Sometimes changes that occur outside of your control end up taking you in a direction that is better for you. That is what has happened to Dennis “Dego” McFarlane and Marc “Marc Mac” Clair, the duo who make up the UK's 4hero. For years, the two operated out of their studio in the Dollis Hill district of North London. But the local government decided to turn the neighborhood into a strictly residential one, pushing 4hero out.
Dego and Marc Mac decamped to separate home studios, splitting the contents of their original studio in the process. Dego retained most of the physical keyboards. Marc Mac, on the other hand, embraced virtual instruments and plug-ins. And while Dego has moved to a Mac G4 running Logic Audio 6.2, Mac is staying with a PC setup running Logic 5.3.
The major shift in the 4hero setup is the selling of the duo's tape machine, which had been one of the identifiers of its sound up until now. “The decision allowed us to expand digitally,” Mac says. “24-bit digital sound can sound really good depending on the signal chain. We still use valve compressors and microphones that helped keep the warmth we're used to on tape. The good thing about [having worked] with tape is we always have that reference. We know exactly the sound we want to achieve.”
On its third full-length release, Play With the Changes (Milan, 2007), the shift from analog to digital is not discernable. The 4hero characteristics — soulful and sultry vocals, rhythm and blues-based melodies that have their roots in the psychedelic sounds of the '60s and '70s, updated with modern touches — are all present. Then there's 4hero's particular flavor of broken beats and flourishing strings.
More than 40 musicians were involved in the sounds on Play With the Changes, and Dego and Mac were careful to capture source sounds carefully. For example, on “Awakening,” Andy Hammill's upright bass takes were recorded directly with a pickup on the bass, as well as with an AKG C 414 mic in front to pick up the sound of his fingers. “There's a lot of new jazz music where they think we've got to get rid of that because they think it's got to sound round,” Mac says. “I want to hear fingers; I want to hear wood, the bottom end, the vibration.”
Not restricted to traditional instruments, the duo used a number of percussion instruments from India — such as the tambura — and the Far East. On the Ursula Rucker-vocalized “The Awaiting,” Asian chrome balls were recorded and altered so that they sound like a synthesizer.
“Part of the reason I wanted to use [the Asian balls] was because they're used as a calming effect,” Mac says. “I thought if I had that drone in the background of the track, even though [Rucker] was quite strong with her lyrics, there'd be this calming effect underneath it. I stood in the booth with the two balls in my hand, moved them back and forth across two 414 mics so we get a stereo [panning effect]. That went into the Summit Audio DCL-200 valve compressor, then into Logic. At that point, the first thing we put on it is Logic's Fat EQ, then standard Logic compression. Waves MetaFlanger would have been one of the first effects on there. Then it would go into the PSP filter, then Waves RenVerb.”
One thing that doesn't change is the vocal chain. Aside from guest raps from the likes of Little Brother (which were recorded in North Carolina and sent over), 4hero stuck with either a Rode NT mic or an AKG C 414 along with a Summit Audio compressor for Jody Watley, Carina Andersson, Lady Alma, Jack Davey and others.
And the duo isn't afraid to really play with the changes of the vocal takes. Case in point is “Give In,” which started at one tempo and was changed at the last minute. Without missing a beat, Mac stretched the vocal in Logic to fit the new tempo.
“I grew up with samplers,” he says. “It doesn't matter who comes into the studio; it's not unusual to go straight into what we've recorded, cut it, move it and shift it around until it's tight and the exact sound we want.”