For The Record: Throwing Caution to the Wind, My Morning Jacket Indulges in Their Evil Urges - EMusician

For The Record: Throwing Caution to the Wind, My Morning Jacket Indulges in Their Evil Urges

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: There’s a band, and this band has toiled on the road for years, living an existence rife with vans that smell of urine and dirty socks, hole-in-the-wall clubs staffed with neardeaf sound guys, and barely ingestible continental breakfasts at virtually uninhabitable Motel 6s. Slowly but surely they gain a reputation as a truly great live act, and before long they enter the studio to record what they are sure will be their masterwork. They’ve spent years writing and rehearsing this material, honing their craft in front of audiences that grow exponentially by the gig. Their goal is simple enough: Capture the vibe, the energy, the intimacy of their live show.
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But somewhere along the way something bad happens. Blame it on too many overdubs, too many EQ boosts and not enough cuts, convolution reverb abuse, or a mastering engineer that was bound and determined to be the victor in the Loudness Wars, but the fact remains: What ships from the pressing plant is a squashed, pitch-corrected, timestretched sham; a dull, lifeless, reproduction of a once-beautiful thing. No balls, no groove, no soul.

Louisville-bred rockers My Morning Jacket decided early in their career that they would never be the punch line in that terminally unfunny joke. Considered by many to be one of the best live bands on the circuit (or at the least one of the most athletic— point of proof being their nearly fourhour set at 2008’s Bonnaroo Music Festival), the quintent knew that when it came time to record their newest LP, Evil Urges, they were in a do-or-die scenario. It was here that they would either defend their hard-earned rep and assume the throne as the leaders of modern rock, or die a shameful commercial death.

Singer/guitarist/mastermind Jim James knew that if the band’s fate was to be a glorious one, they would need to find a producer that understood the magic of their music enough to encourage great performances instead of relying on quick fixes. They needed an old school pro. Little did they know when they embarked on a short run of live dates that their sonic soulmate was waiting for them in the crowd, an ardent fan of their patented psych/funk/indie/southern rock gumbo.

“I went to see them play at [Colorado amphitheatre] Red Rocks and we hit it off immediately,” says veteran producer Joe Chiccarelli (Elton John, U2, Beck, and The White Stripes). “I had seen them about six years earlier and was a fan, so I had an understanding of what they did even before we started working together.”

“As I began our search for someone to work with, Joe’s name just kept popping up over and over again,” James says. “Even the people I was talking to about working with us were talking about Joe.”

Since the men of My Morning Jacket had already cut loads of demos for Evil Urges before Chiccarelli was flown in, the newly assembled team was able to hit the ground running and get right to work on what would prove to be the band’s crowning achievement.

“We tried to go for the middle road between banging it out and being surgical,” says James of the group’s strategy when entering the studio. “I believe you have to have a certain spontaneity and then capture it, harness it, and get surgical on its ass [laughs]. [Making an album] is like a blacksmith pounding out a sword— you have to put a lot of labor into the process, but if you pound it too much, you can ruin the sword.”

“Besides the human voice, the studio is perhaps the greatest instrument known to man,” James observes from My Morning Jacket’s tour bus during a brief respite from a tireless one-gig-after-another tour of the U.S. James says that the band had recorded in various studios in the relatively rustic surroundings of their Kentucky hometown throughout their decade-long career. For Evil Urges, the group felt they needed a change of scenery, and therefore left their Midwestern abode and headed towards the bright lights of the big city. But while they knew that they wanted an urban environment to work in, they were undecided on where to set up shop. At Chiccarelli’s urging, the band hopped in the van and soon found themselves in New York City, sitting at a Neve 8088 in what is unarguably one of the East Coast’s greatest recording facilities: Avatar Studios.

Chosen not only for its first-class gear list or the convenience factor of being smack dab in the middle of West 53rd St., Avatar was also the perfect studio for My Morning Jacket to work in due to its multiple (five), spacious iso booths. “We were going to record bass, drums, two guitars, keyboards, and a lead vocal, all live,” Chiccarelli explains. “We had to be able to isolate everyone. We also wanted a lot of space for each player so we could easily audition different amps and keyboards on the spot.”

