2nd Sense Studio
Take an eight-track tape deck and a 128-track MIDI sequencer and you've got the basis of 2nd Sense studio. Nicholas Rowland visits a studio taking full advantage of what modern technology has to offer.
While other studios attempt to expand by bringing in more or bigger multitrack tape machines, 2nd Sense is using MIDI sequencing as a way of expanding modest analogue tape capabilities.
IN THE MIDDLE of Belmont, North West London, down an unmade road at the back of a row of shops, in a long thin building which was once a clothing store that Jack built, you'll find 2nd Sense Studios. Step inside and you're immediately faced by a tiny control console, featuring a 16-channel mixer, a couple of tape machines and a rack of effects. Take another step and you've passed through into the "studio" itself. Glance to the left to take in shelves of keyboards and other hi-tech stuff. In front is an area big enough to swing a drum kit, or alternatively, let a drummer swing. The phrase "compact and bijou" springs readily to mind.
After a while, the place does appear to get a little bigger, a vindication perhaps of that universal Estate Agent's truism, "deceptively spacious". Though as far as the "en suite" is concerned, you'll have to make a dash to the public one adjoining Tescos across the road. Still, there are compensations. Like the Pizza place three doors down which delivers from oven-to-mouth via motorbike in a matter of minutes. And the monotone delivery of "Have a nice pizza" is free too.
The ham and mushroom special slips down while I talk to Andrew Hewitt who sits two feet away on the other side of the room in the studio's second best chair. Hewitt is sole prop of what proudly proclaims itself as Harrow's new local 136 track facility. Yes, that's right.
For while the studio is limited to a relatively modest eight tracks of tape, courtesy of a Tascam 38, it also boasts Atari-based Iconix sequencing software with its 132 track capacity. "Come and see what MIDI can do for you", invites the publicity leaflet. Much intrigued by what MIDI was doing for Hewitt's business, yours truly came, saw and got to sit in the best chair as well.
An initial probe into Hewitt's background reveals that practically all the gear here has been built up through an interest in home recording and electronic music which goes back several years, back beyond even the first issue of E&MM, which Hewitt has collected ever since.
Like many of us, he started out messing around with his dad's two-track reel-to-reel, plus a guitar and a Soundmaster R88 drum machine. Later he was lucky enough to win the Roland MC202 in a magazine competition, following which the SR88 was part-exchanged for a Drumatix. Naturally, this also led to Hewitt's first introduction to sequencing and tape syncing.
The MC202 and Drumatix are there in the studio, along with an E&MM kit-built "Spectrum Synth". The Digital/MIDI age is represented in order of age first by a CX5M computer with SGF05 sound module and DMS sequencing software, the latter now made redundant by the Iconix. More recent purchases include an Akai X7000 sampler, Roland MT32 voice module and Yamaha RX21 drum machine.
This fairly modest collection of equipment once filled Hewitt's bedroom, but, as many bedroom musicians soon discover, unless you're a genius, a manic recluse or just plain unsociable, writing and recording with other musicians is much more rewarding. And since Hewitt found himself becoming more interested in recording than in pursuing his own musical path, the idea of transplanting the bedroom to more public premises seemed a good idea.
"Even if you've got a really good setup", he says, "you can't really go up to a band you might have seen live and say, 'Come and record in my bedroom'. Whereas you can give them a card and say, 'Come and look round my studio'. Also, if you've got a studio, suddenly all these friends come crawling out of the woodwork with bits and pieces of gear that they don't use, saying 'would you like to keep them in your studio for a while?'"
OVER THE FEW months it's been trading, 2nd Sense has attracted a varied clientele. Naturally Hewitt has exploited his contacts on the local music scene (he does a lot of PA work for various groups). Also, because this is very much a hobby rather than his livelihood, his rates are extremely competitive.
But of the people who come, who comes because of the MIDI sequencing and who comes because it's a reasonable 8-track deal?
"I'd say that most people use it more as an eight-track facility. I mean, at this local level, few people know what MIDI does, even keyboard players. They turn up with their MIDI synth, their Juno 106, DX100 or PF80 or whatever, but they've never used it with other MIDI gear or sequencers before. They've just bought them as stand-alone keyboards, which is fair enough. So when you first link them into the system and start playing the Akai keyboard and they can hear sounds from their own keyboard they can't understand it. They think you've sampled it or something.
"But on the other hand, people are vaguely impressed by the idea of the Iconix. You tell them that it offers 128 tracks of MIDI and they think, 'Well, if he can't do it just using the eight-track, I'm sure he can find another way to do it using the sequencer', even if they end up never using it."
