Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff
In an interview for Electronic Musician magazine last summer, Questlove of The Roots mentioned that he’d learned some eye-opening drum-miking techniques from Gabe Roth, the bassist, producer, engineer and label owner for the Dap-Kings. This sure makes sense when Roth describes the process of recording Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ gorgeous new soul release Give the People What They Want. Roth is at least as likely to move the mic or move instruments as he is to try different microphones:
“Most of the session was with one mic [on drums],” Roth says. “I usually use an RCA 77, or it might have been something else we got from Audio-Technica, but we spent a long time trying to get the kit to sound really right: moving the mic around, and—Homer [Steinweiss, drummer] will laugh about it—even moving the drums around. I’ll say, ‘Hey, Homer, can you play the floor tom if I put it on the other side?’ I’m lucky to have that kind of a relationship with him.
“But this is the kind of thing we do in the studio, and it’s how we’re always ‘mixing’ the drums,” Roth continues. “Do you have too much crash cymbal? Just move it away from the microphone.”
Roth records the band in Daptone Studios, his label’s tracking space within the duplex that also houses Daptone Records’ offices. The studio includes a live room and adjacent iso booth, and a control room fitted with a Trident 65 console. The 216-square-foot live room is perhaps a little smaller than what would be ideal for tracking a large ensemble, but Roth and his bandmates have a great comfort level in the studio.
“This is our sixth album together. Most of the band has been together for 10 years, and Sharon and I have been playing together for 16 or 17 years. So, we have a certain rhythm going into it. We know how to write together. We have a process,” Roth says.
That process involves a lot of the experimentation he mentions concerning mic and drum placement. Horns get the same treatment: one microphone (either the RCA 77, or a Reslo or Shure 315 ribbon), and many setups. “We spent time blending the horns, putting them in different parts of the room, facing different directions, moving the microphone. We’re always working through the arrangements and realizing how the horns have to blend on each part of the song. Maybe the tenor saxophone has to take a step back on the verse when he’s on the third; and when you’re playing unisons on the chorus, take a step forward.”
Photo: Kyle Dean Reinford
The Dap-Kings track to an Ampex 440 8-track tape machine: another ingredient in a recipe that’s equal parts creative experimentation and deliberate limitation.
“I think there’s a misconception that Daptone are super into analog,” Roth says. “We do use analog stuff, but we’re not dogmatic about it. It’s a practical thing. I think that by having a finite number of tracks and not having an Undo button, you push everybody to be better at their job.”
A lot of the instruments are tracked live, but horns and vocals are overdubbed. Roth used a few different vocal mics on Jones as the session progressed: a Røde Classic, a Studio Projects CS1, and a Bock 241 that he says worked especially well with Jones’ voice. He says his process of choosing microphones always involves blind shoot-outs, to avoid any false preference for spendy or vintage models over pure sonics.
Also in the vocal chain were one of Dave Amels’ Realios 500 Series compressors, and an AnaMod compressor that Roth also used during the mix in his personal studio in Riverside, Calif.
Roth’s mix room is equipped with another Ampex machine and Trident 65 console, and four pairs of monitors for comparative listening: Westlake near-fields, JBLs, ADAM SA3As, and UREIs. He spent a fair amount of time building different reverb chains and applying them to specific instruments, or to songs overall.
“I used combinations of four or five different spring reverbs,” Roth says. “I had a Zerotronics [Coolsprings], Orban 111b, an [AKG] BX20, and I have another tape machine, an Otari, that I use for delays and predelays. I would make different predelays going to different reverbs and different amounts of feedback.
“Sometimes I would make these complicated reverb chains and compress them a lot with a vocal,” he continues. “I would bus the vocals into a sub-bus and with the reverbs, so when the vocals hit, it would push the reverbs out of the way and I would have a nice slow release time. So after the vocal comes out, the reverb would swell up behind it. It’s a nice effect because you can have wild, psychedelic reverbs, but things stay intelligible and kind of punchy.”
The final album is a fantastic old-school soul and funk record with cool, spacey touches, carefully applied.
“For me, this work is a constant balance between getting inside the details of acoustics, engineering and music theory, and the need to step far enough back so you don’t let any of those things affect your ability to feel whether something’s right or not,” Roth says. “Like, maybe we stayed up all night writing that horn arrangement and we used the fanciest mic ever, and we did the perfect splice, but if I step back it sounds better when the guys just hit one note.”