Busy Doing Nothing?
Renowned best for his keyboard/synth excursions in the jazz-rock field, Dave and partner Barbara Gaskin achieved several chart hits with re-workings of classic pop songs like 'It's My Party' back in 1982. Together they are presently completing their first album for release on compact disc. David Etheridge took a look behind the scenes.
Dave Stewart? Not another article on the Eurythmics? Well, no - this Dave Stewart is the one who, in a long and interesting career, has covered many facets of music well outside the usual idioms. Starting in the late sixties as keyboard player with Egg, a trio who used elements of Stravinsky in their own individual brand of rock, the seventies saw Dave working with Hatfield and the North, National Health, and in esteemed jazz-rock circles with ace drummer Bill Bruford.
Then came a series of chart singles under his own name, which were synthesized arrangements of classic rock tunes such as 'What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted' (featuring the vocals of Colin Blunstone) and later, with Barbara Gaskin, his version of 'It's My Party'. In 1983, he released one of his best ever singles: the magnificent recording of 'Busy Doing Nothing' (from the old Bing Crosby film 'A Connecticut Yankee In The Court Of King Arthur').
Apart from producing 'Hole In My Shoe' and the follow-up, 'Neil's Heavy Concept Album' in '84/85, things have been quiet on the recording front for Dave. So we sent David Etheridge along to learn more about the 'Dave Stewart approach to recording' and to discover what this master craftsman was up to these days.
Largely, since the release of our last two singles, 'Leipzig' and 'I'm In A Different World', I've been at home in my studio 'woodshedding' - demoing songs and doing a bit of recording."
"Before discussing how I record my music, I'd like to point out that the gear you've got is always secondary to your imagination - what you've got in your head, and what you want to hear - because when you get down to it, you can always obtain the sounds you want if you know what you want to hear. In a lot of cases, as an artist, you can fall back on technology, but I believe the secret of good record production, which is there right from the beginning of the song demo to the finished master, is having an idea of the 'personality' of the sounds that you want. I don't think you get those sounds by just going through the factory presets on a synth."
"The approach I take is to think, 'What sort of sound do we need here? ' - and it can't be the sort of sound that's available to everybody. In fact, it's quite important to avoid the sounds that everyone can get just by pressing a button because, if you opt for them, your records are going to end up sounding like anyone could have produced them."
How did you go about recording 'Busy Doing Nothing'?
"The difference between that track and a lot of modern recording is that a conventional way to start would be to put down a click-track or timecode initially, then the drums, and build upwards. When you look at the track sheet for most songs, you'll see twenty-four tracks running from start to finish which have more or less got the same sound on. But what I find with a lot of my stuff is that I want the sound to change from section to section. Therefore, I have to record it in such a way that what starts off being a cabasa on Track 1, might, in the first chorus, suddenly become a keyboard overdub. That's simply because of the limitation of 24-track: you have to squeeze things in."
"If you look at the track sheets for 'Busy Doing Nothing', you find that it's unmixable - because you look down it and you think, 'Hell, it starts off being a cabasa, then it's a keyboard, but then in the next verse, it's a bass'. So you've got all these changes, and the only way to cope with all that is to mix the song in sections, which is what we did with 'Busy Doing Nothing'."
"You start off with the intro, and you've got, say, three stereo keyboards, some rhythm stuff, some backing vocals, and some lead vocals; then you mix that, stop, and listen to the next bit. If any sound plays in the second part that was playing in the first, you leave that channel fader on the mark where it was; if it changes in identity and becomes... oh, a phased ferret or something, then you're free to move it around. Then you mix the second section and edit them on your quarter-inch tape, or half-inch, depending on what you're mastering on to. Then you listen to it, and you think about the dynamic relationship between the first and the second section, and if it's alright, you then proceed to the third bit, which is a very complicated way of mixing, but it gives you a lot of variety in the final result."
What is your latest project?
"Barbara (Gaskin) and I are actually piling up finished tracks with a view to getting something out as a single. All the tracks we've recorded have been included on this new compact disc which will be released in May in America. It's the first album we've done together, called 'Up From The Dark', and it's got a selection of everything we've recorded stretching back to 'It's My Party' in 1982. We've been recording tracks off our own bat, and with our own money, and going and mastering them ourselves, working largely at Spaceward Studios near Cambridge. We're working outside of the industry - unlike most people, we don't have a record deal, because we don't benefit from, or get on with, the kind of attitudes that you find within the industry. We don't respond well to musical guidance from people that aren't musicians, like being asked to re-mix things that we've just spent three months mixing - all that kind of thing is just, well, not welcome."
