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Don Was & Don Smith: Recording The Rolling Stones

Interview | Producer/Engineer By Richard Buskin
Published December 1994

Countless bands have been influenced by The Rolling Stones, which makes it all the more interesting to find out how they work and record. Richard Buskin talks to top producer/musician Don Was and engineer Don Smith about their contributions to the Stones' new album.

One thing that can usually be said of Stones albums — good, bad or indifferent — is that you pretty much know what you are going to get in terms of musical feel. Sure, the styles will switch from straight rock to R&B, folk to country, Irish to Elizabethan, but everything they touch will invariably have those hard edges and no‑nonsense approach.

And so it is with Voodoo Lounge, although the album's sound has been considerably stripped down, focusing attention firmly on some of the strongest material the band has recorded for some time, instead of immersing it in heavy production techniques. "Personally, I don't believe anyone ever fools anybody with production techniques," says producer Don Was.

The initial pre‑production sessions for the project took place at Blue Wave Studios, Barbados, where engineer Don Smith put together a small setup — comprising an ADAT system, a portable four‑channel Neve console and some microphones — which Jagger and Richards could utilise for songwriting. Within six months, Mick and Keith had come up with fragments of no less than 75 songs in various states of completion. Some 32 complete numbers actually made it onto tape, and 15 of these ended up on the finished album, which clocks in at just over 62 minutes.

Next stop was Windmill Lane in Dublin, where the entire band assembled for more pre‑production and then the recordings proper, from November 1 to December 16 last year, (4pm‑4am, excluding weekends). It was here that the two Dons, Was and Smith, both became actively involved for the first time. While the JBL version of (Urei) 813C monitors were flown in from America especially for the project, Smith also brought along his own Neve 10‑channel desk and assortment of Neve modules to complement Windmill Lane's in‑house Amek console. For the most part recordings were 24‑track, while certain songs resorted to slave reels for an extra four tracks of backing vocals. "The bass drum, snare and drum overheads, Keith and Ronnie's electric and acoustic guitars, and Mick's vocal all went through the Neve desk", explains Smith.

A Studer A‑27 analogue tape machine was used on the project; Smith doesn't like to work in the digital domain at all. "It just ain't right," he claims. "It's like half the echo's gone, the bottom's gone, the 400 cycles have gone, and it's very frustrating. The only advantage I can attribute to digital is that I can bring a DAT home and listen to it at the right speed. But the rest of it, they can use for boat anchors as far as I'm concerned!"

Production Approach

Approaching production from the musical, rather than technical, standpoint, producer Don Was acted as the objective party within his co‑production partnership with Jagger and Richards.

"I never felt that my job was to impose creative concepts on them, but just to help distill the wealth of ideas that they had. I would point things out if I didn't think something was going to work, but I didn't think it was my position to say, 'Here, Keith, give me your guitar for a minute. I'll show you what to play'. That would be like grabbing the sax from Charlie Parker! Keith's got so many ideas and they're all so original that I couldn't come up with them in a 100 years. That's the amazing thing — the simplicity of what he does is so deceptive. There's so much happening within a few notes."

Talking of the way that Jagger and Richards tend not to write a song in 15 minutes and record it as originally conceived, Was describes them as "guys who keep working with the clay, over and over". This is especially true of Keith Richards. "He may play a riff for an hour, just trying to get inside of the thing," says Was.

Overall, it has to be said that the sound and feel of Voodoo Lounge are not dissimilar to The Stones' highly acclaimed 1972 double set, Exile On Main Street, while further links with the past include the 'Lady Jane'‑like harpsichord arrangement of 'New Faces' and Keith's trademark 'Honky Tonk Woman'‑type guitar licks on the intro to 'Love Is Strong'. According to Don Was, however, any such similarities are more coincidence than contrivance.

"It really wasn't a case of 'let's sound how we used to sound'," he explains, "but with any artist's work, there is usually a thread of consciousness which is easily identifiable. So, maybe 'Out Of Tears' is reminiscent of 'Angie' — but there again, it's been written by the same guy so why shouldn't it be? The fact that there's a thread of consistency through the years is a plus."

Room Of Illusion

Prior to Voodoo Lounge, Don Was and Don Smith had worked together on Keith Richards' solo albums, so after discussing at length what was required in terms of the sound for the new Stones record, the co‑producer pretty much left the engineer to his own devices.

"He did an incredible job," admits Was freely. "The record sounds very natural and intimate. Sometimes, just given the nature of the technology, you almost have to create an illusion of smallness. Maybe a room is larger than you want it to be and the sound is too big, so to get it tighter requires some manoeuvering and this is not as simple as it appears to be."

