Recording Summer at Eureka
Pete Murray’s newest album, Summer at Eureka, was recorded entirely at home, surrounded by chooks, goats, Pete’s supportive family and loyal hound Janie. Is this the future of commercial recording?
It’s the modern way, recording at home with your own gear. The combination of familiar surroundings, home-cooked meals and the freedom to focus on the music you’re creating is a luxury more and more musicians are opting for nowadays. For Pete Murray, who recorded his latest No.1 release, Summer at Eureka, at home in his purpose-built studio, the benefits also include minimising the stress levels of the tracking process. “I don’t think I got stressed one day during the recording phase,” Pete remarked, while sitting in the sun on the back veranda with his dog Janie and three chooks… “Not one day.”
Given the surroundings of Pete’s home studio, nestled in the hills behind Byron Bay, I could see why.
Pete seems utterly convinced of the benefits of recording at home. After tracking and mixing a couple of highly successful albums in commercial studios, it came as a surprise to many – not least his record company – that Pete had opted to record his new album with engineer Anthony Lycenko in one of the outbuildings on his five-acre property in Eureka, away from the ticking clock of the big studio. Indeed, it was only after the six-month construction phase and the first demos had been recorded that Sony even got wind of it. To add to the drama, Pete was adamant the album would be self-produced.
From the record company’s point of view, the idea that Pete’s next album would be recorded at home with ‘no producer’ and only a modest amount of equipment seemed risky… “But ironically,” as Pete pointed out, “after they heard the demos, they only had one piece of advice for me: ‘Don’t stray too far from the sound of the demo recordings’ they said. ‘We really like that sound’. Stray from it? I added, that’s the album… it’s already half finished!”
Summer at Eureka is a pretty relaxed album. For Pete Murray and Anthony Lycenko its main focus was all about performances and sound. For the most part, tracking involved dispensing with click tracks and any notions that ‘tighter’ was ‘better’. As Pete pointed out: “As a first-time producer, one of the things I was always trying to do was convince everyone else that the early takes were often great, and that obsessing over making it ‘better’ – i.e. tighter – wasn’t going to improve the album. I’ve always loved the vibe of demo recordings where the discipline of tracking hasn’t yet taken hold and I really wanted that slightly imperfect vibe for this record.”
Tonal and musical inspiration for Summer at Eureka mainly consisted of a ’70s palette, drawn from the likes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. The fourth song off the album, Silver Cloud, makes this plain for all to hear, as Pete openly admits. The opening bars of the song, with their plodding, chilled-out drums and honky bass are unmistakably reminiscent of Neil Young’s Harvest classic, Out on the Weekend. The second song, Saving Grace, is similarly bespoked. Pete also made it plain during our conversation that he went so far as to direct Anthony towards some of these iconic ’70s recordings, in the hope that their tone and ‘vibe’ might be captured on Summer at Eureka.
But hey, let’s back up a bit. Before this lazy summer recording could take place they had to build a studio! Surely that was no simple task…
Pete Murray: Building the studio was a big job, for sure, but the results have been great. The studio’s got a nice ’70s feel about it with lots of daylight. Singing in the small room is particularly beautiful in the afternoon when the sun comes streaming through… it’s magic.
Andy Stewart: Was the studio building already here on the property, or did you start from scratch?
PM: We retrofitted the studio inside the shell of an existing building, which had previously been used as a photographic studio. I’ve tried to retain as much of the vibe of this original building as possible; by keeping one of the skylights and all the windows. I really wanted to make sure it didn’t turn into a typically dark commercial studio. I also wanted to retain the ceiling height to get as much live tone into the recordings as possible. We also built a second room off the larger space to provide a deader, ‘tighter’ option.
AS: Was building this place a reaction to disliking commercial studios?
PM: Disliking the pressure of studios in terms of money and time; the amount you spend and the limited amount you have. At the end you’re always racing to get things done and there’s always a song that doesn’t quite work out the way you wanted it to. But by then you’re stuck with it: ‘Sorry mate, we’re out of money, that’s just the way it will have to be’. So you’re often putting out stuff that’s not your best. I didn’t want to do that again.
