Home Grown: Brendan Gallagher
Singer/songwriters are a bit fashionable right now. Wanna know how to make a classic ‘song-based’ album? Let’s ask producer/guitarist/artiste and general all-round legend, Brendan Gallagher. He’s just made a good ‘un.
Text: Gavin Hammond
I hate music PR people. They’re a bit like wasps in summer: useless but unavoidable. But today, I like them. I needed an intro for this column, and blow me down if a PR email pitch didn’t have it all.
This is what it said: “Brendan Gallagher is one of Australia’s most respected musicians and producers. He’s won two ARIAs, for Karma County’s Into the Land of Promise (2000) and Jimmy Little’s Australian classic Messenger (1999). His guitar skills have also been showcased on recordings for David Bowie, Kylie Minogue, David McCormack, Paul Mac and more. His compositions also include many soundtracks and documentaries for ABC, SBS and short films. He’s a published author with The Open Tuning Chord Book for Guitar currently in its second edition. He has just launched his first solo album On Eve St and will be touring nationally. Please consider and let me know if you think it will be relevant to your next edition.”
So what more can I say? Except this guy doesn’t need hype – his music and reputation speak for themselves… He’s a true artist; and he has a great beard to prove it. Here’s how he crafts his songs.
GH: Brendan, how did the solo album come about, and what were you trying to do?
BG: I’ve been meaning to do a solo album for a long time but never got around to it. I’ve always done band things or other people’s records. I definitely wanted a strong rhythm element, which is why I teamed up with drummer/percussionist Felix Bloxsom, who also co-produced my album.
Felix and I went for a couple of definite sounds – Ringo’s Abbey Road tea-towels-on-the-kit sound, and the Curtis Mayfield & The Imperials’ big, open early ’60s bandstand kind of sound, too. We did a bunch of guides with click tracks in ProTools and lugged four drum kits up the stairs to Big Jesus Burger studios in Surry Hills to do three days of drums.
Chris Townend tracked all the drums on his Ampex two-inch machine. We love Chris, he pulls ‘his’ drum sound, which involves nice toys like Reslo ribbon mics and his mad ’50s Rola mono tube tape preamp – and he’s laidback and fun. I value ‘fun’ over ‘difficult’ every time. If you’re a genius but a pain in the arse, go tell it to your mama, I’m not interested. Chris, like Felix and my friend Stu Hunter (who did all the string and horn arrangements for this album), are fun and gifted – and dress well, too!
I pretty much sat on the couch up the back of the studio and watched Chris and Felix do their thing. I was nursing a torn Achilles tendon so I didn’t have much choice (a touch footy match at a wedding if you must know). Occasionally, I would wave my crutches around if there was something I didn’t like or I had an idea… or was hungry!
I’m generally not dictatorial with production, i.e., I don’t insist that someone plays something just so; instead I choose a player who I think will suit a particular piece and let them interpret it, with a little guidance – a symbiosis if you will. That way the player puts their strengths and personality into a track, they enjoy it more ’cause they feel confident about what they’re doing and I get something new and fresh. And on the off chance that I don’t like it, I dump it and try again later with somebody else, but that’s pretty rare.
Once I have a comp I delete all the other takes – that way I can’t go back, just like Cortez The Killer burning his ships when the Spanish landed on the coast of Mexico so they could never go back, they were committed.
GH: Tell us about your home studio…
BG: I built a studio with my buddy Gareth ‘Gigpiglet’ Stuckey in his Redfern basement. I worked in a spare room of my flat in Bondi for 10 years, but I used up all the magic in that room and it was time to have a definite workspace outside of home. I met Gareth on a Tascam Internet forum in 2000 when we were the only two people in Australia who owned a Tascam MX2424 digital recorder.
My studio is basically three rooms all tied together: I have a room with my stuff in it, he has one with his, and there’s a live room. Between us we’ve got some stuff; I have more instruments, he has more mics and outboard.
