“I’m really just chasing that thing in my head.”
My Morning Jacket is the kind of band that tends to reach for the stars — and then they stay there. That swing-for-the-Milky-Way hunger is in full evidence on the Louisville, Kentucky rock quintet’s seventh studio album, The Waterfall, out today on ATO/Capitol via a number of formats. The Waterfall flows through a number of different seductive aural touchpoints, from the primal ’70s vibe of Compound Fracture to the cresting jams of In Its Infancy (The Waterfall) to the acoustic delicacy of Get the Point.
The Waterfall plays with the boundaries of the stereo soundfield by experimenting with where the lead vocals of guitarist/spiritual leader Jim James are placed in the mix, and it also makes you feel like you’re hanging with the band as they perform in a smoky room with the lights dimmed. “We go to a lot of trouble to use interesting and different gear every time, in an effort to make each record sound sonically different that the last one,” James explains. “That’s always one of the goals — that it’s a new sound experience. That’s maybe the most important goal.”
James was at the airport when he got on the line with Digital Trends to discuss how to get great vocal takes, fighting file compression, and what it means to “fish tank” a mix. This Tennessee fire is most definitely on the record.
Digital Trends: Your vocals never come across the same way twice on The Waterfall. How did you decide on the vocal treatments and effects you used on each song?
Jim James: I try to listen to what my heart and my head are saying about the music, and what it’s supposed to sound like. Each song has its own character that I hear in my head: “This song needs a longer reverb,” or “that song needs shorter reverb,” or “this song doesn’t need any reverb,” or “this song needs a delay, or it needs to be doubled.”
I’m trying to use different, subtle combinations of those ideas to make sure the songs sound different. I mean, there’s delay, and there’s reverb, and how many times have we heard those things before? Hopefully, we’re able to do something else with them, like EQ them or combine them with something else that makes it sound fresh and a little bit different. I’m really just chasing that thing in my head.
I think one of my favorite examples of something that sounds fresh and different is the last song, Only Memories Remain, which is quite the slow-burn track. What were you goals for that mix?
That one was just like a really solemn moment, you know? It was a tough song for me to get out and get through. We turned all the lights off when we started recording it. We played it three or four times, and I think we chose the second take as our favorite. We like to do that sometimes — just play through three takes in a row without analyzing them or talking about ’em. Then we listen to them all and think about which one we like the best.
With that song, there are certain lines I thought were more powerful doubled, and certain lines I thought sounded better on their own. We used some plate reverb on that one — and we also used some spring reverb to add some smokiness to it underneath.
So everybody’s playing in the same room live when you’re putting these takes together. Would you say that lends itself to a better reading and better feel of a song because you’re looking at and reacting to each other in real time?
It depends. It’s really a song-by-song thing. Sometimes I feel it doesn’t work that way, but it’s always fun to try it all together first and get a vocal that you like that you sang with everybody. Then other songs get more complex, or the band finally gets the song on the 890th take (laughs), or I’m tired of singing. It’s different for every situation.
One example of doing it differently was how you put together a sound collage for Spring (Among the Living).
Yeah, definitely. Something that’s really cool about today’s recording environment is that there are so many options. We like to do live takes to tape, but this song is a good example where we did a bunch of parts live to tape, and then I wasn’t quite sure how they went together until I went into the computer and started editing them together. I had a few drums up at the same time, or things that weren’t supposed to go together that did go together. That’s what’s cool about the digital realm — it opens up all these kinds of happy accidents that you might not have if you were only doing them live. So I’ve really been into that.
We use Pro Tools. It’s the most universally accessible, which is why I use it, because I like to walk into any studio anywhere in the world and sit down and know what I’m doing. I think I’ve learned Pro Tools well enough that I’m pretty good at it.
How about plug-ins? How many did you use?
“One thing I really like doing is what I call ‘fish tanking.’”
Oh man, yeah, thousands of plug-ins! I’m trying to remember the good ones. There’s the Massenbur [DesignWorks MDWEQ5] five-band EQ that we really like. And the Universal Audio EMT 140 plate is really special. It’s a 140-plate plug-in that I think is phenomenally close to a real EMT plate. I’ve got a real plate, and [Waterfall producer] Tucker Martine’s got a real 140 plate as well. You can do a blind “taste test” against that one; it’s pretty astounding how it sounds. All of the Universal Audio stuff is amazing. I also really like their Cooper Time Cube [Mk II delay].
One thing I really like doing is what I call “fish tanking.” That’s when I take a vocal — or a guitar, or whatever — and duplicate the track, and then scoot it just to the right a few seconds so that it creates the effect of feeling like my head is stuck in a fish tank. It’s a very, very, very short delay that almost sounds like it’s out of phase, or something.
Oh, man, I like how you describe it! That must be the effect I’m hearing on Thin Line.
