Keith Richards almost quit music, but now the Stones’ guitarist is under its influence again.
Story: Paul Tingen
“Keith is very charismatic, very smart and a very sharp guy. He reads a lot and is an excellent observer. He’s also very down to earth and humble; there are no airs.” Dave O’Donnell’s — who was the engineer and mixer of Keith Richards’ third solo album, Crosseyed Heart — generous depiction of Richards are in line with his current status as venerated elder-statesman-of-rock.
There was a time when wider perceptions were different — all of the ’70s, in fact, when almost all of the rock ’n’ roll community was forecasting his imminent drug-induced demise. Fortunately, its Richards love of music that has given him the desire stay upright, and to endure the rigours of life on the road with the Rolling Stones.
A recent film documentary about Richards, Under The Influence, gets the story straight from the horse’s mouth. The film is essentially an album promo, but the intersecting file footage validates the claims he was indeed ‘there’ at turning points in American Blues, Country and Jamaican Reggae. And loving it no less. If you’re to believe this documentary, it’s this same soul-lifting joy and exuberance divined from new musical discoveries that underpins Crosseyed Heart.
JUST DEMOS, CROSS MY HEART
Twenty-three years, the entire lifetime of some artists, separates Crosseyed Heart from Richards’ last solo album, Main Offender. While the gap between that and his solo debut, Talk Is Cheap, was only four years. All three albums feature a collection of Richards’ musician friends called the X-Pensive Winos — drummer Steve Jordan, guitarist Waddy Wachtel, keyboardist Ivan Neville and backing vocalist Sarah Das.
This album also saw guest performances by keyboardist Spooner Oldham, pedal steel-player Larry Campbell, and vocalists Aaron Neville and Norah Jones. The musical palette is rich with Robert Johnson-influenced acoustic blues (the title track), Stones-like rockers (Trouble, Heartstopper), reggae (a cover of Gregory Isaac’s Long Overdue), folk (Ledbetter’s Goodnight Irene) and several gorgeous ballads (Robbed Blind, Suspicious and Illusion). Even at 15 tracks and a length of nearly an hour, there’s relatively little filler.
Richards’ first two solo efforts received mixed reviews and middling commercial success. Crosseyed Heart, by contrast, was, at the time of writing, set to crack the Top 10 in the Australian, US and UK album charts. The reviews have given it ‘best yet’ status, with many commenting on the “relaxed” and “spontaneous” atmosphere of Crosseyed Heart’s “ragged set of no-nonsense blues tracks,” which have a “satisfyingly gritty texture, more stripped back than a Stones album.”
Crosseyed Heart sounds like Richards and the Winos had a rollicking good time. Which is partly due to the way Jordan — who co-produced and co-wrote — and Richards approached the project. In Under The Influence, Jordan explained he contacted Richards after hearing an interview where the rockstar suggested his own retirement. It didn’t impress Jordan much, so he prescribed the studio as a tonic. Just the two of them throwing down “a few ideas… not an album.”
It’s a good tonic, reckons O’Donnell: “Keith loves being in the studio. He’s made a lot of records and understands the entire process but still enjoys being there while we’re working, even when we’re fiddling around with something technical.
“In early 2011, Keith and Steve had been improvising together and co-writing for a while at One East Recording in Manhattan. In March of that year Steve invited me to come to Germano Studios, also in Manhattan, where most of the album was eventually recorded. They said they weren’t planning to make an album, but just wanted to record some material they’d been working on. In the beginning we worked maybe two days a week, and got a song recorded each day. It was all very relaxed. You never know what people are like until you actually work with them, and Keith has incredible feel. His playing is purely natural; there’s no ‘work’ involved.”
RECORDING KEITH’S ACOUSTIC GUITARS
“We recorded his acoustic guitar for Crosseyed Heart with a new Telefunken M260, which Germano Studios had recently acquired. I’m sceptical of new mics, because the older ones have been around forever and you know what they do, but this one sounded fantastic. I loved it right away, and later used it with James Taylor. The other acoustic guitar mic was a large diaphragm, a tube Neumann U47 or perhaps a Telefunken ELAM 251, and Keith sang into a Shure SM7. All the mics went through the studio’s AMS Neve 1084 mic pres, and then to tape. I placed the M260 between the sound hole and where the neck meets the body, slightly angled towards him, and the other mic somewhere within 2-3 feet of the body of the guitar.
