Dave Cobb's approach to recording is simple — but as artists like Chris Stapleton, Rival Sons and Jason Isbell have found, it's very effective.
It's the early '90s, and a young Dave Cobb is staring intently at an old photograph of Elvis at work in RCA studios. He concludes that Mr Presley is singing into a single RCA 77DX ribbon mic, and his backing singers, the Jordinaires, are grouped around just the one RCA 44. DJ Fontana's drums have a 77 overhead and likely one mic on the kick, there's yet another 77 in front of Scotty Moore's guitar amp, and there's probably a single mic on Bill Black's bass. Six mics. And yet everyone around Dave at the time was talking about the desirability of multiple mic setups.
"Six mics, that was the whole thing!" he says today, sitting a short stroll away from the spot where that picture was taken over 60 years ago. "And those '50s Elvis records sound massive. I couldn't Figure out why for the longest time. How did they do that?"
Eventually, he discovered how the engineers took advantage of the mics' polar patterns. "The way Elvis was angled from the drums meant his 77 nulled the drums out, and the Jordinaires' mic was slightly angled from him, to null out Elvis and the drums. I was starting to put the pieces together and understand microphones."
Back then, Dave pored over as many classic studio pictures as he could find, and almost all of them revealed working methods that were so much simpler than the complex setups fashionable in the '90s. "I think recording was overly complicated in my head," Dave says, "because when you talked to people or read about recording at the time, it really was made overly complicated. Today, though, at this point in my life, if I mic a drum kit myself, it's going to be probably three mics: a kick, snare and overhead. When I have a great drummer who knows how to hit, I'll get a bigger sound out of that than 15 mics on a kit."
Dave's preoccupations with simplicity and with the sound and vitality of real musicians in a room have led him to a sparkling career as a producer. He has four Grammys up on the shelf, for Best Country Album with Chris Stapleton's Traveller (2015) and From A Room Vol. 1 (2017), and for Best Americana Album with Jason Isbell's Something More Than Free (2015) and The Nashville Sound (2017). He's cut records with artists ranging from the Oak Ridge Boys to Rival Sons, from John Prine to Mary Chapin Carpenter. And these days, the base for his Low Country Sound is the renowned RCA Studio A, where he moved in 2016 from his small studio in South East Nashville.
The historic Studio A building on Music Row, with its spectacular 75-by-45-foot main room, was designed by RCA's architect John E Volkmann and built in 1964-65 by a team led by Chet Atkins, right next door to the existing and already famous RCA studio (soon renamed Studio B). "Studio A is one of those old places from a time when the industry spent money when they had it," Dave says, surveying the main room through the control-room glass. He seems as if he still can't quite believe it's his workspace. "Elvis recorded here, Dolly Parton did 'I Will Always Love You' and 'Jolene' here, Eddy Arnold did 'Make The World Go Away' here, all this incredible talent — early Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed, the Monkees — it's unbelievable who's been here through the years. It's a big old historic studio space, that's for sure. And I was fortunate enough to be able to move into the place and take over the lease for a while."
The future of the building had been threatened by developers in 2014, but the Nashville community pulled together to save it. Ben Folds was producer-in-residence at Studio A at the time, and was among those spearheading the campaign. "When Ben moved out, I got a call from a friend of mine who owns the building now about doing something with it, and he leased it to me," Dave recalls.
Studio A was built at a time when RCA would record an entire orchestra, choir, band and singer, all in the one big main room. "And it's sonically built to do that," Dave says, "so you can have a drum set next to a singer, and the bleed is minimal. I don't know how it does that: definitely some old '60s math that we haven't figured out how to redo. It's like how they built the pyramids and we haven't been able to build them again."
The music history oozing from the walls is a big part of the attraction for Dave. "For years, I was sitting in the back of my house in a little studio trying to chase x sound from x record that Elvis did or Waylon did... and now I'm in the room where they did it. Now I know I can't nail it!" he says with a laugh. "All I need is Elvis Presley or Waylon Jennings, you know?"
