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Mark Neill on the Making of the Black Keys’ ‘Brothers’

During his yearlong journey recording Akron’s blues-rock duo the Black Keys, producer-engineer Mark Neill revisits a Southern studio shrine — and nets a Grammy in the process.

Posted in Songwriter 101 on October 10, 2011 by

Though digital has long since taken the room out of the equation, there remain a handful of studio dwellers who stubbornly cling to the belief that it’s still possible to make records that don’t sound like everyone else’s. One of them is Mark Neill, the Georgia-bred producer/engineer, who spent a good portion of the ’80s buying up unloved tape machines, old microphones, mixers and processors on the cheap, which he eventually used to outfit his moveable recording operation known as Soil of the South, which, since 1997, has occupied the former site of a two-car garage adjacent to Neill’s home in La Mesa, California. A sound historian of the highest order, Neill can rattle off painfully obscure session detail from yesteryear on demand (knowing, for instance, where a song was recorded simply by the sound of the studio’s echo chambers).

Not surprisingly, Neill has served as mentor for many an analog fanatic, among them U.K. engineer and longtime confidant Liam Watson, whose ToeRag Studios (birthplace for the White Stripes’ 2003 breakout effort Elephant) was created in conjunction with Neill. It was Watson who would later recommend Neill’s services to another old-school junky, guitarist Dan Auerbach of the Akron, Ohio-based blues-rock duo the Black Keys. With Neill’s assistance, Auerbach erected his own analog home studio in Akron (later named Easy Eye Sound System), and in late 2007, the two convened in La Mesa for the making of Auerbach’s first solo effort, 2009’s Keep it Hid, with Neill serving as engineer and mixer.

Soon, Auerbach was back at the Neill household, this time with partner/drummer Pat Carney in tow, then in the throes of a nasty divorce and ripe for a creative distraction. The two immediately set to work recording “These Days,” an ethereal ballad awash in reverb provided by Neill’s old EMT 140 echoplate. The track would ultimately become the closing song on the Black Keys’ very next album, Brothers. It marked the beginning of a yearlong journey that included a few interesting twists, yet in the end gave the Black Keys their most successful work to date — and made an unlikely Grammy winner out of home-studio producer Neill.

Muscle Shoals Revisited
While working on several more tracks at Neill’s place through the early part of 2009, Auerbach and Carney began inquiring about Neill’s original studio in Valdosta, Georgia. “From there the conversation sort of morphed into this idea of going to the South and doing the rest of the album in one of the region’s historic old studios,” recalls Neill. Eventually, Auerbach suggested Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, the former casket-warehouse-turned-recording-facility located in rural Sheffield, Alabama and birthplace to hits like R.B. Greaves “Take a Letter Maria” as well as the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses.” “We both knew that Muscle Shoals had been turned into a museum and hadn’t been a fully functioning studio for over 30 years,” says Neill. “It was basically a place to walk through and say, ‘Wow, this is where it all happened.’” That didn’t deter Auerbach, however, who suggested that they simply bring in their own gear and use the room as-is. “I mean, I love the sound of those old Muscle Shoals records,” says Neill, “but I can’t say that it was actually my idea to go there. But hey, as long as there was air conditioning and reliable electricity, I was willing.”

The prospect of hauling a full compliment of recording equipment 2,000 miles to a studio that hadn’t seen full-time action in over three decades was daunting, to say the least. “If we’d gotten out of there with nothing more than five finished backing tracks without vocals,” says Neill, “that would have been considered an accomplishment.”

That August, Neill, Auerbach and Carney arrived at Muscle Shoals, along with a truckload of period gear culled from Neill’s personnel collection, including portions of a Universal Audio 610 console (the same model used during the early days of MSS), as well as a 10-channel Studer monitoring mixer. “Thanks to the Studer, we seldom went beyond 10 tracks,” says Neill. Before leaving home, Neill, a stickler for efficiency, did a rehearsal set up of the entire arsenal. “I had everything — mixers, connectors, snakes, headphones, mics — all functioning in just under two hours. Given the tight schedule, I didn’t want to leave anything to chance.”

Still, Neill had no idea if the old Muscle Shoals magic would reveal itself until everything was unpacked and the band started cutting tracks. “We already had the material from my studio, so if worse came to worse, we could have always just headed back there and finished the record, or gone up to Dan’s place in Akron. At the very least, anything we did in Alabama could have been used as demos — albeit expensive ones.”

