Burning Questions for Brett Sparks of The Handsome Family Brett shares his recording secrets and what he thinks of "True Detective"

Brett Sparks in the studio

Brett and Rennie Sparks, The Handsome Family, are having a moment.

Their song, “Far From Any Road” was selected as the title theme for the HBO drama “True Detective,” bringing them a world of exposure and new fans that no one—least of all Brett and Rennie—saw coming. It’s a story of success that is far from overnight. The song itself is 11 years old, and like many of their songs, is one that once heard is rarely forgotten.

Those who discovered The Handsome Family via “True Detective” have basically stumbled on a treasure trove of recordings to explore, with about a dozen albums and many more EPs and compilations released since the early 1990s. A whole new generation of fans is marveling over their sound, which is intimate, roomy and deceptively simple.

The Handsome Family’s spare, supernatural and timeless sound captured on their recordings is no accident. For any musician working to record their music for the first or 50th time, capturing the performance is as much a collaborative challenge as songwriting. As anyone who records, mixes, and plays their music back can attest, recording is far more complicated than laying down a good performance. Beyond the mic placement, the equipment, and the jazzy new tools, how the recording is approached drives the final product.

I caught Brett Sparks via email and asked him to share some of his recording experiences and how his process and approach have developed. Besides talking with me, Brett shared a demo track which is embedded below.

Hi Brett. I’m pleased the Pyragraph folks asked me to chat with you.

Likewise.

How you were able to evolve the recording process to get that immediate, present sound? I know from some experience that recording stuff in a spare way can be tricky.

I don’t know—I record in a small very dead space. That helps.

As far as intimate goes, let’s just say I’ve been through my cavern reverb phase. That’s distancing. These days I try to use reverbs that are small. Small to medium rooms or plates. Lately I have also been tending toward using more convolution reverbs. These are “real” reverbs generated from impulse responses (IRs) of actual spaces. Kinda like sampling. So you can put the reverb IR from the Ryman Auditorium (former home of the Grand Ole Opry) on your vocal if you choose. There are hundreds of online IR libraries. I especially love the samples of classic studios.

I keep a handheld condenser mic (a Neumann KMS 105 or an AT 2010) plugged in and ready to go at all times. I use the same mic if I need to fix things later.

Don’t forget: You can EQ your reverb. If it’s too bright and diffuse, many reverbs have an EQ feature so you can dampen the “space.”

A good, simple way to get presence is through the use of predelay. Predelay is a parameter on a reverb unit; it is the time between the attack of a sound and the onset of the reverb. By leaving sufficient predelay (especially on vocals) it gives you the lovely tonal color of the reverb but leaves the articulation of the lyrics (or initial attack of the instrument) intact.

I don’t really think about “immediate or present”; I just try to make things sound “good.” Which can be difficult. With Pro Tools you have to make sure that what you put into that box is what you want. This ain’t tape; digital is unforgiving. With tape you get nice compression when you run it hot. Not so with digital.

You’d be amazed how many people ask about this. Don’t let your digital signals get into the red. And as far as tone is concerned, trying to fix things “in the mix” is a never a good idea.

Use organic sounds. They pull people in.

Brett generously shared a never-released demo track with Pyragraph so you can hear what he’s talking about. To further school your ears, compare this demo of The Handsome Family’s song “A Thousand Diamond Rings” to the final mix on Honey Moon.

Your studio recordings manage to sound very much like the two of you are in a living room. I assume that intimacy is part of what you’ve always intended?

Leave some holes. Digital editing gives you the ability to fix anything—but that doesn’t mean you should. Imperfections make you sound human. Mistakes can be interesting and musical. Like some friends playing in the living room, nothing’s perfect, and that’s cool. The looseness is comforting, inviting.

To create the illusion of multiple players occupying the same space you can use auxiliary sends (aux-sends). Set up a nice studio room reverb as a kind of “pool” or virtual room. Then you can send varying amounts of the instruments you want to be in “that” room to that verb. Remember, be conservative.

At some point, I pressed a tape of some demos in Jeff Tweedy’s hand and he said he liked what he heard and wondered if he could help somehow.

For the sake of spontaneity, I keep first vocal takes. I mean the recording of the vocal that was made at the moment of creation. This is unconventional, but this rendition of the song will never exist again. At that moment there is so much energy, excitement and wonder it outweighs the accuracy factor. This is the most natural the vocal will ever be. I keep a handheld condenser mic (a Neumann KMS 105 or an Audio-Technica AT2010) plugged in and ready to go at all times. I use the same mic if I need to fix things later.

I’d love to know more about your evolution with recording. 

I’ve become much more involved in the recording process. I’m obsessive. And possessive. Honestly, I have no real hobbies; it’s all music-related. Home recording is a passion. I could be happy doing just that—recording. And the great thing about recording at home is that it gives you so much more time to experiment. To improvise—for example, on “Dry Bones” I beat a washing machine for a bass drum; I recorded (and auto-tuned) wine glasses for “Tesla’s Hotel Room”; used a woofer for a kick drum mic. I’ve taught myself to play dozens of instruments. Unless you have an unlimited budget, you couldn’t afford to do this stuff at a commercial studio.

How would you compare recording with Jeff Tweedy versus other recording venues?

I come from a background of years of 4-track recording. I still think of and use Pro Tools as if it were tape. That’s the basis.

Other than my crude 4-track stuff, the first good recording of The Handsome Family was made by Dave Trumfio at Kingsize Sound Labs in Chicago. Dave came to one of our first shows ever. We were god-awful, but he heard something in us and pressed us to come to his studio and record a couple of songs. For free. He did a great job and we ended up making our first two records in his studio.

