In our new series, Five Sound With..., we talk with world-renowned engineers and producers about how they got five sounds from your favorite records.
Jim Reeves... No, not the country superstar, the legendary recording and mixing engineer. He's been engineering and producing records for more than sixty years, when the world was mono. After 10 years of engineering for Tonight Show musical director, Skitch Henderson and Atlantic Records founder, Herb Abramson, Jim got his major start as a staff engineer at Columbia Records before leaving to freelance for the biggest record labels in the country. Jim has been awarded multiple Gold Records, as well as Emmy and Effie awards, and has worked with world-class recording artists such as Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, George Harrison and more.
Jim recently took time out of his busy schedule to chat with us for our new “Five Sounds With” series, where we interview influential producers and engineers about how they captured sounds on their most iconic records. Read on to learn the details of how Jim recorded classic tracks by Edgar Winter, Gregg Allman, ZZ Top and more.
“Free Ride” by The Edgar Winter Group
The thing that stands out the most to me in “Free Ride” is Edgar’s synthesizer. I asked him to double it to create a fatter sensation. The backing vocals were both doubled. Today, you can use plug-ins that delay the signal to give it a doubling effect that try to simulate it, but back then doubling meant you actually performed the part twice, or sometimes you might even triple it. The process started with getting a great vocal and then do another vocal as tight as you can to it. That way you actually had duplicate performances that are slightly different from each other, which creates a sound that you really can’t get from a plug-in.
The vocal chain I often used was a U67 into a Pultec EQ and a Teletronix LA-2A compressor. We went with the U67 because it was a little more present than a U47 or an M49. I wasn’t a big U47 fan back then, although I wish I had one now… I just thought it was too much bottom all the time that I didn’t need. My trick for getting great-sounding vocals was to take two Pultecs in series, one after the other, and just floor it at 12 kHz for that “whisp” up on top. Sort of like an Aphex Aural Exciter.
Back in those days, an LA-2A was a special item. There was only one LA-2A in each studio at Columbia Records and that was it. The consoles had simple channel EQs. And when you were in a studio that had compressors, everyone would always say, “You should just use a couple dB of compression.” Really, that’s a load of crap. Just floor those things as much as you want to.
My approach to compression is to set threshold so that the quietest sound is just tickling the reduction meter. I think 3.7:1 ratio is the magic spot for most compressors, with a 5 ms attack and a release time set as fast as possible. Every once in a while, you may want to adjust the attack or release time, but I that’s my go-to setting. I put that on anything, play with the threshold and it just sounds done.
“Tight Knit Group” by Jam Factory
Jam Factory was an amazing group that came to Columbia Records. My theory with this group was, we’ve got the best microphones in the world; U67s, M49s, U47s. These mics were designed to be as close as possible to the characteristics of the human ear, so why are we equalizing and compressing? That entire album was done with absolutely no EQ and no compression. The album came out great just using balance, good micing technique, stereo panning and a little reverb. I feel like after having done that, I’ve earned the right to use EQ and compression.
“Midnight Rider” and “Queen Of Hearts” by Gregg Allman
Johnny Sandlin did most of those tracks at Muscle Shoals. He became concerned about moving forward with the rest of the production, so he came to the Record Plant and got me and Ed Freeman to arrange the strings, horns, background vocals and things like that. So I did all the overdubs and mixing on that album.
When we did the vocals, we were in Studio A at the Record Plant East. We recorded vocals in front of the glass, facing the control room where there was a semi-circle wooden floor that was flanked with shag carpeting. I used the Neumann U87 with the pattern in omni for Gregg for that entire record. I had never used the omni pattern before, and I don’t know if I’ve used it after, but that setting was perfect for his vocals. That open sound of the microphone made his voice so much larger.
I did something else that was a little unconventional on that album. Roy Cicala got kind of pissed off at me, actually. We had something like 14 strings on that record that we probably doubled, and I had used a few Shure SM57s overhead instead of the usual U67s because I was SM57 crazy at the time. I think the sound is lovely on that album! In arguments with producers insisting on U87s, I would often do the “lights out” test and put up a Neumann U87 and a Shure SM58, turn off the lights, and put the singer in front of both mics and then ask the producer to pick one. Every single time, the producer would pick the 58. I’d turn the lights back on and the producer would say, “Reeves, you piss me off.”
