again with the bus compressor to the final stereo mix. Then the stereo mix goes to mastering and gets compressed yet again. Then the album comes out and gets played to radio and gets compressed yet again. Sometimes you’re talking about seven or eight compressions of that original signal before someone actually hears it on the radio.”

And let’s not forget MP3 compression: “Oh God, yeah, totally!” 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
CHALLENGING STEREOTYPES
On tour for Blunderbuss, White brings two bands: one with all-female musicians and one with all-male musicians. “I said, ‘What if I had two bands, and neither of them knows if they’re going to play that night?’” he explains. “The idea behind the experiment is that it’s really shaking things up. It’s been a really funny, strange learning experience for everybody in the camp. The novelty of it competing with the reality makes you think. You have people vocalizing stereotypes, like, ‘I saw both bands, and I thought the girls were gentler and warmer.’ And I’m like, ‘Are you crazy? The girls are kicking ass. They’re playing twice as loud as the guys last night.’ It’s funny. Sometimes people’s preconceptions overpower what they’re seeing and hearing with their eyes and ears.”

Kylee Swenson Gordon is a writer, editor, and musician based in Oakland, CA. Her first book, Electronic Musician Presents the Recording Secrets Behind 50 Great Albums, comes out this month.

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