If we look at the working methods of a fair number of producers, we find differences in the choices of microphone, the tricks used to create certain sounds, the use of certain mixing techniques. Jack White, however, seems to look at it all from a different perspective.
There are just the musicians; there is just the arrangement, just the interaction. To produce a record means to transmit sensations, focussing on the most appropriate way to capture the uniqueness of a performance between human beings. According to this philosophy, any mistakes, both performance wise and technically, enhance its uniqueness. Is it perhaps because of this very intimate vision of record production that Jack White strongly accuses the Black Keys of having plagiarised his sound?
Jack White is one of the most interesting musicians and producers on the independent scene overseas. As well as his history with the White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather, he has collaborated with Tom Jones, Wanda Jackson, Norah Jones, Alicia Keys, and has contributed to the soundtrack of films including 007-Quantum of Solace, The Great Gatsby, and The Hateful Eight.
His talent seems to go hand in hand with his eccentricity, his look, his obsession for the number three, and his passion for taxidermy. Since his debut he has always had clear ideas about how to make records. This resulted in him founding his own label, Third Man Records, the only one able to represent his originality in making and promoting music.
In the April of 2014 he announced that for Record Store Day, the day which the USA celebrate independent record shops, he would create the fasted record in the world, from its initial engraving to its publication.
At Third Man Records headquarters, in Nashville, there is a concert hall. The sound director is at the back of the stage, in a soundproofed room. He looks like the king of his studio: everything revolves around a Neve 5008 console, and a pile of outboards (including a Distressor, Fatso, and Eventide). The originality, however, lies in the Vinyl cutting machine at the back of the room, with two cutting engineers rushing around, dressed in white shirts. It’s a Scully Lathe from 1953. The same machine gave life in its time to works such as It's A Man's World by James Brown.
The session for the single ‘Lazaretto’, also known as the ‘World's Fastest Record’, happened at 10 o’clock on the morning of Saturday 19th April 2014. Jack White got up on stage in front of a small crowd, accompanied by musicians from his all-male band, as well as those from his other, spectacularly created, all-female band (who White randomly alternates in tour, choosing at the last minute who to play with), along with players linked to the Third Man Studio.
The first two songs from the concert, Lazaretto and Power Of My Love, would become respectively side A and side B of the 7".
They were created strictly live, by Vance Powell, under the watchful eye of two staff cutting engineers after the mix.
Starting life as a live Sound Engineer, he began his studio career in 1986. In 2002 he gave life to the legendary Blackbird Studio, in Nashville. There he collaborated with high calibre artists such as Neil Young and the Dixie Chicks. He left his work in the studio in ’93 to dedicate himself totally to being FOH Engineer, resuming in the early 2000s. Being used to completely analogue recording, it wasn’t easy for him to come face to face with the digital revolution which took place during his absence. In fact, he continued to record and mix in full analogue, making use of Pro Tools almost exclusively for the editing. In 2006, while working on the album ‘Rome’ by Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi, he met Jack White, who was invited as guest vocals. From that point on a long-lasting collaboration was born which resulted in a Grammy (one of 4 won during his career) for Consolers Of The Lonely by The Raconteurs for "Best Engineered Album".
Going back to Record Store Day 2014: at 10:49 the acetate was taken to United Record Pressing, to be copied and packaged. After just 3 hours and 55 minutes from the band getting on stage, the 45 rpm was on sale.
This situation is a perfect example of how Jack White addresses music production: speed, simplicity, quick decision-making, the presence of an almost uniquely analog domain, and the search for a "mood" rather than a technically perfect sound output
After having published Blunderbuss, his first work as a solo artist, White had various ideas for new songs, and felt the need to record a fair number of them on his days off during his American tour. If the musicians in his two bands had finished the tour and returned home, the feeling of the interplay and interaction would have been lost. From this need to capture the magic built up from playing together every day, Lazaretto was born, the full length album previewed by the “World’s Fastest Record”.
The recording sessions, carried out at Third Man Studio (owned by Jack White), lasted three days for the male band, and three days for the female band.
