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Producer Eric Valentine’s goal in the studio was to get string trio Nickel Creek to sound as powerful as the Who by spreading the players out in order to take advantage of acoustic space. Photo by Brantley Gutierrez.
Based in the gritty heart of downtown Hollywood, Eric Valentine’s Barefoot Recording studio has a history: It used to be Crystal Industries, the scene of classic sessions by Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jackson Browne, Stevie Wonder, and many more. Valentine bought and renovated the building in 2000, mainly because he needed a large tracking room. As it turned out, this figured prominently in the making of Nickel Creek’s A Dotted Line.
“I had an interesting revelation after doing the first record [2005’s Why Should the Fire Die?] with them,” Valentine says. “I’d never done a record that was entirely comprised of those instruments, so I experimented a lot because I really just didn’t know what the hell I was doing [laughs]. I was trying to keep them physically close together in the room, and the bleed that you get when you do that becomes problematic. It causes phasing issues, and it can smear the imaging of things. It ended up working out okay, but I remember feeling like there has to be a better way to do this.
“The really simple answer was that the close mic for one instrument could become a room mic for the other instruments if it’s just simply far enough away. So I spread them out in the room more, and I feel like it worked wonderfully—the bleed of the guitar and the fiddle in the mandolin mic gives you beautiful room sound—a much better sense of the acoustic space that they’re actually playing in.”
To mic Watkins’ guitar, two vintage Schoeps M 221Bs—actually the capsules mounted in counterfeit bodies—were positioned above and below the neck. “We had one about a foot away and maybe six inches above the neck, pointing down at it, and then we had another one in the same position below, pointing up, with both somewhere around the 15th fret,” Valentine notes. “So the stereo image I can get has the strings sort of panned across, with the low strings on the left and the high strings on the right. It’s a very big sound when you need it. In the mix, Sean’s guitar is panned to one side for most of the songs, so we ended up preferring the sound of the mic that was oriented below the fretboard. I typically don’t put a microphone directly in front of the soundhole, because it’s too boomy and unmanageable.”
As it turned out, Watkins’ J-45 was naturally well balanced, so very little EQ was used, except to pull out some low midrange to make room for the acoustic bass (especially on cuts like “Destination” and the instrumental “Elephant in the Corn”). “We also used these UnderToneAudio mic preamps that we built ourselves, and we settled on a vintage Universal Audio 175B, which is an old tube compressor,” Valentine says. “Nickel Creek has these massive dynamic transitions—they’ll go from playing incredibly delicate fingerpicked parts to just slamming their instruments—so for both the guitar and the mandolin, when they slam really hard, there’s a little give in the compression and it still sounds full and musical.”
To add to the vintage analog sound, Valentine tracked the sessions through an Ampex MM1200 tape machine on the way into Pro Tools. During mixing, the band encouraged Valentine to experiment, especially on an unusual song like “Hayloft,” where the instruments needed to sound bigger. Session drummer Matt Chamberlain was enlisted to build up a groove, and then Valentine took over.
“The challenge sometimes is trying to get one acoustic guitar and one mandolin to sound like the Who,” he quips—and Valentine knows the territory, having produced albums for Queens of the Stone Age, Slash, Third Eye Blind, and many others. “You do some very intentional distortion on the acoustic instruments, with lots of compression, to make them sound really aggressive to match the intensity of the song. And I think that comes up a lot for them. A song like ‘Destination’ has these big chord hits, and you want those to sound like you’re in an arena. Those extreme dynamics were the biggest challenges in making the album.”