Echoes From The Observatory (Part 1)
Bill lays bare his recording techniques and reveals the innermost secrets of his home studio 'The Echo Observatory' which has recently been upgraded to 16 track status. Now being used to record tracks fora forthcoming Nelson masterpiece.
A musician and record producer of considerable note, Bill Nelson is a classic example of the cult artist whose own recorded efforts are somehow overlooked by the mainstream, yet who commands a staunchly loyal following of fans and peers alike. Through the innovative music of his former groups, BeBop Deluxe and Bed Noise, he has cast his influence over that whole generation of synthesiser-based bands currently dominating today's pop charts, whilst his production credits include massive success with The Skids, A Flock of Seagulls and Gary Numan.
However, it is Bill Nelson's long time involvement in home recording that concerns us here. Having recently signed a new record deal with CBS/Epic, Bill has chosen to foresake the relative comfort of the 24-track studio and record his latest album (as yet unfinished) at home in Yorkshire. With the royalty advance from his record company, he has successfully managed to re-equip his home studio (known as The Echo Observatory) with a 16-track system that is presently being used to produce master quality tapes for the new album.
In this, the first part of an exclusive in-depth interview, Bill provides a full rundown of the recording equipment that comprises his new home studio and explains its application on his recordings.
I used to work up here a lot before because I did all the previous album demos here and I had done things which I had put out as an EP and a lot of which has been 4-track and 8-track stuff. The Beauty And The Beast soundtrack was the project that helped me to get my 8-track because I received an Arts Council grant towards the cost of its recording that helped me buy the Fostex.
Even though I was doing an awful lot of stuff up here it wasn't as inviting an environment to work in because the room was dingier and the equipment was always slightly duff; I had a speaker that would never work properly and I was driving it off a hi-fi amp instead of the Quad amp I've got now. Eventually I got the Tannoys which improved things no end, but I always used a pair of Dynatrons which were about 15 years old. I could never tell if the distortion I could hear was on tape or just from the speakers. I always had to do a mix first on cassette to take downstairs and put on the hi-fi to check out if that distortion was real or just the speakers, and usually it was the speaker.
Once I got my present set-up operating I put carpet down which I was a bit wary about. The room's very lively, when you play the drum kit it's a beautifully bright sound, but it's a hardwearing carpet which doesn't absorb too much sound. One thing I have noticed with the system is that I haven't used the amp, whereas before I always miked the keyboards from the Roland Jazz Chorus amp and allowed some of the room sound to come in there simply because I didn't have any electronic reverb and I had to use what I could from the room. But since I've had the MXR 01 digital reverb I've been getting the ambience I need from that. I haven't used a mike at all yet apart from a bit of acoustic guitar and bass on a couple of tracks.
Can you run through your effects rack and say why you chose each device?
The thing at the very top that says Channel 1 and Channel 2 is a trigger pulse generator I haven't yet used in this system, but we had it built when we were touring the States this year as we were having trouble triggering the Simmons kit from the LinnDrum. It was triggering, but we were getting slight time differences so a guy in L.A. built that for us. It will take any audio signal and reduce it to a click to trigger anything else. I brought it back with me because there's a chance I may want to do something like that in the studio.
The MXR 01 digital reverb was really the only choice as I couldn't afford an AMS. The budget I'd originally submitted to CBS Records included an AMS but they knocked the budget back by quite a few thousand pounds. CBS wanted me to do this new album and I pointed out how I liked the particular sound quality of home recordings, and the pleasure of putting an idea down as it occurs to me but that the system I'd got (8-track) really wasn't up to mastering and that for a fraction of the cost of pro studio time, I could upgrade my gear to 16-track and come out with 16-track backing tracks and then transfer them to 24-track, which minimises expensive 24-track studio time. They were quite happy to try that because they liked the quality and spontaneity of the demo I'd done, and consequently they asked me to put a budget together.
I did it and it got knocked back by several thousand pounds as I said, so I had a bit of a re-think in certain areas, and reverb was one of the things taking up a lot of money, as I did want an AMS digital reverb. But in the end I looked at the lower end of the reverb market and the cheapest I could see was the Yamaha digital one, which I have to admit I didn't like very much but I suppose it was okay for the money. I felt it wasn't that different from the spring reverb in terms of flexibility so I opted for the more expensive MXR device.
