Echoes From The Observatory (Part 2)
The conclusion of our in-depth look at Bill's home 16 track studio in Yorkshire.
In the concluding part of our in-depth interview, Bill Nelson discusses his production approach and explains the selection of equipment for his own home studio — The Echo Observatory.
When I had the old Teac 3340 4-track, the system that was set up around that machine was so primitive, yet the urge to make music on it was strong enough to overcome the problems, that I had to devise tricks and techniques to get sounds that I can now create much more easily with my current recording set-up.
Has the increased sophistication of your current equipment limited your creativity then?
No, it's just shifted it all up a gear. Before I was always trying to get the 4-track to sound like an 8-track, and the 8-track to sound like a 16-track but never really relating either to the big 'Abbey Road' 24-track production. But now with my Fostex B16, I'm just trying to figure out how I can get it sounding as good as something Trevor Horn has spent six months work on at Sarm Studios.
No matter how much I've upgraded my studio, I've always wanted to keep that essential 'core' happening. In no way should all the equipment ever become an obstacle in getting ideas onto tape. It should always aid but never stop the creative process from happening. If I can find anything that makes it quicker to get an idea from my head down onto tape, then that's what I'm looking for. It's a matter of expediency really.
I've always wanted to deal immediately and directly with the creative process. Even sitting down and programming a drum machine can become an unwanted distraction. Programming a two bar pattern is okay, but when you're dealing with whole songs it's so tedious. You've already got the idea in your head but it can't go on tape until you've got this damned rhythm sorted out - and it can take hours!
Things have changed considerably since the early days when I wrote the songs for BeBop Deluxe using just an acoustic guitar and a cassette recorder. I could spend probably one day writing a whole album if I were in the mood, whereas now if I wanted to write an album's worth of demos, it'd probably take me about six weeks or something!
How did you settle on the positions for the equipment in your studio?
The studio had to be a one man operation from the outset. I didn't really want to have to bring in other people to work because I'm putting things down onto tape for the very first time. I'll decide later whether or not each bit works. The whole approach of the new album is one of spontaneity - throwing ideas at the tape and making sense of it over a period of time. To have somebody else involved on the engineering side destroys that intimacy with the tape machine, so it had to be arranged for solo working.
The keyboards I have stacked on the rack (Casio C1000P, Yamaha DX7, Yamaha CS70M) are really the three I find most useful. I also use my MiniMoog for certain bass things, but they're the nucleus of my keyboard sounds. I have them racked so whilst playing them I can reach out with my left hand and change EQ on the mixing desk, arrange levels and so on. I also have the Fostex B16 remote control unit close at hand so I can control the recorder whilst playing keyboard lines.
I usually first set up the sound itself on the keyboard, equalise it on the desk and add effects if necessary. I then run the tape track and play the keyboard part, listening to it in context. I usually find that something which sounds great on its own doesn't quite cut it with the rest of the track, so I'll re-EQ it as I play along until I find a compromise that sounds good.
Do you direct inject your keyboards?
Yes. Previously 1 used to use the Roland JC120 amp because I liked the built-in chorus effect, and I also used to use the sound of the room to give some space to a keyboard. But now I've got the MXR 01 reverb, I can artificially create those different spaces for the instruments.
What about your speaker positioning?
When I actually came to re-design the studio around the 16-track system, one of the possibilities I had was to actually hang the monitor speakers from the far corners of the room. But that way you lose a lot of the top frequencies and you start getting sound reflections from the studio wall at the back. If you have them too wide apart also, it does artificial things to the stereo that don't really work when it's played in a normal environment.
For the distance I am from the Tannoy speakers (4—6ft), the present location seems to be the best both in terms of stereo width and in terms of height. I'm not going to lose too much 'top' when standing playing the keyboards either you see.
Why did you choose the Quad power amp to drive your monitors?
For the size of the speakers, it was just a good amp to power them. The Tannoys can handle 100 watts and the Quad gives you around 80 watts. I never have it 'flat out' anyway. The alternative was to go for something a little more expensive with greater power but not to run it as high. But really, again, for the use and the levels at which I monitor, the Quad's probably the best quality for the money that I could get. I could have spent more and got more power, but probably not much more 'quality'.
Why did you opt for the Allen & Heath System 8 mixer? What configuration does it have?
It's the 24/16/2 with the Expander 8 unit on it to give 32 inputs in total. The reason for all the channels was so that I could keep all the drum components plugged up at the same time, to save messing around, and then I've got eight channels for drum signals coming back. I also keep channels 1—16 as returns from the tape machine, they're not used for anything else, then 17-24 on here is for inputs from keyboards, guitars or microphones.
Do you find yourself doing quite a lot of repatching?
