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The Black Keys

June 30, 2014
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“We''re fans of so many different types of music and different types of producers,” the Black Keys'' Patrick Carney says from San Jose, CA, the morning after attending the CMA Awards. “We love the way that records sound when they just sound good. That can be anything. A Phil Spector record or a Tony Visconti record. We''re a heavily influenced band, song to song and instrument to instrument. We try to reference as many different things as possible. On El Camino we''re referencing The Clash and The Cramps but at the same time David Bowie producing Lou Reed. That feeling. Some of the tones. We''re just borrowing little elements from everything. Guitar tones from The Cramps, drum sounds from Stax Records.”

Barely one year after Brothers rocketed the Black Keys'' blues-bitten skronk ''n'' roll into the national consciousness, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney return with El Camino, a Stax-sanctified, Sun Records-reverberating, wall-of-sound heightened album that betters Brothers like color bettered black and white, like stereo elaborated on mono, like Sgt. Pepper''s expanded Revolver. Produced by Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse) and the Black Keys and engineered by Kennie Takahashi and Collin Dupuis at the band''s new Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville, El Camino guarantees hit singles built on inclusion, not dilettante-ism. The songs are wide-ranging, from the opening single “Lonely Boy” to the Pretenders-worthy groove and glowing vocal chorus of “Dead and Gone,” the strangled chords, Farfisa belch, and Keith Richards-styled guitar of “Gold on the Ceiling,” the lowrider strut of “Money Maker,” and the distressed vocals and Exile on Main Street vibe of “Mind Eraser.” El Camino is the Black Keys at full force.

Where Brothers often treaded in a hazy, psychedelic smog, El Camino is a direct soul bomb—all R&B, all the time. Auerbach allowed Takahashi to expand on the Black Keys'' minimalist miking techniques, but he still insisted on simplicity. Easy Eye Sound is a Spartan studio outfitted with a rare 1969 Quad-Eight console, various Urei and Pultec pieces, Auerbach''s beloved Altec 16567A mixers, and other vintage gear. Drums and guitar were recorded mostly live (without baffles) as the bed for each track in Easy Eye Sound''s spacious live room. Vocals were cut in the control room; a tiled bathroom was used as an echo chamber. (There''s copious echo on El Camino, though the band largely credits engineer Tchad Blake''s mix.)

“We''ve figured out what we like to use,” Auerbach explains from Nashville. “It''s all very simple, not a lot of stuff, not a lot of mics. We use dynamic mics and old tube line mixers like the Altec 1567A. We wanted El Camino to be very simple, no real album effects, just drums, bass, guitar, organ; that''s it. No studio trickery. It''s certainly a studio album, but we didn''t want psychedelic flourishes or anything that isn''t just a band playing live.

“The album was recorded with all the same stuff we''ve used before,” Auerbach continues, “same amps, same drum kit, same setup. We''ve found the sweet spot in the live room where the drums sound best and we keep them there. Then we lay out everything around it. The guitar amp is in the room with the drums. I like lower, 25- to 30-watt, older amps. At the foundation of every song on the new record is a live take of guitars and drums. That helps more than anything to give the songs that human element, that live feel. No metronome involved. Choruses may speed up a little bit, but [recording without a click track] gives us the feel we''re looking for. We''ve done computer arrangements before but we didn''t do it so much this time, although it is an incredible tool. We tried to get the arrangements down while we tracked. We''d cut a live take, start to finish, unedited, and then add overdubs on top of that.”

The Black Keys—Dan Auerbach (left) and Patrick Carney.

The Black Keys—Dan Auerbach (left) and Patrick Carney.

Originally, Patrick Carney was the band''s de facto producer, as the duo recorded with his gear in his basement. But as Auerbach caught the gear bug, he took over recording duties. “We began by making records in my basement,” Carney recalls. “I had a Marantz 4-track in high school and a couple of tape machines. Since then, every record we''ve made has been on a completely different setup. We''d divide the advance money and I''d buy a piece of new recording gear. Then Dan started buying really nice equipment. But by 2006 we started working in real studios. El Camino is the first time we recorded in a real studio but made the way that we used to work, where we''re hands-on with everything. We worked at our own pace and engaged the studio however we wanted.” Carney adds that there''s been somewhat of a technical limitation to every record they''ve made, except for this one. “With Brothers we only had 12 tracks because of the monitoring setup in the studio. We had to do very minimal miking and arrangements. This time we didn''t have to do that. So we could do three or four guitar tracks, and three or four percussion tracks and multiple background vocals. But there isn''t some great sonic change in this record other than maybe it''s a little more hi-fi than anything we''ve ever done.”

