In the making of Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color, producer Blake Mills and engineer Shawn Everett had almost unheard–of licence to experiment — and took full advantage.
Second albums are generally considered to be notoriously difficult, but Alabama Shakes have given received wisdom a good, er, shake with Sound & Color. The album entered at number one in the US charts and was top five in many other countries around the world, while critical reaction was overwhelmingly positive. One critic aptly described Sound & Color as a “deliberately weird record, but authentically weird; it’s chaotic yet cohesive, full of sound, colour and unshakable vision.”
A few reviewers were perceptive enough to give some of the credit for the high achievement of Sound & Color to producer Blake Mills, a 28–year old guitar virtuoso from Los Angeles who has released two solo albums to date: Break Mirrors (2010) and Heigh Ho (2014). As so often, there also was the unsung behind–the–scenes engineer and mixer, in this case Shawn Everett, who was to a large degree responsible for the album’s thunderous bass, sonic depth and wide array of colours.
According to Mills, the production approach of Sound & Color finds some of its roots in his first, barely there solo album, Break Mirrors, which purely through word–of–mouth ended up being name–checked by a few dozen artists as an inspiration. “I made my album with Shawn, and the idea was to just experiment. It was shocking to me to see something low–key made at a friend’s house turn into this calling card for me working with other artists. I first met the Alabama Shakes a couple of years ago when they were doing a show in Los Angeles, and afterwards we talked about the process of record–making, and they asked me questions about how we did Break Mirrors.
“They were in a place that’s familiar to most musicians with a first record under their belt: having a few finished songs that they want to record, and others that are incomplete and being in need of some input. So last year we went to Sound Emporium Studios in Nashville for some toe–in–the–water sessions, and as things went really well it gradually turned into us more or less taking over the studio. We treated it like home and were being very experimental, just like with my first solo record.”
At times Mills, Everett and the band took such a leftfield approach as to ruffle feathers at the studio, but, said Mills, “We took that as a compliment!” Nonetheless, he stressed that weirdness for its own sake was never the name of their game. “As a producer, the first thing I focus on is the quality of the songs. I want them to be strong, lyrically, melodically and harmonically, and so each song was combed over for that. Some songs were perfect, and for others I offered suggestions as to how to improve them. That might be as simple as saying to Brittany [Howard, the band’s singer and guitarist], ‘Your lyric idea in the first verse was really good, stick with that!’ But after that, producing is a bit like being in the restaurant business. If you’re dealing with ingredients that are of a high quality, you can take advantage in the way you prepare and present them, or you can overwork things and lose what you started out with.
“There are so many plug–ins and ways in which things can be recorded today. Every laptop today comes with some sort of recording software, and this means that while it’s easy to quickly capture something, people often undervalue the importance of how to present performances. Of course, you want to capture things the right way, so the performance is exciting. For example, this was very much the case with the recording process for Alabama Shakes’ first album [as described in SOS July 2012: www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul12/a.... But the production was based on a laissez faire approach of trying to only capture the performances and otherwise just stay out of the way. It was like taking a photograph, and while this worked well enough, I felt that the end result did not match the energy that the band had. I wanted a record that really hit me sonically with its energy, not just with the performances but also the way that the performances were captured and presented. For me recording is much more like painting then taking a photograph. It requires technique in painting just to get it to feel real and emotive, as opposed to just set the microphone up in the room and get out of the way. It requires a bit more finesse to get something to connect.”
Bringing this “painting” finesse to the project was to a large degree the responsibility of Shawn Everett, a Canadian who attended the Audio program in Music & Sound at the Banff Centre, in Alberta, Canada, and who continued to work at the centre from 2001–5. Following this he travelled to Los Angeles, where he quickly started work at producer Tony Berg’s Zeitgeist Studio, which is located at Berg’s house in LA. It was here that Everett recorded Mills’ Break Mirrors. Everett still regularly works with Berg, but has also spread out into other projects, in some cases also taking care of production, with acts like Weezer, Julian Casablancas + The Voidz, Jesca Hoop and the Belle Brigade.