I saw the Dynacord reverb but imagined it would be more expensive than it is. I could actually do with another reverb. I'm now recording effects all the time whereas if I work in a 24-track studio, sometimes I leave certain elements to be decided in the mix and then you're finding you want two different reverb times, one for vocal and one for something else. But I'm having to record as I go no was I'm setting up different reverb times all the way through a track. I could do with another reverb unit but I just wonder about price.
This MXR 01 is so good with having pre-delay times you can change and the actual rooms and plates that you work from are very sensibly timed before you actually start modifying them. I was terribly impressed with that. The difference between an AMS and that MXR for a home recording guy, is not that great. I think when you get in a 24-track studio the AMS is much cleaner and has more extreme variations but I think for this kind of environment the MXR is incredibly good value for money.
It would be nice if AMS got their act together and brought out a budget version.
Yes it would. Obviously they've got this software update facility for the MXR which, in that price range, is excellent because usually they don't see it as being a long term thing. Usually they're not bothered with it. That's always been the prerogative of the expensive equipment, that you can plug in a module to change it and develop it.
Do you have favourite reverb settings that you keep coming back to?
When I first got it I started writing down various settings, particularly for snare drum. I wrote out a page of snare drum settings just trying out different things. I kept thinking that when I wanted a snare drum setting I'd look at this list again and set one up and use it. In fact, more recently. I've been going from scratch every time and seeing what happens and using some of the programs that aren't really supposed to be used for percussion - ones that are supposed to be a little too grainy - and using that just for the effect. Actually, that graininess adds a certain kind of character which I like.
I think that's a better approach and part of the beauty of working at home because you've got the time to say "Well I'll try that". Whereas in the studio you get an engineer who says: "Well, it's snare drum, we'll put that particular AMS reverb time on" and everybody seems to get the same sound.
The majority of people in studios don't have a lot of time. Money is such a big pressure consideration and you have to get on with it and complete what you've got to do within the allotted time. Obviously, you can spend time messing around, and that's fine when you get enough budget and the record company will allow you to do that, but a lot of people have a very tight budget and there's no way you can experiment.
That's why I've done so many pieces of music at home, it's just been a joy to sit down and throw ideas around. I've never yet scrapped anything I've worked on. If I've spent a day laying down a track and at the end of the day decided it's a total waste of time, I haven't wiped it. I've mixed it on the PCM F1 digital, even if it's just a backing track, and saved it. Often you come back to it a few days later and it's not as bad as you thought. Maybe I don't see it being used in a pop album context but suddenly I can see it might be useful for an instrumental album or I could use it on stage for part of the improvised things I do and improvise over the top of it. None of it is ever really wasted at all.
The Roland SDE3000 delay I got for the American tour as I decided I'd had enough of my enormous pedalboards and it was a long while since I'd been out with a band apart from the tour in Japan last year with Yukihiro Takehashi. This tour of the States was the first time I'd been out there for three years with a band and in some of the towns it was even longer, about eight years for instance in Chicago.
I wondered about sorting out all the old equipment, so I started hauling out the flight cases and dragging out guitars and amps that I was going to use and I looked at the two enormous pedalboards I'd got and thought that this was dinosaur stuff, totally unnecessary when you get a rack together, so I bought the SDE3000. Also because of the fact it had memories you could programme and which would also be dead handy for the studio. I had an excuse to ask for it, "I'm touring so I need a rack". So I filled the rack up with certain things that would be useful on the tour and would be even more useful in the studio later.
When you're choosing equipment like this how do you actually go about buying it? Do you read magazine reviews or do you go down to music shops and get a demo of it all?
Obviously, I researched the market on paper first, looked at all the reviews and brochures and then when I'd narrowed it down to what delays I wanted, there's a couple of music shops locally so I just went over and had a play around with them. They had the SDE3000 set up with a little mixing desk, a tape machine and bits and pieces. I just stuck things through it and kept pushing the buttons: 'That seems to do what I want it to do so great'.
Do you look at the spec? I'm interested to find out why people like yourself choose things. Is it because of the facilities or is it because you want a 15kHz bandwidth and that's got it.
