Trackin' It at the Barn - EMusician

Trackin' It at the Barn

An inside look at Little Feat''s rustic project studio and the recording of the band''s latest CD.
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In these days of high-quality, easily portable studio gear, good recordings can be made in unlikely places. One such recording is the most recent release by the legendary group Little Feat, a band that features its own unique blend of rock, boogie, blues, country, jazz, and New Orleans — style music. The CD was recorded in a rundown, corrugated-tin shack that the band members refer to as “the Barn,” located in the Topanga Canyon area west of Los Angeles.

The story of the recording is intriguing because the band, along with veteran engineer Gil Morales (see Fig. 1), crafted an excellent CD in a studio space that offered plenty of challenges, acoustically and otherwise.

For those unfamiliar with Little Feat's history, its commercial heyday was in the '70s, when Lowell George was the artistic focal point. But George died in 1979, and the band broke up not long after. It reformed in 1988, adding Fred Tackett on guitar and Craig Fuller on lead vocals. The band has kept its lineup together ever since, with the exception of Fuller who was replaced by vocalist Shaun Murphy in 1993. Other than Tackett and Murphy, the rest of Little Feat — guitarist-vocalist Paul Barrere, keyboardist-vocalist Bill Payne, drummer-vocalist Richie Hayward, bassist Kenny Gradney, and percussionist-vocalist Sam Clayton — are all veterans of the band's glory days in the '70s (see Fig. 2). Although Little Feat no longer has a major-label deal, it's found a niche as a successful indie act.

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FIG. 1: Gil Morales, who recorded and mixed Kickin'', has been engineering for Little Feat since 1995. During that time he''s recorded seven CDs and two DVDs for the band.

The band's current members are no strangers to the world of project-studio recording. Their previous studio CDs, Under the Radar (CMC International, 1998) and Chinese Work Songs (CMC International, 2000), were tracked at a studio in Barrere's house. But when they got ready to record Kickin' It at the Barn (Hot Tomato, 2003), the space requirements of Barrere's family made recording there no longer practical. It was time for Little Feat to find a new studio, and that was when Tackett and the band decided to set up shop in the Barn.

DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH

The Barn is located on a piece of rental property that Tackett owns in the town of Topanga. He says that when he first bought the property, the leaky-roofed structure was hardly a prime candidate to become recording space. “It was covered by brush and had rattlesnakes all around it,” he remembers. “Nobody went back there.”

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FIG. 2: Little Feat''s current lineup (left to right): Bill Payne, Richie Hayward, Fred Tackett, Shaun Murphy, Paul Barrere, Sam Clayton, and Kenny Gradney.

The Barn's renaissance began several years before Tackett even thought of using it as a studio. He had rented one of the three houses on the property to a carpenter who fixed up the Barn to use as a shop, plugging its leaky roof and making it into a useable workspace. When the carpenter moved out, the band was looking for a new place to record.

Even with the carpenter's renovations, the Barn needed plenty more fixing up before it would become studio worthy. Besides the obvious acoustical challenges that the tin walls presented, there were other obstacles to overcome. One was access. “It's in a big hollow,” says Tackett. “Picture a big bowl; the Barn's down in it like a spoon. It's down in the center of the spoon, and there's a big ridge all around the top of it” (see Fig. 3). This was problematic because the only easy access was through the house of one of Tackett's tenants. “The only way to get into the Barn without going through the woman's house and across her patio,” says Morales, “was to drive down a steep dirt path. On a good day, you could get in there with a car, but if there was any kind of moisture on the ground you could only get out with a 4×4.” The only other option was to park on the street and walk around and down to the Barn, but it was about a quarter-mile hike.

Despite these limitations, Tackett and the other band members decided to convert the Barn into a studio. ���We threw a bunch of money into it, and started conditioning it for sound,” says Tackett, who adds, “It is not even close to being soundproof, especially when Richie starts playing the drums.”

They covered the tin walls with drywall, had the electricity rewired, covered the windows and doors with absorptive material (see Fig. 4), and built baffles for the guitar amps. “The walls are 10 or 12 inches deep,” says Morales. “We left two of those panels open, and we put the guitar amps in them. The open panels had shelves over them, so I could drape packing blankets over the shelves. We put drywall around the front, so there was a sort of booth there for each amp.” Barrere likes to joke that the studio was built using Rube Goldberg engineering.