How important is technology in putting over your musical ideas?
"I think that a lot of people within this industry don't really understand the technology, but they think they're using it to enhance the commercial potential of their recordings. A specific example is the record companies: they think studios that have got SSL computerised mixing desks are good - they think that somewhere, inherent in the machinery of an SSL desk, is something that can produce hit records. SSL themselves, naturally, wouldn't be slow to say that their desks had been used in producing lots of hit records. I can understand why they would say that, but I would point out that it's completely irrelevant that it's an SSL desk, really. Anyone that understands the technology knows that. Anyone that's involved in the music making process, and that's not just the musicians, it's the engineers and the producers as well, know that if a musical idea is strong, and there's enough commitment to getting it right, you can in fact record it on quite a lot of different systems - 24, 16 or 8-track. In fact, I think you could do quite a good album on 8-track if you were patient enough."
"The technology is often overrated; what really makes music work isn't the technology, it's the kind of spirit behind it, and the imagination to try to get interesting and creative results, even with limited means. Looking at it more positively, the new technology ought to throw up a lot more creative potential - with sampling and so on. But that isn't so."
"The reason why is because in a lot of cases the knowledge to back up that technology hasn't yet filtered through to the musicians. There are exceptions - people who are really good at doing multi-samples, spreading a sound across a whole keyboard and producing these fantastic noises. There are other people who just want to go into the studio and hire a Fairlight to get the old orchestra preset going 'BONK!' - and they're happy. In between, you've got masses of people groping around in the dark with the new technology. They just need time to get used to it. I've got a Sequential Prophet-5 which I've done a lot of programming on, and I've got sounds out of it that I think are good, and also quite distinctive, but it takes years to do all that, and with a DX7 it takes even longer!"
"So, you see, you have to have the commitment to the instruments and the system, to actually make it speak in the way that you want to sound like you. If what you produce sounds like everyone else, there's not a lot of point, really. Personally, I'd rather mess around with rubber bands for three years and get something that was a bit original."
What instruments do you use in your recording work - exclusively top of the range models or are there some classics?
"Oh yes, definitely. There's the Minimoog, which I chiefly use for bass lines, and my Prophet-5. Both are non-MIDI... steam-driven you might say!
There are lots of sounds on the Prophet-5 that I couldn't get on the DX7, in fact I wouldn't even try; because even if I did imitate them on the DX they'd only be like a sort of very good surrogate - slightly cleaner, with more top-end, but they wouldn't have the same vibe.
There's a certain kind of fuzzy warmth about the Rev.2 version of the Prophet-5. There's something about the sound of it that is really irreplaceable."
"I've also got a DX system, with what amounts to three DX7s - a DX7 keyboard, and two of the TX7 modules to augment it. They are sequenced by my Roland MSQ-700. I've also got an Emulator I, which I really wish was an Emulator II, but it has got a very good array of disks - about two hundred.
Again, they're not factory disks, but things I've sampled myself. Mind you, it's hard to achieve good samples on it because there's not a lot of memory, and the trade-off between what sample splits you use and the sample length isn't very satisfactory, as you've only got two seconds maximum to start with. But they are sounds that I've used quite a bit, and they are personal to me."
"I've had MIDI retrofitted to this Emulator, so that I can sequence it, but it is rather late to respond, and it causes a delay which you can't counteract by clever use of clock devices, because it's actually varying all the time. One note will be a bit late, but then the next note will be very late, so you're completely f***ed in the end you have to cover your ears and pretend that it's not happening."
"The best sampling device I've got, which is made by E-mu Systems, is the SP-12 sampling drum machine, and it's got a playback sampling rate of about 13 or 14kHz, which is reasonably high, and it introduces very little noise into the sample. In fact, even though it's laid out like a drum machine with the usual pushbuttons, I've found that I actually do sample keyboard sounds into it quite a lot, and use them for both parts and effects. I suppose what I really want is a keyboard version of that, but with an almost instantaneous MIDI response, like that of a DX7."
What specific audio processors do you like to use in your recording?
