The 'vintage' sound of artists like Sharon Jones & The Dap–Kings and Amy Winehouse has little to do with super–expensive valve gear. Instead, it's the minimalist approach of house engineer Gabriel Roth that sets the tone.
Gabriel Roth is no ideologue. He says, flat out, "Show me a computer that sounds as good as a tape machine and I'll use it." Gabriel is the audio architect of the evocative Motown/Stax–infused tracks behind Amy Winehouse, as well as those for the extended musical family for whom Daptone Studios and Daptone Records are the hub, including Sharon Jones & The Dap–Kings, the Daktaris, the Soul Providers and the Sugarman Three, the last eponymously named for Gabriel's partner in the label and studio.
When you hear Winehouse's 'Rehab' or Jones' 'Nobody's Baby' you experience a shift in time and place — you're suddenly in Detroit in 1965 or Memphis in 1962. In reality, you're in 21st–century Brooklyn, in a ramshackle house in the Bushwick neighbourhood, one of the last holdouts against the decade–long gentrification of that borough. Daptone Studios occupies a floor in the rambling residence that Gabriel and the Daptone collective have remade into a haven for that sound. However, Roth bridles a bit at the term 'retro'.
"We're not doing a purposely 'retro' thing," he says. "It's not about an ideology. Some people say that there hasn't been a good record made since 1973, and I pretty much agree with them most of the time. But I'm not listening to the old soul records and taking them apart clinically. It's more like a kind of informal schooling. You listen — listen for where the horns bite and the crackle of distortion on a vocal. You don't want to imitate it; you want to let it influence you. One of the things you learn is that sometimes mistakes are what make a track sound great. Music should not be perfect or correct. When we play and when we record, we're looking to find what makes us feel good. We're steeped in those old records, but we're not consciously trying to remake a record from 1962."
You certainly cannot call up Auto–Tune to fix any clams on a Daptone track. For starters, it's a tape–only proposition, and Roth seems to be moving joyfully backwards in time: the Tascam 16–track deck in the control room increasingly gives way to an Otari MX5050 eight–track half–inch machine. From the Trident Series 65 24–input desk, mixes go to either a nicely restored 3M M23 quarter–inch two–track deck or a somewhat scruffy Otari MX5050 quarter–inch machine. Both of these are also called into service to provide authentic tape–slap and echo effects, augmenting a pair of Orban spring reverbs and a Stocktronics plate reverb.
"There's an old–school feel to the studio, but it's by no means some kind of vintage museum," Roth states. In fact, the gear list is as much serendipitous as it is calculated: there's a newish Rode NT1A large–diaphragm condenser mic, a classic RCA DX77, and an assortment of cheap Radio Shack microphones cohabitating in the mic closet, while an Ampeg Gemini guitar amp made its way to the studio when it literally bumped into Roth as it was being tossed out into a dumpster near a building renovation. Nothing is here because it's cool; everything that is here is here because it sounds good for something.
Don't Let It Become A Formula
Those who peruse these pages in search of granular descriptions of complex recording techniques won't find much to chew on at Daptone. On the other hand, you do learn that you can make quite a lot out of a very little. With the caveat from Roth that he doesn't rely on formulas for capturing any instrument, his basic approach is 'less is more'.
Drums usually get one or two microphones, and that's about double the number everything else gets. The RCA DX77 or the Shure 55 often goes on the floor next to the bass drum in such a way that it picks up the snare, as well. "From the drummer's point of view, if you looked down between the snare and the kick drum, you'd see it about a foot or two away from the snare," he explains. "The second microphone is often in the same spot as the first but adds different frequencies. Sometimes the one and only mic is over or behind the drummer's head. Sometimes the only mic is a Radio Shack dynamic."
In one scenario from a Winehouse session, he placed both a DX77 and a Shure 55 close together on the floor, then boosted the high–mids on the DX77 and cut the low–mids, around 400Hz, on the 55, resulting in less definition but way more chunk. "The trick isn't how many microphones you use, it's where you place them," the former audio student at New York University instructs. "One of the big problems with modern engineering is everyone telling everyone else how they put this microphone here and another there, and you have to use this condenser for overheads and this large–diaphragm condenser for the kick, and so on. Once it becomes a formula, people stop using their ears." This minimalist approach explains one of the classic characteristics of the great soul records of yore, which is how the tom fills seem to have a perfectly smooth decrease in volume as they increase in density: the fills move in a direction away from the lone microphone. (Listen to the fills on Winehouse's 'Rehab'.)
