Title: California Screamin'
Source: Audio Media magazine (UK), by Paul Tingen. Transcription as published on Audiomedia.com archives (Tom Waits quotes taken from Mule Conversations)
Date: February, 2000
Key words: Mule Variations, Jacquire King, studio recording, recording techniques

Magazine front cover:Audio Media magazine (UK). February, 2000


California Sceamin'


Tom Waits' most recent album, Mule Variations, has been heralded by some as his best yet.
PAUL TINGEN talks to the mixers, the masterers, and the man himself.

The year of 1999 was spectacularly good for Tom Waits. Not only did the Californian singer, who has for decades been associated with alcohol and the low side of life, defy the pessimists by reaching the noble age of 50, he also produced his most commercially successful record yet. Released on the Southern Californian punk label Epitaph, the album Mule Variations reached the Top Ten in the UK, the Top 30 in the USA, and topped hit parades all over Europe. What's more, Waits achieved it without making concessions to popular music culture. Mule Variations is as stark and uncompromising an album as he's made in the last 15 years.

Many thought that the singer, for whom the words 'growler' and 'gravel-voiced' have become middle names, had peaked creatively and commercially in the '80s. His professional music career started over a quarter of a century ago, in 1973, when his debut album Closing Time was released. In the early '80s he met his wife, scriptwriter Kathleen Brennan, who was to have an enormous impact on his music. Waits started producing his own records, and a trilogy of legendary albums followed: Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Frank's Wild Years (1987). They reshaped the mould of popular music with greatly pared-down instrumentation that featured unusual instruments in the weirdest combinations. Influences were noticeable from American folk, blues, country, world, theatre, and film music, Captain Beefheart, and the maverick American composer Harry Partch(1).

Tom Waits' songs increasingly developed into film scripts for fictional personae that he then acted out, and in the '90s he expanded his theatrical approach into film acting, and writing more film and theatre scores. He released a black comedy opera called Black Rider(1993), and produced one fully-fledged solo album, Bone Machine, in 1992. The latter was an extension of the style of the '80s trilogy, but with more emphasis on percussion, and it won him a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album. Meanwhile, Waits has been called 'one of the most influential song writers of all time', and certainly his songs have been covered by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, The Eagles, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithful, Nancy Griffith, Ricky Lee Jones, Meatloaf, Bette Midler, Violent Femmes, and Rod Stewart. The rural American atmosphere, the extreme sonic experimentation, and his vocal style have also strongly influenced various present-day performers, such as Beck, Gomez, Tindersticks, Nick Cave, and P J Harvey.

For seven years Waits stayed largely out of the limelight, and there were suggestions that he'd given up on his solo career, especially when he found himself without a record deal. It seemed like his music would forever be relegated to the outer fringes of the music industry. So there was surprise when Mule Variations was released in April of 1999, and gasps of wonder when it started climbing the charts around the world. Many of the songs are fairly traditional American folk, country, blues, or gospel-inspired affairs, but they're often sung with his trademark deranged snarling, gnarling voice, and framed in a sonic landscape and production approach that are as far removed from modern production values as one can imagine. Mule Variations occupies a peerless universe that harks back to the dusty Middle-American country roads and farms of the '30s, featuring creaking piano chairs, out-of-tune upright pianos, and crowing roosters. It's also a record that wears its analogue credentials on its sleeve, since the cover of the vinyl version contains the proud declaration that it was recorded on analogue gear only. Significantly, several people have declared Mule Variations 'one of the best-sounding albums of the '90s.'


All in all, more than enough reason for Audio Media to have a closer listen, and so I spoke with Jacquire King, who mixed and engineered Mule Variations together with Oz Fritz, and Chris Bellman of Bernie Grundman Mastering Studios. A promotional interview CD called Mule Conversations was added to the mix. Combined with the information provided by Jacquire King and Chris Bellman, a fairly comprehensive picture emerged of the thinking and working methods behind Mule Variations.

It is also possible to trace Waits' development from his early records, which were produced by Jerry Yester and engineered by Bones Howe, to Mule Variations with some accuracy. Howe had a background in jazz music, and according to Waits "ended up putting strings behind everything because of my cracked voice. It's kind of like a painting that's made out of mud, and putting a real expensive frame around it."