Like Carney, Auerbach cites specific influences on El Camino. 1950s rockabilly, Johnny Burnette Trio, even The Sweet. But Auerbach was listening to the feel of the songs, not the sonics. “I prefer ''60s sonics, but I like hip-hop low end,” Auerbach laughs.

With Easy Eye Sound''s focus on vintage gear, including two rare Daniel Flickinger 351-1 Program Equalizers (“used randomly on guitars, drum overheads, snare, kick,” engineer Dupuis says), an RMI electric piano, and Altec “Voice of the Theater” studio PA, tracking to tape would seem the obvious next step.

“We''re going through all of these tubes and transformers, so tape is not as necessary,” Auerbach says. “Everything is literally either going through giant old transformers that were hand-wound in the late ''60s or ''50s tube gear. Sometimes both. Old tube mics or ribbon mics or a great old dynamic that already pre-EQs things. We''ve gone through a lot of gear; you find out what works for you, what gets those sounds. But it has less to do with tape than it does miking technique and the arrangements. When I record a band, I like to track to a 1-inch 8-track tape machine. But when we do a Black Keys record, I step away from the engineering side of things and try not to think about it so much. So I can just focus on the songs.”

Danger Mouse''s production touch is subtle on El Camino. Where his hand can be heard in the sleazier sounds and obscure atmospherics of past Black Keys recordings, El Camino is a more straightforward production instrumentally, sonically, and stylistically. Either way, Auerbach thinks the generally close-mouthed Danger Mouse is a misunderstood artist.

“Brian did the Grey Album with Jay-Z but he hasn''t done a hip-hop record since then,” Auerbach notes. “He''s not a hip-hop producer. He''s a musician who plays guitar and keyboards, and he listens to The Troggs. We have a lot in common musically. The only thing we talked about was keeping everything simple. There''s things Brian has done in the past with Gorillaz, Broken Bells, and Gnarls Barkley where there''s atmospherics, psychedelics. He''s copping the ''60s feel but making it modern and that''s what we like to do. We''re not trying to be retro, we just appreciate those old sonics. They just feel good. Brian feels the same way, that''s why we get along. We challenge each other and respect each other''s opinions.”

Two mindsets were at play during the making of El Camino: The more contemporary, Pro Tools-enabled, multi-miking approach of Danger Mouse/Takahashi, and Quad-Eight-sourced, minimalist-miking style of the Black Keys. Compromise was key, apparently.

“Kennie was the main engineer and he tends to use way more mics than I or Collin [Dupuis] would use on the drum kit,” Auerbach says. “When Collin and I do a record, it''s one overhead and one kick. Maybe a spot mic on the top. We did insist on a mono overhead for El Camino.”

Auerbach at Easy Eye''s custom 1969 Quad-Eight console.

Auerbach at Easy Eye''s custom 1969 Quad-Eight console.

Takahashi shared a decidedly broad overview of his miking choices and setup for El Camino: “Some fatter mic for the boom foot. Something a bit throaty for the snare. Something with a bit of attack for the toms. Something brighter with the hats. Something less bright or gluey for the overhead. As for room mics: omni, figure-8, cardoid, dark, bright, far, near; various combinations were used. Even mics around the piano were used—it adds a weird resonance. It''s basic and doesn''t matter. Pat [Carney] is about feel. I could''ve probably done the record with an SM58 somewhere in the room and [it''d] still be awesome. I think.”

Carney reveals the Black Keys'' preferred mic setup for guitar and drums, which included 1950s-era WFL and Gretsch kits and an early-''60s Ludwig kit. “There were a couple Electro-Voice Model 668 dynamic mics on guitar amps,” he says, “and we use a Unidyne 57 on the bass and snare drums. We use ribbon mics on overheads sometimes or an AEA R44, the RCA rip-off. Occasionally we use a brighter-sounding condenser. Dan used a lot of dynamic mics on vocals. Usually an SM58. An even balance of ribbons and condensers and dynamics. The microphone I love the most is the Beyerdynamic M160; that is the best microphone for guitar. It just sounds really rich and it has a nice bite to it but it''s not too bright. For drums I like dynamics obviously for the kick drum; that can be a Beyer M88, or a Shure 55SH, one of the big ones. That''s what we used on Brothers. I like 57s on the snare drum. We always do the drums in mono, and for overheads I like RCA 77s or KM184s, a small-diaphragm tubeless condenser in mono right at eye level. I like drum mics that can take compression, and don''t sound too bright but still have a slightly spitty sound that can cut through compression. We both like darker tones.

