African Music (Part 1)
Sound On Sound reader Kofi Busia recently released his own independent LP called 'Oh Africa', funded entirely by himself. To encourage others to follow his example, we asked Kofi to write about his experiences. In this the first of three parts, he presents a frank and revealing account of why the record came about, how he came to grips with using modern technology for African music, and why he chose the equipment he used.
Sound On Sound reader Kofi Busia recently released his own independent LP called 'Oh Africa', funded entirely by himself. To encourage others to follow his shining example, we asked Kofi to write about his experiences. In this the first of three parts, he presents a frank and revealing account of why the record came about, how he came to grips with using modern technology for African music, and why he chose the equipment he used.
I have loved music all of my life and have played the piano as long as I can remember. My parents used to pay for me to have lessons. About 18 years ago, when I was at university, my musicality entered a different kind of phase. I dreamt a lot about actually being a musician. I had been classically trained on the piano and it somewhat limited my style. I, therefore, learned to play the guitar and used to be able to entertain my friends with it. I also started writing songs and - like everyone else - dreamed of topping the charts and changing the world, like Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, et al. I wrote over 200 songs and, at one point, even entered the Melody Maker Rock/Folk contest! I got nowhere.
But all good things come to an end, and my university days were soon over.
I had to come to terms with dealing with reality. The time had come to stop these foolish dreams and earn a living. Eventually, I ended up running a small one-man business of my own.
Once you have been bitten by the music bug, however, it never really leaves you. I felt that the least I could do was put together a really good hi-fi system. I spent a lot of my hard-earned money and spare time buying and listening to records. But I still vaguely remembered my dreams. Something kept nagging at me that there must have been at least one good song amongst the 200 or so I had written!
Occasionally, when I heard really dreadful songs in the Top 40, I wondered if mine had really been so much worse than that. Other people seemed to be megastars with not even one good song to their name! Still - I carried on coping with VAT returns, the Inland Revenue, etc. I still always had a piano and guitar around and played whenever time would allow. This was not much; I certainly never had time to try and write anything. Time passed slowly - I grew, developed; eventually got married; had a kid.
After a while my wife made me a proposal. She could see how much I loved music and loved playing. "Why don't you", she said, "run down your business, take time out, and be serious about your music?" "After all," she added, "you have worked your guts out and haven't had a holiday for over 15 years."
I was a bit dumbfounded, but she was quite serious. She would go back to work to support me; we could sell the house; I would look after our daughter in the daytime; the evenings would be mine. The thought was intriguing. Did I really have the courage and conviction? Now that I had been put on the spot, was I just a romantic poser, or was there something serious underneath?
Before making such a major decision, though, I thought I should find out if the old musical skills were still there. Also, could I actually play and write music, or were those memories just nostalgia for my youth? Some major checking out was needed!
I could not believe how the music-making scene had changed! Nothing made sense any more. The technology was just outrageous. After some careful thinking and toe-testing, and some realistic evaluation of the kind of music I wanted to make, it became obvious: get a synthesizer. But which one? I knew no names; I decided to just go by my ears. After all, choosing your instruments properly has always been part of the musician's craft.
For several weeks I went to every music shop in the area and just played and played and listened. Eventually, I went for the synthesizer which seemed to make great sounds that I liked, and which had great versatility. Next problem - I couldn't afford it! Out with credit cards and the never-never; home with the machine. It said on the front 'Yamaha DX7'. I knew about Yamaha. They made motorbikes. God alone knew what 'DX7' stood for. There was obviously a whole universe here I knew nothing about. But I was ready, willing and eager to learn.
Man, but it felt good to be playing again. I felt right at home just playing and practicing and running through all the amazing sounds I had bought. But more than that, I could sense a few songs in the background waiting to emerge.
After a couple of months of soul-searching, I eventually decided that it would at the very least be enormously satisfying and very great fun to take up my wife's proposition. Even if nothing came of it success-wise, I would really enjoy it and feel fulfilled. Even if I ended up re-starting my old business, at least I would get to 60 knowing I had given myself a fair break. So, the decision was made. I wound up my business; we put our house on the market and looked around for a much smaller one; I started researching for some more gear; and we became almost totally broke.
I knew, musically and artistically, where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I knew I would be working completely alone with some fairly complex percussion-based material and arrangements. It was obvious from my reading around that I would have to thoroughly investigate and check out this MIDI stuff, because it seemed to allow for what I wanted. I knew I had gone and bought myself a digital synthesizer (the DX7). I read that it was incredibly hard to programme. This did not particularly bother me, for I did not know what a non-digital synthesizer was, how it differed, how to programme one, or what it did that was so different (except help make music).
