When they hired Joe Chiccarelli to record their latest album, the White Stripes set him a stiff challenge: to create a modern, punchy, heavily edited sound, without leaning on modern digital tools.
Words like ‘nostalgic’ and ‘retro’ are often used in association with Detroit two-piece the White Stripes. However, anyone who looks and listens a little bit more deeply, or gets to work with Jack and Meg White, will be struck by their forward-looking approach, as Joe Chiccarelli — who recorded and mixed their latest album Icky Thump — explains.
“When we started recording, I thought ‘Great, this is my opportunity to do something with a more traditional recording approach and to some degree mimic those classic ’70s records that we all love.’ So on the first day I tried taking this very minimalist, old-school approach to recording. I thought that with just two instruments, drums and guitar, there would be lots of space, and everything was going to be real and honest-sounding and I wouldn’t have to chisel things so much. But it wasn’t like that at all! It was evident in the first few hours that my approach wasn’t working. The sound just wasn’t powerful enough, and there were too many holes in the frequency spectrum.
“The Stripes demand a big sound, and so I had to work hard to fill in the space, to make sure there was enough low end and to open up the air at the top. When I realised the registers they play in, I had to work my butt off to extend the frequencies and dynamics of what they were doing, to get the spectrum one would expect in a modern record. The sound had to be more detailed and aggressive, and specifically this translated into more close microphones, more room microphones, more compression during recording and in the mix, using echo chambers, and so on.”
At the same time, singer, guitarist and producer Jack White had decided to push the band’s boundaries with the new album. Having pursued a raw, stripped-down approach on the band’s first five albums, he apparently judged that the time was ripe for more tracks, more overdubbing, a harder sound, and more editing facilities. “Jack really wanted to step things up with this record,” explains Chiccarelli, “and do something that was more modern and punchier and a bit of a risk for them. Maybe he was concerned that some people see them as a little bit of a retro novelty act. He told me that he wanted to be able to do Pro Tools-style editing, ie. doing detailed, radical edits in the song, chop things up in ways that are unnatural, with dramatic changes. But he did not want to use a computer.
“Jack and Meg are big supporters of the analogue format, and he’s a big believer in the old-school approach: punch it in, no comping. If you don’t like a vocal take, just erase it and redo it. He has a Studer A80 eight-track recorder at home, and we used a Studer A827 with a 16-track head, and Emtec 900 2-inch tape, 30ips, no Dolby. I recorded pretty hot, because I wanted the stuff to have an extra little bit of distortion, and more edge and lots of tape compression. These things became part of the sound. I also had to make sure my levels were consistent, so when I spliced something in, it didn’t become unmixable and out of control.”
Icky Thump was recorded and mixed at Blackbird Studios in Nashville, not far from where Jack White currently lives. The six–studio complex prides itself on its extensive collection of vintage gear, atmospheric live rooms, and varied–sounding echo chambers. Chiccarelli, Jack and drummer Meg White, and assistant Lowell Reynolds took residence in Studio D, which sports a 64-input Trident 80 desk. It’s a homely and large live room with red curtains, and, says Chiccarelli, “an amazing–sounding echo chamber. I have to tell you, Blackbird is one of the best studios I’ve ever worked in.
“Jack and Meg had several of the songs ready when we went into the studio, and some of them were whipped up on the spot. In a few cases the songs had parts missing, a bridge or an instrumental section, and we would record them without these sections, and then Jack would come up with a new section, and we would splice that in the middle of a song. ‘Icky Thump’ came into being like that: there’s a whole instrumental section in the middle that was obviously edited in. There were also sections where Meg decided that she wanted a different drum feel, so we would punch in the drums. The song ‘300MPH Torrential Outpour Blues’, for instance, has two drum kits in it. Meg actually did some of her own drum edits — she knows how to edit tape.
“Jack is my favourite type of producer, in that he has a very clear picture of what he wants. He doesn’t get overly detailed in technical terms, but he know how he wants things to feel, and what overall effect he wants. This gave me a lot of freedom, and it also gets you in touch with your gut, as opposed to somebody being very technical and specific so you get too cerebral and analytical. He is a very instinctive and intuitive guy, he is all heart. It’s the same way with Meg.