The contrast between the pretty and the ugly, between high art and low art, between polish and grit would become an essential feature of Waits' work, but this was clearly not the combination he was looking for. So he made 'a clean break' in the '80s, and encouraged by his wife Kathleen came up with Swordfishtrombones, which was also influenced by British-born vibraphonist Victor Feldman and engineer Biff Dawes. Waits: "I'd never worked without a producer, so it was exciting. I always thought that the producer knew more than the artist did, but Kathleen encouraged me to trust myself and explore many musical styles. She also played me a lot of records. She really co-produced that record with me, although she didn't get a credit. Ever since Swordfishtrombones I suppose I have tried to explore diverse musical styles. I touched a few of them on Mule Variations. There's a lot of variety."

Listening to the stories that engineer Jacquire King told about the recording of Mule Variations, it appears that the singer works as much by a process of trial and error as most in the rock music scene. For Jacquire King, whose name, like that of co-engineer Oz Fritz, sounds like it's lifted straight out of a Tom Waits song, working on Mule Variations was his first time with the singer. Apparently Dawes and Tchad Blake (who had also previously worked with Waits (see Audio Media, August 1999)) were not available, so Waits looked around and auditioned the two engineers at Prairie Sun Studios, which is close to his home, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. King is an engineer/producer, who has worked with the likes of Citizen King, Chuck Prophet, Dean Del Ray, and Black Lab, has done remixes for No Doubt, Smash Mouth, Orgy and Cake, and who also did Pro Tools programming and editing for Third Eye Blind and Smash Mouth. Apparently, Waits was interested in working with him because of his Pro Tools expertise. Both Fritz and King passed their auditions, did a couple of sessions together to set up a compatible modus operandi, and then worked with Waits separately.


The story of the recording of Mule Variations started in earnest one day in June 1998 at Prairie Sun Studios(2). Waits commented on the choice of studio: "It's a chicken ranch out in the middle of nowhere. I keep coming back there because you can take a pee outside. I've done three albums there now." Clearly Prairie Sun is totally in keeping with the dusty, rural atmosphere of Waits' music, although it's also visited by acts like Van Morrison, Santana, Nine-Inch Nails, and The Tubes. King explained the proceedings: "Prairie Sun has three separate buildings. There's Studio A, which has a Trident TSM desk, studio B with a Neve Custom 80 desk from the early '70s that came from Pete Townsend's Eel Pie Studios, and that has 1073-style EQ and mic-pre modules, and a converted barn that contains three live rooms. We only used Studio B and the converted barn, which had a huge room that we used as an echo chamber, a medium-sized room of 35ft by 20ft, and a small room of 12ft by 15ft and a 15ft-high ceiling, that was called the Waits Room, because Tom prefers to record in there. There is no acoustic treatment, just a concrete floor, and big double doors that open right into the driveway by which you enter the ranch. Almost all of Tom's parts, including the vocals, were recorded in that room. 90 percent of the recording took place in the barn, which is about 50 yards from the control room, so we needed to have a good communication set-up. We had about 20 Neve 1073/1272-style out-board mic pre-amps in the barn, so that the mic signals bridged the 50 yards and came into the desk at line level.

"We were usually tracking him with at least one other person, most of the time an upright bass player, sometimes a drummer. His vocal performance and his piano or guitar, plus the bass, are the basic take. What you hear on the album are often first takes. Tom rarely did more than two or three takes in a row. If he felt it wasn't coming together, he'd switch to piano or guitar and try a different approach, or to another song. We were always trying to capture a mood and atmosphere. If there was a mistake, or a lyric that was re-written, we would punch it in on the basic take. We never did vocal comps. Tom came in with finished songs, and would then try different ways of executing it. He will try something, and maybe a week, or years, later he will try it again in a different way. Guitarist Joe Gore told me that the Filipino Box Spring Hog(3) was already attempted on Bone Machine. There were also several different versions of Black Market Baby and Eyeball Kid(4). It was a matter of sonically trying to realise what he was trying to do, and do it very quickly. I would say that Tom is very articulate in the studio, and he will instruct musicians in what to play, but he will also allow them to come up with things. It's a little bit of both."

About Dogs, Kids, Trains, Cars, Planes, And Chickens

In various cases, instruments were overdubbed to the basic takes of Tom Waits plus one, and in several cases all manner of instrumental combinations were tried out, until Waits and Brennan (she co-produced the album) felt they were nailing the right atmosphere. Many unusual ingredients went into the creation of this, from the creaking piano stool on which Waits was sitting, to outside recording, in the case of the track Chocolate Jesus. As a result there is an exceptionally alive natural ambience to these recordings and some tracks almost sound like field recordings (and Chocolate Jesus literally was one!). The ghost of the legendary American field recordist Alan Lomax hovers strongly over the record. The stark and wistful Pony, mainly just Waits on a pump organ, Smokey Hormel on dobro, and John Hammond on harp (harmonica) is a good example of this natural sound.

