The Black Keys — drummer Patrick Carney and singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach — are a stunning story of musical evolution at every level: artistic, commercial, and certainly in terms of production acumen and ambition.
From home-recording their first indie album—2004’s The Big Come Up—on a Tascam 38 eight-track machine in Carney’s Akron, Ohio basement, to creating their new number one album Turn Blue with super-producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) at LA’s Sunset Sound Studio 2, no other band has so thoroughly mined the lo-fi, budget-analog ethos for inspiration.
And yet, over the course of their last few albums, they’ve successfully married that approach to a dizzyingly high level of cinematic soundscaping and top-shelf engineering — analog audio stalwarts who’ve stayed true to the organic, warts-and-all sound of analog, while embracing the digital age.
Carney and Auerbach are also each accomplished producers. Auerbach has produced records for Dr. John, Hacienda, and the most recent Lana Del Rey release, Ultraviolence. He also won a Grammy in 2013 for Producer of the Year. Carney has produced bands such as The Sheepdogs, Tennis, and Houseguest among others.
Here, the duo talk about their recording process and how UAD Powered Plug-Ins are essential to their careful balance of raunch and refinement — key tools in their quest to make epic music on a very human level.
Turn Blue is your third record with Brian Burton, and songs like “The Weight of Love” seems to go even further toward that big, cinematic direction that started showing up in songs like “Too Afraid to Love You,” on Brothers.
Patrick Carney: Every record sounds different, probably just because we get into different types of music over time, and we learn new things about recording, writing, and producing every time. We’ve worked with Brian for seven years now, and at this point, it’s basically like a three-piece band — it’s extremely collaborative. We figure out and refine all the parts together.
Can you describe that process?
Patrick Carney: We’ll write bass lines together and fine-tune guitar and drum parts; though I will say that pretty much all the drum and guitar parts do still start with either Dan or I coming up with an initial idea. From there, we work with Brian on recording and arranging the songs with bass and keys, very much as if we were actually a four-piece, even though there are technically just two of us in the band.
Was it nerve-wracking — or perhaps liberating — to write, arrange, and record Turn Blue entirely in the studio?
Dan Auerbach: Well, we’ve written in the studio before, so it wasn’t a new experience. The songs can start from any small idea — it’s all about finding that little thing that sparks your interest and makes you want to investigate further. There is no right or wrong way. And besides the keyboards, we actually spent very little time on the instruments and tones. We brought instruments we were familiar with and had used before, and instead opted to spend more time focusing on the songs themselves — the changes, the melodies, etc.
Patrick, your drum sounds have evolved from the sprawling, very dead kit sounds on the early records, to the fatter, crunchier, and more ambient sounds of the last half-decade.
Patrick Carney: Well, I’m very particular about drum sounds, and Dan’s very particular about his guitar sounds. And though we’re both very capable of achieving the kind of sounds we want, we leave it to the engineers to put their own stamp on the tones as well.
As far as my drums sounds are concerned, I like a little bit of space around the drums, and I like the toms to be round, but I don’t like any reflection. In a way, I don’t want a room sound. I want the hi-hat to be like the Hi Records hi-hat. [Memphis label Hi Records’ roster included Al Green and Ann Peebles, and their records often featured house drummer Howard Grimes -Ed],
I want the kick to sound like early-’70s, poorly recorded tape, like that old Memphis rock. And I want the snare drum to have some sizzle, depth, and fatness, but at the same time, no ringing at all.
Dan, you get very distinctive guitar and vocal tones. Is there a particular production philosophy behind the way you capture sounds?
Dan Auerbach: I’m a believer in “less is more” and “simpler is always better” when it comes to micing. For vocals, I prefer a hand-held microphone like a Shure SM58, and only use large diaphragm mics for songs that are more delicate and maybe call for greater detail to be captured. And I prefer small tube amps for guitar, with built-in reverb as opposed to outboard.
So you’re not necessarily auditioning a million different rigs?
Dan Auerbach: I believe in simplicity, and if something doesn’t grab my attention fairly quickly, I’ll move on and try a different pedal, amp, or guitar. Once I find a compatible guitar and amp combination, though, I’m happy to stick with that for the remainder of the session. After all, it’s the player, not the gear.
“UAD plug-ins are amazing these days — very intuitive and easy to get good sounds on. I’ve used them on all my projects for the last few years.”
Patrick, do you have a particular method of capturing and building your drum sound?
