OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI - AUGUST 2009: Fat Possum Records formed amongst the juke joints and shade trees surrounding Oxford, Mississippi in the early 1990s, and made local blues legends RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough famous. Their fame synergistically raised the label's profile and attracted other established and aspiring acts to its growing roster. Over the course of the ensuing decade, the older bluesmen passed on and the label shifted focus to indie rock acts like Andrew Bird, Fiery Furnaces, and The Black Keys. That evolution also involved the label's recording space, which recently arrived at a pinnacle of poetic perfection: a gutted, 130-year old house with the grit of life still resonating in its frame. The two recording sessions so far completed there made abundant use of another recent acquisition: a pair of Sennheiser MKH 8040 cardioid studio condensers that, label manager and in-house producer,
Bruce Watson claims also approach perfection.
Watson started out with a Fostex R8 in the waning days of the Reagan administration. "It was all I could afford," he said. A few years later, the advent of the ADAT made Fat Possum possible. "We were making records for $3,000, going to juke joints and recording all of the old blues guys. It was as close as you could get to a pure recording of amazing musicians interacting with each other live. You certainly couldn't put a pair of headphones on an old blues guy!"
That experience transferred unambiguously to Watson's techniques for recording indie rock in the studio. "There's something to be said for playing live and capturing the magic of the players together. That's a cheesy thing to say," he laughed, "but it's true. We would rather have some bleed than a sterile performance. These days, we almost always get a good live rhythm, bass, and guitar track. For the latest AA Bondy record, we tracked a third of the vocals live in the room with the rest of the instruments!"
Watson collected a lot of revered recording equipment since his ADAT days and served as the principal engineer for Fat Possum until he burned out five years ago. The break, combined with the renovation of the new studio (which happens to be right next to his own house!) has rekindled his passion. The old house now brims with gear, including an MCI 636 console, analog multi-track and two-track machines, enough outboard gear to bury an Ole Miss Rebel, and over forty microphones of excellent repute.
Nevertheless, the new Sennheiser MKH 8040s have spent much more time out of the microphone cabinet than would be justified on egalitarian grounds. "There is a high-end harshness found in many 'high-end' condensers that is wonderfully absent in the MKH 8040s," said Watson. "It's hard to put into words, but the MKH 8040 high-end is more rounded, more pleasant. It really makes a difference when you have a lot of microphones and a lot of instruments in the same room at the same time. That high-end harshness can be a monster to deal with."
On the new AA Bondy record, Watson used the Sennheiser MKH 8040 on just about everything. On upright piano, it revealed all the nuances, both harmonic and earthy, with an overall balanced, honest tone. He miked acoustic guitar to again capture a 'realness' missing from most recordings. "We even used the mic for drum overheads," he said. "It was high up, mono, and captured the small room as much as anything else. We didn't use any close mics, and the sound, with an acoustic guitar in the same room, is phenomenal."
Watson also recorded the first Jack Oblivion record in the new space. "It's kind of a garage rock EP, and we were pushing the MKH 8040 as hard as we could," he said. Drum overheads and acoustic guitar, again, benefitted. In addition, Watson used it on a vintage Gibson B25. "It sounded great!" he summarized tersely. They even used the Sennheiser MKH 8040 on vocals. "It sounded fantastic and, try as we might, we couldn't break it," he admitted.
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PHOTO CAPTION Label manager and in-house producer for Fat Possum Records, Bruce Watson, finds the Sennheiser MKH 8040 the perfect mic for an amazing number of recording applications - acoustic guitar, drum overheads and vocals.