Recording & Mixing the White Stripes
It’s straight to the heart of analogue ‘cool’ as AT goes behind the scenes with Jack & Meg for the recording of Icky Thump.
Text: Paul Tingen
The White Stripes have achieved the impressive feat of harking back to a long and distant past while being utterly modern at the same time. In so doing they have become one of the hippest acts of the 21st century, required name-dropping for any rock-loving teenager, and yet also appealing to their granddads; in short, the kind of act the critics love to love. The White Stripes have a hard-hitting and ramshackle aesthetic that has seen them associated with the garage rock and grunge movements but also more ancient influences – blues, American folk, punk and ’60s pop.
This striking blend of old and new is also reflected in their recording approach. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Jack White famously recorded the band’s early material on an analogue eight-track in his living room, and the duo are known for having stayed true to their penchant for old-style recording: analogue tape, using a minimum number of tracks, and moving very, very quickly. Jack White, who also produces the band’s records, has widely proclaimed that their most recent and sixth album, Icky Thump, is boundary-breaking by their standards, having been recorded on 16-track analogue, and in three weeks [‘luxury’ – Ed. in best Yorkshire accent].
Words like ‘nostalgic’ and ‘retro’ are often used in association with the White Stripes, yet anyone who looks and listens a little more deeply, or gets to work with them, will be struck by their progressive approach. One of these is engineer/mixer/producer Joe Chiccarelli, a man who has paid his dues working with the likes of Frank Zappa, Beck, Counting Crows, Bon Jovi, and U2, and more recently The Shins, The Hives, and Mika. Chiccarelli first worked with Jack White on a yet-to-be-released Hank Williams cover. The two got on so well the Los Angeles studio man was asked if he was up for recording and mixing the Stripes’ new album. Yet even he, as a fan of the band and having already worked with White, found first impressions deceptive.
“When we started recording,” recalls Chiccarelli, “I thought, ‘great, this is my opportunity to do something with a more traditional recording approach and to some degree mimic those classic ’70s records that we all love’. So on the first day I tried taking this very minimalist, old-school approach to recording. I thought that with just two instruments, drums and guitar, there would be lots of space, and everything was going to be real and honest sounding and I wouldn’t have to chisel things so much. But it wasn’t like that at all! It was evident in the first few hours that my approach wasn’t working. The sound just wasn’t powerful enough, and there were too many holes in the frequency spectrum.
“The Stripes demand a big sound, and so I had to work hard to fill in the space, to make sure there was enough low end and air at the top. When I realised the registers they play in, I had to work my butt off to extend the frequencies and dynamics of what they were doing – to get the spectrum one would expect in a modern record. The sound had to be more detailed and aggressive, and specifically this translated into more close microphones, more room microphones, more compression during recording and in the mix, using echo chambers, and so on.”
Icky Thump is a full-frontal, all-frequency, in-your-face assault on the ear drums, most emphatically embodied in the high energy title track – also the first single – the recording and mixing of which is dissected below. White fittingly declared recently that he didn’t want his records “to sound like they were made in 1956. That’s a misconception of our band. I despise the words ‘retro’ and ‘reissue’ and ‘replica’. To try to imitate and replicate something is just a death.” So why has White, given his objectives, not succumbed to the all-conquering convenience and modernity of digital? And how did Chiccarelli manage to create a record that sounds hyper-modern and that brutally bursts from the speakers using just 16-tracks of analogue?
“Jack really wanted to step things up with this record,” explains Chiccarelli, “and do something that was more modern and punchier and a bit of a risk for them. Maybe he was a little bit concerned that some people see them as a little bit of a retro novelty act. He told me that he wanted to be able to do ProTools-style editing; i.e., doing detailed, radical edits in the song, chop things up in ways that are unnatural with dramatic changes. But he didn’t want to use a computer.
