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David & Peter Brewis: Recording Field Music (Measure)

Studio Experimentation By Sam Inglis
Published March 2010

Field Music: Peter (left) and David Brewis in the smaller 'dead' room at their Sunderland studio.Field Music: Peter (left) and David Brewis in the smaller 'dead' room at their Sunderland studio.

Thanks to years of experimentation with budget equipment, brothers Peter and David Brewis have developed into one of the UK's best and most interesting studio bands, with a sound that is very much their own.

Back in the late '70s, there were many new bands who came to public attention through the punk revolution and the rise of independent labels, even though their music had nothing in common with punk rock. Field Music experienced something similar in the first decade of this century. Their debut album was released in 2005, at the height of the post‑punk revival brought about by bands like the Strokes and the Libertines. Yet, in many ways, the sound crafted by brothers Peter and David Brewis was a reaction against the saminess of guitar music at the time.

"At the time, we were getting annoyed at hearing bands where the drums and the guitar and the bass and the keyboard all played basically the same thing, all the time,” explains David Brewis. "So we were deliberately thinking 'We won't have any of those instruments play the same thing. At all.'”

The self‑titled album was equally individual in terms of engineering and production. "There were some reviews that said 'Really polished production!',” laughs David, "and we thought 'It can't be. We really don't know what we're doing. We don't have any gear. We have no experience other than recording ourselves'.”

"We also did some things that might have seemed quite perverse,” adds Peter Brewis. "We did a lot of hard‑panning on that record.”

"The bass is hard‑panned,” continues David. "The drum sound is close mics hard‑panned to one side and one distance mic panned to the other side, on almost the entire album. And those things were flukes of us trying to record ourselves at home when we were still recording on eight‑track reel‑to‑reel or four‑track cassette.”

Both brothers are adamant that the key to what is perceived by the listener as 'good production' is actually thoughtful musical arrangement. "It's not like we have any great skill with the equipment we have,” insists David. "It's the way we play and the way we write and the way we arrange things. A lot of the stuff that we're really drawn to has that element of really clever arrangement. We've been learning Fleetwood Mac songs for a covers thing, and the arrangements between those instruments are incredible.”

"That's where you can actually get the clarity,” agrees Peter, "where you play the right part. I think that's one of the things that's missing with the way that people make records, and maybe that's one of the things that I don't like about records that get made today. I think that idea of arrangements is slightly lost. Rock music in the '60s was made by people who were probably into jazz and things like that, and it was arranged like that. George Martin arranged the band, even on 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' which is essentially just a rock & roll song: it was arranged like a classical piece.”

Measure For Measure

The brothers at work in the larger, more live‑sounding studio space they share with the Futureheads.

The new Field Music album is their third; also self‑titled, but subtitled Measure to distinguish it from their debut, it has been widely touted as an early contender for album of the year. Like their previous works, it sounds pretty much unique in today's world, and seems to showcase a new‑found confidence and ambition.

This 'mature' Field Music sound is the product of many factors. There's a tangible sense of telepathy between the two brothers, which is hardly surprising since they've been making music together all their lives. This seems to manifest itself in all aspects of their work. "We don't have to tell each other to be more economical, or less messy, or do this or do that,” says Peter.

"The most it gets usually is 'We should push the tempo slightly in the middle eight. Let's go!'” adds David.

Their relationship also incorporates a healthy dose of sibling rivalry: "I think we're very influenced by each other,” laughs Peter. "If Dave's able to do something on guitar or drums or anything, I really don't like the idea that I can't do that!”

Another factor is the band's home town of Sunderland which, unlike other Northern cities such as Liverpool or Manchester, has never had a 'sound' of its own, nor much of a music scene. "We didn't really grow up with live music, we grew up with our mum and dad's record collections,” says David. "You start thinking in terms of records.”

You can add to the mix the large studio space they share with fellow Sunderland oddballs the Futureheads, in which all of their albums have been made, and the distinctive engineering techniques the brothers have evolved over the years.

Finally, of course, there's their unusual take on songwriting and arrangement. "People tend to say 'You guys must be really influenced by prog rock, you must be really trying to do odd time signatures,'” says David, "and mostly I'd say that's totally not the case. It's more that we play something and think 'That sounds interesting,' or the timing of a guitar or piano part follows a vocal melody, and then it's not until you try to write it out for a string part that you realise it's in 9/8 or whatever.”

"The initial thing that really gets you going has got to be something quite physical and exciting,” agrees Peter. "And then the intellectual side has to take over and think 'How do I make this work?' I think that's what rock music's all about.”

