April 29, 2010
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings showcase the instinctual way Daptone does soul with I Learned the Hard Way.
The Daptone story already has its share of legendary characters: There’s bassist/producer/co-owner Gabriel Roth, who turned a two-story house into a recording studio for the Daptone Records label; then there are the Dap-Kings, who collectively played on Amy Winehouse’s sophomore album, Back to Black; and of course there’s the prison guard–turned–electric soul singer, Sharon Jones.
One lesser known—but no less important—of these characters is Chief Tape Operator Wayne Gordon, who’s had a hand in all of Daptone’s releases. A warm studio presence decked out in a white lab coat, Gordon has spent hours threading up an Ampex AG-440B tape machine, marking reels of RMG SM911 tape with a silver Sharpie and splicing together tracks with an X-ACTO knife. His presence alongside Roth helps explain why the music being recorded in Daptone strikes a special chord.
“I’d done a lot of digital recording work, but nothing of this magnitude [in analog],” Gordon says. “It’s suddenly like playing for the ’72 Dolphins. I was in college before, and now I’m in the pros.”
The gear, techniques, and even the sports metaphors are old school at Daptone. But that’s just how co-owners Gabriel Roth and Neal Sugarman (the latter who plays a Selmer Mark VI saxophone as part of the Dap-Kings) like it. Their label’s headquarters and studio in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn is a spiritual center for the recent funk and soul revival, where they practice a throwback style of recording that doesn’t involve computers or Pro Tools. Gordon’s tape machine doesn’t even have a counter.
“We’re having a good season,” Gordon says, discussing the label’s recent run of albums. “Gabe is like Don Shula, and Neal is like Joe Robbie.”
Daptone’s warm, handmade hallmark sound starts in the label’s studio, built in 2003. The label’s artists transformed the two-family home themselves, with Sharon Jones doing electrical wiring and Sugarman laying drywall. They built an isolation room partially out of discarded tires, installed a Trident 65 console in the control room, and ripped out the ceiling to expose the wood beams underneath. The do-it-yourself construction ethos parallels Roth’s studio philosophy.
“Making a record has to be a craft,” says Roth, who is often credited as Bosco Mann. “It’s not pure art or a pure science. If you go for science, you lose out on feeling, and if you go for art, you aren’t going to capture it. There’s a balance. It’s like fine carpentry. It’s aesthetic, but you need to be confident and know how to use your tools.”
When Roth and the Dap-Kings started on I Learned the Hard Way late last year, the biggest change was switching from 16- to 8-track recording. By limiting options, Roth believed he was freeing up the recording process.
“Using fewer tracks and not having as much isolation and options in the recording process forces your hand in a way as a musician, arranger, producer, and engineer,” he says. “It puts everything on the line a little bit more.”
Downsizing created a different mindset. Recording straight to tape with only eight tracks, Roth and Gordon needed to make quick decisions and do a lot of comping, especially as some of the more complex songs, including “Give It Back,” involved extra string tracks, backup singers, and extra horns. Gordon would often run tracks from the main Ampex to another tape machine and compile or comp them to save space. Rhythm tracks would be recorded live, comped, and mixed down to make room for additional instruments— backup vocals, glockenspiel recorded in the isolation room, or the last minute addition of a clavinet. They had to keep everything in phase, and Roth had to mix on the fly.
“In the control room, we had a score in front of us, so we were rehearsing with them and going through the arrangements,” Roth says. “We practiced moves on the mixer, like, ‘When you get to the vibes on this bridge, turn it up.’”
Mixing decisions—like sticking with a certain instrumental mix or taking out buffering to capture a harsher, more brittle sound—were made in the moment rather than days or weeks later in the final mixdown process.
“With the tape machine, you have to step up and think about what you’re trying to do,” Roth says. “It requires more balls. You have to be focused. If a sax player plays a solo and says he can do it better, I’m going to tell him, ‘Either you do it better or leave it alone because I’m going to record over that one.’”