“Acoustic guitars are tricky to record, because the player can move around a lot, but I do like the sound between the sound hole and the 14th fret, because it gives you a lot of definition. I may have it just 15cm from the guitar, but if it gets too boomy, I back off the mic a bit. Pointing the mic at the neck has never worked for me. I decide on the placement of the other microphone by listening in the room, and also by what happens to the phase. Things can be out of phase and sound bad, and you move the mic a bit, and suddenly it may sound good.
“The second mic can be cardioid or omni, depending on the room. When recording someone whose fingerpicking, like Keith did in this case, I’ll track it with an 1176 compressor, just in case some of the snaps are too hot on the close mic. I’ll slightly pan the two mics, and in the mix later on we added a touch of reverb. I liked it dry, but Keith wanted a little more space around it, so we added some Bricasti, or perhaps the old EMT250.”
In addition to the quality of the songs, several elements contribute to the success of Crosseyed Heart: the intelligent arrangements and playing of the guest performers, Richards’ surprisingly strong vocals, his formidable guitar playing, which is all over the album, and the warm, deep, inviting, 1970s-yet-modern sound image. On the opening track of the album, Richards immediately throws down the gauntlet to anyone who assumes he’s no longer the player he once was. Crosseyed Heart features a brilliantly executed acoustic solo guitar, played in a 1930s blues style — tightly swinging and showcasing some impressive finger-dexterity.
O’Donnell elaborated: “He came in one day with an old 1940s Martin acoustic and said to Steve: ‘there’s this thing I want to play for you’. Pierre de Beauport, who is Keith’s guitar tech, and I both know that if Keith wants to play, you’d better be ready to record. If I or our assistant Kenta Yonesaka could not get out in time to place the mics, Pierre would do it. Keith took out his guitar, played and sang, and finished by saying, ‘that’s all I got’. That, literally, was it. It was just one take, and everybody loved it. It’s great blues playing that really showcases how stunningly good he is. The mics we used on Keith’s guitar for that track were a Telefunken M260 close up, plus a large diaphragm a bit further away, probably a Neumann tube 47, and Keith sang into a Shure SM7, which is unidirectional, so didn’t pick up a lot of guitar (see Recording Keith’s Acoustic Guitars for more details).
“People sometimes talk about Keith being ‘loose and sloppy’, but he is an amazing guitar player! He’s like an old blues guy. The feeling just emanates, and he was always in tune. When he picks up an acoustic guitar, he’s all over that thing!
“When playing electric he uses very few pedals, it’s mostly just straight into the amp. That’s really how you get the best sounds; a great guitar into a nice amp, not playing too loudly. You get a much better tone that way. This is also true with acoustic guitars. You hear the dynamics; Keith has that down, and James Taylor is the same. They can play very softly and get a great tone, then suddenly hit hard.”
RECORDING KEITH’S ELECTRIC GUITARS
O’Donnell: “As with any instrument, the sound really comes from the player’s hands. If you gave Keith’s guitar to another player, it’d sound completely different. Of course, the guitar and the amp do make a difference, and in general Pierre [de Beauport] would hand Keith a guitar, and he played almost everything through a Fender Champ, certainly all his rhythm parts.
“The guitar most often used for the rhythm parts was his famous ‘Micawber’ 1953 Fender Telecaster, which is in open G tuning and only has five strings — the lowest string having been removed. That’s his main guitar for riffs. For solos and also on the acoustic he tended to be in regular tuning.
“I did what I normally do, which is to have a Shure SM57 close up on the cabinet, and sometimes I also had a Sennheiser MD421. Because we were only recording two days a week, we’d have to tear down and set up regularly, so we might have changed the mics. But generally it was the 57, and often a 421 blended in. For some songs we had a Royer 121 behind the cabinet for more low end, and a Beyerdynamic M160 for some ambience. As for positioning, I will always walk around and listen. The close mic is rarely straight onto the speaker cone, but always off-centre and angled slightly. Sometimes I’ll swap the 57 for another one, as they all sound slightly different. The mic pres were the AMS Neve 1084s at Germano Studios. It’s possible we sometimes used an 1176 on the way in as well, but that would have been minimal. We also recorded a DI as a safety, with the idea that we could re-amp later, if necessary, but we never had to. Obviously the sound was right, because it inspired him to play.
“With guitar overdubs we spent more time looking for different sounds, and sometimes changed the mics — it could be an SM57, 421, Neumann FET 47 or AKG C12, depending on the sound Steve and I were after. Keith still almost always played through the Champ, though he occasionally used a Watkins amp. Pierre supplied him with different guitars, and occasionally suggested a pedal to get a specific tone.
