The Civil Wars chose to avoid the usual studio trickery for their debut album, and have reaped great success as a result.
Ever since honky-tonk gave way to the smoother 'countrypolitan' sound in the late '50s, there have been complaints that Nashville was losing its soul. Recent years have been no exception, with country music bedevilled by the twin evils of rock over-production and Auto-Tune. Happily, though, there remain some acts who strive for a more honest, less artificial sound. And in the case of Joy Williams and John Paul White, who make up the Civil Wars, an old-fashioned approach to production has contributed to old-fashioned success. The duo's debut album, Barton Hollow, has already sold almost 300,000 physical copies in the US alone, without any major-label support. At the time of writing, it has just won both the Grammy Awards for which it was nominated (Country Performance by a Duo or Group, and Folk Album of the Year) and will soon see a full release in the UK.
The appeal of the Civil Wars isn't hard to fathom: strong material, beautifully delivered by male and female voices that dovetail perfectly. What's more surprising in such a successful album is what isn't there. The production is built around vocals, acoustic guitar and sometimes piano, with overdubs kept to a deliberate minimum. Drums and percussion are largely absent, while other instruments often occupy an atmospheric, ambient role in the mix.
It's a minimalist aesthetic that was arrived at by common consent between the band and producer Charlie Peacock, who has helped to shape their career from the start. "I was at the Civil Wars' very first gig in Nashville, and absolutely captured by their dynamics and on-stage chemistry — which was in full bloom right from the beginning,” says Charlie. "Even before this magical first performance I had wanted to produce them. I'd been dreaming of finding a group that I could take a kind of sonic Polaroid photo of — music so beautiful that it didn't need a lot of traditional producer tinkering. As it turned out, they were thinking I was the right guy for them too. The very next day we began recording together.
"The development of the sound and the career happened very quickly. Their manager, Nate Yetton, made good first choices business-wise, and Joy and JP had a strong intuitive hunch about the direction of the music. I functioned, with Nate, in a bit of a traditional A&R role, which we each have experience with, having both worked for EMI, and me with SonyATV as well. Still, most of the development work, music-wise, was about affirming the good choices Joy and JP were already making musically and confirming that other possible choices ought to be avoided.
"Nate, Joy, JP and I all voiced our opinions regarding song choices and arrangements. Lots of talking, together with the band's disciplined rehearsal and playing out, pretty much sums up our pre-production. We were always together on the approach. The recording would be about capturing Joy and JP playing and singing together live — no overdubs. That was the plan from the beginning and we stuck with it. I think the most important thing was that we really believed Joy and JP playing and singing together, as minimal as that might be, was not only enough, but that it was great and beautiful and perfect. It could stand on its own. Anything we added to the tracks was kept minimal by design, with the exception of the song 'Barton Hollow', which was allowed to be a bit of a backwoods romp.”
After a varied career as a musician and songwriter, Charlie Peacock moved to Nashville in 1989 to work as an A&R man and record producer. It's there that his private studio, The Art House, is located in a converted chapel. "The original structure is a primitive New England-style country church reinvented as a home, studios and offices. The entire space is wired, and it's possible to record in any room in the building. My wife and I purchased the old church in 1990 and are always remodelling and reinventing it for our various creative endeavors. We have several different acoustic environments available to play with, from traditional iso booths to a church sanctuary. The only thing in its original state is the sanctuary shell of foundation, walls, and floors — all that is as it's always been — with a little new paint! The sanctuary has the original 100-year-old heart-pine floors and 24-foot ceilings. It's the kind of space that invites music-making.”
The Art House was always going to be part of the Civil Wars equation, and so was Peacock's choice of engineer: Richard Biggs. "Richie gets sounds out of this space that no-one else can. People and place is a powerful formula.”
As befitted Charlie Peacock's idea of a "sonic Polaroid”, each track was built around a live performance of Joy and Jon Paul singing along with the latter's acoustic guitar and, in some cases, the former's piano playing.
"As far as I was concerned, spill would be a part of our sound — another member of the band,” says Charlie. "Any editing and mixing problems as a result of spill and phase issues, well, we'd address them as they came up, with the confidence that we could solve most any problem they presented — even if solving meant accepting something less than ideal sonically, in exchange for an amazing performance.”
"We recorded in two spaces: Charlie's Studio A tracking room, and the sanctuary of the Art House, which is much more ambient and also houses Charlie's Yamaha C7 grand piano,” explains Richie Biggs. "John Paul played an old Martin acoustic, or a resonator [guitar] on the songs 'Barton Hollow' and 'Birds Of A Feather'. We didn't use headphones all that much, so he was able to balance the guitar against the vocals very well. I know this sounds silly, but his strumming and or fingerpicking would often set the tone for the sound of the song much more than any microphone would. Their internal dynamic had to be preserved as much as possible. The spill became something that I enjoyed, and I began to look at the initial recording as one instrument and less like four or five things. We also didn't record to a click or any derived time: this virtually eliminated punching in on takes.”