“Jack and Meg are big supporters of the analogue format, and he’s a big believer in the old-school approach: punch it in, no comp’ing, if you don’t like a vocal take, just erase it and redo it. He has a Studer A80 eight-track recorder at home, and we used a Studer A827 with a 16-track head, using Emtec 900 two-inch tape (30ips, no Dolby). I recorded pretty hot, because I wanted the stuff to have an extra little bit of distortion, and more edge and lots of tape compression. These things became part of the sound. I also had to make sure my levels were consistent, so when I spliced something in, it didn’t become unmixable and out-of-control.”
The recordings and mix for Icky Thump took place at George Massenburg’s Blackbird Studios in Nashville, not far from where Jack White currently lives. It’s a six-studio complex that prides itself in its extensive collection of vintage gear, atmospheric live rooms, and diverse-sounding echo chambers. Jack, drummer Meg White, Chiccarelli and assistant Lowell Reynolds took up residence in Studio D, which sports a 64-input Trident 80 desk, a homely and large live room with red curtains, and, says Chiccarelli, “an amazing-sounding echo chamber. I have to tell you, Blackbird is one of the best studios I’ve ever worked in.” (Others apparently agree: the top three albums in the Billboard Top 200 in late June, including Icky Thump, were all recorded at Blackbird.)
“Jack and Meg had several of the songs ready when we went into the studio,” continued Chiccarelli. “Some of them were whipped up on the spot. In a few cases the songs had parts missing, a bridge or an instrumental section, and we would record them without these sections, and then Jack would come up with a new section, and we would splice that into the middle of a song. Icky Thump came into being like that – there’s a whole instrumental section in the middle that was obviously edited in. There were also sections where Meg decided that she wanted a different drum feel, so we would punch in the drums. The song 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues, for instance, has two drum kits in it. Meg actually did some of her own drum edits – she knows how to edit tape.
“Jack is my favourite type of producer in that he has a very clear picture of what he wants. He doesn’t get overly detailed in technical terms, but he knows how he wants things to feel, and the overall effect he’s after. This gave me a lot of freedom, and put me in touch with my gut, as opposed to when somebody gets very technical and specific, which can force you to become too cerebral and analytical. He is a very instinctive and intuitive guy… and all heart. It’s the same way with Meg.
“They’re both about making the music feel alive, and true and honest to their aesthetic, while pushing themselves to try different grooves and drums feels. I get frustrated when the press put Meg down for the simplicity of her playing. She has a really big, wide pocket to her playing that leaves spaces in the right places. She’s also found ways of filling the gap that’s left by not having a bass player. I’ve heard Jack play with other drummers, and he doesn’t sound like the White Stripes. She is more than one half of the sound of that band.
“Meg and Jack are very much alike: when the inspiration hits, they immediately want to record. They work extremely quickly, and expected me to be ready to record at any time, so I had several sets of room ambience microphones set up in the studio. When they began to play a song, I could quickly push up the faders and choose which microphones best suited the songs. Meg and Jack always laid down the basic tracks playing together in the large live room at Blackbird. We’d adjust the curtains against the live wall depending on what kind of acoustics we wanted for a song.”
People keep asking how you get a certain guitar sound, but the truth is that with great musicians, it’s in their fingers, in their touch.
“Jack’s guitar amps were in an iso-booth adjacent to the drums. With some songs – especially the more instrumental, jamming ones, like Catch Hell Blues and Little Cream Soda – Meg felt uncomfortable using headphones, so we would just open the doors to the iso-booth and let the guitar sound bleed into the drum mics. I set up a Shure SM7 for a guide vocal, but with the exception of maybe a couple of songs, Jack’s, and also Meg’s, vocals were overdubbed. He often sang them in the studio’s echo chamber; we sometimes also put the guitar amps or percussion in the echo chamber.
“After recording the basic tracks they would work on the missing sections. We tended to splice them in before they did any other overdubs. I also had SMPTE on one track of the Studer, for automation and mixing, and sometimes we would use a slave if we had lots of background vocals, like in Slowly Turning Into You. But that was rare; most of the songs ended up being 15 tracks of audio. In the case of the title track these 15 tracks consisted of six tracks of drums (stereo room, kick, snare, overheads), main guitar in stereo, lead vocal, lead vocal double, vocal effects, synthesizer, two guitar overdubs, and guitar solo.
