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In The Studio: Chuck Ainlay And The Nashville Recording Approach

Talking with an engineer that brings a rock approach to country music with credits for George Strait, Trisha Yearwood, Waylon Jennings, Dire Straits & more.

Chuck Ainlay is one of the new breed of Nashville engineers that brings a rock approach to a country music sensibility. With credits like George Strait, Dixie Chicks, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Waylon Jennings, Wynonna and even such rock icons like Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler, Chuck’s work is heard world-wide.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Chuck in the 4th edition of my Recording Engineer’s Handbook that illustrates how different a session in Nashville can be from just about anywhere else.

Bobby Owsinski: How much time do you usually take on getting sounds?

Chuck Ainlay: I’m pretty fast. Maybe an hour at most and that’s for getting things situated in the room. After that we might change the drums before each song and it’ll be 15 minutes. They might change out entire kits, but usually the EQ just works and I might tweak things a bit as they’re running the song down. It’s more about changing stuff out rather than tweaking things on my side. I certainly don’t take 2 days like they did on the old Fleetwood Mac albums.

Are you EQing while you’re tracking?

Actually, I EQ the drums a lot while I’m tracking but I do avoid compression. I try to do minimal EQ on most things but bass drum has always been one of those things that usually ends up taking a lot of EQ.

How about bass? Are you taking it direct with an amplifier as well?

In Nashville most of the guys have their own rigs because it’s so session oriented. They’ll come in with these amazing racks full of great gear. They’ll have a Telefunken mic pre and an LA-2A or Tubetech, which is sort of typical, so usually all I have to do is take a direct line from them to the recorder and I don’t mess with it in between.

Sometimes if it’s just not happening for me, I’ll say “Hey, I have this really great direct box” and I’ll run it out to him. It’s an Agular and I love it on bass. It just sounds so big and real. I don’t carry a bass amp, but I really like the old Ampeg B-15’s because you can distort those things if you want. Big rigs don’t work for me, but the little guys do. Usually I’ll just put a FET 47 or the Neumann 147 in front of it.

If at all possible, I really like the sound of the bleed in the room. If I have a great bass player that I know I’m not going to move a lot of notes (which is most of the guys in town), I’ll let them have the amp right next to them. The room mics for the drums pick it up and you get this big bass sound that fills up the whole stereo image instead of something that’s just right in the middle.

I was just going to ask you about leakage.

I like it. Once again though, if you’re dealing with a band where you know you’re going to be moving notes, then you have to isolate it. Some places have rooms where you can open it up enough to where you can put room miking on it and it’s really nice to get that spread on the bass.

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Is the approach to recording different in Nashville from other recording centers like New York or LA?

I don’t think they differ that much except for the fact that we do so much session musician stuff. Typically we play back a song demo at the beginning of the session and it dictates a whole lot about how the recording is going to go down. They may play it down and then change the form of the song afterwards, but in a lot of ways the demos are somewhat copied for the master. Many times the musicians will play it down the first time and that will be the take.

We’re not just talking about a small section either. We’re talking about bass, drums, two guitars (one may be acoustic), fiddle, steel, two keyboards (piano and organ) and vocal. This all goes down live.

Is this typical?

Yeah. You have to be ready to get the first take because they’ll have it ready by at least the third, so when you ask how long it takes to get drum sounds, it’s got to be fast. It’s a blast to cut tracks in Nashville because you’re so on fire. You can’t make a lot of changes as things are going down. You’ve just got to make a mental note in between takes. If you’ve got to move a mic, you’ve got to do it as the musicians are listening back to a take. You’re really flying around. It’s a blast.

That’s so different as compared to the normal rock way of tracking.

Where they take all day to get a track and it’s just bass and drums and guitar and then you strip it down to the drums and replace the bass and guitar? That’s drudgery. In Nashville tracking is one of the most enjoyable things you can possibly ever do. Not only do you have a bunch of really great people that you’re hanging out with, but some of the most talented musicians in the world too.

A typical studio will have at minimum a piano room, a room to isolate an acoustic guitar (sometimes you might jam two acoustic guitars and a fiddle in that same room), and a room for the vocalist. A lot of the tracking rooms here are built that way because often the guys go for their solos as the track’s going down, so they need some degree of isolation if they want to fix a bar or two of their solo later.

That must mean that you don’t spend much time doing overdubs.

Heck no. Most of the track is done when you finish tracking. The singer might sing the song three or four more times at the end of tracking and go home, then we just comp vocals, do some background vocals and maybe there might be another guitar added and maybe strings or horns, but usually we just go straight to mix. Nowadays we spend more time tuning the vocals than doing overdubs (laughs). If we only had singers (laughs some more).

You can read more from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

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