Frets spoke to Rouse as he and engineer Brandon Bell were recording vocalist extraordinaire Cyndi Wheeler at a studio owned by Gary Paczosa. (A Grammy-winning Nashville engineer and producer, Paczosa frequently collaborates with Rouse on album projects.) We asked Rouse to detail a few of his recording techniques and—with Bell’s help—introduce us to some of his favorite gear.
Recorder and Signal Path
Rouse’s preferred hard-disk recording system is Steinberg Nuendo, which is also the house system at Paczosa’s studio. “Not enough people understand the difference between [Digidesign] Pro Tools and Nuendo,” says Rouse. “You can literally hear the difference between the two systems. Pro Tools is real hard and smacky, where Nuendo has more of an organic sound. People who record a lot of acoustic music—like Gary or Chuck Ainlay—love Nuendo for that reason. I also find it very intuitive to operate, and that’s a big plus.”
Rouse brings several portable racks of gear to all his sessions. His main rack is actually very simple. “We’re using four Mastering Lab mic preamps, designed by Doug Sax out in Los Angeles,” explains Bell. “They’re just the ultimate tube preamp, really transparent and high-end. They’re usually our first choice for any overdubs, and if we had enough channels, we’d use them to track almost everything too. From a Mastering Lab preamp, we’ll take the signal into a [Model 8200] GML parametric EQ, come out of the EQ into a [Model 8900] GML compressor, and then directly to disk by way of the studio’s A/D converters. Once the audio is in the box—residing in the Nuendo system—we generally keep it in the digital domain from that point on.”
A second, smaller rack houses a pair of Vintech X81 mic preamps with 4-band EQ. “They’re awesome Neve remakes,” says Rouse. “If you run a tone through an X81 and an old Neve module, and then look at the outputs on a scope, they’ll be virtually identical. Vintech makes it possible to get that vintage Neve sound without having to sell your house.”
Joining the X81s is an old dbx 160 stereo compressor. “It’s a workhorse, a great utility compressor,” says Rouse. “For colorful, ’60s-sounding compression, Gary’s Joe Meek SC2 works really well, especially if you hit it really hard with a signal.”
Paczosa’s studio is equipped with Genelec near-field monitors, but when mixing, Rouse hauls in his bi-amped KRK E8s. “You can mix any kind of music on them,” he says. “They’re solid and very consistent from speaker to speaker. Quality monitors cost a lot, but they’re a crucial tool you’ll use for years.”
For recording vocals, Rouse often turns to a Sony C-800G, which he found in Boston. “It’s an old-timey mic,” he says. “We used it for Doc Watson’s vocals on Mac, Doc & Del.”
“It’s a tube condenser,” elaborates Bell, “that runs off a big power supply. Those fins on the back are a radiator, designed to dissipate the heat from the tube.”
Another cherished vocal mic is Rouse’s Blue Bottle. “There aren’t too many of them around,” says Bell. “They’re bulky and a little difficult to handle when it comes to mic placement, so we only use it for vocals. It accepts interchangeable, hot-swappable capsules, and we have a couple of different ones. The Bottle is a bit darker than the C-800, with a more aggressive midrange, which makes it good for male vocals.”
Rouse gets a lot of mileage from Audio-Technica AT4033 large-diaphragm condensers. “I have a boatload of them,” he admits, “because they sound awesome on acoustic instruments like banjo and guitar. I’ve recorded Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Del McCoury, and Sonny Osborne with 4033s.”
Rouse uses a number of miking techniques. “One of my favorite setups is to place two 4033s in a stereo X/Y position,” he explains. “To do this, you align them vertically so their grilles almost touch, facing the instrument. Then turn the capsules so they’re at right angles, with one pointed toward the neck and the other pointed toward the bridge. The sweet spot for the musician is in front of the crossed diaphragms, facing the center of the X. Just play with the angle a bit, and you’ll hear when it’s right. The X/Y setup yields two tracks, which you can pan closer or wider in the stereo field when mixing. It’s really awesome for banjos. Bruce Swedien [Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, B.B. King, Count Basie, Muddy Waters, Barbra Streisand] showed me this technique.
“Sometimes I’ll capture a stereo guitar sound using a pair of Neumann KM 54 condenser mics. I’ll put them near the top and bottom edges of the upper bout, angled in toward the neck joint. Depending on the player and the song, you might start at about 6" to 8" from the guitar. For more of a room sound, just move the mics further back a bit.
“For a Dobro, I’ll place a pair of 4033s above the instrument, facing down, but with the diaphragms tilted a little toward each other. One mic is over the bridge, facing slightly toward the fretboard, and the other is over the strings, facing a bit toward the coverplate. Again, how close or far from the Dobro you place the mics depends on the player and how aggressively he picks. Start about a foot away and go in or out from there.”
Stereo or mono miking?
When recording an acoustic instrument, one of the first decisions you need to make is whether you’ll record it in mono or stereo. “There are musicians and engineers who prefer to capture an instrument in mono using a single mic, and then pan the track somewhere in the stereo field,” says Rouse. “For example, Ricky Skaggs—who has some of the best mics in the world—uses one mic on that old Lloyd Loar mandolin of his, and holy smokes, it sounds good. But the approach I use is to record every instrument in stereo, using a pair of mics. You can still place the instrument anywhere within the stereo field by panning the two tracks to the left or right. And then, using the pan pots, you can make the sound wider or smaller wherever it sits in the stereo picture. With stereo miking, the key word is ‘wide.’ Gary’s recordings sound so huge, you have to ask, ‘why is that?’ Miking in stereo has a lot to do with it.”
The Producer’s Role
Having been a session musician himself, Rouse is familiar with the pressure of trying to create magic in the confines of a studio. “When musicians are overdubbing, they can feel uptight because they’re the center of the focus. So I get them to talk a bit about themselves or their family, and then they relax. They’ll feel attention, but it’s a different kind of attention, and their brain gets out of ‘technical’ mode. In five to seven minutes you can take someone from ‘I’m at work’ to ‘I’m hanging out.’ Once they’re in a good mood, I’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s see if we’re getting a good signal.’ Then they start playing and that really loosens them up. It works with singers too.
“Some producers go in and it’s just get to work right then, no conversation,” Rouse continues. “I have a reputation for working people really hard, and I don’t like messing around when you’re supposed to be getting the job done, but to get the best out of people, everyone has to feel like they’re pulling together toward the same goal. As a producer, I want to help an artist make their best record ever—something big that they’re proud to leave behind. That’s why I only do a couple of records a year, three at the most. For me, making records is about capturing this organic, intangible emotion the best you can, making the artist’s dream even stronger, and helping them get to where they want to be with their music and career.”