Tracking Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s 10 Days Out

Although technology has advanced a thousand-fold since the days of pre-war big-band recordings on the radio, it’s still incredibly difficult to capture a good, solid live recording. The variables are too numerous to count, and the conditions for optimum recording quality are dubious at best. For his latest CD/DVD release, 10 Days Out: Blues From the Backroads [Reprise], Kenny Wayne Shepherd pegged the difficulty meter even further by seeking to document his “performing pilgrimage” with blues greats such as Gatemouth Brown, B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin, Etta Baker, Honeyboy Edwards, Pinetop Perkins, Henry Townshend, Cootie Stark, Neil Pattman, John Dee Holeman, and others. The project—which began filming in 2004—involved a portable Pro Tools rig, multiple locations from New Orleans to Kansas (including a jam session with Buddy Flett at Leadbelly’s grave), no road crew, less-than-hospitable environments, and a devilish mix process.

But Shepherd—and his rhythm section of Double Trouble’s Tommy Shannon on bass and Chris Layton on drums—definitely courted favorable odds by enlisting the brilliant team of noted producer and former Talking Heads multi-instrumentalist Jerry Harrison, engineer Eric “ET” Thorngren, and second engineer Matt Cohen to record the many performances. Throughout the often torturous mobile sessions, the trio’s technical and musical chops delivered recordings of clarity, precision, and honesty that are truly something to behold.

What was the recording gear you traveled with?
Harrison: We used a Pro Tools system with Neve, Focusrite, Universal Audio, and Grace mic preamps, and Neumann, AKG, and Shure microphones.

How many tracks were you running?
Cohen: A maximum of 24.
Thorngren: At B.B.’s gig, we were only running 16 tracks.

All of the guitar tones on the CD are warm and inviting with no harsh edges. What did you use for the various guitar setups?
Thorngren: We used Shure SM57s on all the guitar amps.
Cohen: We just positioned one mic on each cabinet…
Thorngren: …pointed right at the center of the speaker cone.
Harrison: Sometimes, we went into the Neve preamps for the guitars, and sometimes we used the Universal Audio 2-610, but Kenny always went into the 2-610.
Thorngren: On the acoustic guitars, we used the Focusrite ISA 110 preamp and the Empirical Labs Distressor.
Harrison: When we had just two acoustics to record, we used AKG C451s. When we had three to mic, we added a pair of Neumann KM-88is.

What was the signal path for the bass?
Thorngren: A Demeter Tube DI into a Neve 1073 mic preamp, and then into a Distressor on the Opto setting. The Distressor’s Opto setting sounds more like a vintage LA-2A compressor than most LA-2As, because the old models were a bit erratic. For me, that’s typically a “set it and forget it” thing for basses and vocals.

The vocal tracks are very smooth. Did you do anything special for the vocals?
Thorngren: We recorded them with Neumann TLM 170 mics and Focusrite mic preamps. I would also use a Distressor set to that “LA-2A” setting, but I’d hit all the vocals with light compression because we didn’t want the background sounds to come up in level when the vocalist stopped singing. During the mix, Matt had the thankless task of riding the faders in-between the vocals from -18dB up to 0dB and back down to ensure that no background sounds swelled up into the track.
Harrison: What’s amazing is that so much was done to make the vocals sound so live and present, but you don’t really hear the signal processing. To me, this is the only modern blues record I‘ve heard that gives me the feeling that old blues records did. Most modern blues records are too clean.
Thorngren: They’re compressed like pop records. Those old blues records had dynamics. In fact, we went back and forth during the mastering process to diminish compression. I told the guy, “You know, if this record isn’t as loud as a Tool album, then the listener can just turn up the player. We’re not playing volume wars!”
Harrison: Yeah. They’re mixed, compressed, and EQ’d until they sound unauthentic and lifeless.

What were some of the challenges that occurred during the live-recording process?
Harrison: One of the biggest non-technical challenges was that Tommy, Chris, and Kenny were often kind of learning the song when they got together with the guest artist. Now, in some of these songs, the first verse was 13 bars, and the second verse was ten bars, so the performances required extremely careful listening to hear those places where the vocals lead into where the change is going to be. We usually did two takes, and all the old guys would go, “You mean I gotta do that again? Why?” Now, when we got back here to mix, almost invariably the first take had the best vocal, but there’d be mistakes in the instruments. This is why the mix for the film is different than the mix for the album. The album track was chosen for the most persuasive performance, and the film mix was chosen to complement the most persuasive visuals.
On a more technical level, we had a few challenges with the B.B. King show. First of all, we were not supposed to interrupt anything. There were bands performing all night long, and we had to set up between them for when B.B. was going to come on. Then, I couldn’t get a signal from the direct box on the bass amp. I had to go running up there, grab the cable, disconnect the direct box, plug in a Shure SM57, and then just hang the mic over the speaker cabinet.
Cohen: Of course, the place was packed. You could barely walk in there.
Harrison: Then, there was the speed at which we had to set everything up and break it all down. There was no budget to build the [recording] system for a quick set up, so we kind of did everything from the ground up at each gig. In addition, the cable snakes had to accommodate these very long distances from the recording gear to the stage. We had to join snakes together to cover the distance, and the audience would step on them, and they’d get wet from drinks being spilled on them.
Thorngren: So we’d get all these clicks and things all over the audio tracks that we’d have to take care of in post-production. We also had a problem in Kansas, where every time Kenny did a guitar solo, the live-sound guy would turn it up until it was way out of proportion to the rest of the band in the room. So, during the mix, I had to use reverb to create a new space. I’d have the original recording going, and then I’d bring up my “artificial room”—which I constructed with Trillium Lane Labs TL Space—until the guitar solo sounded like it was still in front of the band, but not so far up front that the integrity of the group sound fell apart.
Cohen: It was important that Kenny was heard as part of the band. The record isn’t “Kenny Wayne! Kenny Wayne! Kenny Wayne!” In fact, he’s kind of taking the role of a sideman for the guest artists.
Thorngren: And he played some great rhythm stuff! But there was also an issue in that some of these songs are not perfectly in tune—which is a nice, organic kind of thing, but the tuning between everybody also dictates the balance of the mix, because you want it to feel right. You don’t want something that’s in tune or out-of-tune taking your attention off the performance. So we had to ride the faders and blend the pitch anomalies in order to make everything all work together.
Cohen: Disk space was an issue, as well. We ended up having to use a dozen hard drives to record the shows.

How was the basic stereo mix approached when you got the tracks back here at Jerry’s Sausalito Sound studios?
Thorngren: I like to submix sections into individual stereo tracks for the guitars, drums, and so on. I put the drums through a Thermionic Culture Phoenix Stereo Valve Compressor—although, sometimes, I’d take the bass drum out of there because it would eat the snare drum if it was compressed along with everything else. For the bass, I used the Wave C4 plug-in, because you can use it to get rid of clicks and stuff, as well as boost different frequencies if the strings are uneven. On the acoustic guitars, I used Digidesign’s EQ III plug-in.

Do you have any other thoughts or observations you want to share with GP readers?
Harrison: Did you catch when Honey Boy Edwards was talking about before the turnaround came to the blues, they would go to the IV chord and just come back? The form was coming out of the field holler songs, and it wasn’t until the time of Robert Johnson that the V chord was added. That was amazing to me, because I thought that blues progressions were always I-IV-V.