The Black Keys have built a career on a shared love of studio experimentation.
From their high–school beginnings in Akron, Ohio, to their current standing as one of the most successful rock bands in the world, the Black Keys’ career has been a long, slow climb. Their commercial progress has been mirrored by their recording history, which began with the two jamming in 2001 in the basement of drummer Patrick Carney’s house to create their 2002 debut The Big Come Up and which this year saw them complete their eighth album Turn Blue at Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles.
The pair first starting working together when Carney, already a recording enthusiast, invited singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach down to his home studio to record the latter’s rock covers band on his Korg D12 digital workstation. Fatefully for the two, the other members of Auerbach’s group didn’t turn up. Instead, Carney and Auerbach began playing together, instigating the formation of the Black Keys.
“I just set up the mics and we recorded a bunch of songs,” Carney remembers. “And that became our demo and that’s when the band started, ’cause we just had so much fun recording.”
For The Big Come Up and its 2003 successor Thickfreakness, Carney took a producer credit. Both members of the Black Keys are now individually renowned as producers of other artists (of which more later) and say that the drummer’s producer status on their initial albums was the result more of youthful innocence than any grand scheme. “I mean, I would say technically I didn’t produce those records,” Carney stresses. “I think at the time we didn’t really know what the terminology was. We didn’t even know what producing was until we worked with a producer. We realised that we’d been producing ourselves all along.”
“Neither of us knew what we were doing,” Auerbach laughs. “Pat put his name on the records as a producer, just ’cause he saw that on records and thought, I’ll put ‘Produced By’ Neither of us knew what the hell a producer was.”
Together, however, the Black Keys learned quickly, through a combination of understanding exactly the sound they were trying to achieve — a raw, gritty take on blues–rock — and playful experimentation. “We both were just really into trying different things,” says Carney. “Y’know, like, Dan would do a guitar overdub and I would take a [Shure] 57 by the mic cord and just spin it around in front of the amp like a propeller, to phase it. That’s the kind of stuff we were doing, ’cause we had no outboard gear or any effects.
”For the recording of The Big Come Up, Carney upgraded from his Korg D12 to an Akai DPS16. The band liked to call their approach at this time “medium fidelity”. “Yeah, because I just remember the first time I used the Korg or the Akai how clear everything was, but at the same time how unflattering it was,” says the drummer. “So we ended up plugging things into guitar amps, remiking, reamping stuff that was what we were referring to, I guess. I thought, y’know, this Akai is like the pinnacle of fidelity — I didn’t really know that it wasn’t. But I thought I hated the way high fidelity sounded because I thought that’s what hi–fi was.”
Thickfreakness, meanwhile, was recorded on a Tascam 388 combination quarter–inch reel–to–reel recorder and mixer. “It’s the best–sounding thing,” Carney enthuses. “And it has a lot of weird little features. The main one is it has switchable Dolby on channels one through four and then five through eight. But on eight on its own, you could turn it on and off, so it was really cool for recording kick drums and encoding the Dolby and then playing it back without it and trying to get weird shit going on.”
“We had very basic equipment, just a couple of dynamic mics,” says Auerbach. “I was using really small guitar amps, like a Pignose. We were experimenting a lot, we were using samples. We were goofing around, doing whatever comes to mind, reading about people recording and doing certain things and then trying it out for ourselves.”
When it came to the making of the Black Keys’ third album, Rubber Factory, released in 2004, the pair expanded their operation, renting an enormous space formerly owned by an Akron tyre manufacturers which inspired the album’s title. Enamoured with his Tascam 388, Carney upgraded to a Tascam M16 one–inch 16–track and mixer. “This console had Jensen transformers on the inputs and a big fake leather strip across the front,” the drummer remembers, laughing. “It weighed 400 fucking pounds. I bought it off a tech that worked for the band Loverboy. I paid 550 dollars for it plus 500 dollars for this guy to drive it from Alberta, Canada to me in Ohio.”
In the factory, Carney and Auerbach ran riot, in sonic terms, using the huge area to create certain effects. “The acoustics there were terrible,” Auerbach recalls. “But it was private and we could make noise 24/7. They used to melt steel in the room below us, so in the winter it was warm. What we ended up doing was dragging the guitar amps into the vacant room across the hall and recording in there. I was using my [Fender] Super Reverb then and an Ampeg Gemini.”
“The room we were in was just an old office,” says Carney. “There was industrial carpet and it had shitty thin dry walls. But there was enough space that we could split things out from really coming into the recording. We could stretch mic cables down hallways and no–one was in the building. There was a conference room right across the hall from us that was probably 8000 square feet, a giant room. We’d put like 250 feet worth of mic cable down and a mic on the other side of the room and run guitar and vocals through an amp on the opposite side. We were using the room as a chamber. Most of the long, weird, reverb roomy sounds on that record is that sound.”
