RECORDING ROCKABILLY

Out of the illegitimate shotgun marriage of Rock ‘n Roll with its 13-year-old cousin, Hillbilly Milly, a fevered fertility occurred. The issue from this un-condoned glorious union was the bastard child Rockabilly. Throw in a dash of rhythm-and-blues, a peppery trace of Tex-Mex shoes, and a smack of jazz juice, then sp
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Out of the illegitimate shotgun marriage of Rock ‘n Roll with its 13-year-old cousin, Hillbilly Milly, a fevered fertility occurred. The issue from this un-condoned glorious union was the bastard child Rockabilly. Throw in a dash of rhythm-and-blues, a peppery trace of Tex-Mex shoes, and a smack of jazz juice, then spice to taste with stinging slapback sauce. Rock-Ola!

Gene Vincent’s guitarists (Cliff Gallup/Johnny Meeks) brought country western swing. Bill Haley’s guitarist (Frank Beecher) brought swing-blues jazz. Chuck Berry picked double stop. Charlie Christian style-slurred horn stylings.

I mean Elvis was originally called The Hillbilly Cat. He combined the acoustic guitar and acoustic bass with electric guitar and heavy backbeat drums. The most common lineup for a rockabilly band is vocal, drums, bull-fiddle bass, rhythm guitar, and lead guitar. Sometimes a piano, tenor sax, steel guitar, vocal backing group, and a pair of clapper boys would augment this.

But recording rockabilly is (arguably) one of the easiest genres of music to capture. It’s all about simplicity, not mind-numbing computer programming setups. It requires a knowledgeable, intelligent, fast setup, and a confidence to catch performances on the fly.

You see, Rockabilly has to grooooove. Not like the unfaltering clock of an impotent drum machine, but with the unheard tempo fluctuations of a lion in heat, as the drummer speeds into a multi-triplet roll elevating the band into the chorus or bridge of a song. To get this groove the whole band should perform simultaneously in the same room. Even the singer can do his thang at the same time.

Preferably in a room no smaller than 30' x 20' x 10' where the walls and ceiling add sonic reflections. What about bleed, you ask? Bleed is good. Don’t be afraid of bleed. It fattens the sound as long as all the mics are positioned correctly. Strategically placed mics (of the appropriate model) should require a minimum of EQ at the board. Reverb — nah. Compression — yeah. Cool!

Note: Compression was used in order to accommodate the erotic peaks that the pickers produced in the exuberance of flesh-chilling excitement when they got “real gone”. It contained the dynamic range within the limited range of 1/4" analog recording tape, and also the even smaller range that vinyl records could cope with.

But the definitive sound of rockabilly is recognized by the liberal use of slap-back echo on the vocal, the lead guitar, and sometimes even on the entire band. Half a century ago, this was produced via the heads of a tape recorder. (Remember them?) Usually an Ampex 350 mono machine (Remember mono?) The 1/4" tape traveled past the heads at 15 ips. The distance between the record head and the playback head was approximately 1.5", and the time taken for the tape to bridge this space was approximately 115 ms. This time lapse produced the slapback echo.

Today, a digital delay unit will manufacture this delay for you, but to emulate the old tape slapback, roll off your highs, especially on repeats and add a smidgen of smut (unheard modulation) to simulate instability from tape flutter. The old machines were less than sonically perfect. If you’re using a DDL, don’t get smart and adjust the delay time to concur with the rhythm bpm of the song. Although speed adjustments may have been available, they didn’t do that. Maybe it was luck, but many rockabilly classics did in fact sync to the speed of that 115 ms delay.

And you gotta use the right gear man! Plywood, 3/4-size upright basses are fine. You don’t need a full sized German mahogany bulldog. Drummers — throw away yer toms. Bass drum, snare, hi-hat, and cymbal will cut the gig. And don’t forget to bring your brushes. The tone of a heavily picked Martin flat top snarls through the midrange nicely, while the lead guitar ain’t no hi-fallutin, active pickup, traumatized transvestite. It’s usually a Gretsch (with De Armonde pick-ups), an archtop hollowbody Gibson with P90’s or PAT humbuckers, or yer good ol’ unadulterated basic Tele; or maybe a funky old Silvertone from Sears. Bigsbys permitted, nay mandatory. And the guitar amp — gotta be tubes Daddy-O! No chips — just fish.

Engineer be quick. Set up fast. We don’t want no two hours getting a snare drum sound. The boys will just get Oprah-sedated and this don’t bring forth no magic lightning. If you’re producing, don’t pull the band out of the studio and into the control room to evaluate every performance. Only when they’ve done something listenable and kissable, otherwise you’ll hex their lava flow.

The first take is often the greatest. Never ever throw it away even if a player glitched with a bum note or two. The first take you play from your soul. The second take you play from your head, and it could be downhill from there on. Don’t be afraid to edit portions of one take into another. Sam Phillips and Jack Clement did this at Sun Studio — with great success, and mostly inaudible splices.

Incidentally, Sam Phillips declared in a recent interview that he did not use a mic on Scottie Moore’s lead guitar amplifier — the sound was actually picked up by Elvis’ vocal mic. He just got the amp to sound good in the room and placed it in the right place so Elvis’ mic would pick up the guitar sound at the right level! Wow! The Sun Studio was 18' x 33' with an eight-foot high V-shaped ceiling. The walls were covered in 12" asbestos square acoustic tiles that gave the room sound. Louder playing levels resulted in more midrange compression to the sound. In effect, the room itself acted as a compressor. The mixer at Sun was a simple RCA 76D console with six mic preamps and no equalization. The mics Sam used were RCA 77DX (ribbon), RCA 44BX (ribbon), Shure 55 (“the Elvis mic”), and an Altec Lansing pencil mic.

It’s all acoustic. Everything is miked. Nothing goes direct. No plug-ins except for the electric guitar cord. To really get that authentic sound, try using just two mics — one on the singer and one on the band. Choose mics with directional capabilities, then move the mics (and musicians) around until you get the required blend and balance of sounds. Eye contact is essential, but keep the players distanced where necessary.

If you decide to go for a more contemporary sound, put up some accent mics and use semi close-miking techniques, but don’t totally eliminate the room sound from the ambient mic. Augment it and fatness will remain.

Less can be more. You can make great rockabilly with just eight tracks. Vox, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass, stereo overhead drums, kick, and snare. If you’re really good, you can also simultaneously record the performance “as-is” straight to two track. Yup — no mixing. And forget the pan pots (except for the drum overheads). For authenticity, keep it all straight down the middle. Remember to allow for excess headroom at the console/recorder, and set your gain levels accordingly. Then just sit back, quiff your hair, snap your fingers, nod your head, and let that Billy rock!