Ryan Adams

Mar 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Heather Johnson


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Various self-help books suggest that one has to hit “rock bottom” before one can reform. Alt-country artist Ryan Adams didn't crash and burn, per se, but he did experience noticeable symptoms of burnout and frustration after turning in the melancholic Love Is Hell (Lost Highway), released first as a pair of EPs and later as a double 10-inch vinyl. Nothing that a little Black Flag couldn't cure, though.

To recover from his malaise, the 29-year-old songwriter spent a few months underground — literally — at a tiny rehearsal space under the East Village bar Hi-Fi, where he jammed and listened to punk rock with drummer/bar owner Johnny T. Yerington. Revitalized and creatively recharged, Adams resurfaced with the beginnings of Rock N Roll, an upbeat, free-spirited, guitar-soaked rawk album that not only marks a stylistic U-turn for the Jacksonville, N.C., native, but also follows the philosophy that some of the most memorable rock 'n' roll albums are the ones recorded on the fly, with no time (or budget) for second-guessing or endless editing.

No more than two weeks after Adams asked producer James Barber to oversee his new album, the two joined engineer Jamie Candiloro at New York's Stratosphere Sound and recorded and mixed 19 songs in 23 days. “If we were going to release this record in 2003, we couldn't screw around,” says Barber, producer of Courtney Love's new album. “We had to go in every day and be incredibly focused.”

Barber used Led Zeppelin's classic IV album as a model for what they wanted to accomplish in the studio. “It's full of mistakes in its perfection,” he explains, “and also records like the Dream Syndicate's The Days of Wine and Roses; they were made for like $800 in two days, and they hold up over time because they're about emotion, performance, knowing what songs to record and knowing what mistakes will make things better.”

Once Adams emerged with his new set of basement demos, he and Barber rearranged, added bridges and even co-wrote a few new songs for the record. “It was easy in some ways, because he's so proficient as a player and a singer,” Barber says. “And to think that he's not even 30 yet — to think that only now is he entering his most creative and productive phase.”

Barber also encouraged the prolific artist to incorporate the alternative and punk music he'd grown up with into his music rather than limit himself to penning more of the rootsy, melancholic fare that helped him become a poster boy for 21st-century alt-country. “Ryan had always made records with guys who were great players, but they were usually a lot older than he was,” explains Barber. “He never made a record that sounded like his own generation. And I was like, ‘Ryan, why don't we make a record based on these records that you love?’ We talked a lot about Black Flag and The Smiths, but we also talked about '80s bands like R.E.M. and the Gun Club, bands that — when he was 13 and 14 years old and was a little punk rock skateboard kid — really changed his life.”

Indeed, Rock N Roll melds together late-'70s, early-'80s punk and new wave with contemporary pop and rock into one swaggering hybrid. Adams channels Bono on the debut single, “So Alive,” mimics The Strokes on “This Is It,” and breaks out thick, fist-pumping, T. Rex-like guitar riffs on songs such as “1974” and “Note to Self: Don't Die.” However derivative, the album has put Adams in front of entirely new audiences. “Ryan does depressed as well as anybody, but we wanted to make something that was really life-affirming and celebratory,” says Barber. “Something that people in both small southern towns and big cities can blast in their car and get this sense of release and freedom.”

The majority of the album — with the exception of a few basic tracks recorded at Globe Studios — was tracked and mixed in Stratosphere's Studio A, home to a 32-bus Neve 8068 console with GML Automation, Studer A827 24-track and a Genelec monitor system. “To me, it's one of the best-sounding control rooms anywhere,” Barber emphasizes. “We mixed in the same room because we knew how little time we had; we were making decisions as we recorded. By the time it came to mix, we were doing two-and-a-half songs a day.”

Pro Tools|HD, used sparingly, helped Barber and Candiloro work efficiently without losing the album's inherent messiness. “We had our HD rig running at all times,” Barber says. “Even though we were recording and mixing on 2-inch, everything went into Pro Tools. It was absolutely an integral part of the process.

