Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Chasing The Sounds Of Memphis Soul

A few weeks ago, somebody called the studio to book time because they wanted to do a "sound-alike" recording. For those of you who don't know, a "sound-alike" is basically a copycat recording - usually of a well-known classic, or popular current song. They are often used in ads on television and radio, because paying a licensing fee is more affordable than the performance royalties associated with the original artist's recording. This particular sound-alike was for a young student engineer that was assigned the project as a learning experience. I get these calls from students every once in a while, and for some reason I am a complete sucker for these projects…I can never say "no". I enjoy them so much. It's almost like a sport to me. Further ensuring that I couldn't turn this down he tells me that the song he needs to copy is "Love And Happiness" by Al Green. So I will get to chase an iconic sound of Memphis soul…breeding ground of Otis Redding, Booker T, and more…I can't wait. We enlist the talents of Jim Haggerty (bass) and Andy Plaisted (drums)…these guys are true ringers…especially in this style…loaded with groove and "feel". As you can imagine, the player has ALOT to do with getting THAT sound, and I knew that these guys could deliver bass and drums. I began to do some research online, looking at pictures of Hi Studios and reading interviews with the musicians that played on those recordings, making notes of instruments & microphones used, and how they were placed etc. Armed with bits and pieces of information there were still so many variables…and making this sound-alike was going to be much like an old school locksmith copying a key by freehand.

RCA 77DX On Snare
This is where I'm gonna get technical… (Mom, you can stop reading now). Knowing that they probably used late 60's Rogers drums, I knew that I had a couple of close contenders - a set of 60s Ludwigs and a set of similar era Slingerlands. I had the snare drum on the original recording narrowed down between two specific models (documented online) and I luckily happened to own both; a Ludwig Acrolyte and a Ludwig Supraphonic 5 1/2 chrome drum. I selected the chrome snare, tuned it down pretty low (matched the pitch with the original track) and taped a wallet to the edge (see pic)…this was a widely known technique (by mostly drummers) for getting the STAX and "Hi" sound that I needed to match. Similarly, I tuned the kick drum to match what I was hearing on the track - it's a good thing that I spent a few years in my late teens working in that drum shop (another story). For those of you
who haven't been to my studio, we have a performance room that is quite "live" and reflective (especially for its size). We also have a small dead (non-ambient) sounding room that we typically use to keep the sound from loud guitar amps from leaking into what's being tracked in the "live" room. Because we wanted to match the close (dead) sound on the recording, we decided to put the drums in the small room. So with all of these things working for us, I needed to choose the right recording chain and I put an RCA 77 on the snare (placed similarly to pictures that I saw of Howard Grimes in those old sessions. I decided to run the mic directly into an Altec 436c mic pre/compressor (see pic) and then into a Urei 545T equalizer and then on to the Studer A80 tape machine. On the kick drum, I chose an EV RE-20 Dynamic mic...this one was run to a Chandler/EMI TG Channel MKll, mic pre/eq. This is a newer piece of gear than one might think to use on this, but for me it made sense because of the vintage transformer sound that it has coupled with the musical eq that I was planning

 on using to help me achieve just the right amount of low-end shelving and "pop" from the kick drum. Also, I knew that this particular unit has a nice controllable distortion when pushed just right. The third and last mic was something that I decided to add to help me simulate the lower headroom of recording tape formulas in the old days…a dash of pepper if you like…a 60s Electrovice RE10 into a Neotek mic pre (pinned) and patched to a vintage Gates STA-Level limiter. I used a fair amount of eq (mostly shelving out low end), and hit the tape a little lower in level to add to the degradation-factor. Check out the recording snippet at the very bottom of this post (Soundcloud), that toggles between the original recording and the soloed bass & drums that we recorded (one of our background vocals makes an appearance too). The bass was a 1967 Fender Jazz Bass strung with flatwound strings…we used both pickups and rolled the tone back 80-90%. We took a direct signal (D.I.), and patched that into a Flickinger 736 Mic Pre followed by vintage Collins 26U-1 limiter…easy…especially with Mr. Haggerty at the wheel. I plan to do a follow-up to this entry with details on the guitar, Hammond Organ, Horns and of course the vocal recording…stay tuned.