AS: How did you approach the recording of Summer at Eureka once the building was complete and the gear was installed?
PM: The original demos started with acoustic guitar and vocals until I was happy with the performances, and from there we overdubbed drums in the big room and bass in this smaller room. After that we added keyboards, piano and so on. This happened over a three-month period, from October to December last year. I then had a couple of weeks off, and after listening back to the demos I quickly realised I’d already captured half the album.
AS: Were the demos recorded in anticipation that this might be the case?
PM: Yeah, to some degree, although I was initially pretty keen to hear how the facility would sound first. But certainly, I was hoping I could capture a lot of the album during the demo phase because I’ve always felt they’re your best takes. Summer at Eureka is a good example of that. The song – not the album – started off as a recording I made one afternoon while everyone else was having lunch, so I wouldn’t forget the tune. My keyboard player, Ben McCarthy, recorded it for me and I only did one take. And that’s what’s on the album. I recorded the acoustic guitar first and then hummed an overdub vocal – that was it.
A couple of weeks later the band heard it for the first time, and that’s when we decided to work it up for this record. I wasn’t into the idea initially; I still had to write lyrics for it, for starters. But they were like, ‘at least let’s work on it and put something down!’. So we did. Since then it’s turned out really well. On iTunes it’s one of my highest selling songs.
AS: Presumably that’s a classic example of what you envisaged the home studio might give you: a demo recording which grows into an album track by having that relaxed, unconscious vibe…
PM: Totally. A lot of the tracks were done that way; Chance to say Goodbye is another example. Initially I wanted it to have a real Neil Young-style bass line, with a bit of looseness about it. But getting Andy [Sylvio – drums] and Jonathan [Zion – bass], who are both great players, to play loosely enough was really hard. They wanted me to start again with a click track so they could make their takes perfect, but when their first combined bass and drum take was totally nailed to the demo guitar I was like, ‘That’s great, that’s the one!’. And they were like, ‘No no, we can do better…’ and I was like, ‘No you can’t. Stop!’. The same occurred with Silver Cloud; trying to retain some of that looseness in the performances was a challenge.
FROM DEMOS TO TRACKING
After the demos had proven the home studio to sound pretty good, Pete called the band in again to track the album proper. They used the same approach, only this time the drums were recorded in both rooms, to experiment with the sounds…
PM: I wanted to record all the drums in the small room when we got together again, and then move them back into the big room and record them a second time. That way we had effectively three sets of takes of drums for each song, each of them sounding different.
AS: Why did you do that? Were you after a blend of sounds or multiple drum parts in the songs?
PM: No, I just wanted to hear the difference. Because it was my own studio, we had the time to experiment… and this was exactly why I built the place, so I’d have the time to play around with the sounds without feeling like I was wasting time. It’s always seemed ironic to me that when you go into a big studio, there’s so much pressure on you that experimenting with sounds is seen as a waste of precious time.
When we did the demos we got a certain sound for the drums that sounded really cool. The second time around I got Andy to set up his drums in the smaller room and they sounded very different to the big space – much tighter. Then we set up again in the big room and re-recorded all the drums a third time. That way we had three choices of drum sounds to choose from: demos, small room and big room.
AS: So how were you managing that in the ProTools rig? Were you simply adding those different takes as playlists?
PM: Yep, we were, and always tracking to my demo acoustic guitar. That was the guide, the template. Those demo takes were great because they had a bit of movement in them. I hate the whole discipline of click tracks. We used click track on some of the songs, admittedly, but generally I’m not interested in being perfectly tight on a tempo; I prefer to be a bit loose with my rhythm guitar part. As a result, the demo acoustics were often a little racy in the choruses and backed off in the verses. So the guys had to learn to play to that.
AS: Well that’s music isn’t it?
PM: Well exactly, I totally agree. By the end of course, the others were going, ‘Yeah, no more click track thanks, we don’t even want to hear it any more!’.
OUT OF THE BAG
Incredibly, for the whole time Pete Murray was building his home studio and right throughout the demo phase of the album, the record company (Sony) had no idea any of this was happening. Then one day someone let it slip.