Waits commented: "We wanted that particular one bare and by itself, like Alan Lomax's Library of Congress recordings that I love so much. You try to find the right sound for the record. The whole challenge of recording is to find the appropriate environment and atmosphere for the song, to find what suits it. And that's what you spend most of your time doing. Where should we record this? How should we record this? On that one it worked. When I'm in the studio, songs really are at their best, like little movies for the ears." On Chocolate Jesus, Waits opened the Waits Room's large doors, and stepped outside with bassist Greg Cohen and harpist Charlie Musselwhite. King recorded them live there, and for some reason a rooster managed to crow in identical fashion, right in the gaps between Waits' vocals, sounding remarkably like a sample. But it wasn't. Waits: "I've found that if you do go outside, everything collaborates with you, including airplanes. I mean, they make movies outside. You have to wait, sometimes, for a train to pass or a school to let out or whatever. Dogs, kids, trains, cars, planes, and chickens will kind of find their own place, if you do go outside." Beck guitarist Smokey Hormel recalled: "Tom kept telling me, 'It sounds too pretty, I'm going to open the barn door.' And so he did! You could hear the dogs in the background and see the people walking by on the road below. It was very rustic and homey. You forget that you're playing into a $20,000 microphone." Hormel played outside on one of 12 songs that didn't make it to the album (a total of 28 songs were recorded!). The song Buzz Fledderjohn is included on the Japanese CD, and was also recorded outside, though not actually recorded on a $20,000 mic, but on a pair of old shotgun mics. There are pages and pages to fill with the odd and fascinating things that were recorded on Mule Variations, such as the live percussion on What's He Building There, played by Brennan and Jeff Sloan, using all manner of percussion found in the studio, or Waits' deranged mauling of a hotel room in Mexico City that opens the track Big In Japan.

He elaborated: "Inevitably, someone will look around the room and find something that, when hit, sounds better than a cymbal or better than a bass drum. That's part of the whole evolution and forward development and movement of recording itself. In Mexico City I had a contest with myself in a hotel room. I wanted to see if I could sound like a band all by myself, without any instruments. So I stood banging on the chest of drawers and the wall and headboard, just trying to get that full band sound. Then it was looped and sampled."

No Hi-Gloss

Like all Waits records since the '80s, the power and depth of Mule Variations lies in the combination of low-fi and hi-fi noises. Waits remarked: "I got it all in me. I love melody. I also like dissonance and factory noise. It's just a matter of trying to find a way to fit these things together." Hitting a hotel room and recording this into a boombox, as Waits did, is clearly a low-fi approach, just as recording a group of musicians outside with an old shotgun mic is. Waits also sang a few things through an amplified megaphone on Chocolate Jesus, and through a two-foot long PVC pipe on Get Behind The Mule. The track Black Market Baby was filled with a Pro Tools loop of record needle noise of a 78rpm record, and guitar distortion pedals were used as effect units in the mix. King also had an old Sony reel-to-reel which was used as a mic pre-amp. mic pre-amps were overdriven and sometimes plugged into each other, and old crystal mics were used. These are all low-fi sounds. On the other hand, Waits' engineers took great care to record the goings on with the best mics possible. Jacquire King lifted the lid: "Tom's vocals were always recorded with an M49, through a Neve mic-pre and Teletronix LA2A tube limiter, although we often altered the sound of it afterwards. The upright piano was recorded with a 414 or a 451, and often put through the Sony reel to reel mic pre-amp. Acoustic guitars were miked with a KM84 or 451, guitar amps were either SM57 or 421, bass amp with a 47, and acoustic bass with an M49, 47 or 552, routed via a Neve 2254 compressor. Drum mics were a D112 on the kick drum, 421 on the toms, SM57 on the snare and on some songs AKG TL2s as overheads. Room mics for the drums were a pair of 87s and a pair of Neumann 582s, and often we'd open the doors from the live area into the echo chamber and put a SM69 there. We also used the 582s as room mics in the medium sized room."

The reason for all the room mics is that Waits is not a fan of digital reverbs or delays. In some cases plate or spring delays were used, but preference was always given to the natural ambience of the room mics, which included the method of sending a signal back to the speakers in the live-room and re-recording them. King remarked: "These sounds blend in more easily than digital sounds. It is also a matter of this low-fi/hi-fi dichotomy, which gives a kind of texture to the record, like grain or filters or black and white give to film. Hi-gloss records convey less emotion. The more polished a sound, the less familiar and human it sounds. Recording records in the way we did makes them sound more intimate and emotional." As a result of using these various room mics, King sometimes ended up with a full 24-track, which meant that choices had to be made over which room mics to use. The 24-track that was used was a late '70s Studer A80 MkIII, with BASF 900 tape, no Dolby, 30ips, recorded at +6dB, "hit very hard, which gives more tape compression." The album was mixed to analogue, an Ampex ATR102, on a tape running at 30ips, without Dolby.