“The main guitar was in stereo, because I would make a submix of the sounds from Jack’s Fender Twin and Silvertone amps and whatever room microphones I had. Jack deliberately recorded a second lead vocal in which he sang the song with slightly different phrasing in sections. It was like having two performances together, and in the mix they were panned left and right. I also recorded an effect on the lead vocal during recording, overloading the tape machine to get distortion, as well as a distorted tape echo.
“The ‘synthesizer’ was a an old 1959 Univox that Jack found in New Zealand. It’s a suitcase keyboard with a speaker built into it, no DI. It’s very reedy, very mid-rangy, and it sounded so good in the room that the ambience you hear on it is just the room ambience. The guitar overdub was also in stereo, for the same reasons as the main guitar track. The guitar solo was in mono, the effect is Jack using a Zvex Woolly Mammoth distortion pedal and a whammy pedal. People keep asking how you get a certain guitar sound, but the truth is that with great musicians, it’s in their fingers… in their touch.”
RECORDING ICKY THUMP – THE TRACK
Mixed by Joe Chiccarelli from 16-track analogue tape on a Neve 8078 mixing console.
Joe Chiccarelli: “Like the tracking, mixing was done really quickly. We mixed 14 or 15 songs in five or six days, so that meant a minimum of two songs a day. I’m the kind of guy who likes to take extra time to tweak away, but Jack was always saying: ‘Are you ready? It sounds great to me!’ Of course, we were dealing with only 15 tracks, and didn’t have as many decisions to make as with 100-odd ProTools tracks. It was really down to getting the balance and excitement right. Working so quickly also meant that you really trust your gut, and you’re not over-thinking things. It’s exciting.
“I’d spend a couple of hours tweaking and then Jack would come and make suggestions. We’d finish the first song by 4 or 5pm, and the next one would be done my midnight. Meg was there for most of the mixes, and Jack was always there. He’s not a hands-on guy, he’s more of a movie director, he’d say things like, ‘the solo needs more dynamics’ or something broad like that. Blackbird has these very expensive Grado headphones, and he loved the way they sounded. They’re really accurate and he’d use them as a reference. We did actually go back later and remix 300 M.P.H. Blues and Little Cream Soda because Jack felt that our original mixes were too deliberate sounding, that we’d gone overboard with the dynamics. So we scaled it back a bit.
“I prefer not to mix through the same console as I’ve recorded and/or monitored with, so we switched over to Blackbird Studio A for the mix, where they have a late ’70s 72-input Neve 8078 console, and big ATC 300s speakers. I also used Yamaha NS10s and brought my favourite Tannoy AMS10A speakers – they are coaxial, so the phase coherency is pretty strong, and that allows you to hear the midrange really clearly. The whole process – recording and mixing – was about creating a full-frequency spectrum with only two instruments, and I worked hard to fill up any holes, particularly in the low end, in any way I could, using room and close mics, effects, EQ, compression, whatever.
“I didn’t use a whole lot of EQ in the mix, because I’m a great believer in tracking stuff the way you want it to sound – so if I want to add low end, I do it while tracking. It’s the old school approach of pushing up the faders and having the mix 90% there. I love the way the 8078 sounds, and it has great four-band EQ on each channel. This allowed me to affect frequencies that I hadn’t been able to tweak during tracking, whether it was a matter of cutting out some lower midrange or adding some ‘tip’ top. When using ProTools I always end up with a combination of console EQ and plug-in EQ, because you can get so precise with plug-in EQ. Did I sometimes feel like secretly sneaking into the studio at night to apply a plug-in EQ? Yes, but I didn’t! [laughs] I had to fix problems in other ways.”
DRUM TREATMENTS ON ICKY THUMP: Neve 8078 EQ, APSI EQ, Chandler TG1 Compressor, API 2500 Compressor, Chandler Zener Limiter, Chandler Curve Bender EQ.