"Any editing of the original, core performances was guided by the desire to keep long sections of individual performances intact,” adds Charlie Peacock. "I would edit when there was something small like a pesky string buzz or ping, and then on the positive side, when another performance presented itself as being say, the best bridge among four performances. Editing multitrack performances was something I learned from producer Steven Soles — bandmate years ago with T-Bone Burnett in Dylan's band and more. Though, I can tell you, editing on Pro Tools without a click is child's play compared to editing two-inch tape! We didn't use a click, but I kept track of tempos and would gently remind JP of the tempo range if I thought they were playing a particular take considerably slower or faster than the previous one.”
In the sanctuary, with its prominent reverb, Biggs used stage-type dynamic mics for the vocals, which could be worked close for a drier and more controlled sound. "I'm not precious about microphones,” says Charlie Peacock. "I look for what captures the voice authentically and doesn't take away attractive qualities in the voice or add troublesome artifacts that will add to our work later. The dynamics were helpful in terms of application, but they wouldn't have worked alongside the condensers if JP and Joy didn't have mature, settled voices. When a singer is comfortable in their own skin and has achieved a personal, unique sound, they generally find a way to translate that sound with almost any microphone. This is what you want. You never want the tool to have more star power than the artist.”
"I learned pretty quickly that we were recording three types of musical conversations between Joy and John Paul,” says Richie Biggs, "all of them being recorded as vocal, guitar, piano performances. We recorded to Pro Tools at 24-bit, 48kHz, using Digi 192s on internal clock. The three types of performances were, one, quiet, where the acoustic and voices stayed in the same space with occasional volume rises; two, louder and more out of control, where sometimes the two voices would overtake the acoustic or the opposite; and three, where the piano was in play with either of the two above.”
Richie elaborates on the setup that was used in the Art House sanctuary. "The quiet songs had the following setup. For Joy's vocal, I used a Heil PR20 into a Neve 1073 and a 'blackface' Urei 1176 compressor, while John Paul sang into a Shure SM7, again into a Neve 1073, and a 'blue stripe' 1176. The acoustic guitar mic was a Manley Reference Cardoid into an API 512 preamp, Empirical Labs Distressor and API 560 EQ. There was also a pickup, which was DI'd into the same chain, and stereo Earthworks QTC40 room mics, which went through an Avalon M5 into an SSL G384.
"The Neves on the vocals had 1dB of 220Hz added, then the rest flat. The 1176s were both set similarly at 20:1, with the attack fully slow and release fully fast. The Distressors on the acoustic guitar were set to 10:1, with the attack at 10 and release at zero. The compression on the guitar and vocals was never hitting more than 4dB of gain reduction. The 560 had bumps in the low-mids just to size 'em up a bit, somewhere in the 250-500Hz range.
"The louder songs in the Art House sanctuary had the same setup as above, with the addition of the acoustic going to a little Fender tweed amp. It was in an isolated room with a SM57 on it, going to a Neve 1073 straight to Pro Tools.
"The piano songs had the same setup, with the addition of two Neumann KM84s under the piano, going to two Universal Audio LA610s, recorded flat. We wanted to make sure the hammers were out of play and the piano stayed dark, thus the underside miking.
"In all of those situations, phase was always in play — sometimes negatively and sometimes positively. I felt if the vocal and acoustic were in phase I was doing pretty good, but because they were responding to each in the same room, their positions changed a bit from song to song. I didn't phase pop at all — I just used my ears, and if there was a doubt, I would look at it in Pro Tools. All in all, it stayed pretty consistent unless John Paul changed to the resonator. Then the search was back on.”
For the sessions that took place in the more conventional Studio A live room, Richie Biggs felt able to use studio condenser mics on vocals as well as the other sources. "Studio A tracking room is a less ambient, more controlled space. I felt we could get away with some different mics on the voices in that space. The quiet songs in Studio A were recorded as follows. Joy sang into a Sony 800G, into a Neve 1073 and a 'blackface' 1176, while John Paul used a Manley Reference Cardoid into a Neve 1073 and 'blue stripe' 1176. The acoustic was miked and DI'd as before, and the chain for the room mics was also the same. Again, for the louder songs, the guitar was put through a Fender Champ, miked with an SM57.”
Apart from the acoustic guitar and piano parts that formed part of the initial recording, "all additional instruments were overdubbed by JP, myself, Joy, and some of our friends that we invited to join us,” explains Charlie. "We started with the assumption that none of the performances we recorded needed any extra musical parts or instrumentation, but we were open to being surprised. We cast musicians based on their musical flexibility and attitude, the concept being that we would touch the music with an idea and see if the music invited it or rejected it. Sounds a bit metaphysical but it was really very practical! Those songs that seemed to say, 'Yes, I'd like a bit of low end or a simple counter-melody,' well, we accommodated them. All other ideas were rejected as superfluous. The musicians, people like Barry Bales, Andy Leftwich, Jerry McPherson, David Davidson, John Catchings and Tim Lauer, were all very understanding with our 'much less is much more' concept. I do wish I could have played more trumpet on the recording though, as I need the practice!”
