Duncan Mackay: Going Solo
An insight into the background and musical equipment that brought about Duncan Mackay's Electronic Music LP 'Visa'
There is no lack of musical experience in the life of Duncan Mackay, for he learnt the violin from the age of three and through the encouragement of his late father, who was a Professor of Music, continued playing until he was fifteen. His father then started lecturing at the University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and here Duncan took the LTCL and LRSM examinations on the violin.
His keyboard experience began with the church organ whilst at university and it also gave him the opportunity to play jazz three times a week (Jimmy Smith style) on an old Hammond M100 organ. He started teaching music for six months but this was something he couldn't cope with at all, so by chance he got a job as keyboard player with a jazz group from Brazil. Having worked for some time in Rio in his early twenties he then came back to work in Rhodesia and finally returned to England seven years ago, planning to join up with Ginger Baker. This association didn't work at all and he started working with John Hiseman with what was to become Collisseum II.
Duncan's music making in these days brought little income until Steve Harley came along from Cockney Rebel and offered him £50 a week. He remained with Cockney Rebel until four years ago and when Rebel split up he stayed with Steve for another year as musical director. Then came the move to 10cc during which three albums were made, including 'Bloody Tourists' and 'Look Now'. During that time he still worked with Steve Harley and nearly a year ago they completed an LP entitled 'Score'. This was quite different from his 'Visa' record, with its 'thousand-notes-a-minute', very orchestral, dramatic music and unusual time signatures.
'Score' came from Duncan wanting to do something outside of Cockney Rebel, with the title coming from the music holding all the elements of a good film sound track. It was recorded at Scorpio Studios and certainly couldn't have been recorded in his present studio, for it used numerous live percussion and keyboards. Coming just before the advent of polyphonic keyboards, the music required an enormous amount of time spent multi-tracking monophonic synthesiser tracks layer by layer and turned out to be an expensive album to produce. The album was not as big a success as it should have been, for it contained plenty of interesting ideas. Shortly after 'Score', Duncan left EMI to join a new record company, Edge Records.
Duncan took all the music he had recorded on two-track Revox to Edge management who recognised it had good potential for an album. When discussing the cost of going into an eight-track studio to make the recording, Duncan suggested that the company loaned him a mixing desk and an eight-track recorder as down payment on the album. "This enabled me to record the entire album in the studio at home using my own equipment in addition. But having spent years in recording studios where there was usually an engineer to help out, it was quite a daunting experience to begin the LP entirely on my own knowing that it had to be completed in six weeks!"
Although the mixing desk (an Allen & Heath Modular 3, 16 into 8) had limited EQ facilities, it was sufficient since most synthesisers had their sounds shaped before being direct injected into the desk. Because it had only three 'sends', extra junction boxes were made to switch these outputs to various effects boxes, without having to change jacks around.
Duncan dislikes untidy wiring in studios, and, needless to say, spent a lot of time moving the equipment around until he was satisfied. Part of the solution has been to use several patch boxes around the room to minimise the amount of extra wiring needed. To hold the keyboards, he uses a Roland rack which although quite expensive at around £100 is ideal for angling each piece of equipment exactly as required.
He prefers to use reverberation and other effects on individual tracks, rather than at the final mix-down stage and feels that this adds greater depth and spatial effect to the stereo field. He added, 'You have to be careful not to add too much reverberation, otherwise the sound can become swamped - but it does allow you to listen carefully to your monitor mix and get a good impression of what you are building up'. We reminisced on the difficulties of making an 8-track demo and then going into a 24-track studio to try and recreate the original version. It was obviously easier and cheaper to put the whole album together in his own purpose-built studio. "With more time available, making electronic music often brings situations when you might be changing the controls slightly and getting an effect you couldn't possibly have thought up". He remembers setting up a drum pattern on the Compu-Rhythm which by chance had some echo added and sounded so good that it was kept for the final track.
The multi-track tape machine used was a Brenell Mini-8 with Vari-speed and remote control. The amps in the studio are Quad 405's fed into a pair of JBL speakers (Decade 36 3-way speakers set for flat response), although he has tucked away a pair of Auratones which he likes as additional reference speakers (even though the bass needs boosting!).
The mixing desk sits in front of what used to be an old fire-place, conveniently positioning it sufficiently away from the monitor speakers. The sound of the room is already fairly dry from the carpeting and curtains, so no special equalising was needed even at the mastering stage. Noise reduction is not used - instead the Brenell recorder receives fairly high signals that can peak into the 'red' frequently without producing distortion, thus eliminating one additional step in the chain that could affect the final sound. "The only time I like using dbx is when I am recording piano and I like to play it back without it to get a really bright penetrating 'honky-tonk' effect".
