The success of soul legend Solomon Burke's comeback album is a testament to the virtues of keeping things simple in the studio.
It would be easy to look at the charts and come away with the impression that IT skills are more important to the making of a successful record than musicianship or recording nous. However, bucking this trend at the 2003 Grammy awards was veteran soul singer Solomon Burke's remarkable album Don't Give Up On Me, a set of songs with a warm and organic sound miles removed from the over-produced fizziness of many modern CDs. And what will no doubt be particularly edifying to the traditionalists amongst us is that it also took only a week to record and mix in its entirety.
The man responsible for this feat of engineering was S Husky Hoskulds, who cut his teeth working as staff engineer at Hollywood's legendary Sound Factory studios, and whose studio credits include albums by Sheryl Crow, Tom Waits, Norah Jones, Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Turin Brakes, The Wallflowers, Vanessa Paradis and Joe Henry. I was keen to know how he and producer Joe Henry managed to get so much done in such a short time. "It was an incredible amount of work," laughs Husky. "We went in and did a marathon. We decided that we'd have four days to record and two days to mix. Looking back at it, I'm amazed that I even made it through, but on the other hand there was something really liberating about doing that. There can't be a lot of chasing your tail, and if you decide that before you start, certain things become really straightforward. There are certain things that you just don't have to worry about. I think that the fact that records are not made like this today is kind of a drag, because it's a lot of fun not labouring over everything. I worked with Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom at the Sound Factory for a long time, and they both have the attitude that there's no point in spending five months making a record. If you have an accurate representation of the song, whether there's more or less delay on the vocal isn't ultimately going to matter.
"There seem to be two schools of making records. On the one hand, there's the school which hires people to do what they're really good at doing, and then lets them do that to make the record. On the other hand, there's the school of production where you're more in charge of the whole musical side of things. It's a much more laborious situation and it's four to six months out of your life. Both of these methods can work, although I'd say that making a record in six days is certainly more fun than making a record in six months. If you mix things in a couple of hours, some things are going to be left poking out. It isn't going to be a completely close shave, but that's the character, and I think it's unfortunate that more records aren't made like that. You can get a unique sound if you don't labour over things too much.
"Normally when I work on records like that, I like to come in the day before and set up for a few hours. But for this one, I had to finish a record in New York, then I flew back home to Iceland for a couple of days, and then got back to the Sound Factory at three o'clock in the morning of the Monday that we started, so there was almost zero preparation time. Fortunately, I know the Sound Factory very well — it's easy to do those kinds of records in a studio like that where every scenario you come up against has already happened at some point. I know that I can put the upright bass over here and it'll sound fine, even though it's quite close to the drums, that I can put the upright piano over there, and so on.
"We had drums, upright bass and upright piano in the same room. Then we had the acoustic guitar player off to the side, with the Leslie for the Hammond B3 behind a single door, and Solomon was in his own room. It's a fairly small studio, so Solomon had sight lines to the drummer and the bass player. Having everybody in that proximity makes it feel less like being in a 'recording studio' and more like a bunch of people sitting around together — they can tap each other on the shoulder and communicate with each other."
Looking at the album's sleeve notes, the vocal mic looks like a Neumann U87. "I think it's an 87," he agrees, "but it may also be a 67. It was going through a Hardy M1 preamp and into the ADL 1000 compressor — a modern reissue of the LA2A, made by Antony DiMaria Labs.
We tried a couple of different mics, but singers like Solomon just start singing and you say, 'Oh, that's excellent.' For some people you have to be really picky with microphones, but with others the least obvious choice just works perfectly. It's a strange thing."
Husky's own web site (www.eightbitaudio.com) includes links to some of the other interviews he's done in the past, and I happened upon a section in one of them where he described the drum mic setup he had been using on a Wallflowers project: Electrovoice RE20 on the kick, Shure SM57 on the snare, Neumann KM84 on the hat, and a Calrec stereo mic for the overheads. Was a similar approach used for Don't Give Up On Me? "That was pretty much the setup, more or less — it's kind of the regular setup. Then I'll maybe have a ribbon mic which might be filtered or compressed more. I've had good luck with a ribbon mic sitting behind the drummer at ear level, maybe a couple of feet back from the drummer's head, in the corner of the room. A lot of times the sound is just that ribbon mic and a touch of the kick drum mic. It's amazing how drums sound great if you don't stick a mic right up next to them. To hear a rack tom hit with a Coles ribbon mic on it about four feet up is great — that, to me, is the sound.
