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Hidden persuaders

Paul Stavely-O'Duffy

Article from The Mix, June 1995

Mark Cunningham finds producer O'Duffy in hypnotic mood

Do not adjust your stereo. Producer, Paul Staveley-O'Duffy and superstar hypnotist, Paul McKenna are about to take you on the trip of the century. But beware — their new album might change your life. They talked to a blissed-out Mark Cunningham.

Paul Staveley-O'Duffy has spent the last 14 years carving an enviable niche as the producer of best-selling records by Swing Out Sister, Was (Not Was), Lisa Stansfield, The Pretenders and The Beloved, amongst others. But his latest project sees him turning away from the mainstream, to produce an album he describes as, "positive software for the brain".

A largely instrumental collage, A Natural High will combine worldwide musical disciplines with the powers of hypnotic suggestion, to create an aural experience designed to enhance the listener's consciousness. Although its structure is more akin to a New Age War Of The Worlds, the album could do for 3D audio technology what Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon achieved for stereo in the 70s.

Joining forces on this innovative project is superstar hypnotist Paul McKenna, whose narrative passages segue with O'Duffy's music to take the listener on a seamless, relaxing journey through a number of audio-simulated 'scenes'.

"The individual pieces of music are followed by interludes, where a 3D audio image places you, for example, outside a pub by a stream, while the story is being narrated — a bit like Black Beauty," he explains, satirically. "When I realised that story-telling would be the vital ingredient, I hit upon the idea of a hypnotist, because they have great powers of persuasion. Paul was also thinking along similar lines, and we teamed up with Michael Breen, an American neuro-linguistic expert, to assist us with the narrative."

McKenna described the skills he's brought to the project:

"I had been making self-help tapes with some degree of success for about six years, when Paul suggested we combine those psychological qualities with Zen stories, contemporary music and effects, to create an album that works on a very deep level. Of course, most record companies are not known for being risk-takers; they're too busy looking for the next Take That. So we knew we would have to work hard at selling the idea. But the success of Enigma, Deep Forest and the current interest in Gregorian chant music has been a great encouragement."

I'm seated in O'Duffy's studio at his Hertfordshire home, where he gives me a preview of parts of this awesome work. Thoughtfully, the album begins with a disclaimer, warning people not to listen if they are driving or operating heavy machinery. White noise appears, fading into disturbing samples recorded on a DAT machine by Paul McKenna in America. Using one of those really noisy, clunky TV remote control units, he recorded the sound as he clicked his way through hundreds of channels of rubbish. These channel changes multiply until it becomes madness. Underneath this cacophony, Paul comes through gradually, saying, 'Don't listen to me until you can hear me.' You can't hear him clearly for quite a while; then you realise he's been saying this all along.

As Paul explains, there are many ways to enlightenment:

"At various points throughout this album, there are different voices in either speaker, each saying completely different things. One is describing a particular tranquil scene, while the other is saying something else. Your conscious mind will be trying to fathom what's going on, while your subconscious is taking everything in.

"It's not just another New Age record — it's unique, because it amalgamates a lot of different musical disciplines. It's good, cutting edge music, influenced by film-scorists like Ennio Morricone and John Barry. Together with Paul McKenna's input, it's as unusual as you will get. But you won't need to be a highbrow to listen to it — it'll be good for anybody."

One of the most significant aspects of the album is the use of therapeutic audio frequencies which O'Duffy explored in association with leading scientists. He says:

"I became acquainted with the technology of binaural beats; a phenomenon that happens, for example, when one tunes a guitar. A third frequency is used to find when two strings are perfectly tuned. When they are out of tune, the third frequency oscillates, but disappears as perfect tuning is achieved. I realised that if we had two low frequencies of 200Hz and 210Hz, delivered to the brain through left and right speakers, the third frequency (10Hz) would not be something musical, but something that stimulates the deep brain. Combinations of these third frequencies serve to create a balance between both hemispheres of the brain, at which point the listener is taken into a specific altered and expanded state of consciousness.