“You can get a certain sound from lead guitars by turning them up loud, so we tended to use more ambient mics to get a bigger, more exciting sound. Lead guitars tend to come and go in the song, so they can take up more space in the track.
“Keith came up with many interesting guitar parts, which were all very feel-based. He’d come up with ideas, do a couple of takes, and might refine his idea and play it again. We comped some of the overdubs, but it’d be like the first half of one take and the second half of another take. It was all about capturing the spirit of things, never about being note-perfect.”
JUST THE TWO OF US
Most of the remaining time at Germano was spent with Richards playing guitar and singing guide vocals, with only Steve Jordan on drums. As a rule, other instruments, and lead and backing vocals, were overdubbed later on. “The room is maybe 10m long,” recalled O’Donnell. “Steve’s drum kit was set up in the back corner of the studio live room, facing me. Keith mostly played electric guitar facing Steve with his back to the control room. The guitar was at a good volume, but not so loud that it would drown out the drums. We weren’t looking for isolation anyway. Keith used headphones if he wanted to hear himself singing, and Steve had a live monitor wedge so he could hear Keith’s singing and more guitar if needed.
“The songs came into being in different ways. Keith had written some of them before recording, like Robbed Blind, and others he improvised and co-wrote with Steve. They played almost all the basic tracks together, so it has a live feel. After a few takes they’d come into the control room to listen, then either redo it or change sounds and play it again. If a song was taking longer to record, they’d revisit it another day. We faded out or edited down some songs that were played for longer than needed, but there was no editing between different takes.”
O’Donnell recorded everything to 24-track analogue tape — running Pro Tools at 24-bit/96k as a safety — which he said, contributed significantly to the warm sound of the album: “We tracked to a Studer A827, running at 15ips, because we wanted the ‘low end that provides’. While there was no intention to make it sound like the Stones, with Keith Richards in the room you can’t help but be in that vein. Keith and I didn’t really discuss ahead of time how he wanted things to sound, but I know he loves analogue. So does Steve, to a huge degree. We also always ran a two-track tape recorder for tape-slap throughout tracking and mixing. Whenever Keith came in to listen, he would always see one or two tape recorders running, which he clearly enjoyed!
“Tape definitely adds character. For this music it was part of the sound and contributed to creating the right vibe. We would record the kick and snare — and sometimes the drums as a whole — quite hot to get some tape compression, but the guitars didn’t really need that. Steve and Keith would be happy to work 100% in analogue, and so would I, but digital does provide a number of advantages, especially when you’re not specifically trying to make a record but are ‘just putting down ideas’. With tape you always have the panic of, ‘oh, they’re doing a great take, is the tape going to run out?’ and then almost hoping the musicians either stop, or someone makes a mistake! With Pro Tools you can record for as long as you want. Keith overdubbed his bass to tape, but after that we generally transferred everything to Pro Tools to open up more tracks for experimentation during overdubbing.”
FIRST NAME BASSIST
Once the guitar and drums were laid down, Richards would overdub bass guitar. Then sometimes on, through an impressive array of instruments like more acoustic guitar, piano, Wurlitzer, Farfisa organ, electric sitar, and tiple, plus his lead and backing vocals. “Steve wanted to get as much of Keith on the record as possible, and was well aware he’d played bass on some of the greatest Stones tunes,” related O’Donnell. “He plays melodically and rhythmically, and reacts to his own guitar playing, so he comes up with original stuff another bass player wouldn’t necessarily play.
“He played his bass overdubs in the control room through an Avalon Tube DI, and also through the studio’s Ampeg bass amp. I generally like a Neumann FET 47 on the bass cabinet, but the mics changed. We could have used an EV RE20, or a Sennheiser 441. It would just be one mic, though; we’d pick the one we liked best. We recorded the bass DI and amp on separate tracks and later chose the blend we liked.
“Waddy Wachtel played guitar on half a dozen tracks through the Watkins amp. We had a similar recording setup for him; an Shure SM57 and Sennheiser 421, a Neumann 87, and an ambient tube U47. We removed the top and front of the studio’s upright piano, and recorded Keith playing it with a pair of Neumann U87s at the back and a couple of AKG 414s at the front.
