Papa Mali on Tracking and Tricking Out Time- Honored Tones

PAPA MALI USED ECHOES AND REVERBS to otherworldly effect on his two swamp-blues solo CDs.
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PAPA MALI USED ECHOES AND REVERBSto otherworldly effect on his two swamp-blues solo CDs. Now he’s fronting the jam supergroup 7 Walkers—featuring members of the Grateful Dead and the Meters—and he produced the band’s vibey eponymous debut. —Jimmy Leslie

How would you describe the sound and style of your production?

Well, some have called my sound “voodoo electronics.” I’m inspired by Lee “Scratch” Perry as much as I am by people such as [jazz producer] Norman Granz. My production style runs the gamut from state-of-the-art circa 1958 to extremely low-fi , but I do try to go for a modern approach to retro sounds.

What’s your M.O. regarding basic tracking in general, and guitar tracking specifically?

I aim for good levels and flat sounds that I can manipulate later in the mix. I cut basics with all the musicians in the same room tracking to 2" tape—preferably a Studer machine. It sounds awesome and forces everyone to commit to a take. I prefer a room with wooden floors and high ceilings. I place a couple of microphones near the ceiling where I can always find a little special magic. Oftentimes, when I’m tempted to use a tight reverb effect, I’ll try panning the ceiling mic hard to one side instead.

For 7 Walkers, I tracked a lot of my electric parts with an early-’60s Strat through a ’60s blackface Fender Deluxe. It’s the perfect blend of clean and dirty at a reasonable volume. “Mr. Okra” is a good example of that tone. I use a ’74 Marshall 50-watt head onstage, but in the studio I have better luck with smaller amps, including a Supro Thunderbolt. It has a lot of grit, but it’s not as throaty sounding as a Marshall. You can hear it on “Sue from Bogalusa.” Small speakers are key to getting ’50s-style overdriven tones. If I wanted distortion, I’d use a vintage Tube Screamer, or my ProCo Rat pedal for heavier sounds.

How would you describe the vibe you went for on “Someday You’ll See [Prelude]”?

I wanted it to sound like Neil Young starring in a spaghetti western film. I used my Strat, the Thunderbolt, and a Fulltone Tape Echo to track my guitar. In fact, the Fulltone was almost always in my signal chain because it has an amazing tube preamp that makes everything sound better. I remember blending in a lot of the ceiling mic on that guitar track as well.

What’s an example of a “modern approach to retro sounds”?

I do a lot of re-amping. I’ll send a flat signal back out through a vintage Space Echo, or to an amp in another room with the reverb turned up, and re-record that. Then I’ll blend the two. Sometimes I’ll even take a pristine sound and subvert it by running it through some ridiculous stompbox. That’s the kind of procedure a lot of modern producers will replace by using plug-ins in Pro Tools, but I prefer the mad professor approach.