"I record a lot of my keyboards in stereo through a Roland Chorus Echo: I put the chorus on and record the outputs left and right on two tracks, which means you've got no clean, as it were, keyboard signal on the recording - you've just got this kind of swirling chorused thing which is very hard to tune up to. It's stereo in the sense that what comes out of the A output is different from what comes out of B. One channel is chorus-sounding - that's 'chorus' as in Andy Summers' guitar on Police records - but the other channel just goes up and down in pitch rather horribly, like a sort of mini doppler effect. The pitch change beats against the other output, which I always pan on the left (for superstitious reasons), and produces a feeling of stereo-ness. I've tried to simulate that effect with digital devices like the AMS 15-80S, but it just doesn't sound as good to me."
"I've got two digital reverb units: the AMS RMX-16, which gives you anything from a telephone booth to the Royal Albert Hall; and I've got the Yamaha REV-7, which will give you anything from a biscuit tin to the Superdome in New Orleans! The AMS is really great for a big, natural, hall-like sound - it's got a very pleasant characteristic. For me the REV-7 scores because not only has it got reverb and room sounds, but it's also got all kinds of modulation effects like 'chorus' and 'flanging'. Between them, they take care of most of my effect needs."
"I generally start recording with some sort of click-track; in fact I've only ever done one recording where I didn't have a click-track. My SP-12 drum machine can read SMPTE, but I must say that it doesn't read it all that brilliantly - it can't find its place in a song without having to stop and think for about half an hour. I do actually use SMPTE though, because then I can do tempo changes with the drum machine, and then clock everything else to speed up. If the piece didn't have a tempo change, and if it sounded good at the same tempo all the way through, I'd probably just use a Linn clock signal, because then you wouldn't have to worry about the SMPTE not reading, and so on."
"I start off trying to record in a fairly orderly fashion, in fact, I put quite a lot of thought into trying to make sure that everything ends up on its own track. I think about things like not wanting vocals to go on edge tracks: in those respects I'm quite careful. We tend to record things at Spaceward with the effects that we want on the track, because we know that it's difficult to recreate them later on, and we might want to use that reverb unit for a vocal or something. After all, if we've got a nice sound on the keyboard, then why not record the effects as well?"
How do you approach the recording of vocals?
"With vocals, the trick is not to mess about with them too much. A vocal is something that you don't want to EQ if you can help it. What we do with Barb's voice is use one of those expensive Neumann microphones, which generally give the most natural sound. A lead vocal will usually be recorded without any effects, maybe just a little bit of EQ, and then later on, when we come to mix it, we'll maybe add reverb."
"We've done quite a few different things with Barb's voice: on some of our older tracks we used an AMS phaser on the vocal to make it swirl about in stereo. Sometimes we'll use repeat echo, the old Robert Plant stand-by, and almost always we use the AMS digital reverb for the main vocal, because that's very pleasant. Barb does her own backing vocals for the most part, so she'll go in and generally come up with something which consists usually of three part harmonies. Then we double-track each harmony, so you're immediately into six tracks, apart from any lead vocal stuff."
"One of the tracks on the compact disc is called 'As Far As Dreams Can Go', and this was done pre-sampling and pre-Fairlights and so on. We found a harmoniser that you can do vocal loops with so we got Barb to just sing an 'Aaah' - a long note - and made a perfect glitch-free loop, which we recorded for ten minutes on 8-track. Then we got her to sing four or five other notes, so we had all these potential chords which were all in the key of D-major or D-minor - a bit like 10cc's 'I'm Not In Love'. I then wrote a tune based on this, using chords that went with the note of D. We fed all of the notes through an AMS phaser and just played the mixer faders like a keyboard, pushing them up and down at various times to form chords. I know Brian Eno has done things like that before, and it worked very well for this particular song."
It all sounds very interesting. Will this compact disc album be available in this country?
"It will eventually, yes. Initially, we were approached by an American company called Ryko who only do custom compact disc pressings, but immediately they advertised our album they got lots of irate calls from people asking for it on vinyl. So, currently, we're arranging for some sort of vinyl release for it as well, both in America and in this country."
"In terms of the CD, we've been able to include all the music that we think is good, without having to look at the needs of the singles market, which is fairly restrictive. Also, on a compact disc, you can store more music than on an LP - we've got sixty-five minutes' worth on ours."
"I'm very glad that we've now got cheapish digital systems like the Sony PCM-F1 that we can master on to, and that the public have access to cheap compact disc systems. It finally means that they can get a true representation of the artist's original master tape - and I think it's quite important to have that."