PM: One of the guys in the band ran into someone from Sony just before we started tracking the album and said to him: ‘Yeah, Pete’s demos sound great! We’re heading back into the studio to record the album in November’. And they were like, ‘What? No-one knows anything about it! We haven’t heard anything… There isn’t even a budget for it!’. Once Sony got wind of it they started asking questions like: ‘Where are you recording it?’ and ‘Whose recording studio is that again?’.
They were pretty good about it actually. Before we played the demos I said, ‘Look this is what we want to do. I want to record it at my home studio, produce it myself and Anthony Lycenko’s going to engineer it. And you could see there was a bit of fear in their eyes, understandably. I guess it’s a scary moment for a record company when a successful act on the label comes in and starts talking about setting up at home and producing the album themselves!
It’s always seemed ironic to me that when you go into a big studio, there’s so much pressure on you that experimenting with sounds is seen as a waste of precious time.
AS: Given that you’ve produced this album yourself, what has a producer offered you in the past that you presumably don’t need any more?
PM: In the past, a producer has mainly helped me get the sounds and feel right. Making sure the feelings and emotions are captured on a recording is the critical thing. It’s easy to miss that, especially when you’re obsessing over click tracks and the like. The thing that made me confident about producing the album myself was that I’d never needed a producer before to help me with the structural arrangements of songs. On my last album, See the Sun, I remember [pro ducer] Eric Sarafin saying: “I don’t need to do anything to the structure and arrangements, everything’s there. We just need to record this the right way.” So in my case, for me, I needed to concentrate on the songs and the feel. My music doesn’t require a big-name producer to come in and produce the shit out of it. For this album I figured it would be better if that didn’t happen.
AS: How did you go about ‘producing’ your own performances?
PM: When it came to vocal takes I got Ben McCarthy and Anthony – or ‘Chenxy’ as I call him – to offer their opinion. It’s hard to judge your own takes sometimes. Just when you think you’ve nailed it you can listen back and discover it’s just not there. Other times when you think a performance isn’t right you discover that it’s ‘the one’. In those situations I relied on the others to call me in for a listen whenever they felt good about a take. As a producer that’s what you’ve got to do, you’ve got to be able to recognise a great performance.
MIXING IN NEW YORK
After the album tracking was completed Pete took the hard drives over to Quad Studios in New York – along with his family – and mixed it with American engineer Michael Brauer [Coldplay, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, John Mayer – to name but a few]. A long way from the sunny north coast of NSW, it seemed like a radical gearshift to take the album to one of the biggest mix engineers in the US. What had prompted this?
PM: I had misgivings about one of my previous albums, Feeler, and really wanted to try a different approach this time around. When we recorded that album some of the rough mixes had so much energy… and yet somehow that got a bit lost in the end, which was frustrating. I wasn’t experienced enough back then to articulate the problems I thought it had – I didn’t know why it sounded so flat… I mean, I hardly even understood what compression was at that stage!
AS: So why New York and Michael Brauer?
PM: Well, I’ve always wanted to mix an album with Michael. He did a few single remixes off Feeler, which I really liked and he’d always said to me, ‘Why don’t you let me mix an album for you?’. He’d also mixed the first Coldplay album, Parachutes, which sounds pretty stunning. I kept listening to that album and eventually thought, ‘You know what, let’s just do it this time’. I was really interested to see what it’d be like to add his ‘pop’ texture to our more ‘rootsy’ tracking.
AS: You weren’t feeling any external pressure to just hype the album up last minute…?
PM: No, I actually thought I was being pretty experimental. I was really interested to see what he’d come up with, and the results are pretty different, I reckon. For instance, he quickly added delay and reverb to my vocals, which have always been dry. That came as a bit of a shock at first because I’d never heard my voice like that before. My initial reaction was, ‘Woah, hang on, this is too much! Maybe we should pull it back a little’. The snare also had too much reverb on it, so I had to get him to back off some of the effects and make the vocal a little drier. But essentially that’s the difference I got. The vocals on this album are certainly a lot wetter than they’ve been in the past.