By the end of the project, though, both had fallen out of love with the Tascam desk. “It was just a dreadful piece of shit,” Auerbach chuckles. “We ended up vacating the studio when our lease ran up and we just left the console there.”
“It was a pain in the ass,” Carney adds. “The building got torn down with that console in it.”
The band’s initial run of albums had begun to attract attention, and in 2006 they signed to Warner Brothers offshoot Nonesuch Records for their fourth album, Magic Potion. Carney had moved to a different house in Akron and set up a studio in its basement for the sessions. “In Akron all the basements are kinda the same,” Auerbach points out. “They’ve got concrete floors and cinder–block walls and then you’ve got a wood ceiling. What you end up doing is just sort of embellishing the nature of the acoustics instead of trying to hide from them.”
“I carpeted it down,” says Carney. “I had some mattresses on certain walls. But the cool thing is the ceiling was studded wood and the house was 100 years old, so the wood was kinda dry as hell. It didn’t sound too boxy. I brought the Tascam tape machine down there and I used this little Allen & Heath mixer, which was the same price as that old Tascam but weighed like 30 pounds and actually sounded pretty good. That’s when I really started getting into Pro Tools and figuring out how to build buses and do things sort of properly.
“Then the tape machine broke on the second day we were working on the record, so we were just going straight into Pro Tools. But at that point I had some decent preamps — I had an API Lunchbox and I have a Shadow Hills eight–channel preamp thing that they don’t make any longer but it’s the same as the GAMA series.”
If the equipment list for Magic Potion had grown more extensive, the album itself found the Black Keys stripping their sound back. “We’d done so much overdubbing on Rubber Factory,” says Auerbach, “it was hard for us as a two–piece to actually go out and play those songs, ’cause a lot of them were just studio creations. I’d be playing a fiddle, I’d be playing an acoustic guitar and we’d be just doing all kinds of weird shit on the songs. So I think that Magic Potion was sort of a response to that, where we wanted to do more of a rock & roll kind of thing.”
Carney has only one regret when thinking back to the making of Magic Potion. “The whole record got kind of destroyed in mastering,” he says. “We had paid Greg Calbi whatever he charged to master Rubber Factory and he did an awesome job. But we wanted to save some money and have some more control, so we went to a friend of ours to master Magic Potion. He did a really good job, except for one thing that I didn’t understand. He put everything through a Summit Audio tube compressor that didn’t have a low–pass section. The original kick drum had a lot of depth, there was a lot of depth to the guitar and it was all lost in the mastering.”
“At that time we still didn’t know anything,” Auerbach confesses. “But Magic Potion has got a really interesting sound. If you’re lacking professionalism, sometimes it’s good to just be quirky! That’s what we were doing on our first few records.”
Enter Brian Burton aka Danger Mouse, set to become a long–standing band collaborator, who first worked with the Black Keys on 2008’s Attack & Release. The result was a notable sonic leap, both in quality and textures, which was partly due to the producer’s presence and partly because it was the first time the band had worked in a proper studio, namely Suma in Painesville, Ohio.
“I was really excited,” says Carney. “I’ve had this fantasy since I was 13 of going to a recording studio. I remember looking in the inside of the Velvet Underground’s Loaded, or Weezer records, and seeing pictures of bands in studios, which we had never had the luxury of doing. It wasn’t until our fifth record that we had that. When we were getting ready to go to the studio, I took our band van and we just filled it with every single thing we had: both the drum sets I had, a bunch of keyboards, guitars and pedals. We spent the whole of the first day just setting shit up in little areas.”
“That studio’s quite magical,” says Auerbach. “One of the most incredible studios in the world. The engineer there, Paul [Hamann], his dad built it in 1969 and it has a 32–channel, hand–made console. It didn’t affect the approach, but it ended up affecting the outcome because sonically everything sounded so much bigger. Brian brought a lot to the table, with keyboards and focus on the melodies and counter-melodies. Things that we hadn’t thought about before.
“But y’know, we’ve worked with Brian a bunch now and I think that we’ve all really changed. I think Brian’s approach in the studio has changed significantly since then and so has ours. When we did Attack & Release, he was extremely hands–off and had nothing to do with the songwriting, and was just there to reinforce our ideas and keep us moving forward. We kept up at a fast clip, y’know. And now it’s more of a real collaboration.”
“Brian helped a lot with arrangements, and these little tricks that he has,” says Carney. “When we made Attack & Release we wanted to basically sound like a four–piece. So we were putting a lot of shit on there: the keyboards and orchestrating overdubs. Focusing on melody. Simplifying drum parts, y’know. Brian gets really picky about certain types of drum things, which I always find interesting. But it’s cool to hear him talk about it ’cause I tend to disagree a lot, but sometimes he’s totally right.