“We did four two–week sessions at Sound Emporium to record maybe 20 songs in total, plus we recorded a final song, ‘Over My Head’, at Ocean Way [now called United Recording Studios] in LA, where we mixed the album,” explains Everett. “Blake and I didn’t talk a lot about the sound image we wanted for the album before we started, I think we kind of knew what approach we were going to take. Blake and I both like recordings that are very hi–fi, but that also have small lo–fi moments. He and I talked a lot about frequency range, and wanting a wide sonic range, with the lowest lows and the highest highs, making sure that all aspects of the rainbow were filled in. There definitely was a lot of crafting after the recordings of each instrument to get it to fill a particular aspect of the sonic range. But to be honest, there was no real methodology behind it, other than that we wanted things to sound good, and cool.
“Before we started at Sound Emporium, Blake went to visit Alabama Shakes for a few days in their hometown in Alabama, but other than that there was no pre–production. The band had only in a couple of cases rehearsed the songs before they came into the studio. Usually the procedure was that at the beginning of each session Brittany played us a couple of demos, and the band talked about what song they wanted to work on. The reason the final album is so colourful is in part because her demos were very colourful to begin with. She works in Logic at home in her basement, and often had already mapped out a lot of the instrumentation, using a drum machine and some synths. Her demos had a lot of emotional intensity and a wide, cinematic scope, on which we tried to expand. For example, on the song ‘Gemini’ her demo had a crazy synth sound that she called ‘lasers’, and there was a lot of messing around to create this big, crazy guitar sound that comes in at 2’38 and 4’28, which simulates the sound and feeling of that synth sound.
“There also was a lot of experimentation during the basic tracking sessions. Generally there was about an hour and a half of trying things out before we were really getting into takes. Everyone, including me, was just figuring out what they were going to do. The band would just keep on playing and at some stage it became obvious that something was happening, and eventually these rehearsals turned into takes. I was recording the entire time, so I ended up with enormous Pro Tools sessions several hours long! But this didn’t give me a lot of additional work, because we didn’t do a lot of combing over what they had done before the take and comping between stuff. They’d keep on playing the song, and there would be a point at which they got it, and that was cool. Generally, we simply used that take, and we only very occasionally went in and tried to grab something from another take to improve the main take.
“I had a stock microphone setup to record the band with, and once they had decided what song to work on, we readjusted things in the studio accordingly. I might change or move mics, they might change amps or work on drum tuning or set up in different places. We tried to track everyone playing live in the same room as much as possible. I’d say about 90 percent of the album was recorded in the big live room at Sound Emporium Studio A [10x13m with a 6m–high ceiling]. The vocals, guitars and drums usually were in the main room, with some baffling here and there, though we sometimes used the separate drum room if we wanted a smaller drum sound. The bass cabinet usually was in one of the isolation booths, because when recording the drums with the bass cabinet next to it, the spill made it impossible for us to later work on getting the kick to sound bigger. We had Heath [Fogg]’s guitar cabinet in the small room occasionally as well.
“My drum setup is pretty standard, and I used it both in Nashville and in LA. I have both the AKG D12 and D112 on the kick drum, so I can choose from two different tonalities, and in Nashville I often had a second big kick drum in front, which I was miking as well, for resonance. I had an RCA 77 above the kick drum, and in Ocean Way I had some foam next to it, because I was compressing it, and the cymbal got too loud. Most of the drum sound at Ocean Way came from that RCA 77, but most of the drum sound recorded at Nashville came from a Shure SM57 underneath the snare. I also had a 57 snare top mic, Neumann U67 overheads, a small cardioid condenser on the hi–hat, I think it was the Neumann KM184, and a Sennheiser MD441 on the tom [the Ocean Way pic also shows an unused 441, waiting for another tom that never was set up].