The most important thing to settle was what price to sell our house for. This very largely depended on what kind of equipment I was going to buy! As for what to choose - I just started from where I was and what my needs were likely to be.
I was a keyboard player. I was already finding it very frustrating playing the DX7 keyboard, which was so short and stumpy. None of the magazines, etc, I read ever seemed bothered by the length and feel of the keyboard, but it was a major factor to me. That was the first rule I formed. I was the one who was going to be using the equipment. It did not matter if other people felt I was wasting my money - what mattered was an environment in which I felt comfortable and creative. I longed to be able to let my fingers rip, properly. Obviously, a better keyboard was called for. I came across the concept of the 'master keyboard". Getting one became one of my priorities. Eventually, I decided on the Yamaha KX88. I love it and have never regretted buying it. It has proved its worth in gold many times.
I also foresaw from the kind of music I was writing that a second synth would be very helpful. I knew that the Yamaha DX7 could only play one sound at a time, and I had already wished for moments when I could play different things along with each other. I had learned enough to know that I only needed an 'expander module' now, not another synth. Again - I went by my ears. I had liked the sound of the Korg DW8000 synth when investigating before and, after listening around again, still liked it. So I chose the expander version, the EX8000.
I was very attracted to the Oberheim Matrix 6R, but I could not spend enough time trying it out because it was not sold locally; also, its range of instantly available plug-in sounds was not as good as the Korg. I did intend to learn how to programme my own sounds, but I also wanted to make music straight away with what I had when I opened the box. I was also attracted by samplers; however, I felt that learning my way around digital and analogue programming would keep me fully occupied for a while, and left them for another day...
Then came the hardest battle of all. What was I to do for rhythm programming? Being an African, and aiming to write African music, percussion was important to me. I simply did not like the sounds of any of the available drum machines. It was at this point that the computer entered more fully into my purchasing decisions.
I already possessed an IBM compatible machine — a Canon computer. I needed one to run my business, after all! It got used for word processing, mailing lists, keeping the accounts, drawing graphs, etc. (Everything but playing games and - so far - making music.) I had absolutely no idea what went on inside them or what a 'bit' was. But then I didn't need to know. I knew from experience that computers were fast, efficient, and could be very powerful. That is all any user needs to know. All I knew about software programs was that they would make the machine behave as intelligently as they were programmed. This was all down to the intelligence and planning of the programmer matching up properly with the needs and experience of the user.
"I could not believe how the music-making scene had changed! Nothing made sense any more. The technology was just outrageous. After some careful thinking... and some realistic evaluation of the kind of music I wanted to make, it became obvious: get a synthesizer. But which one?"
I knew from my business experience that computers could store masses of data and save a lot of time and energy. What this was about was sheer practicality. If my computer could do that for my music, then I would have more time for being creative. The thought of being able to 'word process' music proved more and more attractive the longer I thought about it. I was, after all, about to put myself in a situation where I had to be a full band on my own. The thought of the power and capacity of a computer standing in for a few backing musicians was definitely worth checking out. I read as much as I could about this subject. As usual, none of it made any sense.
However, the essential facts seemed to be borne out. I could store musical information on disk just as easily as my business information and use it just as effectively and efficiently.
After a frustrating time researching drum machines, it suddenly hit me that I did not necessarily have to buy a drum machine. The gadgets I had been looking at not only made the sounds, but also had to memorise the drum patterns and then remember how to re-create them. I could, instead, just go for a drum synthesizer which simply created the sounds. My dissatisfaction with drum machines was two-fold: 1. Most of the sounds were so artificial. A lot of the time in my music the drums would be right up front in the limelight, not in the heavily produced background.
2. I would be working with what are known musically as additive rhythms. A song in 4/4 time, 96 beats per minute, four minutes long, has 96 bars of music. Working with additive rhythms, every single bar would be completely different! I could not find any drum machine that would remember that number of patterns, never mind the time-wasting and staggering complexity of programming that number of patterns for just one song, without error! This was my other reason for deciding to go computer-wards - sheer necessity. Remembering and inputting this amount of data would be a doddle for it.