Before the first tom was tuned, the band decided to utilize Avatar’s Studer A-800 MARK III 24-track tape machine for the majority of the tracking. “We used Pro Tools for additional tracks of horns, strings, background vocals, etc.” Chiccarelli says. “But all of the tape editing was done with a razor—old school.”

“We did the guitar and vocal overdubs in Pro Tools so we didn’t have to link up two tape machines,” James adds, going further to proclaim his love of the integrated approach. “It’s the best of both worlds. I just wish that there was another way to meld the sound quality of tape with the workflow advantages of digital. But with anything digital you’ll always have the problem of people infinitely editing and f**king around. We spent the first half of these sessions without a computer running. It made things much simpler.”

The decision was made to record each song from the top-down, collect multiple takes, and then comp together the best performances. “They’re such good players that it wasn’t an issue,” Chiccarelli says of the band’s ability to pull off a respectable track in a single take. “But sometimes the chorus is a little better in take four and the bridge is better in take three and you like the outro from take seven . . . we wanted to leave ourselves with lots of options.”

“Going into Avatar, I knew which songs I wanted to sound dry and tight, and which songs I wanted to sound open and roomy, so we immediately set up two rooms for two different sounds,” says drummer Patrick Hallahan. “The rather large main room was the right environment for big-sounding songs like ‘Evil Urges,’ and ‘Smokin’ from Shootin.’ A ‘dead’ vocal booth worked perfectly for the more machine-like beats on ‘Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Parts 1 and 2’ and ‘Highly Suspicious.’”

Besides the occasional TR-808 kick sample being blended in as a helper track and the Roland CR-8000 chugging away in the back of the mix on “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 2,” the oftentimes cold, industrial percussion one hears on Evil Urges is all man-made. “Obviously drum machine sounds are shorter, punchier, more compressed-sounding, so we needed a small, dead acoustic space to replicate that,” Chiccarelli tells. “We were lucky that this vocal booth worked so well. It barely held his kit. But the low end really built up in that small room and it made the tracks sound quite punchy.”

Surprisingly enough, the few effects that Chiccarelli used on Hallahan’s drum tracks were dialed in and committed to during the tracking process. “Joe is very particular about getting as much done pre-mix as possible, so most of the signal processing was done as the tracks were recorded,” Hallahan says. Chiccarelli adds: “I don’t leave a lot of decisions to mixing. I print the sounds how I want them because I don’t want to leave these things until later. When I bring up the faders I want to hear the way the record is actually going to sound.”

According to Chiccarelli, the magic of Hallahan’s drum sounds cannot be attributed to mic choices or signal paths full of boutique gear but, rather, the drummer’s masterful technique: “When it comes to getting that tight, dry sound, we would do things like mic only the top of the snare instead of our regular over-and-under miking. And we would deaden the heads so there wasn’t so much resonance. But it’s all about Pat’s stick technique. He would choke up on his stick, which keeps the stick from rebounding and therefore keeps the head from resonating much after a strike. That’s what made the machine sound.”

Mindful of the fact that a rock record is only as good as the worst guitar sound contained in the grooves, James and guitarist Carl Broemel took their sweet time crafting the guitar tones on Evil Urges. “As a rule, I start with the gear that I am most used to—the amps and guitars I use while we’re on the road. When that doesn’t do the trick, I go hunting for sounds,” says Broemel, noting that, though his trusty 88 Black Les Paul Standard is on the lion’s share of the album’s tracks, he would regularly switch amongst a fleet of amps including a Vox AC30, an Orange Rockerverb 50 2x12 combo, a Carr Viceroy 2x12 combo, a Top Hat Ambassador, a Fender Pro Junior, and a ’70s Peavey Vegas [for a detailed list of what Broemel used on each track of Evil Urges, go to www.eqmag.com].

