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Mark Neill: Recording The Black Keys At Muscle Shoals

Interview | Engineer By Dave Simons
Published August 2011

The Black Keys' Brothers was the first album to be recorded at Muscle Shoals in 30 years. But with all its equipment long gone, would engineer Mark Neill be able to recapture the studio's legendary sound?

Mark Neill at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios during the making of Brothers.Mark Neill at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios during the making of Brothers.Photo: Dave Doyle

On August 16, 1969, singer‑songwriter RB Greaves entered a tiny studio located along a remote stretch of Alabama highway and cut 'Take A Letter Maria', a soul-tinged tale of marital infidelity (and secretarial retribution) that ultimately found its way to number two. It would become the first hit record to emerge from the casket-warehouse-turned-recording-enterprise known as Muscle Shoals Sound studio, opened months earlier by a group of local session players eager to bring the unique feel of the 'Shoals' region — a swampy blend of R&B and C&W — to the world. Months later, the Rolling Stones, en route to their free concert fiasco in Altamont, taped future classics 'Brown Sugar' and 'Wild Horses' over three days in the Shoals, forever cementing the studio's reputation.

That the sound of those early MSS recordings — gritty, mid-range drums and bass, vocals ever so slightly distorted — is still palpable today is no accident. As co‑owner/guitarist Jimmy Johnson would later recall, MSS, like many great rooms from the time, was a studio with a "fingerprint sound”, the kind of place "where you hear a record on the radio and know immediately where it was cut”.

In 1979, the original MSS (at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield) closed its doors to make way for a larger facility, and as other rooms from the era went by the wayside, that "fingerprint” sound began to fade. But there are a handful of studio dwellers who cling to the belief that it's still possible to make records that don't sound like everyone else's. One of them is Georgia-bred producer and engineer Mark Neill, who spent a good portion of the '80s buying up unloved tape machines, old microphones, mixers and processors on the cheap. He used these to outfit his moveable recording operation known as Soil of the South, which, since 1997, has occupied the former site of a two-car garage adjacent to Neill's home in La Mesa, California. Neill's gear inventory only tells part of the story; a sound historian of the highest order, Neill — whose promo pics depict a man who seems to have just beamed down from 1963 — can rattle off painfully obscure session detail from yesteryear on demand (knowing, for instance, where a song was recorded simply by the sound of the studio's echo chambers).

Neill used a characteristically minimal miking arrangement for Pat Carney's drum kit.Neill used a characteristically minimal miking arrangement for Pat Carney's drum kit.Not surprisingly, Neill has served as mentor for many an analogue fanatic, among them UK engineer and long-time confidant Liam Watson, whose Toe Rag Studios (birthplace for the White Stripes' 2003 breakout effort Elephant) was created in conjunction with Neill. It was Watson who would later recommend Neill's services to another old-school junkie, guitarist Dan Auerbach of the Akron, Ohio-based blues-rock duo the Black Keys. "Dan liked what he'd heard on some of my records and asked if he could come by for a visit,” recalls Neill. "At the time I really didn't know what the Black Keys were about, other than they were a two-piece like the Flat Duo Jets and the White Stripes. But once I met Dan, I knew right off that he was all ears and really eager to learn about how to make these kinds of records from the ground up.”

With Neill's assistance, Auerbach erected his own analogue home studio in Akron (later named Easy Eye Sound System), and in late 2007, the two convened in La Mesa to make Auerbach's first solo effort, 2009's Keep it Hid, with Neill serving as engineer and mixer. Soon, Auerbach was back at the Neill household, this time with partner/drummer Pat Carney in tow. The two immediately set to work recording 'These Days', an ethereal ballad awash in reverb provided by Neill's old EMT 140 echo plate. The track would ultimately become the closing song on the Black Keys' very next album, Brothers, and marked the beginning of a year-long journey that included several strange twists (and even a few temporarily bruised egos), yet in the end gave the Black Keys' their most successful work to date — while making an unlikely Grammy recipient out of home‑studio producer Neill.