“There are sounds that I hate,” Carney continues. “When you walk into a studio, 90 percent of the time an engineer will put a 57 on your snare drum and whatever on the kick drum and listen back with Pro Tools and it will sound so distant and boring. We like things that sound really thick and dull but defined. Maybe a kick drum that has no tone but that hits you in the chest. I don''t like attack. My favorite drum records are definitely from the ''70s: T. Rex''s Electric Warrior, Led Zeppelin, Jackson Five, Black Sabbath''s first four records. I don''t care for the ''60s drum sound, honestly; it''s too old-timey and retro. Lowell Fulsom''s ‘Tramp'' is my favorite of the ''60s drum sounds. It just sounds like a four-track recording.”

As far as his method for getting a good drum sound, Patrick Carney is more Zen than Zeppelin, preferring to play his kit with less volume and impact in the studio than in concert situations. Seasoned drummers know that drawing the tone out of the drum is preferable to beating the sound into it. Carney concurs. “I play completely differently in the studio than in concert,” he explains. “The second half of ‘Little Black Submarines'' was kind of loud. That''s how I play live. But normally in the studio I hit the drums way softer. I simplify the drum beats. I''ve found that if you have a less-dense arrangement and hit the drums lighter, they come through and sound a lot bigger. For this album we would get the rhythm tracks together—guitars, drums and percussion—then it was all about all of us writing the vocal melodies and the lead melodies. That was the majority of the focus and time spent on this record, writing those melodies. I''d rather be an accountant than spend time sitting around getting drum sounds. I like stuff that feels real, and if something feels wrong or homemade then I like it more.”

Regarding Dan Auerbach''s vocal chain, he used an Electro Voice RE15 and the Altec 1567A tube mixer into the Quad-Eight. Takahashi ran general miking and processing for the session.

“We had Neumanns, RCAs, old EVs, Coles, Royer, Shure, Sennheiser in the studio,” Takahashi says. “I believe we even used an Oktava—pretty decent, depending on the application. A ton of mics just hung on stands; we just moved ''em around to get what we wanted. Typically, Neumanns were used when we wanted a touch more clarity. Want less tickle in the cymbals? Grab an old RCA ribbon or Coles. Royers tended to smooth out the high mids. [Their] Unidynes kinda sound good on anything that doesn''t need too much bottom. If we needed more room [sound] in a mic, we''d either move it away from the source, or in the case of some of the ribbons, simply turn it so the lobes were pointing out. Nothing fancy, literally as quick and easy as possible so that the guys could get going and rip. Things get out of focus when an engineer starts nit-picking over some 67Hz ringing or strange midrange phase relationship between a stereo pair. Just f**king move or switch the mic quickly or go to mono. People forget the plot is about the songs and artist.”

Processing was also about getting it done—fast and quick. “Processing such as reverbs and delays were temped up in the box; basically, whatever was quickest,” Takahashi explains, “almost never complex and completely un-boutique. I believe the most complex effect was a long delay with a sidechained compressor on the output. All of this was done to get roughs to make sure they got the songs and the feel that they wanted to get. Obviously there were effects on the guitar via pedals and maybe some external plates or chambers, but those were just bused together.”

Befitting their no-nonsense, stripped-down approach to recording El Camino, the Black Keys offer equally compelling and seasoned advice to anyone looking to replicate their grizzled blues and soul-drenched hi-fi sounds on the cheap. “I am not precious about brands or techniques ''cause everyone who has a technique learned it from someone else,” Carney says. “Very few people come up with their own techniques. But there are some great mics you can get for five or six hundred bucks—a few great mics for 100 bucks. That list starts with the Shure SM57. You can make an entire record with that mic. You can do vocals, kick, snare, guitars—you can even use it for an overhead. Of course we were using a bunch of fancy preamps and fancy microphones, but with Pro Tools and the right plug-ins you can get a lot done. I like the SoundToys stuff. Those are the best. I also like the Waves SSL compressor for drums and if you''re mixing in the box, as a mix bus.”

