Record One Studios started off the new year with some cool B.B. King sessions in Studio B, engineered by Don Murray and produced by Simon Climie, the veteran Eric Clapton collaborator who helmed Clapton and King'sRiding With the King. Not surprisingly, the band was stellar: drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., guitarist Doyl Bramhall II, Nathan East on bass and Joe Sample on keyboards. The songs were a bit of a departure for King; the blues were certainly in evidence, but the overall flavor leaned toward swingy, jazzy ballads, including some Nat King Cole covers.
No iso booths were used, so finding the right space for each musician was key. Although Murray is a live recording expert, he initially contemplated the isolation route. “When I first thought about the sessions, I was going to use vocal booths for B.B. and his guitar,” he admits. “But when Simon told me they'd done Riding With the King with B.B. playing and singing in one room with the band, I thought, ‘This is great! I can't wait!’ And that's the way it worked out. It's loud in there, but it's fine.
“B.B. needs to be sitting in the middle of the band and feel everyone around him,” Murray continues. “They're listening on headphones, but they can still hear everybody in the room a little bit. I think that imparts a bit of a club feel and helps with the vibe. I pretty much just give B.B. my mix in his headphones; that way, I know he's getting a good mix all the time. He's incredible; the vocals are powerful, and he's got real stamina — at 77, he can sing and play all day. We'll run down and record four songs in a row, and all the time, B.B.'s playing in a very relaxed style with a smile on his face. It's pretty cool.”
Meanwhile, the setup in the control room was a story unto itself. Using Pro Tools at 24/96 means lots of hard drives, and a backup 15 ips Dolby SR analog recorder was running, as well, just in case. “The amount of data that's going onto one hard drive can cause it to get bogged down,” Murray explains. “I didn't want to run that risk, so there are three different hard drives in the system. Actually, there are more, but I'm using three main ones. I split the tracks equally between the three, so no one drive gets more information than any other. I'm being conservative; I just don't want to run the risk of having the system shut down in the middle of a great take.”
The Pro Tools system was a rental from Rack Attack, whose owner Doug Perry is developing a rep as an expert in the genre. “At Rack Attack, we cover both ends,” comments Perry, who also provided one of his coveted Track Racks for the session. “We're HD on the top end, with all of the latest drives. At the other end, we have all of this vintage stuff in racks at supercheap prices.
“This new FireWire drive — with the Oxford 911 chip set that Don is using for backup and editing — has just come out,” he notes. “Basically, he's got a 48-channel HD system consisting of a G4 and four 192s with all of the option cards — 48-in/48-out. If you think of it like a tape machine, you'll understand. You go into the Pro Tools allocation setup area and assign your tracks to a drive, which a lot of people forget to do. You wouldn't forget where to assign tracks if you had two Studers, and with Pro Tools, you need to do the same thing. With Pro Tools, you're not going to record over anything, but if you end up recording something on the wrong drive, you'll start pushing it. It's a physical thing. Based upon your sampling frequency, you should only be recording and playing back so many tracks from each specific drive. So you allocate.
“Don was using our internal 36-gig Seagate 10,000 rpm Cheetah drives, and he was allocating the maximum per drive that you can record at 96k: 16 tracks. So, he was getting his 48 tracks allocated across three drives. For backup and editing, they moved over to the two FireWire LaCie d2 drives that we also provided.”
The 24-track analog tapes are kept until the Cheetah drives are backed up each night to the LaCie drives. “I think it's a good way to go,” says Murray. “Once I have multiple digital backups, I feel confident, and we reuse the analog tape.”
Also in the Track Racks were 36 pieces of desirable vintage and modern gear. “I'm bypassing the console on the way in,” says Murray. “Everything is going through outboard preamps. In the rack are 12 Neves, a couple of APIs, Mastering Labs and Avalons. Some things sound great through the SSL, but for this project, I wanted the outboard stuff.”
So which preamps got used on B.B. and his guitar “Lucille”? On B.B., a Neve 1073 mic pre with an AKG C 12 mic and a Teletronix LA-2A compressor. On Lucille, another Neve 1073 mic pre with a Shure SM57 mic and a Fairchild compressor.
“The Fender Rhodes and the other keyboards are very up-front, B.B.'s voice is very up-front and the drums are sort of set back,” says Murray. “The B3 and the Leslie are set back, so the tracks have a real nice depth to them.”
At Skip Saylor Recording on Larchmont, I found the Canadian connection: singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn, co-producer Colin Linden and engineer John Whynot. Cockburn has worked with the same team on two previous albums: The Charity of Night and Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu. This time around, they did the project — scheduled for a May release and titled You've Never Seen Everything — a little differently.
“We went about it slightly inverted,” admits Whynot, who is now based in L.A. “Bruce recorded his vocals and guitar at Studio Frisson in Montreal, with electronic violinist and programmer Hugh Marsh. Then drummer Gary Craig came out and added a little mini kit, with a rack tom for a kick drum, some bongos and an ‘ocean’ drum for a snare drum. We recorded those first performances to a Mackie SDR24/96 hard drive recorder, planning to slave the Mackie to an analog recorder as we built the rest of the tracks. At the same time, we recorded to a Studer A800 for comparison. To our surprise, the Mackie beat the 24-track. Once we realized that, what could we do? We had to go with it.”
Going with 24-bit/96k was easier said than done, especially as recording went on in numerous boutique “tube-and-ribbon” studios in Montreal, Toronto and Nashville, where Linden resides. “You have to handle the enormous amount of data you've created,” Whynot explains, “and you're limited in what you can use to edit; all of the Pro Tools systems have to be HD. We were definitely maxing out the SDR. It's only supposed to do 12 tracks of 96k, and we had 20 or 21. When we first started, they didn't have all the software written yet, so we were frequently on the phone with Mackie. But they gradually added what we needed.”
The team also brought in the larger Mackie HDR digital recorder/editor, which, according to Whynot, “talks to its little brother quite nicely.” Using the HDR's editing features and transferring the bulk of the material to Pro Tools|HD for the mix, they kept the whole project at 96k. Interfacing issues, however, were daunting. Files could be imported from the Mackie to Pro Tools, but direct digital copies weren't possible, as the two systems use incompatible Lightpipe formats. “Any time you want to go from Mackie to Pro Tools directly, you have to do it ‘bootleg’-style,” notes Whynot. “Analog wire to wire. We avoided that as much as possible because of generation loss. For mixing, we're playing back from both Pro Tools and the SDR.
“Also for mixing, we went back to some of the original files,” he continues, “anything that hadn't been edited or punched in. We imported them into Pro Tools and lined them up, ending up with first-generation wherever possible. We now have the potential for an SACD or a combined release. It's a good candidate for it.”
Cockburn, the recipient of numerous Juno Awards, is hugely successful in Canada and a critical fave with a substantial fan base in the U.S. He tours both solo and with a band, and is known for maintaining high quality in his recordings, releasing a CD only every three years or so. “I have a very eclectic style,” he says. “I pull in elements from all sorts of music. Influences of every kind — from ethnic music and jazz to rock 'n' roll and American folk — get mixed into the composition and not always in a recognizable way. It's pretty hard to capsulize what I do. It's just an album of my songs.”
As his loyal fans know, lyrics always come first for Cockburn. “It's like film writing,” he comments, “in the sense that I want the music to support the imagery — and sometimes the character — of the words without dominating them. Sometimes, you go for contrast; sometimes, for the same kind of movement. It's like bringing color into drawings.”
“For some of the songs,” says Whynot, “we take more of a landscape approach to mixing, rather than just making it punchy. Of course, some of the songs were just meant to be punchy.”
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