“We also sometimes used something Blake and I called the Zeicrophone, which were headphones we strapped to the snare drum, loosely sitting there and picking up more snare resonance. All mics went through the 48–channel Neve VRP desk at Sound Emporium studio A. I’d say 70 percent of the bass guitar sound on the album was recorded with a DI and 30 percent with mics on the cabinet, probably a D112 and a 57 for some more grain. They also went through the desk, and I would have had an Urei 1176 on the DI. Most of the bass sound came from the DI, because the sound had more knuckles.”
A lot of work also went into the guitar sounds, as Shawn Everett explains: “The guitar amps were in the main room for the most part, although if we needed a totally clean drum sound, we’d move the guitar amps to one of the isolation booths. Both Brittany and Heath usually had two amps going, and I’d have a Royer 121 on one cabinet and an SM57 on the other, so I could later pick the sound I wanted. I also often had room mics going to pick up both the guitars and the drums. There’s an acoustic guitar on ‘This Feeling’, which I recorded with some sort of tube mic, probably a [Neumann] KM56. All mics went through the desk, usually without any compression or EQ. I wanted to record as neutral as possible. There also were some keyboards, by the way, like a Vox Continental [organ], and a piano, which I recorded with a pair of Neumann 67s, and once a 57 as well, and a Hammond B3, on which I had a D12 for the bass and again two 67s. The vibraphone also was recorded with two 67s.”
Mills: “Some of the guitars were played through my custom–made guitar amp, which is an old Bell & Howell film projector which had its audio section rebuilt by Austen Hooks. These projectors have hi–fi amps with low–gain tubes, and have characteristics on the guitar that I really like, like a lot of high–end information that does not sound shrill. The first time I went to Nashville I brought a bunch of my guitars and amps that I thought might inspire the band if they wanted to experiment with different tones. But they ended up largely using their own equipment. I found that the more I meddled with Heath’s equipment, the less he sounded like himself. You can drastically influence the way people play and sound by giving them different instruments.”
During the company’s eight weeks at Sound Emporium Studio A, there was, said Everett, “a lot of room to try everything”. This included Everett spending many hours on treating the sounds he had recorded and doing rough mixes. “When you’re tracking you try to get something going that’s exciting, and that sounds like a record. I tracked to Pro Tools at 48/24, but during tracking I had things laid out over the desk, and mostly there was a lot of fiddling around on the desk trying to get cool vibes, without using many plug–ins. Once we had a cool vibe on the desk, and everyone knew what the sonic palette was going to be for a song, Blake would say, ‘Let’s let Shawn have some time with this,’ and I would transfer the mix I had into the box, get equivalent sounds and balances, and after this point I mixed in the box and started applying plug–ins.
“But in the first instance, a lot of sonic experimentation happened out of the box. Just like we tried to get huge kick drum sounds by not using samples and instead using the resonant kick drum, I re–amped the kick drum, for example through Blake’s Bell & Howell projector amp. We also had these old weird 1990s four–track cassette recorders, one of them being a Korg CR4, that has weird effects on it and speakers. I’d run sounds out of Pro Tools through the CR4, record them to its cassette tape, and then apply these weird 1990s chorus and other effects, and play the sound back via its speakers, and I’d put a mic on them. Or I’d apply a weird Portastudio cassette EQ and distort things in that. I also transferred things to multitrack tape and experimented with how hard we could drive the tape machine, and then recorded that back in.
“Then there were the experiments and treatments that were done in the box. For example, there are strings on the song ‘Dunes’, and before they come in there’s something very spacey that sounds like strings, and in fact are space sounds created by NASA, as well as several other sounds, like an orchestra tuning and things like that, which we layered — and then I took that into Melodyne to create polyphonic information from these layers that moved inside of the chords of the song. So we got these swooping, undulating sounds that sound like strings, but aren’t. There also were some plug–ins that I used a lot, for example the PSP Vintage Warmer and SoundToys Decapitator, to warm and beef things up.
