Phantom Power: Recording Marty Stuart's Ghost Train

This appeared in American Songwriter - May 2, 2011

Marty Stuart’s Grammy-winning song “Hummingbyrd,” an instrumental tribute to The Byrd’s guitar virtuoso Clarence White, stood in stark contrast to the other Nashville-produced country records at the 2011 awards show. Mick Conley, who engineered the album at Nashville’s RCA Studio B, says, “If you listen to ‘Hummingbyrd,’ it’s not perfect. But it’s a performance. It’s real people.”

On Ghost Train, Marty Stuart wanted to capture the feel of classic country bands like Buck Owens and The Buckaroos and Merle Haggard and The Strangers, and so he and Conley looked no further than the room where Elvis, Roger Miller, and The Everly Brothers had made so many classic records.

“There’s something magic about the bleed you get in a room – if you can deal with it. Back in the heyday, they played very quietly, with everybody in the same room.”

Mick Conley first came to Nashville in the 1980s, a time he recalls as a transition period for Nashville. “Everybody had to play direct,” says Conley, admitting that while the players remained great, guitar tones suffered due to being recorded directly into the recording console, without amps. Each player was sequestered in his or her own room, making it easier for an engineer to fix things later on.

With “Hummingbyrd,” Conley says, “We could have made it perfect. Chopped it up and replaced everything. But, there are very few fixes, very few overdubs on that record.”

Recording at Studio B like they did in the golden era of country was a daunting task. “The good news is I know the history of the place. The bad news is I know the history of the place and it’s pretty heavy,” says Conley. So before the actual sessions, Conley, Stuart, his wife Connie Smith, his band The Fabulous Superlatives, and several other engineers made little pilgrimages to the studio to take notes. Conley says they spent a lot of time walking around the tracking room, clapping their hands, and just listening.

“At the end of the day, you have to get over being a fan of the studio and what’s been done there. At a certain point, you gotta say, ‘Okay, I gotta get to work now.’”

That kind of respect for Studio B, along with Stuart’s deep history with the place (he’d made his first recordings there as a 13-year-old backing up Lester Flatt), helped the Ghost Train team capture some of that lost magic. And, today, the album stands right alongside those classic country recordings.

Conley says the secret to working in Studio B is in a back-to-basics approach and an open mind. “You can’t let the room be anything else than what it is,” he says. “Some of those tracks, like ‘Hummingbyrd,’ sound like it’s raging loud and the trick is they used little Fender Princeton amps. Marty and I were talking about this – it’s almost a jazz technique, where the great jazz musicians can be extremely intense but really quiet. And that’s hard to do.”

Following his “let the room be what it is” mantra, Conley set up the band almost exactly as they play live. He made small adjustments and rolled with the punches, bit by bit rethinking the way most engineers are used to recording in high-tech studios these days.

“Harry Stinson on drums in center, Kenny Vaughan on one side, Marty on the other side,” Conley remembers about their setup from Studio B. “I actually set the bass player Paul Martin up in the center facing the drums so that it would bleed into everything evenly. So you start rethinking placement. Same with the steel players. I set them up so when they bled it would bleed to the side that I would naturally mix them in. It’s a really different way of going about these things – kinda like the old school.”

Going in there with that kind of reverence and love for the place really helped the whole attitude.” Plus, adds Conley, to make a classic country record the band has got to be sharp. Stuart and the Superlatives nailed each song after only a few takes. After three or four sessions at Studio B, tracking for the album was in the can. “Marty would play and sing at the same time. It’s just about [it being] a totally live record. That was the whole process – going in with a great band and just playing.”

Conley started out as a jazz guitar player but says he was always attracted to sounds. “Even being a guitar player, sometimes it was more about how you got the sounds than the playing,” he says.

A big part of capturing sounds is finding the right audio tools and a few years back Conley made a discovery when he saw an ad for a small Portland, Oregon-based audio company called ADK Microphones and called up the company’s founder, Larry Villella.

“We had a lot of the same ideas about sound. He’s really familiar with a lot of good vintage mics and what’s quirky about them,” says Conley about Villella. “If you take the quirkiness out of the old gear and try to make it better, then you’ve got nothing. Then you’ve got no character. We started talking about those kinds of things.”

Conley bought a few ADK mics and Villella, in turn, asked Conley to offer his expertise in ADK’s product design.

“In 2005, we realized we’d taken the state of the art of microphone electronics very near the leading edge,” says Villella. “It was the capsule that was holding us back from the next sonic breakthrough.” So Villella, Conley and other recording engineers, and a team of design engineers including an Australian rocket scientist spent five years working on the products that would become the 3 Zigma series microphones, which Conley would end up taking into Studio B for the Ghost Train sessions.

“We put the [ADK 3 Zigma] C-12 on Marty’s D-45 – the Hank Sr., model – and he just looked up and said, ‘I think we just found our acoustic mic.’ It was that quick,” says Conley.

Conley says he and Stuart chose to record acoustic guitar in mono on Ghost Train. “What people listen for in their acoustic guitar, they never really hear it that way when it’s recorded,” says Conley. “One of the more interesting techniques is to get that microphone up where the player’s head is. Listening down toward the guitar – just like you’d hear your own guitar.”

“If you listen to ‘Hangman,’ there’s bleed all over that guitar mic,” says Conley. “It’s a good bleed in that you can hear his vocals and drum overheads. This stuff was tracked live in that room and there’s no separation. I put the mic on his acoustic almost pointing straight down to the floor to pick up the guitar and get the separation from his vocal.”

Conley worked with ADK’s custom shop for a vocal microphone that would perfectly capture Stuart’s voice. “We used the [ADK] Berlin 47 with a mod on it – we’re calling it ‘the Marty Stuart mod,’” says Conley. “The curve has a bump in the bottom end and a little bump in the top, so the mid is kinda scooped out and takes away a little bit of muddiness but yet gives you that nice, rich bottom like on Marty’s voice – but it still retains the air.”

Microphone designers and engineers face two big hurdles in modern microphone design. First, there’s the fact that vintage mics react differently in analog and digital recording settings. “A lot of those [vintage] mics were intentionally used on tape to enhance high end, and then we went to digital and it didn’t need that,” says Conley. “It’s not gonna make the bottom go big and won’t roll off the high end. We had to rethink our chain.”

Secondly, each piece of vintage gear is slightly different. “Everybody has their idea of what [a vintage] microphone should sound like, but every one of those things sounds different. There’s probably not two on the planet that sound the same,” Conley jokes about highly-prized vintage Neumanns. “Which one do you choose and how do you decide on the golden standard?”

Conley says the answer is in using technology to design microphones that get it somewhere in the middle. And test and tweak the design until it’s right. “[Villella] can do the right quality control on his products and try to replicate it with the technology that we have, but going back to what we know sounded good way back when,” says Conley.

And while quality control of that level comes with a relative price tag, using the mics doesn’t require an audio engineering degree. Conley says the beauty is in the simplicity of using ADK’s “tool-kit” system of interchangeable capsules. “I can say honestly this is the easiest system I ever got a great guitar sound with – just right out of the box,” he says.

Villella says that 3 Zigma’s small-cap mics can be used for the purest rendering while the large-caps (like the C-LOL-12 used on Stuart’s Martin) can produce dramatically different tone-colors. “Think of it as the difference between lighting an object with a white light or lighting an object with green, red, blue,” says Villella. “There’s a place for clear and there is a place for colorful. Microphones work in a very similar way.”

In the end, Conley, Stuart and the band’s preparation and hard work paid off. Ghost Train captures the vintage sounds of country’s yesteryear in a thoroughly modern way.

By Davis Inman

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