Recording Marley’s Ghost’s Spooked

Producer Van Dyke Parks says he’s never had more fun or worked harder on an album than he did tracking and mixing Spooked by fellow roots-music aficionados Marley’s Ghost. That’s quite an assertion coming from a man who has also produced the likes of Ry Cooder, Little Feat, Randy Newman, Phil Ochs, and Arlo Guthrie, as well as worked in various capacities with scores of other major artists from Brian Wilson to U2. “The guys in Marley’s Ghost have an amazing amount of passion for what they do, and they do it well,” enthuses Parks. “We’re connected by our mutual love of Celtic music, which really brings out the Druid in my bone marrow.”

Marley’s Ghost is comprised of vocalists/multi-instrumentalists Daniel Wheetman (bass, guitar, fiddle, harmonica, banjo, Dobro, lap steel), Mike Phelan (guitar, fiddle, Dobro, bass, lap steel), Jon Wilcox (mandolin, guitar, bouzouki), and Ed Littlefield Jr. (pedal steel, Highland bagpipes, keyboards, mandolin, Dobro, guitar). Joining the core members on the album were guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Buell Neidlinger, and drummer Don Heffington.

Spooked was recorded at Sage Arts, an “analog-focused” studio located on a farm in rural Arlington, Washington. Parks, studio owner and associate producer Daniel Protheroe, and engineer Matt Gephart recorded to a Studer A80VU MKIV 16-track analog tape machine, running 2-inch tape at 30ips, for the fullest possible sound. The machine was then synced to Pro Tools, so that recorded tracks could be transferred and archived, clearing room on the tape for additional recording.

An assortment of outboard Forssell Technologies FetCode mic preamps (tube, solid-state, and hybrids) was chosen for tracking. “We don’t use any equalization or other processing while recording, because you can really run into some big traps there, and compromise the sound of acoustic instruments,” cautions Protheroe. “A great mic pre coupled with a great mic should give you everything you need when tracking. These guys have a lot of great-sounding instruments and it was wonderful to hear the character of each one come through.” DPA 4011/4012 (and occasionally Neumann TLM170) microphones were selected for the stringed instruments, whereas vocals were tracked with Neumann U67 and AKG The Tube mics. The music was mixed to a Studer A80VU MKIV half-inch analog recorder running at 30ips, via a custom 48-channel Forssell console with Flying Fader automation.

One of the most striking qualities of the recording is the way in which individual instruments may be heard distinctly, even when placed relatively low in a complex, multi-layered mix. “The crisp report and enunciation of the instruments and the faithfulness of the recording is as good as anything I’ve done,” proclaims Parks. “We tried to bring each sound closer to the listener by using techniques such as, say, doubling the guitar with a strictly attack-oriented part behind the basic track. A lot of the instruments had double strings, too, which involve partials and other acoustic qualities that require special attention to render clearly.”

That clarity was often achieved by close miking. “I really wanted to emphasize plectrum values, because plectrum instruments are some of the most powerful things going, even though they are often very delicate sounding,” relates Parks. By placing the microphone right on the instrument you get the growl, the frog, and other intimate sounds.” A prime example occurs at the start of the album opener, “Sail Away, Ladies,” on which a pair of tiny jaw harps sound so huge they could be mistaken for Australian didgerdoos. “They brought a pictorial power to the arrangement, providing a redux of certain places and times that this music evokes,” says Parks. “The jaw harp is the spine of most itinerant Appalachian music.”

Despite their seasoned recording philosophies, Parks and company kept the production process open-ended enough to allow for serendipity. “Their arrangements were often extemporaneous, seat-of-the-pants stuff, and you can hear moments where there’s a certain amount of chaos, and then somehow everything gets reconciled comfortably,” says Parks. “You hear good playing with all sorts of propinquity or accidental discovery, such as on ‘Cowboy’s Lullaby,’ where one of two harmonicas bleeds out of a note played by Bill Frisell, which in turn bleeds into a note played by someone else. That happened in good measure on this record, and we used due diligence in bringing those things up in the mix.”

“A lot of the clarity of the individual instruments in the mix is due to Parks’ detailed and precise arrangement of the parts,” confirms Protheroe. “As is typical with Van Dyke, there were lots of tracks to choose from, and many of the arrangements were crafted in the mix using faders and mute buttons rather than via any sort of hard editing. We recorded about twice as much as we really needed, though at least little bits of nearly every track wound up being used, including most of the original vocals recorded along with the basic instrumental tracks.”

The members of Marley’s Ghost attempted to keep Ry Cooder’s self-titled debut in mind while recording Spooked—a goal that Parks, who arranged and co-produced Ry Cooder, could easily relate to. “The most parallel experience that I’ve had throughout my career was with Cooder’s first album,” muses Parks. “I love Ry’s work, and when I’m in the studio I always imagine that he is hanging there over my shoulder, solemn and dubious, wondering if I’m doing the right thing—and I definitely kept that in mind on this job.” •