With all due respect to our various “Tips From the Top” participants, sometimes the best advice comes not from the engineers to the stars but from those who toil under more modest circumstances. Hence, this month’s visit with one Pete Donnelly, jack-of-all-trades producer, engineer and studio sideman who also serves as bassist/songwriter with The Figgs, one of the best exponents of solid trio rock to be found anywhere in the continental U.S.
As a sound craftsman, Pete Donnelly makes use of a number of small to mid-size facilities in the Philadelphia metropolitan region, among them Ohm at Studio 4 in Conshohocken, home to a one-of-kind 16-channel mixing desk built by Roger Mayer (the man who designed effects pedals for Jimi Hendrix way back when).
“Most of the larger studios I know have taken a horrible beating,” says Donnelly, “all the major artists have their own places; they don’t need to go to a pro facility, so there just aren’t enough clients out there anymore. However, I can get makeshift rooms that don’t cost nearly as much, plus I don’t need to hire an engineer because I can run all the equipment. I like being able to move around, and I’m happy to not have to own a console, but when I get into a room with a really great console, it just feels so good.”
Donnelly got his start in recording years ago “out of necessity” when the Figgs were finding their feet in the business. “Being constantly frustrated by engineers who’d spend days trying to get the right sound made me realize, ‘Hey, we can probably figure this stuff out on our own if we tried’,” says Donnelly. “Then as we got more serious, I would just pick up more and more equipment and set up studios wherever I happened to be living at the time. From there, I started making $10 an hour recording my friends, and suddenly I was actually earning some cash doing this.”
His proficiency on bass, guitar, percussion and keyboards has enabled Donnelly to not only act as producer-engineer but also sideman-arranger - a valuable commodity in today’s market. “I’m able to help people make their material presentable,” says Donnelly. “I really try to be a full-service kind of an operation.”
Though it’s often difficult to replicate the live feel of a large studio in smaller confines, Donnelly attempts to compensate no matter where he’s working. “I want the air,” he says. “With the Figgs, it’s almost always live bass, drums and guitar, with enough natural leakage to give it some ambience. I love dry music, and I don’t use a ton of reverb, but I do think it’s important to give the tracks some dimension. So even though I may record electric guitar with just an SM-57 right up against the amp, for instance, when I’m doing overdubs I might put up a mic somewhere in the room and shift it so it becomes like a slapback or pre-delay, and maybe pan it a bit as well. And when I do get to use a larger room, a good ambient mic with a decent amount of limiting can make it sound really big.”
Recording can be an intimidating experience even under the best circumstances, and Donnelly has various methods for improving the in-studio vibe. “You’re in there spending all this money and it might not sound exactly like what you’d expected at first,” says Donnelly. “But you have to forget all that, relax, and just go in there and play, and don’t try to rush it, either. And as the engineer, anything you can do to promote that kind of attitude is important. For instance, I’ll sometimes set up a mic in the control room and play shaker or tambourine as a live click track for the band, the kind of stuff Jimmy Miller used to do with the Stones. Basic things like that can help a great deal. In Philly, because hip-hop and r&b are such a strong influence, even with the singer/songwriter stuff, I’ll make loops and beats for people to play along to, and end up using some it in the track. That can loosen things up, too.”
As the one responsible for getting his own band’s studio sound, Donnelly understands the problems that can arise while trying to produce and perform at the same time. “With the Figgs, I like to go in and just play for hours and never really stop to listen to takes or anything, just to try to get the group out of the studio environment. Under normal circumstances that can be a real nightmare, because all it takes is for someone to change guitars or amp settings, and suddenly your levels are pinning and everything is totally ruined! So in order to prevent that, I usually just run a line from the console into the studio and then play while standing right at the desk. That way I can listen and compensate for any changes during the takes.”
A fan of classical recording technique, Donnelly believes in using the right mic to get the proper sound balance, rather than mucking with EQ later on. “For instance, when cutting vocals I often use a condenser mic if the singer is all mid-range, whereas if they have no mid-range, I might put them on a ribbon mic. The point is, it’s so much easier to make these decisions at the source, rather than attempt to fix the sound after the fact.” Though he’ll track to tape when asked, “Using an all-analog console and going straight into Pro Tools is really a great way to record, I think,” says Donnelly. “There are people who knock Pro Tools every chance they get, but the way I see it, that’s because it’s allowed so many unprofessional people to make records. But if you use it in a creative manner, it’s invaluable. On some of those Figgs tunes I probably did a couple hundred edits each-I’d take different versions from different days and they’d be in completely different tempos, but I took it as a challenge, at times even editing a bit behind each snare hit in order to speed it up! The thing is, in the end I want it to sound like it was performed naturally-and if you have the tools and the skills, you can make that happen.”
For info on The Figgs, go to thefiggs.net. The band’s new effort is Follow Jean Through the Sea, available on Gern Blandsten Records (gernblandsten.com) For info on Pete Donnelly: myspace.com/petedonnelly