“Every producer’s different. Some producers rely most heavily on aesthetics and engineering and they have no input with the music. Which is not how Brian works. Brian is all about the music and the aesthetics as well. But the engineering side, he doesn’t give two shits about.”
Attack & Release was the first album which saw Carney experiment with two different kit sounds: one more open and one more tightly controlled. “I put one kit in the dead vocal booth,” he says, “and one kit in the live room. We’ve tried that approach a couple of other times since then, but it’s never really sounded as good as it did at Suma.”
For their next project, the Black Keys took a distinct left–turn, with Blakroc, an album where they backed a parade of rappers including Mos Def, Raekwon and RZA. Working in Studio G in Brooklyn with engineer Joel Hamilton, it was an experience which taught them fresh approaches in recording that were to, in turn, influence their future albums.
“It was just kinda fun for us to be around some of these guys that we’d looked up to for so long,” says Auerbach. “It was an interesting experiment. There’s never been a hip–hop record that’s been made like that. We’d go to the studio with nothing in the morning, come up with a track and then the lyricist would come in, in the early evening, hear it for the very first time and then write on the spot. And we would try to have a finished track by the end of the day. So that record only took us 10 or 11 days to finish.”
“That’s the first time we ever did something that was us really utilising the process of making loops on Pro Tools,” says Carney. “Joel was the one that opened that up to us. We found that things tended to move really quickly if we started songs with different approaches every time. Sometimes something would start with just a loop of a thumb piano part, or it would start with a drum and bass loop. Or maybe it was just a keyboard pad. But it really got us focusing a lot on just drums and bass.”
With this in mind, the Black Keys got to work on 2009’s Brothers, which would provide their commercial breakthrough. Looking for an unusual location to make the record, the two travelled with engineer Mark Neill (who recounted his take on events in SOS August 2011: www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug11/articles/black-keys.htm) to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama, scene of classic recordings by Aretha Franklin, the Staples Singers, the Rolling Stones and Elton John. By the time the team came to record at the facility, though, it was more or less an empty shell.
“I mean, we had to bring everything,” Auerbach recalls. “Y’know, it still had some magic in there. There were some interesting aspects to the room, and the outside of the building’s identical, so every morning when you pull up, you know where you are — that’s Muscle Shoals Sound that you’re pulling into. That got the blood flowing everyday. Y’know it’s just kinda the isolation of the place. Being isolated when you’re trying to create, I think it can be really helpful.”
“We knew it would be really isolated,” says Carney. “But not as isolated as it actually was. The studio was old and classic, but we didn’t realise how little stuff was there that worked.”
Mark Neill brought along his Studer 12-channel ‘suitcase’ desk, along with various Universal Audio preamps and assorted Neumann and dynamic microphones. The three got down to work, building up the songs from drums and bass, tracking on an iZ RADAR hard-disk recorder and monitoring through what Carney remembers being “the one working channel” on the studio’s MCI, using a sole speaker they found, meaning they were listening back in mono during the tracking.
“The only reverb we had was a guitar pedal I brought down, so we only had one aux of reverb,” the drummer explains. “We only had 12 channels that we could hear at any one time, so for the most part the songs had 11 to 12 tracks. We’d be doing multiple overdubs on one track. It was cool.”
“RADAR sounded fantastic,” says Auerbach. “Just right off the bat it sounded incredible compared to Pro Tools. No doubt about it. The difference wasn’t subtle, it was real obvious, even to beginner’s ears. It just sounds really deep and three–dimensional.”
“Really no looping abilities or anything like that,” Carney points out. “I’d say 80 percent of that record started with drums and bass. We’d get this rhythm track and then build subtly on top of that. So it’s kind of really sparse and open in a way. It was an awesome process. That record was the most fun to make, for Dan and I both.”
For the more uptempo and poppy El Camino, released in 2011, there were two key changes made to the process: Danger Mouse (who had produced only one track, the single ‘Tighten Up’, on Brothers) was fully back on the team, and the sessions were conducted at Auerbach’s newly built Easy Eye Sound studio in the Black Keys’ now–adopted home town of Nashville.
“When Dan starts collecting something, he goes apeshit on it,” says Carney. “If he gets into something, within six months he’ll have the best collection of whatever it is he’s collecting. I’m way more of a cheapskate. So with Dan’s studio he just had a lot of really cool equipment that I would never buy.”
