Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats

Bringing Soul Back to the Studio with Producer/Engineer Richard Swift
By Barbara Schultz, photos by Richard Swift,

When Mix covered one of Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats’ sold-out concerts in San Francisco in 2016, the group segued from their explosive hit “SOB” into The Band’s “Shape I’m In,” and back again. This moment spoke volumes: Rateliff & The Night Sweats have taken a page from the legendary Band’s book, playing soul music through their own filter.

“Most people who work with me want something timeless, but not completely retro or throwback,” says producer/engineer Richard Swift, who helped Rateliff and company make their breakthrough eponymous album in 2015. Now the band and Swift are set to release the follow-up LP, Tearing at the Seams (out March 9, Stax Records), which builds on the sound and success of their debut.

Related story: Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, by Barbara Schultz, Mix, March 3, 2016

A solo artist and former member of The Shins, Swift has produced numerous acts, including Damien Jurado, Foxygen and Laetitia Sadler, as well as his former band and Rateliff’s crew. Describing the writing and demo sessions for Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats, Swift says, “The first record was basically just Nat and I, and Pat [Meese] the drummer came in halfway through. It was still such a new idea.”

Swift refers to the fact that Rateliff’s previous albums were more quiet and folk-based. The soul sound of the first Night Sweats album was a departure, but by the time they were ready to record Tearing at the Seams, the group had been touring with the first record for more than a year.

“They’d become a really solid band,” Swift says. “Not just in terms of their songs, but there’s a very strong brotherhood. So when they started this record, they went out someplace in New Mexico. They had their sound guy [Jamie Mefford] with them and a portable recording setup. They were calling what they were recording ‘demos,’ but some things seemed finished.”

The project then moved to Swift’s National Freedom studio in Cottage Grove, Ore., where he tracked live band sessions, then overdubs (vocals, solos, horns), to Pro Tools 10. “I’m afraid to upgrade because I feel like my sound is getting more and more dialed,” Swift says.

Other key ingredients to Swift’s sound include his collection of dynamic and ribbon mics (he doesn’t care for condensers), and spring reverbs, including a half-broken AKG BX10: “It’s a stereo spring reverb unit, and one side doesn’t work, but I’m afraid to get it fixed because I don’t want to lose its mojo,” he says.

Below, Swift shares his personal studio photos and more details about the production of this much-anticipated sophomore release.

Through Swift’s fish-eye lens, we see the band tracking live in National Freedom. Swift describes the drum-miking scheme: “There was nothing unaffordable, that’s for sure. I think my most expensive mic in the studio might be a stereo Cascade ribbon. I bought a CAD live drum setup—with clips and everything. It’s corny but I love how it sounds. I use the CAD kick mic and a clip-on under the snare, and then I use Coles overheads. Just a few drum microphones, typically. I think one time I miked a floor tom, but that was a very radical decision.”
Rateliff (left) is pictured with Swift, who explains what’s behind his choice to print all of his reverbs: “I taught myself how to do all this stuff through trial and error. I know I’m doing it ‘wrong,’ but I don’t care. It sounds good at the end of the day. You don’t listen to a Joe Meek record and say, ‘That’s too much reverb,’ or listen to Pet Sounds and say, ‘That’s too much reverb.’ The idiosyncrasies of my favorite records—a lot of those might have been mistakes.”
During band tracking, Swift broke out the 57s. “With guitars, organ and piano, most of the time it’s just a 57 in the guts of whatever I’m recording. So a 57 on Nate’s guitar, 57 on [Luke Mossman’s] guitar, 57 on [Mark Shusterman’s] piano, and I don’t use bass amps, so I just put a 57 on Joe—I call him Josephine—Pope and he played through a Fender Deluxe [guitar amp].”
Overdubbed vocal and instrument parts were recorded back in the main studio. Swift often turned his Coles overhead drum mic around to capture a solo. “That’s what we used for all the claps, all the percussion, a ton of guitar overdubs, all the piano overdubs, organ overdubs,” Swift says.
“When Nate cut vocals, he would just sit at the drums and sing into the drum microphone. Nate’s a drummer, like me, so he was really comfortable sitting at the drums singing. He had his back to us and I’d turn the lights off and make it vibe-y, and he would just kill it. I think the most he sang any of the songs is twice.”
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