Hersh reads from her 2010 memoir, Rat Girl, while another of her favorite guitars, an ESP Xtone, hangs on her shoulders. “That became my most solid, roadworthy guitar for a while,” she says. “It takes effects well without feeding back.” Photo by Tony Nelson
Studio as Sanctuary
Steve Rizzo’s Stable Sound Studios gets its name from being adjacent to an actual horse stable, but for more than 20 years, it’s also provided a no-nonsense, down-to-earth, and relaxed environment for Kristin Hersh and Throwing Muses to commit their music to tape (or Pro Tools, to be precise). Over the course of more than a dozen albums and countless hours of tracking and mixing sessions, Hersh and Rizzo have forged a creative partnership that comes down to one thing: trust.
“I think I’ve said this before, but for us it’s like the William Tell routine,” Rizzo jokes. “Some days the apple’s on my head, and some days it’s on her head. Kris trusts me, I trust her, and that’s it. I don’t think we’ve ever had a disagreement musically in the studio. If I have some ideas, it’s more like I’m hearing something in my head, and I’ll just say, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’ And she’ll be like, ‘Yeah, let’s try it.’ She just comes in and we record, and as it’s happening, it’s developing into something.”
To capture the sound that Hersh wanted out of her Collings C10, which is the key guitar on Wyatt at the Coyote Palace, Rizzo would usually start with a Shure KSM44A and a Miktek C7, with one microphone positioned in front of the guitar, about a foot away from the 12th fret, and the other as a room mic above Hersh’s right shoulder. From there, he’d run the signal through a MartinSound Martech MSS-10 mic preamp, primarily just to stay true to the sound that Hersh was hearing in the room.
“When she started recording, I remembered it would be cool to put some foam under the strings,” Rizzo says. “We’ve done that before. When you hear that chung chung chung that sounds almost like staccato cello lines, that’s the guitar. There’s some real cello on the record—we have some samples in there, and then we used the faders to give them a dynamic feel, like at the end of ‘Diving Bell’—but for the guitar, the foam on the strings just keeps them from ringing too much.”
Another distinctive acoustic sound comes from a Nashville-tuned Gibson J-45. “We’ve been using that on almost every solo record,” Rizzo says. “A lot of people think she’s playing a 12-string, but what’s happening is it’s the 6-string and the Nashville played together. She can play the exact same thing from take to take so they sound like a 12-string, which is pretty cool. And sometimes it sounds very physical. Her hands can be so strong that it’s like, ‘How the hell is she playing that?’”
Once the album was ready for mixing, Hersh gave him the green light to “Rizzofy” the mix. “She’s never overly detail-oriented, so it’s never like, ‘Give me a dB of this or that.’ I think she just enjoyed the process of having the luxury of time, because it gives you perspective. You record it, you live with it, and then you can go back and try different things. And that’s really the beauty of Pro Tools. The analog-digital argument is kind of moot these days. If you’re a modern musician, composing and editing in the studio, that’s how you work now.”