“The moment I heard Meg play that drum beat during the tracking of Icky Thump I knew that this song would call for a big, heavy drum sound, so I had to scramble to get the drums sounding as big as possible. I might have added some low end (perhaps 80Hz) to the kick, some high/mid (around 4kHz) to the snare, and some air (15k or so) to the overheads. Adding 4k gave the snare some more crack and made it cut through better. I also used an old APSI graphic EQ on the kick drum – settings –2 at 35, +2 at 75, and +4dB at 3.5k. APSI was a ’70s offspring from API. I think I also added some bottom to the overheads with a Chandler Curve Bender… which incidentally has such great low end, I ended up buying one! In terms of the mix, in most cases the room microphones were not really processed.
“As far as compression is concerned, I applied a couple of drum sub mix compressors, probably an API 2500 and Chandler Zener – on other songs I also sometimes used the SPL Transient Designer and sometimes a Distressor. I set the API to fast attack and fast release, to get a bit of a pop to the snare, and blended that back in with the original. The Chandler has more of a round, warm, vintage sound. I set it to heavy limiting with a fast release, and blended that in to give the drums more character. The compressors were used on this album to make a statement, so I wasn’t shy of using extreme settings. I also may have sent the snare drum via loudspeakers out into Studio A’s live room and blended that in to give it a bit more ambience.”
MAIN GUITAR TREATMENTS: Neve 8078 EQ, Urei 1176 Compressor, Echo Chamber, Neve 33609 Compressor.
“I don’t think I compressed the main guitar any further in the mix. All compression was added while tracking, usually a Urei 1176. The guitars were mainly about balances and rides, and making sure the guitar line cut through, so I added some midrange at the console. The Icky Thump song has an instrumental guitar chorus instead of a vocal chorus, so it was really important that it spoke. I mult’ed the guitar out to two sets of faders, and one of them I EQ’ed very midrangy and compressed with a Neve 33609 to get a slightly different tone. Every time the guitar riff came up, the automation would switch to these faders. It made the melody pop out a little more. I also used the live room in Studio A to add some ambience.
SOLO GUITAR: Lexicon Prime Time Delay, Room Ambience, Punch Ins & Punch Outs.
“I widened the guitar a little because it was a mono track. So I put a short delay on it with the Prime Time and also blended some room ambience back in. The solo guitar sounds deliberately very much like the Univox. The idea was to make people go, ‘What is going on? Is that a guitar or a synth?’ Part of the effect was achieved during recording, when Jack asked me to punch in and out as he was playing, so that bits of the solo were clipped, making the notes sound more synthetic. Jack was very specific about how short he wanted the phrases. At first I was puzzled, but as always I trusted him, and sure enough, he was right, it was a really clever effect.”
UNIVOX SYNTHESIZER: Nothing.
“I didn’t do much to that, because I liked the way it sounded on tape. So it was just a matter of balancing the level.”
VOCALS: Teletronix LA-2A Compressor, Roland Space Echo, Echo Chamber, Neve 8078 EQ.
“Jack always wanted more distortion on the vocals! [laughs] The main vocal effect is a distorted slap echo, which I recorded (I overloaded the tape machine). When you severely overload something, it squashes the waveform so much that it almost sounds like an entirely different instrument. So instead of it being a delay of the original signal, it becomes its own sound and really adds a vibe to the overall track. When it came to the mix, Jack wanted still more distortion on the vocals and more edge, so I overloaded an LA-2A compressor, setting the output to 80. This meant that I was getting the distortion from the last tube stage of the compressor, which creates a really beautiful distortion.
“I also added some Roland Space Echo to the vocals during the mix, and ran the vocals through the echo chamber. Any reverb that I used on the album would have been dark sounding, and in a lot of cases I made it mono as well. In the case of Icky Thump I panned a mono reverb left behind the vocal that was panned left, and the other mono reverb was panned right behind the vocal that was panned right — set to 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock. I rolled off some top end, just to get rid of any ugly harmonics.
“I was actually reluctant to use all that vocal distortion during the mix, but again, I had to trust Jack. One thing I’ve learned is that when you work with great artists you have to throw yourself in their hands and trust them and just go with the flow. Sometimes the engineer in me would say, ‘oh, no I can’t print all that distortion’ but then the music fan would go: ‘It sounds great, it’s exciting, who cares?’”