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The Champion of Nashville’s New Sound

The Champion of Nashville’s New Sound

Grammy-winning Producer Dave Cobb on UAD and Capturing the Magic

You may know him as the writer/producer who helped lift Brandi Carlile’s 2019 Grammy-winning Song of the Year, “The Joke,” to majestic emotional heights. Or perhaps you’ve been thrilled by the fresh blood and vintage acumen he’s injected into six albums (including the recent #1 Rock Single “Do Your Worst”) by Rival Sons. Or maybe you’ve been wowed by his acclaimed work with the mighty Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, or just plain ol’ legends like the great John Prine.

Either way, Dave Cobb is the man at the center of this storm of roots-leaning music coming out of his adopted hometown of Nashville. As the in-house producer at legendary RCA Studio A, Cobb has reimagined and remade the new hit-making center of Music City. Here, the six-time Grammy winner shares his preferred working methods, his passionate recording philosophy, and his favorite UAD tools — and perhaps a little Music City magic.

"I always work with artists that I believe in, and I know can deliver great work." — Dave Cobb

As a rock fan, I’ve got to start by asking you about the process of making those sensational Rival Sons records, including the recent Feral Roots which you produced here.

Well, the earlier records, like [2011’s] Pressure & Time, we did in maybe 12 days or so, really starting from basically nothing. Sure, [guitarist] Scott Holiday would have some riffs on deck, and we’d just start writing all together, here in the studio. [Rival Sons singer] Jay Buchanan’s is obviously a great lyricist, so we’d get the music together, and then he’d go write the lyrics, and then we’d cut it. Done. I mean, that’s the way it used to be, right?

I suppose that style of record making requires a pretty dialed-in band and writers, ones that are able to perform at the level necessary to make magic happen on the spot.

Well, one thing I’m really into is the first-take. Sometimes in the whole demo process, you find that the first time you sing a particular chorus is the best you’re ever going to sing it. The first time you play that signature riff — that’s often the best you’re ever going to play it. After that, you kinda miss a certain energy.

Are you anti demo?

I’m personally not into demos at all, and I’m not into pre-production. I kinda hate it. I know that goes against the grain. But for the most part, it’s evil. You work out all this stuff for the demo, and by the time you get in the studio, you’ve forgotten it.

What gets forgotten in the pre-production process?

You’ve forgotten the nuances in that bassline you worked on, you’ve forgotten what made the groove work, or you can’t quite get the groove exactly where it was on the demo. Still, you keep going back to listen to the demo and try to beat it, and I think that’s a frustrating thing to do, so that’s why I’m not into pre-production.

Also, why not track the band live? To me, it’s a lot harder to start using a click track, and then do the drums until they’re “perfect,” and then overdub the bass, and then do the guitar... I mean, by the time you get to the vocals, the singer doesn’t even want to sing anymore!

"Capturing the singer going down with the band is everything.”
– Dave Cobb

So, what’s your answer to that way of working?

Well, I always go for vocals live with the band tracking live with the singer. Sure, sometimes I’ll put the singer in a booth for isolation, but more often in the same room with the members of the band. Look, if the lyrics are done, I’ll definitely have them track in the room with everybody. If there are still spaces in the lyrics to fill, I’ll have the singer in a booth, and then punch in what we need later.

But what happens when the singer is standing there singing live in performance with the band is that, well, when the singer sings loud, the band comes up, and when the singer sings quietly, the band comes down. It’s a reactive process.

In my experience, if you do it the other way, recording the vocals after all the instrumental tracks have been laid down, it’s difficult to find a place in the mix where the vocals really sit properly. You’re always fighting it. But in a live situation, bands always react to the singer, and they just make space by backing off, muting a bit, you name it.

Four out of six Grammys, and a trusty Teletronix LA-2A. "I'm into the philosophy of the first take," says Dave Cobb.

So it's the old adage that it's "All about the vocals," right?