“One essential element when I work, whether tracking, rough mixing or doing the final mix, is that I have a bunch of plug–ins over the mastering bus inside of Pro Tools, so that when we listen to the mix, it sounds like a record. I have developed a mindset over the years, particularly because of the loudness wars, of always working with the question in mind of how the mix is going to sound once it’s mastered, and I am adjusting what I am doing for that. I know how loud people want things nowadays, and it is almost like an artform to see how loud I can get my mix and at the same time retain all the things I like about records that aren’t loud. If everything is balanced in the entire frequency spectrum, it can naturally feel loud, without having been limited to death. So a lot of the experimentation I did at Sound Emporium, running things through cassette recorders, VHS tapes, reel–to–reel tape, amps and so on, and applying all sorts of different EQs, was a matter of making sure all the different instruments have their own place, and that it sounds as loud as possible.”
ATO, Alabama Shakes’ record company, gave Everett and Blake four weeks at Ocean Way Studio B to complete the final mixes for Sound & Color, an extraordinarily long time by today’s budget–conscious standards. “They were very generous,” agrees Everett. “So we did more experimentation! It was mostly me during the day, and then Blake would come in at the end of the day, and we’d try stuff out until late into the night. Brittany was also there a lot of the time. We were working the entire time, 14 hours per day, non–stop. When you have more time, you can really get it to the point where you want it to be. Sometimes you hand over your project and you feel like people are stealing your baby, but this time we had the time do things properly and get everything out of each track that we wanted. This was one of the few times when handing over a project that we all just felt excited.
“My biggest challenge while doing the mixes at Ocean Way was that everyone was really happy with my rough mixes, so I did not want to screw things up! It wasn’t like the beginnings of a mixing stage with everyone wondering how it was going to sound. For the most part what I did was to try to replicate my entire in–the–box mixes on the console, replacing as many plug–ins as possible with equivalent outboard gear. The trigger for the idea was that I had used quite a few API 550 plug–ins, and Ocean Way B has this crazy wall of real 550A EQs! I’d never seen so many. So, first of all, I laid my mix sessions across the board, trying to replicate all the fairly complicated bussing shenanigans I had in Pro Tools, which allowed me to A/B the mix on the console with a print I had done of my rough in–the–box mix. Then I replaced all the plug–in EQs with outboard EQs, and then I did the same with plug–in 1176s, and other plug–ins. I did this one plug–in at a time, each time checking if I was improving or ruining things.
“The biggest challenge was recreating the sounds of plug–ins for which there is no analogue equivalent, things like the Decapitator, the Vintage Warmer, and the [Avid] Lo–fi, and so on. To replace the Decapitator I sent things through Blake’s Bell & Howell projector guitar amp, but this did not always work, and sometimes I had to give up and live with the sound of the plug–ins, who each have their unique sound. To replicate the Lo–fi I’d send the signal through a preamp, get it to distort a bit and then roll off high end with another EQ. I replaced the Waves Jack Joseph Puig 660 with an outboard Fairchild, but something like the Waves Renaissance Bass I kept. To replace plug–in delays I often used the AMS RXM16.
“Often the combined effect of steering the mix through Ocean Way’s Neve desk and outboard really sounded like an improvement, but I also tried to measure the changes objectively, for example using the Waves Q–Clone plug–in, comparing the frequency response of an in–the–box Pultec versus an outboard Pultec, and insofar as they were not the same, adjust the settings to make the outboard effect sound as much as possible like the plug–in! However, in the case of three songs the reply came back, ‘Oh, we like the rough more.’ No matter what I did to try to replicate the same thing in the analogue world, they just liked the rough! Brittany always preferred the rough mix of ‘Sound & Color’, so that’s what’s on the album. Some things trigger an emotional response in us, and we don’t know why that is.”
The album’s first single ‘Don’t Wanna Fight’ was one of the songs in which Shawn Everett’s approach of replicating his in–the–box mix in the analogue domain did prove successful. There is not space here, however, to reproduce Everett’s Pro Tools Edit window screenshots, which total 260 tracks. At the top of this session are 15 stem tracks, eight for drums and percussion, one for bass, three for guitars, one for lead vocal, one for the room mics, and one for backing vocals. Below that is the mastering track, with a complicated plug–in signal chain of UAD Studer A800, Waves Q10 EQ, PSP Vintage Warmer, Waves Linear Phase Multiband, UAD Precision Multiband EQ, Waves L3 Ultramaximizer and another Vintage Warmer, and below that a mix print track.