Southern Plan

Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach is, like Mark Neill, a devoted fan of all things vintage and analogue.Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach is, like Mark Neill, a devoted fan of all things vintage and analogue.

Things were progressing nicely in La Mesa through early 2009, with Auerbach and Carney cutting several more tracks suitable for release. "At some point we started talking about my old studio in Georgia, which I'd built out of cinder block like the old Sun Studios,” says Neill. "The conversation morphed into this idea of heading to the South to do the rest of the album in a historic old studio. We talked about going to Sun Studio or Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis, as well as Robin Hood Studios in Tyler, Texas; we even considered this old VFW hall in my home town of Valdosta. Bottom line, they just wanted to get out of town and go someplace different — and above all, they wanted the tracks to be imbued with a Southern kind of atmosphere.”

Logistical problems immediately surfaced. "Phillips was full booked,” says Neill, "and Sun only allowed night-time sessions because they conduct tours during the day, and I knew Dan and Pat wouldn't have any patience for that. Eventually Dan said, 'What about Muscle Shoals Sound in Alabama?' We both knew that it had been turned into a museum and hadn't been a fully functioning studio for over 30 years — it was basically a place to walk through and say, 'Wow, this is where it all happened.'”

That didn't deter Auerbach, who suggested that they simply bring in their own gear and use the room as-is. "I mean, I love the sound of those old Muscle Shoals records,” says Neill, "but I can't say that it was actually my idea to go there. But hey, as long as there was air conditioning and reliable electricity, I was willing.”

Neill put in a call to Noel Webster, the musician and entrepreneur responsible for refurbishing the old studio, beginning in the late '90s, and overseeing its transformation into a sound museum. "Noel was a nice enough guy who was willing to cut the Black Keys a really good day rate, albeit with the clear understanding that we were getting nothing but an empty building with a bathroom, and yes, air conditioning. So we knew right from the start that we really would be trucking in our own equipment.”

The prospect of hauling a full complement of recording equipment 2000 miles east to a studio that hadn't seen full-time action in over three decades was daunting, to say the least. Accordingly, no one was willing to set the bar too high. "If we'd gotten out of there with nothing more than five finished backing tracks without vocals,” says Neill, "that would have been considered a major accomplishment.”

Shipped To Sheffield

On August 16, 2009 — exactly 40 years to the day since the milestone RB Greaves session — Neill, Auerbach and Carney arrived at Muscle Shoals Sound, along with a truckload of period gear culled from Neill's personal collection. This included portions of a Universal Audio 610 console (the same desk featured during the early days of MSS) and a late '50s Pultec panning mixer, as well as a 10:2 Studer monitoring mixer originally designed for classical music recording. "The Pultec gave me a stereo bus, in the event I wanted to group some things,” says Neill. "And thanks to the Studer mixer, we seldom went beyond 10 tracks.” Neill resisted the urge to bring his Studer A80 one-inch eight‑track tape machine, choosing instead the more practical iZ RADAR hard disk recorder. "We didn't know what the electricity would be like in there,” says Neill, "and if we'd had trouble with the RADAR we knew we'd be able to find a spare in Nashville. It just made more sense.”

Before leaving home, Neill, a stickler for efficiency, did a rehearsal setup of the entire arsenal. "I had everything — mixers, connectors, snakes, headphones, mics — all functioning in just under two hours. Given the tight schedule, I didn't want to leave anything to chance.”

Still, Neill had no idea if the old "fingerprint sound” of Muscle Shoals would reveal itself until everything was unpacked and the band began making tracks. "We already had the material from my studio, so if the worst came to the worst, we could have always just headed back there and finished the record, or gone up to Dan's place in Akron. At the very least, anything we did in Alabama could have been used as demos — albeit expensive ones.”

Bass Foundation

The band worked by laying down drum and bass tracks live, then overdubbing vocals and other instruments — including handclaps!The band worked by laying down drum and bass tracks live, then overdubbing vocals and other instruments — including handclaps!

In fact, the trip to the Shoals turned out to be inspirational almost right from the start. "Things were happening that were very, very transcendent, as soon as they began playing,” says Neill with a grin. "First few takes, we literally couldn't believe what we were hearing. Dan and Pat were kind of looking at each other saying, 'That doesn't even sound like us.' Seriously.”

