It's Good to Be Home | Derek Trucks
Feb 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Mike Levine
Arguably one of the top guitarists on the music scene today, Derek Trucks's blues-, jazz-, and world-music-influenced slide and lead playing is melodic, inventive, and incredibly expressive. Trucks, who is not yet 30, was a child prodigy who started gigging at age 11. He has had no shortage of accolades in his career, although he still flies a bit under the radar considering his immense talent. But one thing he hasn't had much of is time off from the road. Between his own band — the Derek Trucks Band (DTB) — the Allman Brothers Band (ABB), and the other artists he's toured with (including Eric Clapton), he's been on the road almost constantly for 16 years.
But while many musicians take a hiatus from touring to hunker down in a studio and create, Trucks's busy performing schedule has made his recording experiences, by necessity, more hurried. He and his band have often been dropped off by their tour bus at the door of a commercial studio in a city on their tour route, with finite time to complete the recording before moving on. Although the results have been excellent, Trucks frequently has had to rush through the production and work really hard to get the project done under intense deadline pressure.
Before the release of his new CD, Already Free (Sony/BMG, 2009; see Fig. 1), his studio projects have included six Derek Trucks Band CDs, an Allman Brothers studio release (Trucks has also played on a number of ABB live albums), and guest spots on albums for artists ranging from Gov't Mule to Béla Fleck to David Sanborn to Phil Lesh. But the combination of having a tight schedule and taking an admittedly purist attitude on some of his previous DTB albums (many of which were essentially live-in-the-studio productions) left Trucks feeling that he wasn't reaching his full potential as a recording artist. “He was never comfortable; he could never settle down as an artist,” says Bob Tis (pronounced Tees), who designed Trucks's studio and is the father of Bobby Tis, who engineered most of Already Free and is Trucks's monitor engineer on the road (see the sidebar “Talking with the Techs”)..
FIG. 1: Already Free is the first DTB album to be recorded in Trucks’s studio.
Trucks began to branch out in the studio on his previous CD, Songlines (Sony, 2006), which is the first of his solo projects to contain extensive overdubs. But the situation changed radically with the recording of Already Free, because not only did Trucks produce it himself, but it was also the first CD he recorded in his studio, which is located next to his northern Florida home.
Having a home setup totally changed the recording experience for Trucks. It gave him a chance to be off the road for an extended period. He drives his two young kids to school every morning (Trucks is married to singer Susan Tedeschi), and then settles in for a relaxed day of creative inspiration, including both songwriting and tracking with a revolving cast of his musical friends. Trucks told me that unless there is a compelling reason to record elsewhere, he intends to do all of his future projects in his studio. “He can walk into that building and close the doors, he can write, he can play, he can flip a knob and record it. He captures all his ideas,” says Tis Sr. “I think that comfort level was something that he wanted for a long time.”
I visited with Trucks before a recent show in New York City, and he talked about his studio, his gear, his new CD, and his attitude and approach to recording.
What made you decide to build your own studio?
I wanted to do a rehearsal room away from the house; I just drew it up on a legal pad originally. And I showed Bobby [Tis] and he said, “Why don't you let me send that to my dad? He's kind of in the studio design business.” And I got back these insane blueprints — the floating slab and the faux walls — and the next thing I knew, we were building a world-class studio.
FIG. 2: Trucks’s control room features a vintage Neve 8048 console, which was formerly used at Ray Davies’s Konk Studios in London.
Photo: Erica Trucks
How did you decide what gear to get?
We had been collecting stuff over the years, always thinking that eventually we'd get around to doing a studio. Marty Wall is our sound engineer on the road. Whenever we're playing a nice theater or a club and there's a great compressor that doesn't seem to be used, he always wheels and deals with whoever is running the sound in that venue. [We'll buy gear] — old DBX stuff, great mics — whatever we can find. So we've kind of accumulated a good amount of stuff, and when we got serious about the studio, when we got serious about designing the building, we called David Lyons from Sonic Circus. They specialize in everything from the board to the mics. He flew down and looked at the place, just to kind of get a handle on it, and we threw out a number that we were willing to spend on just making it right. And he tracked down this vintage Neve 8048 [see Fig. 2] that was owned by Ray Davies and the Kinks. It was in Konk Studios [in London] for years. And we ended up having that thing shipped down. It sounds unbelievable.
You record to a Pro Tools HD system?
Right now, that's what we're running. I was really fortunate that [both] Bobby Tis Sr. and Jr. thought so many steps ahead, so that we can really add on. So we have the place wired for tape machines; we have it wired for everything at the moment.
FIG. 3: Trucks is very happy with the sound in his spacious live room.