Gear-wise I have an iMac G5 running ProTools 7.1 with Tool Kit, Logic 7 and a Digi 002. I got Logic because that’s what Felix liked working with, but mainly I work in ’Tools. Outboard-wise I have a pair of Quad Eight preamps (the red ones) mod’ed by Joe Malone in Brisbane, a pair of Universal Audio 6176s, a two-channel TLA tube mic preamp compressor, and a Focusrite 8 analogue/8 ADAT in/out interface.
Mic-wise I’ve got an AKG C3000, AKG C12 (on extended loan from a friend), Sennheiser 421s, 441MD, a pair of Oktava 012 pencil mics, some EVs, Shure 58s, and Felix’s AKG D12 (better come and get it mate). Gareth has a range of Oktava mics, and in particular a ribbon that I use all the time, and 57s, Beta 57s & 58s and lots of other bibs and bobs.
One thing I use all the time is a Sony micro cassette dictaphone. I remember reading about a Los Lobos recording done at Ry Cooder’s home studio in LA where they used a ghetto blaster as an overhead pair for the drum kit. Cheap, nasty, ultra-hard knee compression – the little dictaphone, or ‘Mr Slurpy’ as I like to call him, is even uglier! I use it all the time on drum sessions – it doesn’t matter where you put it; I generally just hit record and throw it on the floor near the front of the kit. It does wonderful things to cymbals, and has quite a rhythmic effect because the compression is so hard and the release so slow that it feeds back on itself – it’s very musical and adds a nice crust to things. I’ve used it on vocals and guitars as well. The intro to my song Tidy Town is recorded on Mr Slurpy.
GH: How do you go about getting inspiration for a track with so many options?
BG: I am inspired by people like Nick Lowe who have a 360-degree view of music creation and production – likewise, I have an idea while I’m writing a song of how I think it should sound when I put it down. I don’t really write songs, I write excuses to put words and music and noises together!
GH: Can we speak more specifically about how you record guitars, for example?
BG: I’ve spent a lot of time recording acoustic guitars and I don’t stray too far from engineering orthodoxy – a good condenser mic positioned about 30cm from where the neck meets the body of the guitar and angled towards the sound hole… that’s for dreadnoughts, etc. For nylon-stringed guitars (or ‘nun’s guitars’ as Tex Perkins calls them) almost head onto the sound hole; Dobros and arch tops generally behind and out from the bridge.
Basically, I look for the voice of the guitar and follow it. Depending on where the guitar lives in the song (is it the primary motivator, picked, strummed, one guitar or three?).
Say, with my Gilet Everly Bros acoustic, I often use some other mics (in combo with the principal condenser, which is usually an Oktava O12, or, if I’m playing away from home, a U87 or similar): a D12 or a 421 60cm or so out and back from the bridge; or a ribbon pointed at the back of the guitar body; or all three.
Depending on the guitar I generally roll off some bottom-end – especially if it’s a big-bodied guitar – otherwise it blows out any compression I’m using. I usually apply compression of around 3 to 5dB at about 4:1 ratio unless I’m going for a really slamming aesthetic, which is rare. I generally favour mic position over EQ – I’m old school. I don’t go in too close; I like a lot of air around the guitar. I might just use the condenser in a mix but at least I have some choices… better to be lookin’ at ’em than lookin’ for ’em.
GH: Can you talk us through a track on the album, step by step, to give us an idea of how you work?
BG: There’s a track on my album called Black Swan Song that moves through some changes. It starts with a strummed nun’s guitar put down first (top to tail, two mics as described), then a guide vocal (everybody plays better when they hear a vocal).
Next, a double bass part recorded with a condenser near the bridge over the F-hole and a ribbon mic at shoulder height of the player looking down at the body of the bass (played masterfully by Dave Symes).
I’ve been doing some production workshops at the Australian Institute of Music in Q Studios (formerly Rhino) and so I had the chance to record a piano part there on their Yamaha baby grand and also a string section. I’ve made many records with Stu Hunter, a first-call keys man, and he’s done great horn and string arrangements for me as well, so he wrote a part for three violins, two violas and two cellos. We recorded them together as sections (i.e., a condenser mic on each set of instruments) a stereo X/Y pair two-three metres back and above, and a far room mic in the adjoining live room (the INXS snare space) about 8 to 10 metres away.