"I try to get the drum sound going in the room rather than relying on processing on the way to tape. First of all, Jay Bellerose [the drummer on the Solomon Burke sessions] has a pretty amazing collection of broken drums and miscellaneous bits of metal, and I've also got a pretty good collection of snare drums and things like that. Part of the lo-fi feel comes from what he's hitting, but part of it also comes from experimenting with mics and maybe filtering things a bit. I like to mix things around a little bit, so I usually have one fader open for miscellaneous experimentation — an old gramophone horn with a mic in the end of it, a toy mic with a spring inside. I sometimes call it the $100 channel."
Although he likes to experiment, Hoskulds' approach to recording is economical. "I often only record drums to three tracks: kick on one track, snare on one track and then a mono overall drum track — if I'm using the Calrec, a pair for it. If I have 10 faders to choose from on the way to tape I'll try to commit to the sound as we're recording. One of the reasons I can mix a song in two hours is because there's nothing that really needs to be discovered in the mix — it's all there on tape. I make notes of what things are working together as I record, and what the panning is, so I don't have to struggle to get things to fit together in the mix.
"Drums and bass will usually get EQ'ed pretty heavily on the way to tape. With electric guitars I'll usually try to stick with what's coming out of the amp — it's usually straight to tape through a compressor — and with acoustic guitars I'll try to move the mic about a bit if I can, because that certainly helps. I don't often EQ vocals on the way to tape. I'll try to pick the right mic and compressor and try to steer the singer closer or further away. I'm not afraid to EQ things after the fact, though, either. You get as far as you can with mic placement and everything else, but then there's still room to EQ.
"Although I set up each track separately by ear, I guess if you looked across the console you'd probably see a theme of 'more bass, less treble'. The mastering guy — Greg Calby usually for my stuff, although Doug Sax did the Solomon Burke record — probably says 'here we go again', pulls out 3dB at 400Hz and adds a couple of decibels from 6kHz upwards because there's nothing there, but it all works out somehow."
One of the aspects of the sound of Don't Give Up On Me which I found most interesting was the flattering, larger-than-life compressed sound of the individual instruments and the mix. As I'd suspected, Husky has a secret weapon... "I have an old black-face Al Smart compressor," he reveals. "It was the first one he made, and I think it's called the C1. It's always on the main stereo buss. I usually set it to a ratio of 2:1, and use one of the slowest attack settings. There's just something about the way it sounds — I can't even track without it, because I'm always working towards the mix. It also seems to sound better to me than the silver-faced one, for some reason, even though it's cheaper!
"I'll also usually buss all the drums through a compressor at the mix — same with the bass. Lately I've been doing more extreme stuff, such as on the latest Joe Henry record, where I have a couple of compressors on busses, and then also a couple of compressors in side-chains, and most of the mix will get sent through those. On the Solomon Burke record, I think the buss would have been fairly lightly compressed, although individual channels would have got pretty squashed. I have four Dbx 163s, the '70s ones with the slider and the LED meters, and if I'm in the mood I'll put those on all the guitars or the drums."
Despite an obvious fondness for traditional recording techniques and analogue equipment, S Husky Hoskulds is keen to harness the creative power of computers. "In the middle of last year I decided to get a bit more into the whole computer scene — beyond Pro Tools, that is. I don't really do much in the way of editing or fixing — what really interests me is the processing capabilities of computers. For me, the world of VST plug-ins and instruments goes far beyond what's out there for Pro Tools, in terms of price and availability, so for a while I was using Emagic Logic Platinum with the Digi 001 hardware, which I'd had since it came out, although I now use the MOTU 24I/O interface. Lately I've even started setting it up so that I have plug-ins going as I'm mixing. I'll take things off the sync heads on the two-inch, run them through a few plug-ins, delay them as far as they need to go to put them in sync again, and then bring them up on the console. I also have the Nord Micromodular, which I've often used in the same way, although I use it less and less now that the VST things are involved. This stuff is so much more interesting than lining snare drums up to a grid or tuning vocals, which I refuse to do. Part of the reason I got the Digi 001 originally was because you couldn't really do multitrack-style editing on it — sorry, can't do it! However, I've got the numbers of guys that will, and in the meantime I'll be over here distorting vocals and stuff..."