Recording Bob Dylan

Recording Bob Dylan is an exercise in unpredictability, spontaneity, and early commitment—a journey into a land where experimentation is the only reliable certainty. On any given day, for any given song, Dylan’s group of top-shelf musicians (such as multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, guitarist Charlie Sexton, and bassist Tony Garnier) will be handed an assignment that would cause anyone except the most seasoned of session players to cower in fear: Learn and execute a track with little to no prior knowledge of its workings. Within a 10-hour window, the song will be in the can, awaiting a final mix. And, according to Chris Shaw, who has served as Dylan’s go-to engineer for the past nine years, even the final mix won’t take very long. After all, how else can you explain one artist putting out 57 albums (including live recordings, greatesthits LPs and sanctioned bootlegs) in 44 years?
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RECORDING BOB DYLAN is an exercise in unpredictability, spontaneity, and early commitment—a journey into a land where experimentation is the only reliable certainty. On any given day, for any given song, Dylan’s group of top-shelf musicians (such as multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, guitarist Charlie Sexton, and bassist Tony Garnier) will be handed an assignment that would cause anyone except the most seasoned of session players to cower in fear: Learn and execute a track with little to no prior knowledge of its workings. Within a 10-hour window, the song will be in the can, awaiting a final mix. And, according to Chris Shaw, who has served as Dylan’s go-to engineer for the past nine years, even the final mix won’t take very long. After all, how else can you explain one artist putting out 57 albums (including live recordings, greatest hits LPs and sanctioned bootlegs) in 44 years?

“After we tracked the song ‘Things Have Changed,’ for The Wonder Boys soundtrack, Bob asked me for a quick mix,” Shaw recalls of his first session with Dylan. “I figured the final mix would be done by someone like Daniel Lanois. So I did a quick rough mix to DAT. Bob listened and said everything was too clear, too easy to pick out every instrument and note. He wanted to ‘mush’ it up.”

According to Shaw, Dylan employed a trick of his own for ensuring his vocal track was tailor made to sit perfectly in what would become a delightfully murky mix: running his vocal back through a guitar amplifier to exaggerate its natural asperity. Shaw took it one step further and placed an Electro-Harmonix Graphic Fuzz box in the signal chain (he also says that he ran the snare and the room mics through the unit as well). Nodding in approval, Dylan reached over and pushed the percussion track up nearly all the way, the shaker now a bayonet piercing the left side of the mix. “I thought, it’s just a reference mix and ran the DAT again,” says Shaw. “A couple of days later Jeff Rosen, Bob’s manager, called and asked me for the quarter-inch [tape] of the mix. I was stunned—it was just a rough mix, a very rough mix. Jeff said, ‘Oh, you don’t know Bob. That was the final mix.’ The DAT was the master. Two months later it was nominated for an Oscar for best song. Two months after that, it won the Oscar for best song.”

The first full Bob Dylan album Chris Shaw did was 1999’s Love and Theft, which the engineer says was recorded at Clinton Studios in NYC—a studio that served the singer-songwriter’s needs well. “It’s a big, bright, airy room that has a nice, natural reverb that doesn’t slap back and decays evenly and naturally,” the engineer says. The console, a vintage Neve 8068, and a one-inch Studer A827 two-track for mixing (15 ips, no noise reduction), sealed the deal at a time when Dylan was recording exclusively to analog.

“Bob is enamored with old Americana recordings like the Carter Family records,” Shaw continues. “He loves the idea that those records were made with one microphone that everyone leaned in around. So he wants the whole band in the room when he tracks. I’ll mic instruments and amplifiers individually, but leakage is a big part of the sound. In fact, I’d say three-quarters of the sound is just what leaks into Bob’s vocal microphone. People have asked me how I get that big thumpy drum sound and I tell them that most of it is coming from Bob’s vocal mic. Virtually all of his ‘pilot’ vocals are actually the vocal you hear on the records.”

That puts a lot of pressure on a single microphone, in this case a Shure SM7. “The large-diaphragm condenser microphones that most people use on vocals would just be too sweet on Bob’s voice, and he’s also a surprisingly loud singer, so a dynamic responds better to that,” Shaw says of the choice to use an SM7 on Dylan. “A dynamic microphone is also good for Bob because his vocal sound is formed closer to his mouth than his throat. The SM7 captures the explosiveness of his singing better than, say, a [Telefunken] 251 might.”

One collateral issue is what happens on the relatively rare occasions where Dylan needs to punch in a line on a vocal—not only is there a lot of band leakage on the vocal track, but Dylan dislikes headphones and won’t use a floor monitor. With neither, how could he be cued in to sing at the right moment and on pitch? Shaw’s solution, which he devised during Love and Theft, is quintessentially Dylanesque.

“I have the band play along with the track at a lower volume while wearing headphones, and I have Charlie Sexton sing the lead vocal he’s hearing in the headphone and Bob follows along in the room,” he explains. “Then I punch in for the line. It gets the same spillover from the band on the punched part of the vocal track.” As a back up for the ambience, Shaw also sets up a second SM7 about two feet in front of Dylan’s vocal microphone and pointed in the same direction. “Just in case he has to do a punch without the band in the room, because when the ambient sound disappears, you really notice that it’s gone.”

