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The Producers

Paul Stavely-O'Duffy

Article from International Musician & Recording World, October 1986

Chas de Whalley, Paul Stavely O'Duffy, and the Get Down Mixdown Factor.

Let's hear it for the Get Down Mixdown Factor. And Paul Staveley O'Duffy's Get Down Mixdown Factor to be precise. Guaranteed to get you in the groove. Guaranteed to put the Soul back into those old shoes.

Me, I'm not the greatest fan of contemporary British blue-eyed Soul. With the notable exceptions of Paul Young and Simply Red's Mick Hucknall, that scene consists of too many hairdresser's models in white socks and monogrammed sports shirts for my liking. Most mistaking talent for a moody monochrome photo in The Face.

But I find myself increasingly impressed by anything bearing the Paul Staveley O'Duffy benchmark. Which means Hipsway, the Perils of Plastic, Dr Calculus, Strangers and Brothers, Cry Before Dawn and Nat Augustin among others. None of them as yet truly huge. I'll admit, but all with records on release which attest to a great future for this 25 year old producer who must be one of Britain's brightest sparks.

Sneak a listen to Hipsway's The Honeythief — or indeed anything on their eponymous Phonogram LP — Ring A Ding Ding by Steve Naive's Perils of Plastic or the flying Scotsman groove of Strangers and Brothers' Candy Train — every one an O'Duffy production — and you won't fail but be impressed by the man's mastery of the white Soul medium.

High on the Get Down Factor they may be. Coming from a man who goes to work in cowboy boots and a western shirt too, by golly. But O'Duffy's productions also exhibit a very high level of technical skill, not so much in off-the-map sounds and sampling á la Trevor Horn or Dave Stewart, but as in seamless mixes of essentially uncomplicated tracks which could prove the laws of perpetual motion wrong and motor on forever if the needle didn't run off the end of the record first. But then, for Paul O'Duffy (we'll agree to leave the Staveley out from now on) mixing is something of a speciality.

"I suppose you could say it was my way into production. I spent a lot of time in New York a couple of years ago working as a remix engineer. I was doing club and 12" remixes for people like Freeez, the Bar Kays and KC and The Sunshine Band. Then of course I got offers of remix work in this country, so I came back over.

"And from that I made a slow progression into being a producer. The way a lot of record companies try you out nowadays is to to ask you to do a remix of something, which allows you to be a little creative without carrying too much responsibility for the production and the direction of the track, before deciding if you're good enough to produce a record by the band or the singer in question from the bottom up."

Almost as much controversy rages these days about the ethics of remixing as there used to be about the artistic control exerted on a new band by a record company's A&R and Marketing departments. O'Duffy sees little wrong with the thought of finishing off somebody else's work or of having his own treated in the same way. In fact he regards the whole process in a refreshingly down-to-earth and matter-of-fact way.

"The truth is that every producer has the opportunity to do his best mix anyway and if it doesn't work out the record company is well within their rights to ask somebody else to do one. And that's not necessarily because the original producer did a bad job but because maybe he didn't do quite the job the record company wanted and he's now got so close to the track he can't see it any other way. Whereas they'd like to hear what somebody else will make of it from a different angle.

"It's worth bearing in mind that your average A&R man isn't always that good at explaining what he wants a producer to do with a group before he starts recording with them. So it's much easier for them to play you a rejected mix and tell you what's wrong with it and that they'd really like to hear it sparser or richer or like some other record that's around at the time. Then you just stick on the multi-track and listen to what's there and work out what you can use and what feel should be replaced."

Never touching the original multitrack in case it should ever be wanted again, O'Duffy sets off on a copy reel. And invariably the first things to go are the snare and bass drum tracks.

"That's normally the most instantly recognisable thing of it being a new mix because it's got a different drum sound. And often different drum patterns too. Using an SRC you can re-sync the Linn drum and trigger a new pattern. So you go in with your samples and your drum machine and try to make the thing more interesting than it was when you found it.

"In this day and age it's virtually impossible to record anything badly, from an engineering point of view, so it's very rarely that I hear things on a multi-track and wonder at the sound quality. But I frequently hear production things and think 'How could he have done that?'

"When I first heard Hipsway's The Honeythief, for instance, the drums didn't really come in until the second chorus, which struck me as such a waste of what was fighting to be a great groove. Similarly I was working on something the other day, I won't tell you what it was, and there were eights going on the hi hat of the drum machine. Normally it feels more realistic if you programme some accents into something like that but this was a constant tsch tsch tsch which became incredibly wearing. That's the sort of thing I pick up on. Bad recording you can always put right these days."

