As the owner of Grammy-awarded The Toy Box Studio in Nashville, Tennessee and founding lead engineer of Bonnaroo’s famous Hay Bale Studio, Lij Shaw is a chart breaking music and podcast producer with more than 25 years of experience and hard-earned technical prowess fueled by a love of music and a passion for engineering and recording.
This wizard-behind-the-curtain of Hay Bale Studio backstage at Bonnaroo has recorded and mixed over 1,000 songs for broadcast with world-class artists like Sheryl Crow, Jack White, Zac Brown, Adele, Tori Amos, The Black Keys, Wilco, Medeski Martin and Wood, Warren Haynes, Bruce Hornsby, Jon Oates, and many, many more in every genre you can think of.
Here, Lij tells us a bit about recording at Bonnaroo and his experiences with LEWITT microphones...
[LEWITT] What’s the best thing about recording at Bonnaroo?
[Lij Shaw] The best thing about recording at Bonnaroo is that you have an incredible festival that attracts the best bands from around the world to play at it, and I’m in that wonderful backstage studio where we’re recording bands every hour for four days, giving them an opportunity to get their music broadcast on radio stations all over the country. The very best bands at the festival are selected and asked to come in and record in our studio, and since they only do two or three songs, it ends up being a best-of-the-best.
[LEWITT] What challenges do you run into when you record at Bonnaroo?
[Lij Shaw] Sometimes it rains, and then it can be a bit challenging to move around. We have had a couple of tornado warnings in the past, and sometimes they would just evacuate us – and that can be a little bit tricky, too. But those are small prices to pay to be in this inspiring environment with music and creative people and this buzzing energy of folks from young to old having a good time.
[LEWITT] How many different bands do you usually record in a single day at Bonnaroo?
[Lij Shaw] Our target has been 40 bands in four days, so I think at max we’ve recorded 10 bands in one day … and it’s just an intense turnover where a band walks in the door, we meet and greet them and find out how they’d like to arrange themselves, whether they want to do a full band thing or a broke-down, acoustic performance … and then they walk in, and they’re usually kind of surprised that we’ve got this wonderful studio right there.
[LEWITT] How did you come up with the “Hay Bale” name for the studio?
The reason why we call it the Hay Bale Studio is because back in the initial years, we were still figuring out our location and how to set this thing up. We rented a double-wide trailer and set it up in the backstage area, and we’d brought along an entire recording studio to put inside the trailer. But we were concerned about the soundproofing, since we were so close to those giant stages with their huge subwoofers. Then we realized that a local farmer was there, and we asked him if we could buy all these bales of hay he had. And then we took hundreds of bales and stacked them all around our trailer – we made giant walls and built the whole thing up over the ceiling, and we essentially ended up encasing the entire studio in these hay bales, which give us this incredible soundproofing that makes for a wonderful, isolated oasis right behind the stages at Bonnaroo.
[LEWITT] You have to record a lot of bands over these four days; does a mic like the LCT 940 help in your workflow?
[Lij Shaw] When we first recorded at Bonnaroo I defaulted to using dynamic mics for vocals because it seemed like an appropriate thing to do, with a lot of information going on and that sort of thing. But then, when I had the opportunity to try out the LCT 940, I had this incredible jaw-drop moment, because I’d forgotten just how amazingly full and bigger-than-life the vocals could sound in our little studio. So now, every time there’s a session that doesn’t have too much drums rocking out in there, we pull out that mic. Whenever it’s an acoustic guitar and someone’s singing or we have just a couple of musicians playing together, we bring the LCT 940’s in and they sound just incredible. They make it sound like we’re in a world-class studio instead of being in a hay bale-covered trailer behind a stage on a farmer’s field. One of the things I really like about this mic is that it has variable settings on it, which makes it so easy to dial in and really hit a sweet spot for a vocal tone. For example, we can put a low-cut filter on and cut out any of the sub-information we might not want and might still be bleeding in through the hay bales – by cutting the vocals at 40 Hz and below. And I can also dial in the polar pattern of the mic, so usually I’ll do a cardioid or a hypercardioid and get just a little bit of directionality that way. Which also makes for a really nice proximity effect and vocals that sound really full and warm. My favorite thing about the LCT 940 – other than the fact that it’s got this wonderful little glass window where the artist can see this warm glowing orange tube and everybody comments on how cool it looks – is that you can choose between the mic’s tube and FET settings and everywhere in between. It’s remarkable how the two different settings lend different qualities to a voice. A lot of the times I end up using 40% tube and 60% FET; the mild tube saturation gives the voice a warm, full tone with rich harmonics, while being a little bit more on the FET side brings out the detail and the crispness in the sibilance and the consonants in the vocals – and essentially, it just makes the mic sound more focused. It’s almost like taking this wonderful vintage lens that comes with the tube sound but then being able to focus in to get really great detail by leaning a little bit more towards the FET setting. That makes it easier for me to get a great vocal sound there or in any studio setting without having to do quite as much in the mix on the back end. You know … if you start out with a great sound, that’s always the best way to get it great in the mix.
