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MELVIN & ADRIAN DUFFY: Brothernature

Published May 2000

Engineer Graham Meek (left) with Melvin and Adrian Duffy (right).Engineer Graham Meek (left) with Melvin and Adrian Duffy (right).

Perhaps the best indicator of how far the home‑studio revolution has come in the last few years is the kind of project people are now undertaking in their project studios. Home setups have traditionally been used to record rough demos or electronic music based around samplers and synths. The idea of recording an entire album of lush acoustic pop with delicate, country‑influenced instrumentation and layered harmony vocals in such an environment would have seemed impossibly ambitious only a few years ago. It is, however, exactly what Melvin and Adrian Duffy, the brothers who make up Brothernature, have done — and with the help of mix engineer Graham Meek, they have produced Looking Down The Road, an album to match anything recorded in a commercial facility.

The quality of the finished product clearly owes as much to Melvin's playing skills and Graham's studio experience as it does to the equipment available. For the last 15 years, Melvin has been one of Britain's few session pedal steel guitarists, in which role he has seen the inside of countless studios and concert venues, while singer Adrian is a veteran of several pop bands. Melvin's session work also led to their first meeting with Graham, and his subsequent involvement in the Brothernature project. Having started out at Decca Studios, Graham's subsequent career has included spells at AIR in Monserrat and the original Britannia Row in London, leading to his current position as location engineer with Classic Sound.

Building Up

Melvin is one of Britain's few professional pedal steel players.Melvin is one of Britain's few professional pedal steel players.

Melvin's studio experience was also influential in the brothers' choice of equipment: "We've basically held on and tried to get the best quality stuff that we can within the budget, rather than going quickly, getting cheaper stuff and wishing we hadn't," explains Adrian. "Melv and I used to get Sound On Sound and Home & Studio Recording, and we'd scour through them and I'd be going 'What about that?' and he'd say 'Yes, but they don't really use those in professional studios', and I'd say 'Yes, but it's cheaper!'"

At Melvin's insistence, however, they refused to compromise on quality: "We'd really hang on, because we knew what the pros would use in their sessions. For example, with the Neumann U87, we didn't want it for the name, but just because it's an industry standard. I've done quite a few sessions up in Manchester with this chap Mal Dean, and he had one of the old U87s. It was all manky and horrible‑looking, but he'd do everything from voiceovers to jingles to bands, and no matter what he put that in front of, it was amazing. So I got well set on wanting one of them. And the Roland SDE3000, I got that when I was 15 and I was gigging quite a lot. It was a grand, but I got that because I knew that I definitely wanted a home setup, and I thought if I got a good one it would last.

"I bought a set of NS10s — it was a mistake, you live and learn — and a Quad amp, and a computer monitor; we had an Atari 1040, but we didn't have a monitor!"

From its original core, their studio has been taking shape for six years in an upstairs room in Adrian's home. As Graham explains, its natural ambience has been damped slightly using acoustic tiles: "When we first came in your voice sounded a bit knocky, a bit hard, and you could tell that the room needed some kind of treatment. Doing the two opposing walls has helped. I don't know quite what effect the window's going to have, with the speaker reasonably close to the window pane, but it does help us to get away from having too many reflective surfaces. It sounds like an ordinary room."

For Graham, one of the most important aspects of any studio is its monitoring: "You've got to listen to the stuff you're doing on as many systems as you can. For anybody starting out, the first thing they've got to think about really is monitoring, it's so important. You've got to get as much experience as you can with different systems. I was taking stuff home, I was taking it to different studios and listening to it there, and all of the inadequacies that feel quite small when you're working become bigger outside. Reverb doesn't travel, for instance. You can get it just right in the control room and it's never right elsewhere."

Melvin's insistence on buying only professional‑standard equipment also led to their using only expensive Mogami cabling throughout. "If something goes wrong with cabling, you could be there two weeks until you've sorted it out. We've only had one problem in four years to do with cabling."

His experience was also central to the choice of recording equipment. The studio is based around a Mackie 8‑buss analogue desk, which had been recommended by several of the engineers Melvin had met on sessions, and the album was started using a single Tascam DA88 digital 8‑track: "A lot of people were saying they had problems with sync'ing up ADATs, and I'd heard a lot of horror stories, but everyone was saying that the Tascams were really good quality. I think we had one when we started the project, and then we were running out of tracks, so we bit the bullet and got another one."