Auerbach and Carney had arrived at MSS with an assortment of "idea fragments”, which would evolve into fully formed songs as the sessions progressed. "Some of the stuff was based on demos that had been cut beforehand either at my studio or up at Dan's,” says Neill. "But even those ended up sounding completely different by the time we were finished at Muscle Shoals.”

At Neill's suggestion, Auerbach and Carney went to work laying the foundation for 'Next Girl', the first song cut at MSS, by tracking drums with bass — rather than their more usual guitar — without the use of guide vocals. The strategy, used throughout the sessions, resulted in the distinctive, bass driven thud that formed the core of other standout tracks including 'Everlasting Light', 'Howlin' For You' and 'Sinister Kid'. "It was really the first time they'd tried recording like that,” says Neill, "though I'm pretty sure Dan was thinking of taking that route coming into the project. As a result, they wound up with something quite unlike other Black Keys records.

"Each song began with just a basic head arrangement. Dan had my Rickenbacker bass, which he really liked playing, and he and Pat would just go at it, and Dan would nod to Pat whenever they'd get to a bridge or chorus and Pat would pick up the tempo, and that was basically it. Then later they'd add some guitar and keyboard, Dan put his vocals over the top, we overdubbed some percussion, and the next thing you know, it's a song. We briefly considered having Dan do his vocals live, which he was certainly capable of, except that he was using that long-scale bass and he was really trying to nail the parts the first time.”

Neill recorded Carney's drums (a 1956 Gretsch kit from Neill's studio) using a basic triangular miking pattern, with a Calrec or Shure KSM141 out front, a Shure SM56 in the vicinity of the floor tom, and a Shure 556S or AKG D12 in front of the bass drum, angled slightly downward. "It's very similar to the arrangement Glyn Johns uses,” says Neill, "and of course we know how well that's worked for him.” In the interest of saving track space and mix time, Neill submixed the drums to mono on the spot, putting the kick-drum mic on a separate track, so it could be boosted, if need be, later on. The majority of Auerbach's bass parts went direct, using one of Neill's "trashy old” passive DI boxes, with a stomp box or tube amp providing the scrambled sounds heard on the likes of 'Next Girl' and 'Everlasting Light'.

For Auerbach's vocals, Neill relied on his customary technique of suspending a condenser mic (in this case, a Neumann KM184) on a boom stand, pointed directly down toward's Auerbach's head. "You see that set up all the time in the old Columbia studio pics — it's because it works,” says Neill. "It's also a great way to get the sibilance and 'p' pops under control.”

An uneven contest...An uneven contest...Though the tracks would undergo considerable processing during the mix phase, while at MSS Neill maintained a clutter-free signal path, including almost no compression. "There was a peak limiter in the circuit for Pat's kick drum, but it never once came on,” says Neill. "And there was nothing at all on Dan's vocal mic — I just manually controlled the peaks by riding the fader while he was singing, that's all.” A few of those peaks occasionally went unchecked — on purpose, says Neill. "A lot of the old MSS vocals have this cool natural distortion that was the result of the UA console being overdriven — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not! In this case, we were going for a fuzzed sound when it felt right.”

Listening to the rough mixes inside the studio's cosy 9x12-foot control room, Neill began to understand why those old MSS records sounded the way they did. "It's because of the construction of that building. It's very odd: the acoustics are really different, the control room has this real mid‑range 'bark', and as a result you tend to mix things a certain way. So much so that when you go out to the car or listen through your ear buds back at the hotel, you suddenly realise, 'Jeez, I've done this completely differently.' You realise that it's because of that room that those early MSS productions were mixed the way they were, with the kick drum and bass really loud and present. And there I was, all those years later, doing the exact same thing — just flooring the kick and bass in order to hear it properly! But you can get away with it, because the floors in the main room have a lot of give, they're flexible kind of like a trampoline, and so they were acting like a bass trap, soaking up a lot of the low end. Add to that the bass deficiency inside the control room, and you were forced to add back the lows that were missing in the first place. It was like magic.”

