Jack Johnson: Sleeps Through The Static
Jack Johnson’s new album, Sleep Through The Static, is a worldwide hit but not for any of the reasons you’d expect from a big-budget production.
Title: Sleep Through The Static
Artist: Jack Johnson
Produced by: Jack Johnson and JP Plunier
Mixed by: Robert Carranza at Solar Powered Plastic Plant Studios, Los Angeles, on an SSL AWS900.
Text: Paul Tingen
Photography: Kizzy O’Neal
Jack Johnson’s fifth album, Sleep Through The Static is as laid back as ever. The album has been phenomenally successful, reaching No. 1 in every Anglo-Saxon country in the world, including Australia, the US and the UK. Not bad for music that was created entirely on analogue tape, almost without effects, and with a philosophy that deliberately championed feel, spontaneity and simplicity.
On the telephone from his home in Los Angeles, Robert Carranza, the album’s mixer and engineer, elaborated on the goings-on: “The whole focus of making this record was to simplify things,” related Carranza. “Even the process of using outboard gear was enormously simplified: there was hardly any. We trusted our instincts, and we had the good sense to not be bound by how people are making records right now. We did our own thing. We focused on feel, and if something felt right, we went with it. Even when it came to mastering, we told Bernie Grundman that this record didn’t need to be loud and that the acoustic songs should feel like acoustic songs and be less loud than the other songs. And it’s interesting for people to see that a hit record can be made in such a very simple way!”
Robert Carranza has worked with Jack Johnson since 2003, when he engineered and mixed the singer’s second release, On And On. He performed the same duties on In Between Dreams (2005), and graduated to co-producer (with the singer) for 2007’s Curious George. Carranza is therefore well placed to describe the differences between these albums. It turns out that even though the result may have been relatively similar, the making of Sleep Through The Static was indeed very different. It features more electric guitars and keyboards than previous albums, and was the first time Johnson recorded in Los Angeles, and to analogue tape. It was also the first time producer JP Plunier (Ben Harper, John Lee Hooker) was involved.
“The previous records I did with Jack were recorded to ProTools at his studio in Hawaii,” recalls Carranza. “Jack had never made a record to tape, and he asked me one day: ‘what’s the difference?’ I replied, ‘I don’t know whether you’ll hear the difference, but I can show you what the difference is’. And so he decided to do it on tape and soon realised that this was a good decision. Most of all it forced us to pay attention. With ProTools you spend a lot of time looking at the screen and listening with your eyes. Working with tape forced us to sit back and really listen to takes, and to what was good in terms of feel, and be a little bit more forgiving of little mistakes that happen. That was really liberating.
“Jack had gotten tired of ‘listening with his eyes’, and he loved to sit back, close his eyes and just use his ears. He also enjoyed the fact that we only had a limited number of tracks, and for most songs we didn’t even fill all of them up. We went with the attitude of: ‘let’s not be precious about it, if it works, let’s leave it as it is. The feeling of the song is more important than the technical side’. The other thing that helped was that we had moments of pause in between takes and songs. With ProTools the files come up instantly, but it takes a while for the tape machine to roll back, and it takes another minute to change reels. These scenarios created little moments of quiet in the recording process, and they made us pay more attention.
“Personally, I don’t mind whether I record analogue or to ProTools, but I will say that my views have changed after doing Jack’s last record. ProTools is a great thing, but working with a 24-track analogue multitrack forced us to make quality decisions, sometimes even irrational decisions! You can’t just fly things around at will, and this really helped us form this record. The point of our approach was not that it was old-school, but that we had a clear philosophy that was liberating for us. It helped us psychologically, and also sonically. But we didn’t overthink it. It was more a matter of, ‘let’s just do it’. In the end, the gear aspect is superfluous. If the song is not there, it doesn’t matter how you approach the recording.”
