Mark Neill, who co-produced/engineered ‘Brothers’ with Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney, has previously commented generally on the making of the record. He has a story to tell, from a different perspective to the band – as an insider but ultimately as an outsider like everyone else. His influence is important as a piece in an ever evolving puzzle of styles, sounds and tracks that have made it to the released version of the album fans hear today.
The Black Keys control their sound. This new record appears to have undergone a multitude of changes from conception as a 60s soul record completed by era-specific recording equipment and techniques, through the influence of Blakroc shortly before the main recording session at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, to the additional tracks laid down with Danger Mouse and self-produced tracks back in Akron, Ohio, at Dan Auerbach’s home studio. Finally, the Tchad Blake mix brings something additionally affecting the sound.
Mark Neill explains and gives some insights into ‘Brothers’ with regard to 12 of the 15 tracks he was intimately involved in recording and the album generally. The finished album seems to be a story not-yet fully told. These liner notes are but one more piece of the puzzle for interested fans since they often specifically reference the recording techniques and instruments used.
Everything that follows, apart from the bolded and bracketed text, are Mark Neill’s words.
Photo courtesy of Dave Doyle: Pat and Mark Neill at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
On the released album:
You’ve got different phases of their career going on:
These Days is in the tradition of Never Gonna Give You Up, I’m Not The One and Next Girl. Very 1968, soul, sound of Philadelphia all the way down to Muscle Shoals. Feeling Gerry Butler to Wilson Pickett – just a real wide soul sampling.
Everlasting Light, Howling For You, She’s Long Gone, Too Afraid To Love, Ten Cent Pistol are yet another record.
Then we could start talking about the stuff done in Akron as yet another record.
But when you put this all together, in one spot, because The Black Keys have a melodic and rhythmic vision, it actually kind of works. They started with the sound you hear on These Days and ended up with Sinister Kid [during the development and recording of the album].
I was surprised this record ever got finished. I’m surprised it came out as intact as it did. When I was told this album was coming out, my jaw hit the floor. Jim Dickinson told me years ago, and I totally believe him, “the best records are never released.” he said, “Those records scare the crap out of people.” I’m pleased this record came out so intact.
Perhaps Tchad Blake was the best compromise for the job [of mixing]. He was probably the best way to unify the record into one spot. Clearly by the time he had got it it had been fractured into many many sessions, many many pieces with almost no agreement into the direction of it. It was becoming one of those real rock n roll, Spinal Tap moments. There’s a story there yet to be told that’s pretty amazing.
On the warm vocal sound:
The vocals have pretty much survived intact from the Tchad Blake mix. I didn’t cut the vocals with compression. I put my hand on the fader, when those vocals were being done, one line at a time as they were being run down. Dan is pretty consistent, pretty easy to know what he’s doing – I can tell when he’s taking breaths, when he’s going to sing loud, and when he’s going to sing softer – you need to bring up the level for the detail. There’s no compression on the vocals, I did that with my hand. I rode the fader the whole time, there’s anything from 6 or 7 marks on the fader on the channel where the knob had to be on certain words or phrases.
Believe it or not when you mix, no matter how you EQ it, the voice is going to be bigger because I was able to bring out all the detail. If you are working with a 60db mic amplifier, and you’ve got it at about 3 o’clock you are almost working with its full gain potential, more or less within a few db. This is an old rotary fader, tube console, and when it’s down at about 10 o’clock you are down at 20db of gain so you are looking at a big wide area of full lung screaming to whispering and if you train the fader, as I call it, you can bring every nuance up with the fader. You don’t have to do this with a compressor, that’s the wrong way to do it.
When Tchad Blake got the multi-tracks, the sound was intact and pretty much there. He just had to distort it or EQ it in some way that Dan thought was effective, and he was there, you’ve got it.
I usually use a U47 Neumann tube mic [which was used on 'Keep It Hid'] but I have a KM 184 Neumann which is a very standard run of the mill microphone. For some very bizarre reason, if you point it at Dan’s forehead it is huge sounding – bigger than the 47 on him so I ended up using that alot. It’s not a tube mic either. Dan’s got a very unique resonance, the sound doesn’t come out of his mouth so much as it comes out of his nose. I settled on this mic for that reason. Of course that mic is going through the Universal console pre-amp.
On getting the drum and bass sounds:
I had just a few mics on the drums and those mics were not always on consistently. I tried to use the different mics as ‘feature microphones’, as I call them. The only constant mic in the mix is the overhead and the kick. All the other microphones were on for the different features we needed them for.
The cymbals are so light [on Brothers], that was the way Pat was playing. The thing about Pat that is so great is that when we started on these demos he was playing with felt mallets. He found them on the floor near the drum set. It’s not like he’s never used them, he just decided that’s the way he wanted to play. Most people don’t know that first phase of the record was played on mallets.
