Plain Jack & White
Jack White’s debut solo album Blunderbuss is his first to reach No 1. It’s also the first album recorded to 8-track tape to make it to the top in decades. Jack White uncovers his preferred working method; why he finally built his own studio; and how Bob Ludwig bypassed the Loudness Wars.
In the feature film It Might Get Loud (2008), which features guitarists Jack White, Jimmy Page and The Edge, White makes some striking statements about music technology. He declared that “technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth,” which leads to “a disease you have to fight in any creative field: ease of use.” White has also stated that he feels that he can’t be proud of something unless he “overcame some kind of struggle,” and in the movie demonstrated his point with his famous red JB Hutto Montgomery Airline, a kitschy, low-quality plastic guitar which was sold via mail order during 1958-68, and which is regarded as difficult if not impossible to play. “You have to pick a fight with it, and win,” clarified White. During another scene in It Might Get Loud, blood is seen streaming from White’s picking hand, and there’s a shot of one of his electric guitars covered in congealed blood.
White’s deliberately contradictory attitude to music making in general and technology in particular informs almost everything he does. Perhaps it originated from his early days in his native Detroit when he was an upholstering apprentice, which involved a lot of picking fights with matter, and the occasional stains of blood. It showed in The White Stripes, in which he made his life difficult not only by playing the JB Hutto guitar, but also by playing with only one other musician, a drummer who was a beginner when the band started, and whose style has been called ‘primal’ and ‘simplistic’. It also showed in White’s often stated refusal to become a studio gear head, as well as his preference for recording on analogue, a medium that involves a lot more of a struggle than working with a DAW (barring the odd computer crash, of course).
However, in 2009, White decided to build his own studio, Third Man, which meant throwing at least one of his principles overboard as it involved him having to engage with studio gear on a much deeper level than ever before. The creation of Third Man Studios was related to White establishing a physical location for Third Man Records, the independent label on which all six White Stripes studio albums have appeared, as well as the output of the other two bands White is involved in: The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. However, in recent years the output of Third Man Records has multiplied dramatically, with White producing singles and/or albums by the likes of Wanda Jackson, The Black Belles, Karen Elson, Loretta Lynn, Seasick Steve, Jerry Lee Lewis, Stephen Colbert, Alabama Shakes, and many others, plus White’s first solo album, Blunderbuss. Whether the studio informed the many releases, or the other way round, is probably a chicken and egg situation, but it appears that Third Man Studios has turned into Jack White’s Mad Scientist’s Lab.
On the phone from Gulf Shores on the Alabama coast, where White was about to play a concert on a festival on the beach, he elaborated on the why of his own studio and how it changed his relationship with technology. “In the Third Man Recording headquarters I have what is probably the only live venue in the world where you can record to tape. It’s an actual live venue with a recording booth attached to the stage. But my recording studio is in a different location, and I’ve done all my recordings there since I built it three years ago. For the longest time I did not want to have my own studio gear, mostly because with the White Stripes I wanted to have the constriction of going into a studio and having a set time of 10 days or two weeks to finish an album, and using whatever gear they happen to have there. I recorded the second White Stripes record De Stijl, in my living room, and we would record a song, and a couple of days later another song or two, and then a week would go by and we would record again. When having a studio at home it is too tempting to get distracted. The phone rings, somebody knocks on the door. So I said to myself: I can’t do this shit anymore, and I decided to record in commercial studios from then on. But after 10 to 15 years of recording like that I felt that it was finally time for me to have my own place to produce music, and have exactly what I want in there: the exact tape machines, the exact microphones, the exact amplifiers that I like, and so on.”
Paul Tingen: Your studio is built around a 1073-based Neve console and two Studer A800 2-inch 8-track tape recorders. Why analogue and why only eight tracks for most of your recordings?