When recording most of the basic tracks, the whole band played together in the live area, positioned close together in a semi‑circle with drummer Charlie Watts sitting in the middle. Keith Richards' guitars usually went through an AB box — one of the amplifiers was a 1957 Fender Twin, miked with an SM57 on one speaker and an AKG 451 with a 10dB pad on the other speaker; the second amp would vary between an old Fender Bassman, a Fender Bandmaster, a small Marshall, an Ampeg B4 or a new Fender Vibro King.

"We always used the Twin, and then the other amp would be something that we would maybe turn up for very over‑the‑top distortion, or have real clean or whatever the song called for," explains Smith. "Sometimes we would have a mic on that cabinet and sometimes we'd use a Palmer speaker simulator."

Ronnie Wood, who played pedal steel and lap steel in addition to regular electric and acoustic guitars, also made use of the Vibro King and the Bassman. Darryl Jones' bass, on the other hand, usually went through an SVT or an Ampeg B15.

"We usually used a Palmer on the SVT," says Smith, "because to me, it sounds just as good as a speaker cabinet for the most part. It doesn't work on Twins, because the Fender Twin has a certain amount of speaker compression that goes along with the sound, but on things like Marshalls, the Palmer works excellently, especially with a bass. You can also turn it up and get some distortion out of the amp head without blowing away everybody in the room."

Don Smith: "I mean, the only advantage I can attribute to digital is that I can bring a DAT home and listen to it at the right speed now... But the rest of it, they can use for boat anchors as far as I'm concerned!"

"We had a small cabinet setup for Darryl so that he could hear himself live in the room, and sometimes we'd use a B15 and mike it with a Neumann FET 47 or even an old Telefunken U47. On a couple of songs, he also played Ronnie's acoustic bass."

For keyboards, while Chuck Leavell played either piano, Wurlitzer piano, harmonium or Hammond B3 organ on most of the tracks, he resorted to a synth program when a real harpsichord couldn't be found quickly enough for the recording of 'New Faces'. Ivan Neville and Benmont Tench also played occasional keyboards, and for some songs, Fairchild compressors were used on the piano.

In terms of EQ, Smith mostly used Pultec and API devices: "stuff that has got some warmth to it. All of the old tube gear has got really good harmonic distortion too. It's very musical when distortion takes place, unlike a lot of the newer transistor stuff, so if you go through a lot of valve gear, especially things that use transformers, you can get away with a lot more. With guitar chords, you can actually hear the ring instead of it just being a buzz."

Feel And Performance

For all this, however, emphasis was placed more on capturing feel and performance rather than obtaining the perfect recorded sound. "Basically, I tried to ensure that it felt as great as possible, and if it sounded great too, then that was a bonus," confirms Smith. "I'll fix the sound up as much as I can within these parameters, but the hardest thing is to make sure that you don't screw up the feel while you're trying to EQ it. For example, it's really easy to put some high‑end on Charlie's drum kit, and all of a sudden, it feels like he's playing ahead."

Don Was comments: "The sound of Steel Wheels was a bit monolithic in terms of how everything was big, as well as dense with echo and texture, and that tended to obscure the subtleties of an ensemble playing. For this project, we wanted to go back to the essence of good band playing, utilising a raw, Chess Records kind of recording technique."

"On every song we tried to apply some extra texture. Like on the intro to 'You Got Me Rocking', Keith is playing something called a 'mystery guitar', which is actually just a wild sound that he got from playing an old fibre glass dobro with a stick. It makes a kind of clanging effect in the background, and it just gives the song some dimension and a unique texture.

"Perhaps the best example, however, is 'Moon Is Up', which has everything," adds Smith, "from Charlie banging on a garbage can with brushes to Ronnie playing his pedal steel through a Mutron, Keith playing his acoustic guitar through the Hammond organ's Leslie cabinet, and Mick singing through his harmonica mic which had phasing on it. Every sound on there was dramatically altered.

"Don [Was] wanted to find something else for Charlie to bang on, so I found this trash can sitting on a flightcase and we placed it and Charlie out on the third floor. Then, to record it, we used a stereo mic in such a way that one side of it was close to the trash can, while the other side was picking up the sound from the stairwell. That ran through my Neve desk and then through a set of Fairchild compressors, which had been turned all the way up.

"After that I had to be very careful how I EQ'd that trash can, because Charlie was playing every single part of a drum kit all at once. You could actually feel the kick drum pattern going on, you could hear the hi‑hat pattern, the fills, the cymbal splashes, so if I were to make it maybe a little too bright all of a sudden, it would accentuate one part of the kit that you didn't want.

