If you grow up in Ridgewood, N.J., wanting to play gut-bucket R&B and '60s soul with conviction, then you've got some work to do. This affluent suburb boasts block after block of gorgeous older homes and sculpted landscapes, and a public school system that's considered to be one of the best in the nation. Cheap gin joints, downhearted farmers and laborers living from paycheck to paycheck are noticeably absent. So are the Sears & Roebuck guitars, Gospel choirs and the weight of oppression that spawned the blues.
But Jack Livesey and Peter Nashel were determined. Now partners and composers in a successful TriBeCa-based music house, Duotone Audio Group Ltd., the pair vigorously woodshedded, honing an ability to cop a variety styles. It's helped their rise in the competitive spot music production business.
"I was always interested in music," says Livesey. "I started out on trumpet and then moved on to bass guitar and guitar. Soul, the entire '60s R&B movement, was an early influence on me. After high school I moved out to L.A. to learn and train. My goal was to become a session bassist."
After spending some time playing in bands on the West Coast, Livesey returned to New York in 1990, where he ran into his old friend Nashel on the nightclub circuit. "Peter and I had known each other since the 6th grade," he says. "We both knew that the club circuit was going to get old pretty quickly, and so we started brainstorming, trying to find a way to use our musical skills in a way that got us out of that all-night, four-set scene."
Alto sax player Nashel had already jumped into the then relatively new computer music area with both feet. "After high school I went off to Wesleyan College," Nashel recalls. "I was most interested in jazz, and while playing in wedding bands and pickup gig bands, I was really pursuing that goal. Jack and I hooked up and played in an R&B band together, and that's when I started learning about roots music. I was also deep into my Mac Plus, which I was running MOTU's Performer 1-point-whatever on!"
Several nights a week, Livesey and Nashel began meeting in the latter's apartment with one clear goal: to hone their ability to write jingles in a wide variety of styles. With the same determination they had applied to learning R&B, the two attacked every genre they could think of, laying down MIDI tracks and their own instruments to create a reel.
"In the commercial world, you have to have the chameleon ability to write in different styles," says Nashel. "Jonathan Elias, tomandandy, any of the successful underscore writers will tell you that it's all about being able to listen to what's out there, cop it and put your own stamp on the music. The difficult part is that you can't be light about the process. You have to deeply understand different styles. In a sense, it's been an awkward but really rewarding process for us. Instead of starting off trying to create our own unique voice, we've realized that our deep skill is being able to mimic different styles. It's a high craft, as opposed to an art."
Duotone features a pair of writing rooms for the two principals and a third, larger space for tracking drums, vocals and ensembles. Livesey and Nashel both use Pro Tools 24 MIX Plus systems for tracking, with Logic Audio Platinum 4.5 as a front end. All mixing is done within Pro Tools, though each room is equipped with a Yamaha O2R console for monitoring.
To minimize redundancy, several racks float between the studios on an as-needed basis. One contains preferred outboard gear, including a Manley Stereo Variable-Mu limiter/compressor, Manely Massive Passive Stereo EQ and four Daking 52270 mic pre/EQ units. Three Empirical Labs Distressors and four Telefunken V72s round out this rack. "The whole idea is to stock our individual rooms with the stuff we need on a daily basis," says Nashel. "We're both deep into Roland synths and samplers, for instance, so we have our unit devices. The floating outboard rack moves throughout the facility. We really love the Massive Passive stereo EQ. The Distressors are also something we turn to all the time."
The second rack houses a variety of synths that the composers use to flesh out their scoring and sound design work. It contains the Nord Rack 2, which both writers praise, several E-mu playback devices, including Orbit, B3, Audity 2000 and Planett Phatt, a Prophet-5 and a Novation Bass Station.
Software synthesizers are moving mainstream. Duotone spots regularly feature tracks created using ReBirth, Metasynth, Reaktor and Logic Software Sampler EASX24. Mixing - as well as all tracking - is executed entirely within Pro Tools, so plug-ins are extremely critical for Duotone engineers. "We use all of the Waves plug-ins," says Nashel, "including the L1 for mastering. We also love the Amp Farm and the Serato Pitch n' Time plug-ins."
With a steady stream of work coming into the facility, Nashel and Livesey recently decided to augment their in-house writing staff, tapping another Ridgewood native, Pete Min, and his songwriting partner Carla Carpretto. "We've known Pete for quite awhile," says Livesey. "He's a fantastic guitar player who's played with Deborah Harry and others. We've been using him as a player on spots for some time."
Travis Pickle, the band that calls Min and Carpretto its own, had been the pair's primary writing vehicle before signing on with Duotone. Carpretto sings with the group and on spots penned at Duotone. "The spot business is extremely competitive," says Nashel. "Sometimes we'll all brainstorm on one track, and at other times we'll all be writing competitive demos, even multiple ones, for a single campaign. The more submissions you can make, covering different styles, the better. Carla writes and arranges, besides being a fantastic singer."
When called upon to deliver a larger sound than their studio can handle, Duotone will book outside rooms, "primarily either Back Pocket or the Edison," says Nashel. "When dates require large orchestra or big band arrangements, we work with Patrick Zimmerli, who's an outstanding orchestrator. We've also been privileged to work with some great engineers, including Larry Alexander."
With the jingles coming in, Duotone is in the process of looking to the film world for work, and the team has just completed scoring a short documentary film. Livesey says that he and Nashel are also working on an electronic music album. "We're the epitome of working musicians in this industry," says Nashel. "Being busy is half the battle. We like what we're doing every day. Who could ask for more than that?"