Elvis Costello: Americana Influences, Timeless Techniques

“My first album [My Aim Is True] was made in 24 hours,” says Elvis Costello. “This Year’s Model was made in 11 days.

Running a wide gamut from 1930s-styled New Orleans torch songs to bluegrass blowouts to rousing rock and roll, Elvis Costello teams up with producer T Bone Burnett to capture a lively groove and natural sound on National Ransom.

By Ken Micallef

“My first album [My Aim Is True] was made in 24 hours,” says Elvis Costello. “This Year’s Model was made in 11 days. I think Armed Forces was all of three weeks. I thought we had gone into the world of the depraved and the ever-profligate in taking six weeks to make Imperial Bedroom. But after a while, you think, ‘What is it you want to hear?’ You want to hear the songs brought to life as vividly as possible.”

Costello’s National Ransom, produced by T Bone Burnett with his team of recording engineer Mike Piersante and mastering engineer Gavin Lurssen, was recorded in a brisk 11-day session. A wonderfully natural and rich-sounding recording, National Ransom reflects not only Costello’s increasingly Americana-influenced music, but Burnett’s golden (er, make that Platinum) studio techniques. As heard on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand, the O Brother,Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and Elton John & Leon Russell’s The Union, Burnett’s production style is the result of incredibly high standards based in a common-sense approach. Recorded direct to a Studer A827 24-track two-inch, National Ransom is as live-sounding as a hootenanny and twice as enjoyable.

Like the rest of Burnett’s production catalog (Los Lobos, Sam Phillips, Roy Orbison, The Wallflowers, Gillian Welch, Ralph Stanley, John Mellencamp), Costello’s National Ransom is a study in sonic purity. Every inflection of Costello’s rangy voice is fleshed out; the band is as tactile as the hair on your arm; Pete Thomas’ drums have never sounded so warm, so soulful, so richly real. It’s as if a veil has been lifted between the recording studio and the listener, between the musicians and your ears. After 15 years with his crack production team, transparency has become Burnett’s trademark.

“I can’t call it my music,” Burnett says, “but I can say for certain that we treat recorded music as an art form. We don’t treat it as a pop media event. Marshall McLuhan said that a new medium surrounds an old medium and turns the first medium into an art form, as television did with the movies. The Internet has done that with television. Television is in a golden age at the moment, these incredible dramas like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men. Recorded music to me is very much an art form like that, the act of recording and the way it’s released and perceived. It’s all changed; we’re no longer in the mass age. We’re now in an age when people have to find niches.”

It’s Better, It’s Burnett
Burnett readily claims that his records simply sound better than the dreck that commonly fills the airwaves, iTunes, and the Internet. “These records sound better than most of the records being made these days,” Burnett says. “So many records are highly compressed, over-compressed; they’re all made in a computer. Rather than putting a mic up in front of a guitar, something is patched into a machine. The kind of work we are doing is not mass-production. We’re doing very custom productions.”

In many ways, Burnett is radically altering practices that have been common in recording studios for 30 years. Burnett, Piersante, and Lurssen only process in analog; they work solely in high-res digital mastering formats, and their musicians never play loud. “We’ve been minimizing attack and maximizing tone and overtone for the past 15 years,” Burnett says. “For 30 years, the trend in recording was to maximize attack and minimize all the overtones because they’re wild and they can create havoc in the sound. We use all that havoc. We love overtones.

“For years, the bass drum, for example, would sound like somebody hitting his knuckle on a wall; it was all midrange attack,” he elaborates. That was especially true because drummers would hit the drums really hard and leave the beater on the bass drum so all you would get was the attack. We do the opposite; we try to barely touch the drum; then the resonance is as loud as the attack—louder, hopefully. If you play the drums softly, you capture the tone and the overtone, and the overtones set up other overtone structures and different rhythms and different melodies get set up within the song. There are counter melodies that take place that are completely unpredictable. That’s the stuff I love the most.”

Costello and crew pause for a pic. Top row (left to right)—Chris Breakfield, T Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello, Kyle Ford, Garth Fundis, and Mike Piersante. Bottom row (left to right)—Paul Ackling, Milo
Lewis, Jason Wormer, and Jim Lauderdale.