“They’re both about making the music feel alive, and be true and honest to their aesthetic, while pushing themselves to try different grooves and drum feels. I get frustrated when the press put Meg down for the simplicity of her playing. She has a really big, wide pocket to her playing that leaves spaces in the right places. She’s also found ways of filling the gap that’s left by not having a bass player. I have heard Jack play with other drummers, and he doesn’t sound like the White Stripes. She is more than one half of the sound of that band.
“Meg and Jack are very much alike: when the inspiration hits, they immediately want to record. They work extremely quickly, and expected me to be ready to record at any time, so I had several sets of room ambience microphones set up in the studio. When they began to play a song, I could quickly push up the faders and choose which microphones best suited the songs. Meg and Jack always laid down the basic tracks playing together in the large live room at Blackbird. We’d adjust the curtains against the live wall depending on what kind of acoustics we wanted.
“Jack’s guitar amps were in an iso booth adjacent to the drums. With some songs, especially the more instrumental, jammy ones, like ‘Catch Hell Blues’ and ‘Little Cream Soda’, Meg felt uncomfortable using headphones, so we would just open the doors to the iso-booth and let the guitar sound bleed into the drum mics. I set up a Shure SM7 for a guide vocal, but with the exception of maybe a couple of songs, Jack’s, and also Meg’s, vocals were overdubbed. He often sang them in the studio’s echo chamber; we also sometimes put the guitar amps or percussion in the echo chamber.”
“After recording the basic tracks they would work on the missing sections. We tended to splice them in before they did any other overdubs. I also had SMPTE on one track of the Studer, for automation and mixing, and sometimes we would use a slave if we had lots of background vocals or something, like in ‘Slowly Turning Into You’. But that was rare — most of the songs ended up being 15 tracks of audio. In the case of the title track these 15 tracks consisted of six tracks of drums (stereo room, kick, snare, overheads), main guitar in stereo, lead vocal, lead vocal double, vocal effects, synthesizer, two guitar overdubs, and guitar solo.
“The main guitar was in stereo, because I would make a submix of the sounds from Jack’s Fender Twin and Silvertone amps and whatever room microphones I had. Jack deliberately recorded a second lead vocal in which he sang the song with a little bit of a different phrasing in sections. It was like having two performances together, and in the mix they were panned left and right. I also recorded an effect on the lead vocal during recording, overloading the tape machine to get distortion, as well as a distorted tape echo.
“The synthesizer was an old 1959 Univox that he found in New Zealand. It’s a suitcase synth with a speaker built into it, no DI. It’s very reedy, very mid-rangy, and it sounded so good in the room that the ambience you hear on it is just the room ambience. The guitar overdub was also in stereo, for the same reasons as the main guitar track. The guitar solo was in mono. The effect is Jack using a Zvex Woolly Mammoth distortion pedal and a whammy pedal. People keep asking how you get a certain guitar sound, but the truth is that with great musicians it’s in their fingers, in their touch.”
Joe Chiccarelli: “Like the tracking, mixing was done really quickly. We mixed 14 or 15 songs in five or six days, so that meant a minimum of two songs a day. I’m the kind of guy who likes to take extra time to tweak away, but Jack was always : ‘Are you ready? It sounds great to me!’ Of course we were dealing with only 15 tracks, and didn’t have as many decisions to make as with 100-odd Pro Tools tracks. It was really down to getting the balance and excitement right. Working so quickly also meant that you really trust your gut, and you’re not over-thinking things. It’s exciting.
“I’d spend a couple of hours tweaking and then Jack would come and make suggestions. We’d finish the first song by 4 or 5pm, and the next one would be done by midnight. Meg was there for most of the mixes, and Jack was always there. He’s not a hands-on guy, he’s more of a movie director. He’d say things like ‘the solo needs more dynamics’ or something broad. Blackbird has these very expensive Grado headphones, and he loved the way they sounded. They’re really accurate and he’d use them as a reference. We did actually later go back and remix ‘300MPH Blues’ and ‘Little Cream Soda’, because Jack felt that our original mixes were too deliberate-sounding, that we’d gone overboard with the dynamics. So we scaled it down a bit.
