Local Produce Marty Brown
Producer and muso, Marty Brown, has a ‘two-dimensional life’ – music and family. Only, his ‘family’ includes wife Clare Bowditch. AT finds out how he recorded the ARIA award-winning album, What Was Left.
Text: Greg Walker
Marty Brown is a busy man. If you’re a regular gig-goer you might have heard his distinctive and intricate brush-work behind the drums with indie faves Art Of Fighting, or indeed with a variety of other artists such as Sodastream, the Guild League or the Dirty Three’s Mick Turner. Add to that a busy home studio in Thornbury, Melbourne (where he regularly produces local artists), frequent callouts for session work and his main gig as drummer and producer with his wife Clare Bowditch and his dance card looks extremely full. The cherry on top of all this is the recent addition of identical twin boys to their road-hardened three-year-old daughter Asha. For us mere mortals this may seem like overload but Marty and Clare are already old hands at balancing recording, touring and family life. A true husband and wife team, they achieved great success with their second album What Was Left, including a recent ARIA award for Clare, while raising Asha.
What Was Left is a fine album that showcases the amazing instrument that is Clare’s voice, weaving an exotic and at times lush tapestry of sounds around her while maintaining a beautiful sense of space. An analogue devotee, Marty has produced an album that sounds thoroughly contemporary while utilising mainly acoustic instruments and, paradoxically, leaves you feeling happy though its central theme is grief. Marty’s work is a great example of how, with a modest collection of equipment and a small recording space, it is possible to produce high quality recordings using thoughtful studio design and positioning of instruments, good mic technique, and a disciplined approach to instrumentation and arrangement. When I spoke to Marty he was relaxed and enjoying the twins’ first months at home while working on Clare’s next album.
Greg Walker: Marty, first of all, congratulations on the ARIA award and, of course, on the recent arrival of your twins. It’s obviously been a pretty intense time for you both, but you guys seem to have the knack for combining raising children and putting out great records and touring a lot. Can you explain to AT readers how on earth you do it?
Marty Brown: The only way we’re able to be musicians and have a family is that these are the only two things we do. I’ve been making a ‘joke’ for a while now that I have a very two-dimensional life: kids and music, that is all – very little time for friends, reading, TV, hobbies, work, going out, and all the other things in life that make a person vaguely well rounded. For the most part Clare and I divide up so much of the family/music work that it’s usually the case that one of is working and the other is with the kids. We’ve also had financial support through the NEIS scheme, Vic Arts and DCITA grants which has enabled us to put all our time into our music.
GW: On What Was Left, what was your overall production philosophy with Clare’s songs? Did you set out to make a particular type of record or did the songs lead you in a certain direction?
MB: I always try to let the songs determine what the production philosophy for a given record will be, within the bounds of whatever constraints you might have as well. To allow this to happen for a singer/songwriter, I’ve found a good approach to take is to do their guitar and vocal takes first. Once you have these sounding great and perfectly releasable on their own, you can build up the other instrumentation around it and know that the vibe of each particular song is going to be maintained.
For the most part, the songs on What Was Left hadn’t been played live by the band and were essentially written and arranged while recording. So we had no choice but to track everything separately rather than record them live – which is my more preferred method – I guess that was one of the constraints. To do this then we needed a click track. I don’t believe in fixed tempos, so I spend a lot of time making sure the tempo for each bar is right. A song like Strange Questions that has each section of the song in a dramatically different tempo, with speed-ups in between, would have required a hundred-plus tempo changes in the click track.
I’m really glad I went down the analogue home recording road and I strongly recommend it to others
GW: Wow, that’s serious attention to detail! So how did you proceed once the vocal and guitar were down?
MB: As a general rule I try to have quite a few different concepts for production. So rather than following one vibe all the way through an album, we had several different ideas working together. There were a few different (but very much connected) lyrical themes on What Was Left. The central one was grief, which obviously is always concerned with loss. Predominantly Clare’s songs also revolve around relationships of various kinds. Then, thirdly, I think Clare’s songs are often domestic, in that they’re not about unicorns and drug experiences – they’re about a reality that most people can recognise. So to try and bring these themes out I came up with a few production ideas.
To bring out the ‘domesticity’ I wanted to really capture the sound of the place where we record, which is at our home. So I made a concerted effort to get as many sounds from the location onto tape as possible – not only the studio space but also the next-door neighbour’s dogs, The Greek Orthodox church down the road, our squeaky studio door and the rainbow lorikeets. In fact, the start of the album involves me walking from our house to the studio; unfortunately, it sounds a little like a radio play, but I wanted to have it there because that was the sound at the start of each day’s recording. To me, these features make the album sound just like us playing music in our shed – which is what we do!
Another production thought that I had with regards to space was making as much use of the sound stage depth as I could get from my little studio. So using the back and side of mics to intimate distance for some instruments, close/far miking and also moving mics around during performances so that instruments drew closer (or moved further away) during a song were some of the ways I tried to achieve this. I wanted to set up a tracking dolly system like they use in films at one point, but never got around to it…
GW: So you’re actually physically moving the mics around? Can you give us an example on the record where you did this? And what mics do you do it with?