It's a combination of both. With the Boss DE200 delay, the actual technical spec of that is far worse than the SDE3000 but it's got the hold and trigger thing, for which I bought it as it's a cheap way of doing that: it's only a few hundred quid. I was quite content with the loss of technical quality. I don't use it that much anyway because it's only when I want short sampling that I'll probably use it. If I want a delay, I'll use the Roland because the quality's better. With the Roland, it was a combination of the sound quality and the range of things it could do. With the Boss DE200 it was purely that it had that trigger facility and the hold.
No matter how much you read about the technical specifications it never makes much sense until you actually listen to the thing. You take it as read that it will do all these things it states in the brochures but you have to listen to it. Even though they're very coldly manufactured electrical components put together, they each have a characteristic anyway. That's the second SDE3000 I've had. The first one I had went wrong and they gave me another and it actually did sound different to the first one. It was not a matter of the settings being different but there was a tonal difference. It's very subtle but I did notice the difference. This Fostex B16 machine sounds different to the first machine I had, the one that kept going wrong. It's not as bright, it's been lined up and everything but it hasn't got the zip in the top end that the other one had. I've never found any two items to be identical.
That's interesting because the Japanese philosophy is that you can read a review and go out and buy an identical unit.
I would think to the average person getting in to this kind of thing, working at home, they will sound identical, but when you've been working with those kind of things for a long time as I have, you get kind of sensitive to those finer differences.
We've done tests where we've had two of the same delay unit and we put them on the longest delay and they're significantly different. I don't think that's an intentional thing on the manufacturer's part and I don't think they know why it happens, but it does.
I don't mind that so much because, for example, even though there can be several harmonisers in the studio I always take mine along as it sounds different again to any harmoniser I've ever come across. It's very hard to define why, but there's a certain quality and it's not because it's a duff one. I've had it in for repairs because it goes through these mad phases when it will suddenly start doing incredibly loud glitches for no apparent reason.
Does that model Harmoniser have the de-glitch circuitry in it?
I don't think it does actually. I've had that since the days of BeBop Deluxe. It's an old Eventide one so it probably won't have. I got their new one, the H949, but I still found myself using the H910 probably more than the H949. There are certain things that are happening on them, the reverse effect is quite useful on there. I found the old one more stable as far as the pitch ratio is concerned; this new thing drifts like mad. When it's working it works beautifully, when it isn't, it's a pig! It's been behaving itself for the last few months and I'm quite happy with it. On vocals, its tonal quality is superb, it has a warmth to it that I can't quite describe yet I've never found another harmoniser of that model which delivers as nice a quality to the vocals as that one does.
Your Fostex rack effects are two things you've had for quite a long time, aren't they?
Yes. I got those when I first bought the Fostex 8-track. I got the digital delay and later on the compressor/limiter. The digital delay is very good for the money and the sound quality is quite good. I think it's probably better quality than the DE200.
You seem to have quite a few delay units. You obviously use those more than reverb.
The reason I've got more delays is that I had this Fostex one simply because it was economical within the previous 8-track system. When I updated the system I decided to hang on to it rather than get rid of it because it's not worth that much second hand and you never know. I may need to use several at once when I'm doing a mix.
There's always a time when you get bored with whatever equipment you've been using for the last few weeks or so or you just decide you can't get what you want from it and drag out some old piece of equipment and suddenly that's it! It's something that you've remembered from maybe two years back, the sound you wanted and, in fact, was got through a piece of equipment you thought was obsolete. They're never really obsolete, they just have a different use.
I've had the Marshall Time Modulator for several years now. It's strange, but I've found that so-called studio engineers shy away from them, "you'll never get the same thing twice out of them" they say. A couple of guys I've met really like them but most people regard them as a 'black sheep' thing. I've found them really useful, particularly for a flanged effect that isn't 'flanging' as such, as you don't hear the high instrument; you hear the note change but not the sound around it. I found it really good on the bass drum keeping the frequency sweep fairly deep so it doesn't go too high, but when it goes down the bottom end it really is low. I've had problems reproducing it on certain studio speakers sometimes because you make it go really low yet it comes back up through the sweep cycle, particularly on the bass drum, when it's really a gut cruncher! Actually, if you put it on a very fast modulation on a repeating tom figure it can actually make it sound like an African 'talking' drum.
Is that on real toms or simulated?
On both. When I did the Skids album Days in Europa, we had Rusty Egan playing drums and I put his bass through the Time Modulator and used real toms as well.