James kept his rig much more consistent, using one of his three Gibsons (a J-185 acoustic, an ES-335, and a Flying V), a Fender Stratocaster, or a Telecaster through a Premier 76, a Mesa Boogie Trem-O-Verb, or a Mesa Boogie Blue Angel. Similarly, Chiccarelli kept the guitarists’ signal paths simple: a Shure SM57 and a Royer R-121, each on axis to a speaker cone, and a Neumann U67 for the room (“to keep the guitars from sounding one-dimensional”). Each mic was then sent through the Neve 8088’s 31102 preamps and bused together to Urei 1176 limiters. “One guitar amp to one tape track,” Chiccarelli clarifies.

Chiccarelli notes that for some of James and Broemel’s gnarlier guitar tracks, he would run a signal through a Demeter Tube DI to complement their amp sounds. “I’ll use the DI track when I need to add more definition to a guitar line, when I need more clarity for individual notes in a distorted chord. We’d also use the Demeter DI for the pedal steel tracks, then blend that signal in with what we got out of the amp to get a more balanced sound.”

Broemel elaborates on the gear used in conjunction with his Carter 12-string pedal steel on crowd favorite “Look at You”: “I used a Source Audio Hot Hand Wah. My feet were busy controlling the steel, so I couldn’t use a standard wah, and I didn’t want to use an auto wah. The Hot Hand uses a tiny device that you wear on your finger and the motions of your finger then control the sweep of the wah. It came in . . . handy [laughs].”

Since the band was recording vocals live with the other instruments, achieving proper separation when James was cutting acoustic guitar tracks required some ingenious mic placement on Chiccarelli’s part. Says the producer, “Acoustic guitars were done while James was singing, so we had to make sure the leakage was minimal. In some cases I would put a lapel mic inside the acoustic guitar for total isolation. It also created a weirder sonic perspective, like your ears were inside the guitar.”

More traditional miking techniques were also employed, utilizing some common unidirectional cardioid mics such as the Neumann KM84 and a Shure SM57. “I’ll put the SM57 on the body by the bridge and the KM84 up by the 12th fret,” Chiccarelli explains, adding that, when the sound produced using the SM57 is too boomy, he will “use an Electro-Voice RE15 on the body . . . it has a natural midrange-y sound to it.”

Deviating from such tried-and-true miking techniques was of paramount importance when it came to “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 1.” “There’s an acoustic guitar part on that song that never sounded right,” Chiccarelli confesses. “It just sounded pasted on to a more electronic track. So we re-recorded the guitar track using an Altec Salt Shaker through a Pultec HLF3, which is a real drastic high and low pass filter. The sound was lo-fi and grainy—almost like it was an old sample of an ’80s 8-bit emulator. It instantly fit with all the other colors of the song.”

In retrospect, Broemel adds that he’s glad the band avoided what would have been convenient at the time, such as automating plug-ins or using amp simulators, and, instead, integrated effects processing into their guitar performances. “Using computer plug-ins isn’t our first choice when getting a guitar sound,” the guitarist says. “I would say, in general, anything you can do with your eyes closed and your hands on the knobs is going to turn out better than what you would get while staring at a screen.”

Keyboardist Bo Koster is a firm believer that amped keyboard sounds ultimately blend in better with guitars in a mix, so he insisted that Chiccarelli keep at least a 60/40 ratio in favor of amp to direct signals. “The amp definitely adds more dimension to the sound as well as some extra harmonic distortion,” Chiccarelli says. “It’s not even that you have to put it through a Marshall—even a small amp does the trick.”

Koster drew from a veritable smorgasbord of killer keyboards for the Evil Urges sessions, including a Fender Rhodes, a Wurlitzer electric piano, a Clavinet D6, and a Hammond B3. According to Chiccarelli, most of the keyboards were sent through an unspecified Mesa Boogie bass amp, which was miked with an Electro-Voice RE-20. However, Broemel’s multitude of boutique combo amps were also brought in from time to time to “add some reverb, vibrato, and distortion and open up the possibilities,” such as on stand-out track “I’m Amazed.”