MB: I mainly used it on background instruments, so the effect is quite difficult to hear most of the time – I really wish I’d used it on a few more upfront instruments as well, in hindsight. I usually use an AKG C414 or Rode NT2 going through the Universal Audio 6176, and setting the compressor so that it’s not affecting the signal at the furthest distance, only kicking in as the mic moves closer to the sound source. That way the level of the instrument to the tape recorder stays basically the same, all that’s changing is the actual effect of the mic getting closer to the instrument.
Probably the biggest use of this approach was the opening of the album, moving from our house out to the shed. Libby started playing her opening French horn note as I was walking with the mic from the house to the studio. As the door to the studio (then the door to the live room) opens, you hear the French horn appear and then get louder until the mic rests in front of it and stays there for the rest of the take. I used the technique on a lot of the percussion tracks, for songs such as Just Might Do, Oranges and The Thing About Grief. On each of these songs I would play the verses away from the mic and move in close for the choruses or a bridge, solo or whatever. Similarly for Libby’s backing vocals in Winding Up, I double-tracked her walking around the microphone for her little solo “do do doo’s”. We had pump organ on the songs Starry Picking Night, Which Way To Go, Winding Up, Thing About Grief and Miss You Like The Rain, and on most of the takes I had the mic on a boom stand with the boom positioned horizontally. Then I’d pump the organ with two feet, play the melody with my right hand and rotate the boom with my left so the mic would swing nearer and farther from the organ, which added a nice swirly element to the sound. And finally, for a few solo instruments, I was moving the mic around while people were doing their take – for example, Libby’s French horn in the bridge of Just Might Do, or the musical saw in On This Side.
GW: I know that track, and the saw isn’t loud but it definitely cuts through! [No pun intended, I presume – Ed.] How did you tackle the theme of grief from a production perspective?
MB: Producing an album largely about grief is quite difficult in that you don’t want to be morose all the time. Emotions are multi-faceted so we wanted the album to be that too. This took a lot of planning by mapping out the song order before recording began and making sure the album had a strong sense of progression and movement to it, that the darkest songs were introduced so that people were led into the depths, and that there was both a simultaneous positive ending with a sentimental, longing aftertaste. I reckon that was my best contribution to the album.
GW: You’re one of the few people I know who still works more or less entirely within the analogue domain. Tell us about your setup and the reasons behind it?
MB: I use a Tascam one-inch 24-track tape machine and a Soundcraft 500B mixer, which desperately needs fixing. I have a UA 6176 preamp/compressor and enough other compressors to handle most situations, mostly Alesis. Recently I got an Amek 9098 pre/EQ and dual compressor, and Genelec 8050 monitors. I don’t use many effects but I have a Yamaha delay to sort out phase problems with bass DIs and a TC Electronic M-One. Actually, looking over this list, a lot of it was purchased after What Was Left where I was using much cheaper Alesis monitors and far fewer compressors and gadgets.
I’m really glad I went down the analogue home recording road and I strongly recommend it to others that are starting to put a studio together. I started messing about with demos on a cheap TEAC 1/4-inch four track in the mid ’90s with Clare in our first band Red Raku. Even though the recording was terrible, people liked the songs and it ended up becoming quite popular in our little folky community. Towards the end of that project I started using computer recording for the first time. 16-bit/44.1k with a cheap soundcard didn’t sound pretty. Nor was it stable. I did an album with a friend on computer and it crashed at least once a day. And you could just hear how cheap and digital it sounded at the end. I also do a lot of session drumming work for both home and studio recorded albums and the way people use computers really frustrates me as a musician. Firstly, I’ve yet to hear my drums sound great on computer, where they always do on tape. Secondly, I hate the ease with which you can edit on computer. Consequently, musicians and producers don’t try as hard for the perfect take any more. On so many sessions as a drummer, I’ve done three passes, barely learnt the song, and been told that “We can make a take out of that”. I think that’s probably the biggest detriment to home recording projects – not necessarily the sound engineering, but the production decisions.
GW: Yeah, the computer can make everyone lazy, the players, singers and the producers too. The irony, of course, is that then it takes four times longer to edit and fix it all! Are there any cost savings to be had by going analogue?
MB: When I wanted to start setting up a vaguely decent studio, I found people were selling their analogue gear cheaply so it seemed just as cheap an option as buying a decent computer setup. Of course, it’s the outboard stuff that can sting you with an analogue setup – it’s not as simple as getting your hands on plug-ins. So it’s taken me about six years, and a lot more money, but I’m now pretty happy with the setup.
GW: Tell us about your live room and some of the acoustic treatments you’ve used. What did you set out to achieve with your space?