"most record companies are not known for being risk-takers; they're too busy looking for the next Take That"

"Everybody leads a stressful life, but very few take the time to sit down and do anything about it. Some might take a lot of drugs, have a drink or whatever, just to switch off the analytical side of their brain, which is operating for most of the day. What we are trying to do is find a natural way in which people can do that, and it's also a bit like bio-feedback, because once you learn how it feels to be in that state and how to get into it, it's like riding a bicycle. You can do it again and again. With this album, you become completely engulfed in what it is. By a combination of the music, and subliminal frequencies doing the right thing, it will take you into an altered state."

Despite his tireless interest in the scientific possibilities, there was no way O'Duffy was going to pursue such a project without a high degree of musical substance. His own personal quest was to understand why certain pieces of music invoke particular emotions.

"If you're driving along a busy motorway and Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' comes on the radio, suddenly the journey seems OK, and you become reflective. I wanted to make music that people may not have been aware of before; a new kind of record that will broaden their outlook. But it was important not to dissolve the effect of the frequency information by placing it against irrelevant music. If the frequencies say one thing and the music another, the aim is lost."

The processes which have gone into the making of A Natural High have involved a most curious form of A&R.

"Everything we have been doing has been bench-tested by a scientist. Pieces of the music were played to volunteer listeners, who were simultaneously given brain scans to monitor brainwave activity. That established whether we were achieving our aims. It often didn't work out that way, so we'd have to go back and re-shape certain segments."

Such was the kudos of the project, manufacturers including Roland and Harman provided an endless supply of new equipment for the recording.

"As I've progressed with the album, they have been sending me everything they had for me to try out, many of which were prototypes. One of the things we used to generate the low frequencies was a hemi-sync generator; a low frequency oscillator from America which generates couplets of frequencies. The original plan was for me to record a lot of the album at home, so Harman kindly sent me an additional desk."

Musically, O'Duffy preferred to include as many natural sounds as possible.

"I started out using a lot of regular synthesisers, but they create a lot of square waves, and it was a big problem. So we chose to use real sounds, most of which were sampled. Hans Zimmer gave me access to his library, and I have the London Philharmonic Orchestra sampled, which cost Hans a lot of money, but he very kindly let me use it. We have African tribes sampled with every nuance available to us, and every percussive instrument you can imagine.

"Some of the stuff I got from Roland has been very useful. They have a World card, with a lot of percussive and natural sounds which work very well frequency-wise, because they are mostly samples, as opposed to synthetically-generated sounds. We also used things like meditation bells, which are common in the East. You rub the outer rim of the bell with a handstick and, rather like rubbing a wet finger around the rim of a wine glass, it creates a distinct frequency."

As he demonstrated this effect, I felt my resistance weaken, and my scepticism evaporate. But the conundrum of 3D sound has proved a hard nut to crack.

"From the start, my desire was to achieve a total 3D experience, because one can get so much more across to the listener. Sounds are coming from all different angles, and are much wider. But with a lot of 3D systems, it was difficult to achieve the spec I was looking for, to make it work. There was an interesting system from America which Hans Zimmer got hold of. It has two joysticks, but you have to re-invent how you do mixes, because there's so much more space to work in. I've used 3D systems before, but apart from a few things, pop records don't really warrant that kind of technology. Most people wouldn't notice it."

A Natural High provides an ideal opportunity for this most innovative of producers to re-align the stereo image and re-configure our mindset. There's no question we'll notice the change. But will we notice we've noticed?

Three minute hero

Paul Staveley-O'Duffy's musical family has two other claims to fame. His father was a notable Irish tenor, while brother Alan is a highly successful producer/engineer who's worked with The Rolling Stones, and recently entered the movie world as a sound recordist.

Having won an RAF scholarship, his original career goal was to become a pilot, but it was not long before O'Duffy the younger (now 31) caught the studio bug.

"I used to go along with Alan to various sessions, like the Rolling Stones, Steve Marriott and Horslips (one of Ireland's greatest rock exports, in case you didn't know), just to see what happened. I was mesmerised by how effects were created. I eventually got a job as a tea boy at Marcus Music Studios, and went from that to being an assistant, later graduating to engineering.