I've noticed on a lot of your recordings that you actually do things like putting very slow swept flanges on instruments so that if it's a repetitive drum pattern, say, the sweep effect is making people think it's changing.
That's right. It emerges and then sinks again beneath other things, which are allowed to take prominence. You're made more aware of the hi-hat cymbal, say, at one point and then something else is made more prominent because of the differences in the sweep.
It's the subtle change in dynamics you require in all types of music.
Particularly with the advent of sequencers, people have tended to simply set everything in motion without thinking about vertical motion. It's all horizontal flow. No subtlety.
When you're producing at home are you constantly looking for things like that, saying "How can I get a new sound, how can I improve that?"
The overriding principle always has to be "does it make sense in relation to the music?" There's an element of the child in every producer with a new effects box; "let's see what I can do which nobody else is doing!". It's just that joy of discovering a noise that delights the ear. Often things are chosen for themselves purely because they delight, it's just an interesting noise. Sometimes in a song an effect works by accident without aesthetically deciding on it beforehand. I'm sure there are many people who will use an effect just because they like the noise even though it sounds hideous and totally out of context with the rest of the song.
However excited I may get over something which is accidentally discovered by the combination of different equipment I then calm down and apply the rule of whether it makes sense and whether it's part of the picture that we're trying to build. Hopefully, it produces a whole unit in the end instead of isolated bits that are interesting in their own right but don't have any relationship to each other.
Is that something you stick to when recording at home as well?
Well, no!! I've done things just to see what happens without knowing exactly what's going to happen. Putting something down on tape and then not listening to it, taking it out of the mix altogether and doing something else; putting them both back up in the mix and just seeing what happens. You'll always find there's three or four points during the three minutes where these two isolated events work, and you mark where those events work wipe the rest and leave those parts. It's like the technique I used to use and still do use: when in doubt working on instrumental pieces on tape, if you really get bogged down, turn the tape round and run it backwards. Put anything down backwards and then turn the tape the right way round, put your monitor mix up and listen to what's happening backwards. Most of it will be totally rubbish but there will be one or two things which just happen in a space that'll throw some light on the forwards-going stuff, so you mark those and whack the fader up at that point.
It's a technique you've used an awful lot...
It's simple, it's primitive and it goes back to the early days before you had effects boxes to put sounds through. The only way you could do anything was by tape manipulation. It's all valid because to the listener who's unaware of the process you've gone through to achieve that effect, it's still a mysterious sound - a 'magical' kind of effect that comes from somewhere that they can't quite locate.
Things like 'backward echo', for example, which I've used quite a lot on voice, is still something that thrills me when I hear it. It's disembodied and ghostly. You don't do it to excess obviously but use it only where it feels right.
When did you first discover that 'backwards echo' effect?
The first time I heard it was on a Beach Boys record called 'Feel Flows', a track from their Surfs Up album. It's a very ethereal kind of song, very contemporary actually. I bet if you heard it now you wouldn't think it sounded from the period it was recorded in. I suppose it was influenced by the Beatles 'Tomorrow Never Knows'. It isn't as hard as 'Tomorrow Never Knows', it's much more melodic, but it had this thing with the voice which is really delightful. I tried to figure out how it was done. "How come I can hear a word starting and fading in before the actual word comes?" I used to ask myself. Ah, turn the tape round and record the echo on the other track, that's how you do it! And I've used it loads of times since. It's good on some things and not on others. It's had a revival of late in that if you listen to a lot of hit pop records they use it on bass drums and claps a lot. It's on Malcolm McLaren's 'Madam Butterfly'. It may not have been done by tape, as it can be done synthetically these days, but the effect is still the same.
What about the rest of the rack equipment?
I've got the Fostex compressor which again, at the time, came down to a matter of economics: it was cheap and reasonable and is actually very good. Much better quality than you would imagine for the money I paid for it.
Was that something you bought very early on?
I got it not long after the Fostex delay unit. I had no limiter, gating and compression on any of the 4-track stuff I did at all. but when I bought the 8-track I got the delay unit and then I went a little wild after that and bought their compressor.
What about the last device in the rack - the Ibanez Multi-Effects?
