On Blunderbuss, his solo debut, the analog purist makes spur-of-the-moment choices and proves that you don’t have to buy into the loudness wars to
make a Number One record
by Kylee Swenson Gordon
In the August 2012 issue of Electronic Musician, we go behind the scenes on the Blunderbuss studio sessions. Here, read our extended interview with Jack White, in which he elaborates on his recording and mastering process, and shaking up performance scenarios.
Let’s start with your overall recording approach.
If somebody asked me, “Okay, we’re going to record a guitar part in a hotel room. What do you want to be in the room?” I’d say, “I want a small 15-watt amp with a reverb, and bring me that Supro guitar.” You want anything else? “No, not really.” That’s what I would say. It’s not me preaching to anybody. It’s just that’s what I would want. And a ribbon microphone and a reel-to-reel. Somebody else would say, “You know what? I don’t know what guitar I want. Why don’t you bring down ten of my Les Pauls, three Stratocasters, a Tele, four of the Silvertones, and we’ll figure something out. And you know what? Bring the Marshall, the Twin Reverb, six other amps, and then let’s record all of those guitars because I don’t which one’s going to be the one I want. And we’ll put it down on Pro Tools and record 45 guitars tracks, and then, you know what? I’m going to go on vacation and you engineers pick the best one.” That’s how somebody else might do it, and that’s how a lot of guitar players do it. And that’s just not how I work. 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 it just makes it harder on you.
People didn’t used to have that liberty a long time ago, and now you can have an album cycle be three years between records because there’s all this extra opportunity and all these extra questions and decisions to be made that you didn’t use to have to make a long time ago because it just wasn’t on the table. You didn’t have 500 tracks. You had eight tracks and four tracks. And you just didn’t have any choices to labor upon. And when people say something like, “Well, I like this guy’s record, but it’s overproduced.” As a producer, I think, “What does that mean, overproduced?” I wouldn’t someone to say that about my music. All I can think of as a synonym of that phrase is “opportunity.” And that can sometimes be a bad thing for some people.
It’s almost like, “Well, tell us what to do.” Well, I’m not going to tell you what to do. You can do whatever you want! Do you want to record on a computer? Go ahead! You’re just asking me how I do it. That’s how I do it.
How did you learn to make snap decisions?
I come from different scenarios where I had to do that. I think I was in a lot of spaces where I didn’t have time or the luxury to let the scenario linger on. I think The White Stripes did most of that for me—it’s just two people there, and I kept involving myself in different situations at shows or gigs or recording scenarios. There just weren’t a lot of opportunities to make any other choice. And granted, we were also from a very sort of hipster record-collector kind of world where there were a lot of opinions about reality, authenticity, soulfulness, and all that floating around with all the people in our community.
Sometimes you can just wipe 90 percent of the stuff off the table immediately and make it a lot easier for yourself to make a decision. That’s the thing with me recording on eight-track. It’s because I wiped a lot of the stuff off the table, and I only have to decide about these eight tracks. And that’s really hard enough!
When you record, if you have the opportunity to A/B, choose between A and B, that’s a luxury for an artist. A lot of kids know that it’s too expensive to record on tape. They can’t afford it. They have to record on computers. It’s the only choice they have. They don’t have A or B. If you have the luxury to choose between this 1965 Fender blackface Twin Reverb or a brand new solid-state Fender amp that has amp emulations on it that can make it sound like a Marshall, can make it sound like an old amp, a brand-new album, you can plug it into my computer, play through both of them right now and tell me which one sounds better.
I’ve played with a lot of kids on a lot of these productions, and they don’t care because they don’t know, so they don’t care. I played with one kid who was like, 15, and [we had] an old Gretsch amp. This kid says, “It doesn’t have any effects. It doesn’t have any buttons on it.” And I said, “What do you want buttons for?” “To make it sound better.” I said, “You make it sound better! Forget all that crap, man! You don’t need all that crap!” It’s funny. But again, it’s about exposure. Eventually, that kid’s going to, if he loves music, get to a spot where he has the freedom to choose between two things and knows which one sounds better because that’s what it comes down to as an artist, or performer, or producer, or songwriter.
You have to make hundreds and hundreds of taste choices all day long while you’re working. If you’re recording one song and you’re are doing it to whatever four-track, and you just have a few musicians with you, 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. And some people don’t like those choices. It drives them crazy. Some people remix their albums three times and re-record things. I don’t do that.
