In the Studio: William Tyler with Jon Ashley

The making of William Tyler's album Modern Country
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Guitarist William Tyler’s intricate and impressionistic instrumental albums transport the listener; the music is at once cinematic, orchestral, intimate, and emotional. On his latest, Modern Country, you’ll hear synth sounds layered among the melodious strings, evoking impressions of a changing landscape to explore.

William Tyler recording in April Base. Describing the track “Kingdom of Jones,” Tyler says, “[It] is dedicated to the memory of the people of Jones County, Mississippi, a small county in the southern portion of the state that seceded from the Confederacy during the Civil War.” Have guitar, will travel.

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Tyler is normally based in Nashville, but Modern Country was recorded in the dead of a Midwestern winter, in April Base (Eau Claire, Wisc.), the home studio of Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon. Tyler and his producer, Dave Cook, invited an inventive ensemble to the sessions: bassist Darin Gray (Tweedy), drummer/percussionist Glenn Kotche (Wilco), multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook (Megafaun), producer Brad Cook on synths, and pedal steel player Luke Schneider.

Engineering the album was Jon Ashley, who traveled from his home base at Mixtown USA (L.A.) and settled into Vernon’s house/studio with the band for five days.

Bassist Darin Gray (standing) and producer Brad Cook. “The core of the album was tracked live,” Ashley says. “Everybody was set up in the same room. April Base has a large live room that once was an indoor swimming pool. I had the bass cab and Willie’s guitar cab isolated in a small booth, but everything was cut live, and we spent quite a bit of time on the first day dialing in tones for everybody.”

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“There were no rehearsals beforehand, so the first day, we were feeling each other out, and it was good that we were in the middle of nowhere in the winter, so we had to all bond,” Tyler observes. “It was the first time I had done a record outside of Nashville. It was the first time I had worked with somebody in a producer role, and it was the first time all of these musicians played together, but I had a lot of confidence and I knew once we got in a room, I just wanted these guys to play whatever their best first idea was.”

The musicians had a lot of creative control, yet the pieces fit beautifully into Tyler’s arrangements. Tyler played electric guitar on most of the live sessions, and Ashley miked up his ’60s Fender Deluxe with a Royer RE20 and a Shure SM57; he used the mic pre’s in the studio’s Trident 80B console, judicious compression, and then into Pro Tools.

Tyler looks on with engineer Jon Ashley. “Most of the guitar sound on the record is the sound Willie got live,” Ashley says. “There’s a handful of songs where we added reverb; there’s some tape delay from an Echoplex, and I think there might be some Cooper Time Delay. But most of what you hear comes from his pedals.”

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Synths and keyboards were taken direct: “We got an amazing sound with a Yamaha CP-70, and we used a Roland Dimension D,” Ashley says. “Any time we wanted to add organ or piano we would add that on top. It was the same thing with Glenn; he stacked a lot of percussion on this record, on top of the kit.”

Tyler’s acoustic parts were also added during overdubs. However, Ashley emphasizes the importance of the live sessions as the core of the album: “This record breathes a lot. It has a lot of space and it is really dynamic, and all of that comes from the performance.”