Although Duncan's Hammond is capable of giving him a great organ sound through its tone cabinet on the album, he used a Roland VK1 through a 'Sound Dimension' unit that really spreads out the sound. There are two Revox tape recorders (both A77's) and one is used for the mix-down and the other for tape echo and back-up copies. There is also a Technics M04 cassette tape machine that is useful for recording any make of tape with correct bias and equalisation and its 'search facility' helps to locate tracks quickly. For more complex echo effects there is a Yamaha E1010, Roland Space Echo RE150 and also the DC30. Each of these produces a different kind of echo along with an early solid-state Roland unit, the Digital Chorus. Other effects come from the Roland 'Sound Dimension D', a Phase Shifter - the SPH323, and a Bell Flanger - the BF20 stereo version. The Eventide Clockworks Harmoniser has pride of place next to an old Yamaha tuning scope which is very useful for tuning the Clavinet.
Echo and other effects are controlled occasionally from foot pedals and the former especially is operated from a 'push-to-make' rather than an 'on/off switch to give more accurate echo timing. We mustn't forget Dave Simmons' Clap-Trap too which adds extra percussive sounds.
In the photographs you might also spot an instrument that excited both of us - the Roland Auto Harp, which is simply the traditional auto harp with piezo pick-ups under each string. We both agreed the sound it produces was unobtainable even from guitars and added interesting chordal and arpeggio effects.
Duncan points out, 'It is important to listen to recordings in various environments - even the car stereo is useful for evaluating if there is too much bass and so on'. Next to his Leslie unit there is a rack of equipment from his old 10cc days and space for some Kepex noise gates which help to keep the background noise of the Clavinet down in recording.
Looking at the impressive array of keyboards, we started with the Hammond B3 and its accompanying Leslie unit which has a 200W Gauss bass speaker and JBL horns, 'Rarely used these days', comments Duncan 'and certainly never played as loud as it could be'. The Hammond was bought in Cape Town for £400 brand new from an old lady who had been left it in a relative's will and was first discovered ornating her living room with a table cloth over it and pictures on top!
Under the main rack is the Yamaha CS80 which provides most of the harmony and polyphonic textures on 'Visa'. This has been modified to take two extra memories and the string sounds have also been improved. A firm favourite is the Hohner Clavinet, which is sent through the Digital Chorus, helping to add a great deal of clarity to the sound. "I use the Multi-Moog quite a lot for sequencing — its touch-sensitive action helps to accent notes - and operates with the Roland system 100 sequencer. The latter's Channel A is used for note control and Channel B for filter control and rests are inserted by simply closing the filter."
On the top part of the rack is a Roland TR78 Compu-Rhythm which has its bass drum sound beefed up by a Moog Equaliser. 'I find the pad for entering rhythms impracticable, so I use the writing switch which is much more accurate, although you have to keep removing jacks for normal operation'. The drum sounds go through the Space Echo which gives further syncopation to the rhythms and these are very evident on the 'Visa' album! Throughout the LP the percussion is always intended to sound electronic - listen to the nice phased cymbal on the second track. Duncan only occasionally uses his Moog Taurus pedal for penetrating synthesiser bass: "This really comes from my time with 10cc and playing jazz in Africa when I gigged with just a drummer". His church organ experience obviously gives him an interest in playing pedals and he plans to reinstate a two-octave pedalboard with his Hammond shortly. The Yamaha CS15D shown on the top of the Hammond will have been donated since as a prize in a competition promoting 'Visa'.
During composing, the music was often written down in traditional notation, without detailing all the synthesiser and mixer settings. No physical tape editing is done as Duncan prefers to collect on a Revox numerous sounds that he experiments with, from which he will extract parts afterwards that he likes - in fact, that is how all of the 'Visa' pieces were written. Talking about the reasons for writing 'Visa', Duncan mentioned his initial dislike for drum machines had recently changed and prompted him to do a lot of experimenting with them. "I'm still continuing to write music in the vein of 'Score', but it's just not commercially viable at the moment. It was challenging to produce 'Visa', for everything was created in my studio from beginning to end. The excitement of composing electronic music for me came from the manipulation and interfacing of controls as well as the composing of the music and the record was intended to be pleasing and enjoyable to listen too, rather than contain exciting innovative ideas."
Its directness and catchy melodies should appeal to the whole family and points to the important developments that are taking place in providing cheaper synthesisers for everyone to play easily and have fun with.
What this album will prove to many people is that acceptable music can now be written in a good home studio set-up and should inspire the many hundreds of people who now enjoy,recording their own music to continue their experiments. Surprisingly, the whole of the 'Visa' LP was recorded by simply filling the eight tracks of the recorder and mixing these down into stereo. When 'Visa' is performed at a concert, Duncan uses one other keyboard player and backing tapes.
Certainly 'Visa' is a big step for Duncan and it contains the personality of the composer through its warmth and directness, its neat and precisely organised rhythmic and melodic counterpoints. Like many electronic music composers, his next album promises to be different again. His latest release is a single which is not on the album, titled 'Sirius 3 Mark II'. It's more in the dance vein and shows yet another side of his composing. Meanwhile, he continues to compose film sound tracks, jingles, play most of the music for Kate Bush and looks forward to plenty of solo dates this year.
You can listen to Duncan playing his studio keyboards on our E&MM Demo Cassette No. 3.
We are also offering his 'Visa' LP to E&MM readers for only £3.49 inc. post, packing and VAT. Send your cheque to 'Maplin Publications', (Contact Details).