Roth admits that on the rare occasions when non–Daptone players encounter how he works the studio (it's not for hire), he receives some arched eyebrows. But he recalls a session with famed drummer Bernard Purdie in which he used only a Radio Shack dynamic mic placed overhead and the Akai 'Dictaphone' mic (as Roth refers to it; according to Bob Paquette, owner of the Microphone Museum in Milawaukee, Wisconsin, it's probably an Akai MC50, made in the '60s to pair with home tape recorders) on the kick. The microphones were EQ'ed and compressed together ("When the kick hits the compressor, it needs to step on the cymbals"), and both microphone channels were sent to a single track. "He said he hadn't heard that sound in a long time," Roth recalls after the playback in the tiny Daptone basement control room. "He liked it so much he said he'd come back sometime and do another track for free."
Roth is similarly minimal with the horn sections: a single microphone, often the workhorse Shure 315 or 55 (the "Elvis" microphone), is used to collect the three Daptone Horns, though sometimes he'll go to the '80s–era Radio Shack microphones, placed on a stand about four feet in front of the section. "What you want to do with horns is let them mix themselves," he says. "Give them enough room for the sounds to blend before they hit the microphone. The sound you want really is coming from the musicians, and when guys have played together for a while it's not a strain to get a good sound." On the album of instrumentals by the Budos Band, one of the Daptone Records artists, a Radio Shack condenser microphone was added on the baritone sax. "We wanted to pan the bari on one side and the trumpets on the other," says Roth.
Guitars, as you might expect, also get a single microphone, often a Shure 57, placed very close up on the speaker. In fact, while working on a gospel album recently, a shortage of tracks compelled Roth to place a single ribbon microphone in between the bass and guitar amps, which he then proceeded to record to a single track on the eight–track deck. This works out to 0.5 microphones per instrument. "No tricks — just good guitars played by really good guitar players through really good amps," he says.
Back in the control room, Roth employs other techniques to get the classic soul sound. "I roll some low end off the tracks, around 80Hz to 100Hz, before they get to tape," he explains. "The lowest frequencies have the most energy and they [saturate] the tape before the rest of the sound has a chance to get the benefit of the nice tape distortion. This lets the distortion take place closer to the upper range of the sound and keeps it tight. I'll put the low end back in during the mix if it's necessary."
Panning & Singing
A Daptone record encourages one to play with the left–right channel control on a car radio. Roth's panning is radical and static — when it's not simply mono. Much of this is due to the need to bounce tracks at times, but he says it's also stylistic. "Lately we haven't been doing what you might call 'subtle' panning," he concedes. "But you'll hear the same thing on Motown records. It's cool to have everything so right there."
On Sharon Jones & The Dap–Kings' 100 Days, 100 Nights album, the panning is Beatlesque: all the drums hard left and the bass hard right. "It's kind of like when you're in a restaurant and they have music playing through speakers in the ceiling but where you're sitting you can only hear one side of the stereo," as Roth describes it. But there's a method to this particular madness. "It gives a lot of space down the middle for vocals," he adds.
Good time to discuss vocals, then, and Jones' record typifies the adventurous spirit of the studio. "I'll try anything on vocals — the RCA, the [Sennheiser] 421, a Shure 58," Roth says. As often as not, the pilot vocal from the tracking session winds up as the keeper, and on some tracks Jones did her vocal while sitting at the upright piano. She wasn't as 'on' the microphone as usual, but the performance overshadowed that.
apturing the most inspired performance is the goal, it figures that there will be some clean–up work after the fact. On a track that Jones sang through a Rode NT1, Roth noticed sibilance problems. "I bought a cheap de–esser and rolled off some of the high end, and that mellowed it out," he says. In another instance, the snare drum leaked significantly into the vocal track, particularly noticeable in the 200Hz to 400Hz range. Roth rolled those frequencies back, but that thinned out the lead vocal. Roth's habit of always doing instrumental mixes of songs resolved the matter. "By bouncing the original instrumental mixes from the quarter–inch two–track to the one–inch eight–track and then flying the vocals from the one–inch 16–track over them on the eight–track, I was able to remix [and re–EQ] just the vocals without having to remix the instruments," he explains.
While he leans towards spring reverbs on vocals and much else, Roth likes tape slap as well, requiring the kind of calculations not often seen in the digital age. "We have two inches between the record and the repro head and at 15ips it's one second divided by seven, so you have a delay of about 140 milliseconds," he reckons.