Having decided on external pattern storage (courtesy of the computer), I could now look at using a dedicated drum system for producing the sounds. Eventually, I settled on the Simmons SDS9 and MTX9. My other choice - the Dynacord - was just that bit too expensive. The Simmons units had a fairly sophisticated built-in MIDI interface, which I needed. They also had a collection of percussion sounds which could be easily edited, modified and stored. (Working with additive rhythms, the important thing is not so much how many different percussion instruments you can cram together but rather their varying relationships to each other, both in subtle timbral changes and temporally - things which have to be chosen with care. Being dedicated drumming equipment, this sort of subtlety is easily handled.) The Simmons could also be played from pads, from my Yamaha KX88 master keyboard, or from the computer. Above all else, it was made for the serious drummer and dominated the Top Ten. What more could I ask for?
That covers the instruments I chose; now for the production end. It seemed that I would need a mixing desk. Choosing one was hard at first, as I had absolutely no engineering or mixing experience. Again, I started off from my requirements and my budget. I looked around, searched around, and listened. Eventually, I decided on the Seck 18:8:2. The reasons were various...
First of all there was its layout. A lot of knobs and switches made absolutely no sense to me. But some did. I therefore managed to take a reasonable guess at what the ones I did not know were for. Even with my lack of experience, a little intelligence and guesswork made it reasonably obvious what a particular knob/slider was intended to do just from its position.
Secondly, although it seemed designed for ease-of-use by ignoramuses such as myself, there still seemed to be a functional depth to it so that one could use it in a much more sophisticated way as one grew in experience. After all, I did not want to have to buy another mixing desk next year!
The Seck was obviously not short of places to put things in or take them out. I did not, at this point in time, know what all those holes did yet and might never use them. But they were there for when I did find out. Also, I did not know exactly what I would be putting in and taking out as yet, but I could see that there was plenty of scope.
Finally, although the 18:8:2 was ostensibly only an 8-track mixer it could, in fact, service a 16-track tape recorder. It would only ever put out eight signals at any one given moment, but you could choose which eight out of the 16 possibles. And, of course, there was its size. It was beautifully light and compact for something that seemed to be able to do a lot. This was an important consideration as there was not going to be a lot of room in our new house!
Having chosen the mixer, the next step was the tape recorder. Unfortunately, I simply could not afford a 16-track machine. Also, it seemed to me that working from a computer, overdubbing would never be any problem. You could put each instrument down directly from the computer. If a part turned out not to be properly balanced on tape, it could be run by again with absolutely no trouble. Having settled on 8-track, there was no competition. It had to be the Fostex Model 80.
When it came to effects units I was completely baffled. Also, I was running out of money. We would never sell our house if my projected gear cost too much! So I decided to compromise. I knew absolutely nothing about this end of the music business. It was very obvious to me that to make sensible choices in this area required a listening ability and knowledge that I was not yet attuned to. After a lot of careful reading and study, some thinking, and a little listening, I eventually decided that if ever I went into a studio I would make sure that they had good equipment and a friendly engineer. Good 16- and 24-track studios were always available, and what I was doing was writing the music, not being a producer. For my own primitive work and knowledge, I went for the Roland DEP-5. I chose it because it could do lots of different things at once, whatever they were and whatever that meant! I also chose a Yamaha GC2020 compressor because I could understand what one was for, all the reviews praised it highly, and a new one was going cheap in a sale!
I knew that this effects equipment was not top whack stuff, but my budget was limited and it fitted the belt and my needs and knowledge. I have found that my rules of 'go by your own ears and needs' and 'if you can't hear, don't pay' have several times since stopped me wasting my money and helped keep me within tight budgets.
Finally, I rounded off by choosing two patchbays - one ordinary one (for audio signals) and one MIDI one. I had got very tired of plugging leads in and out of the backs of things with my hi-fi system, and I wasn't about to go through all that again. I wanted to be able to just sit down, relax, make music and write, not worry about patching things up every five minutes. After all, that was what all this sacrificing and reduction in living standards was about.
I had a very good hi-fi system based around a Quad amp and some first class loudspeakers that a friend and I had put together many years ago. These, and my Beyer Dynamic DT100 headphones, could be used for all monitoring.
So - I now knew what equipment I wanted. We could therefore fix a price for the house, sell it and buy another place to live, hopefully without eating into this very important musical fund.
One fine day we got a buyer for our house; then we found another place and bought it. We moved in. Next, I ordered the gear; then cardboard boxes arrived; then I unpacked them all and... Well - next month, I will tell you how I came to terms with my equipment and MIDI; my journey through programming; what I learned about sequencing and music software; writing, playing, arranging; recording in a studio; etc. See you.
The end result of Kofi Busia's efforts is an unusual album entitled Oh Africa, released by African Records International (Contact Details).
Feature by Kofi Busia
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