Yeah, it's more about the singer than anything else. It’s also the interaction between human beings that makes music special. The “assembly line” method of recording that has been very popular for the last 30 years is crazy to me.

The thing people listen to the most on a recording is the singer, but it’s the thing you record last. That’s crazy. By the time you’ve worked for two or three weeks on the instrumental tracks, and you finally get to the singer, as a band you’re kind of over the song, yet the singer is expected to walk in there and deliver the most important element of it? For me, capturing the singer performing with the band is everything.

Brandi Carlile's Grammy-winning track, "The Joke" produced by Dave Cobb.

Did Brandi Carlile’s track live with the band on By the Way, I Forgive You?

For all of the performances, she was in the big room tracking her vocals with the band, and in fact, I don’t think we ever put her in a booth at all. I mean, she’s that caliber of singer, of course, which makes a huge difference. If memory serves, I think me and my engineer Eddie Spear had her singing though a Shure SM7 into a hardware Neve 1073 preamp into a Universal Audio 1176 compressor. It was pretty simple, in fact, I’m not sure there was really any EQ going down on tape.

It’s worth noting the drums were in the drum booth, so the volumes weren’t that loud where she was singing. The bass is going direct, so there’s no problem there. But yeah, that record is cut live. So, if we wanted another vocal performance, well, we did another full take! It wasn’t that hard. We might have punched here and there, but for the most part, it was totally live.

"The UAD Chandler Curve Bender plug-in has really become my thing. It’s incredible.”
– Dave Cobb

Do you have a favorite compressor for vocals?

The UA 1176 hardware compressor has been my staple compressor since day one. And I love using the UAD 1176 LN plug-in on mixes. Truth be told, in some ways, I feel like I didn’t understand compression in the studio for many years.

How so?

I think my generation had the misfortune of not having enough of the “studio apprentice” thing in our lives. It used to be that in order to be an engineer or producer, you first had to work in a big studio, running errands, grabbing coffee, splicing tape, and in the process, you would learn the craft from someone who really knew what they were doing.

Honestly, I really did not know what I was doing for many years. But the UA 1176, I kind of understood. There’s an input and an output, plus two knobs — Attack and Release, though I really did not understand what those were all about either! I would just twist them until they made sense!

Early on someone showed me the “All-Buttons-In” trick on the 1176, and man, for the first ten years of my career, I think every vocal I did used that setting. It just sounded exciting, largely because the singer would react to it, so it was part of the performance. I’m not quite so aggressive with it now, but you definitely can get it to intensify everything. It’s my desert island compressor.

You've also been a big user of the UA 610 Tube Preamp for years?

Yes. They just sound good — period. You have volume, and very limited EQ, and for years I would just set the “Hi” and “Lo” all the way up, just leave them cranked, and it sounds really exciting. It ends up sounding like those old records because that’s what they used to make those records!

"I stole my guitar recording philosophy from Jimmy Page — it’s all about room mics." — Dave Cobb

Are UA 610s part of the “Dave Cobb” sound?

Well, I went through a long phase where I was using only 610s — with ribbon mics especially. A lot of RCA 77-Ds and 44s. For instance, the Brandi Carlile record, By the Way, I Forgive You, that’s UA 610s on the drums and the bass, and pretty much everything. It’s just a rich, pillowy sound, like you hear on those old records.

Listen to “Hit the Road, Jack,” by Ray Charles, it’s very much that kind of sound; puffy, cool, and exciting. The drums on Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke” were also recorded with UA 610s. And that’s just four mics — stereo overheads, kick, and snare.

Your productions are refreshing in that, they're not especially compression-heavy and there is plenty of air around everything.

Well, one of my cheats is that a lot of time I’ll track stuff with no compression, and then when I have time, I’ll come back and play with compressors, run it through different gear and see if I can better it.

And, it’s interesting: there are plug-ins “in the box” that are easy to access and start using and that I actually prefer to the analog stuff. Like the UAD Empirical Labs EL-7 Fatso Jr., which works great on a parallel channel. I’ll give Vance Powell credit for telling me about that one! It helps to sit instruments in the right place.

