One of the biggest albums of 2012 was recorded in one of the smallest studios — Andrija Tokic's house in Nashville, Tennessee...
Alabama Shakes are arguably the biggest breakthrough rock act of 2012. But wind the clock back 12 months and the four-piece from Athens, Alabama were unsigned and only had a tiny budget to make their recording debut. Engineer and studio owner Andrija Tokic helped them translate press hype into CD sales, balancing the band's raw power and rhythmic subtleties in a straightforward, no-frills production that buzzes with the live feel and energy of classic Muscle Shoals, Stax and Atlantic recordings from the 1960s and early '70s. Boys & Girls, produced by the band themselves, debuted at number three in the UK charts, and has also been a top 10 hit in the group's native USA.
Boys & Girls was recorded during a number of short, sharp sessions at Tokic's Bomb Shelter studio in Nashville during the course of 2011. Tokic had a gut feeling the Shakes' album was going to be a big success, though the speed of their rise surprised even him. "It's a very cool record,” says Andrija. "But I didn't expect it to happen that quickly. That is astonishing to me — but the second that I hit Record and we tracked the first song, I was just like, 'Oh my god, this has to get recognised by people!' When you record something and it just feels like the real thing, you immediately know, 'All right, this is serious!' I definitely had this feeling right away that it was an important thing and it was going to influence people and people were going to like it.”
Tokic has recently moved The Bomb Shelter to new stand-alone premises in East Nashville, but Boys & Girls was laid down in his previous studio setup, which comprised a number of ad hoc converted rooms in his house. This original home-from-home facility started taking shape around five years ago, after Andrija installed a complete digital recording system for the studio he used to work at in Washington DC. Accepting payment in kind, he eagerly took away two bits of the analogue recording gear he'd originally learned his trade on: an MCI JH600 desk and JH24 two-inch tape machine.
"I just kind of put them in my house, but I wasn't necessarily intending to do work out of my house all the time,” explains Tokic. "I did one record there when there was no build-out or anything, and the members of that band all played in other bands, and it just kind of got busy real quickly. Back then, if there was a band in the basement, it was dirt floors and we just tracked with a handful of mics. It wasn't like I built the place and then started working. I just all of a sudden wound up with sessions coming to my house and then I kept building as I was going. Eventually, I expanded to the ground floor and put up some floating walls so I could track drums without driving my neighbours nuts, and I just kept wiring more and more rooms. With the basement, we went and got a bunch of broken granite scraps and laid granite down so it wasn't a dirt floor any more, and I built a couple of walls out of sawmill scraps and stuff. It was a perpetually expanding thing and it just kept getting busier and busier. The structure itself was definitely not soundproof — if someone drove by with a subwoofer, or a train went by, it was on your track!”
Alabama Shakes originally cold-called The Bomb Shelter back in the early months of 2011, after seeing a plug about the studio on the web site of a Nashville bar run by a friend of Andrija's. "They followed the link to my site and saw a couple of albums that I did that they really liked the sound of,” recalls Tokic. "And they were just like, 'Let's call this guy up and see if he might want to work with us!'”
The Shakes certainly had a clear vision of how they wanted their recordings to sound, and provided a few reference points to help clarify the sonic approach they were seeking. "Right off the bat, they told me what they wanted to hear. It was an incredibly eclectic list. There was a couple of old soul recordings and there was even a My Morning Jacket song and a few other random things. They were just like, 'We like how the drums feel on this old recording and we like the way the effect is used on this recording.' It was kind of like that. It was pretty spread out. They just sent me a handful of songs because they liked certain things about those sounds.”
