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Stax To Muscle Shoals - EMusician

Stax To Muscle Shoals

Sheryl Crow returns to the funky soul music of her youth (and her collection of classic analog gear) to inform 100 Miles from Memphis
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Sheryl Crow returns to the funky soul music of her youth (and her collection of classic analog gear) to inform 100 Miles from Memphis

“I have always been a gear head,” Sheryl Crow says from a Manhattan hotel, “because of Bill Bottrell, who recorded my first album [Tuesday Night Music Club] and my last album [Detours]. I learned a lot from Bill about what gear does what, and the importance of the old outboard gear that was so crucial to making some of the greatest records that ever were. I’ve always been kind of an elitist about making sure that the sounds on my records are authentic to the great record making of the ’60s and ’70s.”

100 Miles from Memphis [A&M], Crow’s latest release, is a throwback to the classic soul records of those eras recorded at Memphis’ Stax studios and Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Assisted by Doyle Bramhall II (producer, guitarist) and Justin Stanley (producer, engineer), Crow recorded at L.A.’s Henson Recording Studios (studios A and D), New York City’s Electric Lady Studios, and at her Nashville home studio, Cross Creek. Boasting such original gear as a Neve broadcast console and BCM-10 Sidecar, Telefunken ELA M 251 microphone, Urei 1176 Limiting Amplifier, Teletronix LA-2A Leveling Amplifier, two Fairchild 670 Limiter Compressors, and a Studer A80 tape deck, Crow’s Cross Creek studio was used primarily to cut vocals and acoustic guitars. Band tracking went down at Henson and Electric Lady. But with six albums to her credit (and millions of copies sold), regardless of the studio, Crow’s recording philosophy has remained consistent.

SOUNDS OF SHERYL

“Having done it now several ways,” she reports, “I really do love to hit tape. I don’t know if it’s a psychological thing for me. It’s like Starbucks. It’s holding that cup. It doesn’t mean it’s a great cup of coffee, but there’s something psychological about it for me, hitting tape. Tape creates a sonic atmosphere that is undeniable, and I love the warmth of it.”

Left to right—Victor Indrizzo, Doyle Bramhall II, Tommy Simms, Sheryl Crow, and Justin Stanley at Electric Lady Studios in New York.

Stanley ran Pro Tools and tape simultaneously for all sessions, printing analog then running it back into digital, then choosing the best takes with very few, if any, punch-ins allowed or needed. Stanley also mixed to tape on Henson’s Studer A800 MkII. 100 Miles from Memphis’ material is a joint collaboration between Crow, Bramhall, and Stanley; Crow also penned a handful of solo originals, covered Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Sign Your Name” (background vocals by Justin Timberlake), Citizen Cope’s “Sideways,” and reportedly cut a version of “Come and Get Your Love” by Lolly Vegas (Redbone). Collaborating as a trio, Bramhall often created the melody, Stanley scored the music for the band, and Crow contributed lyrics. They’d cut a maximum of four takes with the band (Tommy Simms, bass; Chris Bruce, guitar; Victor Indrizzo and Homer Steinweiss, drums; and Jeff Babko, keyboards), then move on.

“We had to spend time together going back and forth until we clicked,” Bramhall recalls. “Once we did, we began writing, and it took off. It was pretty intense. We had two rooms going at Henson; we couldn’t create it fast enough. I would have a room set up just for writing and putting up vocal arrangements, while Justin would be recording the band in the other room. I would come in on the floor and play guitar, then leave and do another vocal arrangement on another song, or we’d have one room recording horns and strings, and I’d be doing vocals with Sheryl in another room. We were writing so fast, we had to get it down.”

When tracking vocals, Crow typically prefers to sing while playing an instrument, which for 100 Miles from Memphis was either guitar or Wurlitzer. But on past records, from 1998’s The Globe Sessions to 2008’s C’mon C’mon, Crow recorded vocals while playing her own Fender Precision bass, which usually made it to the final mix along with the original scratch vocal.

