It was like my guitar amp was about to explode at any moment. He’s done something to it: ‘Don’t look at it! Don’t even point at it!’” JD McPherson says. “It was very intense.”
McPherson and his band—bass player Jimmy Sutton, keyboardist Ray Jacildo and drummer Jason Smay—did the basic tracking for their sophomore release, Let the Good Times Roll, in Mark Neill’s Soil of the South Studio in Valdosta, Ga., where Neill’s collection of well-maintained vintage, refurbished and modified studio gear (and hot-rodded guitar amps) recently found a permanent home.
“It’s the same studio I’ve always had; I’ve moved it around like a Broadway set,” Neill says. “We moved into Muscle Shoals Sound studios for Brothers, the Black Keys’ record. And now it’s in a mid-century cinderblock Southern flat-roof building. JD came in just as I finished setting it up.”
McPherson’s songs grow from his longtime fascination with ’50s R&B. He says his teenaged punk phase was largely supplanted by the old stuff when he discovered Buddy Holly’s Norman Petty recordings (see February 2011 Classic Tracks: “That’ll Be the Day”).
“All that aggressive but exuberant music was there,” he says. “I became obsessed with that stuff: Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis. Once I hit Little Richard it was all over.”
McPherson developed a sound of his own that incorporated not only the rhythm and excitement of his favorite artists, but also the spirit of experimentation behind the recordings. This made Neill’s combo of mint-condition vintage studio gear and hot-rodded amps a perfect fit; the producer/engineer has been collecting tube and broadcast gear since the ’70s. So the singularity of a vintage mic, carefully placed, plus the happy accident of a groaning amp become part of the sound from the studio floor, the same way they were for Johnny Burnette, for example.
All that said, McPherson’s tracks have a lot going on musically—layers of percussion and keyboards, reverb and horns and backing vocals, as well as the expected four-piece ruckus—so Neill tracked to RADAR.
“When JD came in, he said, ‘I have a lot of ideas but not solid songs per se, so can we build it up like tracks?’ And I said, ‘Yes we can.’ With period gear, the answer is often ‘No.’ ‘Can we have another mix?’ ‘No, because that was a performance.’ ‘Can we add another guitar?’ ‘No, we don’t have enough sends.’
“I knew we were going to have to commit to some things, but I knew a lot was going to change, so it made sense to go digital. I think I filled up more tracks than I’ve done on any record.”
Neill describes McPherson’s process as “patterns of commitment.” They’d start with the rhythm section, and then begin to add on; as the full song and arrangement emerged, McPherson would realize what pieces he wanted to re-record, and they’d do some more.
Smay’s kit was miked minimally with Shure mics: an SM57 placed under the snare, a 556 on bass drum and a KSM 141 overhead. Sutton’s bass, situated next to the drums, was usually captured via an old Western Electric 639. “That’s a ribbon/dynamic combo,” Neill says. “Sometimes we’d put Jimmy in the hall if the drums were too loud, but often he was in the studio with Jason.”
Piano miking changed from song to song, but Neill was surprised to observe that the sound didn’t seem to change much respectively. On the track “Bridge Builder,” for example—a moody ballad that McPherson co-wrote with Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach—there was a Shure SM57 in back of the upright piano, but on other songs Neill placed a Neumann mic in front, or an RCA 77 on top.
“There’s obviously a big difference between those mics,” Neill says. “But the other thing about this record is I used a lot of overdrive on the mic pre’s—a lot of high-gain pre’s. There are various degrees of saturation, too. All of that blurs the lines.”
McPherson’s vocal miking was one of the consistent pieces—through a Neumann KM 184. And the artist’s guitar sound mainly came from a Strat played through a custom-built Magnatone or a modified Vox AC100—the amps that prompted McPherson’s feeling that something was about to blow:
Mark Neill and JD McPherson
“There was a lot of versatility to guitar sounds we could get,” McPherson says. “There are always so many combinations of guitar, amp, effect and microphone placement, which has as much to do with the sound as anything.”
By the time Let the Good Times Roll was recorded, Neill had another booking, so McPherson and band decamped to Hi-Style Studios (Chicago), where they’d recorded their debut, Signs and Signifiers (2012). Alex Hall (the engineer and drummer on Signs) took care of the mix and some overdubs with the band. He also helped them completely re-record the title track.
“Hi-Style is in a small room on the third floor of an old A-frame,” Hall explains. “It’s built around a couple of old tube mixers and two old Berlant quarter-inch 2-tracks. The room is quite small. There’s not a lot of isolation, but we try to record live for the most part.”
“Let the Good Times Roll” became one of the few full-on live performances on the album. It’s also sort of a microcosm for McPherson’s musical MO. The intro borrows heavily from Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody,” with its fierce guitar and bass rhythm, but McPherson’s beautifully strange lyrics and sweet melody take listeners to new places: “…I drift away underneath auspicious stars/ Let the sky open up little darlin’/ Follow me when I go/ Let the sky open up and let the good times roll.”
“The sound of ‘C’mon Everybody’ is really unusual and exciting if you listen to it,” McPherson says. “I love the weird little curly-cues that happened throughout that time period. On Bo Diddley’s ‘You Pretty Thing,’ there’s a harmonica solo on the outro where somebody was completely daring and turned the reverb up to this ridiculous point and it goes into space.
“Let’s face it—there was also some terrible pop music in the 1950s. So to have someone super daring dropping the fuzz solo in the middle of Marty Robbins’ ‘Don’t Worry About Me’—that’s the stuff that keeps me going.”