Based in an old cinder–block building in Nashville, Easy Eye Sound is centred around a custom–built Spectrasonics console. Recording can be done to Pro Tools or RADAR, or the Scully 16–track two–inch and eight–track one–inch tape machines. The studio has three different–sized EMT plates, and an array of vintage keyboards, including a Vako Orchestron, Mellotron, Optigan, Fender Rhodes, Hammond and Moog modular. “I’ve got an old piano that I pulled out of a basement in Ohio that I’ve had for a decade and I love it,” says Auerbach. “It’s sort of become the signature piano sound in the studio. It’s got a real, special, weird thing going on.”
For the making of El Camino, the team chose to use a Quad 8 desk for tracking. “There’s a couple of things about it that are interesting that mean that nothing sounds like it any more,” says Carney. “It kinda has the slight squishiness of a Neve and it lacks the transient punch of an API, but it sounds open. It instantly sounds old. Everything sounds a little bit rounded off in a way.”
Seeking to replicate the Muscle Shoals Sound experience of Brothers for their latest, more layered and atmospheric album Turn Blue, The Black Keys decamped with Danger Mouse to the Keyclub Studio in Benton Harbor, Michigan. The chief attraction was the studio’s Flickinger desk, originally built for Sly Stone.
“It’s very similar to my Spectrasonics,” says Auerbach. “But Daniel Flickinger used different transformers and the EQ is a little bit different. So it’s got this really strange sound where it’s got a nice, kind of early American solid–state low end. But it’s weird the high end, it’ll kind of cut off the release in a cool way. Bill [Skibbe, engineer] and I stayed up late a couple of nights and just listened to old Flickinger recordings through the studio monitors and compared them to Spectrasonics recordings and Willie Mitchell recordings and Abbey Road recordings. Just to hear the different sounds. We’d have some really sweet nerd–out sessions.”
“I’ve heard people refer to desks as being ‘fast’ and ‘slow’, says Carney. “Like a Neve being a slow desk and an API being a fast desk. I think people are talking about the punchiness and the clearness of the transients. The Flickinger’s the fastest desk I’ve ever heard, where the transients are super–clear, super–defined but then it lets go really quick.”
The sessions for Turn Blue progressed to Studio 2 at Sunset Sound in LA, which houses a Neve 8088. Auerbach wasn’t impressed. “I’m not really a fan of Neve consoles,” the singer admits.
“Dan’s the kind of guy who wouldn’t be excited about a Neve console,” says Carney. “But I personally love the Neve console at Sunset Sound and I love the room.” The drummer experimented further with his drum sounds on Turn Blue. “The main drum sound of the record is the [Neumann] U47. That’s the first time I’d ever heard one. I bought one while we were there because I was so obsessed with it on drums. The amount of kick and huge low end and even balance throughout the kit from that mic is so amazing. It compresses so well.”
Auerbach’s vocals were recorded back at Easy Eye Sound, using two different approaches. “I like to use a dynamic mic standing in front of the speakers,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter which one. But if the song is delicate and has more of a falsetto thing happening, then I usually use a small–diaphragm condenser.”
Both Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach say they aren’t sure about firm plans for the next Black Keys record, due to their touring schedule stretching out into next year. But as much as they enjoy performing, Auerbach, for one, would much rather be in the studio. “Right now I make a living on the road,” he says. “So it affords me to be able to just work on studio projects that I’m really keen to do.”
“If we wanted to we could make a record on our next break,” says Carney, referring to January 2015. “I’m sure we’ll make another record next year.”
As well as producing their own records, both members of the Black Keys are in demand as producers for other artists. Dan Auerbach’s vocal–recording approach of singing while listening to the studio monitors is one which he used to great effect in his role as the producer of eight tracks on Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence, recorded at Easy Eye Sound and released this year. Taking the singer away from her roots in largely programmed music, the band’s performances and Del Rey’s vocal takes were recorded entirely live.
“It was a ballsy move for someone who people consider a pop singer,” says Auerbach. “Singers don’t do that now. We didn’t go back and redo any of the lead vocals. She killed it, she really did. She just trusted me to do it right and let me pick all the musicians and stuff to do it at my studio.”
Auerbach has used a similar live–performance methodology for his other key productions, including Dr. John’s Locked Down (2012) and Ray LaMontagne’s Supernova (2014). “I love having all these different musicians in the room and recording a live band,” he states. “I think it’s really fun. That’s always my goal: just to get interesting textures, interesting sounds, interesting melodies.”
Patrick Carney, meanwhile, has built his own studio at home in Nashville, and overseen the production of tracks by US indie outfits the Black Lips, Tennis and the Sheepdogs. “I found an old API 1604 console,” he says. “I’ve got ATC speakers, two racks of stuff. It’s really small and it’s all set up so I can just walk around and fuck around. My synthesizers are all laid out and my drums are in the garage bay. I like to work on projects where there’s kinda a clear idea that needs refining. I look at my role as being just helping a band problem–solve basically.”