Jack White: I love analogue because of what it makes you do. Digital recording gives you all this freedom, all these options to change the sounds that you are putting down, and those are for the most part not good choices to have for an artist. For example, if you record a vocal onto tape and there is one word wrong, it is too dangerous to edit it out and fix it with a razor blade. So a lot of times you will leave things in that inherently are a good idea to leave in. But if you’re working in Pro Tools, you are going to Auto-Tune that note or use a bunch of other plug-ins to get that note to sound the way you want it. But these attempts to make things sound perfectly in time and perfectly in tune are all huge mistakes, because you are taking away all the inherent soulful qualities of what is going on. Plus the plug-ins you may be using are all emulations of real things in real life, like reverb, or tape delay, and so on. All those plug-ins have adjustments on them, and none of them are mechanical. I think that when you get out of the world of mechanics, you start to lose the inherent beauty of the sounds.
I can’t work in this scenario, but I’m not saying that other people should work like I do. If they think they can make something beautiful in the digital realm, more power to them. Regarding my preference for eight-track recording, it helps me make decisions. If there are only two tracks left, what am I going to do with them? I can do a guitar solo and a vocal harmony and that’s it. But if that were on Pro Tools, I would have 200 more choices. Let’s put another tambourine track on, let’s put four more guitar tracks on, and double that snare drum, and all of a sudden you’re putting all this shit on that you should never have put on to begin with. Opportunity has killed it. If you don’t have all these choices, your mind will focus on better things.
PT: Wasn’t the last White Stripes album Icky Thump (2007) recorded by Joe Chiccarelli at Blackbird Studios on two 16-track recorders?
JW: The Icky Thump situation was a debate between Joe and I. He wanted to do drums on six tracks, and I only on one track, but I did not feel like fighting him on it. It was a matter of trying to find the biggest headspace without going to a 24-track headspace, so I decided that 16 tracks would be a good compromise. I had done many records on eight tracks by that stage, so I allowed myself some room with albums by The Raconteurs Consolers of the Lonely and the White Stripes to do slightly different things that I had not tried before. A lot of that is stuff I probably will never go back to doing again. But we did get some good recordings, and Joe is very good with a razor blade. The problem at that time was that we were given a bad batch of tape and the heads had to be cleaned every 10 minutes. This was during that little tape drought.”
PT: What about the sound situation? Many former champions of analogue say that digital sounds much better now, perhaps even as good as analogue, because of high resolution and better AD and DA convertors.
JW: There is no doubt that recordings from the 1920s up until the mid-1970s sound superior to those that were made with early digital technology. We all know how horrible music from the 1980s sounds, and how many artists that were making amazing recordings in the 1960s and 1970s all of a sudden found themselves in the 1980s in this horrible realm of gated reverbs and digital recordings, and that became a problem. If they had stayed with the tools that were not broken, things would have still sounded fine. Yes, digital recording sounds a lot better today than it did 20 years ago, but it is still a dangerous place to be and I don’t want to go anywhere near it. Why take the chance? 90% of the songs on the radio have drum beats that have been put on a grid, so that everything is perfectly in time. Why the fuck would you ever want to do that? It turns it into plastic. Kraftwerk and some other bands that are feeding off that approach can come up with things that are amazing. But for the music that I love, it would be a shame to do it like that. I definitely wouldn’t want to hear The Beatles recorded on a computer. It would be a nightmare.
A TIME TO CHEAT
PT: You have called using ProTools ‘cheating’. Still, according to Vance Powell you will on occasion use the system, like with your James Bond song Another Way To Die.
