Kaki King’s Joyful Ascent to Naturalism

Kaki King is a unique voice in a sea of guitar players. Her overhand, percussive style—rife with finger tapping and hammer-ons—delivers dynamic nuances from gently coaxed notes to explosions of pummeled strings. Starting her commercial career as an acoustic wunderkind, King has evolved into a fiery multi-instrumentalist who performs with a series of Ovation acoustics, a Gretsch Electromatic lap-steel, a Jerry Fessenden pedal-steel, a few electric Guilds, and even a goldtop Les Paul. Documenting the essence of a player with so much dynamic firepower isn’t easy, but King and producer Malcolm Burn opted to pretty much let performance alone drive the recording of her latest album, Dreaming of Revenge [Velour].
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“From an engineering standpoint, nothing was too complicated,” admits Burn. “Any sense of complexity is just from Kaki and her craft. My attitude was to let that be the thing people focus on when they hear her record.”

Where was the recording made?
At my home studio in Kingston, New York. Kaki stayed there for the month of July, and part of August [2007]. This allowed us to wake up, go right to work, and then continue into the night. Moments of inspiration could hit us whenever they occurred, and we were there to capture it. In fact, Kaki is so good with Pro Tools that she ended up co-engineering the album with me. We tracked most of the parts in the control room for the intimacy and immediacy factors.

But isn’t performing acoustic music in the control room a recipe for signal bleed?
Absolutely—and, sometimes, we liked that. I tend to sacrifice technical aspects in favor of the performance. We did use the piano room a bit, but Kaki prefers a dead, dry sound, so we mostly stayed in the control room. She didn’t even wear headphones when she sang, opting instead to sing in front of the monitors—which turned out to be much better for her intonation.

Was there a particular acoustic-guitar sound you were trying to document?
I was interested in getting the sound of the guitar as I hear it when I play. So, to capture that perspective, Malcolm placed some mics in front of my guitar, and also positioned a microphone above my head.

How did that work out?
This is how I compare the sound of my previous and current albums: UntilWe Felt Red is like a black Ikea table with pen and paper placed just so. There’s also a brushed silver lamp, and several beautiful, but simple and shiny, handmade art objects decorating the corners. Dreaming of Revenge is like a beat-up workman’s table, covered in wood shavings and carving tools, and with an enormous and beautiful sculpture rising out of the middle of it.

Malcolm, how did you envision the production?
Burn: I have an interesting collection of instrumental music from my grandfather that dates back to the ’30s. So when I was thinking of doing an instrumental record with Kaki, I thought about doing something a bit different than what people these days commonly expect from an instrumentalist. I decided that strong melodic content is the common thread between those old records, and that’s where I envisioned things going with Kaki.

What kinds of records were you using as stylistic benchmarks?
I wasn’t necessarily trying to replicate specific songs from the ’30s—that’s just the vibe I wanted. But if you want to see where we were heading, think of “Love is Blue” by Paul Mauriat, or “Sleepwalk” by Santo and Johnny. So although Kaki’s music can be fairly complex, I asked her to come up with as many relatively hum-able melodies as she could for each track. Then, we weaved them in and out.

What kind of miking techniques did you use for the acoustic guitars?
Generally, I’ve become very conservative. I’ll still do things with EQ and plug-ins to get a sound, but I try to keep the sound really open and natural. For the most part, we used two mics for Kaki’s acoustic—a Neumann U67 for a front perspective, and a Coles 4104 positioned over her shoulder. The Coles is a warm mic with a fair amount of low end, so that gave Kaki the depth and resonance she was looking for. The Neumann provided much of the sparkle and attack. We also used a direct track. The final blend of the inputs was one-third Neumann, one-third Coles, and one-third DI. The mic preamps were either the onboard ones in my API console, or an Averill Calrec PQ 1061.

King: Malcolm is very interested in recapturing some of the aura that is lost when you record digitally, as opposed to analog. So he makes very interesting miking choices—all of which seem to be part of his scheme in creating a world of happy mistakes. Somehow, he gets instruments to overlay each other so that you can’t really tell what is creating a melody. He’s not really about fine-tuning mic placement—he’s more excited about making music in the moment.