“Almost without exception I play bass on my records,” Crow insists. “Up onto this record I’ve written a lot of songs on bass. Keyboard is my main instrument, then guitar, but if you get into the harmonics and voicings of chords, sometimes you get lazy about melodies. So on my last four records I’ve written on bass because it makes me put melody first.

Sheryl Crow at her Nashville home studio, Cross Creek.

“When you’re tracking, feel is paramount. It implies so much. You sort of get locked into a feel even if it’s not perfect. And it’s hard to get away from that. A song like ‘My Favorite Mistake’ could have definitely benefitted from a better bass player, but we got locked into a feel and wound up keeping the imperfections of the performance just because it is a performance. When bass players come in, I want them to do what they do, but hook-wise there are certain things they would take from my original part as far as the melodic sense.”

Old school to the bone, Sheryl Crow believes in her own low-end bass theory, live tracking, vintage gear, and maintaining a certain rawness.

“My recording philosophy in the studio is to get the best take and work from that,” she says. “For me, it’s still about musicianship. It’s about capturing the best performance and then working from that. It’s not about splicing takes together; it’s really about capturing nuances and working from there.”

SWEET AND SOUR

Sheryl Crow’s vocal signature is nearly as recognizable a brand as Coke, Toyota, and Cheerios. Her trademark is twin traits of cream and grit, sweet and sour. But far from being precious about her voice, she practically treats it as an afterthought. Though she loves to sing through her ELA M 251 and Fairchild 670 at Cross Creek, she can’t be bothered to perfect vocals in the traditional sense.

“I always say I am going to go back and do the vocals proper,” she says, “but by the time I get around to it, I am so married to the scratch vocal that I never change them. I can’t beat the scratch vocal.”

Far from being the perfectionist we might assume given her slick-sounding pop rock singles, Crow prefers her vocals au natural as possible. And she insists on singing with the band in the live room.

“There is something about the spirit of singing with the band; it’s hard to go back and to recreate that for me,” Crow says. “It’s really about the performance and feeding off the musicians. Even on the records of mine that I’ve produced, my method has been to play bass with the guitarist and a drummer and that is when I track my vocal. There is something about the feel of singing and playing at the same time. On this record I played Wurlitzer and sang. When you try to recreate that and you’re just singing, it’s a completely different feel if you’re not playing. For whatever reason, playing and singing gives me a better feel than just singing. I really feed off the band and sing in conjunction with playing, and that lends itself to the feel and it inspires and also informs the feel.”

Crow insists on cutting no more than four takes per song, is not fond of punching in or splicing takes, and absolutely resists any sort of Auto-Tune, even though she doesn’t like the sound of her singing voice.

“I don’t enjoy listening to myself sing,” Crow says. “‘My Favorite Mistake’ is one of the only songs of mine that I can listen to on the radio. The other songs I only hear the imperfections, things I wish I would have gone back and redone. But I would never EQ things differently. Hell no. As a live performer, you know the freedom of what your voice can do when you’re singing live, and it’s never quite like that in the studio because you’re more conscious of it being a take that’s being recorded for posterity. It’s never quite as free. When I sing live, I always think, ‘I wish I could go back and rerecord my vocals now the way I am singing it live.’ But it doesn’t really work like that.”

Regarding her choice of mic preamps, Crow likes the API Lunchbox for its clarity and the Neve preamps of her BCM Sidecar for their “murkiness that can be beautifully mastered; it has a lot of bottom end.”

And then there’s her prized ’60s Telefunken ELA M 251 from the original A&M Studios (before it became Henson). “I have a pretty brash upper register, and the ELA M doesn’t clamp down on it like some other mics do. It still maintains a warmth and an evenness, at least the particular 251 that I have. When I used to do jingles, I always preferred that mic because it is warmer.”