Recorded at Nashville’s Sound Emporium and LA’s The Village and mixed by Mike Piersante (assisted by Kyle Ford) at Burnett’s Electromagnetic Studios in Brentwood, National Ransom spans a lush range of Costellostyled Americana: bluegrass balladeering in “That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving,” full-tilt boogie in “National Ransom,” New Orleans wit, wonder, and serious Costello finger-picking in “A Slow Drag with Josephine” (which is being pressed into vinyl for 78 rpm release).

Recording one or two takes was the norm, as was cutting Costello’s vocals live with his guitar, with supporting musicians arranged in a close-knit circle. Drummer Pete Thomas was isolated in a booth; background vocals were recorded in an adjacent room immediately after the initial take by Jason Wormer. Everything was recorded direct to a Studer A827 24-track, using consoles (Neve VRP 48-channel, Neve 88R) only to monitor tracking.

“We don’t do any cutting around of parts of songs and replacing them, or any of that stuff,” Costello says. “That just isn’t the kind of music we’re making. This is a natural recording in that sense. You don’t want to be a Luddite and not use the advances in technology, but you’ve got to keep them serving the music. When you’ve got musicians of this quality and you’re combining them in the combinations that we are, you know that they are going to play something you want to hear. There is no mystery to it; you just perform the song.

“Seventy-five percent of this record is first or second takes, and 95 percent of the singing is in the room with the band,” Costello continues. “But we don’t make any great proclamation of it being a ‘live in the studio’ recording, because as you hear, there is no lack of nuance or refinement in the sound.”

Strategic Miking with Vintage Ribbons
Musicians recording instruments and vocals live in close proximity can create an engineer’s worst nightmare. But Piersante already had a plan in operation, having engineered Costello’s 2009 album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. “You have the obvious ‘Let’s put Elvis in a booth so we have a discrete vocal,’” he explains, “but it didn’t seem the way to capture the band and Elvis and get the immediacy and the interplay that would happen if they were all live together in the room. So I set them up in a circle and used mostly a lot of RCA ribbon mics [RCA 77-DX, RCA-74 Jr. Velocity, RCA 44-BX, RCA MI-6203 Varacoustic into Neve 1073s and 1081s]. It worked out very well, so I just continued with the same setup for this record.”

The National Ransom band combined The Imposters and The Sugarcanes: guitarists Mark Ribot and Buddy Miller, lap steel player Jerry Douglas, pianist/organist Steve Nieve, violinist Stuart Duncan, accordionist/ pianist Jeff Taylor, trumpeter Darrell Leonard, mandolinist Mike Compton, bassists Steve Crouch and Davey Faragher, and drummer Pete Thomas. Guest singers included Vince Gill and Leon Russell. With this crowded session circle, wasn’t bleed and leakage a problem?

“You can’t avoid leakage,” Piersante replies. “The spill and bleed you get into the other microphones is a big part of a live recording. It becomes your ambience. When you have a whole bunch of guys and a whole bunch of microphones, that can also get you in trouble. You have to be careful. But it’s all about two words: ribbon mics. You use a figure-eight pattern, and if you’re aiming the mic at guy number one, then the guy to his right and left are sitting at the null points of that microphone. You get the bleed from across the circle but the guy next door is limited in his leakage by the nature of the ribbon mic.”

Piersante placed his RCA ribbons within a foot of each musician, depending on the instrument and the song. He generally approaches placement like orchestral spot miking, using a pair of Neumann KM 84s for room mics in a spaced stereo-pair configuration.

“The front wall of Studio A at Sound Emporium is nicely wood slatted,” he reports. “I miked the room from the front wall so the guys who were close to that wall were within five feet of those room mics, but the mics were up high, pointing down, so the people at the back side of the circle were 15 to 20 feet away from the mics.

Another ancient ribbon was used for Costello’s guitar, which was tracked simultaneously with his vocal during the band performance. “The old RCA MI- 6203 Varacoustic ribbon mic has become my favorite since we used it on Ralph Stanley,” Piersante recalls. “I try to aim it at the section of the guitar I want to record, and turn the side of it toward the singer’s mouth so it rejects as much vocal as possible. Elvis is really good about getting in a good spot and not moving around; he is a consummate professional.”