In Hewitt's experience, those groups and individuals that do employ the Iconix tend to use it mainly as a real-time MIDI recorder:
"In which case, they sit at the music keyboard and I sit next to them with the Atari mouse on a board on my knee and just point at Record and Play for them at the appropriate times. But I've found that even if they've never used a sequencer like it before, they can relate to it very well, especially to the idea of information being displayed graphically. For example, the step-edit page which shows all the notes in a vertical grid system. I tell them to think of it as a roll of pianola music and they click with it immediately.
"In fact, the step editing is one of the best things about it. There's a band which I do PA for which uses a QX5 sequencer, but they find it limited and difficult to get into. They want to use Iconix as a more sophisticated sequence editor, then dump it into the QX5 which they then take out live."
Hewitt chose the Iconix over its immediate rival the Pro24, because its format seemed more logical to him, having previously used the DMS software on the CX5.
"The problem with MIDI technology is that it makes people hide in their bedrooms and make music by themselves - I don't think that's very good for music."
"I could see there were features which I didn't need when I bought it, but which at a later date might make sense - like moving tracks around down to a resolution of 298ths of a beat which you can't do on a dedicated sequencer."
He's generally pleased with the package, although there are occasional bugs. For example, the MIDI note-off doesn't always seem to work at the end of a sequence. Nor does it always seem to lock on to a return-to-zero song pointer when the tape is rewound at the end of a song.
THE SEQUENCING SIDE of the studio has been enhanced by the recent purchase of the XRI Systems SMPTE/MIDI sync box. This replaces an aged, though trustworthy, Korg KMS30, which was previously used for syncing the MC202 and Drumatix with the CX5 and MT32. Once the sequenced parts had been worked out, they were recorded to the eight-track and the rest of the session continued on tape.
Now, by striping one tape track with SMPTE code, the other seven can be left free for vocals or the occasional "analogue" instrument.
"People often don't realise how important the vocal performance is for creating a really professional sound", comments Hewitt. "So it's really nice to be able to devote three or four tracks to the lead vocal, then take the best bits from each for the final mix."
It's clear that Hewitt sees his role as partly educational, showing musicians who haven't encountered such things as MIDI and sampling before, how they can be used to make the final product sound polished and professional. After all, this is what most bands want, even though some of them expect the studio to perform miracles. At the same time, though, he's less convinced by the all-electronic approach in which he once firmly believed.
"The problem with MIDI technology is that it makes people go and hide in their bedrooms and make music by themselves. It tends to lead to lots of isolated solo musicians and I just don't think that's very good for music. What's been interesting since the studio opened is realising just how many good musicians there are around the place.
"So in a way, personally I'm getting back into the jangly guitars type of music making with more human feel and technique, but I'd like to see that attitude combined with studio and MIDI techniques too. In other words, while nowadays I much prefer the way drummers play to the mechanical feel of drum machines, I'd be really into hooking them up to the Iconix then triggering drum sounds from the X7000 as much as hearing them hit an acoustic kit. In that respect, it doesn't matter to me how the sound is manufactured, but how it is played."
Hence the future may well see the acquisition of a trigger-to-MIDI interface and perhaps even a MIDI guitar. Also on Hewitt's shopping list is a D50, another MT32, a couple of TX81Z's and a Casio CZ1000 - the "MIDI icing" as he calls it.
More immediately, though, he wants to expand the capabilities of the X7000, which at the moment acts mainly as a mother keyboard and a source of piano sounds. This will involve the purchase of the 16 voice/multiple output expander, as well as the Soundworks editing package for the Atari. Since this will allow the computer to store something like 10 sounds per disk, Hewitt expects to build up an extensive sample library which can be quickly accessed.
On a more global scale, 2nd Sense may well become the centre for a MIDI course sponsored by the local council.
"It'll be for kids with a drum machine and an SK1 who want to know how to get more out of their machines."
But while Hewitt would like to see the studio successful, he would also like to retain a sense of proportion as well as a sense of enjoyment.
"There's a lot of folklore about studios. People come in and they don't really know what they want. It's just that they've written a song on their portable keyboard and they think, 'Ah, I need to go into a studio and use all this technology that I've heard about but which I don't understand'. In that situation it's easy just to put reverb or echo on everything and let them go away feeling happy. On the other hand, they expect to put rubbish in and get something really wonderful out."
But in case the studios do take off in a big way, Hewitt has contingency plans:
"If we ever get into video. I'll call that 1st Sense. And if the empire gets so big that we have a staff canteen, I'll call that 5th Sense. And, of course, if the whole thing went bankrupt, I'd call it Nonsense."