Patrick Carney: I almost always record with just four mics — typically an Electro-Voice RE20 on the kick, an SM57 on the snare, and two Coles ribbon mics for overheads, usually with the Glyn Johns technique. [With some variation, the classic “Glyn Johns technique” features a kick mic, a snare mic, a side mic for cymbals/floor tom, and a single overhead about three-feet above and roughly centered between the kick and snare.]
How did you arrive at this interest in using fewer mics on the drums?
Patrick Carney: Well, when we first started recording, I would put mics up all over the place. The first real studio we went into had something like twelve mics on the drums, and of course, I wanted to use them all! It wasn’t until maybe our fourth record that I started realizing that using fewer mics — and putting them in the right spot — made the drums sound better.
Still, when I first tried the Glyn Johns technique, it sounded like shit. But I’ve recorded five or six bands this year — all with that technique — and it sounded great. The trick is talking to the drummer about not going crazy on the cymbals. In fact, I’m at the point with it now where I will almost always overdub the crash cymbal.
Can you talk about overdubbing the crash? What are the advantages?
Patrick Carney: I started doing that around the time we made Brothers. I didn’t even have a crash cymbal in my drum setup, so I literally couldn’t play it when tracking the main performance.
By doing that, you leave a lot more room for the overheads to pick up the actual drums, so you can really hear the thickness of the drums through the overheads. And you don’t even necessarily need two overheads. We had a great engineer named Mark Neill who recorded most of Brothers, and he used one old Neumann KM 84 tube mic as an overhead. That’s what I’d been doing until recently, when I switched to the Glyn Johns technique. And that’s all I really need. Sure, if I have a song that’s particularly heavy on the floor tom, I might add a spot mic there, but even then I’ll thin that way out, just to get the attack.
What do UAD plug-ins bring to the table for you guys on your records and various projects?
Dan Auerbach: The UAD plug-ins are amazing these days, very intuitive, and easy to get good sounds on — and easy to quickly change if you’re not getting the sound you like. I’ve used them on all my projects for the last few years.
Patrick Carney: For me, the SSL G Series Bus Compressor plug-in usually comes first on my drum bus for just a little bit of gain reduction. Rather than compress individual drums, I’ll just compress all the drums together on that main bus.
Then I’ll use the Pultec EQP-1A plug-in for EQ, and the Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder plug-in or the Ampex ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder for saturation/distortion. If I’m going to put reverb on it, I’ll just send a bit of that whole bus submix out to a reverb bus, generally with a bit of the Ocean Way Studios plug-in or the EMT® 140 Classic Plate Reverberator plug-in.
I actually have a nice antique plate reverb, but the UAD EMT 140 comes pretty close. In fact, my plate is darker sounding, and if I roll just a bit of high-end off the UAD EMT 140, you really can’t hear the difference at all.
What is it about the Ocean Way Studios plug-in that appeals to you?
Patrick Carney: The Ocean Way Studios plug-in gives me that subtle space around the drums. I use a Neumann U47 in cardioid as a room mic, place it close to the kit, dial-in a bit of the Ocean Way Studios plug-in, and I get exactly what I want— no slapback or big reflection — just a nice little bit of depth.
“The Ocean Way Studios plug-in gives me that subtle space around the drums — just a nice little bit of depth.”
Do you have any other “secret weapon” plug-ins for drum sounds?
Patrick Carney: The Roland® RE-201 Space Echo Tape Delay plug-in is another one of my favorite plug-ins, and having the sync function on that is one of the most useful things, especially if you want to put a dub echo on a snare and automate it on and off. I’ll keep that same drum bus going, with the reverb, and I’ll add a delay.
If I want to hit the snare with some Space Echo, I’ll just have a send from the snare directly to the delay. And it actually ends up sounding, to me, more like an analog desk, where you would be having an eight-bus return, and an AUX return. And if you were compressing those drums going to the bus, you wouldn’t be compressing the Sends—that sounds more natural to me.
Do you employ any UAD plug-ins for mixing?
Patrick Carney: When I’m mixing, I like to use the Precision Limiter plug-in. I always put that on the mix bus, and try to get between 2 and 4 dB of limiting, but I find that it’s completely transparent if you set it right. I love that thing. I’ll also use the UAD SSL G-Series Bus Compressor plug-in, with about a 4 dB peak, for a fuller attack, and I’ll use the auto-release sometimes, and then hit it into the Precision Limiter.
Sometimes I’ll use the UAD SSL G-Series Bus Compressor, followed by the Manley® Massive Passive EQ plug-in, or I’ll send a Pultec EQP-1A directly into the Precision Limiter. That’s pretty much my fake mastering! But like I said, with every record I do, I’m learning new things.
Photos of Patrick Carney: CJ Hicks