He might not have Elvis or Waylon available, but Dave Cobb has worked with some great artists on some outstanding records. Among the most recent is the sixth Rival Sons album, Feral Roots. "I've worked with them for a long time," Dave says. His own roots are in rock & roll, despite the strong reputation for work in country and Americana. "When I was a kid, all I cared about was the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin, AC/DC. That stuff was my childhood."
Those roots are clear on the six Rival Sons albums he's produced, not least in the way he encourages and captures the vocal punch of the band's mainman, Jay Buchanan. "He's unbelievable," Dave concludes. "A one-take guy — done. It's such a pleasure, because then you can get wild with things. You can experiment when it doesn't take long for the singer to do his thing."
Vocals are a prime focus for Dave, because he knows that most people are listening to the singer. "No one cares how good that snare sounds. Well, maybe another drummer, but most people want to hear the vocal and the artist, and secondly maybe the beat. So when I cut, I always cut to the singer. It's always about the singer."
With Buchanan, and indeed any singer he records, Dave cuts the vocals live with the band. "I never tell the singer we're keeping these vocals, either. It's always: 'Let's cut with the band to get the track.' And then we may cut the song three, four, five, six, seven, eight times, but I've got each vocal take. I comp the master take according to the vocal appeal, and then that winds up being the record. Really, 90 percent of the time, the singers don't have to re-sing anything."
It's not the same, he says, if you record the track and then put the singer on his or her own in a booth. Suddenly it's all about the singer, and everyone's looking to them to get the magic take. The pressure is on. "That doesn't happen when they're singing with everybody, which is what I do. It's a group effort, everybody's having a good time, and no one thinks they're paying attention to just the vocal. I think it's a lot freer for a singer. Also, the band comes up and goes down when the singer gets loud or gets quiet. I think if you cut without the singer, you don't go for that, and suddenly your band isn't dynamically responding to the emotion of the singer. I've done it the other way, and it's just incredibly hard to get it to sound like a record."
Dave enjoys cutting Rival Sons' drummer, too, because he sees this as a relatively simple job of capturing what Mike Miley already sounds like. On every one of their records, he's used the time-honoured Glyn Johns drum-mic setup — in essence, one or two overheads plus one kick and one snare. It's very simply miked and very simply recorded, he emphasises, because the band just sound like that. Does it really all go back to what Glyn Johns would have done with, say, the Stones, or what Geoff Emerick would have done with the Beatles?
"Yes, those are my two heroes," he says with a smile. "Geoff Emerick, particularly, with all the experimental stuff — and Eddie Kramer, as well, for that reason. I try to figure out how those guys were doing it, and do as best as I can."
Anything still not quite figured out? "Probably ADT [automated double-tracking, originally developed at Abbey Road using a second tape machine to provide a short delay that recreates the effect of a vocal double-track]. Since I don't happen to have the BTR machines they had — and they're probably the hardest thing in the world to find — I've never been able to really nail that. I got close, but that's a whole other level. I don't think it ever happened or sounded the same after that period at Abbey Road. I love the way Beatles records sound with ADT, there's something 3D about it."
All these influential records have been on Dave Cobb's mind since the earliest days, back when he was growing up in Georgia. The local Pentecostal church was a natural part of those early years, and he couldn't help but take an interest in the pedal steel, the piano, the guitar, and the other instruments lying around. He can't remember a time in his life when he wasn't playing. He had his first drum kit at four years old, and then played bass from about 12, guitar from 13. His professional musical career started when he became a session musician. "I could always play," he says, baffled as to how it could be any other way. "It seemed like something built in."
He started to watch producers on those sessions in Atlanta, and in the mid-'90s his band the Tender Idols scored a record deal, providing the opportunity to observe even more closely as studio people went about their work. "We signed the famous Bad Record Deal, where you just couldn't get out of it and nothing was happening. If I went and recorded something else in a band, it would just go to this label. So I decided to produce a couple friends of mine, and those artists were getting signed. It made sense. I wanted to stay home, I always hated travelling, so this allowed me to sleep in my own bed at night."
