"I got a new slide guitar," he said, "I can’t wait to have you record it."
They both sat back as the live recording of Joe’s album release party played on the Genelecs in the control room. I sat where I always sat, on the fraying gray couch behind the coffee table, watching the two men work.
Joe Crookston and Will Russell have been working together for years, have made four albums together, and have collaborated on some of the most beautiful recordings I’ve ever heard. The sessions for Georgia I’m Here were my first sessions back in Ithaca after working in LA and being out of the studio for eight months. Hearing the way they responded to each other and witnessing the flow of true art: it was one hell of a homecoming.
Joe is a multi-instrumentalist and singer, but primarily plays guitar and slide. His songs are rootsy and transcendent. He’s got an ego and a humility that come from a healthy balance of talent and failure, and no shortage of hard work that has all led to a successful career. I was lucky enough the hang out and assist on some of his sessions with Will, and witness his genius in action. And Will’s genius, of course. But his comes from a modest wisdom and the ability to disappear in the presence of greatness. If you’re not attuned to it, you’ll almost forget he’s there.
What I love about the relationship between the two of them is that Joe recognizes how lucky he is to have Will. To have an engineer that knows his own art better than anybody, and knows how to use it to support the art of every single person that walks through the studio door. To have someone that never says no. Someone with whom it’s not a matter of “Can I?” but a matter of “How can we?” I’ve worked in live sound long enough to see how often musicians get refused requests, or get told that it’s just simply impossible. Will doesn’t believe in impossible. And he caught me young enough to make sure I never believe in impossible, either.
Last night, Drew was asking me about recording amps, and running some ideas by me about miking techniques. I think he noticed me fiddling with my iPhone flashlight during a session of one of our friends’, holding it up to a bass amp I was miking. The drummer leaned in to see what I was doing.
"Is that an amp-miking app?" he asked.
I broke out of my mic-placing trance, “What?”
"Why are you holding your phone up to the amp?"
"Oh!" I laughed, "No- it’s just my flashlight. I’m looking through the grill at the speaker, so I can figure out where to put the mics."
None of the guys had seen anyone do that before. I finished setting everything up and split off into my station at the desk, and Sam picked up his bass to get levels. Drew wasn’t playing for the session, so he sat beside me at the console. Listening to the different tones between the 87 and the 84 and the DI. The blend of the three. I’m not sure if he heard the differences as clearly as when he adjusts the tone knob on his Gibson, but then again, I’m not sure that he had to. I could hear the differences. It’s my job to hear them.
A week later, we sit on his bed, my head on his chest as he tells me about his new song.
"I think I want to have two different mics on the amp. An AKG condensor and a 57."
"Which AKG condensor?"
"Umm," he pauses, "I’m not really sure which one it is; my dad has one at his studio, and it’s got this really clean sound that I like."
"A 414?" I suggest.
"Does a 414 have a gold front to it?"
I smile, “It can. I bet it’s a 414.”
"Maybe. But I want both of them on the amp, and I want to switch between them for the chorus and the solo section. Do you think that’s a good idea? Like, do you think that would work?"
"What kind of sound are you going for, that you want to switch between them?
Of course, I knew exactly what he was going for. I had a pretty solid idea of the sounds he wanted, and I was confident that I could figure out how to record them for him. If not with the microphones alone, I would be able to fill in the missing pieces that he hasn’t learned about yet- the preamps, the compression, the clean-sounding distortion he wants to add that little bit of zizz. But he reminds me of me when I was just starting out in the studio. He’s asking the right questions. And more importantly, he’s asking the right people.
So he explained what he was looking for. I listened. And I suggested a few things, let him know of a couple tricks that might help him out, but overall, it was a good idea. A good idea that he’d only know was right when he tried it.
"I want you to come to my dad’s studio with me when I record them."
"I wouldn’t miss it."
Watching Sound City, we got to talking about recording and music and equipment and gain structure and I got to see the cogs turn inside his head as I explained about the Neve 8078 console and how it made the magic it made. The hiss and the sparkle of solid-state capacitors and the vintage pres on each channel, the overdrive and the compressors and the gelling of the vocals coming from the insane amount of processing added to each voice, even before it gets on the tape.
So wait,” he stops me, “the vocals wouldn’t blend as well without the effects?”
"The board makes that sound, yeah."
"So like, if you and I were to sing together," his fingers weave through mine and he shuts his eyes, processing this new information, "You could make us blend better by miking us the same, and using the same…"
"Pre-amps and compressors, year. Boosting high end and allowing the character of the microphones to shape the way the tracks blend naturally."
Buckingham Nicks was playing in the documentary, and I point to the TV.
"Hear that?" I look at him, "Stevie and Lindsey don’t naturally sound that great together. I mean, they don’t sound bad or anything, obviously, but there’s all that extra harmonic distortion from layers of analogue amplification, compression, tape hiss and all of that compounding with each mix gives their vocals that sparkly sound.”
"That’s the sound I like."
"Exactly! That’s the vintage sound."
"I always thought that it sounded more live, more genuine."
I smile, “I mean, it was all recorded live, and it’s all live performances, but the tone is so much about the gear.”
"Huh." He pauses, and I take that second to squeeze his hand and study his face. He usually looks older when he’s talking about music, it’s like this sage-quality comes over him, especially when he’s talking about albums or guitars, or histories of bands and artists. But when he gets a new piece of information, he chews on it slowly, and his face mirrors that of a child learning why the sky is blue. "I never knew that."
"That’s why," I say, scooting closer, "before I started recording Sam, I asked him to give me a list of tracks he was trying to emulate. I wanted to listen and figure out the sounds he was going for, and the type of equipment and miking positions and different mics I should use."
"That’s a really good idea! I should do that…"
He smiles at me- this big goofy smile he always does, before letting his face relax and squeezing my shoulder. I lean up and kiss him full on the lips.
We stay like that for a while. When we finally pull apart, he looks at me and then squints his eyes shut real quick and gives his head a little shake.
"But those two mics on the amp," he says, opening his eyes, all business, "Do you think that’s a good idea?"
I stifle a giggle and smile at him. “I do.”