Nashville Skyline, March 2009Read Nashville columnist Peter Cooper interview with engineer associate producer mixer Luke Wooten and co-producer Brett Beavers on recording Dierks Bentley's Feel That Fire Album at Ocean Way Nashvi 3/01/2009 7:00 AM Eastern
Dierks Bentley is on something of a roll, having made a couple of Number One country albums in a row and notching a few Number One country single hits, including “Every Mile a Memory,” “Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go),” “Come a Little Closer” and “What Was I Thinkin'.” So some would say that he should stay on the path he'd cleared, should record something along the lines of the other things he'd done and should probably do so while nodding to the current economic climate and get things done as quickly and as cheaply as possible.
“We did exactly the opposite,” says engineer/associate producer/and mixer Luke Wooten. “We decided to buck the trend.” And so Wooten and co-producers Bentley and Brett Beavers recorded in different studios with different players — blending touring pros and session musicians.
“I told them at the beginning of this, ‘I'm going to give you guys your first grays,’” Bentley says. “I knew it was going to be hard. But I also knew we were going to get something good out of it.”
The “something good” is Bentley's Feel That Fire, which was massaged and altered, considered and adjusted more times than some albums are played.
“The last few records we'd done the same way with a great group of guys at Ocean Way in Nashville, where I love the board,” Beavers says. “Dierks wanted to throw all that out the window. We decided to cut some stuff with his band and use it as pre-production, and then take any of that we could and work it into the record. It was more drawn out, exploratory and time-consuming, which I guess could be called ‘difficult’ just because it was more work. We wound up having some kind of recording of 30 or 40 songs, and some of those wound up as Frankenstein tracks on the finished album. There'd be a rhythm track from pre-production with things from months later added on.”
Feel That Fire was finished at Station West, a home base for Bentley, Beavers and Wooten, and one of the few places in Nashville where the mixing board is a Harrison Series 12, which features an analog engine and a digital control surface.
“Brett and I love the sound of tracks that are mixed analog,” Wooten says, “but you have to be able to get back to things nowadays. This gives you the best of both worlds, where you have analog sound but you can do an instant recall that's not approximating pictures; it's a true digital recall with an analog mix.”
The thing is, Bentley is one of those fellows who wakes up at 4 a.m. and writes notes about possible adjustments. Or he stays up past 4 a.m., writing notes about possible adjustments.
“Dierks is always very highly involved,” Beavers says. “Maybe it's a word he doesn't like or one place where the guitar is up too high, but he drives around listening to everything over and over, right up until mastering. He keeps ideas flowing, and we wind up doing a lot of changes.”
Wooten says that every mix on the album was tweaked at least once on the day before mastering. Made in Nashville, the Harrison provided a means to reach inside each mix in seconds, make changes and make deadlines. But no one was interested in using available equipment to tighten tracks into digital lines.
“We don't strive for perfection,” Beavers notes. “No town can hold a candle to what we do in Nashville, day in and day out, in terms of chops and creativity. We hire the best, and we let them do what we do, and we don't go in and line up things when they already feel right. It's going to be good when these guys cut it, but we refuse to make it sound like a machine.”
Wooten adds, “When you've got the best musicians in the country and you use tools designed for amateur musicians to make them sound like they can play in time, you end up with something that's so gridded and tight that it doesn't feel real.”
Bentley's vocals went through a Neve 1073 preamp and a Tube-Tech CL1-B compressor, as always. Microphone choice was no choice at all, as every song on every Bentley album finds him singing through an AKG SolidTube mic, a large-diaphragm microphone that seeks a happy compromise in the solid-state-vs.-tube argument. Although the vocal setup was as per usual, Wooten and Beavers noticed the extent to which Bentley's voice has evolved when they were going back through older tracks. Part of that evolution has to do with comfort level: Station West is right across the Berry Hill neighborhood street from Bentley's office, and it has become a kind of audio campground for Bentley, Beavers and Wooten. But the difference also has something to do with the past few years' intense touring schedule.
“He has more rasp and character now,” Wooten says. “If you listen to things from the first or second album, you're like, ‘Who's that kid?’ That's the difference in five years and 1,200 dates.”
Wooten compares Bentley's voice to the many kinds of footwear often worn on the streets of Music City. “It's an old boot, man,” Beavers says. “The more you wear it, the better it fits. He's confident and comfortable singing, and he gets in the vocal booth and pours it out every time.”
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