At the mastering stage of Looking Down The Road (see box on page 218) they also added a beige G3 Apple Macintosh with Emagic Audiowerk8 audio interface. "We're now using that a lot for songwriting and arranging, and once we feel we've finished writing we start to use the Tascams," explains Melvin.

"From the point of view of writing and arranging, it's great to be able to cut and paste — move half of a verse or something. It's just a more logical way to do it," agrees Adrian. Another advantage, as Graham explains, is that "The writing part of a project doesn't necessarily compromise the mix of another song. So I can leave a mix set up, and come back to it, and in the meantime, they can be getting on with another song, because they're just using the computer and I'm using the Tascams."

The Recording Process

A view of the whole studio, showing (left) Fatar master keyboard, Apple Mac G3, with equipment rack behind, and (right) Mackie 8‑buss desk with patchbay and outboard rack, B&W Com 1 monitors and (top, on shelf) Yamaha NS10 monitors.A view of the whole studio, showing (left) Fatar master keyboard, Apple Mac G3, with equipment rack behind, and (right) Mackie 8‑buss desk with patchbay and outboard rack, B&W Com 1 monitors and (top, on shelf) Yamaha NS10 monitors.

Brothernature's music is largely based around acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies, and capturing the feel of a performance is a priority. As such, the permanent availability of a home studio is high on their list of advantages: "We can come back from the pub all vibed up — I know you can do that in the studio, but it's going to cost you thousands — and we can be working 'til four or five in the morning," explains Adrian. "We try to avoid getting into the gear until we have at least a rough arrangement and a vocal melody and a rough idea of how the song's going to go. I don't think we've ever created a song by recording — there's just no energy."

Once they have a firm idea of the shape and structure of a song, Melvin and Adrian will begin to lay down the instrumental tracks. Melvin programs a rough drum part, which is used as a guide while guitars and vocals are laid down. Over the course of the project this drum track will be refined into the final rhythm part: "I don't change things drastically, I just throw in a few open hi‑hats here and there, not playing the hi‑hat and the cymbals together, to try and make it sound open. We've got an Alesis D4 there, but we tend just to use the tambourine and shakers off that, because the drums always sound like an Alesis D4. Whereas the drums on the sampler have lots of realness about them."

"Drums aren't the focus in this sort of music, it's mostly the vocals, harmonies and the acoustic guitar," adds Graham. "There's lots of percussion from some of the acoustic guitars, which compensates for the lack of a complicated drum part."

Melvin's impressive collection of guitars and other instruments includes not only his pedal steel and standard electrics, but a Gibson acoustic, a National resonator, a Weissenborn (a wooden‑bodied Hawaiian‑style guitar played with a slide), a Fender Precision bass, and a mandolin. Although he also has a selection of sought‑after amplifiers — including a Fender Twin given to him by none other than Leo Sayer — he is perfectly happy to record without an amp: "A lot of the electric guitars go through a DI," says Graham. "There's no strict or blanket decision about the way any of it is done. Fortunately, the outboard is some pretty choice stuff; we plug it in as and when we need it, rather than saying 'This is the way to record it.' With the collection of outboard, you can simulate amp sounds. We've got the EQ, there's the TLA valve compressor, which gets used a lot on the DI'd stuff, and the Drawmers have been really good."

Again, working at home with no limits to the amount of studio time available allows the band's working methods to be much more flexible. In particular, as Graham explains, the boundary between recording and mixing is blurred: "Mixing can happen at any time. You can either end up having a song finished and then put that on the shelf while you're working on the next one, or you can mix it as you're finishing. You could never really do that in a commercial studio because of time and cost constraints.

"The usefulness of the Mackie desk, really, is that you can run all the monitor faders into the mix. To be able to get everything running at once makes it so much easier. One of the best aspects for me working in here is that the guys have put in a patchbay. A lot of home studios don't have a patchbay, but it makes everything accessible.

"Working in this way, we're often at the stage where the monitor mix is pretty well it. There are complications within the mix, for sure, but we've never ever been in a situation where faders are flying about, and it's all hands on the decks — we're often just sitting back listening to it. Most of the tweaks are done at the recording stage, and that's quite nice; if the mix takes quite a while to do, there's normally a reason for it — it's just a matter of all three of us agreeing how it should feel."