He quit the band, moved to Los Angeles in 2002, and began making records there, eventually working out of a small room called Hollywood Sound. "I figured maybe this was the right calling. I'm very musically vested with my projects — I play on the records, I write if it needs writing, whatever needs doing. I'm very involved in it. It's like being in a different band every album we do. I kind of get that same band camaraderie and spirit, but I'm just in that band for however long that record takes."
One of the triggers for Dave's move in 2012 from LA back to the South, to Nashville, was when he heard the song 'Outfit' by Drive-By Truckers, sung by Jason Isbell. He's gone on to make a number of notable records with Isbell. The lyrics to 'Outfit' — "Don't sing with a fake British accent, don't act like your family's a joke" — made him feel homesick. "There's something about the Deep South, musically," he says. "It's the place where soul and American folk music and jazz and blues and country and rock & roll started. It's the immigration from all over the world, the origins of country music coming from the UK and African artists, Latin artists, all of this coming together. There's something here for sure in the water. You hear it on those records, and it's still here in the players. The players in the South are just unbelievable, particularly in Nashville: people can play.
"As a kid here, you get thrown in church and you're expected to play — it's like getting thrown in to the deep end of the pool. Just swim! Just figure it out! I like proper country music where people just play from the heart, from the origins of Southern music. I love that. I love that sound."
Close listening to classic cuts is an important part of Dave's research into the constituents that come together to make a great record. One of the key things he listens for is the humanity coming from the grooves — more so than, say, the hi-hat sound. "It might be a feel and a looseness, the way things ebb and flow. When I listen to 'Honky Tonk Women' by the Rolling Stones, if you pull out a metronome and analyse the very first bar of that song to the last bar, it probably goes up 25 bpm. But they were chasing the soul. Wherever the soul was, they were letting it lead, and it kept getting more exciting and more exciting. That may be the good road map for a lot of records I love, that there are no rules. It's whatever it takes to get the humanity out of this, whatever it takes to get the soul out of it and the excitement.
"I think when I make records, I'm trying to recreate what Jimmy Miller did with the Stones, getting the feel, to get that thing where the hair stands up on your arms. That's what I chase, more than sounds. Trying to get it so you're turning off your analytical mind — you're just feeling it and going with it. That's what I'm chasing on old records."
And that's why he tries to spend as much time as possible at a session in the main room with the musicians. Especially in the last few years, he's found himself working with more engineers, and he can't wait to get in the live room when it's going down. Of course, he'll be in the control room at first when the job is to get sounds, to make sure they get what he's looking for. But the moment the basic sound is sorted, he'll be out in the main room the whole time, playing guitar, meshing with the band and worrying about the feel.
He offers another favourite classic, Otis Redding's 'I've Been Loving You Too Long', as an illustration of what he looks for in a vocal take. For Dave, this is probably the greatest vocal performance ever, and certainly Otis is his favourite singer of all time. "You hear how he'll crack, he'll go sharp, maybe the band rushes, maybe there's some out-of-tune elements. But no one ever talks about the deficiencies of that record, they only talk about how it feels. So I play that to people all the time.
"With the advent of Auto-Tune, singers expect the vocals to always be spot on. I don't care about that. I don't care if you go flat or sharp, as long as it hits you in the right place, you know? Auto-Tune is a blessing for a lot of reasons, but at the same time, I think Auto-Tune and digital have for some reason made people get focused on pitch a lot more than they used to be. But, you know, I can record something digitally, and I can record the same thing analogue, and it may be pitchy on both, but for some reason on analogue it doesn't bother me. I don't know why that is. There's just something about it."
Dave Cobb lives and works in the present, of course. In fact, he says categorically that we're in the best ever era for recording right now. If, as a producer, you want to hunt for a '50s preamp and use that, and use an old Ampex 350 machine, you can have a go at recreating that period — as long as you have the artists, of course. Or you might want to make a Michael Jackson/Quincy Jones-sounding record — again, if you have talented players — and perhaps you'll want to track down a Harrison console. "Or you could do something totally clean and modern with modern equipment," he says. "You can do it all. To me, there's less of a limit on anything now."