JW: When you have an extremely complicated edit and you have no way to do it in analogue, ProTools is a great editing tool. If you have a song that is amazing, and everything is beautiful and everything is perfect, and in one bar the drummer dropped his stick, and it is the only thing that needs to be fixed, and you can’t do it with a razor blade, yes, pop it in a computer and try to fix it. You do the edit in ProTools and then record it back to tape. That is what it is good for. But to live in that world and record in that world is not the same thing. The biggest evidence for this was when we were working with Chiccarelli and we dumped everything in ProTools for the mix, so that we could program the moves on the desk and we didn’t have to rewind the tape 300 times, and in doing so wear out the machine and the tape itself. So we listened to the song 300 times, and then we went back to the tape to lay down the mix, and oh my god, it sounded so much better. It sounded 100 times better. You wish you could bring people in and have them sit there for that long, so they get accustomed to the digital version, and then you play them the tape again and watch people’s eyes blow up. Once you have experienced something like that, you never want to go back to digital again.
Again, I understand why people use ProTools. You can make a recording and edit very easily and fast with ProTools. There is no argument about its ease of use. And a beginning band may not be able to afford a roll of tape. But does it sound better? Absolutely not. I’d like to add that this is not a debate about authenticity. I can make an authentic recording on a computer. The debate is what sounds better. If you take a blackface Fender reverb amp from the ’60s, and you compare it to a solid-state Fender reverb amp from the ’80s, there is no comparison as to what sounds better. Mechanics are always going to provide inherent little flaws and tiny little specks and hisses that will add to the idea of something beautiful, something romantic. Perfection, making things perfectly in time and perfectly free of extraneous noise, is not something to aspire to! Why would anyone want to aspire to such a thing?
GEARED TOWARDS GEAR
PT: In the past you kept studio technology at arms’ length. How involved are you now as a studio owner?
JW: For a long time I felt that I had to be very careful. For the same reason I am not a record collector. As a songwriter it is very dangerous to be a record collector because you start emulating things, everything you record becomes a reference to something that happened in the past in your mind. That is not a good place to be as a songwriter or a performer. I want to do something that is uniquely me and to push something new forward. The same thing as a producer. So I had to be very careful not to become a gearhead and be obsessed with things like whether something is a Fairchild 660 or 670, or whatever. You get obsessed with all these numbers and these gadgets, and you get away from the emotion and the feel and the energy of the recording. Before you know it you are lying underneath a desk with a flashlight in your mouth rewiring a Neve board! There is beauty in that, no doubt, but because I already had my feet in so many different places, I wanted to stay away from that.
For a long time my attitude was a turnoff to people. I would get into a studio with engineers who thought that I did not know what I was talking about because I was not turning the knobs and I was not referring to things by their numbers or their factory names, like I want an UREI compressor or I want a Fairchild compressor, or I wanted to use things in a non-standard way. Someone would say: ‘well Jack you don’t want to use that compressor, it is not good for vocals.’ I didn’t want to get in a debate where I had to prove that I knew what I’m talking about, because that is not the point. But when I built my own studio and had to decide what I want to have in there, it was like starting the record label: I finally allowed myself to get a little bit more involved and to be able to work with those tools. But I still keep myself on a leash, because otherwise you will never see me again. If I become somebody who is obsessed with compressors, I would not be writing songs anymore, nor would I be producing. I’d just be obsessed with gear.
PT: How did you choose the gear in your studio?
JW: That happened slowly over a long period of time, just collecting things I have used over the years that I thought sounded great. For example with the White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan album and the first Raconteurs album, Broken Boy Soldiers, everything on both albums was recorded with one Coles 4038 ribbon microphone — everything from kick drum to vocals. It is my favourite microphone. Engineers were fighting me, saying that I could not use it for everything, that they were EQ-ing the shit out of things, and I was like: “I don’t care, make it work.” I fell in love with it at the BBC. The BBC was using that mic on everything. It is so beautiful looking, and to hear it played back, it was so impressive.
PT: What about your Neve desk? And I understand you had Martinsound Flying Faders automation installed on it?
JW: The Neve desk is amazing, it is so beautiful sounding, you just plug something into it and it just sounds beautiful. But after a couple of years of Vance and I doing manual mixes on it, hand over hand, it did feel complicated. I was scared to automate anything, but in the end decided that we were taking so many advantages from analogue, we can at least allow the faders to be automated. And they are mechanical, so that appeals to me as well.