STANLEY ON CROW

Justin Stanley (who recently engineered Eric Clapton’s upcoming release and has also worked with Nikka Costa, Explosions in the Sky, and Jamie Lidell) added reverb to Crow’s vocals after the fact, using Orban Spring reverb, Briscasti M7, and Henson’s plate reverbs and custom echo chambers.

Doyle Bramhall II and Sheryl Crow at Cross Creek Studio.

“When Herb Alpert designed A&M Studios, he wanted to recreate the echo chambers that Phil Spector used at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood,” Stanley says. “He had the freedom to experiment with chambers. That is why they have seven or eight chambers here at Henson of all different sizes and textures. Some have plaster walls, some have shellac, some have rubber, and they all have a different kind of flavor. That gives it a great character.”

Stanley used a combination of Neve 33609, Vintagedesign CL1 MKII, and Retro Sta-Level compressors on Crow’s vocal, balancing old with new.

“I’m a big fan of Neve mic pres and the Sta-Level compressor for vocals, and also the Vintagedesign CL1,” Stanley explains. “I go to one of those when tracking, and as far as mics, when we’re tracking Sheryl’s vocals live with the band, I had a Shure SM7 up. A lot of the live vocals with the band were kept. When she wanted to perform the vocal in her own space at Cross Creek, we’d use her ELA M 251. She’s really comfortable and familiar with the sound of that mic.”

But the Vintagedesign and Retro Sta-Level (a recreation of the 1956 Gates Sta-Level, which dominated the sound of ’60s AM radio playlist) gear are staples of Stanley’s setup.

“I love the Vintagedesign because it doesn’t kill the transients,” he says. “But it brings the body of a drum or vocal signal; it glues it all together. It gives you a warmth in the tonality if there is any kind of color there to begin with. It’s on the darker side of things. The Sta-Level is just a great tube compressor built in a one-man shop; he makes beautiful recreations of the original Sta-Level design. It’s got eight tubes and huge transformers; it just holds the sound in such a beautiful way. You don’t hear any pumping or squashing of the sound; it just holds it all together.”

In addition to engineering, Stanley helped Bramhall maintain a relaxed attitude in the studio. Though Crow always aims for the most relaxed atmosphere possible, Stanley focused on it.

“We made a conscious effort to get Sheryl even looser in the approach to her vocals,” Stanley says. “The more people can forget about singing and just let out their emotions the better. As soon as they start thinking about playing or singing, that’s when it gets stiff. You want the artist to get lost in their space, so at the end of the take they wake up from that moment. You can see some people when they play or sing at the end of the song, they come out of the trance. That’s when you know someone has gone to that special place.”

LETTING IT BLEED

After recording vocals, the most important part of Stanley’s job was miking the various instruments. But before mic placement, Stanley scopes out the room and the instruments.

Left to right—Citizen Cope, Sheryl Crow, Justin Stanley, and Doyle Bramhall II at Electric Lady Studios.

“With every instrument, I always go into the room and listen first,” he says. “And it always starts with the instrument. If you have a good instrument, you can use any mic, really. There is always a lot of time and thought put into what instrument we are going to use. What snare drum? Are the cymbals too bright or too dark? Which amp are we using? You find the combination then you get the players to go in and feel out the live recording room, and then you can hear where everything sounds best in the room as a collective unit. It’s not just a matter of setting up anywhere, you make sure the musicians are comfortable and can hear themselves. The last thing to happen is setting up mics. Once everyone is comfortable, I begin miking.

“And I don’t worry about bleed. All the doors are open. There’s always amp sounds in the drum kit, drum sounds in the piano; there’s always bleed. But that’s part of the glue that holds it all together. I love the sound of different instruments bleeding into each other. I don’t think you need to control it. You just let it flow and be what it is. People spend hours finding the right reverb to glue things together or to give it some space. But when you are live in a room, it speaks its own sense of place, its own environment sonically. If you listen to any old Stax or Beatles or Stones recordings, you hear a lot of bleeding.”