"All of the sounds on that track were done in about 15‑20 minutes — we didn't spend that much time on sound in the studio. They'd be up and playing very quickly, and half the time, they'd be doing so before we could even get things plugged in! So we had to be very, very careful not to change anything while the tape was rolling, because you don't want to be EQ'ing in the middle of a take."

Jagger's vocal on 'Moon Is Up' was recorded with him standing close to a Telefunken U47, while hand‑holding a bullet mic. The latter was fed through a Boss pedal with pitch‑change, a Fender Champ, and then the Palmer speaker simulator.

"The Palmer was a great help on that track," says Smith, "and we could turn the amp up as loud as we wanted without blowing the speaker out, because the Palmer will take over 100 Watts. We just mixed the two things together; a really good quality live vocal with the bullet mic vocal. You can hear that moving in and out every now and again; we just did that on purpose to give it a little texture."

The Treatment

On the whole, the Voodoo Lounge album features effects that were applied during recording and utilised fairly economically, rather than the previously favoured wall of sounds. "When you hear a little bit of reverb or you hear some slap, it means something," states Smith. "I think the biggest effect that I used on any of the songs during mixing [which took place on a fully automated Neve console with flying faders, in Studio A at A&M in Los Angeles] was on 'Out Of Tears', where I was just trying to make the mix a little bit more personable and raw, without too many bare bones. I actually tried to imitate the John Lennon 'Imagine' feel by putting 15ips tape slap on the drums to start with, and then I wondered what it would sound like if I put it on the piano too. I ended up putting it on everything, the whole track, just like the old Phil Spector way of doing things — and it worked."

Recording Jagger's Vocals

"The difference between the Stones and session guys is that you drive session musicians like mules," says Don Was. "You know, you crack the whip and get them to keep playing over and over and over until they get it right. But with the Stones, there's this kind of mystical feel — everyone's got to feel like doing it. After a take, they may go shoot pool or watch a football match, then come back and do it one more time. It was rare for us to get good results by performing a song back‑to‑back, twice in a row.

"As for Mick's vocals, it would take him a minute to warm up, but you always knew when he had it, because he would cut to the essence of the thing. Sometimes you really have to strain to tell if someone's deep inside a song, but with Mick, it's really remarkable. His voice leaps off the tape and out of the speakers like no‑one I've ever heard. It was a phenomenal experience. He projects this huge character. I mean, if you close your eyes and listen, you can actually visualise the sort of caricature that may appear in Rolling Stone magazine, where someone has drawn the huge lips and so on. He becomes that person, and he cuts right to the heart of the song. Like an actor giving a great performance."

Jagger himself goes along with this analogy. "You can go through the motions and still deliver the lines," he says, "but, if you're not on, the performance won't come across. So you've gotta be jumping for that take."

When Jagger sang live with the band, he was usually recorded with a Shure SM7, whereas for overdubs various mics were used. Mostly a Telefunken U47, although a Telefunken 251 and an RCA Ribbon were also drafted into service, as was "this big, fat, round one, with a little cone‑shaped stick on top, which we also used for Keith's vocals" as Don Smith succinctly described it.

"Another mic that we used was an Electrovoice 667," Smith continues. "It has a separate little EQ box, which enables you to change the high‑end and low‑end. For the overdubs on most of the rock stuff, such as 'You Got Me Rocking' and 'Sparks Will Fly', Mick used a Shure SM58, hand‑held. It was like, 'Why stand here and sing when you don't do that naturally in a live situation?'. So, we gave him a hand‑held mic and he'd do his thing all over the room without being restricted as to where he had to sing."

"He'd give it the full stage bit," says Don Was, "and, in fact, it was so awesome I had to keep looking down at the console, because I didn't want to be wowed too much! I mean, I used to wait in line overnight to get tickets to see these guys, just for some shitty seats. And now I had them about five feet in front of me, on the other side of the glass, and I didn't want to be biased in my assessment of his vocal. So, I had to look down and just listen to make sure it was working, because otherwise I could have lost my objectivity."

For Was, however, the track that best embodies the spirit of the entire Voodoo project is 'Sweethearts Together', on which Mick and Keith both played their acoustic guitars in an isolation booth. Then with a pair of microphones facing away from each other, they dueted on lead vocal.