I definitely wouldn’t want to hear The Beatles recorded on a computer. It would be a nightmare
PT: You’ve long said you don’t see yourself making a solo album. What provided the spark for Blunderbuss?
JW: Yeah, I did not have any intention of recording my own songs a year ago. I was producing 45s for Third Man Records, and we had done Tom Jones, Pokey LaFarge, and Wanda Jackson and many other artists at my studio. In the process I was getting into bigger orchestrations, sometimes with 12-piece bands, like on Wanda’s record and Tom Jones’ record. I had never orchestrated that many people in one room at the same time. To have 12 people playing live was a whole new world to me. Then I had a session booked for Wu-Tang Clan rapper RZA, to do a Blue Series single for Third Man with him, and he had to cancel at the last moment. I had all these musicians in the studio who did not have anything to do, and I did not want to send them home — some of them had come from out of town. So I said: “well, let’s record some of my songs.” I only had a couple of things kicking around, so we started and we did three songs that day and that was the beginning of the album.
PT: When did it become a solo album in your mind?
JW: It is hard to say exactly when, but maybe after six or seven songs it started to click that it was all becoming something. They were not The Raconteur songs, the White Stripes are not around any more, and The Dead Weather were on tour, so I guessed that it was my own thing. As I said, I had never had any concrete plans to do a solo album, but I am very happy about the way it happened. The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather all happened by accident, and I always felt good about that.
PT: Did you pre-rehearse or pre-arrange the songs before the sessions?
JW: I used 100 different production styles on the record. That came from the freedom of having my own studio and having people in Nashville who could come at short notice. If I started working on something at 10 o’clock in the morning, and I thought, ‘this really needs a fiddle and a steel guitar player,’ by one o’clock somebody would have showed up and we were recording that live. I also put people behind instruments that they don’t normally play, sometimes I had all girls record a song and then the next day I recorded the exact same song with all male musicians. I was trying out all kinds of different production ideas, because I was in my own space and I wasn’t under the usual time constrictions.
What was great too with all these hired guns in the room was that I could write on-the-fly. I could ask people to play something, and I would go somewhere else and work on another part. I was directing people in the room. I had never done that before. When you are in a band, you don’t really tell other people what to play. You can produce a Raconteurs record, and deal with the sounds of the compression or the reverbs, but I am not telling the bass player and drummer what do all the time. They are fully competent and it is a group effort. But the session musicians are standing there waiting to be told what to do, so I could get into writing on the spot and writing for other musicians.
PT: Apparently you asked Bob Ludwig not to use any compression during mastering. What’s the story?
JW: There are all these debates all the time about loudness and dynamics and the loudness wars, and a lot of it I don’t understand. Engineers talk f**king out of their asses for hours about it, and I never really understand what is going on. It is so difficult to get a straight answer when it comes to dynamics and mastering and sound quality. But I did understand clipping and loss of dynamics as being things that I am not interested in. I like music very loud, so it is difficult. I listen to music in my car and on my stereo loud enough for people to walk out of the room. I have always been that way. But I have never called a mastering engineer and said: ‘make it as loud as possible, I want to be louder than the loudest rap album that is out there right now.’ Having said that, when it comes back from mastering and you are listening to two different versions, a lot of time you pick the louder version.
With Blunderbuss the dynamics on this record are so important and there are so many subtleties going on, that when Bob Ludwig wrote to Vance Powell: ‘why don’t we just turn the gain up and not put any compression on it?’ I was like: ‘I have been asking that fucking question for 10 years and nobody ever said that we could do that! So yes please, please let’s do that!’ And he did. It was like I had been asking for this for a long time, but I was always getting these roundabout answers, and finally we did something I have been wanting to do for a long time, and it sounded great. It kept the same dynamics, it did not get changed by compression, it was just louder. It was a blessing that Bob said the words I had been wanting to hear for a long time.