Although they are a four‑piece for live purposes, almost everything on the album is played by the brothers. They will usually begin by laying down a live take with one of them on drums and the other on guitar or a Yamaha CP70, before overdubbing the rest of the parts. "It's great having that Yamaha electric piano,” says Peter. "We can just DI it into the Allen & Heath desk, because the preamps are quite nice, and we've got a channel set up with the right EQ, so it records and we just keep it. We might overdub this horrible thing on top of it [he indicates the duo's 'portable piano'], and it ends up sounding like an OK piano.”

"We would rarely do bass [on the initial take],” adds David, "partly because for me, bass — totally influenced by McCartney or Andy Fraser — bass is a melody instrument. We spend quite a lot of time doing bass parts, making it so that the bass has tunes within it.”

Room To Breathe

The view from the door of the larger room. In the corner on the left is the Field Music drum kit; in the foreground is the Allen & Heath mixer and small rack of TLA preamps that were used to record the album. The brothers' Revox reel‑to‑reel is just visible between the speakers.

One of the refreshing things about the sound of the album is the amount of space on it. As well as the space the brothers work to create in their arrangements, there is also the kind of spaciousness that comes from using distant miking almost exclusively. For the recording of the new album, they rented an additional, smaller room with a much deader sound to augment their existing large recording area. "We decided that [the new room] was going to be the room where we recorded most of the vocals,” explains Peter. "And then we didn't.”

The acoustic of the larger space is also fundamental to the Field Music drum sound, as is some unique mic placement. "It's developed over the years, and we've got a pretty clear starting point now,” explains David. "We don't have matched overheads, and never have. Essentially, the main sound is a ribbon mic directly over the drummer's head, with the null pointing at the hi‑hat.”

Peter continues: "So if you want a little bit more hi‑hat, you just turn it around a bit. Then we'll have a good condenser out front. We hard‑pan them, so one's quite a dark sound and the other's a little bit brighter.”

"The ribbon picks up a lot of the floor tom and the mic at the front of the kit picks up a lot of the high tom,” adds David. "This album's the first one where we've close‑miked the toms. Very odd! We just panned them with the overheads, and it gives it a kind of natural, but very stereo sound. But on the last Field Music album, Tones Of Town, there's only three mics on the kit. This time round we've been using a Rode K2 as the bass drum microphone, and also the bass microphone. We used Shure Beta 58s on the toms. For some reason they sound really good on our toms.”

In essence, it seems, trial and error is at the heart of everything the duo do. "We've tried every set of microphones we've got on every instrument we've got,” laughs Peter. "Imagine if we had the money to buy more microphones!”

The Closer The Less Good

Above: Most of the guitar sounds on the album were recorded through the Fender Deluxe Reverb reissue, sometimes used just as a cabinet for other amps.

"We hardly close‑mic anything,” insists David. "We're about two foot away for a bass mic. We don't DI bass or anything like that. The guitar mic tends to be a foot or two away. It took us a little longer with the electric guitar sound this time around, until we got the ShinyBox [ribbon] microphone. Some of the best sounds were the ShinyBox and a 57, just together. We did a couple of things where we thought 'We'll make it sound more phasey and we'll separate them,' but because this [smaller] room is quite dead, you can get away with having the microphone quite far away and still have a direct sound.

"I try and research how people record guitars, because everyone records guitars in a different way, and in the past maybe I haven't been totally happy with our guitar sounds. But most rock records are based around the sound of distorted guitars. We never record really clean guitars and we never record really distorted guitars. We've always got this inbetween, just‑on‑the‑verge‑of‑breaking‑up sound, and there's not that many examples to try and copy from.”

Once again, though, it seems that the key is to be playing the right part, on the right guitar, through the right amp. "We've got a [Fender] Deluxe Reverb reissue, and even when we use other amps we've been using the speaker in that cab anyway. We've got a little Orange Tiny Terror which sounds pretty good through that speaker, we've got the [Fender] Bassmans, which have their idiosyncrasies but sound pretty good through that speaker, and we've got a decent range of guitars. The only kind of sound I feel we're really lacking is anything thick‑sounding with a humbucker. We've got an SG Special over there with P90s, and that's my number one guitar. We've got a Strat and a Telecaster, and I've got an Ibanez semi‑acoustic. So between those guitars, and the volume on the Deluxe Reverb...”

