Calexico: Tucson Tone Kings Turn To Dust

For years, Tucson tone kings Calexico have explored a dark, noir-inflected style that encompasses ’50s jazz, Mexican mariachi, and David Lynchian textures—with a serious nod to spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone. Calexico’s 10th release, Carried to Dust, finds principal members Joey Burns (guitars) and John Convertino (drums) pursuing their southwestern sonic sorcery via producer/ engineer Craig Schumacher’s heavily tricked-out Wavelab Recording Studio.

Playing a 1962 Airline electric, 1950s Harmony Archtop electric, 1999 Manuel Rodriguez nylon cutaway and a 1960 FT-79 Epiphone Texan acoustic, Burns was joined by additional musicians who further broadened Calexico’s smoky melodic palette. Volker Zander’s 1961 Hofner Club bass and Jairo Zavala’s 1960s Gibson LGO acoustic typically overdubbed Burns and Convertino’s basic tracks with final arrangements created during mixdown. Coupling Digidesign’s Pro Tools and iZ Technology’s RADAR (via a Soundcraft Ghost board) with his own gear and effects, Schumacher maintained Calexico’s naturalist approach on Carried to Dust.

“Calexico’s music resonates with people because it has dynamics,” Schumacher explains. “A lot of modern music is totally losing dynamics through that whole concept of louder, louder, louder. I’m fascinated by how they do that, but [the resulting music] doesn’t resonate with me.”

Beyond the band’s atmosphereladen approach, Burns’ guitar layering (often through Gretsch Safari and Fender Blues Deville amps) is another Calexico trademark.

“I think of Frank Sinatra’s guitarist Al Caiola, or R.E.M.’s Peter Buck; he knows when to drone,” Burns says. “I like a wide palette— allusions to an orchestra at times, and at other times, more of a solo or duet dynamic. I’m not about plugging in and playing on ten. I want the sound to pulse and breathe.”

Located deep within the former dry battery storage room of Western States Telephone and Telegraph in downtown Tucson, Schumacher’s 1,500 square foot facility is flush with vintage guitars, lots of delay pedals (he loves delays), keyboards, amps, and effects (including original EMT 140 and 240 plate reverbs). In addition to his work with Calexico, Schumacher has produced/engineered Nico Case, Steve Wynn, Richard Buckner, Giant Sand, and the Sadies, among others.

How do you typically mic Calexico’s guitar amps?

I generally place a Royer 121 or 122 ribbon mic six to eight inches away and off to the right side of the speaker cone’s center, then go through DW Fearn VT2, Daking Micpre/EQ, Grace Design Model 201, Groove Tubes SuPre, or UA 610 mic pres. I don’t like getting right in the center of the speaker where the sound is really bright; when the mic is offset, you get more midrange.

I particularly like ribbon mics because the way you angle the ribbon is almost the way you hear the speaker: If you line the ribbon up in a vertical position, then you catch the edge of the speaker as you would with a dynamic mic. But if you turn the ribbon horizontally, it’s like you’re picking up the whole speaker. The ribbon gives a lot of flexibility, and also knocks off some of the brighter, edgier content that can create distortions in the mix.

While ribbons are well-suited for electric guitars because they’re very smooth to begin with, for an edgier sound I’ll put a Shure SM57 right up on the grille—just shove it right up there and let it take all the power. A ribbon won’t distort if you do that, but the air pumping on it could cause problems, so that’s why I move it back a few inches more compared to other mic types.

Does mic placement change depending on the guitarist?

With electric guitar it won’t change that much. Nine times out of ten before I move the mic around I’ll change the amp tone—volume, treble, mids, reverb, gain—then maybe ask to hear the middle pickup, or try other changes at the guitar itself. I’ll adjust those elements first, because the nice thing about the ribbon is that it’s so close to what you’re actually hearing that when you dial up the guitar, then listen to what’s coming through the monitors, you’ll have a more realistic idea of the sound. You can hear the treble that you changed coming out of the studio monitors.

With a dynamic or a condenser mic, I find myself moving the mic more than with a ribbon. But when recording an acoustic instrument with a ribbon mic, the first thing I do is move the mic. That’s because the ribbon can provide so many different tones depending on how it’s pointed, due to the null points.

What’s your approach to miking nylon string guitar?

I’ll aim the mic at where the neck joins the guitar’s body; depending on how much low end I need, I’ll swing the mic toward or away from the sound hole. That is where the Royer 121s or 122s really stand out. When the ribbon is facing dead-on straight, it’s catching some of the sound hole and that bottom end. But if you don’t like that, you can literally rotate the mic ever so slightly, and turn the null points or ears toward the sound hole to really cut that low end boost.

There’s also interaction between the mic and the sound. If the guitarist is playing a fast strum rhythm, the low end boom can really build up—so I cut [EQ] from 200Hz on down. But with a slower song where the chords develop, I might want that lower end to create more of a mood. Any rules of thumb I have are really about the low end.

Where do you place the Royer in relation to the nylon string guitar?

About 10 to 12 inches away to start. If Joey is playing aggressively that works great, but if he’s a little quieter I move the mic closer. If there’s too much pick noise I might ask him to try a different pick. Or I’ll rotate the mic, and point those null points—those “ears” of the mic—at his strumming hand, which really cuts down all that noise.