Everything was recorded live and in an extremely minimalist way, apart from the occasional overdubbing of vocals and solos. The Third Man Studio has a 6 by 7 metre room. White wanted a self-contained live room; he does not agree with the concept of musicians being distant from each other while they are playing.
The control room is equipped in a simple manner: a Studer A800 8 track (which will soon be synched to a matching system), a 16 channel Neve mixer with a 1073 channel strip, and some outboard gears (1176, Neve 2054, LA2A, API 2500, GML 8200, API 550 and Fullton delay and reverbs, Master Room XL-305, Moog and EMT).
There is also a 16 channel Pro Tools Native mixer, primarily used for back ups of the reels, and in cases where you need to piece together composite recordings from different takes.
The majority of current record production is carried out based on backups, recalls, and undoing. We do tens of takes, we keep making sure that we can go back to the start, and that we can retrace our steps. As a result we delay making decisions about the next step in the production, and there is no clear idea of the final result that we want to achieve.
Instead, White makes decisions, quickly, and these remain on the tape, whether they are right or wrong. His objective is to capture the inspiration from the session, fixing on the tape that unrepeatable moment when a song is recorded, which has just been explained to the musicians, with the sensations of that day, and the feelings that emerge from the first attempt, with the clear idea of what sound he wants to obtain which you can only get the first time that you play a song.
When Jack White produced the 7” by Tom Jones containing Evil by Howlin Wolf and Jezebel by Wayne Shanklin, he called the musicians into the studio on the same day that the session was booked for, without pre-empting what was going to happen. He wanted to welcome the inspiration of the moment. If he had contacted the players a week beforehand they would have looked up the song on YouTube, they would have practiced it, they would have had an idea about how to arrange themselves, and the whole spontaneity of the performance would have been lost.
Another interesting aspect is the choice of instruments to use for creating the album. It’s not just about the age-old debate over digital v analogue. The debate often runs out when we start talking about the warmth and softness of the analogue equipment and media. Jack White sees it from a very different angle. He compares the choice of recording method to the choice that a painter makes between watercolours or oils, between pencils or paintbrushes. It’s not about whether to have more bass, or a more beautiful overall sound texture. White isn’t looking for something that sounds ‘good’, he is looking for the ‘right’ way to communicate the music, a world to take the listener to.
One of the most recent highly criticised albums, from a technical point of view, is A Letter Home by Neil Young. The sharp sound of this record, coupled with the strong background noise angered a good many of the Canadian songwriter’s fans.
It was recorded in a Voice-O-Graph from 1947, restored by the technicians from the Third Man Studio. The Voice-O-Graph was a machine, around from the beginning of the forties until the end of the fifties. Similar to a telephone box in size, it gave the possibility of recording a voice message by inserting 35 cents in the allocated slot. The sound was recorded on a plastic disc, which was released from the machine at the end of the available two minutes. Soldiers away at war used them for example, to communicate with their distant families.
This is White’s approach: What mood should this album have? How should this collection of covers by huge American singers be communicated? To hear those songs recorded alone by Neil Young with his acoustic guitar in a microscopic booth, brings to mind the voices of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. It transports us to another time and place, it gifts us a sound that otherwise we never would have heard. It was a brave decision, and one not easily shared, but one however which gave a completely original feeling to that album.
For Lazaretto the Studer A800s from the Third Man Studio were used, at the speed of 7.5 inch per second, on RMG900 tape, because, as Powell said, the bass has more power, while the remaining part of the spectrum is almost flat until 20kHz. The ease of saturation around 4kHz avoided them being presented with frustrating ‘s’ problems. It left plenty of headroom to preserve the transient sounds well.
There are no esoteric recovery techniques in the making of Lazaretto: The drum, a Ludwig set from the ‘60s, was microphoned with a D12 on the kick drum, a SM57 was used for the snare, above and below, an MD421 mic for the floor tom, and a U67 for mono overhead. Then a compression was applied with a 1176 on the kick and snare, combining all the microphones into a single track. Only on a few of the songs the kick was recorded on a second track, to have more control over it.
