On Miranda Lambert’s new album, Four the Record, she continues to cultivate her image as a tough, defiant hellion—she rose to prominence in the country music world through songs such as “Kerosene,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Gunpowder and Lead” and “Time to Get a Gun.” On the new record’s propulsive “Fastest Girl in Town,” she sings: “You’ve got the bullets, I’ve got the gun/I’ve got a hankering for getting into something/I hit the bottle, you hit the gas/I heard your ’65 can really haul some ass.” There are a few other numbers that show some serious ’tude, as well.
But she is much more. The reigning CMA Female Vocalist of the Year also sings beautifully nuanced songs of longing, heartbreak, disappointment and simple joys. She’s a skilled storyteller who convincingly inhabits the characters in her songs, and a fine interpreter of others’ songs. And she isn’t just country: Her new album is all over the map stylistically—from rock ’n’ roll to delicate mountain-tinged balladry to smoky honky-tonk musings—though country is never very far away.
Credit for Lambert’s success must also go to her principal producer on her albums since the 2005 Kerosene, Frank Liddell, and the stellar cast of musicians he’s brought in to surround her. Four the Record, which Liddell co-produced with engineer/mixer Chuck Ainlay and bassist Glenn Worf, sounds like a natural evolution from the smash 2009 Revolution album (named CMA’s Album of the Year), yet it definitely moves into new territory and takes some impressive musical risks.
The album was tracked to Nuendo using the SSL 9000J console in the main room at Sound Stage Studios, a Nashville institution that was purchased in the fall of 2010 by Black River Entertainment and extensively renovated by Ainlay and Warren Rhodes. (Ainlay had his own room there, BackStage, until the sale; he still uses the studio.) In fact, work on the main studio (FrontStage) was still going on when the Lambert sessions began. “They were literally painting and screwing screws the night before we started, and it was chaotic getting set up,” Ainlay remembers. “But the studio is a large part of the record. We had torn out all the [acoustic] treatment in the studio and the snare drum sounded amazing in there! I stole an idea from Mark Knopfler’s studio in England and Warren worked it out on CAD. We found a guy in Kansas City who could build these aluminum panels that are like airplane wings. Underneath the panel is absorption material and they’re on motors so if you open them all the way up it deadens the room, or you can close them and the room gets ridiculously live, or you can put them at angles and splash the spill out into the room.”
Indeed, Matt Chamberlain’s drums sounded so good in the room that on a couple of songs Ainlay went primarily with the stereo drum sound from the Coles room mics rather than the fully miked kit (or in one case, doubled the drums with the room mics only). Chamberlain was the only player in the core tracking band who was new to working with Lambert; the others—guitarists Richard Bennett, Jay Joyce and Randy Scruggs; and bassist Glenn Worf—had been on previous records. This was also Ainlay’s first time working with Lambert, though he would also work with her on the debut album by Lambert’s chart-topping side group with Ashley Monroe and Angelina Presley, Pistol Annies.
Ainlay says that some songs came in with full-blown demos, “and then there were songs she had written that were basically her singing into an iPhone and playing a guitar. But everything was done on the floor—even the songs that were highly demo’d. And we didn’t play the demos to the musicians. We’d get Randy Scruggs to play it on acoustic guitar and Miranda would sing it in the room, then we’d write a chart and then just go after it. But we didn’t want to go in with any preconceived ideas about what it was going to be.
“We intentionally left it as a minimal musician lineup for tracking, so it was just drums, bass, two electric guitars and an acoustic guitar, and Miranda singing a scratch vocal. Obviously, a lot of the inspiration for each track is taken from the vocal, and she’s so good and gives her all every time, so we ended up actually using a lot of that. Then maybe we’d do two or three [vocal] takes after the fact. There were only a couple of songs where she felt she needed a little time to live with them before we got the vocal, one of them being the duet with her husband, Blake [Shelton, CMA Male Vocalist of the Year], which we had them sing together in the same room. He wasn’t around when we cut that track [‘Better in the Long Run’].”
Scruggs, Bennett and Joyce were all involved with the tasteful textural overdubs, as were pianist John Jarvis, Dobro and steel master Greg Leisz and a host of supporting vocalists, some of whom recorded their parts at other studios, such as Patty Loveless, Brandi Carlile and Allison Moorer.
Ainlay recorded Lambert’s vocals through a favorite U67 owned by Blackbird Studios’ John McBride, and used a chain that included a Martech MSS-10 mic pre, a Tube-Tech CL1-A comp and “a few different EQs in the mix, depending on the vocal—either an Avalon or a Millennia or a GML.” One track, “Fine Tune,” sounds more like indie rock in that her entire vocal is heavily distorted. Ainlay says, “Miranda wanted to track with a distorted vocal, so I just used an amp plug-in that comes with Nuendo. When I mixed the song, I actually ran the vocal through a guitar pedal and a small guitar amp of mine, then brought the re-amped vocal up on a separate fader and blended the distorted sound with the clean vocal.”
Another unusual sonic touch is what sounds like a radio on in the background in the room where the musicians are playing a charming back-porch blues called “Easy Living.” Ainlay explains: “The guys were out there getting it together to cut the track, and Matt Chamberlain had [a laptop with] some YouTube thing of a black minister just going crazy, and he had it on while he was creating a little groove to play to through a MOTU box, so he threw that minister on there. When I pulled up the click track as we were running the track down, Frank [Liddell] and I were laughing our heads off, so we got to thinking, maybe that’s the way to go. The song is supposed to be like everyone hanging on the porch and maybe there’s a little AM radio going on in the background. So we went online and found the Farmer’s Almanac for Oklahoma and there was something about prairie chickens. Randy [Scruggs] went out in the studio and just read it down through a Royer ribbon mic that I ran into a guitar amp and miked that and distorted it even more.”
Even with the occasional experiments, the musicians and producers were still very efficient, cutting 14 tracks in just five days. Everything was recorded at 96k/24-bit. After some overdub sessions, Ainlay mixed the album on the SSL (and ATC 300 mains and ATC 25As for the near-field monitors) in his former room at Sound Stage. In general, he says, “I shied away from using a lot of reverb. On the single ‘Baggage Claim,’ there is actually no reverb, just delays and the room ambience from the drums. But a song like ‘Oklahoma Sky’ needed the big sky feeling so I opened up the tank, so to speak. It would have been a combination of reverbs from a TC 6000, TC 3000, Lexicon 480L, Lexicon PCM 96 and the UAD-2 [EMT] 250 plug-in. I also use an Ursa Major Space Station for a lot of the room ambience, along with a couple of Ensoniq DP4s, an Eventide H3000 and a Lexicon PCM 42 for the more effect-oriented stuff. I’ll also use a lot of Waves, UAD, Lexicon and Nuendo plug-in effects for things that I want to automate dynamically. I mixed back to Nuendo and to a Mike Spitz–[modified Ampex] ATR-100 that has a 1-inch head stack on it and sent [mastering engineer] Stephen Marcussen the analog tape and the digital files—he was really knocked out by the 1-inch and used that.”
Ainlay concludes, “Frank said, ‘The amazing thing about Miranda is she has the finest parking space in Nashville. She could’ve pulled in there and stayed there.’ She’s got it all going for her. There was no reason to make the adventurous moves she did on this album. But she wants to be able to continue to grow and expand on where she came from.”