Do you ever have regrets and wish you’d done something a different way?
Yes, sometimes it’s gonna happen. There’s a consequence to making quick decisions. But it’s like anybody will tell you, any mentor or parent, just go with your gut. All you can do is trust 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.
And the gut decision is often more right than anything analyzed and thought out.
It is. I definitely agree with that. It’s surprisingly on the money most of the time. It’s also a bizarre human-nature thing—you manifest your intentions out there. And the things you don’t care about. For example, with Third Man Records, I’m not saying it to be pretentious, I honestly don’t care about making money with that record label at all. I just want to make things like liquid-filled records and triple-decker records. I want to make those things exist. I want to put vinyl in kids’ hands. So we do a lot of things that are bad business that we don’t make any money on, and they work. They make sense. At the end of the day, it’s paid for because I don’t care.
Your song structure is not traditional, “hit-’em-over-the-head”…
I’m probably a bad person to ask about that stuff because it’s hard for me to think in the bigger picture when I’m working on a song. If I was thinking about what the bigger picture was, about a Jack White solo career or what the first navigate for Jack White was supposed to sound like, I would probably be tapping myself on the shoulder and saying, “Uh uh. Don’t do that kind of song. Do this kind of song. This is what people want from you.” Half the record has piano on it. People know me as a guitar player. I don’t think properly in those scenarios. I think about song by song, so I’ll be writing a song, and something will come out like, “I Think I Should Go to Sleep.” And it’ll be American-sounding. I don’t know if it’s blues or particularly what genre that song sounds like and is piano driven. I didn’t stop myself and say, “This doesn’t fit in with the other songs on the record or you should save this for later.” I don’t do that. I just try to finish the song and finish recording and get somewhere with it. And later on I can decide if it doesn’t fit in. But what ends up happening is it’s an album full of songs that sound very different trying to work together. That’s what I want. It’s be easy to strap a guitar on and say, “I’m going to do 12 guitar-based, heavy rock ‘n’ roll songs. That’d be the easy, smart thing business-wise to do, but I’ve never really written like that.
The last three years of producing 45s for Third Man Records has completely changed my production style. I started this thing called the Blues Series where an artist would come into Nashville, and say Tom Jones would come in in the morning, and I would say, “What do you want to work on?” And he would say, “I would like to do ‘Jezebel,’” this Frankie Lean song. Okay, “Jezebel.” 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, and some people are, some people are still asleep, and an hour, hour and a half later, we’ve got a crew of four or five musicians show up, and we start working on “Jezebel.” None of these musicians knew they were going to be work on “Jezebel” or Tom Jones’ record that morning. And I didn’t know we were going to be playing “Jezebel” either.
So now we’re in a scenario where we are each bringing a different kind of energy to the table. If I told them two weeks ago, this is what you’re doing, all these cats would have gone and learned “Jezebel” off of YouTube and they 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. And it excited Tom Jones, and it excited me, too. That’s the way I like to do it. That’s the production style I did on all those Third Man Records is like that. And that’s how Blunderbuss was recorded, in the same way. It’d be in the morning, and I’d say, “Let’s have all female musicians today. Let’s see what that’s like. And tomorrow let’s record the same songs with all males. Is it going to make a difference or not? Let’s see.” I could try different production styles like that. I have only old Nashville session guys in their ’60s today. Let’s try to get as young as people as we can get tomorrow. And it really changes everything as a producer when you shake up scenarios like that.
Tell me about the “Sixteen Saltines” guitar.
That’s really funny because what I was doing was, I was testing a reverb tank. I was testing to see how long the reverb was lasting. So I played that riff because I wanted that riff to stop. “Da nuh na na. Da nuh nuh nuh.” I just wanted to see if the reverb was going to last long enough for whatever we were going to record that day. I just kept playing that riff, and I was like, “Man, record this riff real quick. I’m starting to like this riff,” [Laughs]. It was just me testing this Fender reverb tank from the ’60s. Some of them don’t sound very good. They all sound different. So I was checking it. It has a Dwell knob, and I was trying to see where to put the Dwell knob and how long it was going to last. [layers] I think it’s just got two guitar tracks both playing the same thing in stereo. That was it. And it was all acoustic instruments besides that, which was kind of funny. Acoustic violin and acoustic bass. And my Telecaster and my Airline [sp] amp into two 12-inch speakers.