A similar approach of mixing amp and direct signals was employed for bassist “Two-Tone” Tommy’s tracks. “I have a bad habit of lightly slapping the strings along with the snare,” Tommy confesses. “That can be problematic when going direct. [A DI] is too clear, too unforgiving.”

Tommy is cut from the same cloth as his bandmates in regard to the shared proclivity for constantly switching up rigs. For Evil Urges’ 14 songs, Tommy used no less than seven basses—from the more aggressivesounding 2001 Fender Deluxe P-bass (for raging rocker “Remnants”) to a 1980 Rickenbacker 4001 (for the fuzzed-out lead bass lines in “Two Halves”); from a ‘70s Fender Precision fretless (for the über-smooth “Librarian”) to the ’76 Alembic that cuts sharply through the mix on kick-off track “Evil Urges” [for Tommy’s trackby- track gear list, go to www. eqmag.com].

Chiccarelli says that the direct signals were all piped through his trusty Demeter Tube DI and that nearly all the amp tracks were courtesy of a Mesa Boogie 400+ head matched with a Mesa Powerhouse 1000 cabinet (miked with an Electro-Voice RE-20 on the 10-inch speakers and an AKG D112 on the 15-inch speakers). “I also used an old Ampeg B-15 for the fretless tracks,” Tommy adds. “We used the RE-20, placed in the upper right-hand corner of the speaker.”

As a general rule of thumb, Tommy tends to keep his bass sound fairly dry. But for Evil Urges the bassist decided to go nuts with an Electro- Harmonix Bass Micro-Synth. “It’s on quite a bit of the album, including ‘Evil Urges,’ ‘Smokin’ from Shootin’, and ‘Look at You,’” says the bassist. “The only way you can rein the signal in is to send it through the amp’s effects loop, so we had to use an amp signal.”

While lead vocalist Jim James has one of the most singular voices in rock today, he says that he approached the Evil Urges sessions as an opportunity to branch out and expand his range of vocal personalities. As each song became a quest for what the vocalist calls “the perfect color,” Chiccarelli found himself auditioning, and ultimately using, a stunningly wide array of mics and effects. “Almost every song employed a different vocal mic,” Chiccarelli says. “A lot of the vocals were done with a Neumann U47 or a U67. A couple of things that were more breathy and quiet were done on an [AKG] C24, and for his oldtimey, radiophonic vocal sounds, we used an Altec 639 ‘Birdcage.’”

Though James would step up to a Shure SM58 and do a baseline vocal live with the rest of the band, he would often immediately go straight to the booth after the take and perform a couple extra passes. These tracks would then all be comped together for the perfect vocal. Chiccarelli says that James’ ability to work with various mics allowed him the opportunity to experiment on the fly. “Certain singers will find themselves getting shy around more than one or two mics, but Jim sounds pretty good on just about anything—it sounds like him whether he’s on a [Shure] SM7 or a [Neumann] U67.”

“We made a conscious decision to always vary the mics when we did a backing track, or when we were shifting vocal personalities,” James says. “For instance, if we used a U47 for the main vocal, we would use a [AKG] C12 on the backing vox, which has a thinner sound that mixes nicely with the U47.”

Chiccarelli says that James’ vocals were sent through either the Neve 31102 pres on Avatar’s 8088 console, or through outboard Neve 1073s. Every vocal signal was sent to either a Teletronix LA2A or a Urei 1176, and lightly compressed before hitting the tape.

Though the Neve pres added a sense of warmth and the squish from the compressor/limiters significantly beefed up James’ vocalisms, Chiccarelli’s liberal use of reverb is perhaps most responsible for the singer’s unique sound. “To Jim, reverb’s another instrument and another sound on the record and he plays off that texture,” Chiccarelli says. “It’s really important he has it in his headphone mix and he hears exactly how it is going to sound on the album, whether it’s a plate or a chamber or an old ’80s AMS RMX16 non-linear program.”

Says James on the subject of drenching everything in reverb: “I just have a need for space in a recording. I feel that a lot of modern recordings are lacking space and depth in the stereo field. Many recordings sound flat, with all the sounds pushed right up in your face. I hate that. I like older recordings where you can feel the space around the performers. It’s not that I’m on some retro trip—that gets old—I just want there to be some difference in distance between the instruments.”