Further Down The Road

Brothernature have taken the DIY approach not only to the recording of their album, but also to its design and marketing. "Right up to the point where we become involved in the artwork and the press stuff, it's all decisions that have been made in‑house," explains Adrian. "A good mate of ours was at Kingston College 'til last year, on a design course, and needed a project to do for his dissertation, and he wanted to do record sleeve design. He's got ideas for the second single, for the third single, for merchandising, T‑shirts — all of this is way off what we can afford to do but we want to have it ready in case it takes off."

The band are in no doubt as to the difficulties of doing everything themselves, but as Adrian explains, they value the fact that this allows them to do it all on their own terms: "We haven't actually approached any UK record labels at all, and I think we'd realised by the end of last year that this was going to be quite tough on our own. We realised that you've got to take help and be open to offers as and when they come along. We'll get the single out there, and get the press and get the radio and stuff like that, and whether it sells, whether we'll manage to make a success from our own label perspective, I don't know. But rather than chasing potential deals, we think it's better to put most of your energy into getting on with it yourself."

Main Equipment

  • Mackie 8‑buss mixer.
  • B&W Com 1 monitors.
  • 2x Tascam DA88 digital multitracks.
  • Apple Mac G3 running Emagic Logic Audio sequencer, Emagic Audiowerk8 audio interface.
  • Emu EIII sampler.

Full Gear List

  • Mackie 8‑buss mixer.
  • B&W Com 1 and Yamaha NS10 monitors.
  • 2x Tascam DA88 digital multitracks.
  • Apple Mac G3 running Emagic Logic Audio sequencer.
  • Emagic Audiowerk8 audio interface.
  • MOTU MIDI Express MIDI interface.
  • Tascam DA30 MkII DAT recorder.
  • Tascam CD401 MkII CD recorder.
  • Yamaha SPX1000 multi‑effects.
  • Lexicon Reflex multi‑effects.
  • 2x Lexicon MPX100 multi‑effects.
  • Drawmer MX50 de‑esser.
  • Drawmer LX20 compressor.
  • Focusrite Green voice channel.
  • TL Audio Valve voice channel.
  • Roland SDE3000 digital delay.
  • Aphex Aural Exciter Type C.
  • Alesis D4 drum machine.
  • Emu EIII sampler.
  • Emu Proteus 1 sound module.
  • Shure SM57 microphone.
  • Neumann U87 microphone.
  • AKG C3000 microphone.
  • Audio Technica AT4033A microphone.

Mastering Matters

His experience in professional studios has left Graham in no doubt as to the importance of the mastering stage in an album project. For Looking Down The Road, however, he came up with an ingenious way of doing most of the mastering work at home: "Once we'd got to the stage where all the mixes were complete, Melvin opened up a new song in Logic, and we digitally dropped down all the mixes into that one song. Then we were able to solo them one at a time, get relative levels between each song, make sure that the lead vocals were at similar gain levels and that the songs fitted around each other without some mixes sounding too quiet or too forward. It was a really good way of doing it — I'm sure other people probably do it, but I've not heard of it. For us it was like a pre‑run for mastering, because we were able to come up with a DAT at the end of the day with all the correct levels, all the EQ changes, any compression, anything like that, just by following this process, which probably cut down on the total amount of time we would have spent in a mastering suite.

"We took it to Classic Sound, where they've got a 24/96 8‑track SADiE system, and it was a straightforward process then to put it through that, get all the ducks in a row, make sure it was exactly how we needed it, get the levels correct from song to song. Then it went to Exabyte, and we were at the stage then where the factory would accept the Exabyte, and it was just data at that stage. You have to supply the pressing plant with audio and relevant paperwork with all the PQ coding and everything else like that, and it was knockout to be able to take it to that stage. We were very lucky to be able to do that; I think a lot of people turn up at editing rooms with half‑a‑dozen DATs from different studios, and think that they can all match up, and sound coherent.

"I don't know if anybody's ever had this problem before, but when we've been burning CDs here, you sort of get an opinion of what it's like, and any kind of inadequacy in it you put down to the fact that you haven't got it right on sessions. But I was quite surprised, because the actual detail that came back from going to a proper master room with a proper editor really did make a difference. I don't know if we were losing low bits or something like that, but it was low‑level information in the mix that was suffering — delays and reverb tails. It was all a bit alarming really, because I just thought data was data. I don't understand how bits can be lost. I'd love to know if anyone else has experienced the same problem."