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FIG. 4: In an effort to minimize the level of sound getting out of the Barn, the windows and door were covered from the inside with absorptive material, and a mattress was attached to the outside of the door.

The Barn's floor plan (see Fig. 5) shows its good-size live room that Tackett refers to as The Heart and Soul Room. “Everybody goes in there and plays the soulful music,” he explains. Next to it is a side room that Morales converted into a control room. “We ran hundreds and hundreds of feet of Monster Cable between the two rooms,” Morales says.

THROUGH RAIN AND MUD

The next step was to bring in the gear. However, when the band's crew looked at the steep dirt path they'd have to drive the truck down, they balked. “We can't bring all their stuff down there — we'd never get the truck out,” Morales remembers the crew saying. As a result, the band was limited to bringing in a paired-down set of gear for the recording. “We couldn't bring the B-3 down there,” says Morales, “and we weren't able to bring the full drum set, the 4×12 cabinets, or any of that sort of thing. It was just way too difficult getting in and out.”

The basic tracks were recorded from March through May of 2003 — the early part of which coincides with the rainy season in Southern California. When it rained, things got really messy down by the Barn. “You've heard of the Orange Bowl; well, this is the Toilet Bowl,” says Tackett. According to Morales, the mud almost reached the studio at one point. “We had a mud slide that came within a few inches of the doors to the Barn,” he recalls. “We had to get a guy to come help, because a couple of guys got stranded in there with their rides. It was pretty crazy.”

ONTO THE TRACKS

The band used two and sometimes three synced-up Tascam DA-38s to track their sessions. “I connected the mic pre into the tape machines, and used an old Ramsa monitor mixer for the headphones,” says Morales (see Fig. 6). Barrere referred to the monitor system as primitive but effective. “Everybody heard very well, because we played off each other so well,” Barrere says. “It was like performing live. The bulk of us worked off of one mix, and we had a separate mix for Richie, who liked to have his drums a little louder than the rest of us [laughs].”

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FIG. 5: The above graphic shows the Barn''s layout, including its main room and its control room.

Going to tape, Morales used the preamps in Barrere's old Soundcraft 400 mixer, as well as some of his own. “I have one of Brent (“Dig”) Averill's Neve modules,” Morales says. “It's a Class-A pre, and we went straight to the machine from that.” Morales also used preamps from Demeter and TC Electronic.

The band kept the live approach throughout the project. “There's very little overdubbing [aside from vocals] on most of the tracks,” says Morales, although he points out that there are two songs on the CD that were more conceptual and heavily overdubbed. One of those, “Corazones y Sombras,” is a Bill Payne composition that featured overdubbed vocals and instrumental tracks by several musicians who play in the Mexican style of Jarocho (music indigenous to the state of Vera Cruz). Those tracks were recorded into Emagic Logic on an Apple G4 at Morales's home studio, where later on, Morales did the edits and mixing for the CD.

The other song Morales referred to was “Why Don't It Look Like the Way that It Talk,” a song by Tackett that features a slew of acoustic instruments. “There are 20 tracks of Fred in that song,” Morales says. “He arranged it almost orchestrally. There are all these bits; some of them are multitracked two or three times.”

For that song, Morales brought his G4 to the Barn, something he'd been hoping to avoid. “I didn't want to take my computer up there with all the dirt,” he explains. “But I had several edits I had to do, so I bit the bullet and took my G4 up there. While I had it there, we got the overdubs on that song into the computer.”

MIKING IT UP

When miking the drums in the Barn's main room, Morales used close mics and a variety of overhead and room mics. (See the sidebar “Mikin' It at the Barn” for a complete mic list.) For the overheads, he used Audio-Technica AT4060 tube mics. “I had a pair of those suspended from the rafters,” he says, “using the type of clamp-on adapters that you use for tom mics. We mounted the K&M boom to those, and then used those clamps to hold them to the rafters — then we'd gaffer-tape the hell out of them” (see Fig. 7).

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The CD cover for Kickin'' It at the Barn shows an idyllic version of the outside of the studio.