Photo: Erica Trucks
And so you have a live room and a control room?
Yeah, the live room is pretty big [see Fig. 3]. It's 20 by 25 feet and has 12-foot ceilings. And then there are vocal booths, there are amp rooms, and there are a few really good hallways leading between the live room and the control room. And we did it right: we did the floating slab, and the control room was designed really well. When we had the board shipped out, Fred Hill, who's kind of the Neve guru, came down for a week — two different times — and just completely went through the thing, top to bottom. It was fascinating for me to go out there and just look at this huge folder with the schematics from Rupert Neve and to watch Fred Hill, who knows it inside and out, just like a mad scientist. They worked 12 hours a day out there. Man, it was beautiful.
So the live room sounds good?
We really lucked out. It was a combination of luck and having the right minds on it. You never know until the building's up and the room's there, how it's going to sound.
Do you feel that it's a versatile enough space to handle a variety of musical situations?
I feel we can do about anything in there. We could record an orchestra in that room — it's big enough — and we're getting to the point where we have enough gear. Over this whole year, the band has just reinvested everything into the studio. If we have a good month, and we buy a great microphone [laughs], it's kind of feeding itself at this point. And we've lucked out. Recently Sony, RCA, and Columbia studios consolidated their New York studios and had this massive auction, and so we jumped in there. The Sony artist discount helped us out [laughs]. We bought these beautiful microphones — we found a great U47, we got an old RCA Ribbon mic, we got an AKG C12. Sinatra sang into some of these mics, Miles Davis recorded into them. We got an old EMT 140, the 8-foot-by-4-foot plate reverb. So the studio is loaded up with some amazing vintage gear. And we've been fortunate, [because] the vintage gear we have has an amazing track record, too. These things have been on classic recordings.
So there's kind of a vibe to them?
There really is. And before that, about eight years ago, I stumbled across the timpani that Elvin Jones, John Coltrane's drummer, played on A Love Supreme [Impulse, 1964]. They're the 1959 Ludwig timpani that close out the [A Love Supreme] recording. So we have things like that. Jaimoe, one of the drummers for the Allman Brothers, gave me one of his drum kits for the studio that he played on the road for the first eight years I was in the band. So when I'm in there and I look around, it's not just some fancy new gear. It's stuff that sounds great, and, if you know what it is, it feels even better.
How much of the production of Already Free did you do at your studio?
We tracked everything there. We got into the routine of recording: I would drive the kids to school in the morning, and just come up with some seed of a song. And whoever was around — me and Mike Mattison, who's our vocalist, it was Doyle Bramhall for a while, Warren Haynes for a while — I would get with them, and we would finish the tune off. [Then we'd] bring the band in and track it. And as we were tracking it, if there was anything anyone heard, any extra vocals, any studio magic you wanted to throw on it, we would do it all while we were in the moment. And then that evening, if we felt that we had it, we would do a pretty good rough mix, just in case. And we found, with that track that ended up on Susan's record [“Butterfly”], that the rough mix was better than what we ended up with months later when we spent a full day mixing [laughs].
That always seems to happen.
Yeah, because sometimes, when you're in the moment and you're writing a tune and you're hearing things, you never quite hear it the same again. But the bulk of Already Free was mixed at Electric Lady Studios here in New York with Chris Shaw, who's done the last half-dozen Bob Dylan records — and he's a total pro.
Compared with your previous recording experiences, how did it feel to record this one at your own place?
It was unlike any other recording I've ever been a part of. It felt so natural and organic. There's something beautiful about drawing something up on paper, and then seeing it come to fruition beyond any of your wildest expectations. My younger brother, David, for the last five or six years has been helping build houses. He's like a handyman, and he's devoted all his time to the studio — he really helped build it. So David and Bobby Tis were there every day for months. There's something really satisfying about building it by hand and then recording in it. One of the most exciting moments was that once we finished the record and we got the tracks up to New York City at Electric Lady, we were pulling each track up — the kick, the snare. And it [had] sounded really great in our control room, but we were just hoping that it translated to a room that's tried-and-true. And Chris Shaw had come down towards the end of the tracking. Once the label realized that we were doing it ourselves, they wanted to send somebody that they trusted and knew. So they sent Chris down, and he said, “Sounds great, it seems to be working.” We really hit it off with him. And once we began pulling all the individual tracks up at Electric Lady, a huge weight was lifted off of our shoulders. It was as good as we thought it sounded. We weren't fooling ourselves. There was a lot of time and energy thrown into that, and you hope it's not for naught.