MB: The performance space is small – just a single-car garage, but I wanted to have a few different options for room sounds so that I could get as much depth as possible in that space. So one corner is dead with a futon on one wall and acoustic foam baffles on the other and on the roof and rubber on the floor. So that’s for dead, close-sounding applications – generally vocals and bass. Then one of the other corners is live, so it has a wooden floor and walls with wooden off-cuts to act as sound diffusers. I use that corner for instruments that need the space like drums, electric and acoustic guitars, strings etc. Then the other half of the room is pretty neutral sounding but it rarely gets used. I’m pretty happy with the variety I can get out of those three spaces in such a small room, and making use of them really adds depth and distinguishes instruments from each other in the final product. I learnt pretty early on that if you use the same mic, the same distance, in the same room for all the instruments in a track, you end up with a flat and one-dimensional recording.
GW: What Was Left has a great sense of space in the arrangements and all the parts carry a lot of weight. Do you think going to tape with the discipline of just 24 tracks helps keep the arrangements focused?
MB: Yeah it does a little. I mapped out a template of what tracks would be used for each song across the whole album. So, for example, Tracks 2-4 for acoustic guitar, 5-7 for bass, 8-14 for the drums, 15-17 for vocals and so forth. Tracks get used up very quickly and if you want an over-the-top production you have to plan for it quite early and bounce tracks down. I’ve done that with strings before, recorded a part six or so times early on, while there are tracks free, and bounced it down to a stereo track, but I didn’t need to do that with What Was Left; I fitted everything I needed into the 24 tracks. 24 is quite a lot really, especially when you compare it to Sgt. Pepper’s, where they only had four. You certainly can’t keep a huge amount of performances of the same part though, so it forces you to realise right there and then what you want from that instrument and whether or not it’s fitting in with everything else, because the real estate is so valuable – it won’t stay there for long if it’s not right.
GW: I couldn’t help noticing some of the exotic instruments in your studio. Are you a collector?
MB: By far the best part of the studio is the amount and variety of musical instruments. I’ve never been to another studio that has a more interesting selection of toys lying around, although a friend recently told me that Real World studios had more!
GW: Yeah, that’s pretty serious competition! Can you talk us through the recording process of one of the songs on the last album?
MB: I might talk about the last track – Yes I Miss You Like The Rain. This one was recorded differently to every other song on the album mainly because it was added to the songs for recording at the very last minute. The song order that I had worked out finished with On This Side, which is an up-tempo happy pop song. I liked the fact that there was a happier place on the other side of grief but didn’t want a corny happy ending as such. So I looked through Clare’s demo tapes to find a song that could be an interesting postscript, like The Beatles’ Her Majesty. Miss You Like The Rain fitted the themes of the album perfectly but it was only one verse long. Rather than turning it into a formally structured song, we decided to leave it in this ‘postscript’ form and just repeat that verse a few times. It was definitely the last song that we recorded for the album. On the last day of Clare’s recording, we decided to do a whole lot of acoustic live takes of guitar and vocals to use as a bonus disc. We recorded the basic track of Miss You Like the Rain in this setup.
Because I only have one figure-eight mic, I used that on the vox, cancelling out the guitar. Then I used a Rode NT2 on the guitar, and because the other bonus disc tracks were just guitar and vox, I added a couple of other mics to play with during mixing. A room mic NT2 and also an old Sennheiser dynamic mic from the ’60s, which is my go-to blues harp mic. So Clare did two live takes with vocals and guitar without a click track. The second take was awesome. Because it was a postscript song, I wanted to use some themes from the rest of the album as the instrumentation. So I used our pump organ to play the vocal melody of the first track Starry Picking Night – slightly changed to fit the new chords, of course. It was also used as the bass instrument and was recorded with an AKG C414 on the back through the UA 6176 and a room Rode NT2. Next was piano that echoed the French horn from When I Was Five, recorded with a mic at the bass end and one at the treble, most likely a 414/NT2 combo. Finally, to finish off, and to cover up the tempo/tightness issues were some percussion tracks. Some Llama’s toenails as shakers, which were double-tracked, and a Tibetan Singing bowl, which I used to end the album because it started our first album Autumn Bone. The final touch in mixing was to use the Sennheiser and room mic from the basic Guitar/Vox take exclusively for the first verse and then gradually bring in the close mics which had the effect of being brought into Clare’s voice. I think the track works because Clare’s take works, she is much freer and using her voice in a more interesting way than when she records guitar and vocals separately. Because that was what was recorded first it was easy for the other instruments to slot in and support her in a complimentary yet interesting way.
GW: Finally, I’ve also got to ask you about your bass speaker/microphone technique. Is that how you’ve recorded most of the bass tracks?
MB: I did. I used three tracks for bass. A 414 a metre or so away from the amp using Stav’s sweetspot finding technique, a DI and also a speaker box from a ’70s radiogram with an XLR soldered onto the speaker wire. I think I got the idea from something that I read about a producer using a car stereo speaker to record bass drums so that they are punchy on car stereos… So I tried it with this speaker, which has a 12-inch and a horn in it. I think the whole wooden box ends up creating most of the voltage so that it’s a very subby sound. The idea was to slip a little of that in while mixing to make the bass as big as possible but I’m not sure that I used much of it while mixing. It sounded fine but I think there were enough subs from the 414 both on the bass and the kick drum while being used as a room mic, that I didn’t need it so much. I don’t think I’ve used it since, but maybe I’ll pull it out again when Clare goes dub-reggae.