Reality Bites: The Making of LeAnn Rimes' 'Spitfire'

May 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Bud Scoppa


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Rimes has a history of blowing out microphones, and these sessions were no different. “LeAnn moves so much air when she’s on the mic and she’s not wearing headphones,” Bolas marvels. “She’s not working the mic, she’s just singing her lungs out, and diaphragms start flapping.” The solution came from Schmitt, who suggested she go with a Neumann 104, the same mic Diana Krall uses in live performance. They tracked the album in six days, and on the seventh day they recut 10 of the tracks, Rimes and the studio band sharing the tracking room of Capitol A with about 50 invited guests who were asked to be completely silent, forming what Brown describes as “a human heartbeat orchestra.” Three or four of these takes made the album, including the no-brainer single candidate “Gasoline and Matches,” written by Buddy and Julie Miller, which Rimes heard as a surefire rocker that also furthered the album’s thematic thrust. Bolas and Brown then added a pair of crucial overdubs: a vocal by Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas and a solo by Jeff Beck—one of just two electric guitar parts on the album, which Rimes calls “the best solo ever.” Transmitted via Skype, it was the first thing Beck recorded in his new London home studio.

LeAnn Rimes

LeAnn Rimes

“The way I interpret my job is you shouldn’t know I was there,” Bolas explains. “So in playback, you should be able to frame, out of the left and right, what happened on the important side of the glass. Data is cheap, so you record at the highest sample rate you can effectively afford—if you have a big rig and you can run 192, do it—get the mics set up, and get out of the way. Just always be in record, so that when everyone forgets they’re in a studio and follows LeAnn as she dumps her guts, you’ve got something that will always measure—always—because it’s real. And when it’s done, all the sounds that LeAnn, Darrell, Jordan, Waddy and all those guys were hearing out on the floor play back sounding like what they were hearing. In other words, if you’re standing in front of the guitar, that’s the sound you want coming out of the speaker. You don’t want some fabricated interpretation of that sound, you want that guitar with that touch, with that feel; all the accents and dynamics are in the hands of the musicians.”

When it came to the mix, Brown and Bolas turned to Schmitt and Powell, who split up the tracks, working separately. “Al and Vance immediately got what this record was supposed to be,” says Brown. “They were gonna keep it full-bodied and make it shine as organically as possible.”

Steve Jordan

Steve Jordan

“The recording was nice and clear, it had a lot of depth,” says Schmitt. “But that’s Niko. Let’s face it, people will buy this record because of the vocal performance and where it sits in the record, so you don’t want to bury it. If you listen to any of my records, the vocals are always right in your face. On this record, I was able to use the live chamber at Capitol, No. 4, which is my favorite of all the live chambers. I set that on her voice, and it lifted it right up. LeAnn blew me away; she really is an amazing singer. And most of the songs are great.”

Brown and Bolas’ integration of old-school values into this state-of-the-art modern recording project extended to the mastering. “I recorded everything at 192k and then I cut it to lacquer,” says Bolas. “Vinyl adds a tool—it’s both an equalizer and a compressor—in a way that has not been reproduced digitally yet. When it comes off the needle, it’s like an old friend that you’d forgotten about. It started as an experiment. We took a mix that Al had just finished and took it to Ron McMaster, who cut it to vinyl and sampled that to CD, so that you get all the mono compression that happens on the bottom and all of the smooth, warm analog texture that’s kinda like a baby’s cradle around the vocal. I played it for Schmitt and Darrell and they both went nuts. So that was it—we had to do it for the whole album. And that was the last step of congealing Al, Vance and myself, because it unified everybody’s interpretations on what’s really an album and not just 12 cuts. It’s a body of work that, if you listen to it from start to finish, it’s a range of emotions during a period of her life. When we got done and we played it, LeAnn was in tears and everybody went, ‘Wow—what did we just do?’”

LeAnn Rimes Spitfire album cover

“The songs stand on their own, but the album as a whole really does tell a story,” says Rimes with understandable pride. “The title track anchors the record and tells you exactly where it’s going. I do feel like I’m spitting fire on this record, because they’re things I’ve held in for a long time, and they’re coming out through my music, which is the best way they could. It truly was cathartic to make this record. I’m not holding anything back, and I feel like I’m more than just a voice now.

“Life happened, and I got to make an album of honest music,” she continues. “None of us wanted it to end, we had such a great time. I feel like we went back in time, almost, making this album, and I can’t make an album any other way from here on out.”

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