Shaw further tempers Dylan’s vocal sound by running the SM7 through a Millennium HD3D mic pre. Dylan asks Shaw to crank the midrange on his voice, which he does by adding a couple of dB between 2kHz and 3kHz on a Neve 1073 module. Shaw then compensates by adding some additional low end and a little airy EQ around 12kHz, then heavily compressing the signal through an Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor. “I drive it untill the red lights don’t blink anymore,” he says. “You can hear all the bleed from the band into the vocal microphone pumping under the compression and it adds a cool thickness to the sound.”

Dylan going digital was not nearly as radical or traumatic as his raucous transition from acoustic to electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. His first LP to use Pro Tools as the recording medium was 2006’s Modern Times, though his introduction to digital nonlinear multitracking came while doing several one-off tracks for film soundtracks in between tour dates. Shaw, who is comfortable in either domain, has a knack for doing multitrack edits across one-inch and two-inch tape. “I still love it,” he says. “I used to make money doing stutter edits for dance records in the ’80s.”

Moving to Pro Tools may have been less adventurous but was definitely more productive. “Dylan records get made quickly—a track a day, usually—and I went to Pro Tools as a result of the time pressures more than anything else,” he says. “I never asked Bob about it—I just did it. On one of the first songs on that album I had a multitrack edit done before Bob could walk from the studio into the control room. That convinced him, but he never had any issues with the sound of digital in the first place.”

Neither did Shaw, who at 42, straddles the analog and digital epochs. “I never had that nasty aversion to digital that so many other engineers seem to have,” he says. “Digital is fine as long as you record what you want to hear. I use Neve 1073 and Pultec EQP1A EQs, [Universal Audio] LA3 compressors, and dynamic microphones through tube preamps to get the sounds I want before they’re recorded. I mixed that record in the box but it sounds just as it did when we recorded it. The signals were passed through a lot of analog stages and that’s where the warm sound came from.”

Nonetheless, Dylan still pursues an old-timey sound and likes to see the accoutrements to do so in place, which calls for some maneuvering by Shaw. “As you never know where the song is going to go, I’ll often set up microphones for both really old-school and for closein miking,” he says. “The drum kit will have one set of a few microphones—a Shure SM57 on top of the snare and a Neumann KM 84 on the bottom, some U87 for overheads, and a Sennheiser 421 inside the kick drum—and another set with mics on every drum, where I’ll add a Neumann FET 47 outside the kick, angle an RCA 44 down in front of the kit to add some low mids to the sound, and add AKG 414s on the toms. As a result I’ll often have 15 to 18 tracks of drums up on the console and mix the sets as the song evolves. And that can happen in the space of two takes.”

Shaw also tries to balance Dylan’s preference for “mush” with the need to create some definition between individual instruments. “I’ll set up some gobos and Tube Traps while the band is setting up, maybe a blanket over something,” he says. “I try to sneak in as much isolation as I can before he complains.”

Dylan is nothing if not quirky, and Shaw is sensitive to that. “Bob sits in the circle with the rest of the musicians but he always sits with his back to the control room,” Shaw says. “He doesn’t like distractions. I watch him through the glass and I’ve had to learn to read his body language.”

Shaw concedes he was never a huge Dylan fan growing up, yet could not fail to be awestruck at the thought of working with the most iconic solo artist since Elvis Presley. He seems to enjoy the unpredictability that characterizes Dylan’s sessions, as well as the gentle cat-and-mouse game he plays trying to make sure that each track has definition while still letting the “mush” be there in all its glory. Shaw laughs when he recalls the one and only time he didn’t hit “record” during a rundown of a song.

“Bob never says ‘roll,’ so you always have to be sharp,” he says. “I was tweaking a sound while the band was running down what I thought was the intro, but that turned into the first verse and I realized, uh-oh, this is the take! I started waving my arms at the band through the glass and they were nice enough to cover for me—one of them ‘missed’ a note and we were able to start over again [laughs].”

SOMEDAY BABY

Bob Dylan won the GRAMMY Award for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance in 2006 for the song “Someday Baby,” from the Modern Times LP, which itself garnered a GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Folk/American Album. Chris Shaw was looking for a dense, Muddy Waters-like sound for the track. He placed a Neumann KM 84 microphone on the bottom of a snare drum purposely selected for its “crappy” sound, with a Shure Bullet microphone on the top on a stand over the kick drum, and rounded the center of the kit off with a Shure SM57 on the rack tom. Dylan’s Gibson Every Brothers model acoustic guitar is usually recorded using one B&K 4011 pointed at the 12th fret. The distantsounding slide guitar, played by Larry Campbell, is mixed hard left and owes its spooky allure to the Neumann U87 room microphones.

PARSING DYLAN ON TECHNOLOGY

While Chris Shaw says Bob Dylan is not a technophobe, the singer is on the record as being somewhat contemptuous about how contemporary records— including his—sound in general. He told a Rolling Stone interviewer, “You do the best you can, you fight that technology in all kinds of ways, but I don’t know anybody who’s made a record that sounds decent in the past 20 years, really. You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious . . . just like—static. Even these songs [from Modern Times] probably sounded ten times better in the studio when we recorded ’em.”

Shaw interprets: “You have to know Bob to know what he means. He means that the way records are made today—individual tracks done one at a time and heavily layered and time-tooled and pitch-fixed to death—means they have sound but no performance. I was working on the soundtrack to Martin Scorcese’s No Direction Home and I got my hands on some of the old four tracks from that time. You’ve got drums and organ on one track and Bob and his electric guitar bleeding into everything else, all mushed together. But it’s also magic. It’s all about the performance. Bob is constantly trying to get back to that sound.”