Photo: Courtesy Cadillac Sky
Many bluegrass bands are purists when it comes to their sound and the way they record. Everything is tracked live, and some ultra-traditional acts even do so while crowded around a single mic. That's not the case with the Fort Worth, Texas, quintet Cadillac Sky. “Our base of instrumentation is bluegrass,” says lead singer and mandolinist Bryan Simpson, “but at the same time, we want to create the sound that we hear in our heads in the studio. We want to record stuff that we would like to listen to ourselves.”
And what do they listen to? “Our favorite recordings are like Sgt. Pepper and Radiohead records and things like that, along with great bluegrass records,” Simpson explains. The way Cadillac Sky recorded their second CD, Gravity's Our Enemy (Skaggs Family Records, 2008), which the band members coproduced, was in keeping with their eclectic approach. Instead of recording everything together, the group (which at the time of the recording consisted of Simpson, banjoist Matt Menefee, fiddle player Ross Holmes, bassist Andy Moritz, and guitarist Mike Jump [since replaced by David Mayfield]) chose to track the instruments and vocals separately. The instrument tracking took place at their label's facility, Skaggs Place Recording Studio, in Hendersonville, Tennessee. There, the band, along with coproducer Mike Marshall and engineer-mixer Eric Legg, used a relatively traditional live-in-the-studio approach.
But even during those sessions, there was a bit of pushing and pulling between conventional and less conventional bluegrass-recording techniques. Marshall favored a more traditional approach, which Simpson recalls encompassed keeping things warm and not using a lot of compression. However, Legg wanted to go in a different direction. “He recorded for the Dixie Chicks and stuff, and really likes a rock sound,” says Simpson. “It was an interesting combination having those two working, because one was looking for one thing and one was looking for another. I think, partially, the band wanted to play both sides of the fence.”
When it came time to cut the vocals, Cadillac Sky headed into Nashville to the Velvet Elvis, a home studio belonging to producer-engineer Paul Jenkins. There, they layered their vocals one part at a time — definitely not a traditional bluegrass method. “We could have done it all at the same time; I think we're proficient at that, too,” Simpson points out. “But it seemed like it made more sense to layer.”
The band members enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere at the Velvet Elvis. “It's got a really cool vibe,” Simpson reports. “It feels lived in because it actually is lived in.” Though the setting was informal, there was plenty of choice gear, including a Digidesign Pro Tools HD system, Telefunken 251 and Lomo 19A9 tube mics, and a Daking mic pre.
During the mix, the band veered away from tradition wherever they saw fit. For instance, the song “Goodbye Story” (see Web Clip 1) features a slapback delay on the vocal. “We did several different things that we thought were appropriate for the song, or we were having fun with the songs,” says Simpson, who also cited a laugh track added to “Inside Joke” and a “radio voice” effect on “Everybody's Favorite” (see Web Clip 2) as evidence. “There's doubling of vocals and all kinds of things that are happening that we just felt were appropriate for [that] song,” says Simpson, “and whether it was appropriate for a bluegrass purist, we weren't concerned about that.”
Home base: Fort Worth, Texas
Sequencer used: Digidesign Pro Tools HD
Favorite vocal mic: Telefunken 251