“Steve would often change the sound of his drums for each song. We usually had a 421 and FET 47 on the kick, the snare would have an SM57 top and bottom, the hi-hat would be a Neumann KM84 or KM184, and we’d have 421s on the toms. Steve had a second kit set up in the other corner, which would have even more sparse miking. Most of the drum sound came from the overheads, which could be Coles ribbons, Telefunken CineMics, or Neumann U67s. Keith and Steve specifically did not want a multi/close-mic sound for the drums. The idea was to have a more open, raucous sound for the album. I’d say we weren’t going for a lo-fi or hi-fi sound, but what I’d call a mid-fi sound; more like ’70s rock ’n’ roll.
“Everything, including the drums, went through the AMS Neve mic preamps — either 1084s or 1081s. If those were not available we’d use the Chandler TG MkII.”
Dave O’Donnell took his first studio steps in 1984 at the legendary Power Station Studios in New York (now Avatar Studios), as a runner. He quickly worked his way up to engineer, working with legendary producers like Russ Titelman, Phil Ramone, and Neil Dorfsman. O’Donnell went independent in the early ’90s, and has amassed an impressive list of credits, including the likes of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, John Mayer, Lyle Lovett, The Bee Gees, Milton Nascimento, Rod Stewart, Joss Stone, Morrissey, Tina Turner, James Taylor, and Ray Charles, and has been nominated for three Grammy Awards, winning one. His multi-album collaboration with James Taylor has been particularly fruitful. Among the several Taylor albums he’s worked on, O’Donnell engineered and mixed the guitarist’s October Road and earlier this year he engineered, mixed, and produced Taylor’s first-ever American No. 1 album, Before This World. In 2013 O’Donnell mixed a track featuring Clapton and Richards on the Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013 album. O’Donnell has a project studio at his home in upstate New York, called Studio D (top), with a Yamaha DM2000 desk, a Pro Tools HD system, ProAc Studio 100 and Griffin G2B monitors, and several racks of outboard gear.
Beyond Wachtel and Richards’ overdubs, Paul Nowinski played viola and gamba, as well as double bass on the ballad Robbed Blind, Pino Palladino played electric bass on Illusion, for which Norah Jones co-wrote the lyrics and overdubbed her vocals. O’Donnell recorded her with a Neumann U47, the same mic he tended to use on Richards’ vocal overdubs, in addition to “occasionally an RCA 44 or a newer Telefunken”. All overdubs were recorded at Germano Studios, with the exception of horns on Lover’s Plea and Charles Hodges’ Hammond organ and piano overdubs, which took place at Royal Recording Studios in Memphis, Tennessee.
O’Donnell said it was only when almost everything was recorded that the ‘just layin’ tracks down’ narrative was overtaken by record making: “We had done rough mixes as we were recording, but hadn’t spent a lot of time on them. At some point the decision was made to release the material as an album, which meant mixing it properly. The mix phase was more conventional in that we would go in for four to five days a week. Keith and Steve were involved the entire time. Keith wanted to be there, he loves that kind of teamwork. Because many of the roughs were very good, we just finished them off at Germano, going from Pro Tools through the SSL Duality. After that we took some songs to Brooklyn Recording to use their Neve 8068 desk and incredible array of outboard.
“We only used outboard during the mix, no plug-ins. It was all old stuff, like Teletronix LA2As, UA 1176s, EMT plates, and of course the tape machine slap echo. What did I do for guitar treatments? Just push the fader up! Seriously, there’s no big secret or magic button. The sound really comes from the hands, the guitar, and the amp, and then of course the mic and the mic pre. Mixing mostly consisted of balancing, panning, and EQ’ing on the Neve console if we felt it needed a bit more definition. There were quite a few guitar overdubs; you can listen to the album purely for the guitar parts.
“Steve constantly came up with great ideas, but mostly we had achieved the sounds we wanted during the recordings. Some of the overdubbed guitar sounds might have been treated a bit more. If we wanted a compressed sound, we’d use an LA2A, 1176 or ELI Distressor, which is one of the newer pieces of gear that is excellent. We also used the tape slap quite a bit during the mix. Panning is huge for me; I like left-centre-right for guitars. The stuff in between is more for ambient things.
“We had the Vertigo VSC-2 quad compressor over the two-mix on many of the songs, and we printed to both ½-inch tape and Pro Tools and brought them both to mastering. Greg Calbi mastered it, and his first question is always: “How loud do you want it?” We said, “We want it musical!” Which Greg liked. We wanted Keith’s record to sound modern, but not overly bright or compressed. Any distortion that’s there was intentional, created at the time we recorded! For me it was all a matter of capturing the spirit.”