FIG. 4: Derek Trucks and his band in the live room (from left to right): Yonrico Scott, Mike Mattison, Trucks, Kofi Burbridge, Todd Smallie, and Count M’Butu.
Photo: Courtesy Derek Trucks
Did the process of recording feel different to you without having the commercial-studio time constraints that you worked under on previous projects?
Yeah, not being under the gun. When we went out there [home], it was January or February. I think it was the longest break I've had from touring in maybe 16 years. So I was planning on just doing nothing, just decompressing. After a week, I realized that I'd decompressed and was ready to do something. So I called Bobby and called Mike [Mattison], our singer [see Fig. 4], and said, “Why don't you come down and hang?” The studio was just coming together. Fred Hill had just finished fixing the board up. And I was like, “We'll feel this thing out, see what kind of sounds we can get.” And the first day we wrote two tunes and tracked them, with me playing multiple guitars, Bobby Tis playing percussion, and Mike singing and playing acoustic guitar. And the last track on the record, “Already Free,” was the first tune we recorded. It immediately sounded great and felt great, and we realized we were onto something. So without notifying the label or anyone else, we just kept rolling. Every day we'd go out there, and not having that pressure of “This is a record we have to do, and we have ten days to do it,” it was just a completely natural thing.
On Already Free, it sounds as though you did more overdubbing and less live-in-the-studio recording.
Yeah, when we did our last record, Songlines, it really opened up my eyes to the fact that the studio is a different beast. You should and can use it that way. You can go in and play live, too, and there are amazing recordings that have come out that way. But especially with the music that we play, you don't have to be afraid to use the studio. Everything we did up to Songlines was pretty much done live in the studio. There was a rare overdub here and there, but for the most part it was just taking what we do on the stage, miking it up well, getting a decent headphone mix, and doing a record. So this was a different beast. But within that, there were tracks on the record that were recorded live because, when we tried it the other way, the feel wasn't what we wanted [see Web Clip 1].
Is your approach to soloing different in the studio than it is when you're playing live?
Maybe. I think you think more as a composer in the studio, so you maybe compose your solos more. Sometimes you're just like, “Roll tape, let's see what happens” or “Do it again.” And then sometimes, every time you try a solo, you try to come about it from an extremely different point of view. And there's other times when you have something else in mind and you keep working until you get there. You have a few melodies that you hear, and you know you want it to end up here. Sometimes you keep track in a solo and compose it along the way until you get it the way you finally want it. [For more on Trucks's approach to improvising, see Web Clip 2.]
Do you ever punch in a little bit at a time to build a solo?
There are maybe a few on the record that are a Frankenstein of two or three solos where I loved this section, I loved that section. You make sure [to ask] when you listen back, “Does that sound like it's chopped up?” But for the most part, most of the solos kind of go down as they go down.
Did you do any editing within Pro Tools, experimenting with the arrangements and so forth?
We weren't afraid of any of that this time. There have been records where I've been a total purist. It's got to be 2-inch tape, and there's got to be one take and no overdubs. This is what it is. With this record, I really felt free to try anything.
Did you use any plug-in effects on the tracks?
A little bit. If we had it analog [the processor], we would go there first. We don't have a Fairchild laying around, so if you were looking for that sound, you'd go to the Fairchild plug-in. If it works, it works. I didn't want it to sound like it was done in Pro Tools. Because Songlines is a record that if you were versed enough, you'd know that it was done in Pro Tools because there are plug-ins. It was what it was; it was the band experimenting at that time. But for the most part, it's an “analog” record.
Was this your first time engineering?
I had fumbled with it a little bit. This was the first time that I was involved. It was mainly Bobby Tis and Chris Shaw doing the engineering. But there were times when everyone was gone and I was at the house, and there was a rhythm section [around and we wanted to record] — and I was like, “All right, I'll see what we can do.” A lot of times I had to get on the phone and go, “All right, walk me through the patch bay again” [laughs]. It's coming together.
So you had never recorded yourself in the past? You didn't have 4-tracks and stuff?
No man, I've lived in a bus for 20 years! [Laughs.]
Let's talk a little about the guitar sounds you got on the album. I know that live you just go right into a Fender Super Reverb with your SG and no effects. Is that how you recorded your guitar in the studio, too?
Yeah, I didn't use many effects pedals on this record. I don't know if I used any. I used the vibrato from the Super Reverb on one track. What we did on this one for different sounds was just different miking techniques. There was one track … I think it was a bonus track where I was just hearing this real nasally sound. So I have this really tiny Gibson amp from the '50s, throw it on a chair in the middle of the room, make a cone out of cardboard, and throw a 58 down at the end of it. And it instantly gave it that weird, distant, nasally, hollering-down-a-hallway sound. Once again, the beauty of not being under a time crunch is if you have crazy ideas, you just try it. You're not worried about it working or not. We did a lot of things like that: putting amps in hallways, putting amps in front of the drum set, behind the drum set, using the cymbals for reverb, doing all kinds of things.