Bass Built
In fact, the trip to the Shoals turned out to be inspirational right from the start. “Things were happening that were very, very transcendent, as soon as they began playing,” says Neill with a grin. “First few takes, we literally couldn’t believe what we were hearing. Dan and Pat were kind of looking at each other saying, ‘that doesn’t even sound like us.’ Seriously.”

Auerbach and Carney had arrived at MSS with an assortment of “idea fragments,” which would evolve into fully formed songs as the sessions progressed. “Some of the stuff was based on demos that had been cut beforehand either at my studio or up at Dan’s,” says Neill. “But even those ended up sounding completely different by the time we were finished at Muscle Shoals.”

At Neill’s suggestion, Auerbach and Carney went to work laying the foundation for “Next Girl,” the first song cut at MSS, by tracking drums with bass — rather than guitar — without the use of guide vocals. The strategy, which the duo would use throughout the sessions, resulted in the distinctive bass-driven thud that formed the core of other standout tracks including “Everlasting Light,” “Howlin’ for You” and “Sinister Kid.” “Each song began with just a basic head arrangement,” continues Neill. “Dan had my Rickenbacker bass, which he really liked playing, and he and Pat would just go at it, and Dan would nod to Pat whenever they’d get to a bridge or chorus and Pat would pick up the tempo, and that was basically it. Later they’d add some guitar and keyboard, then Dan would put his vocals over the top, we overdubbed some percussion, and the next thing you know, it’s a song. It was really the first time they’d tried recording like that, though I’m pretty sure Dan was thinking of taking that route coming into the project. As a result, they wound up with something that was quite unlike any other Black Keys record.”

Neill recorded Carney’s drums using a simple three-mic pattern, including a Shure KSM141 out front, a Shure SM56 in the vicinity of the floor tom, and a Shure 556S or AKG D12 in front of the bass drum, angled slightly downward. “It’s very similar to the arrangement Glyn Johns uses,” says Neill, “and of course we know how well that’s worked for him.” In the interest of saving time and track space, Neill sub-mixed the drums to mono on the spot, though he left the kick drum on a separate track so he could boost it if need be later on. The majority of Auerbach’s bass parts were recorded straight in using a direct-input box; on occasion, Neill patched the bass into a tube amp or stompbox in order to provide the scrambled sounds heard on the likes of “Next Girl” and “Everlasting Light.” For Auerbach’s vocals, Neill relied on his customary technique of suspending a condenser mic (in this case, a Neumann KM184) on a boom stand, pointed directly down towards Auerbach’s head. “We briefly considered having Dan do his vocals live, which he was certainly capable of, except that he was using that long-scale bass and he was really trying to nail the parts the first time.”

Though the tracks would undergo considerable processing during the mix phase, while at MSS Neill maintained a remarkably clutter-free signal path, including almost no compression.  “There was nothing at all on Dan’s vocal mic; I just manually controlled the peaks by riding the fader while he was singing, that’s all.” A few of those peaks occasionally went unchecked — on purpose, says Neill. “A lot of the old MSS vocals have this cool natural distortion that was the result of the UA console being overdriven, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not! In this case, we were going for a fuzzed sound when it felt right.”

Despite having blocked off two full weeks to complete the job, after just 10 days the group already had 10 full songs in the can. By that time restlessness had begun to set in; with basically nothing but a Wal-Mart and a Cracker Barrel for excitement, Neill knew that the end was near. “Sure enough, once we’d nailed down the final track, that was it; a day later, they were gone.” Final touches were later applied by producer-engineer Tchad Blake, whose mix sported an array of plug-ins, including Blake’s flavor of the moment, the fuzz-inducing “Decapitator.” While the heavy processing may have seemed at odds with the band’s initial intent, the public had the final say: In the year since its May 2010 release, Brothers went gold, and, last February, secured three Grammy Awards, including Best Alternative Music Album as well as Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group (for the Danger Mouse-produced single “Tighten Up”).

“I know there are some people who think the studio had nothing to do with it,” says Neill, whose current clients include Boston-based rockers TAB the Band, featuring Joe Perry offspring Adrian and Tony Perry. “And to some degree, they’re right — the songs on Brothers are incredible, and yeah, maybe they would have come out just as well under different circumstances. Still, having the opportunity to cut that music in that studio was something I’ll never forget. I got to witness firsthand that it really isn’t folklore; that those guys back then knew exactly what they were doing when they built that place, it was a room that was really intelligently designed, and nothing in there happened by accident. And that even after all this time, there still can be a Muscle Shoals sound.”

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