"I began doing remixes when it became the vogue in the early 80s, and went to live in America for a while, where I also played bass in a band called Film At Eleven. That was a disaster, but the experience furthered my production career. All through being an assistant and engineer, my real goal was to be a producer. I always had an overwhelming desire to discover what makes a song work, and if it's not working, how do you fix that? I wanted to find out how I could keep a listener interested for three minutes."

While developing his craft in the States, O'Duffy's relationship with AMS paid huge dividends.

"They used to send me anything I wanted, regardless of where I was working, so I got to know a lot about their equipment. I was recording at Sigma Sound in New York, where they had an AMS delay, and at the time nobody knew you could lock sounds into it and trigger them off. I was bonkers for doing this, and triggering off all different drum sounds and weird things. I used this technique on 'Sex-O-Matic' by The Bar-Kays, and I guess it must have sounded different to anything else then. I came back to England to start as a producer, but it was difficult at first, because no one wants to use you if you have no track record. But a couple of the records I worked on in the States had started to do well in clubs over here, and some of the A&R guys picked up on it. That's when I got the chance to produce Hipsway, who were quite successful in their own way. They did well in America, especially with their biggest single, 'Honey Thief'.

"I had engineered lots of bands, and been quite vocal in that department, helping with the production. I'd even played on some things, and I thought production would be a similar experience. But the difference was quite dramatic. I became an engineering producer, working with an assistant. Instead of having to explain to another person what I wanted on the desk, I could do it myself."

Ghost writer in the sky

"Dave Bates, Head of Phonogram A&R, had been a fan of Was (Not Was), and signed them in the UK. Don Was went off to make 'Walk The Dinosaur' among other tracks, but Dave couldn't have been very happy with it. I don't think Dave rated Don as a producer; he certainly wasn't delivering a sound that was fashionable or of the moment. So Dave asked me if I'd be interested in producing them, because he believed Don had taken the project as far as it would go. What Dave had heard was a much earthier version of what I ended up doing.

"I was given carte blanche; either re-record the songs, re-arrange them, do additional production or just different mixes. So I went over to the States and took my people with me. I felt the basic ingredients were OK but I needed to address it differently. We had a brass arrangement written, and reworked the rhythm section so that they moved the right way at the right time, to set up the chorus in a better way. I gave the track more punch and bite, and made the whole thing larger than life. Don's version was considerably understated, but that's his style. It must have been quite difficult for Don, with someone else coming in and taking over his show, although he never really made me feel like that. I was very focused on what I was doing, so I wouldn't have been concerned with any bruised egos. Don would come down to the studio whenever I needed a hand, although it wasn't often. I think most people think that he produced all that stuff, like 'Walk The Dinosaur', certainly a lot of American A&R people. But it was me, folks."

Rough trade

After his initial success with Hipsway, Phonogram approached O'Duffy to work with another of the label's new signings, Swing Out Sister.

"Their sound evolved through me listening to the group. They were quite jazzy when I first heard them, and I tried to pull them towards being pop. I suggested a proper orchestrated string arrangement in the background, and a brass section, because not many people were doing that. There were certain '60s sensibilities that I wanted to include, without making their records sound like they came from a different era.

"We were in the studio one day, working on the drum track for 'Breakout'. I got a Ludwig Black Beauty snare, and sampled it into the Fairlight. We hit it on the rim and it sounded fantastic, miked up with some ambient mics. Every nuance was sampled, so that the programme would sound like a real drummer. But I thought, 'Well, it just sounds like a good snare drum and everybody gets a good snare sound. What I should do is get a really bad snare sound!'

So I rang the hire company and asked them to send me the shittiest snare they could find. I tuned it up very badly, so that it was ringing horribly and we used that instead for 'Breakout'. You need things like that to grab attention. If something sounds too smooth and bland, it'll just sink into the background."

More with this artist

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Stripes & Stars

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Man from The Ministry

Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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The Mix - Jun 1995

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Mike Gorman

In Session

Interview by Mark Cunningham

Previous article in this issue:

> Stripes & Stars

Next article in this issue:

> Man from The Ministry

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