For the most part, what was the miking setup on the amp?
We used a Royer  ribbon mic. We used that a lot. We also used a [AKG] 414 a lot, and a [Shure SM]57.
Yeah. We would use a room mic, too. We would always have one up for the amp when I was cutting without the band in there.
You were basically getting the same sound you do live?
Yeah, the difference on this record is that we have a bunch of old funky amps, and we tried a bunch of different things. I have this old Airline guitar, like those old Silvertones where the guitar case was the amp, so there's a few tunes where we used that. I got away from just using the Super Reverb on that. For most of the big solos on the record, I would resort to my old sound. But for the secondary and kind of the ear-candy sounds, we would mix it up.
So you don't generally use pedals in the studio? How do you vary the amount of distortion? With volume?
With volume, making the tubes hurt [laughs].
There was one tune with some really cool distortion — I guess it was “Get What You Deserve.” It was also on “Down in the Flood.” It was a crunchy sound, but it was on more than just the guitar.
Those sounds, especially “Get What You Deserve,” that was just two guitars, no bass. And the solo was overdubbed, but everything else was just balls out. I think Doyle was playing through that Airline amp, which cannot handle any low end. So whenever he would go low, you would get all these weird overtones. It sounded like the speaker was exploding. When we finished that track, it was one of those where we went back in the playroom to listen to it, and it was comical it was so good. We really thought we'd blown something up, and I was like, “That's the sound!”
Mike Levine is EM's executive editor and senior media producer, and host of the monthly Podcast “EM Cast.” He wishes to thank Erica Trucks for the great studio photos.
Talking with the Techs
FIG. A: Bobby Tis and Trucks. Tis, who is the monitor mixer when DTB tours, helped build the studio and engineered much of Already Free.
Photo: Max Spitzenberger
I had a chance to sit down and talk about Trucks's studio with three of the key people involved in the building and operation of it. Bobby Tis (see Fig. A) is Trucks's monitor engineer on tour. In addition to helping with the construction of the studio, Tis engineered most of Already Free. His dad, Bob Tis, has been designing studios for 30 years, and he drew up the plans for Trucks's setup. Marty Wall is Trucks's FOH engineer and was also involved in the recording.
Talk about the design of the studio.
Tis Sr.: What Derek wanted was a classic recording environment, in the vein of real recording studios historically. So we took a large playing room and put in an old vintage [Neve] console, which has been completely renovated.
How many inputs does the console have?
Tis Jr.: It has 32 inputs, but it's got what Neve calls a Jukebox monitoring system, so we've got another 24 faders besides our 32 input faders that are just returning from Pro Tools all the time.
What are you using for converters?
Tis Jr.: We're using Apogee converters. For the money and for what we wanted to do, Apogee was the way to go. To be honest, at 96 kHz, 24-bit, I haven't heard much that sounds better.
Wall: With the sweet stuff we have running through it, it all gets through.
Tis Sr.: The idea was to get as much of the analog and vintage sound. To be able to capture that convincingly, use the Pro Tools just as a storage system for the efficiency. For all the main parts and main instruments, we're using really high-quality analog gear on the front end, and then just using the Pro Tools as storage.
What did you use for compression?
Tis Jr.: We've got some random stuff, like Drawmer, on the side. But our main compressors were an LA-1A, and we've got a Manley Slam that we love the hell out of. The DBX165 and the 165A have been our kick and snare combo.
So you're tracking to disk with those.
Tis Jr.: Yes. And we've got a bunch of [Empirical Labs] Distressors. We had some API 525 comps for a while. We've got 1176s. We've got some good stuff, we just don't have piles of it like a commercial studio.
Wall: I think you just named it all.
When Derek was tracking his guitars, did he use the reverb on his amp?
Tis Jr.: Yes, he used the spring reverbs on his amps. We must have gone through 10 or 12 mic setups.
You used mainly close-miking on Derek's amp?
Tis Jr.: Mostly [Shure SM]57s, close-miked, and the Royer 121. That became the clutch mic by the end of the session for guitars in the close-mic situation. In almost every solo that we cut towards the end of the sessions, we put up a room mic. We were actually using the one room mic that we used when we tracked the band. And anything that we used when we tracked the band, we left that up for the whole session in the same place. And anything we'd put in the room, we'd just record that room mic with it.