He talks of some of those hi-fi-sounding late‑'50s/early‑'60s American records, cuts like 'Adios Amigo', a 1962 single for Jim Reeves. "That's one of the most gigantic sounding records, or say Buddy Holly's 'Everyday', any of those songs. You hear them and they sound so 3D, so massive, because they're one generation. They went into whatever it was, a mono or stereo machine, and they were not losing anything. They had the ability to do it then. And now, with digital, we have the ability to preserve that first master sound, and then overdub on it, without ever losing that first-pass sound. I guess that's why I like digital."
Every day in RCA Studio A, he's weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of analogue and digital, of old and new, of vintage and modern. "I probably record on tape about 70 percent of the time, because when I go on tape, things come back together and mix themselves a lot easier. And when I'm not on tape, I'm trying to get not-tape to sound like tape.
"I would love to stop messing with tape machines," he says with a groan. "I would love to stop maintaining them, I would love to stop the extra time it takes to record on tape and then bounce into Pro Tools. I'd love to avoid all that time. But as of now, there's something that happens with tape that just seems to make my life easier. So I still use it, but I love Pro Tools, too."
Tape machines at Studio A include a Studer A800 one-inch eight-track and a Studer A820 24-track, plus a Studer C37 that Dave uses quite a bit to reprocess tracks. Digitally, he relies on a Burl Mothership 24-channel converter. Everything is tied together by a 32-channel API console. Built in 1976, it was in the building before Dave moved in, and he decided to buy it from Ben Folds. He'd already used studio and desk to make Chris Stapleton's hit 2015 album Traveller, so the feeling was not to break anything. "One of my clients said you've got to keep it, because it has red, white and blue EQs. We were superstitious," Dave says with a laugh, "so I bought the console."
He's also acquired a lot of vintage EMI TG preamps, which he describes as magical sounding, and he has some original TG limiters, too. There are Fairchild 670 and 660 compressor-limiters, an RCA BA-6A compressor, UREI 1176s, some UA 610 modules, EMT reverb plates, and Spectra Sonics 610 limiters. "I've got a Spectra Sonics vintage sidecar I use a lot, and I've got a Neve BCM10 and several other vintage Neve modules. And a bunch of esoteric stuff: '50s tube mic preamps, modified Ampex mic pres, and so on.
"I love being able to chase eras. That really beautiful solid-state Band On The Run sound, you can use the TGs for that, or the '50s RCA Studio B Elvis thing, I have modules that kind of recreate that, ribbon mics that pair along with that. The Spectra Sonics stuff sounds like Stax, so you can get that. And I have some Sound Techniques modules, which are cool because you put those on a piano, and it sounds like Elton John records, which I love. It's fun to piece it all together. It's fun to sonically mash up '50s American music with '60s and '70s English music. Blend it all together, and I think you're going to come out with something maybe a little bit unusual."
He recalls a point during the making of the first record he did with Rival Sons, the 2011 album Pressure & Time. The title track marked the first time he'd used Helios modules, for the overhead and snare, plus a Gates tube preamp for the kick. "I remember hearing that sound," he says, "and oh, oh, so that's how you get that sound. I didn't know how to do that before. It's such a detailed thing, finding the right pre with the right mic and impedance match, the right era of equipment. And as I heard that back, it sounded like a record to me."
This has become a key phrase for him. A while ago, the engineer Greg Gordon told Dave about the way he was always striving to make things sound like a record. "And there's not really a definable way to tell you what that is," Dave says with a shrug. "Sometimes you've recorded it and you've got to wrangle it. But there's those other things you hit on through your career. They may only exist that one day, because the next day you walk in and it sounds nothing like that. But those moments do happen, and the drums on 'Pressure & Time' was one of those. When I pulled it up, it sounded like a record."