AS: You weren’t worried about putting your new album in the hands of a guy who might take the mixes in a direction you didn’t want them to go?
PM: That was definitely a concern.
AS: How did the mixing process unfold?
PM: Every day I’d come in and give Michael directions, leave, and then come back towards the end. The first song we did was the single, You Pick Me Up, which originally came out sounding very polished, so I had to get him to back things off a bit. It was a bit tricky actually because I’d say: ‘What have you done with the snare there? It sounds like you’ve got some delay on it,’ and he’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got some delay on it, what about it?’. So he was a bit defensive at first, but once he understood where I was coming from and realised I could articulate my concerns, he was fine and we worked well together. I was very specific about what I wanted because I knew the sounds so intimately before I went in there. He’s just sick of artists coming in and going, ‘No, it’s not quite right, something’s wrong, but I don’t know what it is…’
AS: Did you do any of your own tracking on the album, Pete?
PM: Well, not really. I recorded one guitar part on Chance to Say Goodbye, which was pretty dirty. When I showed it to Michael Brauer I said, ‘Can you just fix it up a bit because I engineered that!’ [laughs] But he liked it so we left it pretty much as-is.
THE ENGINEER: ANTHONY LYCENKO
The engineer charged with capturing the sounds for Summer at Eureka was Byron Bay resident, Anthony Lycenko. Anthony and Pete have known one another for years and worked together on Pete’s first two independent releases: The Game and D-Day, as well as Forever Now on a recent Cold Chisel tribute album.
Anthony has worked as an engineer for well over a decade, both in Australia and overseas, with artists as diverse as David Bowie, Pet Shop Boys, Moloko and Xavier Rudd. Living in Byron and working primarily out of Rockinghorse Studios, Anthony was keen to be involved with Pete’s new album in any way he could. He not only engineered the album and fitted out the studio with some of his own equipment, but is also credited with additional production, which mainly revolved around the recording of Pete’s acoustic and electric guitar parts, and lead vocals.
Anthony Lycenko: Myself and Ben [McCarthy] gave Pete off-the-cuff production advice, but stylistically he was pretty convinced of what he wanted to do. Pete had a firm idea how he wanted the record to sound from the outset. Our production input was mainly with regard to vocal performance and instrumentation.
Andy Stewart: Did you have anything to do with the studio construction or the equipment fit-out?
AL: I did, yes, but the idea for the studio wasn’t to make something that was sonically perfect. It was more a case of building Pete a space to record in so he could remain close to his family during the album tracking. There was originally only one main room in the existing building, so we added a second smaller space off to one side of the original structure. We ripped up the original timber floor, laid a slab and floated the rooms so there was a fair amount of work done on the place. But as far as sophisticated acoustic design was concerned, that wasn’t a major consideration.
The control room was the space that took me the longest time to get my head around, because there was effectively no treatment in there [the main room treatment behind the mix position is, in fact, a kitchen sink!]. Sure we had some padding on the walls but there were windows behind and to the side. Initially I was pretty unsure of what I was hearing, but I soon got used to it.
AS: What was the main recording gear used to capture the album?
AL: Well, we didn’t have a lot of gear – and in some ways that was a good thing – but what gear we had was good quality. The big advantage for us was that we had a huge bunch of great instruments at our disposal, and great players. So the basic approach to tracking was that whenever we didn’t like a sound, we’d change the drums or change the guitar. We made decisions about instruments in the recording area, rather than mics or preamps.
Pete bought a Toft Audio console for the studio and I brought in some of my own gear for the sessions as well. We had two modified Neve 1272 preamps, which I mainly used for kick and snare, a Manley valve D.I., two Amek 9098 channel strips and a Neve 8801 channel strip, a Urei 1178, two Urei 1176s and two Distressors. So the gear was good. We also used the preamps on the Toft without hesitation, and all the tracking went through the console via the groups into ProTools HD at 24-bit/88.2k, using the 192 converters: 16 in and eight out.
The mic cabinet included a couple of Neumann U67s, a 47FET and a TLM170. We had three AKG C-414s, as well as two of the newer model 414s, an AKG D112 for the kick drum, a Peluso P12, Sennheiser 441s and Shure SM57s.
