Piecing Together An Acoustic Punk CD

I was supposed to be producing a simple little punky, folky singer/songwriter solo project with a few dashes of Ireland and Scotland thrown into the mix. But, because I wanted to incorporate enough additional textures to take listeners on a bit of a journey—rather than hearing just strummed Dobro and solo voice for 11 songs—Bag O’ Tricks [Vagrant Records] by Ol’ Cheeky Bastards (a.k.a. Dave Dalton of Screaming Bloody Marys fame) became somewhat of an air-traffic control challenge of managing different file formats and recording approaches.
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The basics were tracked on Pro Tools HD at Tiki Town Studios in Mill Valley, California, by house engineer Tom Luekens. I wanted “pure” performances of Dalton banging away on his Dobro and singing simultaneously to capture his energy and casual “busker” style. No click tracks. No lead-vocal overdubs. No punch-ins. Just a man and his guitar documented in real time.

“When recording acoustic guitar and vocal together, I usually find it’s best to use two mics with figure-8 patterns,” says Luekens, who opted to track at a resolution of 96kHz (the project’s low track count wouldn’t stress out the CPU, and the higher resolution would better represent the nuances of Dalton’s performance). “I choose a Neumann U87 for Dave’s vocal, as it complemented his gravelly timbre, and I picked an AKG C-12B for the Dobro. I angled the null point of the vocal mic toward the guitar, and I angled the null point of the guitar mic toward the voice. This minimized the leakage. There was some of the pick strumming sound in the vocal mic, but not much of the body of the guitar, and the voice was almost undetectable in the guitar mic.”

Dalton’s Dobro also had a pickup, the output of which Luekens routed to a Radial JDI direct box, with the intention of reamping the signal later. But the McDSP’s Chrome Tone plug-in he used for the rough mixes sounded so good on the DI track that no reamping was done at the final mix.

“Dave played the Dobro for a few of the songs, and then he switched to a Gretsch Electromatic,” explains Luekens. “I kept the same setup, but the acoustic sound of the Gretsch wasn’t quite as good as the Dobro. However, the DI track more than made up for it, as the pickups on the Gretsch sound great.”

During the basics sessions—which proceeded with Dalton comfortably recording in the studio’s living room with his box lunch, lyrics, guitars, and wife and baby photos scattered around—Luekens launched a few standard operational practices he developed to make sessions move faster and easier.

“When I start a new track, I begin the audio recording a minimum of ten seconds into the sessions file,” he says. “I do this because I can’t count the number of times I’ve started recording a song at the beginning of the session file, and then someone wants to put on a part that leads into the song. Starting the song with some open front space saves me from having to move all of the audio and markers downstream later.

“I also organize my hard drive so that each artist has a folder at the root level of the drive. Inside the artist’s folder is a session template containing tracks for everything I’ll be recording during the initial tracking. If the group has drums, bass, two guitars, keys, and a scratch vocal, I put those tracks in the template with inputs and outputs, basic headphone sends, effects sends, and fader levels pre-set. Once the first song is recorded, I go back to my template, and import any fine-tuning changes I made during the tracking of the first song. This saves a lot of time opening a new session and configuring it from scratch each time. Also included in the template are blank mono and stereo audio tracks, with the headphone sends activated. That way, if I need new audio tracks, I simply duplicate as many copies of these tracks as I need, and rename them appropriately.”

Studio overdubs consisted of background vocals (tracked in groups of two or four circled around a late ’40s Telefunken U47), grand piano and organ (performed by Keyboard Associate Editor Michael Gallant), and a few electric-guitar parts. For rhythm sweetening, EBow lines, and a solo or two, I plugged a PRS SE Paul Allender Signature guitar into a Vox Berkeley (modded with a presence circuit) or an Orange Tiny Terror—both miked with a single Royer R-121 ribbon.

“The Royer R-121 is one of my usual choices for electric guitars, as it can take high-volume sources, it has a nice presence boost between 2kHz and 4kHz, and also a slight dip between 10kHz and 18kHz that takes some harshness out of close-miked amps,” says Luekens. “When placed directly in front of the speaker cone [of either amp], the mic was still a bit spiky, so I moved it up above the plane of the center of the speaker, and I angled it down at not quite 45 degrees. I ran the R-121 through either a Studer D-19 mic preamp, or an old Ampex MX-35 tube mixer. The Studer has a little more clarity, and the Ampex has a fatter, more vintage sound. From there, the signal went to an Empirical Labs Fatso Jr. compressor, and then to the ProTools interface.”

Up to this point, all the audio was tracked, manipulated, and controlled by Luekens. But a withering deadline (21 days), and my desire to bring a number of different guitar players to the project (which would have prompted a studio scheduling nightmare), forced me to assemble performances recorded in various home studios by outside players. The “session cats” included myself and the other editors of Guitar Player magazine—Jude Gold, Matt Blackett, Darrin Fox, Art Thompson, and Barry Cleveland. The players were given rough CD-R mixes of the song they were to perform a solo on, with the only instructions being “go with the vibe.” In a few instances, Dalton had requested slide or EBow parts, but, otherwise, the players were on their own.

Unfortunately, I had not made Luekens aware of this plan at the get go. Oops.