The Field Music mic locker. The odd‑looking silver mic at the front was made for them by a friend from an old headphone driver and is used for recording bass.Several of the duo's mics came into play when recording vocals, depending on situation. "I don't really like wearing headphones, so I tended to use the SM7 for a lot of my vocals,” says Peter. "That was a really good experience for me, because we'd been using them [Beyer headphones] DT100s and there's no bass in them, and I find it really hard to pitch. But with speakers it was fine.”

"You can get up very close to it and treat it like a normal dynamic,” explains David. "I mostly use the modded Oktava 319. It took a little while to get used to it. Where you have it in relation to your mouth makes a huge difference. It has loads of proximity effect. So I tend to place it at nose level and sing underneath it.

"We used the ShinyBox for quite a lot of the backing vocals, singing into both sides,” adds Peter. "It was more of a practical thing than anything, because we could look at each other either side of the microphone, and if it was something we had to 'conduct', we could really eyeball each other and make sure we sung it together.”

"We tend not to record with effects, other than miking from a distance to get a particular kind of sound,” says David. "Handclaps is a funny one. My best handclap sound comes from standing next to the desk in the other room, and having a Rode NT1 outside the room pointing at the window panes. Then you get enough ambience and enough slapback from the window. Then you heavily limit and compress it, and you don't end up having to add a lot of reverb or echo to it.”

One From The Ladies'

Below: Peter Brewis's Yamaha CP70 electric piano is a core element of the band's sound.

Another area where Field Music break with modern convention is that their mixes are relatively straightforward, with minimal use of plug‑in or outboard gear. This is partly down to their attention to detail in crafting sounds and arrangements at source, partly to the age of the pair of Apple laptops that are their current recording platforms, and partly to a preference for using real acoustic spaces as reverb chambers. This last gives them a possibly unique excuse for hanging around in places where men aren't usually welcome: "On the album, all the reverb is chamber reverb from the ladies' toilets downstairs,” says David. "We can't use the men's, because the flush of the urinals goes too regularly.”

Peter adds: "It's funny, because you can change the reverb time by closing various doors in the ladies' toilets, or pointing the microphone towards a wall. It's amazing, this thing of putting a speaker in the room and seeing what happens.”

More conventionally, the duo also employ a larger hall within their building for longer reverbs, and Logic's tape echo emulation. Beyond that, mixing is mainly a matter of adjusting levels. "It tends to be that we'll mainly use just three busses except when there's something very specific we want to do,” explains David. "It'll be reverb, which ends up going to the ladies' toilets when we mix, slapback echo, and we use that same tape delay simulation with a totally unrealistically quick delay time to have a kind of faked ADT sound — somewhere between a nice chorus and an ADT. That tends to be it, mostly.”

Double Measures

At 20 tracks and 70+ minutes, Field Music (Measure) is what would once have been a classic double album, in the spirit of Physical Graffiti or the White Album. So how will the band follow that? "For me, the album we've just done is our 'Let's be a rock band' record,” says Peter Brewis.

"Structurally, the songs have oddities hidden within them, but a lot of the songs are more like normal music than anything else we've done,” agrees David. "Which has been nice. And it's been nice to make a really long album, where we didn't feel the need to cut things off. But now we've been thinking 'Let's do a really heavily arranged album, where we don't repeat ourselves, and use every idea we can muster in a really short space of time.' We'll see. I haven't written any songs yet.”

His brother raises an eyebrow and smiles. "I don't think there necessarily has to be songs...”  

Careful With That Bass

"All through making this record, I think one of the things we realised, in order to make it sound balanced and make it sound loud and present, we had to be much more careful with bass frequencies,” says David Brewis. "On things where, before, we thought 'To make it sound like a real record, we'll have lots of bass on the bass, and lots of bass on the bass drum' — actually that's just ridiculous, and we've ended up using lots of low cut. You don't particularly need to have all of that 50Hz.”

"When we mastered [the band's previous album] Tones Of Town, we got very paranoid about it,” continues Peter Brewis. The mastering engineer A/B'd ours against a Futureheads record recorded by Ben Hillier, which is a great‑sounding record, and we were gutted. 'We don't have any bass on our record at all!'”

"For all that we were constantly turning up 80Hz on the bass to give it more punch!” adds David. "It was a funny learning experience, and made us realise that we needed to get a different set of speakers. Although I quite like those cheap Behringer Truth speakers, below 55Hz, anything could be happening. Because they flood the sound between 60 and 90 Hz, it's like 'Oh yes, it sounds nice and it sounds full,' and then you realise actually there's nothing below 55Hz — or there's so much below 55Hz that we'll end up having to cut it all out at mastering.”