One of the reasons Singing Bones is so reverb-laden was to compensate for the deadness of the room.

Dave became a great friend (still is) and almost like a mentor to me. He is the best at what he does and I learned so much about the studio from him. It would take a book to describe. He helped me set up a demo studio in our loft so I could work at home. As we got ready to make a third record, I asked Dave to book time at Kingsize. He said I was ready to make my own record and that I should do it at home with his help. So, with his encouragement, I tracked the record at home and Dave mixed it.

Around the same time, I met Jeff Tweedy at Lounge Ax (the legendary bar his wife Sue Miller owned). We ended up opening for Wilco and touring with them and becoming friends. At some point, I pressed a tape of some demos in Jeff’s hand and he said he liked what he heard and wondered if he could help somehow. Well, at the time I was totally broke and had no gear. So Jeff said he has a basement full of studio gear and I could borrow it as long as I wished. I know, nice guy huh? I owe Jeff a lot.

It was a pretty simple setup: ADAT, Mackie mixer, mics, with one standout unit: the Tube-Tech CL 1B. This is a very sweet Danish tube compressor. I tracked everything though this unit, even if I only applied 1 dB of gain reduction. It made the record; sweetened the tracks and took the digital edge off that ADAT. This became Through The Trees.

At the time I was living in Chicago in a delapidated, huge (3,000 square feet!) loft. It had 15-foot ceilings and wood floors—a lot of natural “bounce.” I hardly used any reverb, the space was so ambient. However, when I moved to Albuquerque, I bought a little stucco house with a converted garage. I sound-proofed the hell out of the space, mainly as a defense against neighbor complaints. This new space was totally dead.

This is where Singing Bones (including “Far From Any Road”) was recorded. This is one of the reasons Singing Bones is so reverb-laden: to compensate for the deadness of the room I really went to town on the reverb. It gave the record a certain “vibe” but in retrospect I wish I had been a little more conservative with the verb. Live and learn; know your space.

Since then I have set up lines running to my living room (a much larger, much more “live” space). I double-check mixes in there on a pair of small Tannoy monitors, making sure I haven’t overdone the artificial space. I also bought a used pair of Yamaha NS-10ms for the studio, which are good at diagnosing excessive reverb tails.

Brett Sparks in the studio

How does the recording process itself become another instrument for you?

For The Handsome Family, I don’t do the standard band “basics”: bass and drums, etc. I start by mapping out the form of the song with vocal, acoustic guitar, drum machine. At this point the song is “written” but this is when the fun starts. After mapping the form out, I start throwing stuff at the song, anything that might work, kind of like a painting. See what sticks.

The songs always start with Rennie’s lyrics. She gives me a lyric and I set it to music. This can take five minutes; it can take a year.

I use a lot of MIDI to “score” the song and create an environment. MIDI tracks usually get replaced with organic sounds. When I’m arranging, I like to think about the “place” where the song is going to live. A simple frame? A landscape? By the sea? Where the song lives dictates its arrangement, its mood.

As far as the studio being “another instrument”—well, I’m obsessed with The Beatles. Have been since I was a child. I have all the books, all versions of all the records, outtakes, isos, etc. It’s really quite sad and geeky. I find that my Beatle-mania always intensifies when I start a recording project. It’s only natural. When I face a difficult decision I ask myself “What would they do at Abbey Road?” and there is usually an answer.

Similarly, I also study classic country like a geek. For the song “Forgotten Lake”, I had the sound of this Buck Owens song “Together Again” in my head. I listened to it hundreds of times, dissecting it—figuring out how the acoustic guitar works as an aggregate of the hi-hat (via EQ and execution). How the pedal steel functions harmonically like a string section (and how its “call and response” works with the vocal), details like the length of the tail on the vocal, panning etc. In the end it didn’t sound like Buck, but it didn’t sound bad.

Could you tell me how the writing/creative process works? Where do songs start, how do you and Rennie work together, etc.?

The songs always start with Rennie’s lyrics. She gives me a lyric and I set it to music. This can take five minutes; it can take a year. I keep the lyrics close and read them over and over.

I have to ask you about the “True Detective” deal. How did it come about? How did they approach you? I hope it is somewhat lucrative for you both.

There’s not much of a story here. They wrote us and said they intended to use the song.

Are you fans of the show? Did you have contact with T Bone Burnett? I assume you are fans (as I am).

I love the show. I watch the episodes repeatedly. It’s some of the best writing and art on TV right now.

I am a huge fan of T Bone and his work, with Roy Orbison, Los Lobos, O Brother…what a huge body of great work.

Is it odd to see your music set to someone else’s vision?

No not at all. It’s another dimension.

Photos courtesy of Brett Sparks.

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About Brendan Doherty

Brendan Doherty is a creative type living in Alameda, CA, with six chickens, a 16-year-old minivan, two children and a corporate charge card.

4 Comments

  1. […] Doherty, writing for the website Pyragraph, recently interviewed Brett Sparks of the Handsome Family about the band’s creative […]

  2. […] Doherty, writing for the website Pyragraph, recently interviewed Brett Sparks of the Handsome Family about the band’s creative […]

  3. Steven Cravis on May 16, 2014 at 11:31 am

    The article emphasizes the sound techniques, which is much appreciated. It’s also important to note that the song writing duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks is very magical, (like McCartney and Lennon) and if you listen to the albums, the melodies, chords and arrangements are truly brilliant.

  4. […] Doherty, colaborador de la web Pyragraph, entrevistó recientemente a Brett Sparks de la Handsome Family sobre las influencias creativas de […]

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