I had a friend’s weirdo ’70s Yamaha rotating speaker box (it rotates vertically, not horizontally like a Leslie), so I did an acoustic guitar part through that. Felix did a little brushes drum part on his tambourine snare and my water bottle kick drum (a 15-litre plastic water cooler bottle mounted in a frame) and I added some shaker and tambo.
Jess Ciampa added some vibraphone, and the final touch was some piano ‘soup’ – one of my favourite things. Basically, I mic up a piano and play the fundamental tones of the song with the sustain pedal on and record the resonant decay. Then I find the best bit of swirling resonance, copy it, reverse it and crossfade it with the original piece of resonance and then loop it. I do this independently of the track so that when I slot it under the mix it becomes a random effect. It’s usually way back in the mix but it adds a quite discernible sonic halo. I like adding a random element to a take. To me it’s the essence of Quincy Jones’ maxim: “…leave enough room for the Lord to walk through”.
When I mixed the song I used a lot of delay and not much reverb. I mix pretty dry. I had a Sun Studios kinda slap-back (Mooger Fooger plug-in) with a lot of repeat and a bit of EMT medium plate courtesy of TL Space – I’m a fan of plates, they just sound musical to me.
The song really relies on performance, arrangement, a bit of EQ and a lot of work on panning… balancing really.
GH: Can you expand on your mixing ideas a bit more?
BG: I usually mix quite dry, with a bit of compression, and minimal EQ, unless I want to really mess up a sound. I try to keep it to a minimum of takes as well. Generally, one take straight through, a second with drop-ins and pickups and a third, once I think I’ve got it in the bag, to improvise a bit. Then I comp it.
When I hear of people, who should know better, doing 63 bass takes I’m appalled: why give yourself that many decisions to make? Once I have a comp I delete all the other takes – that way I can’t go back, just like ‘Cortez The Killer’ burning his ships when the Spanish landed on the coast of Mexico so they could never go back, they were committed.
When I mix, I spread the tracks over groups and into 16 channels of my TAC console then stereo out of there into my MX2424. The highest track count on my album was around 45.
Generally drums and percussion are grouped into four; everything else is in stereo pairs (keys, FX, etc) and mono (vocals, bass). If I can, I use EQ on the board, I like the idea of winding stuff in and out with my fingers – much more wholesome – but if I need to, I’ll use plug-ins.
Breaking it out through the desk adds a lot of real estate, more dimension (some people say that there’s no difference between mixing ‘in the box’ to putting it through the desk, but sorry folks, I don’t agree). I set the faders at unity, pan stereo groups left and right and do all the volume automation, etc on the 002.
GH: How do you approach mastering? Suggestions and tips for preparing?
BG: I love mastering; it’s the best day of the year. Send out for breakfast while someone else polishes your work and makes it sound like a record. I have been going almost exclusively to Don ‘Is Good’ Bartley (now at Benchmark) for 15 years or more. He’s a legend.
He always approaches my stuff as a piece of music, not so much as a sonic event. He has all that stuff up there in the bio-computer to refer to, but he works instinctively. Like Charlie Parker said: “… learn it all then forget it”. If I can mix to half-inch tape I will, otherwise 24-bit/96k on my MX2424. I often ring Don up before I mix and ask what he thinks.
As for tips? Well, check what software people are using, I turned up somewhere recently with a 7.1 Tools project and they had 6.3. Doh!
GH: Any big-picture tips as a result of doing this solo project?
BG: Spend the money on the beds – good drums, good players, good rooms, good mics, good engineer. Even though 95 percent of what people hear on a record is emotive, technical excellence shouldn’t be sacrificed. There’s ‘loose’ and then there’s ‘sloppy’; there’s ‘lo-fi’ and then there’s ‘just-sounds-like-shit’.
GH: Finally, what would you nominate as your ‘desert island’ gear?
BG: Mr Slurpy, a guitar, some chopsticks, a six-pack of Sapporo beer to put sand in and shake after drinking them to create the mood!