On completing his analogue parallel mix at Ocean Way, Everett created a second stem session, which he took over to his own studio, where he ran the stems through his API desk, did a final adjustment to the balance and printed to stereo via an Alan Smart C2.
“I really did a number on myself with this song! The fact that the session looks so complicated, and also all the work I did in trying to replicate plug–ins in the analogue domain, may suggest that I like getting very technical, but in fact, the opposite is the case. Equipment as such doesn’t really excite me as much as creating a universe and an interesting sound world. There was a lot of acknowledgement of the space that the band were playing in, and I just love the way sound can create an environment and a space.
“I also like getting inspired by photography and ideas and films and so on. I was often referencing photographs when I was working on mixes that helped me visualise sonically what we were going for, for example John Conn’s late–’70s/early–’80s shots of the New York subway. Specifically, I tried to get my mix for ‘Don’t Wanna Fight’ to sound like and give me the same weird feeling as a photograph taken in the same era by Bruce Davidson of this woman staring at the camera.”
“In general there was a ton of stemming going on. Basically when I liked something I was doing I’d make stems of it and I’d keep it. It makes the session look insane but it was really a way of keeping myself sane during the process. You can see from the stems of the big session that I only used the snare under microphone, which I darkened significantly with the Decapitator. As I mentioned earlier, sometimes I could not find a good analogue equivalent, in which case I kept the plug–in. In some other cases, when the sound I got from the plug–ins was exactly what we wanted, I also kept the plug–ins. I had some parallel compression on a drum bus with an outboard Fairchild, and also printed that as a stem, plus there was a clean drum bus, so I could blend the two. I replicated the 550A plug–ins on the drum room mics with outboard 550As, and I don’t think I used the L1 and L3 plug–ins. There are some snare Zeicro tracks, recording the snare with headphones, with the Decapitator, which I did not replace.
“There’s a [Waves] RBass on the bass that I kept, and I had an 1176 on the bass. The guitars also have a real 1176, and a [Pultec] EQP1A, and there’s a [Waves] Z–Noise on some of the guitar tracks, because we had some kind of buzzing amp. We kept the humming and buzzing for the most part, but for example the solo was made up for six or seven tracks, and on one of the amps the buzzing must have been too much. The guitar solo was made up of a bunch of guitars recorded with the Royer. One of the guitars was pitched with the AMS and I also used the chamber from Sound Emporium on them as well. They were then all bused together and treated with a Vintage Warmer plug in. Two of the guitars in the solo also had the Decapitator.
“On Brittany’s vocals I had the [Waves] RVox, the Massey TapeHead and the Waves CLA76 and C4. I kept most of the plug–ins on the backing vocals, like the UAD Roland R201 and Dimension D and the Waves S1 and Super Tap plug–ins, to make them wider, because they worked really well. The master bus plug–ins are the same in the big Sound Emporium session and in the final stem session from which I printed the mix at my place. I did not try to replicate them in the real world, because there’s no real–world equivalent for most of these plug–ins. I did print the stereo mix through an Alan Smart C2 compressor, though.
“The reason we went to my place to print the mix was because we had to make some changes that were requested later. We had problems matching up the Ocean Way mix print and the one done at my place, and we were unsure whether it was the difference between the two desks or between Ocean Way’s grey Alan Smart and my black Alan Smart. Ocean Way then lent me their grey Alan Smart and suddenly we could match the mix prints! But it’s really interesting retracing my steps for this mix. It definitely was a crazy session!”