Morales used a stereo mic for additional ambient room sounds. “Paul has an old Shure VP88,” Morales says, “that's an M/S microphone. I put it in the mode that bypasses its internal M/S matrix. And that one was hanging almost in the crest of the roof. Fred's carpenter left me a 2×6 up in the rafters, and I hung the VP88 from it.”

The guitar amps — Barrere used a '57 Fender Vibrolux and Tackett a '63 Fender Deluxe Reverb — were close-miked with Shure SM57s. Both guitarists would crank their amps up full. “For the most part, there's no way you can isolate them in an open space like that,” Morales says. However, the amp baffles did have an effect. “They dulled down the bleed in the room. You heard the rumble from them, which is kind of what the room mics are about anyway,” says Morales. “Is leakage always a bad thing? In my opinion, the answer to that question is no.”

Bassist Kenny Gradney recorded direct. “Kenny would plug in to my Demeter,” Morales says. “I've got the H-Series DI. And I just plugged him in to that and took the aux out into an amp.” Gradney mainly used the bass amp (Morales recalls that it was an SWR) in order to hear himself.

Many of the tracks on Kickin' It at the Barn feature either Tackett or Barrere playing acoustic guitars or dobros (wood- and metal bodied). Some of the tracks were recorded as overdubs, but many were cut during the basics. “Whoever was playing acoustic would be in the control room with me, and we'd monitor with headphones,” Morales explains. “Anything we overdubbed, we did out in the room.”

Barrere, Tackett, Hayward, and Gradney played on all of the basics. Keyboardist Bill Payne was there for some, but because he had to commute to the sessions from his home in Montana, he did some of his piano parts as overdubs. When you hear the CD, it sounds as though Payne was playing an acoustic piano; but he played most of his piano parts and some of his B-3 parts on a Korg SGProX keyboard that Morales recorded direct. “It's a wonderful instrument,” says Payne about the Korg, which he also uses live. “I mostly used a patch called Classical Piano.”

Percussionist Clayton and vocalist Murphy also had to travel a long distance to get to Topanga, so they recorded their parts later as overdubs. Most of the overdubs were done at the Barn on the DA-38s, but some were recorded at Morales's studio into Logic.

Morales brought the band's spare DA-38 home and used it to transfer keeper tracks from the Barn into Logic. “Anytime we got a take that we agreed was a keeper, I'd drive home at night and transfer it,” Morales says, “So as we went on, I was transferring master takes into the computer.” (The overdubs that were recorded later at Morales's studio were done at 24-bit resolution. Because of the real-time sampling-rate conversion feature in Logic, he was able to use them alongside the 16-bit DA-38 tracks.)

Many of the final lead vocals were recorded at the Barn and were originally intended to be used only as reference vocals. “They'd go in and sing after getting a take,” says Morales. “These ended up being the keeper vocals.”

Barrere explains that Little Feat's approach to vocal recording has mellowed over the years. “We used to go through and fix every little syllable,” he says. “But the last four or five times we keep things natural. So what if it goes a little flat here and a little sharp there? It just sounds natural. We made the ones spot on that had to be. But there wasn't a lot of comping going on.”

Morales says that the main vocal mic he used was an Audio-Technica AT4060. Because the band had extensive studio experience, he didn't have to use a lot of compression going to tape. “They've been doing it so long,” Morales explains, “that they know how to work the mics. As long as I got it within a decibel or two of clipping and then let them take care of the rest, it worked out.” Any necessary dynamic adjustments were done in Logic during mixdown. “I fixed the problem areas more with automation than with a ton of compression,” he says.

KEEPING IT ORGANIZED

Although a lot of session time was spent developing and refining song arrangements, Morales had to stay prepared because he never knew when the musicians might play something they wanted to keep. “Basically, I've learned with those guys that if there's more than two of them in a room, I have to roll tape,” says Morales, who's worked with Little Feat since 1995, engineering seven CDs and two DVDs for them in that time. “There was one time, many years ago, that I missed one of the best takes I ever heard from them. I learned never to let them be in there without something moving.”

As you might imagine, Morales used many of the Hi8-format DA-38 tapes. “I think there are more than 400 tapes,” he says. This volume of recorded material also required him to stay organized, or it would have been impossible to remember what was where. He took copious notes, and by the time the project ended he had “stacks of paperwork and uncountable reams of legal pads.”