When we were tracking I did the same thing with the bass guitar as I did with Dan’s voice. I know where he is on the neck of the bass because whe the songs are worked out I’m out in the room with them. When I get into the control room I can ride the fader on the bass and keep all the notes pretty solid regardless of where he’s at on the neck. Again I’m not compressing. Although it is very compressed now, the multi-tracks were not realised as compressed tracks.
These songs were started with the Rickenbacker bass and drums. When they were backing tracks they really did just sound like soul grooves, they really did. It wasn’t until they were adorned with keyboards, and guitar and singing, that you could say that’s a little more T-Rex or that’s a little more soul. What we were recording in Muscle Shoals, if you stripped it down, sounded like a soul record.
Track by Track:
It’s in the tradition of the late-Sixties feeling. It reminds me of the best things that you would ever like about a T-Rex record – over three records worth you would pick all these little aspects you liked. But it doesn’t sound like any one song. It doesn’t really have a time stamp on it, it’s pretty timeless. It sounds like early Bowie too. Probably more significantly than T-Rex [Mambo Sun] in some ways.
Next Girl is a classic soul sound. The feature of this song is the melody. The song vaguely mirrors Pat’s experiences with his divorce, which both Dan and Pat were feeling sympathetically. It was pretty heavy, a really amazing moment, where when you hear the sound come out of the speakers you go “Is that me, is that you?”. It was one of those moments when you don’t even recognise anybody in the room is involved in it.
That’s Danger Mouse’s one [recorded at The Bunker, Brooklyn] and it’s a good one.
Howling For You
Sounds like something that could probably have been on Attack and Release. Which is a compliment. Although it’s been said it has a glam rock feel, I just think it sounds like The Black Keys. They don’t sound like Gary Glitter or anything. I know it’s formatted on that beat, but The Black Keys’ play things so cock-eyed it really is just them.
She’s Long Gone
One that they did at the studio at Akron. It sounds like a track off Cream’s Disraeli Gears album. That’s what it reminds me of.
A good soul jam.
The Only One
That came out of a demo for the record. That is the demo actually. Those [demos] were done at Dan’s studio early summer/late spring of last year (2009). That song, The Only One, has a lot of the feeling and the sound we were talking about doing originally. So this is a pretty intact mix of the demo.
Too Afraid To Love You
This is born out of a crazy idea about a harpsichord. In the Spring of last year (2009) we were talking about the instruments we were going to bring to the recording. I said I’d bring all this stuff, and I’ve got some magic tambourines, but I told him (Dan) ‘Look, tell the Management I want a harpsichord down there.’ And there was silence on the phone for a minute and then ge goes, ‘Cool!’ [laughs]. Much to my surprise, after much double-checking and goading, finally it did show up mid-way through the session from Nashville. Immediately I just turned the lights down in the studio and shoo’ed everybody out. Dan sat down, we talked a little bit, and then I shut up and he just started writing that song. Beautiful. It’s not a ballad, it’s, I dunno, it’s soul music! It’s beautiful.
Ten Cent Pistol – What type of guitars were played here?
Ten Cent Pistol is a slightly jazzy tune with very Ethiopian sounding 12 string guitar on it. It’s a cheap Harmony 12 string. It sounds like a lot of that incredible African guitar sound, incredible sounds out of simple instruments. It reminds me a lot of that. Two different groups come to mind that had a feel that reminds me of this. The 12 string lead on it reminds me of something very African.
We started the record with my Rickenbacker, I have a custom Rickenbacker, so the first demos were done with that. The sounds he [Dan] gets out of his Harmony’s is incredible. I don’t think there was any conscious decision officially, but I know we both agreed the sound he gets out of his Harmony’s is unbelievable.
I would say, other than These Days, you are hearing his two Harmony guitars. And there are a few instances of a Supro guitar, which he gets a really unique sound out of. All of the recording gear at Muscle Shoals including the 1956 Gretsch drums, bass, guitar amp are from Soil of the South. Dan and Pat brought congas, and various electronic keyboards as well as Dan’s guitars as well as a Music Master Fender bass amp for fuzz!
I’m playing on one speaker and Dan’s on the other. I’m playing the skank part, the scrapes, that’s the Rickenbacker. Dan’s playing on the other side on the Harmony, which is great – he’s playing all the lead and all that stuff. Dan’s lead playing is really good on this record by the way. I only fill in little different pieces generally, stuff that was missing. This has me playing all the way through it. He plays through my amps so it’s very easy to match the tone where required to fill in. Dan and I do not necessarily play with a pick. We did everything very quickly. When I got home this record was not finished. Anything I added was done with taste and great care to make it invisible.