Both Blake Mills and Shawn Everett repeatedly referred to the pursuit of big bass as a major preoccupation during the making of Sound & Color, and they explained some of their thinking and approaches. “The low end is really important in a record to get right,” insists Mills. “You can have sounds fighting for their place in almost every other register, and somehow they will find their place, but elements that are disagreeing in the low end don’t only fuck up the bottom end but can mess with the entire recording. There’s a hierarchy to the low end. Sometimes the kick sits above the bass, sometimes the other way round — not necessarily in terms of volume, but also in terms of their frequencies. There is this battle, and if everybody is the lowest, nobody is the lowest.
“In this respect, the parts that are played are of major importance. If there’s a lot of room in the kick–drum part, you can make the kick drum sound massive. For example, in the song ‘Gimme All Your Love’ Steve [Johnson]’s kick–drum part is so sparse that the decay can be very long, and the bass is also very sparse, and this gives a lot of space for the bottom end. You cannot do this with every band, but it worked well with Alabama Shakes because of the way they play. You can compare it to reggae records, which have amazing low end on vinyl. Of course, vinyl can’t contain the amount of bottom end that we’re used to these days, and so it really is the low mid–range you are hearing. But you get a kind of auditory illusion: because of the arrangement and the fact that there’s nothing below the low mid–range, the low end sounds huge! So we spent time with Alabama Shakes getting the arrangements right, and constructing things to fill up the low end. For example, I brought my old, 32–inch Gretsch concert drum to the sessions, and it has a massive sound. If he played a big downbeat every other bar, it made that kick drum sound massive.”
Everett: “Blake and I are both big fans of big bass. In fact, I spent years working out how hip–hop records manage to get so much low end in a record! I was now applying what I learnt to a band like the Shakes. One major thing we did for many of the sessions was to have a second, half–open bass drum next to the kick, just for resonance, and I put a mic next to that as well, for extra low end. There was a lot of talk about the resonance of the kick drum during the making of this album! There was a lot of messing around in the pursuit of big bass! At the same time, I did not use that resonant kick during the Ocean Way recording, and ‘Over My Head’ has one of the biggest kick sounds on the record! But the resonant kick was the result of our aim not to use samples. We wanted to get the sound of adding an 808 or other sample to the kick drum without actually adding a sample. In our attempt to get that big hip–hop kick that is on a lot of records nowadays we also often re–amped the kick drum in a different room.”
Brittany Howard’s lead vocals were, at times, recorded in outlandish ways, as Shawn Everett describes: “Yes, the way we recorded Brittany often was crazy! She realised at one point that she liked singing in the control room, with the speakers going, and in these cases she often recorded her vocals with a handheld mic that she had found on Ebay. I don’t know what mic it was, I just recorded it. On ‘Guess Who’ we used the NS10 woofer, which resulted in this strangely muted tonality, pokey and weird. It’s one of the odder songs on the album, and we wanted to have her vocal sounds a bit differently. I had to EQ it and do a lot of weird jazz to it afterwards, but we used it on the entire song, including her background vocals on it, and it sounded cool.
“We did use some normal mics, with the Neumann M49 probably the most used, and sometimes an SM7 or an AKG C414, but often we were just struggling to get from these what we wanted. So for ‘Gimme All Your Love’, we strapped a headphone to her face which we had reverse–wired so it would record, and while it also required a lot of post–production treatment to make sure the sound didn’t rip your ears off, the end result was cool. There was even one instance when she wanted to get a very muffled sound, which resulted in her experimenting with putting cotton wool in her mouth and even Anbesol [an over–the–counter anaesthetic gel to combat toothache] so she could not feel her mouth.”
Blake Mills: “We recorded Brittany in ways that were a bit dangerous. Brittany is revered as a vocalist, I mean people talk with such respect about her singing, and all this is deserved, but it might mean that people become very careful when they record her and just put a 67 in front of her. But as soon as we started doing the crazy things, I think she, maybe for the first time in her recording-studio experience, felt like she could be herself. She could follow the craziest tangent, experimental ideas she came up with and the people around her wouldn’t look totally confused. So yes, when the idea came up to put the NS10 woofer in front of her, we just did it. Shawn, who is really great at getting guitar tones — he can really get them to explode! — also treated her vocals almost like a guitar, giving them colours that were exciting.”