“I prefer not to mix through the same console as I’ve recorded and/or monitored with, so we switched over to Blackbird Studio A for the mix, where they have an late-’70s 72-input Neve 8078 console, and big ATC 300 speakers. I also used NS10s and brought my favourite Tannoy AMS10A speakers — they are coaxial so the phase coherency is pretty strong, and that allows you to hear the mid-range really clearly. The whole mixing process, recording and mixing, was about creating a full frequency spectrum with only two instruments, and I worked hard to fill up any holes, particularly in the low end, in any way I could, using room and close mics, effects, EQ, compression, whatever.
“I didn’t use a whole lot of EQ in the mix, because I’m a great believer in tracking stuff the way you want it to sound, so if I want to add low end, I do it while tracking. It’s the old-school approach of pushing up the faders and your mix is 90 percent there. I love the way the 8078 sounds, and it has great four–band EQ on each channel. This allowed me to affect frequencies that I had not been able to tweak during tracking, whether it was a matter of cutting out some lower mid–range or adding some tip-top. When using Pro Tools I always end up with a combination of console and plug-in EQ, because you can get so precise with plug-in EQ. Did I sometimes feel like secretly sneaking into the studio at night to apply a plug-in EQ? Yes, but I didn’t! I had to fix problems in other ways.”
“The moment I heard Meg play that drum beat during tracking I knew that this song would call for a big, heavy drum sound, so I had to scramble to get the drums sounding as big as possible. I might have added some low end, perhaps 80Hz, to the kick, some mid around 4k to the snare, and some air, 15k or so, to the overheads. Adding 4k gave the snare some more crack and made it cut through better. I also used an old APSI graphic EQ on the kick drum — settings -2 at 35Hz, +2 at 75, and +4 at 3.5k. APSI was a ’70s offspring from API. I may also have added some bottom to the overheads with a Chandler Curve Bender, which has great low end. I loved it so much, I ended up buying one. In terms of the mix, in most cases the room microphones were not really processed.
“As far as compression is concerned, I applied a couple of drum submix compressors, probably API 2500 and Chandler Zener. On other songs I also sometimes used the SPL Transient Designer and sometimes an [Empirical Labs] Distressor. I set the API to fast attack and fast release, to get a bit of a pop to the snare, and blended that back in with the original. The Chandler has more of a round, warm, vintage sound. I set it to heavy limiting with a fast release, and blended that in to give the drums more character. I would say that the compressors were used on this album to make a statement, so I wasn’t shy of using extreme settings. I also may have sent the snare via loudspeakers to Studio A’s live room and blended that in to give more ambience.”
“I don’t think I compressed the main guitar any further in the mix; all compression was added while tracking, probably an 1176. The guitars were mainly about balances and rides, and making sure the guitar line cut through, so I added some mid-range at the console. The song has an instrumental guitar chorus instead of a vocal chorus, so it was really important that it spoke. I multed the guitar out to two sets of faders, and one of them I EQ’d very mid-rangy and compressed with a Neve 33609 to get a slightly different tone. Every time the guitar riff came up the automation would switch to these faders. It made the melody pop out a little more. I also definitely used the live room in Studio A to add some ambience.”
“I widened the guitar a little because it was a mono track. So I put a short delay on it with the Prime Time and also blended some room ambience back in. The solo guitar sounds deliberately very much like the Univox. The idea was to make people go ‘What is going on? Is that a guitar or a synth?’ Part of the effect was achieved during recording, when Jack asked me to punch in and out as he was playing, so that bits of the solo were clipped, making the notes sound more synthetic. Jack was very specific about how short he wanted the phrases. At first I was puzzled, but as always I trusted him, and sure enough, he was right, it was a really clever effect.”
“I probably didn’t do much to that, because I liked the way it sounded on tape. So it was just a matter of balancing the level.”
“Jack always wanted more distortion on the vocals! The main vocal effect is a distorted slap echo, which I recorded: I overloaded the tape machine. When you severely overload something, it squashes the waveform so much that it almost sounds like a different instrument. Instead of being a delay of the original signal, it becomes its own sound and adds a vibe to the track. When it came to the mix, Jack wanted still more distortion on the vocals and more edge, so I overloaded an LA2A compressor, setting the output to 80. This meant that I was getting the distortion from the last tube stage of the compressor, which creates a really beautiful distortion.
