Patty Griffin - EMusician

Patty Griffin

Partly due to the area’s abundance of limestone bedrock that makes digging a basement next to impossible, many Texas homes rest on what’s called a pier-and-beam foundation, which entails sturdy brick or concrete blocks spread about 8 to 12 feet apart that support large wood beams, which support the floorboards. This creates a crawlspace below the house, which makes it much easier to install electrical wiring and ductwork, but hell to record drums.
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Producer/engineer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Sound Team) overcame that obstacle when he teamed with singer-songwriter Patty Griffin and band to record Children Running Through, her stellar new album on ATO Records.

Rather than work in a conventional recording studio with conventional day rates and conventional atmosphere, the artist chose to work in a near-empty house across the street from her own in Austin, Texas. McCarthy moved in equipment from his studio/rehearsal space nearby and oversaw the arrival of a Steinway Grand Piano, among other items. The piano/vocal and guitar/vocal sessions McCarthy recorded during preproduction went off hitch-free, but when drummer Michael Longoria showed up with his kit during basic tracks, they knew they had a problem.

“I was standing in the [control room] and underneath my feet I could just feel this boom-boom-boom of the bass drum,” says McCarthy. “Every time you soloed Patty’s microphone and hit the bass drum, her mic stand would shake. I thought, ‘Oh no. This isn’t going to work.’ But my assistant, Steve Squier, found some rubber-bottom carpets. We put those underneath the drums as a shock mount, and that pretty much took care of it.”

With that problem solved, the remaining sessions went off smoothly — save for the occasional noisy bird and the humid, 100° summer temperatures. McCarthy decorated one bedroom with his Calrec mini mixer, Studer A827 24-track analog machine, and an assortment of classics such as Langevin 5116s, Telefunken V76s and V72s, Universal Audio 1176s and 175s, and Siemens and Neve EQs. Colorful tapestries chosen by Griffin and Traci Goudie, who designed the album art, hung behind the console and speakers to help deaden the room.

The kitchen housed J.D. Foster’s bass guitar amps, while Foster, guitarist Doug Lancio (who produced her third album 1,000 Kisses), and Glenn Worf, who played acoustic, electric, and/or tic tac bass, stood in the second bedroom. An adjoining bathroom held the guitar amps. Patty had the front room to herself, which gave her space for her guitars, the Steinway, and her powerful, expressive vocals.

McCarthy usually miked those signature pipes with a pair of Neumann M49s, with M7 and K47 capsules, respectively. Griffin intended to keep her voice and the lyrics at the forefront on this album. “The aim,” Griffin stated earlier, “was to strip everything down and just give it a few brushstrokes here and there, to come up with something that’s quiet but powerful. I wanted to be a little less wordy, but I also wanted to make a record where I didn’t hold back, and could let myself sing as loud as I wanted to.”

For Griffin, however, singing loud doesn’t mean screaming into the red. Taking advantage of her skillful mic technique, McCarthy ran the M49s through the V76 preamp to a Universal Audio 175 tube limiter, with touches of a UA 1176 or Neve 2254 compressor here and there. “I wanted to maintain the dynamic as much as possible,” he says.

Griffin’s acoustic guitar was captured with a Neumann U67, and piano came through with a Neumann SM2 and a pair of AKG C12As. Drums were recorded by a setup of Sennheiser 421s, a pair of Neumann U64s, a KM56, and a Shure 55S, among others.

Keeping Griffin’s goal of a stripped down sound with strong vocal presence in mind, the band either played with Griffin or added their parts after she had nailed her vocal take. The band sorted out their parts almost intuitively, with Lancio handling the charts and McCarthy making subtle suggestions. “The challenge was to add everyone else’s part in a way that was complementary and not get in the way,” McCarthy says.

After tracking the album to two-inch tape, McCarthy transferred the tracks to Pro Tools|HD, then handed them off to engineer Jim Vollentine, who handled some overdubs and much of the editing. From there, the crew traveled to OceanWay Nashville for horn and string overdubs, as well as to mix on their prized Neve 8078. “I don’t know what Alan Sides and Sal Greco did to it, but that’s the most wide and open-sounding Neve I’ve ever worked on,” says McCarthy. During the mix, he fine-tuned Griffin’s vocals with a Fairchild 670 and added trace amounts of reverb, courtesy of the EMT 140 plate reverb. Stephen Marcussen mastered the record at his Marcussen Mastering in L.A.

While McCarthy did notice that Griffin was “pretty enamored” with OceanWay’s spacious digs, it was important for her to record her latest batch of songs in a low-key environment, and her house across the way — piers, beams, and boiling temperatures aside — provided that.

“I was more relaxed than I’ve ever been making a record,” Griffin reported, “and I had a lot of confidence in the material. But there was also a lot of tension, and there were definitely moments where we didn’t think we were gonna get it together. But we did.”