The band initially booked a two-day stint at The Bomb Shelter to lay down as many songs as they could muster, as that was all they could reasonably afford at the time. "I knew what I could do with their sounds, and we just got together and started rolling,” says Tokic. "I think everybody kind of had the same idea, and they were definitely interested in tape. I just started putting up the mics and started figuring out how it should all go. We did the first six songs in just the first two days, and they were like out the door and done. We even did a little mastering job right after we mixed them. Then they came back a couple of times for just a day or so at a time. They'd come up at night after they got off of work, and we might get set up and maybe start recording if we were into it, but we'd really work the second day. They all had jobs and they lived about an hour and a half away. We did a couple of short little things like that where we got down a couple more tracks. Then they used that stuff to do a CD, which I guess was like a pre-release to the record. Later on, after things were kind of moving, they booked a couple of weeks in between a bunch of touring. We re-recorded some stuff to see if we could beat what we had, and recorded some new stuff. Out of that, we finished the record and also had some 'B' sides too.”
The band got on so well at The Bomb Shelter that they ended up sleeping in his house-cum-studio the first night and, from that point onwards, whenever they drove over for a session. "The first night we just hit it off so hard and it was always so much fun!” enthuses Andrija. "And they all just slept on pallets all over the place. They were going to get a hotel or something but they didn't have much money. We'd just hang out all night after working, stay up way too late, then get up in the morning beat up from a long night and then just tried to keep going!”
Aside from the odd additional overdub, Alabama Shakes' song arrangements across Boys & Girls rarely changed once they arrived at The Bomb Shelter for each string of sessions. "There was some stuff early on where they were experimenting with a couple of arrangements, but for the most part they had their songs down real tight,” explains Andrija.
Tokic naturally favours recording bands as live as possible, with minimal isolation, and this was a vision the Shakes shared wholeheartedly. "The one thing that doesn't inspire me is rooms that are too 'dialled', or when there's too much isolation between rooms,” he says. "Bleed, to me, is pretty important, and I think the sound should be kind of fun and the recordings should feel live and believable.
"Most of it was tracked live, and then from there we would decide sonically whether we could bring something to life more, or if we had to overdub something for the sake of helping a part, or whether it just seemed cool to overdub something,” explains Andrija. "Usually it would be keys, bass, guitar, drums and lead vocal live, or sometimes it would be two guitars, drums, bass and vocal live. But, just like anything, you have to be flexible. If, for some reason, we couldn't do something live, or we were not sure about it, or because there was some sort of technical or spatial challenge to it, then we might drop something in or add something. It was important to make sure that the core of the song was going down in one piece at the same time, and that it was a real expressive performance.”
Drummer Steve Johnson, bassist Zac Cockrell, lead guitarist Heath Fogg and lead singer/guitarist/piano player Brittany Howard were distributed around the house according to the needs of the song. "The rooms were tiny but I mostly tracked them on my ground floor,” says Tokic. "On some songs, we put Brittany in a room right across from the room where everybody else was and then, if the drums weren't too loud, we'd leave the doors open so she could at least see the bass player and the bass player could see the drummer. There's a hallway between those two rooms and we would either put the amps in the hallway or put them in the rooms on my basement floor. If we had to isolate the amps, then we might put a bleed mic with the amps and get some bleed so they weren't totally separated from everything else in the recording. It would totally depend on what had to be where for the sound. Sometimes you want the bass to rattle the snare real hard so you've got to have it right there. I think at one point we were cutting piano live, but my piano wasn't moveable and was right by where the drums are. The drums were moveable but that room did really good for drums for their sound. That wasn't necessarily the case for every record I was doing there, but that was the drum room we'd use for them for sure, because it was just raw and bright and kind of mean-sounding. So the whole thing would get mixed around depending on whatever advantages we could get out of the weird spaces and whatever the song lent itself towards.”
Brittany Howard's voice is the obvious key feature of the band, and, upon meeting her for the first time, Andrija Tokic instinctively knew what mic would work best. "I've got a beat-up old [Neumann U]87 that sounded good on her,” explains Tokic. "And just through talking to her, I just knew what that mic sounded like and how it would sound on her. It's not necessarily my go-to vocal mic at all, but I was like, 'All right, this is it!' I used that a bunch on her, but it did also depend on how much noise there was. Sometimes, we'd put up something like a dynamic mic that might be more directional. I also used a relatively cheap few-hundred-dollar TL Audio preamp on her. I just knew that it was the right tone for her voice, especially when she was riffing real hard and singing loud. Paired with [the U87], that worked real good for her. A lot of [vocal mic selection], too, was just about the mix. I was capturing things so they could carry the sound that needs to be there in the end, but also so things were flexible enough to still be able to have some fun mixing it.”