After the core instruments were recorded, James approached Chiccarelli with a wild idea: Take Evil Urges into a completely different realm by adding horns and strings to a sizeable chunk of the album’s tracks. “The first person who popped in my head was David Campbell, Beck’s father,” Chiccarelli says. “I’d worked with him many times before, so I reached out to him and, next thing you know, he’s in the studio.”

“Working with an outside arranger is tricky because I try to tell them exactly what I want for each song and sometimes it doesn’t quite come out right,” James says. “David listened to what I said, but he also added his own little touches and flourishes that I thought worked quite well.”

Campbell came to the Evil Urges sessions with a handful of New York’s top players. Starting with horns, Chiccarelli arranged the players in Avatar’s Studio A live room. “It’s perfect for horns and strings,” Chiccarelli observes. “The room is so live. I close-miked the horns with Shure 12As, put four U67s a few feet further out, and then used a Royer SF-12 stereo ribbon for the room.”

However, the session would prove more challenging than Chiccarelli initially assumed. “In that ‘open’ of a room, the horns were too wet. They would have stuck out too much no matter how you mixed them. I ended up putting baffles around the performers to tighten the sound up and focus the strings into the mics.”

Using a pair of vintage Neumann M50s placed high above Campbell’s head, and an AKG C24 stereo mic in the middle of the room, Chiccarelli captured the strings with relative ease. “Some songs needed tighter, smaller string sounds and others wanted to be more grand and symphonic. I would change the balance between the wider-sounding M50s and the tighter-sounding C24 depending on what was most appropriate.”

After taking a two-week break during the holidays, the band reconvened with Chiccarelli at Nashville’s Blackbird Studios D room to cut a few quick overdubs. “Jim wanted to work more on background vocals and Patrick wanted to experiment with drum textures,” the producer remembers. “We booked out two weeks, which was time for the remainder of the lead vocals, the background vocals, whatever guitar and percussion overdubs, and to re-cut one song, ‘The Golden Touch’—which didn’t make the album and most likely will be released as a B-side. It was good to take a couple weeks’ break and reflect on what we did at Avatar. We came in hearing everything fresh and instantly identified sections that needed work.”

According to James, the band traveled to Blackbird to partake in the studio’s “insane gear list.” “We were among the first to use their brand new API Legacy Plus console,” Chiccarelli adds. “It’s the largest API ever built—96 channels, 192 inputs, 200 faders. The console’s pres and EQ sections offered a good contrast to the tracks we cut on Avatar’s 8088. We also took advantage of the multitude of vintage effects they’ve recorded, especially the Urei Cooper Time Cube, the Ursa Major Space Station, and their echo chamber. We used these delays and reverbs on a lot of the backing vocals. Again, all of the effects and approaches were song-specific. If a device worked for the lead vocal, it was printed on a separate track after the vocal composite was complete.”

It was at Blackbird that Chiccarelli and My Morning Jacket parted ways and Michael Brauer [Coldplay, John Mayer, KT Tunstall] jumped aboard. After mixing the lavish live album Okonokos, Brauer was asked to lend his talents to the upcoming Evil Urges. “We wanted to work with Michael again because he gets a big sound,” James says. “He has this muscular, athletic way of mixing records. He gets into it like he’s playing basketball. I wanted this record to focus on the rhythmic side of the band, the interplay between drums and bass. Michael used to be a drummer, so I feel like he naturally comes from that perspective of ‘making it thunder.’”

Chiccarelli agrees that Brauer did an amazing job at keeping the final mix faithful to the sounds the band achieved during the tracking sessions: “He really blew my mind. He was able to build a more exciting version of the rough mixes— which were done in less than 10 minutes. I’d just put the faders up, get a balance, and press ‘record.’ He didn’t go in and tweak stuff and turn it into something it wasn’t. This album was really built from the floor-up, from the live tracking. He honored that.”

