Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings Go For the Live Vibe

“I don’t really care about what people are doing nowadays,” says Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings bassist Gabe Roth. “It’s not that I have an agenda against the digital world, but higher signal-to-noise ratios, conversion rates, and transparent frequency response have very little to do with music. Most records today don’t have the charm of the albums I listened to when I was young, and that’s a damn shame.”

Not surprisingly, Roth looks to sounds that are decades old for inspiration, and his band’s latest release, 100 Days, 100 Nights [Daptone], can sit comfortably beside the jewels of ’60s soul. From the 8-track Ampex 440 that occupies one corner of his 25' x 15' Daptone Studios to the Otari MX-5050 1/4" deck that sits on the other side of the room, Roth is old school through and through. At a time when DAWs offer more than 100 tracks to work with, Roth feels that even 16 tracks are too much to handle. But, in spite of his thoroughly vintage rig, Roth is quick to point out that a few pieces of choice equipment aren’t enough to guarantee a recording that hearkens back to the golden age of audio production. You also must adopt the old techniques.

“I don’t want everything neat and isolated,” says Roth. “I don’t close mic the drums. I place a Shure 556S dynamic a few feet out, and a few inches from the ground, pointed between the hi-hat and kick. Every inch from the ground gets you a lot less bass drum in this application, so you have to keep the mic low. And I’ll do anything I can to keep the mic away from the head of the bass drum—that just sounds awful. I route the bass through a cheap direct box and a dbx 160A compressor, put a single Shure SM57 right on the speaker grille for guitar tracks, and I record the horn section—who are always ordered to dance through the takes—with a Shure 315 ribbon positioned three feet away.”

Roth’s organic approach had to evolve a bit when dealing with Sharon Jones’ voice. The diva of Dap sang the entire album live, but there was a bit of a snag when it came time to mix.

“The ADL compressor we were using when tracking Sharon’s vocals had a bad tube, and it was sounding really thin,” explains Roth. “As a result, Sharon’s vocals ended up too far back in the mix. I liked the way the band sounded, so I had a challenge on my hands. Luckily, I had done instrumental mixes on the 1/4", so I flew them onto the 8-track machine. Then, I remixed Sharon’s vocals on the 16-track, and flew them onto the 8-track deck, ending up with a mono vocal track and stereo instrumental tracks. I had to sync-up the two machines by hand to get the vocals on the right beats. It was worth the trouble, though, because her vocals were round and upfront.”

Roth also opened up the sound of 100 Days by hard-panning the band, and positioning Jones’ voice in the middle.

“The drums and guitar number one are panned all the way to the left,” says Roth, “and the bass, horns, and guitar number two are panned hard right—just like it is live. I also like having things either too loud or too quiet. Listen to a Sly Stone record—there are horn lines that are buried in the mix, but they still dominate the arrangement. There’s character to that. I don’t want each instrument having its own little compartment—which is why I’ll EQ the entire mix instead of single instruments. I want the mix to have a live vibe.”

Roth’s barebones studio approach is a testament to the belief that all you need is a good band and a good song to make a good album. And his live-in-the-studio method is also the perfect match for the band’s sultry, sensual, and electrifying singer.

“I’m 61 years old,” says Jones, raising her eyebrow, “and I don’t need to sound like I’m chasing any trends, or doing any of that bubblegum pop. I want to make records that sound like the records I love.”