The Mix — Not Much To Fix
Roth's mixes suggest what it was like to fly aeroplanes before automatic pilots were invented. "The needles don't really tell you anything useful," he says earnestly. "I put all the machines into repro while tracking and listen off the playback head, which is the most accurate way to know what you're really listening to. Tape distortion is something that can be heard but not accurately seen by a VU meter, because different transients and frequencies saturate the tape and affect the needles differently. For example, a bass guitar can pin the needle for an entire song and sound fine. On the contrary, sometimes a tambourine will be hot and crunchy and barely move the needle at all. You have to be careful of trusting anything but your ears. I like to think I listen with the ears of a fan of the music. I'm not trying to inflict or avoid distortion — I'm listening for what makes the music sound good."
What comes out of Daptone is fun. And serious. It's not some Disney–like attempt at recreating what it must have been like at Muscle Shoals Sound or American Studios in Memphis in 1965. For some music engineers, the gold standard is Steely Dan; for Roth and his compatriots at Daptone, it's Irma Thomas records. Roth and the Daptones complete three to five basic tracks per day, half that if they're also doing vocals. He is not being disingenuous when he says "I'm not sure if that's a long time or not."
"It's funny," he continues, "People work so hard to get their drums to sound like they were recorded with one microphone. We just put one microphone out there. I'd rather spend two weeks looking for the right place to put the one microphone than on setting up two dozen mics and trying to balance them. We like working on eight–track and 16–track decks — it forces you to commit to decisions about sounds and arrangements on the spot."
Roth can go on and on, making specific technical references one minute and providing the philosophical rationalisation for them the next. I believe him when he says that the Daptones are not wilfully making retro records for the sake of it. Daptone are not some super–cool karaoke cover factory churning out the soundtracks to '70s blaxplotation flicks, or the Red Sauce web site churning out note–for–note recreations of classic tracks, but a place where people who really love a certain kind of music use the tools of the time to continue to make new editions of that music. The songs are new, the artists are new; the circumstances are similar to those who made this kind of music before them. They are not Civil War re-enactors going out on the weekend to show the families sitting on the side of the hill what it was like to watch the battle of Gettysburg go down; instead, the Daptones are the Amish, getting up every morning (but not too early) to go forth and do what their spiritual predecessors did, with the same kinds of tools and the same kind of passion.
It's not about recreating history. It's not about homage. It's about pulling the lessons out of pieces of black vinyl and figuring out how your ancestors did it. And the evidence at Daptone suggests that the ancestors would definitely approve.
Collective Studio Building
The current Daptone Studios (aka House of Soul) is the third incarnation, roughly gauged. Gabriel Roth was partner in an earlier record company, Desco Records, which had a small studio on Manhattan's Lower East Side and another later on West 41st Street. When he formed Daptone Records with new partner Neal Sugarman, they put together a studio in a sublet basement space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That disappeared when the primary tenant was evicted. They moved the recording gear to Sugarman's apartment.
The first couple of Dapco releases sold reasonably well and they were informed that they had royalties of $30,000 coming to them from the distributor. "Knowing that was coming, we signed a long lease on this house in Bushwick, maxed out our credit cards and borrowed money from other sources and started building the studio," says Roth. Naturally, this being the music business, they never saw the $30,000. (The distributor's rep collected the money and promptly declared bankruptcy.) "So we ended up building the whole place ourselves," says Roth.
Members of the collective applied whatever skills other than music they possessed: Daptone collective member Charles Bradley knew plumbing; Sharon Jones and Roth actually ran electric mains and did the grounding; Roth's father helped them float the isolation booth's floor using old tyres found out in the streets (along with New York's legendary giant subway rats, another seemingly apocryphal legend is actually true: on any given day in New York, you can furnish an entire apartment from stuff people leave on the street); and Roth's mother sewed acoustical curtains at home in Riverside, California. "And the Budos Band tuned out to be very good at kicking down walls," he notes. "It was a long cold winter that year, but we got it built."
The Sting, Dap Style
If you want to viscerally comprehend the allure of the kind of sound that Daptone creates (or recreates, if you prefer), consider this tale related by Gabriel Roth. "When we started Desco Records, we did vinyl releases only, and we recorded records with the great soul music sounds. But it was definitely a very small niche market. So we made up the story of an old king–fu movie from the '70s called The Revenge Of Mr. Mopoji. A total fake film, but we had a plot and we even gave it a kind of history, with production in Hong Kong. We put the 'soundtrack' out as a reissue and took it around to record stores. These stores would never have touched a funk or soul record by a new band, but when they saw a 'reissue' they scooped it up. We heard people saying, 'Oh, yeah, my cousin had that movie on VHS.'
"Next, we recorded [instrumental band] the Daktaris, which was a pretty rough recording. So we said it was recorded in Nigeria and people assumed it was an authentic African group. We never told anyone anything else about it; they just created their own assumptions. We had an ethnomusicologist in LA tell us that he had other Daktari records! It's kind of disconcerting, seeing how much bias people look at things through."