PEOPLE (AND MIC) PLACEMENT
Trusting your ears is an old cliché, but when Roth and Gordon recorded Dap-Kings, they worked to remove preconceptions. They set up a variety of mics, from a Shure SM57 to random Radio Shack gear, and blindly labeled them in the control room so they weren’t prejudiced when hearing the results. For the bulk of I Learned the Hard Way, a single Reslo (a tiny, square Russian ribbon mic) was set up about six feet high and five feet away from the horns and sent through a Tube-Tech EQ. Trumpet players stood on overturned speakers so they carried above the saxophones. Making the entire horn section, which ranged from a trio to a miniature big band, play into a single mic forced them to mix and balance themselves. Orchestral parts were recorded in the same manner.
“Leave it to the placement of the people, not the mics,” Roth says. “Even before I place the mics, the band is playing around the room, finding out where it sounds good, where it resonates. You’re just using your ears. It’s like, ‘We’re not getting enough of the second harmony. Why don’t the two tenors switch places?’”
Getting the horns in a groove is just as important as the rhythm section, according to Sugarman, and that often boils down to tight arrangements, often with the baritone and trumpet playing in unison, and the tenor might be the third.
“We understand our roles and how we fit into the horn section, as well as which harmonies we need to pull out, tune by tune,” Sugarman says. “And we always sound better on one mic. What we hear in the headphones relates to the blend we’re making.”
Jones’ passionate and often spontaneous vocal performances—exemplified by “Money,” which ramps up from a sly opening monologue to an explosive chorus—were recorded with an RCA-44 ribbon mic set far enough back so it’s not overwhelmed by Jones’ forceful singing. A Purple Audio Biz preamp provides extra gain, and the signal continues through another Tube-Tech Pre and compressor.
The rhythm section, which includes Roth on a Carvin bass (through a Juice Box direct box) and guitarists Binky Griptite and Tommy “TNT” Brenneck on Gibson and Harmony Rocket guitars through Ampeg Gemini and Magnatone amps (miked with SM57s), anchors many tracks with more rich melodies and tones. Case in point is “I’ll Still Be True,” with its slinky cross currents of guitar.
EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE
Despite careful arrangements, the midrange gets crowded, which requires some adjustments to maintain balance. Roth often used masking, so instruments only covered certain frequencies. It separated the bass and bass drum, but also proved useful when guitars, horns, and vocals threatened to overlap.
“If I want to push a guitar really trashy and trebly and I end up pushing it up 2K or something, I’ll pull that completely out of the horn section, so they’re not taking up the same place, or put the high-end up in the horns and take that out of the guitar section,” he says. “Another thing I do when I’m mixing is grouping things together and limiting them. If there’s a guitar part riding through a whole song and there are some horns coming in, we allow that to knock the guitar out of the way for a minute. You don’t want to squash things down, but you can do it right so certain things push other things out of the way. I also tend to be heavy-handed with EQs, if it sounds better. Lots of songs, I just grab a low-pass knob and push it all the way. I’m not under any illusion that there’s anything sacred to protect.”
Daptone’s in-the-moment process makes mixing tracks easier for Roth, but he adds extra impact by hardpanning throughout the album. The triumphant summer porch boogie of “Better Things to Do,” which opens with a crisp guitar lick and warm trumpet melody echoing the forthcoming main theme, gains added impact by slotting those two instruments to opposite ends of the spectrum.
“You listen to some Otis Redding records, and his vocals are all the way on the right, and the band is on the left,” Roth says. “I think when you start letting go of what you’re supposed to do and just let things sound good, you get good sounds in weird places. The mixes I don’t like are the ones that sound perfectly balanced. The good ones are ones where you can barely hear something, or it really stands out.”
Roth also created a bigger sound by using reverb. He used a Stocktronics plate reverb in the basement, and by mixing the pre-delay and direct reverb signals, he created a bigger-sounding room on songs such as “If You Call.”
“I tried to create the illusion that I had a bigger room than I had,” he says. “Using a tape machine as a predelay, you clean it up a bit. Bigger rooms have more delay before you hear the reflections.”
The warmth of the recordings coming out of Daptone goes beyond the standard analog-versus-digital divide. The commitment of Roth and his crew to creating their own process has resulted in an aesthetic that’s well beyond a pleasant anachronism.
“You plant that seed and you keep watering it,” Sugarman says. “We never changed course. It evolves and every record is different, but it’s our choice and we don’t try to second guess.”