When it came to recording Heath Fogg and Brittany Howard's guitars, mic selection would also vary. "We totally changed it around a lot because it all came down to the song and the tone of the amp. We changed amps, we changed guitars, and we would change preamps. We would just try and capture it in the best way and, as an overall thing, there wasn't one way it was done. I feel like on Heath's guitar with his [Ampeg] Gemini amp, I think the old CK12 ['brass ring' capsule] AKG C414 may have been something I used a lot, but it also could've been a Sennheiser [MD]441 on a lot of it too. That has a real bright mid-range and it's real crunchy, and sometimes that was needed and sometimes it wasn't. I remember one thing Brittany really liked was this 70 Volt Stromberg-Carlson PA head I've got. It's just filled with tubes. Somebody had modded a couple of quarter-inch jacks on it and I know we used that for a guitar amp a few times with some old Jensen 2x12 [cabinets]. What we would've miked it with just really would have depended on the sounds, what was available and what other things were being used.
"I would mic relatively close but, again, that would change depending on volume. Sometimes, you need to get it right in the speaker and sometimes you can back it off and get something but sometimes, when you back it off, you don't get enough clarity. The only consistent thing is that most of the time, if the guitar amps were isolated, we made sure that there was something else that they were bleeding with.”
Andrija captured Zac Cockrell's punchy bass tone by blending the miked signal with a DI'd signal into a '60s Altec 342B mixing preamp. "I would have a mic on an Ampeg B15 'flip top' and blend the mic and a DI into the Altec mixer, which I think has four channels and one output,” explains Tokic. "Then I'd move the mic around until the phase between the DI and the mic remained consistent. Then I'd just track it right out of the Altec to the tape machine. It was the best way for me to get that right kind of plucky tone. The blend of the two could change drastically from song to song, depending on what everybody thought sounded the best when they listened to it in the control room. I remember using the Neumann U67 on the bass a lot.”
The microphone setup for Steve Johnson's drums was reasonably simple although, again, Andrija would alternate mics depending on the sound, feel and dynamics of the song, and what was already being utilised on the band's other instruments. "Mostly, I'd have a mono overhead and a kick and snare, and then a stereo room mic that was usually really bass-drum-heavy,” Andrija recalls. "It'd be just a couple of feet from the bass drum, pretty much. That room was really small and extremely reflective, so the balance coming off all the reflections of the walls meant that was a good spot to put the mic a lot of the time. The overhead was usually a [Sony] C37. The snare would've changed around for sure, but usually it was just a [Shure SM]57. If I needed a bottom snare, like if I needed a little more crack out of it, it would be whatever cheap condenser I had sitting around, because it doesn't need to sound great, it just needs to pick up that high frequency. The kick would change a lot. I seem to remember using the [Neumann] U67 on the kick, but I also remember using that on bass, so I think it probably depended on which session or which song it was for. The room mic was nearly always a [Neumann] SM69, just because that was the best option I had for a room mic and it's my only stereo mic. Hopefully, the record comes across as dynamic and changes a lot in tones, which is kind of how we wanted it from the start.”
Some of the keyboards were recorded live with the rest of the group and some of them were overdubbed. Brittany Howard played piano on a couple of tracks herself, including one where she cut her lead vocal at the same time. One particular overdub that stands out is the extreme fuzz sound emanating across the latter stages of album opener and lead single 'Hold On'. "That was a super blown-out tube preamp just turned up way too loud!” laughs Tokic. "I think that was one of the ones where I was like, 'C'mon, let's do this fuzz tone on it!' Every idea comes from somewhere, so maybe someone wanted to try an overdub and maybe I put in my two cents and they put in their two cents and the next thing you know we're down this crazy path doing this really cool overdub.”