“I didn’t realize other people were going to be working from my rough mixes,” he says. “I had the roughs from the count-offs through the end of the songs, but I hadn’t included all of the blank space from the beginning of the session files. If I knew someone would be using these mixes for recording other parts, I would have either bounced from the start of the session, or from a pre-determined point—such as the 10-, 20-, or 30- second mark. That way, I’d have a reference point for any audio I might get back. For instance, if somebody imports my audio into another program, all they have to do is put my audio files at the start of their session file—the zero mark, if you will—and record their parts as they like. When they send me their audio files, they just bounce the files from the zero mark, and I can import and drop them at my reference point to line everything up properly.”

So, for most of the tracks from the GP editors, there were no time references. Luekens and I had to listen to the new audio, find rough sync points, drag the files to their approximate correct location, and then nudge them until they felt right with the song. Then, there was the 96kHz debacle. None of the home-studio overdubs were recorded at that resolution (most were mono WAV files at 44.1kHz or 48kHz), which meant Luekens had to convert all outside audio using Pro Tools internal sample-rate conversion, set to “Tweak-head” (highest quality). Finally, there was the GarageBand gremlin—which compromised my home-spun guitar tracks.

“One problem that can crop up with importing audio from GarageBand is that it is very easy to export audio with the level too hot, or with panning causing the level to differ between left and right,” explains Luekens. “With Mike’s tracks, I split the stereo files into mono files, deleted one side, and, in many cases, I used a plug-in to drop the level by several decibels. But there was another problem—some dropouts and ticks in the audio. I could fix some of the short-duration ticks by zooming in until I could see the distortion of the waveform, and then using the pencil tool to redraw the offending part. Some were too subtle to see, so I copied and pasted a different part of the audio over them. This works especially well when there is an obvious repeating waveform. Other dropouts happened during long sustained notes or chords, and I could just snip the dropout, and slide the ring-out forward and crossfade the parts together.”

The Guitar Player Guest Stars

Dalton had asked for some gritty slide on “Borstal Boys,” so Darrin Fox grabbed a Big Heart glass slide, a Gibson Inspired By Elliot Easton SG, and a Reverend 5-15 1x10 combo. “I miked the amp with an Alesis/ Groove Tubes FET condenser, running into a True Systems P-Solo mic preamp to GarageBand,” says Fox. “But the naughty part is that I ran from the mic pre straight into my Powerbook’s 1/8" input. Not exactly an audiophile signal chain, but it sounded killer, so I didn’t worry about it!”

For his EBow solo on “Handbags and Gladrags,” Barry Cleveland plugged his ’03 PRS Custom-24 Brazilian into the distortion channel of a Rivera Venus 6, and then to a Palmer ADIG-LB direct-injection box, and a MOTU 828mkII FireWire interface routed to MOTU Digital Performer 5.13. Once recorded, the signal was slightly compressed with a Universal Audio LA-2A plug-in, and a touch of reverb was added with a Universal Audio Plate 140 plug.

“The initial takes felt a little too polite, given the punk context, so I cranked up the gain and slammed the EBow onto the strings for the first note, kept it close to the neck pickup for maximum intensity, and moved the EBow around to create harmonics on some notes,” says Cleveland.

Matt Blackett took a bluegrass approach for “Ladies and Gentlemen,” transforming his Babicz Identity ID-JRW-06 acoustic into a faux Dobro by using a DTAR Mama Bear set to its Tricone Resonator setting (100 percent wet). A Focusrite Saffire Pro 26 I/O preamp sent the signal to Cakewalk Sonar Producer 6 running on an HP Pavillion a1644x PC.

“I have some great mics,” says Blackett, whose performance was inspired by the new Blue Highway album, “but I record almost all of my acoustic tracks through the Mama Bear. It’s totally clean, direct, and simple, and I can have monitors blasting in the room as I track. So many engineers have put their Neumanns away when they hear how the Mama Bear sounds.”

To get the ’70s Allman Brothers by way of Jerry Garcia tone on his “Church of the Holy Spook” solos, Art Thompson plugged a ’68 Gibson Les Paul Custom Black Beauty Reissue into a Bad Cat Lil’ 15 head with its output routed to a Rivera SilentSister speaker-isolation cabinet (basically, an enclosed box with a guitar speaker and mic clip mounted within). The AEA R92 ribbon we plopped into the box captured a dry, throbbing overdrive that was perfect for the part.

Finally, Jude Gold ran his Fender Telecaster into a cranked-up mid-’90s Matchless Chieftain with the speakers disconnected, routing the speaker output to a Palmer PDI-03 Speaker Simulator plugged directly into Pro Tools LE via a Mbox 2 Pro. “I didn’t use any effects—not even amp ’verb,” says Gold. “I was kind of surprised how dry my part was on the final mix. I was asked for only a solo, but the song had huge empty spaces between each verse, so I threw in some accompaniment parts. To break things up for the solo, I started the lead using harmonics up at the 19th fret. Towards, the end of the solo, I ended up on the open low-E string, but really wanted to hit the low-D root, so I spontaneously reached over and grabbed the tuning peg and dropped the string a whole step. It sounded cool, so we went with it. I was very inspired throughout, because the song’s lyrics were so edgy. I became an instant Dave Dalton fan from the moment we launched the session.”