The electronic press kit for Mavis Staples’ new album, You Are Not Alone (Anti, out September 14), includes video of Staples and her producer, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, talking about the sessions in Wilco’s Loft studio in Chicago. “This session for me was the most joyful and uplifting and spiritual,” Staples says. “I feel this was meant to be.”
Truly, it’s an inspired collaboration. Tweedy suggested all of the material on the album, and he clearly has the utmost respect for the gospel tradition that spawned the Staple Singers 50 years ago, but he also brought in two of his own great songs (including the title track): one by Randy Newman and one from John Fogerty. It’s singer/songwriter meets gospel/blues with Staples at the mic. What could be better?
The sessions were recorded and mixed by engineer Tom Schick, who definitely enjoyed his first experience in the Loft: “It’s a big open space with no control room, no booths or anything,” he says. “Everybody was set up live in the room. It’s just a big, beautiful space filled with great instruments, great amps and a pretty simple recording setup.”
Schick captured most of the sessions live, with Staples singing in the room with her touring band. Only the drums were baffled off somewhat. “Jeff had seen them play and wanted to keep it to what they do,” observes Schick, who says that easily 60 to 70 percent of his work these days is analog. He recorded these sessions to Wilco’s Studer A827 (Quantegy 456 tape at 30 ips). The studio is fitted with Genelec monitors and a Sony MXP 3000 console, but Schick largely bypassed the board, using it for monitoring only.
“There’s a rack of about 20 API mic pre’s, which we used on pretty much everything,” he says. “And just some basic compression. We had dbx 160s on drums, Tube-Tech stereo compressor on drums, Chandler TG1 on electric guitars. On her voice, we used a Shure SM7 mic into an 1176. The SM7 helped because she was in the room with the band, standing five or 10 feet from a guitar amp. If I’d had a [Neumann] U47 or 67 on her, the guitar and drum bleed would have been too uncontrollable. And, honestly, you could put anything in front of Mavis Staples, and she’s still going to sound like Mavis Staples.”
You Are Not Alone is the first project to be mixed in the Loft, as well. “We were a little nervous because it’s just a big, raw open space, so we took a couple of rough mixes to a different studio just to see what the difference was, but we realized that what we were getting at the Loft was just as good.”
Schick, who will be returning to the Loft in October to work with Wilco on the band’s forthcoming album, says the mix was done in Pro Tools because they couldn’t find a half-inch machine to use quickly enough: “So, [mastering engineer] Bob Ludwig at Gateway transferred the mixes to half-inch for us and mastered off that. We kept it as close as we could to all-analog.”