Again, that came from not having to take a pedalboard on this recent American tour. For live work it's quite good. I've been using the stereo chorus on the keyboards direct into the mixing desk, but it's very sensitive on the input level - you can get distortion. In fact, when you trim back the level on the keyboards enough to make that clean, the amount of hiss that's coming through is too much. On stage it doesn't matter.
I'm using it on guitar in the studio, primarily for the overdrive and chorus really. I had a little bit of compression on it but it tends to bite a bit hard. You can set it more sensitively than that but it doesn't make that much of a difference. It's a practical unit more than anything else, something I can use live and occasionally use in the studio. I've still got effects boxes - flangers and phasers and that - and when in doubt, I whip one of them out.
It's interesting to find out which pieces of equipment people get first...
When you're doing demos, you're not worried about distortion and transients that much, you're more concerned with being able to put a song down and have something on tape that you can give to other musicians and say "This is the rough idea of the song", something to go on when you go into the studio.
What often happens in my case is that having done the demos, six months later I have to go and do them properly. You've got to drag out the cassette of the demo and try and remember what you played because you've only ever played it once before! I put things down spontaneously, it's not like I've been playing things several times so I could work out what the chords were. Therefore, that was the only facility that I really needed so it didn't matter if there were pieces that were distorting, or that the drum sound wasn't as punchy as I would have liked, but when I got the 8-track I saw the possibilities.
By the time I got the 8-track I'd already done the soundtrack for Caligari on four-track and that had come out as a record and I'd done the Ritual Echo album which was given away with Quit Dreaming. It wasn't originally intended for release, it was just an experiment I did at home which is full of technical faults. It doesn't detract from its atmosphere, it still works as a musical piece but it was done through the problems of the recording system I had at the time.
There's lots of recorded things I've done like that which, no matter what gear you've got, you couldn't reproduce because it's just a matter of your circumstances at the time when it was recorded.
Once I'd put that out and Caligari and I got the 8-track, I thought that there were obviously possibilities for release of instrumental pieces, if nothing else, done from this room and I thought I ought to think about the problems of the cutting engineer and the rest of it. A limiter and compressor was very much in order. I'd been using a lot of gating for a long time in the studio on drums, reverbs and so on. and the Fostex, having gate and compressor all in one unit, is so handy. It is very flexible. My favourite noise gates are the Drawmer ones actually, because you can tune out certain frequencies and get the gate to act on those frequencies.
What sort of things do you compress then?
Because I've been putting certain sounds down on tape with effects already on. I've been compressing bass and snare drum as it's gone on to tape. Obviously, for things like vocals, I find it really useful to keep an even vocal level, and on bass guitar too.
When you set up the Fostex compressor is that by trial and error or do you know what to do?
Definitely trial and error! There are settings which I know would be useful for certain fixed sounds from the keyboards that have always got a certain 'peak' in a certain place, and once you're using that sound and know you get a certain pushover in the mix there and you discover a setting for it, then it's worth remembering that setting for that sound. With things like vocals it's often a matter of trial and error because one song will have more push in certain ways than others. With things like drums it depends on the nature of your EQ.
There was a time when I used to record everything 'flat' with no equalisation but I got a bit bored with that as you don't get inspired, particularly at this stage when you're trying to create something at a specific point. If you start with a rhythm track, and record all the drum machine totally flat with no effects on it whatsoever and start working a song up to it, it's far less inspiring than when you've got a snare drum pounding away with a long decay that cuts off. You immediately have ideas because the sound excites you into a realm you wouldn't normally reach.
I do work on EQ and effects as I'm recording which then demand that any compression you're using is relevant to the curves you put in the sound itself. The LinnDrum I've had has been particularly noisy, a lot of switching noise in-between beats and things, so I've found the noise gate useful. There's still noise in there though, which the gate's not sensitive to, so when I transfer to 24-track, if I can hopefully get a Solid State Logic desk to do it on, I might even go to 32-track digital - not to use 32 tracks full but to have room to record effects - and the Solid State has gates on every channel and they're really good. So I can probably get rid of any extraneous noise at that stage.
That's one thing I've found whilst working on this home system. Whilst it's very good for the money, there is still much more noise than I would like compared to what I'm used to working with.
This interview is continued next month when Bill Nelson discusses his production approach and rounds up his choice of studio equipment.
Part 1 | Part 2
Interview by Ian Gilby
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