An album that attracted a lot of attention for Dave Cobb's production as well as the music was Sturgill Simpson's Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. Released in 2014, its title echoed Ray Charles's Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, made in 1962 when country music for the most part had distinct boundaries. Simpson once explained that Metamodern, by contrast, was about consciousness and outer space. Dave remembers cutting the record at the back of his house in Nashville in a tiny room, the size of a bedroom, with everyone crowded in. He had a 20-channel Helios desk, a Stephens tape machine, and a Studer A80 as a pre-delay into an echo plate.
It was recorded more or less live, with Dave playing guitar in the room, Miles Miller on drums next to him (Neumann U87 overhead, AKG D12 on kick and Shure SM57 on snare), Kevin Black on bass on the other side (Electro-Voice RE20 on a small Fender Bassman), Simpson singing into a Beyer M160 and playing acoustic guitar (miked with an EV RE15) directly across from Dave, and the remarkable guitar player Laur Joamets (RCA 77 on a Fender Champ) directly next to Simpson. "We were crammed in," Dave says, "using a lot of figure-eight-pattern microphones to kind of null everything. I don't think I EQ'ed anything at all, just maybe added a little top or something in the mix. I was using a lot of M160s then, and for Sturgill's vocal, I matched one with a really hypercardioid pattern to a Neve 1064 mic pre, and that sounded massive to me."
Aside from a modified Altec on the bass, there was no compression. His friend, engineer Mark Neill ("I've stolen a lot of stuff from him") had offered some good advice on the subject. "He taught me that back in the day they weren't using compression when they recorded. So if you hit a vocal hard or quiet it would change the effect of the reverb: quiet, and the reverb is there; spike it, and the reverb gets excited and blooms. You can hear that all over that record."
Metamodern was recorded and mixed in four days, with any effects going down live. "All the instruments with reverb were going to one reverb — it wasn't multiple reverbs. And with the Studer machine I created a feedback slap that I wound up adding on some things. On 'Turtles All The Way Down', all that 'duh-duh-duh-duh-duh' stuff is kind of ripping off the 'Day In The Life' thing, where you take the delay and feed it back into itself until it starts to sputter."
Another Beatles influence arrives with the backwards tape on 'It Ain't All Flowers'. Dave recalls they were jamming on a track that didn't seem to be going anywhere, and almost in desperation — and for a laugh — he decided to reverse the tape. "And it was like yeah, that sounds like cocaine! And we kept it," he says with a smile. "It ended up triggering Sturgill to write 'It Ain't All Flowers', and that kind of went into trippy land. We love all that stuff. There's things flying all over the place, all ridden by hand. I had everyone in the control room singing into an Echoplex, Sturgill was saying random stuff, and we were changing the Echoplex as it went along. I put the Echoplex on two channels of the desk and rode it with mutes, like a DJ, with my hand. It made it sound like it was an EDM track, even though it was all done with analogue tape and a '60s mentality."
'Long White Line' is another standout track on Metamodern, with some fine playing from Laur 'Little Joe' Joamets, and more trippy panning. "We stole a lot of ideas from Jerry Reed records — they're kind of out there — and there's Dolly Parton's 'Jolene', that's pretty psychedelic as well, she has an almost Middle Eastern vocal run on it. Plus there's some psychedelic stuff on Bobbie Gentry's 'Ode To Billie Joe'. We didn't necessarily talk about all that, but I'm pretty sure in the back of my mind that's where that song was digging from."
Dave Cobb modestly describes his enviable microphone collection as "the usual suspects": Neumann U48s, 47s, 67s and 87s, AKG C12s and D12s. Does he have a go-to vocal mic? "Nothing's a magic bullet. You can put up a U47, and it sounds 3D and surreal on one person, but it just collapses on someone else, and an SM7 will take it out. I use a Beyer M160 on a lot of vocals, I really like those, or a Coles 4038 ribbon, I love those on vocals. I also like the Coles stuff on acoustic guitars, and I have one of the new Chandler TG mics, which I think are phenomenal on guitar."
He hesitates as we get near the end of this enjoyable inventory. "You can probably tell, I've got a hoarding problem..."