Along with Crow’s Fender P bass, the musicians played Gibson ES-335, Fender Telecaster, and Fender Stratocaster guitars, running through an assortment of amps: Gibson GA-40 Les Paul, ’69 Fender Pro, Silvertone, and DeArmond amps, and a new product, the Lazy J 20 amp.

“Usually I put a mic five to six inches away from the cabinet,” Stanley explains, “maybe a couple of feet away depending on the sound of it. Usually with the ribbons if I am using an RCA 44-BX or one of the Royers [R-122V or SF-24], I can get a bit more distance away from the cabinet because they’re usually a little darker sounding. So the farther away from the cabinet, the more top end you are going to explore. Some of the other tracks I just used a Shure SM57 or a Beyerdynamic M 160, which is also an older ribbon mic. With the Royers, they’ve developed the ribbons to handle a lot of SPL, so you can have them quite close to the cabinet and they won’t die. The old RCA 44-BX you have to keep a good distance away from the cabinet. The air pressure from the speaker will screw up the 44 if it’s too close.”

Stanley miked the Leslie cab for keyboards with two Neumann U 87s or U 67s, allowing a bit of space from the cab to “let it breathe and get some room sound in there.” He ran the Wurly through a guitar amp and miked accordingly, and for piano, used two U 67s or a U 49 as a mono mic, “just outside the piano, for a warmer sound that you can compress a bit.”

When miking the Ampeg Portaflex B-15 bass amp, Stanley took a page from that heavyweight tome on the Fab Four, Recording the Beatles.

“I’d read in Brian Kehew’s Recording the Beatles that Geoff Emerick would use an AKG C 12 about eight to ten feet away from the bass cabinet. So we tried that in Studio A. You’d think the sound would be reverberating everywhere and there’d be no way to get a decent tone on a bass guitar from that distance. But I put the bass amp in the middle of the room with a bit of carpet and put the mic eight to ten feet away, and it was the punchiest, upfront sound that I’ve heard for bass. It was an incredible realization. I think part of it is because bass waveforms are a lot slower to develop, so it probably takes that distance for them to really come to their fullest potential. That’s the sound you’re hearing when it hits that point.”

Given his penchant for old-school everything, it’s no surprise that Stanley follows a minimalist approach to drum miking. Comprised of ’60s and early ’70s Ludwig and Gretsch drums and Istanbul cymbals, the drum set was recorded with Quad 8 and Neve 1073 mic pres, and various vintage mics.

“Out in front of the kit I used the RCA 44, and then a mono overhead, either a Neumann U 47 or an old Coles 4048 sitting right overhead in the middle between the snare and the rack tom. Then there’s a 47 fet on the kick, and that is the main sound of the kit. If I need more detail, I might add closer mics, but I can usually get a great sound with just those four mics.”

Inspired by her love of southern soul, Stax, and Muscle Shoals, Sheryl Crow’s 100 Miles from Memphis is a loose and funky affair, recorded sans click to keep it real and utilizing old school gear and techniques. Like Mick Jagger once said, “It’s only rock and roll. . . .” That laid-back attitude informed the entire proceeding, including the decision to not overplay the music. Let it flow. Let it roll. Keep it in the moment.

“Sometimes people try to play this kind of music too good,” Bramhall confirms. “On a lot of those old Muscle Shoals records, it seems like it wasn’t hundreds and hundreds of takes. It’s just a theory, of course, but it’s really about keeping it spontaneous.”

ECHO . . . ECHO . . . ECHO CHAMBERS

Producer/engineer Justin Stanley on the echo chambers at Henson Recording Studios in Los Angeles: “An echo chamber works like an effects return. A signal, whether it’s a vocal or a drum or a guitar, is sent out via the send on the desk, and that goes down the line to a speaker inside the chamber. Inside the chamber, you can experiment with different mics, different speakers or amplifiers driving the sound. That sound is dispersed in the room, and you get this natural reverb, which is picked up by the mics and sent back to the effects return. Some of the chambers are the size of a garage, some are the size of a closet, some are the size of a small room, and they all give a different picture to the signal.”