First of all, the SM58 is a dynamic mic, so the transient response is slower, simply because of its mechanics, so it’s a little smoother—you might say warmer. But on the other hand, it has a 7 kHz peak in it, which gives it a silky brightness. I just loved that sound. Funny, because I almost never use them in the studio anymore.
Fandango by ZZ Top
We recorded that album at the Warehouse in New Orleans. I took a mic split from the stage into the Wally Heider Record Plant truck. The PA guy’s feed went also into his Ampex M16 16-track 2-inch tape recorder, and then he went straight through to the PA system, while I was recording everything straight into the remote truck’s console and into my MCI JH-24 16-track 2-inch deck. Everything was set pretty much flat.
Joe Venneri from the Tokens, a great engineer as well as an excellent producer, once said to me; “Jim, why do you keep turning the knobs? Just find the center of gravity of the band, and let them do the rest.” That was an early lesson for me. It’s still part of my process now. I start by finding the band’s center of gravity and once I learn their dynamics, I go in for the kill.
I learned another great lesson from Herb Abramson at A-1 Sound, the first Atlantic Records studio. At my interview, he said, “You know how to ride vocals, right? Like when the vocalist starts to get up to the high notes, they get louder, and you pull the fader down. When they get to the lower notes they get quieter, so you ride the fader up. You know that, right?” “Of course!”, I said, “Yeah, sure.” Duh! I’ve been riding vocals and instruments ever since, always anticipating the artist’s intent.
What struck me at this project was, at the end, playing back the show on the truck for the band and manager, Bill Ham, they were really pleased with the results. Of course, obvious now that it’s since gone gold. But the point I want to make is this part. The FOH guy who had also recorded his 16 track tape of the performance asked me if he could play it back in the truck and he was not pleased with the results. I said that was nonsense. We both recorded it almost identically. So, I stepped up to the console and I mixed his tape and it sounded just as good. Believing in yourself is at least half of it, as “state of mind” is the key. If you really listen to the band, you can’t go wrong.
“Something” by Joe Cocker
On 5/8/69, six months before Abbey Road came out, I recorded that with Joe Cocker at A&R Studios. I was doing a week with Al Kooper and Charlie Calello in studio R-2. Al said to me, “Jimmy, I’m not coming in tomorrow night. George Harrison wrote a song for Joe Cocker to try out, so I gave them my studio time.”
So the next night, Joe’s producer, Denny Cordell and the band come in and I start balancing the tracks. I used Electro-Voice RE-20s on the organ bottom and a pair of Shure SM57s on the rotating Leslie horn. The AKG D12 on the kick drum was a go-to. Back then, the Altec 633A salt-shaker mics were a popular choice for the snare drum. I was not a snare-bottom mic guy back then. I probably used Sennheiser MD421s on the toms, and a pair of U87 condenser mics or something overhead. I used some kind of small diaphragm condenser on the hi-hat. Another SM57 on the guitar amp. Once the band sounds were ready, two roadies brought Joe in and I set him up in the vocal booth with a U67 and away we went. Six months later, hanging with Simon & Garfunkel at Studio B of Columbia Records, I heard George Harrison’s version on a pre-release copy of Abbey Road. That’s where the light went on for me.
Part of the reason things sounded that way back then was because the state of mind was very different. There were studio musicians who did it all day long, day in and day out. They were competitive, cooperative and creative, but perhaps most importantly, clicky and they knew what to do in the studio. They worked with the same groups, studio to studio, so they knew what to play through osmosis. There was only one mono track, so you HAD to get it. Today, guys have nine-to-five jobs. You’ve got to put them in different rooms to isolate them because when you finally get a take that works, there are inevitable mistakes. And, I don’t believe in punching in. When you punch-in to repair, the musician is freaking out, trying to get back to the same feel and it’s five times louder and ahead of the beat and the flow is just not the same. I’d rather replace the error by a cut and paste from a similar part of that track because, at least, it has the same attitude of the rest of the performance. And it’s fast because it’s more predictable than a punch-in. I have often seen tons of accumulated wasted studio time trying to get a believable punch-in. If you’re going with technology, you might as well use it.