Why record all of the drums on a single track, thereby losing the opportunity to record the single tracks separately? Other than a big deep romanticism, the main reason is the limited number of tracks available. Also, if every microphone had had its track on the tape, the total amount of background noise would have been a lot higher than that on the single track.
The bass was recorded with a DI and a U67 on the amps. We also find a U67 (sometimes replaced with a 57) on Jack White’s Vibrolux, a RCA77 for the acoustic guitars, and 57s on the organ and piano.
The most interesting production trick can be seen with the vocals. Often recorded with a 57 (or alternatively a 47) it was almost always passed through a guitar amp. A heavy compression with the 1176 was applied to the three combined signals (microphone, line outs of the amps, and microphones in front of the cabinet), to then be recorded on a single track.
According to White, he has always mixed his own records himself, without ever having laid a finger on the machines. He carries out the process, telling the sound engineer exactly what to. What’s striking about Lazaretto are the soft yet defined bass, the mid freqs, and the highs which are never too sharp, in spite of the abundance of distortions of the bass, guitars, violins, keyboards, and vocals. Also, the stereo imaging is wide, and the mono drum doesn’t disturb in any way.
If you listen to the songs using the mid-side coding, you discover that there is also drum present on the lateral channel. Have they tricked us then? Quite the opposite: the information from the drum contained on the side channels, comes from within the microphones on the piano and the guitar, often panned hard-left or hard-right.
The sound is always consistent during the playing of the LP. This fact is not taken for granted: the creation Lazeretto took around a year and a half, from writing the music, recording the band, and the overdubbing of Jack White’s vocals, which happened at the end of his tour with Blunderbuss.
This interval between creating the music and writing lyrcis put White, who is not used to not splitting the two processes, in great difficulty. The majority of the lyrics of this album come from various writings, poetry, and theatrical pieces that White wrote when he was 19.
And not just that: All the instruments were recorded without having a definitive structure. The result that we can hear is in reality the composite of various takes, even played by different bands on different days. For example, Would You Fight For My Love? has three edits: the introduction played by the male band, the central part played by the female band, and the ending played again by the male band. This meant finding a mixing method which would work for all three sound characteristics from the different takes.
If you listen closely, you can hear that a good number of the slap delays (often applied on the vocals and the drum), tend to lean slightly to the right. To check the mix, Jack White uses the system from his super-car Tesla. Parked outside the Third Man Studio, the mixes are transferred via an FM transmitter, and with a Walkie Talkie he tells the sound engineer what changes to make. The delays are panned to the right because White judges the spatial depth of the mix from the point of view of the driver. As a result, those listening to Lazaretto in the UK or Australia will have a more distorted perception.
This whirlwind of strangeness ends with an unsuspecting professional, Bob Ludwig, who, with great enthusiasm for White, raised the gain for the mastering of the edition vinyl.
Ultimately, Jack White’s approach to music production is almost unique. If we look at the working methods of a fair number of producers, we find differences in the choices of microphone, the tricks used to create certain sounds, the use of certain mixing techniques. Jack White, however, seems to look at it all from a different perspective. There are just the musicians; there is just the arrangement, just the interaction. To produce a record means to transmit sensations, focussing on the most appropriate way to capture the uniqueness of a performance between human beings. According to this philosophy, any mistakes, both performance wise and technically, enhance its uniqueness. Is it perhaps because of this very intimate vision of record production that Jack White strongly accuses the Black Keys of having plagiarsed his sound?
How did the dispute end? Patrick Carney, drummer in the Black Keys, tells via Twitter: «I had never met Jack White», «until yesterday evening». «He came to a bar in New York where I often go with a friend, and he tried to attack me».
Music production firm based in Italy founded by Giacomo Zambelloni & Giulio Farinelli - In collaboration with ClusterNote Milano
Connect with the right Recording, Mixing, Mastering Engineer for your music