Engineer Brent King (left) and Ricky Skaggs in front of the Amek at Skaggs Place Studios
When it comes to bluegrass and bluegrass-influenced country, there are few artists who have attained the high status that Ricky Skaggs has earned. During the last 30-odd years, Skaggs has not only enjoyed huge commercial success and won many awards for his work, but he has also done much to elevate the standards for acoustic roots music, with a commitment to audiophile-level releases largely produced out of his studio (Skaggs Place Studios) in Hendersonville, Tenn.
I bopped over there recently with producer Brian Ahern to check out the studio and hear some of their thoughts on the gear they use and their recording methodologies. Besides Skaggs, house engineers Lee Groitzsch and Brent King hung out and shared some ideas, too.
One of the facility's recent acquisitions was an Amek 9098i console, something Skaggs and his staff were clearly thrilled to have in the room. “I've always wanted a Class-A discrete console,” says Skaggs. “We found this 56×2 console from Amek, which had been repossessed from a studio out in L.A. We love the way it sounds. It is so transparent.”
Skaggs adds that the Amek features a very nuanced EQ that reaches into frequency realms that many consoles don't address. “I thought, ‘Why would you ever want EQ that would go up to 20 kHz?’ Why? But Rupert [Neve] says that you may not hear it, but it affects every bit of the sound spectrum from top to bottom. I really believe he is right,” says Skaggs.
Ricky Skaggs prefers Neumann mics for acoustic guitar.
King adds, “Rupert's older consoles were so musical-sounding. It is the same kind of thing here and you have to be careful. You'll start putting on a little bit of EQ and start smiling because you hear it everywhere.”
The folks at Skaggs Place are also big fans of the iZ Technology RADAR system. “We love RADAR and we've cut three Grammy-winning projects on ours,” says Skaggs. “We've probably sold a bunch of RADARs to people — people want to know [how we record]. The basic tracks are done 16-track and then taken straight to RADAR, so that the integrity stays there and you don't lose anything from the tape sitting around or multiple plays on it or print-through. Also, we're still mixing to half-inch. Old habits die hard, and I still love the sound of analog.”
It wasn't long before the four of us started down the path of geeked-out gear talk, and we discussed the studio's regular parade of audio shoot-outs. The box that seems to be at the top of the list this day was the Mercury M72s mic pre.
“There are few things that we have plugged in that were so good that we just wrote a check for it after we heard it,” says King. “When we threw that up, we just went, ‘Game over.’ We shot that out with what we've been using on the rest of the record, which is the Fearn VT-2, which also sounds great.” In fact, Skaggs pointed out that the VT-2 clearly was the fave for things such as bass and kick.
For Skaggs' vocal, the signal path is now running from a Telefunken U47 through the Mercury M72s into a Tube-Tech CL-1A compressor. “I call that U-47 my ‘hero’ mic because I've had it forever and it has been my main vocal mic for the last 10 years,” says Skaggs. “I also have another 47 that George [Jones], Tammy [Wynette] and Dolly [Parton] sang on.
“The M-72 brings the vocal up in your face in a mix. Not only that, when you're singing, you can distinguish every little nuance. A lot of mic pre's are just plain vanilla — they don't do anything but give you level,” says Skaggs.
For acoustic guitars, Skaggs often likes to use Neumann KM66s. “The KM66 is the tube version of the KM86,” he notes. “We just got some East German Gefell M-582s and we really love those; they sound really sweet. They have the most satiny top for acoustic guitars.” The acoustic guitar signal path usually employs a Neve 1073 mic pre and then a Manley Variable Mu limiter/compressor.
However, when Skaggs uses the big Gibson arch-top he calls Chunky Boy for driving rhythm tracks, he switches to a Neumann M250. “Chunky Boy can really move some air,” Skaggs says with a laugh. “We like to use the M250 on him, but we have also used a C-37 on him and that has worked very well, too.”
While the Sony C-37A is a favorite for mandolins, Skaggs loves the old RCA 44 ribbon mic for his 1920s Gibson F-5 mandolin. “That mic makes that particular mandolin sound like it has a big old nose,” he enthuses. “It's a nasal sound that has so much attitude, and I love that!”
Skaggs also feels that ribbon mics, such as the RCA DX-77 and the Royers, work best with banjo: “Two ribbon mics are the best thing on banjos ever. It can handle the harshness that you normally get with banjos. I've got a bunch of really good DX-77s that have really good output. Most banjo players that we use dig in and play really hard, so they are going to give you all the level you need. When the signal hits that ribbon, that ribbon really loves what it gets and it smooths it out. It hears the top, but it is not that real ugly 12 kHz. The Royer is something that we just started using and we like. It is a little cleaner of a sound.”
The proof is in the pudding, So, if you want to hear what Skaggs has been up to, check out his newest album, Brand New Strings.
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