TAKE THE CHALLENGE
The recording location for most of Sleep Through The Static was the result of a happy coincidence. Around the time Johnson planned to record his album, he and his manager were looking for a place to house their label, Brushfire Records. They found a 100-year-old building in Los Angeles, which had a huge room at the back, previously used by a photographer. The duo immediately hit on the idea of turning it into a studio, and asked Carranza to organise it. Following the decision to record on tape, the engineer/mixer/producer suddenly found himself having to take a rather unusual angle to fitting out what was to be named Solar Powered Plastic Plant Studios (courtesy of the solar panels that were fitted to the roof and made the building 100% self-sufficient).
“Choosing the studio equipment was up to me,” explained Carranza. “Nobody had any foresight as to what to get. I already owned all the outboard gear that we needed and I also have a complete ProTools system, so the main challenge was to get a tape machine, a desk, and a monitoring system that would work in the relatively untreated acoustic space. We ended up buying a Studer A827 24-track. “As for the desk, Jack wanted something economical and low-maintenance. I’ve grown up with API, and they’re great, but I know how problematic they can be. The same goes for Neve. So I settled for the SSL AWS900. I realised that I could get any sound I wanted on this console, as opposed to a Neve, which will only give you the ‘Neve’ sound. And since I have an outboard rack full of preamps: four Neve 1073s, eight API 512s and 12 API L200s, I only intended the AWS900 to be used for monitoring and mixing.
“A friend of mine, Rich Costey, recommended the ATC SCM50 monitors, which definitely complemented the music. But they were too big for the control room, causing a big bump in the bottom end, so I had them in an office room off to the side. Sometimes I’d playback through them while sitting in the control room, with the office doors open, just to get a mono perspective. I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to monitors; I tried the PMC AML1s, but was thrown off because there was a big void in a couple of frequencies. I tried some M&K monitors, but they didn’t work either, even though they’re great speakers. In the end I settled on my tried and tested Genelec 1030s. They sounded perfect in the room. I also always reference things on a cheap boombox, to give a different perspective.”
I wouldn't buy a book that had blurred words in it, but with the loudness wars..., that appears to be where we're going
Vintage analogue gear was the order of the day during the Static recording sessions. From Studer tape machines to Neve, UA and API preamps, the sessions were captured with no computers in sight. Compressors and EQ from a wide range of eras also played their part.
TRIAL BY FIRE
So eager were Jack Johnson and his band – drummer Adam Topol, bassist Merlo Podlewski, and keyboardist Zach Gill – to start recording, that workmen were sometimes asked to take a smoko, so the band could get in. Given the band’s “feel, spontaneity and simplicity” ethos, it comes as no surprise that the basic tracks were laid down live, with the band playing together in the studio. Carranza elaborated on the how and why and what…
“The basic piano, guitar, bass and drums tracks you hear on the album were all recorded live, which I’m really proud of. It’s guys playing together, and the camaraderie that involves. Jack’s approach was: ‘I just want to come in and make it happen’, and ‘let the bleed be the bleed’. The piano had a little bit of drum bleed, which reminded me of the old Motown stuff. Initially we didn’t even have screens, so I called a rental company to hire some screens, which we placed around the drums to separate them from the piano and guitar. The whole process was definitely a trial by fire. We monitored through an Aviom headphone mixing system, so everyone could hear each other and make their own mixes in their respective cans. Then at some point someone said, ‘let’s not wear headphones!’ and from that moment onwards they tracked without them. I put up some nice microphones, and we did a couple of takes of each song, and picked the best one. In the case of one song I edited two takes together. Jack always did a scratch [guide] vocal that we used in a couple of cases. We just went for a really simple way of making a record.”