And if you're wondering how Paul O'Duffy can sound so authoritative about these things it's because he has been in the studio game all his working life. With elder brother Alan O'Duffy, a well respected engineer in the early Seventies, sessioning for the likes of the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney, it probably came as little or no surprise to the senior members of the O'Duffy clan when, in 1978, young Paul left school at 16 and walked straight into Marcus Studios as a tape operator.

"I used to visit Alan at work when I was still at school so I had a basic familiarity with how a studio worked before I went to work in one. When I got to being a tape op it was a just a question of tying all the ends together.

"After about six months I became an engineer almost by accident. I was working on an album session for EMI with a Funk band called Gonzalez who had a big hit at the time and looked like they were going to break. It was a big project for EMI and they flew over an American engineer and producer who'd worked people like Barry White.

"Just as a tape op I learned a lot from them, but half way through the album the engineer had to go back to the US - but he recommended that the producer, whose name I can't remember, let me take over from him. EMI were tearing their hair out because a 16 year old who had never engineered anything before was recording their album. We were putting down string sections and everything. It turned out alright in the end. And after that I knew I was okay as an engineer."

And shortly afterwards he exchanged his tape operating gig at Marcus for an engineer's chair at The Point in Victoria and never looked back. As the Seventies turned into the Eighties, via that stint in the United States, O'Duffy worked at broadening his perspectives and honing down his skills, developing a more musical approach than the majority of today's young engineer producers.

"I think if you want to be a producer, it's really important that you understand all that goes on in making a record. And to be able to take part in every bit of the process if need be. I believe that the arrangement of a song is the production and what you're doing do with it and the way the structure of the song sits is the most important part of all. If you've got that right then it's very easy from there on in. Sometimes the band have it all together before you get to them so all you have to do is enhance it. But with others there's a seed of a good thing but the rest of it is a bit dodgy so you have to spend a lot of time sorting it out.

"Often that means you have to get into a bit of rewriting. Because I'm a bass player myself, I find the root to a song is in the bass and the bassline and usually everything else latches on nicely from that. So if the bass is doing the right thing I think everything else falls into place quite easily.

"I spend a lot of time in pre-production but I do like to get it over and done with because then I know where I am. I have a mental picture of what the track is going to sound like and I follow that. Thereafter it's a deduction process until you get to what sounds right in the mix.

"I'm quite an outgoing character, I don't have a whip in the studio and I'm not dogmatic. I like the band to contribute as much as possible. After all, they're the guardians of what they should sound like and it's the producer's job to make what they sound like please the record company.

"If you're in with a band that knows exactly what they want to sound like, then there are invariably disagreements, but I find that a good locking of heads and a bit of creative tension usually means you end up with something better than it was when it started.

"Hipsway were like that. They knew what they wanted and they were very much in touch with what was happening in the studio. Especially Johnny McElhone the bass player. He could virtually be a producer himself. The band wanted to keep a very basic type of sound, with everything sounding as natural as possible without flashy synthesizers. In actual fact we spent a long time on the synth parts making them sound as natural and unobtrusive as possible.

"A guy named Paul Wickes did all the keyboards. It was very hard for him because although we wanted to do lots of keyboards we wanted the record to sound like there was virtually nothing there except a little organ and piano. On one track we worked up a saxophone sound, but basically it was down to a succession of warm pads or melodious figures to go behind the guitars.

"On Long White Car, which is one of my favourite tracks, Pim Jones played a bottleneck guitar figure which involved turning up the volume control from nothing to full to get a 'bowing' effect. After I'd recorded it with an interesting stereo effect it sounded big enough but we layered up some similar sounding keyboards to make it sound really massive. We did a lot building up sounds like that, while keeping the melodic ideas really simple.

"But it isn't so easy working with a band that isn't sure of what they are and what they want to be. Because while the aim is to make a commercial record, it's good to make something that doesn't sound necessarily like a commercial record. With a band that isn't too sure of themselves you can waste a lot of time following roads which you have to come back up again because they prove to be going in the wrong direction. I end up combating that situation by putting a lot of ideas down on tape, covering as many of the possible directions as you can and then drop the ones that don't work off when it comes to the mix."

Let's hear it again for the Get Down Mixdown Factor!

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Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Oct 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Recording World

Interview by Chas de Whalley

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