The Go Getter
That’s my ’69 Rickenbacker bass through different fuzz pedals. There’s a different pedal on every song and every sound. It would go the gammut between Fuzz Face to Big Mouth. Dan has a 70s version EB3 Gibson bass [which is on 'Keep It Hid'] but I don’t like the sound [laughs]. It’s hard work mixing it because of the ‘dead spots’ it has – some notes loud, some silent. The thing that’s amazing about Dan is that it doesn’t matter because he’ll turn the volume knobs on the guitar and the gains on the box to make a sound that he likes. This song I feel is a carry over from Blakroc.
The funny thing about that bass is that it’s got the original 60s flat wound strings and the notes are generally in-tune, uniform, and thick. When the mutes are on it’s very Paul McCartney sounding. But it’s pretty rip-snortin’ when Dan plays it. When he plays it, he plays it like he wants it to sound which is completely different to if you picked it up and played it. I mean, if you played it you would say this bass could never do that, but when he plays it it does that. That’s what attracted me to Dan – he’s a unique talent.
I’m Not The One
This was one of the first songs we cut. All the guitars and everything is direct on this. The guitars are sounding like organ. Beautiful, soul ballad. This has got really good background vocals by Nikki Wray and Dan. She’s really good on this. She’s not only a great singer but she’s an absolute pleasure to be around.
This song was recorded when there was alot of paranormal activity playing up in the studio [Muscle Shoals]. They may not have been aware of it but during the overdub section and in the tracking section of this song, which were a week apart almost, every time this song was played something wierd would happen in that room. The temperature would get cold, people would be sitting in a chair and the chair would start vibrating for no reason, next to another chair which was not vibrating. People were seeing people walking by, there’s a window at the back in an area where they keep the piano in, and if you walk by that window from the left to the right you would walk into a wall. People saw multiple people in the tracking and the mixing walking by that window. Nikki [Wray] saw something, one of the guys in the Management saw two separately, just like a person walking right past the window clear as day.
It’s a story about a relative [Dan's 18 year old brother-in-law] that had passed away. This was recorded at Dan’s [in Akron].
Never Give Gonna You Up
Jerry Butler as a vocalist is a contortionist. He can sing every octave known to man, from a beautiful falsetto to a total gospel bass. The man has got the most insane range of any man on the Earth. [The Black Keys] wanted to do Never Gonna Give You Up and Dan found the key he felt comfortable at and in the room it sounded like it was going to be OK. Then later, when it was time to sing it, it was found it was not a key that was so easy to sing in for anybody. So it got slowed way down, like molasses, real slow – slower than Rain by The Beatles. And it was wonderful. Dan put the most amazing falsetto vocal on it which is just fantastic. Then it was brought up to a speed somewhere in between [laughs] so it has the most completely warped out sound possible and I love it.
That was recorded at Soil of the South. That was the very first recordings we had made the year previous. I don’t think The Black Keys record demos [laughs], I think anything could be a record. These Days has got a very emotionally…this is the thing that reminds me of Otis Redding in its emotional content. It’s got that emotional plea that ‘Dock Of The Bay’ has. It’s got that resignation, but it’s also a plea at the same time. That salt and pepper combination, the resignation, a little bit of hope, a plea and then more resignation. Pat plays wonderful on it. In my opinion, some of the most tasteful drumming.
Too bad they gated and filtered, ‘These Days’, I guess they did it to match the rest of the LP.
This song has the reverb chamber, the EMT, it’s got echo, it’s got stuff on the tracks. All you have to do is bring up the faders and your mix is pretty much there. We cut that as a demo and I stopped myself and thought I’m not going to do that anymore because this isn’t a demo anymore, this could be a record. I could kinda tell they were thinking that way. As long as they were doing a demo, I didn’t mind doing my technique of putting all the effects on the multi-track. I made a mental note when we cut the record we’ll cut them dry and I’ll keep all the levels under control with my hands and avoid compression and when we mix we’ll make a decision. That gave us several areas to go in. If you did use compression in the mix, then you could get the maximum out of the compressor, you could use it as an effect because most of the average level was already on the tape.
Photo courtesy of Dave Doyle: Drum kit recording set up Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
Photo courtesy of Dave Doyle: Recording gear at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
- Interview: Mark Neill On Recording The Black Keys New Album 2010
- Where Was The Black Keys’ Album Brothers Recorded?
- Brothers: The Black Keys New Album out May 18, 2010
- The Black Keys New Album Recorded At Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
- Was The Black Keys’ Track Next Girl Inspired by Frankie Seay And The Soul Riders’ Soul Food?