Lij Shaw recording Michael Kiwanuka at Hay Bale Studio
[LEWITT] You’re also using other LEWITT mics in the Hay Bale studio; what do you use them for?
[Lij Shaw] When I’m at the Hay Bale Studio, I have a pair of the 940’s with me and I have a pair of the 640’s. And I like so much how the LCT 940 sounds on vocals, which is full, warm, and rich and really fills up the sound spectrum – but a lot of the time I’m recording one or two vocalists singing, and they might also be playing acoustic guitar. A lot of these players bring a guitar with a pickup in it, and they want to use a DI because they’re used to doing that on stage. But we’re in a studio environment, and we want to get a real, honest, full studio-quality guitar sound recorded. The LCT 640 is really great for that. The thing that really struck me when I tried out the LCT 640 on acoustic guitar for a session at Bonnaroo was just how well the hypercardioid setting works as far as getting a great guitar sound, but also in terms of isolating the vocals, which are real close to the guitar since the singers are playing and singing at the same time. So, you know, the hypercardioid setting allows me to get a really full and rich sound on the acoustic guitar while it totally rejects the vocals above it in such a great way that I don’t get any phase issues between the voice, which is getting picked up by the LCT 940, and the LCT 640 on acoustic guitar, which is right below it.
Lij Shaw recording the Bad Suns at Hay Bale Studio
[Lij Shaw] I had the chance to set up the DTP Beat Kit Pro 7 on our house kit at the studio, and there are actually a lot of things I really love about it. The LCT 340 overhead mics are small-diaphragms and sound fantastic. They have really nice natural detail on them, and the cymbals sound super sweet. I usually set them up in a kind of ORTF stereo pattern above the drum kit – so not overly wide, but a nice stereo spread above the kit. I don’t use XY, because it’s usually a little bit too mono for me, and the ORTF provides a bit more of the stereo spread but is still coherent in the middle. The DTP 640 REX kick drum mic is really cool, because it has a dynamic and a condenser element in it. One of the things you learn when you’re recording kick drums is that it can be really nice to have a dynamic mic on the kick, but it can also be really nice to have a condenser on the kick – and a lot of the time, you might reach for two mics to do that, but the DTP 640 REX actually has both mics built into one. So that means that I can actually take the two outputs of this mic and tape it that way. Or I can use a little bit more of the dynamic, which has sort of a warmer, rounder tone to it, or I can use a little bit more of the condenser, which sounds a lot more hi-fi, and you also sort of hear the air in the drum a little bit more. It’s really cool to have that feature. It’s a very versatile mic for recording kick drum, since it’s particularly well suited for low-frequency instruments. One of my other favorites is the snare mic, the MTP 440 DM. I’m sure most of us have experienced an SM 57, but traditionally you have to do a lot of EQ-ing to get that sound right. And what’s so cool about the MTP 440 DM is that it already has the top end and the punch and the bottom, so it immediately sounds like a snare drum right out of the gate, which is super cool.
The vocals of Tyler Childer's "Born" & Jade Bird's "Lottery" were both recorded with the LCT 940 at this years festival.
[LEWITT] When we met you at NAMM, you were using the INTERVIEWER mic for your video interviews. What’s your experience been with that mic so far?
[Lij Shaw] It looks great on a camera when you’re doing an interview, it’s got a clear, high-fidelity sound that cuts out all the crappy background noise, and then LEWITT did something really brilliant – they made it omni instead of cardioid – and the reason why this is great is because typically, if you take a dynamic cardioid mic and point it at yourself when asking the question and then move the mic towards your interview partner for the answer, you usually miss the first couple of words because the cardioid pattern isn’t yet in the sweet spot. But with the INTERVIEWER mic, you’re always in a sweet spot because it’s omni. Anyway, those were the things I discovered. I shot a whole ton of videos with it, and it worked flawlessly, sounded killer, and looked really good I also had a chance to see the interview videos other people’s did at NAMM, and mine sounded better.
INTERVIEWER unboxing by Lij Shaw on Recording Studio Rockstars
[LEWITT] Are there any final things you’d like to say about LEWITT?
[Lij Shaw] LEWITT’s been fantastic, and it’s really been an honor and a pleasure to use these wonderful microphones over the years. I feel like I just keep discovering new uses for them – you know, new things that I can record that sound fantastic when I use them. So it’s really fun for me to just keep discovering that I don’t even know enough about the mics yet, and the more I use them, the more I love them. It was wonderful to be at NAMM and meet all the people from LEWITT there who make these wonderful mics. And the thing is that it really is cool to get a chance to meet the people, because they’re really dedicated and passionate about building us great tools for our studios. That’s always just wonderful for me, meeting the real people who actually do the stuff.