Yes, during some of the little breaks on Thin Line. And also on Believe (Nobody Knows) — in the third verse, there’s a breakdown where we fish tank the vocal and pan it hard right and hard left instead of it being in the center the whole time. It’s a bit off-center, and then it kind of jumps into the fish tank mode. That’s probably the most blatant example of it.
Now I think you’re going to have to trademark the phrase, “fish tank mode.” Are you into high-resolution audio? Do you record at 96/24?
Yeah, we’ve been doing everything at 96/24 for a while now. I really think 96/24 sounds great. We work on a bunch of different computers, and we’re always getting high quality. We’re not doing 44.1/16. Computers are starting to get a little bit faster, so you can jump around to anybody’s studio and do it high-res at 96/24. But one of the main things with us is space. We end up recording so many different things and have so many different ideas, that if we went higher than 96/24, space would get out of control.
I’m a staunch high-res guy and I’ll only listen to 96/24 mixes at this point, if I can help it. Especially with the kind of layered detail on a record like this, you’d do yourself a disservice by listening to it on MP3s. Do you agree with that?
I do! The whole problem is, I wish we could convince the rest of the world of that. For the casual music fan who maybe doesn’t know — they just want to get “their song,” and an MP3 is easiest, especially when you’re traveling. I record all of my vinyl onto the computer so I can take it with me on the road. In that sense, having all that space is good, but I much prefer to listen to vinyl and high-resolution stuff.
“I much prefer to listen to vinyl and high-resolution stuff.”
It’s the same problem with Pro Tools, and with iTunes wanting to re-sell us everything at 96/24 three years from now, or whatever. I’d like to see it when computers and your phone have enough internal memory where you can keep the same number of MP3s you already have — but now they’re all 96/24, and your storage can handle it all.
I’m all for that. Well, the more we have this kind of dialog with artists like you who believe in the merits of high-res audio, the easier it will be to convince people that, hey, they don’t have to compromise sound quality when they go portable. We’ve already got things like the PonoPlayer and some other high-res devices from companies like Astell&Kern and Sony, where you can carry around 96/24 music files with you.
Yes, that is very nice! Have you ever heard that “Ghost in the MP3” thing? Oh man, you should Google it. This guy took all of the matter that is extracted from a WAV file that’s compressed into an MP3. It sounds so cool, like ambient music. It’s an example to show people exactly what’s taken out. It’s a tangible example of what you’re losing.
Wow, I’ll have to check that out. More people should hear the differences we hear. Do you have a personal favorite best-sounding album you’d recommend?
Oh, man, there are so many records I think about like that, but Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971) is the greatest-sounding record, in my opinion. I think that record will forever stand the test of time. It sounds modern, and doesn’t ever sound dated. It’s always fresh when you hear it, and always relevant. Talking purely sonically, the sounds on that record are so phenomenal.
Marvin really had an ear for being able to capture the character of his vocal and get the emotion of what he was going for from song to song. Do you remember the first album you really got into on vinyl?
Man, the first one … well, my favorite piece of vinyl is the self-titled Link Wray album (1971), with his face on the front in profile. That’s one of the greatest, if not the greatest rock & roll record of all time, but not many people know it. On vinyl, it sounds so raw, and so giant.
How many albums do you have on vinyl?
Oh, yeah, well, I’ve got too much. (both laugh) It’s such a beautiful thing.
I totally agree. I’ve got too much too. (more laughter) My Morning Jacket always does such great 180-gram LP packages, so I’m looking forward to getting The Waterfall on wax.
“Something that’s really cool about today’s recording environment is that there are so many options.”
We do try to make the vinyl a really great experience. The last couple of records have been so close to being able to fit on one 33 1/3, but when I compare the sound quality of putting it on two records at 45, that just sounds so much better. It’s the closest that somebody can get to actually being there — you know, actually hearing the songs.
What do you think about surround sound?
Oh, I think it’s really cool! But I’ve never been able to set a surround system up at home successfully. It always feels unbalanced. I don’t like the dialogue just coming out from the center speaker. Everything always feels like it’s coming from the wrong place. I’ve tried to set it up on my own, but it would really be fun to get it set up professionally by someone who really knows what they’re doing.
Oh, you have to do that. Last thing — Tidal got a huge backlash, even though I’m down with the high-res audio philosophy behind what they’re supposed to be doing. But people got the completely wrong vibe out of that big superstar presentation, don’t you think?
Yeah, I do think people got the wrong vibe, because it kinda came across as elitist, and that’s the last thing that people need when it comes to their music. In an ideal world, hopefully there would be streaming that was high-resolution over an Internet that was fast enough to handle it.
Jim, are you running for President in 2016? Because that sounds like a great campaign, and I don’t see any reason why people wouldn’t vote for any of that. You could run on the “High Resolution Audio for All” platform.
(laughs heartily) Hah hah! I think music should be for everybody. Of course, another thing for many people is it’s a financial matter — they don’t have the money to afford another “thing,” so it comes down to convenience and finance. And if people had good-paying jobs and could afford health insurance, nobody would have to worry about all that other stuff. We really should take better care of each other.