“The whole experience of having to make decisions in the moment and move on was interesting,” he adds. “Adding Pro Tools to the mix gives you infinite options. You can take a lot more time to make a record, but when you're just using Pro Tools as your razor blade for editing, it speeds things up even more. So we were able to work really quickly and then go back and revisit things.”

Certainly not a polished record, but not a primitive 8-track home job either, Rock N Roll features a retro Juno synthesizer and classic guitar tones recorded with analog gear, but maintains a clarity on par with today's modern rock heavyweights. “I wanted a record that's going to sound good next to Staind and next to Led Zeppelin IV at the same time,” says Barber, former VP of A&R for Geffen Records. “I think making something the same way The Beatles did is a lot of fun, but it's more archaeology than record-making. The bands that Ryan's competing with out there use a lot of modern technology, so you can't make something that sounds exactly like what Andy Johns was doing in 1975, even though what Andy Johns did in '75 informs every single minute of every piece of work I do in the studio.”

Barber admits to a few sampled drums on the record, but assures, “Every drum sound was made in the room, on the drums, by the drummer. We had a strict rule: We wanted to make a record that truly reflects what went on at Stratosphere.”

Very few people, however, were privy to what went on at the Chelsea district facility, which is owned by alt-rock musician/producers James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins), Adam Schlesinger (Ivy, Fountains of Wayne) and Andy Chase (Ivy). In fact, the only musicians present were Adams — who plays all guitars and most of the bass and keyboard parts — Johnny T. and guest players such as Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, ex-Hole bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur and actress Parker Posey, who contributes backing vocals to “Note to Self: Don't Die.”

Candiloro used Neumann U47s on all vocals, including Posey's surprisingly strong set of pipes. A UREI 1176 reissue provided necessary compression for Adams' dynamic lead. For guitars, Candiloro “always settles” on two Shure SM57s, positioned on the amp “right where the cone and paper meet.” For bass, the L.A.-based engineer miked an Ampeg B15 cabinet with a Sennheiser 421. Drums were miked with a combination of an AKG D112 (kick), an SM57 (snare), AKG 414s (toms), Neumann KM84s (overheads) and various Coles ribbon mics. “They suck a bunch of great stuff out of the drum kit,” he says of the Coles. “I also had a [Shure] 58 going through a Distressor loose in the room. That was featured on some tracks just as a gnarly rock sound.”

Candiloro also used an API Lunch Box, which included two 560 and two 550 EQs, on guitars, which were kept at the forefront of the mix. “I wanted to make this a f*** you guitar record,” he says. “Just undeniable guitar sounds. Ryan's got great savvy for getting around his pedals and knowing what pickups to use. Everyone knows you can make a kickin' snare sound really big if it's loud, but I wanted [that effect] with the guitars, and the 550s were a big part of that.”

With Johnny T. positioned in the main room behind the drum kit and Adams in an adjoining iso booth, the two watched each other and played as if they were still holed up in their tiny basement rehearsal space. Candiloro kept all of the mics up all the time to capture any spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness jams. “My thing is to make the recording process transparent to the art that's happening,” he says. “I don't want the red light to be a big deal. I want the artist to feel like they can just show up, put their coffee down, put that song on and go for it.”

Staying in the moment was apparently crucial on this project, as the chameleon-like Adams can change genres and moods faster than he can write a song, which can happen in a matter of minutes. “He doesn't have a lot of patience,” Barber says. “He gets bored. And if you spend too long dawdling over something, you're going to lose him.”

Even if his attention wavers, Adams produces ingenious work — and lots of it. He had four albums' worth of material written for his 2001 release, Gold, some of which ended up on his third album, Demolition. Rock N Roll was culled from yet another batch of rapidly composed songs, not perfect by any means, but flawed and sloppy in a way that can only be allowed in, well, rock 'n' roll. Because quite simply, Barber believes, “Rock music is all about just breaking stuff.”

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