"Do Your Worst" by Rival Sons, produced by Dave Cobb.

What do you tend to gravitate to on your stereo output bus?

Something that’s been on my stereo bus forever is the UAD Chandler Limited Curve Bender Mastering EQ. For me, it’s the best stereo bus EQ. I generally use it for adding a little air on top, and even a little midrange, as older records tend to have a lot of midrange, and modern records tend to scoop them out a lot. So, I like that air and that midrange, and I’ll often boost up around 70Hz on the bottom as well. The Chandler Curve Bender plug-in has really become my thing. It’s incredible.

How do you typically track bass guitars?

Another plug-in I really love, that winds up on bass guitar on almost every record, is the UAD Teletronix LA-2A Leveler. I don’t even really touch the parameters much — it just goes on the bass and the guitar and does its magic.

I also love the Ampeg B-15N Bass Amplifier plug-in. I’ll record the bass all DI, and run it through the UAD B-15N Bass Amplifier when mixing, and I’m totally done. In fact, I don’t even mess with bass amps anymore, because of that plug‑in.

And it’s fun because, if the B-15N isn’t working out, there’s the Ampeg SVT-VR to play with! On a record I’m doing this week, I’m actually using the UAD Gallien-Kruger 800RB Bass Amp plug-in a lot, because I want it to sound like that particular period in music. The UAD bass amp plug-ins have really changed the game for me. They’re fantastic.

"The UAD Ampeg bass amp plug-ins have really changed the game for me. They’re fantastic.”
– Dave Cobb

As a guitarist, I'm struck by how natural your electric guitars sound, especially how much noticeable, natural air seem to envelop them.

I suppose I stole my guitar recording philosophy from Jimmy Page — It’s all about room mics. As a kid, I would read books about how he always used the room quite a bit while recording. Y’know, take a mic, and wander around the room — preferably a really good-sounding room — with the mic in your hand until it sounds really good in conjunction with the close mic, and there’s your depth. Then pan those on opposite sides.

I've seen pictures of Glyn Johns and Jimmy Page's setups, where the mic is three or four feet away from the amp, and they’re not even getting a direct hit.

So you may not even use a mic right up on the speaker?

I’ve never put my head right up next to a speaker and yet that’s what people usually do with a microphone — right against the speaker, which makes no sense. There’s something about having some air on a guitar amp that, to me, makes it sound like a guitar amp should.

So, wherever you would generally stand when listening to a guitar amp, I’ll put mics there. In fact, sometimes that’s the only mic I’ll use on a guitar cabinet.

What else helps gives guitars that kind of dimension and authenticity?

I use a lot of plate reverb on guitars, in particular the UAD EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverberator. I feel it was the first truly great-sounding plug-in plate, and I’ve used that a ton on records. Just a ton. That’s been an absolute staple for me.

Now, I’ve even got a couple of great vintage plate reverbs — including an old EMT at RCA Studio A, but especially if I’m doing any keyboards or Mellotron, I actually prefer the way those sit with the UAD EMT 140 Plate Reverberator better.

You clearly prioritize the interaction between musicians, what else would say is vitally important when you begin tracking a project?

I was talking to John Prine, who I worked with here, and we were talking about Sam Philips, one of my heroes, the guy who started Sun Studios. John told me that while he was working with Sam, well, Sam literally didn’t care about the lyrics until the groove was right. He wouldn’t even listen to them. And John Prine is a lyrical genius, at the highest level you can get, right? I think I’m the same way with my priorities — foremost for me when we start the song is establishing the groove and the feel.

You can always tailor the lyrics around the groove, but if the groove isn’t right, you don’t even want to hear the lyrics. So, it’s all one: you want the rhythm and the groove to feel right, and the lyrics to really resonate. But it’s the foundation of that groove that brings you into what the lyrics have to say.

— James Rotondi

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