While James says that Chiccarelli had “the golden ear that we were looking for,” the producer modestly defers all accolades to the players themselves. “They are great musicians with a great work ethic and they aren’t precious about anything,” Chiccarelli says. “If they couldn’t play a part and had to adapt and write something new or couldn’t use their favorite guitar amp because it didn’t blend right, they didn’t care. I think that when you go about things with that sense of abandon—where the only thing that matters is the end result—that’s when you end up with something great.”

PEDAL TO THE METAL

While the My Morning Jacket guys used and abused everything from EMT plate reverbs to the Urei Cooper Time Cube to create the otherworldly sounds on Evil Urges, a good portion of the spatial effects were courtesy of a hot little pedal from Eventide called the Time Factor (for a full review of the Time Factor, go to www.eqmag.com/gear). “It has a real natural tone with a very warm, almost analog high-end quality that blended into the tracks very well,” Chiccarelli says. “Even though it's in a stompbox form, it has a line level in and out, so it was very easy to interface into the API Legacy Plus console.” The Eventide ended up being used on lead and background vocals, guitars, and keys. “I love the fact that I can sit it on the console and easily tweak and refine while I working on a live performance,” Chiccarelli tells. “In some cases it was printed on the track with the original sound. For background vocals, I would print several sets of various stereo delays using the Analog Tape Echo and Mod Echo programs to fatten and widen the parts. I would then balance them off in Pro Tools, combine them to one stereo track, and bounce them back to tape.”

A LITTLE EQ

“I should note that the one other piece of gear used all over this album is the Chandler TG12345 Curve Bender equalizer,” Joe Chiccarelli tells us as we’re finishing up a last-minute fact check on the story you now hold in your hands. “I used this as the final stop on my rough mixes, which [mixing engineer] Michael Brauer modeled his final stereo mixes after.” Chiccarelli calls the Curve Bender, which is modeled after the EMI TG12345 desk used to record the Beatles and Pink Floyd at Abbey Road, “very powerful and rock and roll sounding. A couple of clicks—the boosts and cuts work in 0.5dB increments—can dramatically color the overall sound of the mix. I've subsequently used the same EQ for recent projects like The Raconteurs, The White Stripes and Brandi Carlile.”

EARLY COMMITMENTS

“The great thing about working with Joe is that he’s constantly helping you make choices and stick with them,” My Morning Jacket front man Jim James raves. “That way you are really mixing the record as you go along. I am very into that old-school work ethic from when bands only had a few tracks to work with and the engineers had to place and practically mix the performers before they even hit record. It kept everyone honest.” Chiccarelli explains why he isn’t shy about tracking with EQ, compression, reverb, or any other signal processing: “I started in the early ’80s where everything was done on analog 24-track machines and people really made decisions and committed to their sounds before the mix. They bounced down background vocals, bounced down guitars—they would use 20 tracks and then make a submix and that was it. All the other stuff was erased! I would rather commit to something and build other sounds around—even if it means having to re-cut tracks late—than I would leave so much uncertainty to the end. Being uncertain just isn’t the way I like to work.”

COMPRESS IN

“Michael [Brauer] has a particular style of applying compression that differs from mine,” Joe Chiccarelli says of the man who handled the mix on Evil Urges. “He uses multiple stereo compressors to feed things. But things were effected when tracking, especially the room mics: I used [Urei] 1176s on all of the electric guitars and Teletronix LA2As on the acoustic guitars. Keyboards were all hit with the dbx 160, and I used [Empirical Labs] Distressors and Chandler TG1s, Germaniums, and Neve 33609s on the drums. The vocals were processed through an Altec 9473A Dual Band Limiter as well as the LA2As and 1176s.” With so many room mics being fed into so many compressors, one has to wonder how many tracks made it to the final mix. “Michael muted a few things, but not much. I left him with a lot of options to mix and match with,” Chiccarelli says. “For drums, I’d leave one mono, distorted, squashed room mic, one real far, wet-sounding ambient track, and one up-close mic to catch the early reflections and reproduce a lot of the low end build-up. You can hear the perspectives change a lot throughout the album.”