“I also added some Roland Space Echo spring reverb to the vocals during the mix, and ran the vocals through the echo chamber. Any reverb that I used on the album would have been dark-sounding, and in a lot of cases I made it mono as well. In the case of ‘Icky Thump’ I’d pan a mono reverb left behind the vocal that was panned left, and the other mono reverb was panned right behind the vocal that was panned right. Both were panned at about three quarters. I might also have rolled some top end off the distortion, just to get rid of any ugly harmonics.
“I was actually reluctant to use all that vocal distortion during the mix, but again, I had to trust him. One thing I have learned is when you work with great artists you have to put yourself in their hands, trust them and go with the flow. Sometimes the engineer in me would say ‘Oh no, I can’t print all that distortion,’ but then the music fan would go: ‘It sounds great, it’s exciting, who cares?’”.
“The Trident at Blackbird Studio D was used for monitoring, and also some guitar microphones, plus most of the room microphones. Some room mics went through an API 512, and a few through a crazy old RCA OP6 tube preamp. Most of the other close mics went through various Neve 1073, Brent Averill API 312 and Chandler TG2 preamps. Jack loves the sound of ribbon microphones, so we used a lot of them, on guitar amps, vocals, and as room mics: Coles 4038, Royer 121, AEA R84. I would have six to 10 room mics up, and would chose a stereo pair from them.
“The close mic setup for recording the drums was pretty standard: Shure SM57 on the snare, AKG D12 and Neumann U47 on the kick, a pair of ribbon Coles 4038s or Neumann U67s as overheads. I often fed the drums into a reverb chamber, or would overdrive the preamps, or fed them through a guitar amp. The preamps we used for the drums were the 1073 and a Neve BCM10.
“For the song ‘Icky Thump’ I had the Royer and an AEA on Jack’s two guitar amps, and a couple of U67s for room ambience. In a few cases I used the Shure SM7 guide vocal mic. Ribbons are prone to overloading, so we blew out four Coles mics on the guitar amps. Luckily Jack had several Coles 4038’s with him! The guitar mics went through Neve and Chandler preamps, and then always through an API 550A EQ, and then an 1176. The Univox sounded great acoustically in the room and was miked with a U87 across the room, going into a Chandler TG2 preamp and then some slight compression with an LA2A.
“Jack is very particular about his vocal sound, and it’s one of the things on the album that we really took a lot of time for. He is very sensitive to what he hears in the headphones, and he wanted something that gave him juice and was exciting to sing to. So every song had a different mic/preamp/compressor setup. Most of his vocals were recorded through an old RCA 77DX mic, but for some of them I used the Shure SM7 guide vocal mic. On the title song Jack’s vocals were recorded with a Telefunken U47, going into a Neve 1073 preamp and then into an 1176 compressor.”
“I put an Alan Smart C2 compressor over the stereo bus, maybe just 1dB of compression, and I also used an original EMI TG12345 EQ from Abbey Road that they had at Blackbird. It sounded like ’70s transistor equipment, and it has so much character. I would have added a little bit of 70Hz and 16KHz, again just filling in missing areas in the stereo spectrum.
“We mixed to RMG 900 [tape] one-inch two-track, at 30ips, no Dolby, using an Ampex Spitz-modified ATR. The great thing about one–inch two-track is that it still has an analogue sound, but because of the large size of the head, it sounds so close to what’s coming out of the stereo bus, it’s almost digital-sounding. It gives a very, very accurate representation of what’s coming off the console, as opposed to quarter- and half-inch, which add quite a lot of colour to the sound.
“Mastering was done by Vlado Meller at Sony Mastering in New York, from the one-inch master tape. The vinyl version was mastered from the analogue tape, as it should be. A lot of times the vinyl version is pressed from a CD, which I find very upsetting. For the CD version of Icky Thump, the mastered analogue was transferred to Sonic Solutions. Jack wanted the CD to sound loud and aggressive, so it was cut as hot and exciting as possible, whereas the vinyl was cut in a more traditional way. The vinyl version has more size and dynamics and air, all the things about vinyl that we love. Was the CD version brickwalled to compete in the loudness wars? Let’s hope not!”