The “nice microphones” involved “nothing spectacular on the drums”, specifically a Sennheiser MD421 on the kick, two Shure SM57s on the snare (bottom and top), 421 on the toms, Audio-Technica AT4050 on the overheads, and a Royer SP24 stereo mic in front of the drums, a foot away. Bass was both DI and another MD421 on the Ampeg B15 amp. The upright piano was captured with two Neumann U87s placed in front of the soundboard. “Zach was initially playing towards the drummer, but to get more separation I moved him 45 degrees, so he faced the wall and I covered things up with a couple of packing blankets.
“Electric guitars were also pretty straightforward, with a Shure SM57 on the amp. The acoustic guitar was usually a Gibson J45, sometimes a Cole Clark, recorded with an AKG C451. I’d screened off the acoustic guitar so it didn’t bleed as much. Some songs started off acoustically, and Jack would say, ‘there’s too much bleed on the mic, let’s try an electric’, and all of a sudden the vibe of the song changed. We simply went with it. If I Had Eyes was one of those songs.
“We started the project using a vocal microphone I don’t really want to name. It was okay, but a friend of mine was telling me about the reissue of the U47 that Telefunken was making. So Telefunken sent me a demo copy, and the minute Jack sang into it, it sounded great. I called the company and asked them what the deal was, and they offered to send me a new one, but I was like, ‘no no no, I want this mic. It sounds amazing, you’re not getting it back!’ I still have it to this day. We went back and re-tracked some of Jack’s vocals with this mic. It made a huge difference, it had the sound I had been looking for for years.”
Overdubs, said Carranza, were recorded with headphones – “it’s hard not to” – and included guitars, backing vocals (U47), banjo (Sennheiser 251), clavinet (SM57), melodica (Sennheiser 251), pump organ (251), synthesizers, tambourine (451), and handclaps (U47). “The mic we used was usually based on what was nearest and easiest to use. When you work like that, it creates a nice flow. When someone had an idea, he could instantly try it out, and even if the sound wasn’t right, at least the idea was there.”
Regarding the signal chains, simplicity again ruled the roost. “For vocals it was the U47 going into an API 512 and an LA-2A with a dB of compression at the most, straight to tape. I’ve learned in the past that you want to use little or no EQ during recording, because if you later want to drop in a fix, you’ll never match it. The drums were all cut through API preamps. For bass we went through a Universal Audio 610, guitar and piano went through the Neve 1073s. That was pretty much the signal chain on everything.
“There was no compression; not on the bass or the guitar. I only compressed the kick drum a little bit, and I mean just a dB, to smooth it out a little. That was it. Everything else was pretty flat. Because of their great musicianship, they balanced themselves amazingly. It was almost unnatural. I think the fact that they didn’t use headphones when laying down the basic tracks helped them to really listen to each other. And finally, we didn’t use a click track, except on the song Hope. We struggled a bit with the tempo on that one, and when we finally agreed on a tempo, we started the song with a click track and then faded it out. Again, we trusted our instincts and did our own thing. If it felt right, we went with it.”
Robert Carranza mixed the album at Solar Powered Plastic Plant Studios, using the Studer A827 and the SSL AWS900. Was he not tempted to load everything into ProTools and mix from there? “I didn’t want to change the mood or atmosphere of what we had been doing at all,” replied Carranza. “I could have mixed in ProTools, but aesthetically I wanted to keep the project in the flow of not looking at a screen. Even when mixing you tend to look at the screen, and you often go, ‘what’s going on right there?’ and zoom in to see it. I wanted to stay away from that. I wanted to focus on sound, faders, and my perception of what was coming out of the speakers. I wanted to mix off tape, and Jack was okay with that.
“The only digitisation in the whole project occurred during mixdown, which was via Benchmark A/D converters to a Tascam DVR1000HD, both 24/96 and DSD. And we only did this because we couldn’t get a hold of any half-inch tape! The supplier had run out and nobody was making it at the time. Initially there was some concern about not printing to half-inch tape, but after we played the mixes back, nobody was worried. We went straight from the SSL to the Benchmark A/D converters then straight into the Tascam – no patchbay – and it sounded great.”