Mixing was certainly not a long drawn-out process for Andrija Tokic and Alabama Shakes. Tokic always regards the actual performances captured during tracking as being the more important contributing factor for any great-sounding recording. "We did the first few songs in a few days, so we probably only spent a few hours mixing those,” explains Andrija. "But then we had more time allotted later on when we weren't as strapped for studio time, so we could try a couple of different mixes to see what mix worked the best. All in all, we spent way more time on the front end of things than on the mixing end of things.”
One effect that does really stand out across Boys & Girls is a distinctive reverb. "I've got a [Roland] Space Echo RE201 and I disconnected the reverb tank that's in it,” says Tokic. "I have a few other different [spring] reverb tanks, so I mixed those up. Some of them have a longer decay and some of them have a shorter decay. A lot of it was also just tape delay off the tape machine, and then bussing those in and out of each other, and sometimes sending the tape delay to the spring to put the spring further back in time.”
Since moving The Bomb Shelter out of his house towards the end of 2011, Andrija Tokic couldn't be more happy, as he can now get up in the morning and "go to a studio to work, like it used to be a long time ago,” rather than having his breakfast interrupted every morning by bands and musicians knocking at his door. But when Andrija casts his mind back to those Alabama Shakes sessions, he can't help but relive the fun that they all had cutting the album. Boys & Girls is a record both he and the band are immensely proud of.
"As soon as we were getting sounds and started the first song and we were rolling tape, there was just this feeling and I think everybody felt it,” he enthuses. "It was awesome and it just felt really good. And we had a lot of good nights after sessions and everybody became really good friends — we could stand being literally in each others' faces for five days straight! Engineering any record, you always wish that you have a band that's fun to work with. That's a big plus and it really helps. Everything goes well when everybody's got a good sense of humour and there's a good energy from everybody. It's a very fun record and it's not overdone. The sounds travel from song to song and it takes you on a bit of a journey. It just feels like raw energy but it's still palatable to listen to without getting pretentious in the production. It feels believable and it feels like you're there when it's happening.”
Guitarist Heath Fogg and lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes offer their perspective on arranging and producing the songs on Boys & Girls. "We went in [to The Bomb Shelter] with a strong idea of what we wanted,” says Fogg. "We had searched around a couple of other studios and engineers, and we knew we wanted to record on tape, just because we wanted to try it out, because we'd never done that before. We just loved the result of the playback! We recorded as much as possible live and the vocals live — I think you get the liveliness from that more than anything. That's the way a lot of people used to do it back in the day on records that we love.”
"I still like it when people get in a room and just put a mic in the middle and just kind of stand around in a circle or a semi-circle,” agrees Howard. "I love that. It always sounds so cool.”
The key quality that comes from recording live to tape, is, they say, a sense of space. "The space is something that's really, really important because when you pile stuff on digitally, it tends to get compressed and it sounds like you're listening to just this wall of music,” says Howard. "You can't really hear or feel it because there's not real sound waves coming at you giving you what's where. Honestly, I think it confuses peoples' brains! Then you put a record on that was recorded live and it's like you feel it — it's present, it's in the right spots and gives a good representation.”
The other major factor that contributes to this sense of space is the right arrangement. "We love making a heavy track but, for our type of music, you don't have to have overly distorted guitars and things like that,” insists Fogg. "Make sure that that low key on the piano sticks out because that's what makes it heavy! So we use things like that — it's really about giving everything space and trying to make things sound and feel like they sound in that room as well.”
"There's such a good lesson from James Brown,” adds Howard. "we have a James Brown album where he's breaking down the rhythms and we all really like that CD. I remember listening to it over and over at my house with these guys. It shows how the rhythms are put together and there's not like a whole lot going on. It's not very technical but everything's got its space and everything's got its place. I think that helped us out too, just learning from people like that about actually how they put the songs together.”