Dead Live Chambers

Mark Neill: Recording The Black Keys At Muscle Shoals

Even with a roomful of analogue at his disposal, Neill still had to resort to digital sources from time to time. "The live chambers they used to have downstairs were long gone,” says Neill, "so when putting together the rough mixes I dug out this little Dr. Scientist Reverberator from a box of effects pedals we had on hand, just a mono digital reverb for guitar. I patched the thing into the echo send on the Studer console, along with a Danelectro echo for some pre-delay, EQ'd it, and that was it. And incredibly enough, it sounded fantastic. In fact, in a haunting way, it nearly had the same vibe as those original MSS chambers.”

Despite having blocked off two weeks for the job, after just 10 days the group had 10 songs in the can. By that time, restlessness had begun to set in; with basically nothing but a Wal-Mart and a Cracker Barrel for excitement, Neill knew that the end was near. "Sure enough, once we'd nailed down the final track, that was it. A day later, they were gone.” Back in La Mesa, Neill, who'd provided additional guitar and percussion parts on the MSS sessions, began the task of tweaking the multitracks, then filed the tapes and awaited further instruction.

What happened next remains something of a mystery, as the Black Keys — having by then issued an interim collaborative effort with rapster RZA entitled Blakroc, and perhaps a tad image conscious — decided to overhaul the overtly swampy Brothers tracks using modern machinery, and summoned mix-master Tchad Blake and his gang of plug-ins to do the job. While the heavily processed finished master may have seemed at odds with the band's original intent, the public had the final say. In the year since its May 2010 release, Brothers went gold, and, last February, secured three Grammy Awards, including Best Alternative Music Album and Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group (for the Danger Mouse‑produced 'Tighten Up').

Whatever qualms the uber-purist Neill may have had upon hearing the plugged‑in Brothers back then, today nothing can change his opinion of those midsummer Shoals sessions. "I know there are some people who think the whole thing was overblown, that the studio had nothing to do with it. And to some degree, they're right — the songs on Brothers are incredible, and maybe they would have come out just as well under different circumstances. Still, having the opportunity to cut that music in that studio was something I'll never forget. I got to witness first hand that it really isn't folklore — that those guys back then knew exactly what they were doing when they built that place. It was a room that was really intelligently designed, and nothing in there happened by accident. And that even after all this time, there still can be a Muscle Shoals sound.”  

The Muscle Shoals Story

To the casual historian, Alabama in the 1960s conjures images of George Wallace, burning crosses and high-pressure fire hoses. To music buffs, it was a place where white teenagers first became infatuated with the sound of black rhythm & blues. "It was like a salty chilli dog after years of Patti Page and Perry Como,” remembered the late R&B mogul Jerry Wexler. "And it became the progenitor of rock & roll.”

In a remote region in the northwestern part of the state known as Muscle Shoals, that racial interplay would form the basis for an American musical revolution. It was in the 'Shoals' for instance, that Dan Penn, a white songwriter and producer, demonstrated to a black singer, Wilson Pickett, the 'correct' way to interpret a song by another black artist, Otis Redding. By the mid-'60s, the fusion of country, R&B, gospel and rock & roll resulted in the unique hybrid that came to be known as soul music.

Bassist David Hood, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, drummer Roger Hawkins and pianist Barry Beckett were four such white Southerners, who grew up surrounded by hardcore country & western but instead gravitated to the visceral sounds of rhythm & blues. Eventually, the foursome became the house rhythm section for a humble recording operation launched by producer Rick Hall, called Florence Alabama Musical Enterprises, or FAME for short. By the late-'60s, their enormous chops helped turn remote Muscle Shoals into a soul furnace, spawning hits by Pickett, Joe Tex, Aretha Franklin and many others. That many record-buyers believed that Hawkins, Johnson, Hood and Beckett were actually black isn't surprising; scores of recording artists who journeyed to Muscle Shoals for that 'black sound' made the same mistake as well.