Not that much actually. I used to before when I had the little Fostex desk. Its connectors are round the back and I was forever having to pull it forward and re-route etc. Most of it I now do up there in the rack as I've got two Isotrack 44 way patchbays. Usually I use channel 24 for a keyboard, unless it's going through the Ibanez in stereo, for which I use 23 and 24 and bring that up. The stereo reverb comes up on the auxiliary returns rather than on faders. Things like the harmoniser and the other effects I can patch as I want them to the three auxiliary sends. It's not enough sends for me as there's never enough! The reverb's always on the bottom auxiliary and if I want to change the harmoniser and SDE30001 can repatch it up there in the rack. I can always do an insert as certain channels on the System 8 have an insert effects loop which is very handy.
Have you seen the new AHB computer-based mixer?
I did this morning. To be honest I don't like the look of it. Because I've worked in big studios, this System 8 mixer makes me feel more at home. If I had that new one of theirs it would remind me more of the Fostex - small and plasticy. I'm sure it's very good and I'm sure the digital routing idea is quite useful, but when I planned my home studio I wanted it to be more like a traditional studio and this System 8 mixer is big and solid!
The money you pay for these things seems so exorbitant. I suppose it's a sign of age as well in that you suddenly realise things cost more than they did ten years ago and you expect it to have some substance to it for that kind of money. That's why I've never really gone for buying pre-recorded cassettes because to me there isn't enough there. There's the same amount of music as you'd get on the record but there isn't that big sleeve, information or that feeling of weight. It just feels like a little plastic thing and a bit of paper in a box.
Why did you choose the System 8 as opposed to something like a Soundtracs or did you try them all out?
I had a look at them. One of the reasons I went to the APRS Show in London was to check out the competition within a certain price range.
I think basically for what I needed; the amount of sounds I needed, the flexibility of the desk, the kind of EQ (although obviously I would have liked slightly more range and the other frequencies to be parametric as well) and the look and feel of the desk, it just had more going for it than any other desk in that price range. For the configuration I wanted the Soundtracs one would have cost me more money and in the end I thought this was better value. The whole thing for me was getting the most out of the system for the least amount of money.
As I said earlier, I had this budget I'd worked out which was cut severely and I had to be hard about it and only get what was essential, what I needed - and it seemed to provide me with what I needed for the best price. I've been really happy with it. At the APRS, I was a bit concerned about the EQ as it sounded horrible, even though the other desks I tried weren't much better. But when I got it home and started working with it on my own stuff, working from scratch and EQing stuff as I recorded, I was getting the sounds that I wanted from it.
There was a certain amount of intuition went with choosing it. I had looked at the spec, pictures and layout and thought that was the one for me but I'd go down to London and check it out anyway. As I said, I was a little bit disappointed when I listened to it through the headphones and yet there was something else. Maybe it was the solidity of it in the end, maybe subconsciously there was something substantial about the way it was built that made me feel it was better value. Who knows?
Obviously the first concern of somebody building a mixing desk is its function. It isn't a piece of furniture just to be looked at, it is actually some sort of device, so that has to be dealt with first. Once they've done that you can't actually see the workings because they're hidden away, you can only hear it once it's fired up and then decide whether it's got a good sound or not. Once they've got the sound together the mixer has then got to have a certain shape, colour and layout. If that looks aesthetically good it's a sign that if the work has gone into that end, then it's gone into the internals as well.
If there's a choice of a dozen products and I've only time to look at four, the four I'll choose to listen to will be the four that look the best. If there's something that's got some wonderful design qualities about it, which has then been handed over to someone who's put their tacky stuff on it; whilst it still might be wonderful inside, they've made a bad decision in handing it over to somebody to screw up the look of it. Somebody who really cares follows it through all the way. You do start on the outside with equipment and work your way inwards in a way.
It's usually borne out in practice too. Devices such as the AMS and the System 8 look good, and those are the ones that do well commercially.
If I was sitting down and designing a guitar then I'd obviously be concerned with the playability, the tonality and ease of handling. But after that's been put as a priority then I'd concentrate on the 'look' of it. I've always gone for good looking guitars. No matter how good a guitar played, if it looked like rubbish I'd be embarrassed to have it and wouldn't play as well because I'd be worried about the way it looked. I think there's no reason why something shouldn't be functional and aesthetically pleasing as well at the same time. The two are compatible and the best designed cars, buildings and furniture all bear that out.
What made you choose the Tannoy Little Red monitors?
I'd been working in Ric-Rac, which is a 24-track studio in Leeds, and they had the large Tannoys which I got quite used to. The other choice I had was the JBL 1310; they're very flattering to rock music. These Tannoys aren't quite as dynamic in a way but they're probably a little bit more accurate, at least that's the way I judged it. I thought I would be taking things I'd demoed here to Ric-Rac to master them and I felt it would be good to have something that compared to the studio I was using. I've been very pleased with them.