DISTURBING THE PEACE

Despite the efforts by Morales and the band to keep as much of the sound inside the Barn as possible, it got so loud at times that the neighbors were affected. This fact became readily apparent when the band was perfecting the song “Stomp,” a long, fast, jazzy instrumental.

Tackett tells what happened: “We must have played that [“Stomp”] for about two days, about eight hours a day. I was doing a guitar solo, and suddenly I turn around and Paul says, ‘The police are here, Fred.’ I go out and there's this highway patrolman. And he's looking at all these guys, some of us are 60 and some of us are 55, you know, and this guy's half our age.

“He was funny — he was like, ‘What are you guys doing down here?’ And we go, ‘yeah, we're this band Little Feat, we're trying to make a record.’ And he says, ‘Little Feat, haven’t I heard of you guys?' And Kenny started singing ‘Fat Man in the Bathtub’ and ‘Dixie Chicken’ and he goes, ‘Oh yeah, I know you guys.’ And he's looking around at all the old junk that we've taken out of the Barn and haven't had carted off yet, like old toilets and messed-up wood. It looks like some questionable methamphetamine place.”

Luckily for the band, the officer was an understanding sort. “He said, ‘You mean you guys work out of this operation?” Tackett recalls, “and we said, ‘Yeah man, this is Little Feat World Headquarters.’ And he went away shaking his head, and he said, ‘Look, you better take care of your neighbor.’”

Morales picks up the story: “It turns out that the woman who complained was a friend of the Tacketts. After eight hours of solid double kick drums out of Richie Hayward, she got pissed.” Tackett and his wife brought the woman some roses and candy and smoothed things over. She had assumed it was a bunch of kids playing.

IN THE MIX

Morales did the mixes for Kickin' It at the Barn mainly in Logic, using plug-in effects. The band seemed happy with his efforts. “He was trying to make it sound like a band live,” says Tackett, “Not too many tricks. He just wanted to make it live and raw sounding.”

Morales, who does a lot film mixing, also did surround mixes for soon-to-be-released DVD and SACD versions of Kickin'. He is very enthusiastic about them. “It's the most successful I've been at capturing the feel of what it's like to stand in a room with a band,” he says. “So when you hear the surround mixes, it's what it was like to sit in the center of that room, with Richie in front of you and the guitars on either side, and just hearing the rumble of the bass guitar.”

THE GOOD VIBE

Overall, the experience of recording at the Barn was a positive one for Little Feat, and the band members all appreciate having their own studio where they don't have to worry about the clock ticking. “The vibe was like 1967 — hippies hanging out on the farm,” says Tackett. “It had a very ‘Big Pink’ [referring to the album Music from Big Pink by the Band] kind of vibe. We took a lot of cue from Levon Helm, who's a good friend of ours. They always found a place to go play that wasn't a recording studio. So we have Levon to thank for that, because he kind of inspired us with all of the Band records he did.”

Bill Payne gives Morales a lot of credit for the CD's excellent sound quality. “Gil is one of those guys who understands acoustic music, even if you're not playing on an acoustic instrument, which is something I really admire about him,” Payne says. “Also, he works really well with people.”

Barrere also praises Morales. “With the recording techniques available today and the amazing mic techniques that Gil used, we ended up with a better-sounding record than we would have going into a studio. Some studios have a very sterile atmosphere, and a band like Little Feat needs something earthier,” he says. Barrere indicated that the band will continue recording at the Barn. “The next studio record we do will be recorded up there. At least it sure gets my vote.”

Mike Levineis a senior editor at EM.

MIKIN' IT AT THE BARN

Gil Morales used the following mics and DIs for the Kickin' It at the Barn sessions:

Kick: Audio-Technica ATM23HE

Snare: Audio-Technica ATM23HE

Toms: Audio-Technica ATM25 (4)

Hi-hat: Audio-Technica AT4041

Overheads: Audio-Technica AT4060 (2)

Room: Shure VP88

Room/vocal: Audio-Technica AT4060

Electric guitars: Shure SM57 (one on each amp)

Acoustic guitars: B&K 4011, Audio-Technica AT4041

Vocals: Audio-Technica AT4060, Audio-Technica AT4050

Bass: Demeter H-series DI

Keyboards: Demeter H-series DI