"They were standing eyeball‑to‑eyeball, about 18 inches apart," recalls Was. "They did this incredible Everly Brothers‑type harmony all the way through the song. I thought it was very cool, but the people in the control room who had worked with them for 10 or 15 years were like, 'I can't believe this is happening!' That moment epitomised the collaboration which characterises the whole album, and I think that's why it's a better record than others they've done in recent years."

Co‑Producer: Don Was

Born and raised in Detroit, 41‑year‑old Don Was is currently one of the world's most prolific and respected producers. Bob Dylan, Elton John, Carly Simon, Michael McDonald, Iggy Pop, Paula Abdul, Willie Nelson, David Crosby, Lyle Lovett, Jackson Browne, Neil Diamond — these are just a few of the many major artists who have benefitted from his prodigious talents. The B‑52's, Bob Seger, Michelle Shocked, KD Lang, and Roy Orbison have all earned Grammy nominations thanks to their work with him, while the Was‑produced Bonnie Raitt's Nick Of Time won four Grammys in 1989, including one for Album Of The Year.

As an artist, Don Was has experienced success in his own right with Was (Not Was), the band that he formed with childhood friend David Weiss. It was after four albums and the Top‑10 single, 'Walk The Dinosaur', that he then turned to production as the primary focus of his career, and his reputation is now such that — to quote the New York Times [Sunday, March 27, 1994] — he "bridges a gap. He takes people that were good all along and distills them into the best versions of themselves."

In addition to Voodoo Lounge, Was's recent projects have included the production and co‑scoring of the soundtrack to the successful Beatles biographical movie, Backbeat. He has also formed his own MCA‑backed record label, Karambolage, for whom his productions include forthcoming albums by the likes of Brian Wilson, Kris Kristofferson, and The New Maroons, a band which Was himself is a member of along with Ringo Starr, Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, Jackson Browne's guitarist Mark Goldenberg, and a revolving array of singers such as Merle Haggard and Lyle Lovett.

How They Recorded That Drum Sound

For the miking of Charlie Watts' kit, a pair of Telefunken 251s were used as overheads; a cheap, battery‑operated Sony stereo condenser was placed above and behind the drummer's head to add some rawness to the sound; Shure SM57s were placed above and below the snare; a D12 and RE20 were used on the kick drum; an AKG 451 was placed above the tom‑toms with 10dB pads, with a Neumann KM84 on the hi‑hat; and occasionally either an SM57 or KM84 on the ride cymbal.

Don Smith: "A set of Fairchild compressors was usually used on the drum overheads. When I record, I only use five tracks of drums for kick, snare, hi‑hat — everything else I just mix together, and then I put the Fairchild on there. Not too much compression, but more just the sound of what's going through all those tubes."

For some of the songs, Charlie found himself playing a different kit positioned at the bottom of a three‑flight, square staircase. "We'd just throw the mic cables over the railing," says Don Smith. "On that particular Neve desk of mine, it's got a switch that says 'Mic 1', 'Mic2', and then 'Line', so I can plug two sets of mics into the same channel. Therefore, all I had to do was flip to 'Mic 2' and the downstairs drum kit was ready to go."

"The stairwell was concrete and it had tremendous echo," adds Don Was. "We also put his kit in there for 'Thru And Thru' and 'You Got Me Rocking', and it produced a really huge, natural sound."

This still had to be worked on, however, as the echo was actually quite hard to control. As a result, Don Smith put some packing quilts on the walls near to the drum kit to stop the sound bouncing all over the place, prior to taping a run‑through of Charlie playing his rack tom. The usual 10 minutes or so were then spent ensuring that the whole band had the right sound, and another couple of takes were recorded with Charlie playing variously his floor and rack toms.

"I thought that first run‑through sounded terrible," admits Smith, "but the feel was terrific, and in the end, that was what made it onto the album, even though during the middle of it Charlie's snares fell off! About four bars later, he reached over and put them back on. While he didn't miss a beat, in the mix I just tried to make it sound like he went over to this weird‑sounding tom‑tom, and then you hear the snares themselves come back in again."

Engineer: Don Smith

Based in Los Angeles, Don Smith has gained his studio experience working with a wide variety of artists. Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers, The Pointer Sisters, The Traveling Wilburys, and Little Richard are amongst those whose records he has engineered or recorded, while he has also undertaken mixes for the likes of U2, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, The Eurythmics, Bonnie Raitt, and BB King.

Recently, Smith has also been accruing production/engineering credits courtesy of work with, amongst others, The Tragically Hip and Cracker, as well as The Rembrandts' new album and a forthcoming project with John Hiatt. His engineering and mixing of the Voodoo Lounge album follows similar assignments on three of Keith Richards' records, including the co‑production of Richards' Live album.