Tell me how you came to put together two backing bands for your tour.
From working with so many people on the record, I had started putting together an idea of what I wanted to play live, how I’m going to play these songs live. And I went, “Oh man, I don’t want to be one of those guys who just goes out with five boring, forgettable musicians standing behind me playing it just behind the record. That’s going to be so boring, and I want these shows to be the person that I am in the White Stripes, where there’s no set list and I play whatever I need to play make happen. That’s where I work best. I don’t want to work on a set list or a structure like that. What if I had a band that could follow me like that? If I stopped a song, they would all stop and we could start something new. I think we could figure that out. That’s hard, but not crazy difficult. I said, “Well, now I need to make it difficult. What if I had two bands, and neither of them knows if they’re going to play that night, just like I record the records. Okay, that’s interesting.”
So people aren’t going to know when I bring out a different band that day, if it’s a mixed crew of guys and girls, black and white, whatever.” They’re not going to know that it’s any different than the night before. There needs to be something solid, like, “Oh my God, that’s a totally different band than played last night.” And the only way I could think of to do that was to have all girls in one and all guys in the other. You definitely see that it was a different band. It’s been a really funny, strange learning experience for everybody in the camp, all the production crew, management, and me as a bandleader. It’s been really bizarre—the novelty of it competing with the reality of it, and what it’s like and the preconceptions that make you think. You start trying to compartmentalize why this becomes that, that becomes that. And you see other people vocalizing it out loud. To hear people vocalizing stereotypes that loud, it’s very funny because you don’t want to feed that. You have people saying the most simplistic things, too. “Well, I saw both bands, and I thought the girls were a lot more gentle 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. I sometimes think that people’s preconceptions overpower what they’re seeing and hearing with their eyes and ears. I think it’s so worth this experiment and the idea behind it because it’s really shaking things up all around. But my opinion of it is, it really comes down to each individual. Each individual brings their own personality and character to the scenario.
Tell me about the mastering process, and how you preserved dynamic range.
The album was mastered with no compression or limiting, which was a question I thought I had in my head years ago. When you talk to people who are in mastering and talk to engineers, it’s very hard to get definite answers when you talk about volume and compression. You get a lot of opinions and you get a lot of talk, but it’s not really black and white. You can’t really figure it out, especially when you get into the world of vinyl. Well, why can’t this vinyl record be louder? And you sit down and pour yourself a cup of coffee and wait for this ridiculous answer that you’ll not understand. And that’s the funny thing about mastering and all this debate, the loudness wars and all this jazz. And you take someone like me who loves to listen to music loud, and I like things to be very powerful. Not loud for the sake of volume. I want it to be powerful. If it’s a kick drum, I want it to hit me in the chest. But there’s all this talk about clipping and how much clipping is okay. 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. How history has gone through all this bizarreness of trying to get us the best-quality sound, CD versus vinyl, and how iTunes nowadays is the bit rate in digital music. So anyway, 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 it, don’t limit it? And 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! It’s [always] this huge, elaborate answer, and you just said in two seconds, ‘Yeah, we can do that. Just turn the gain up.’” Okay, then do that! And it came back, and it sounded great. It sounded really loud, and all the dynamics were there. It wasn’t clipping at all. The soundwave on the visual wasn’t touching the top or the bottom of the bar. I’m like, “Alright, then. Then that’s the answer.” And he said, “I could make this a lot louder.” I said, “No-no-no, don’t-don’t-don’t. Leave it there.”
How did he attain that?
Man, I don’t know. That’s when I said I’m not going to ask anymore questions ‘cause all I heard was “No compression, no limiting. I just turned the gain up.” Alright, that’s what I wanted to hear. There’s nothing squashed or lost in the dynamics, and it still sounded really loud.
Radio compresses everything anyway…
That’s the funny thing. Say you’ve got a recording nowadays. You put a compressor on your guitar, your compressor pedal going to your amp. The microphone from your amp to the tape has got compression on it. Then you compress in a submix to another track, the guitar and whatever, two other tracks got compressed, bounced over. Then you did the final mix and you compressed it again with the bus compressor to the stereo mix. Now 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.
Don’t forget MP3s.
Oh God, yeah, totally.
What do you think of the idea of mixing “competitively”?
I don’t even know what I’m competing with anymore. I don’t really want to be part of all that. The only thing I’ve ever competed with was in my own car on my own stereo, what I wanted to hear, competing with myself.