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Soul Brothers: The Gregory Brothers Bring Some Memphis Soul to Brooklyn

April 1, 2009
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“I wouldn’t take just anyone into the studio and try to make a record like this—live in two days,” says producer/ engineer Zach McNees from the control room of Mission Sound in Brooklyn, New York. “But I knew what these guys were trying to accomplish, and that it would be a more vibey record if we booked a nice, big room with great gear and cut it live.”

“We’ve played around 80 shows in the last year and a half,” says Andrew Gregory. “So when Zach suggested we go into the studio and track everything in two days, we knew we could do it.”

Transplants from Southern Virginia, the Gregory Brothers—Andrew (vocals, guitar), Evan (vocals, keys), and Michael (vocals, drums)—developed their sound while out on a threemonth tour behind one of Andrew’s solo records, The Lost Year, in 2007. With singer/songwriter Sarah Fullen along for the tour, the band expanded on The Lost Year’s wistful, acoustic folk songs to perform them as a quartet, and over time, began to realize their potential as a group.

“We started to transform these soft songs off my album into these fourpart, harmony-driven soul numbers,” says Andrew. “Then we started writing new songs that let us wail more.”

“Old Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding records are very inspirational to us,” says Evan. “And we’ve all been inspired by Daptone Records and their commitment to the recording processes of the 1960s—although we need to take advantage of modern technology to get our EP done on time and on budget.”

With such a condensed recording schedule for the EP, the Gregory Brothers had to plot out every move during pre-production.

“Everything had to be wellrehearsed— there was really no time for any experimenting,” says Evan.

“We drew up a list of every element that needed to be tracked, as well as a prioritized list of time-permitting bells-and-whistles.”

“The most important things we did happened before we ever set foot in the studio,” McNees acknowledges. “I suggested Mission Sound for its spacious live room, isolated areas with clear sightlines, and its vintage equipment— including a Neve 8026 console, and a collection of classic amps and keyboards. To reduce guesswork during the tracking stage, I consulted with Oliver [Strauss, Mission Sound owner] to determine the best mic selection and placement for the room and band. We used two different pairs of room mics. A pair of Royer R-121 ribbons was set up chest high in an X/Y pattern, and placed about five feet from the drum kit. Then I positioned a pair of Earthworks TC30Ks about 1/2-inch off the floor, and an equal distance from the kit so the two mic pairs were phase coherent. The Royers provided a natural signal, and the Earthworks were routed to an Alan Smart C2 compressor set with a fast attack and release.”

Placing the second set of room mics so close to the ground was a first for McNees.

“Oliver suggested it as a sweet spot, and he was right,” he says. “The Earthworks mics captured a really good mix of top end and low end. The signal wasn’t too bright or too muddy, and it worked really well for compressing heavily. During the mix, I ended up using the heavilycompressed room mics for the intro of ‘Cry, Cry, Cry,’ because I wanted to go for a more ambient sound.”

McNees used three mics on the kick—a Shure Beta 52A stuffed all the way inside, a Sennheiser MD421 pointing into the soundhole, and a modified Yamaha Subkick positioned a few inches from the drumhead near the right rim.

“With those mics and Subkick, it’s easier to change your kick sound around without using a lot of EQ,” says McNees. “I’ll use the inside mics almost exclusively for midrange and top end, while the Subkick captures most of the low end. Then I blend the signals together during the mix. For example, if I push the Subkick and MD421 more, I can get a softer kick sound with more low end.”

McNees used Shure SM57s for the top and bottom of the snare, along with Shure SM81s on the hi-hats, MD421s on toms, and Microtech Gefell UM70s as overheads (both mics routed through a Summit DCL-200 compressor/limiter).

“As we were going for more of a vibey, R&B sound, I set the overheads up a little higher than I would for a rock record,” explains McNees, “so I can get a little more of the whole kit without getting too much of the room sound. You see, this is a pretty straightforward band, so we decided to cut everything pretty much clean.

It’s a very old-school recording in that way. No guitar effects or studio manipulation— just classic instruments, classic amps, and classic studio gear.”

Andrew’s Telecaster was amplified by a 1969 Vox AC30, with a Shure SM57 miking the grill—placed just off center from the cone—and a Neumann U47 FET positioned about 18-inches back.

“This way, I get a close sound and a more ambient sound that I can blend to taste in mixing,” says McNees.

Evan played the studio’s Fender Rhodes Mark II, plugging into a Countryman direct box and a ’69 Magnatone 2x12 combo (which was miked with a Neumann U87). A Hammond C2 routed to a Leslie 147 cabinet was closemiked with a stereo pair of Audio- Technica AT4033s on the cabinet’s horns and an AKG C 414 on the woofer. Doug Hulin’s bass was tracked direct (a Countryman again) and through an Ampeg B15 amp miked by a Lawson L47FET.

On day two, EQ found the band pumped up to cut vocals, starting with Evan’s lead on “Cry, Cry, Cry,” and the song’s soaring group vocals on the song’s reprise.

“Everyone stood around a Neumann U67 set to its omni pattern, because we wanted to capture that Stax and Motown vibe for this song, and that’s how the group vocals were tracked on those recordings,” says McNees. “You can only get away with this when you have four people who really know how to sing, and who can sing with each other really well. Ultimately, we cut all the group vocals the same way—meaning, live in real time, rather than overdubbing each vocalist separately—although, for the other songs, I arranged the members in a semi-circle with each singer on his own mic.”

“We definitely wanted powerful harmonies and group vocals,” says Andrew, “which is a bit of a departure from some old soul records where you’ll hear the artist—Al Green or Sam Cooke, for example—really upfront with the background vocals somewhere in the distance. But what I love so much about The Band is that when you get to the chorus, you hardly know who is singing the melody anymore—it’s just like a big party happening on stage. That’s the energy of our live shows, and that’s what we wanted to capture on the EP—all of us coming in on the choruses and hitting it hard.”

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