I've been driving them off that Rotel hi-fi amp for ages, but the right hand channel on that was breaking up. I've now got a Quad 405 amp so they're being driven much more efficiently. The Rotel I've now got fixed and I'm using that to drive the Visonik Davids. I've got little switches in the mixing desk which aren't standard, so I can switch across to the hi-fi system and listen to what I do.
Although I'm not looking to produce finished mixes of vocal pieces here in the studio, it's good for the instrumentals that are finished. I've got a lot of instrumental stuff that's been mastered onto digital. I also find myself working very late here at home, whereas in London I go off at the first opportunity. Since I've had the 16-track recorder it's been comfortable working late at night. Often I've jacked it in around dinner time because I'm exhausted and have no more ideas, and then about 11.30 pm something will appear and I'll have another crack at it, switch the monitor mix through the little Visonik David speakers and have it on very quiet so I don't disturb the neighbours.
Which speakers do you use most often?
Mostly the Tannoys.
When you're mixing backing tracks do you use those Davids?
For certain things I'll switch through just to make sure I'm not being fooled on dynamics. Often you've got to wind the speakers up to get that hard drum sound and when I've achieved that sound, I'll switch to the Davids at low level and check it out. Most of the things that sound dynamic on the big speakers sound equally dynamic on the little ones only they're quieter.
The Auratones are less flattering. The top end is smoother in the Davids and a bit more extended and the bottom is more solid. When the Auratones first came out, I thought they were wonderful for what they were. To have little speakers that size that could handle that power - they deserved to become a 'studio standard'. But now if I go to a studio and they've got Auratones there I never use them. I hate the sound of them. I don't think they're that accurate anymore; most people's hi-fi's sound better than Auratones now.
One thing I found with the old Dynatron speakers I used before I got the Tannoys, was that even though the right one was blown, they were a hi-fi speaker and there were certain things that sounded great on my hi-fi downstairs that I'd mixed on them. If you took it into a studio you'd hear loads of flaws but on a hi-fi system that has that boost on the top and bottom, it was really singing out.
What is the philosophy behind having big reference speakers in the studios?
One of the reasons why that is so, is that if you move from studio to studio you want to be able to maintain a certain kind of norm and level that you can trust. If you're going to do maybe six weeks recording at a certain studio and then you've got a few dates on the road after which you come back to the recording but can't get the same studio, there's got to be something that's fairly standardised, a particular reference point. I think it's more to do with the process of making the record and moving around from studio to studio than really for the final thing that is heard. Everybody's got a different hi-fi anyway, so there's going to be slight variations and everybody alters the bass and treble EQ on their hi-fi as well.
EQ is such a hard thing to come to terms with isn't it?
People say you can't EQ snare drums beyond a certain point because there's nothing there after that. When I was first able to get involved in the process of recording as well as the playing, and asked John Leckie (BeBop Deluxe's producer) about frequency band-widths and what applies to this instrument and all the rest of it, he said you just turned the knob until it sounds right! It's true. That's all you need to know unless you want to pass information on to somebody else who isn't there to see what you're doing. You just turn the dials until you hear a sound that excites you. There's no right or wrong.
That's probably a better way to work because you're coming into music without any preconceptions and it's the music that's going to determine what the end result is.
Everything I've recorded since I've had the 16-track system has been mastered on the Sony PCM F1 digital recorder. If I'm going to do a serious cut for main release, say, of an instrumental track which I've mastered here at home on PCM, then I can have it transferred elsewhere to the professional 1610 digital format and get it cut.
If, for instance, it's something I've recorded for the Fan Club Magazine EP, which we, obviously, don't have a lot of money to spend on, then what I'll do is transfer from PCM onto ¼" tape on the Revox B77, edit it and make the record cut from that. It adds another transfer stage that way which unfortunately means some sound quality is lost.
So, is your trusty Revox now relegated to playing only tape loops?
Yes, but I've also kept it for the occasions when I go out on stage and improvise against backing tracks.
I've got a couple of AKG D1200E mics which I've had for ages. One thing I'd like to be investing in soon is a good quality vocal mic because I'd like to try at some stage to record vocal things here in the studio as well.
I'm still treating the whole set-up as a bastardised 24-track, keeping every item of percussion on a separate track so I can EQ them individually, use different effects and balance them all later. But if I want to record vocals in the future as well, then obviously I'm going to need to bounce tracks together at some stage.
I think home recording has generally made a big impact on the way people approach sounds on records. It has been a bit of a cliche for years that you do a demo at home, go into the studio and take it back to the record company who say that it's lost something on the way. And whatever that is, it's not just the spontaneity of the performance when it was put down as a demo. It's often the fact that certain things aren't as clean and clear as they should be technically and that kind of 'soupiness' adds a character or mood you can't quite define, but which definitely comes across and I think some of that is now being taken into consideration in the area of the 24-track studio. Instead of trying to make everything too hyper-clean, they're now aware of the mystery of having muddy areas here and there.