Wise Words

This brings us to the questions about the reasons for Mule Variations' analogue bias, whether Waits is an analogue convert, and if so, why does he have an interest in using Pro Tools? Jacquire King. "I think Tom definitely feels that analogue has a better overall sound, although I don't think he looks down on digital. For this album he wanted to experiment with playing loops, and the possibility of changing the arrangements on the songs. I suspect he'd been hearing from friends and associates how powerful Pro Tools was and wanted to check it out. But the overall sound of the album is analogue. Pro Tools is just a component. I did some loops, such as Tom's metal dressing bashing on Big In Japan, the Optigon keyboard sound on Lowside Of The Road, and the vinyl needle sound on Black Market Baby. On Filipino Box Spring Hog I actually changed the arrangement of some of the overdubs, although the drum and vocal performance are true to the take. In the latter track there were also some small voices that Tom had recorded into a small toy sampler for kids, and that I sampled in Pro Tools, just like the turntable elements. All this was manipulated in Pro Tools and then laid back to tape.

"I have a large Pro Tools system, 24 I/O, with three 888 interfaces and 40GB of hard drive space. I just love the things I can do with it, in terms of looping and vocal comping and pitch correction and changing arrangements, and so on. I'm not a big fan of Pro Tools plug-ins though. I believe real-life analogue effects sound better. I love the way analogue sounds. What's so great is that it's possible to get a reaction from it, by overloading the tape. Analogue is the best for transient-type sounds, like drums and percussive-type things. But the ability that Pro Tools gives you in terms of being able to manipulate sound and fine tune things is awesome. So I strongly believe in using them both together. Because I did almost only looping, I used it very minimally on Mule Variations." King laid down all Pro Tools effects to the analogue 24-track for the mix, which also took place at Prairie Sun, without automation. King: "Tom feels that with automation you spend too much time going over things. Mixing is done very quickly, some songs were mixed in an hour, others took a few hours. There were a couple of songs where the mixes were too complex to do them in one pass, and so we recorded them in segments to the half-inch.

"We applied EQ, compression, natural reverbs, some analogue slap-back delays, guitar pedals like Zoom or Sansamp or the Smokey, usually running things live. Tom was always present, helping out with the mixes, usually adjusting levels. He would never adjust EQ or effects or ask for a specific effect, but always had requests in terms of mood, tonal quality, or distortion on his voice. Sometimes he would tell us to switch something that we had put on. He often wanted things to sound more old-timey, like a phonograph, so we sometimes filtered off low and high end. I also used a Neve 33609 bus compression over the stereo mix. But we were always going for a mood, and never concerned with cleaning things up. We happily left all the creaking of the piano stool and pedals, for example, like at the beginning of Picture In A Frame. What you are listening to is not all overdubbed and clinical, but a real performance that happened in a very small and intimate environment. We wanted it to sound like that and therefore kept all the mics and channels wide open."

On this, Waits had the last, wise words: "You have to make sure you're not recording the bone, and throwing away the meat. It's very easily done."


(1) American composer Harry Partch: San Diego multi-instrumentalist/ composer. Developed and played home made instruments. Released the album" The World Of Harry Partch". Major influence for the album 'Swordfishtrombones'. Partch died in San Diego, 1974.

(2) Prairie Sun Studios: Prairie Sun recording studio in Cotati/ California. Former chicken ranch where Waits recorded: Night On Earth, Bone Machine, The Black Rider (Tchad Blacke tracks) and Mule Variations. Further reading: Prairie Sun official site

(3) Filipino Box Spring Hog: Official release: "Mule Variations", Anti Inc., 1999. Early version released on: "Born To Choose", 1993. TW: "That would fall in the category of surrural. Beefheart-ian. When we lived on Union Avenue in L.A., we had parties. We sawed the floorboards out of the living room, and we took the bed, the box spring, and first dug out the hole and filled it with wood, poured gasoline on it, and lit a fire. And the box spring over the top, that was the grill. We brought in a pig and cooked it right there." (A Q&A about Mule Variations. MSO: Rip Rense, early 1999).

(4) Eyeball Kid: loosely based on the comic-book character created by Australian writer and artist Eddie Campell. Further reading: Eyeball Kid