the Soul Shop is an all-analog recording studio in Medford, Mass.
Ryan Lee Crosby - "Winter Hill Blues"
Our good buddy Ryan Lee Crosby came to us last Autumn with an interesting proposition: shoot a music video in the Shop that was also a live audio recording, capturing the moment of performance in both media at once. Most "performance" videos involve an artist lip-syncing to a previously-recorded track, in an obviously artificial, scripted environment. That’s fine sometimes ... but not for everyone.
RLC is no stranger to the Shop. We recorded his breakthrough songwriter album, Out To Dry (2009) and the subsequent singles, the hard-hitting guitar freakout "The War", and the gorgeous pop masterpiece "Summer's Come (You Are Gone)," both from the summer of 2011. After the Cros started recording his own material at home (to 1/2" 8-track tape, like a boss), playing all the instruments himself, we were privileged to help him mix his acclaimed 2012 self-titled album, an absolute tour-de-force of compelling songcraft, laced with dub, soul, hip-hop, and funk influences, glued together by Ryan's unmistakably original, dynamic guitar playing.
In recent years, RLC has expanded his long-time love for American music into a devastating solo delivery of new and traditional folk blues, on acoustic, electric, and 12-string guitars. Explorations that have taken him as far as Clarksdale, Mississippi and through several tours of Europe also resulted in the stark, beautiful album Institution Blues (2013). His latest release, Busker on the Broad Highway (2014), besides being his most fully-realized collection of original & traditional recordings yet, is also his debut for the German label Jellyfant Records.
Following the celebrated release of that album, RLC wanted to shoot a music video for the track "Winter Hill Blues" - one that involved recording the song anew, live in the moment, not wanting to lip-sync to (and, therefore, artificialize) such a loose, immediate performance. We were proud that he chose the Shop for this setting, and set about creating the right environment.
One Sunday evening in October, we arranged our most photogenic amps along the back wall of the live room. Thanks to cinematographer/editor Reuben Bettsak and cameraman Pete Garron, we had plenty of light, and a wide frame in which to stage RLC, seated and playing his signature 12-string acoustic guitar.
We chose the RCA 74-B Junior Velocity ribbon mic for Ryan's vocal for both its impeccable sound and timeless look, and the Coles 4038 ribbon on guitar for the same reasons. (Ribbons also being the most appropriate choice for capturing music strongly influenced by early-20th century American recordings.) The 4038 was positioned almost directly at Ryan's picking hand, to capture the nuances of his playing, with the null of its pickup pattern pointing up, to minimize bleed from the vocal. This worked like a charm. Both mics were supplemented by the excellent Cloudlifter from Cloud Microphones, which provided proper impedance matching and additional gain for these low-output, sensitive ribbons, allowing them to drive the long cable runs to the control room.
Although the Cloudlifters solved gain & impedance issues, we still had yet to confront one of the most basic problems when using ribbons in this application: capturing sufficient high-frequency content. The 74-B was amplified by a Vintech 573 preamp, requiring nearly 60db of gain, even with the Cloudlifter, and the inherent noise of the signal path was quite apparent. Elio reached back to a truly old-school technique (with origins in the RIAA equalization standard for record pressing, as well as FM broadcasting) to deal with this - the concept of pre-emphasis/de-emphasis. Simply put, this is an alteration of the frequency characteristics of a signal so as to reduce noise, enhance clarity, and aid in capturing the natural sound of the signal being recorded.