“Experiment with miking,” Auerbach adds. “Most of the time the large-diaphragm tube mics are not the sound we get. We use our dynamic mics; they''re not really expensive. They give us the sound that we like. Even on the drums. And you can find those tube mixers—even the old ''50s off-brands like DuKane, which are essentially the same RCA rip-off circuit designs; you can find those inexpensively. There''s a misconception about gear. Obviously, people use Neumann mics, but for a lot of the records that we like—Stax and Sun—they used a shit-ton of dynamic mics and simple miking techniques. And you should really think controlled bleed. That''s a lost art form. Ever since the ''70s people have been isolating instruments, but the great records that I like from the ''60s all have a lot do with the controlled bleed creating a stereo spectrum. There''s plenty of options out there, even if you don''t have a lot of money.”

Interview Outtakes With the Black Keys'' Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney and Recording Engineers Kennie Takahashi and Collin Dupuis

Dan Auerbach
Regarding his Altec 1567A still and Quad Eight board…
It''s still racked up in the studio, so it''s essentially still there but not in the console. I have four of them; three of them are modded with echo send so we can track with plate reverb live. We like to commit to some effects while recording. Tchad [Blake] is such an audio wizard, even if you put an effect on there and you don''t like it, he can make it go away.

Patrick Carney
When we made the first album we wanted it to sound like something it didn''t sound like. We couldn''t actually get there. That''s been the case with every record we''ve ever made until Brothers, that was the first one where we able to make the music sound like we wanted. That was because we worked with an engineer who knew what we wanted.

On recording drums in mono…
We did that during Brothers. We were listening to a lot of records we liked, and the drums were in mono. Whether it''s just the drums or the whole mix, but most of the drums we like are in mono, like the Jackson Five or T Rex, which seems like it''s in mono. Led Zeppelin has more of a stereo image on the overheads but I''m pretty sure the drums are all pitched right down the center.

Assistant Engineer Collin Dupuis
Tchad Blake mixed the album, so you are hearing his take on our minimal tracking. It''s the best of both worlds. With Brothers, there were only 11 or 12 tracks of audio for each song, total. With somebody like Tchad who mixes all in the box, to mix, it''s like the past meets the future. It makes for really cool results. It helps to retain that real human element and real human quality. You can visualize all the instruments because they''re not clouded with so many damn microphones and overdubs. Yet you can fine-tune things so much with the digital console.

On the 1969 Quad Eight console, with a pair of program EQs built by Dan Flickinger…
They''re special because they are old circuits and the design of the circuit just sounds really good. It''s something that was designed by Dan Flickinger, a rare piece that has its own unique sound similar to other program EQs in terms of functionality, but a different flavor to a Pultec or UA. A little more accuracy, because of the frequency points, there are more of them than a Pultec has. It''s similar to Pultec, but it''s solid-state so it sounds different. The Quad Eight is-American made, simple circuit. It has simplicity of design and sound. Very open sounding, with richness of midrange. If you go back and look at any of that Made-in-America stuff, Quad 8, Electrodyne, from the ‘60s to early ‘70s solid-state, the circuit designs back then were really robust and with large transformers that just created a sound of its own. A very hi-fi sound.

On the extra recording spaces in Easy Eye Sound: two bathrooms, one plaster walls, the other tiled…
We use those as echo chambers. You can do things like run sounds into it, rerecord it, use it as an old school echo chamber, creating a space, recording vocals or claps, anything you need to have a sound of a space like that, a bright, echoey sound. Like the older records where the echo chambers are real obvious.

Engineer Kennie Takahashi
How did you retain that classic blues sound for El Camino yet also keep it fresh and contemporary sounding?
It's super-easy to get sounds with these guys; they sound how they sound. Tone is in their fingers, hands, feet. Tone is in the instruments they use.

How much production was analog vs. done in the box? Can you walk me through the recording chain?
There were edits done in the box. If the guys wanted to change the arrangement of a song, and just moving the recorded material around didn't sound awkward...in the box. If it was crap, they just recut it—no use trying to waste time moving shit around to make something work when they could recut the piece in half the time.

I''ve heard that Dan Auerbach has many vintage guitars and amps; can you explain processing/signal chain?
Basically, Dan grabs a guitar plugs it into an amp, maybe through some pedals, and bam—instant tone. Maybe needs a bit more top or a bit more bottom—easily sorted with an EQ at the end of the chain. I just make sure I'm recording, because it's gonna be cool, no matter what.

I hear a real wall of sound re: reverb on El Camino. Was that produced in Dan's studio naturally or did you favor certain hardware of software reverbs?
I assume Tchad used his magic pixie dust reverb, but some of the sounds were naturally done with more ambience from mic proximity, or throwing a mic in the bathroom, or summing a distant mic, or compressing the living crap out of something (which also has the added benefit of noisy analog crap and a touch of extra distortion).

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