The additional instruments included an acoustic bass, tracked both with a Blue Kiwi condenser through a Neve 1064 preamp and Tube-Tech CL1A compressor and with a DI. Electric guitar was recorded with a transformerless Shure SM57 through a Shadow Hills Mono Gamma set to Nickel and a JDK equaliser, while mandolin and fiddle used a Cascade Gomez mic through the same chain, with the addition of an 1176 compressor. For a more 'pop' string sound, violin and cello respectively were miked with a Neumann KM84 and AKG C12 and tracked through Avalon M5 preamps and Millennia NSEQ2 equalisers, with a pair of Earthworks QTC40s as room mics.
On the occasions where percussion was employed, bass drum and snare were close-miked with an AKG D112 and Heil PR20 respectively, through API 512 preamps, Empirical Labs Distressor compressors and API 560 EQs. Manley Reference Cardioids through Neve 1079 preamps and SSL G348 compressors were used for overheads and general percussion. "Most of the percussion tracks were printed with Sound Toys Echoboy or Pitchblender effects,” adds Richie.
In keeping with the producer's ideal of recording his sources as naturally as possible, the mix was mainly a matter of balances, level automation and EQ rides, and was conducted mainly 'in the box', with an analogue chain used only for summing and mix-bus processing. "My mixing setup was Dangerous 2-bus [summing mixer] to an SSL Quad compressor, then to a Millennia NSEQ2, then print back to Pro Tools,” explains Richie Biggs.
"The Dangerous gives apparent depth and width without too much colour. It also allows me not to overwork a mix and enjoy what I have already recorded. The SSL settings were a 4:1 ratio with attack at 10ms, release at 0.1s or auto, and 3dB gain. The Millennia had a 1dB bump at 60Hz and 16kHz, on the tube setting. All masters had a McDSP Analog Channel AC2 plug-in.
"My mix setup in Pro Tools was always as follows. Output pairs 1-2 were the vocals, then 3-4 the acoustic guitars, 5-6 drums, 7-8 additional guitars, 9-10 keyboards, 11-12 banjo or dobro, 13-14 strings, fiddle, horns, and 15-16 were returns for all the aux effects. There were five of these: two instances of the TL Space convolution reverb, with the 'Capitol Plate' and 'Spring' presets, Sound Toys Pitchblender and Echoboy, and McDSP MC2000 for squashing. Reverb in the box has always been a struggle for me to enjoy, but in the making of this record we used TL Space with the 'Capitol Plate' IR as a way to make the initial snapshots feel bigger and more live. I just love that IR, I use it or the 'Spring' IR most of the time.”
Insert effects were limited mainly to EQ and compression. "Either before or during the mix, I would go through and gain down any offending sibilance or pops on the vocals, trying to eliminate the need for a de-esser if possible. A Massey CT4/VT3 combo was on the vocals and acoustic guitars. A McDSP Filterbank EQ replaced the VT3 if more surgery was needed, but all in all, we liked what we recorded. I felt like the Massey stuff was the most honest to what was recorded, as far as adding EQ and or compression in the box. The overdubs used in the mix were looked at on a case-by-case basis, with the McDSP Compressorbank and Filterbank being my first choices. The Massey L2007 is also a great limiter that I used quite a bit.”
Both Charlie Peacock and Richie Biggs are keen to stress that the Civil Wars' success is not down to choice of microphones or plug-ins, but to having a dedicated team of people who believe in the band — and, of course, to the strength of the music. "The strategy was and is simple,” says Charlie. "Record real people making real music, do it because you love it and want to listen to it yourself, assemble a small but committed group of people to work the record in both unpredictable and customary ways, have all this directed by a young, unjaded manager with vision, send the artists out to do on the road what they love to do and always dreamed of doing, care for fans as you care for a friend, be thankful, grateful, and never stop imagining for what is next. As far as I can tell, that seems to be the strategy.
"Oh, and I almost forgot: make sure your artists are John Paul White and Joy Williams. There's no substitute for remarkable, exceptional, musical DNA.”
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Charlie Peacock's production on Barton Hollow is his use of textural backgrounds and atmospheres. Without ever dominating the mixes, these serve both to flesh out the sparse arrangements and to add a contemporary, modern edge to the music.
"The tuned ambience idea is something I've been sneaking into recordings for a long time,” says Charlie. "The Civil Wars seemed like a good candidate for this technique. It's a way of allowing the listener to feel something without hearing more content-rich ideas. Joy, JP, and his guitar are content-rich on their own — they demand your attention. Still, you like to have a little development underneath it all, and ambient instrumental performances work very well. If you go looking for them you'll find processed electric guitar washes, DX7 sine waves with analogue delays, trumpets, and even a Hohner air organ. There's more, but sometimes it's better not to explain in great detail how your best sausage is made!”