The problem lies with the multitrack process itself in that it's very difficult to make it sound spontaneous because of the pure nature of it; one thing is recorded at a time. I think a lot of people rush it at the mixing stage and don't realise how important it is.
It's still a very intuitive thing I find. One of the important things for me is that you do go on gut reactions all the time. It is a very personal finished product in that it does reflect not just your feelings about combinations of notes or what you're saying in the lyrics, but it reflects your taste at the time and it does make for a complete sound.
Do you believe in doing a complete mix in one go? Or do you find that once a track is recorded that when you come back to it, it's got a different quality? That's obviously influenced by the mood you're in when you produce it surely?
Also the amount of time you've spent on it. After a point, if you've worked on something for hours on end you become dulled to the outer shape of the thing and you become focused on tiny little details which might be very relevant but then again might be totally irrelevant. There comes a point where you can't really make that judgement any more as to whether or not this thing that's been worrying you is actually central to the core of the song.
That's always the argument put forward about bands producing themselves.
I agree with that. I suppose that's essentially why I've been able to do one or two things producing other bands. I think in that sense it can be bad, but after a time you can educate yourself and be objective. I think there are limits to it. There's a point where you have to have a bit of an opinion, if nothing else, from somebody, but I've learned within those limits to be more objective than I was at one time.
I'm quite ruthless at times with things that I've done. When I've done them I've thought "That's great", and then suddenly two hours later realised that it isn't good at all and not hesitated in elbowing it straight away, whereas at one time I may have thought "I've spent hours doing that. I've got to keep it now and I did like it at the time". A year later though, when you've matured a bit, you're absolutely horrified by it!
It's a development process. You have to go through it just to find out it doesn't work.
For me, creativity isn't just a matter of working on one piece at a time, it's a total on-going process. One song has to be a development of the song you wrote previous to it, even if they're different styles of songs, perhaps one's electronic and one's acoustic. If you are writing and recording and using the recording process, you can't look at one event in isolation, there are links. Those things have got to happen because you're moving towards some 'ultimate statement', whatever that might be, and it's all good. To be able to look back and say "That was wrong" means you're going in the right direction.
I never play my records because I just get too paranoid about them. The only records I can play are instrumental things because they're detached from any desire to impress anybody I suppose. They're made as pure pieces of music. But when you're writing things for the pop scene, you've firstly got to satisfy a record company so you're concerned that somebody's going to hear it and unless you can get passed them the record's not going to come out. And then you're worried about the people who are actually going to buy the thing and giving them something worthwhile for their money. I suppose the critical thing's a problem as well, even though in your heart of hearts you don't often give them much kudos.
Even if they're subliminal those considerations are there so I suppose I'm listening in those terms to things I've done for the public market place. Whereas the things I've done purely for their own sake I can actually listen to, as they're not meant to sell records or display technique.
A lot of record producers seem to put an aura of mystery around their activities. With production work there's a great cloud of mystery attached to certain 'names' and they're very guarded about what they do, basically because they don't do very much. They don't do anything that someone else couldn't do if you allowed them near the mixing desk for ten minutes! I just feel it's a bit of a myth really.
Where the magic happens isn't anything that's necessarily written down on paper, it's in one person's response to the turn of the knob. Somebody will stop at one point because they respond to that particular sound. Somebody else will turn it a bit further or a bit less because they respond to that and when you find differences in approach to production and the differences in response from the audience, it's geared to whether you recognise that point of excitement. It's an action and reaction effect and that differs from one individual to another.
No matter how much you quantify or qualify what you're doing in technical terms, which you have to do for the mechanics of it to a degree, at rock bottom it's down to a continuous action until you stop because the pleasure point has been reached. Anybody can do that: I could get my young son up here and let him play around with a number of balances. He might not know what he's doing but he'll end up with something that pleases him even though it might not please somebody else.
Don't ever stand back there and feel you want to do it but don't feel you really know enough about it. If you can play an instrument then you already know enough about it. There's a point when you want people to do it. If you like what somebody does, for example if somebody asks me to appear on their records because they like the sounds I get on my own records, then they obviously want me to go through my processes to arrive at something similar soundwise but with their music.
I'm no more special than hiring a harmoniser that does a certain job; they can get the sound they want by feeding their music through my processes. That's all record production is. There's no superstar element attached. It's not the actual process, it's what you do with it that counts and that is individual, that mystery should not be touched. The reasons why a response happens to a certain action is the wonder of any kind of creativity.
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Interview by Ian Gilby
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