AS: Presumably these mics and pres made up the various combinations of drum and bass input chains once the acoustic and voice had been recorded?
AL: Definitely, although initially I tried to convince Pete to record the drum and bass tracks at Rockinghorse Studios, which is a well-known facility nearby that I’m very familiar with. But Pete was adamant he wanted to do everything in the new space, and in hindsight I’m glad he was. The different setup of the home studio and the Toft console made me experiment more with sounds, and do things I wouldn’t have done if I’d been at Rockinghorse. I used different microphones and mic techniques, different drum kits, threw sheets over drums, that sort of thing. The luxury of Pete’s setup really freed us from the constraints of time, which allowed us to move things around if things weren’t working. There was never any sense of being rushed, which was great.
AS: Can you give us a breakdown of the setups one instrument at a time… starting with Pete’s vocals and guitar?
AL: Pete’s vocal mic of choice is a Shure SM57 – a mic he grew to love during the recording of his previous album, See The Sun, which was tracked at Sing Sing. Pete has always been concerned to make sure his voice doesn’t get too soft and silky on the rockier songs, and for those, he really wanted something that gave his voice some more grit. I was more than happy to use a 57 if that’s what he wanted to do; the 57 certainly toughens his voice up a little bit. My only issue was to make sure Pete appreciated that he’d tracked the 57 at Sing Sing through a Pultec and an LA-2A, and it wasn’t just the mic that he’d been hearing back then. The other mic we used on Pete’s voice was a Peluso P12, which is that company’s version of the famous AKG C12 [See Issue 54 for the review]. That was a very successful mic on Pete’s voice too. Generally we used the 57 for the rockier songs and the much breathier Peluso for the softer songs, which we had switched to omni. We also used it pretty successfully on acoustic guitar.
GOOD INSTRUMENTS, GOOD RECORDINGS
Summer at Eureka sounds the way it does primarily because of the quality of the instruments. From Anthony’s point of view, all the engineering skill in the world can’t make up for bad instruments or bad performances. It’s all about the musicians and their instruments. All the sounds flow from there, down through the mics and into the computer. That was the recording philosophy from day one.
AL: If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my career, having worked with so many people over the years, it’s that the people playing the instruments and the instruments themselves are the vital ingredients of any good sound. All engineering skill is secondary to that. Thankfully we were very fortunate to have an amazing selection of gear for this album, which meant I could pretty much throw mics anywhere and it would sound good. It was then just a matter of slightly moving either the mic, the musician, or the instrument, or trying different combinations of microphone and instrument to get what we wanted.
This might make me sound like I’m a tad blasé about my microphone technique, but I’m not. I think as you gain more experience over the years you become more instinctive about where to place a mic to get a particular sound.
Generally speaking, we had three mics on the electric guitar cabinets: an SM57 and an AKG C-414 in close, with a Neumann U67 acting as the room mic. I always used a torch to look into the amp to find the centre of the speaker cone and at times pointed the 57 directly at it. More often than not, however, I recorded guitar amps with the 414 and 57 on-axis either side of dead centre about 15cm away from the speaker. Most importantly, I’m always careful to ensure the two mics are phase coherent, and for that, both capsules – not just the grilles of the mics – must be the same distance from the speaker.
AS: Were there any other more radical techniques used?
AL: No, for the most part, we didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. The SM57 on the soundboard behind the piano was pretty compressed – personally I’m a huge fan of 1176s and 1178s, with all ratios apart from 4:1 selected, set with a slow attack and fast release, and the input cranked… This sort of approach to compression also applied to the mono room mic on the drumkit (usually the Sennheiser 441).
Piano mics on the Ronisch upright consisted of a C-414 and a Neumann TLM170 acting as a stereo pair about two or three feet above the closed lid. The aforementioned SM57 was very close up against the soundboard. I also investigated whatever live drum mics were in the vicinity to see what happy accidents were on offer.
He bankrolled this hopeless bunch of kids and gave us the keys to a very expensive, well-kitted out studio, and told us to go for it
CAPTURING THE BOTTOM END
AS: What about the bass guitar cabinet miking approach?
