A few days ago I picked up a copy of No Better Than This, the new Rounder Records debut album from John Mellencamp (AKA “Johnny Cougar,” “John Cougar,” “John Cougar Mellencamp”). I definitely wouldn’t describe myself as a fan of the Coug, but this particular collection of recordings was produced by T-Bone Burnett.
I would buy a $300 box set of audio test patterns if it was produced by T-Bone Burnett.
What’s intriguing about No Better Than This is that all the tracks on the album were recorded at historic locations with a single microphone on a 1955 Ampex portable recording machine (with no overdubs).
We’ve written before about the benefits that self-imposed limitations can bring to creative work. In the particular case, the low-tech (and deceptively simple) approach to the audio production lends many of the songs on the album a raw and honest quality that you don’t usually hear on modern recordings.
Over the years I’ve actually noticed that quite a few of my favorite studio recordings were produced this way, direct to tape with only one or two microphones:
The Trinity Session by Cowboy Junkies (1988)
It’s mind-numbing to think that this whole album was recorded (under false-pretenses) at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Ontario in just over a day with a budget of $250.
They even ended up with so much good material that not everything from the session ended up on the original Latent Records release.
A Meeting by the River by Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (1993)
This impromptu recording actually won the the Grammy Award for Best World Music Album in 1994. All the tracks on the album were entirely improvised by the four musicians involved in project. If you have any affinity for acoustic slide-guitar recordings, this Water Lily Acoustics release is a must-have. It’s also possibly the “warmest” sounding recording that I’ve ever heard.
How to Grow a Woman from the Ground by Chris Thile & the How to Grow a Band (2006)
Single-mic recordings aren’t all that uncommon for bluegrass bands trying to capture the same sound that’s present on early Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs recordings. It is, however, quite rare to hear that kind of unvarnished production on bluegrass covers of angst-ridden songs by The Strokes and The White Stripes.
If anything, these recordings should definitively prove that you don’t need the newest or most-technologically advanced tools to produce great music.