We used the Electra, an awesome new 500-series EQ from Kush Audio, to provide both high-pass filtering (to reduce rumble from RLC's toe-tapping) and high-frequency emphasis, lifting the entire top end of the vocal signal with smooth, unencumbered air. This was followed by gentle limiting from the Fed, our custom-built vari-mu limiter (see the post below for more info on Patrick's killer all-tube designs), and then additional EQ from a Manley Pultec EQ, boosting the weight in Ryan's voice at 120hz and the clarity at 8khz, with the necessary high-frequency de-emphasis in the form of a broad shelving cut at 12khz and up. The combination of the Electra and Pultec brought out RLC's haunting falsetto without creating any additional mud or causing audible phase distortion. (The original Pultec design has its roots in broadcasting, and allows for versatile high-frequency boosting & cutting shelves for exactly the purpose of reducing noise while retaining clarity.) The 4038 was amplified by the righteous B1 mic preamp from Burl Audio, one of our favorites, followed by another Kush Electra for high-pass filtering and subtle high-frequency boost. Both signals were mixed live to mono as RLC performed the song. Three takes later, we were done. The result?
Thanks to Reuben & Pete for their excellent work, and to our friend RLC for letting us be involved in yet another step on his incredible musical journey.
Photos #1, #3, #5, & #6 taken from the video, other photos by Elio.
new custom tube gear in the works
In addition to our proud family of homemade guitar amps, Patrick's been working hard on all-tube outboard gear, mostly variations on classic American designs of the 1940's. First up was a clone of the legendary "Federal" AM-864/U vari-mu limiter.
After using it in the Shop for a little while, there was no better opportunity to field-test it than when Elio went on tour through New England playing piano with Titus Andronicus for a couple of weeks in August, culminating with a show at NYC's stunning Webster Hall, with none other than The Buzzcocks! Here's our Fed making friends with Steve Diggle's Marshall half stack:
Another reason for the tour was to get the band road-tight, to begin recording Titus' new album (their fourth overall) at the beginning of September. Elio brought the Fed to Excello Recording in Brooklyn for the sessions, where longtime Titus producer/engineer, our good buddy Kevin McMahon, gave it a go on piano tracks. Ribbon mics through the preamps in Excello's gorgeous Calrec console, into the Fed. Killer.
Kevin & the boys will be coming up to the Shop this Fall, to record more piano, electric piano, & organ tracks, and there's no doubt we'll have the Fed close at hand!
There are other pieces in the works, like a two-channel, line-level rack version of our famous Baxandall tube preamp/EQ, as well as a clone of the Altec 436c limiter, featuring the EMI "RS-124" mods, made famous on so many 1960's recordings from Abbey Road. As well as a guitar amp or two.... *cough* Standel! *cough*
the devastating new album from guitarist Will Graefe
Will Graefe has been in the Shop before: tearing the roof off (live to 2-track!) with his power trio Dikembe's Mutombo, as well as ornamenting the gorgeous songwriting of Wilder Maker with his stunning lead playing. Now we're very proud to announce his forthcoming solo guitar record, Alos.
Recorded in March live to multitrack, the instrumental album (nearly entirely acoustic, with one electric number) showcases Will's songwriting as much as his staggering chops. Sometimes all you need to do is put the right guy in front of the right microphones, chiefly among which were two AKG classics: the C-451E (veteran of a thousand acoustic guitar records) and the D-19 (a dynamic mic on acoustic guitar lends weight and "wood" to the sound, especially with some gentle limiting from our 1176). The rest of our guitar & room micing will have to remain a mystery…
Performed on an inexpensive, borrowed flattop guitar, the palpable focus and tenacity of these performances echo the circumstances of their composition, as most were written on the road. As Graefe says: "On tours, I found myself playing constantly, and usually alone; in sound-checks, in the van, in hotel bathrooms, in parks. I would find almost mantra-like melodies or sets of chords and play them over and over again until they developed naturally."
Eschewing overdubs, and mixed with minimal processing by Graefe and Dan Arnes in Brooklyn, the album ranges from the reverent, simple beauty of Graefe's reading of "Solitude" by Duke Ellington, to the raucous, joyful melodic Americana of "Special," linked here for your listening pleasure:
Only the most technically proficient musicians realize the power of melody, and the awesome responsibility it takes to harness your prowess to great songwriting. With this recording, Graefe proves himself a master of all sides of his craft, and opens the door to an incredibly promising future. Here's hoping he keeps coming back to the Shop to put those ideas to tape.