The Portland, Oregon, trio Derby — Nat Johnson on lead vocals, guitar, and bass; Dave Gulick on vocals, keys, and guitar; and Isaac Frost on drums and percussion — crafts a brand of tight, rocking alt-pop that harkens back to some of the post-new-wave bands of the '80s and '90s. But Derby's latest album, Posters Fade (Green Submarine Records, 2008), boasts a sound that's less retro than it is old school; it's fresh, but created with a relatively simple and unadorned recording process.
The band records in a basement home studio and runs Digidesign Pro Tools LE through a Digi 002 into an old Apple Power Mac G4 Dual 450. “We use that to process, and it writes to a LaCie FireWire drive,” says guitarist and front man Johnson, who does the bulk of the engineering. “We have two 20-inch [computer] monitors that take 10 minutes each to warm up. I'm not sure if that's normal, or even safe!”
One reason Derby can get by with an aging computer is that the band uses a minimal amount of plug-ins, opting instead to record organically and get good sounds from their instruments and amps. “We take a lot of time to get tones,” Johnson says. “We like how great things sound simply.” The band usually records right in the control room, which Johnson describes as an acoustically dead space. For analog warmth, mics run through an Allen & Heath MixWizard3 16:2 mixer.
On the drums, the band uses Shure SM57s on the snare (one top, one bottom) and on the rack toms, an SM57 or SM58 on the floor tom, and an AKG D112 on the kick. “We put the mic in that hole and got so much low end and thump,” Johnson says. “Mic placement became [a form of EQ]. We used cheapo condensers as overheads. They lacked a lot of body, but that was okay; they were pretty bright on the cymbals.”
Vocals were recorded through a Røde NTK tube mic, straight into the computer. But keys — especially an old Wurlitzer electric piano — were miked through amps. “We'd put the NTK tube mic in front of the amp and it would get very gritty,” Johnson says. “Lead sounds were done via [Propellerhead] Reason, out through an amp. We never do the digital-to-digital transfer — it just doesn't happen.”
The bass was captured direct but often was later sent through a Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver for tone shaping. “I did most of the guitar through a Gibson SG into an early '70s Fender Deluxe Reverb,” Johnson continues. “The amp was so dynamic. I didn't really use pedals. I just used the natural gain you could get from the Deluxe.”
To fight the inertia that can happen when musicians record at home, Derby works on one song at a time, not moving on to the next set of tracks until the first song is edited and mixed. The trio makes decisions about what to keep as they go, rather than comping from lots of takes after the fact. “I mix it all with Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones, which people find funny,” Johnson says. “I reference in a million different places: car stereos, iPods, etc. I try to listen to a lot of other music that I think sounds good while I'm mixing.
“Our sounds are pretty organic, and the part that we enjoy is the arrangement and layering of all the simple sounds to create something different — hopefully musically familiar, yet unique and just off-kilter.”
Home base: Portland, Oregon
Sequencer used: Digidesign Pro Tools LE
Vocal mic: Røde NTK