Despite their proven hitmaking ability, the four players were never properly compensated for their work, and by the end of the '60s were looking around for other opportunities. When a tiny four-track recording studio in nearby Sheffield went on the market in early 1969, the group decided to strike out on their own. With backing from Atlantic Records' chief Wexler — who put up $10,000 of his own money and guaranteed the foursome 18 months' worth of recording business — Johnson and company announced their intentions to a dumbstruck Hall, then on the cusp of inking a million‑dollar deal with Capitol Records. Weeks later, Hall's hired hands became his direct competitors in the little facility they called Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

Originally a casket warehouse (conveniently located across the road from a cemetery), the single-story MSS consisted of a single recording room and an adjacent control room with two small offices on either side, with a basement containing a pair of small echo chambers and a recreation room. At MSS, the bathroom was situated between the drum and the guitar booths (where, as legend has it, Mick Jagger completed the lyrics for 'Wild Horses'), while the heavy-knit blankets casually draped around the studio for isolation helped inspire the studio's nickname, the 'burlap palace'.

"When we first got going, the first thing we did was upgrade to eight-track,” says MSS co-owner, producer, engineer and legendary guitarist Johnson. "We procured this Scully one-inch machine, and paired it with a Universal Audio 610 board. We had Altec monitor speakers in there as well. The echo chambers never really did suit us, so we quickly went to an EMT plate. We just didn't have the room to do a big chamber like they'd had at FAME, which produced some of the best echoes you ever heard.”

The MSS crew hung out their shingle in May 1969, and, as promised, immediately began cutting top-shelf Atlantic talent like Cher and Dusty Springfield. Still, months went by without anything resembling a hit record, a deafening silence compared to the torrid pace over at FAME. Finally in November, RB Greaves broke the drought with 'Take A Letter Maria'. Muscle Shoals Sound was finally on the board.

Weeks later, the genteel Southern studio was invaded by new Atlantic signees the Rolling Stones, whose three-night booking resulted in back-to-back hits 'Brown Sugar' and 'Wild Horses'. "Despite the fact that one of those Altec monitor speakers was distorting during playback,” recalls Johnson, "and the UA console was distorting naturally from lack of headroom! You can hear that on Mick's vocal during 'Wild Horses'.”

Even with a less-than-optimum setup, Johnson still managed to put together a mix of 'Brown Sugar' on the fly that became the envy of the Stones' own mix master Glyn Johns. "Glyn called me up from England after they'd done the horn overdub,” says Johnson. "He said, 'You know that master you did? Couldn't touch it. Came close once.' That was real nice. I mean, he didn't have to say that.”

Given the lack of free space at MSS, visiting recording artists took to using the parking lot out front for between-take relaxation; for playbacks, the assembled multitude would often congregate on the back porch, adjacent to the Tennessee River.

"And that's how we'd listen to those mixes,” recalled Wexler, the lifelong New Yorker who spent four decades as an honorary Southerner. "You'd get this panoramic sweep that way. Or we'd cut a cassette and get in the car and take a drive across the Wilson Dam. That was the real acid test of a mix — that car-radio level. In the control room, we'd use three levels of speakers: big crossovers, or JBLs, than a few smaller ones, and then these little car-radio speakers.”

By the beginning of the '70s, little Muscle Shoals Sound had become a wildly successful operation, turning out a torrent of smash hits and classic albums by the likes of Paul Simon (There Goes Rhymin' Simon), Bob Seger ('Night Moves') and many others. Eventually the rapidly growing client list demanded a much larger facility, and in 1978, MSS opened a new 31,000-square‑foot headquarters across town on Alabama Avenue. After closing in 1979, the original MSS subsequently became an appliance repair shop, then an audio-parts retailer. In 2000, businessman Noel Webster purchased the building and eventually reopened MSS as a museum, after several years of renovations.

"Back then, there were certain studios that had a 'fingerprint' sound,” notes Johnson of his former workplace. "Motown's Hitsville had it, so did Stax in Memphis, Philly's Sigma Sound was one of the best, and of course FAME had it as well. I like to think that Muscle Shoals was one of those — the kind of place where you hear a record on the radio today and know immediately where it was cut. That's what made that place so special.”