AL: I knew you were going to ask me this… so I’ve taken some notes! [Laughs]. I used a U47FET and the Toft console’s preamps on the cabinet [an SWR 4×10-inch cabinet with an Eden Traveler 400 head fed by three bass guitars: a ’69 Fender P-bass, a ’65 Jazz and an earlier ’60s P-bass]. I always miked the cabinet at least a foot away – never right up on the grille. I also used the Manley D.I. as well. I took a mic signal from the cabinet, one out of the D.I. and a third from the head.
AS: Were all these kept separate in the ’Tools rig?
AL: For the bass guitar, yes they were. In the back of my mind I knew I wasn’t going to be mixing the album, so I kept the bass channels separate to give the mix engineer some options. For the guitars I always ended up with only two tracks: two close mics on the amp mixed together onto one track, as well as a room mic. The same applied to the acoustic guitar: a mic channel either consisted of the Peluso P12 or occasionally a 57, and on some of the tracks I also recorded a D.I. from Pete’s pickup, which sounded okay. I also used a room mic that was usually somewhere over the shoulder of the player pointing straight down, in the same way you might record a violin.
AS: What about drum miking?
AL: We did a hell of a lot of drum miking over the course of the record. The second time we recorded drums I rearranged my overheads (Neumann U67s) behind the head of the drummer, which sounded fabulous. I generally had an AKG D112 inside the kick drum and a Neumann TLM170 on the outside, a Beyer M201 on the hi-hats, a Sennheiser 441 in the room – for that crunched mono sound – a pair of AKG 414s for the room, and SM57s on everything else because that’s all we had.
AS: What about the overall tone for the album?
AL: Pete really wanted an old-fashioned tone for this record; he didn’t want a slick new sound at all. He wanted things to sound round and warm, rather than hi-fi. So from my point of view I was very conscious of the bottom end right throughout the recording process. And to get that right you have to be very careful with phase. I’m pretty obsessed with getting this right, actually, particularly with the drums and bass. I spend a lot of time getting all the individual drum mics in phase with both the overheads and rooms. This also applies to the three bass signals: mic, D.I. and head. Overall, Pete wanted to create an image of the band recording in his shed.
AS: It actually sounds quite dry and tight and close to me… not what I would call shed-like!
AL: Well… a very small shed perhaps! Both rooms were quite tight and reasonably dead so there wasn’t really the scope to produce a big open sound.
AS: Did the quirkiness of the control room mean that you were reluctant to do much EQing to tape?
AL: Not necessarily, I mainly used EQ subtractively, particularly on things like drum overheads and general room mics. I regularly had to get rid of lower mids and the Ameks were good for that. I don’t think there was a reluctance to do any EQing – more often than not I didn’t need to. But certainly addressing problem frequencies and removing them, rather than reaching for the boost controls straight away, was the order of the day.
Fortunately, after the studio was built, and before I started work on Pete’s record, I was able to track an EP for an independent band in the space, which gave me a good indication of how things would sound.
AS: What were you monitoring through mainly?
AL: Originally I used a pair of KRK V8s to track bass and drums. But then the mighty NS10s found their way onto the speaker stands and stayed there for the duration. What’s more, we were running them with a Technics hi-fi amp. It was the only amp we had and it sounded fine, so we didn’t change it.
LOOKING BACK ON LAST SUMMER
AL: As far as the experience of making a record went, Summer at Eureka was by far the best experience I’ve ever had, primarily because Pete wasn’t stressed at all. He wasn’t away from the family, he wasn’t looking at the clock and worrying about how much money he was spending. We were even able to break at reasonable hours each day for dinner! One of Pete’s friends, who happens to be a chef, came down and cooked for us almost every evening. Theme nights with food and dress became an important part of the day. This was a whole different approach to making a record.
AS: What were some of these ‘theme nights’?
AL: Well, we had an Indian night where we all had to wear orange turbans, a Moroccan evening and seafood nights, so in that regard I think that it was a pretty special experience. We had great fun, we really did.