But when recording Costello’s rangy vocals, Piersante used a Wes Dooley AEA R 44 ribbon mic. “Dooley built his own ribbon mics based on the old RCA 44 Bing Crosby radio mic; it is very true to the RCA design,” he says. “Using a vintage ribbon mic on an artist like Elvis, you’re going out on a limb. We’re capturing performances, and God forbid I miss a performance because of a broken mic; that take could be the one.”

‘Hi-Fi Lo-Fi’ Approach
So is the sound of National Ransom simply the result of all those beautiful, vintage ribbon microphones? “To a degree, it is the sound of these old ribbon mics,” says Piersante, “but it’s also a lot about what I don’t do. I’ll try to leave things; I’ll get a sound and I’m not afraid to put some EQ or compression on it, but if you’ve got a great musician and a great instrument in a great room, that’s 80 percent of your battle toward getting good sounds.

“I call our sound a hi-fi lo-fi sound,” he adds. “We capture everything very hi-fi and we’re very careful with the way we treat it and the kind of gear we’ll run it through. But we don’t try to make everything completely clean and sparkling. We like the character of the noise of the ribbon mics and the bed of stuff that might be lurking below the track.”

Costello’s long time tub-thumper, Pete Thomas is renowned for his storming sound, massive groove and centered time feel. But his drums have never sounded this good. (Thomas played on a ’40s Gretsch kit, which contributed significantly to his unique tone.) Yet unlike the other drummers Burnett favors, you can’t call Pete Thomas a “quiet” drummer.

“Pete hit the drums in a nice way that we could get a lot of tone out of them,” Piersante says. “I probably used five mics on his drum kit, including the room mics—a Neumann 47 FET for his kick drum, and an SM57 on his snare. Overheads were an old Gefell-era Neumann tube mic from the ’50s, a CMV 563; it has whatever that Neumann reality factor is from the ’40s or ’50s, but also a very natural and uncolored sound that doesn’t hype or cut out any of the frequency areas. I used a Neumann U67 on his floor tom, and a Coles 4038 for a close room mic in his drum booth. A couple compressors and Neve preamps straight to tape.”

Piersante used an “old Telefunken version of a U 67” when recording guitarist Mark Ribot, and occasionally an SM57 “for a crunchy rock sound.” He placed the 67 on an isolation block, back about 8 to 12 inches, depending on Ribot’s volume.

An integral member of Costello’s band since the ’70s, pianist Steve Nieve was recorded in mono with a vintage Neumann U67, run through an original Universal Audio UA 175 Limiter. “[The limiter] has somewhat of a Fairchild quality, so that one mono mic was run through there with a decent amount of compression applied to get that dreamy piano sound,” says Piersante. “We miked the piano pretty much above the hammers, a foot or two off-axis to pick up the whole soundboard, then gave it a good amount of squish with the 175. And we added another RCA 77 ribbon to the low end of the piano, as well.”

A Million Ways to Greatness
National Ransom sounds beautiful, golden, practically a time capsule of tested studio techniques. How can the home-studio enthusiast possibly hope to match the sound of 1940s RCA ribbon mics and Neumann tube mics mixed down through a Bushnell-modified API console from 1968 to an Ampex ATR 102 1/4-inch tape machine?

“The most important thing is to get a really great set of speakers,” Burnett advises. “Those become your eyes and ears. If you’re shooting something and you can’t see it clearly, then you don’t know what you’re doing. The same applies with recording; being able to hear what you’re doing is the crucial thing. So get a great set of transducers like the ATC [SCM 150s] or the Westlake Audio monitors Mike uses at Electromagnetic [Westlake BBSM 10s and BBSM 4s]. If you’re using acoustic instruments—if you’re not just plugging a box into another box, but you’re using a guitar or violin—take a lot of time in miking. Even an SM 57 is a great microphone. And how good the instrument itself sounds will determine a lot. The most important thing is the great instrument, then the great speakers. But even beyond that, if somebody is playing and they sound great, it doesn’t really matter how it sounds. You can record it through anything and if the song is moving, and the singer is singing it beautifully, it’s great. It can sound a million different ways and still be great.”

Read more about Mike Piersante's mixing techniques on National RansomHERE.

Learn more about ribbon mic technology HERE.