In an unassuming little backwater off London's Gloucester Road lies a scruffy black door, behind which hides the Sylvan Studio. In grander days the house itself would have been occupied by a single family, and what is now a small but well-equipped 8-track recording studio would then have been a maid's bedroom next to the scullery.
I had been working for some time as a recording engineer, freelancing around London's larger studios and had begun to think more in terms of production with the accent on studio synthesiser techniques, rather than merely engineering, rewarding work though that can be. It occurred to me fairly early on in my career that there was a need for a specialist synth. production facility that, unlike the Radiophonic Workshop, would be open to all who wanted to explore more advanced electronic music techniques.
Having worked in electronic music since my school days and having been involved albeit briefly with Stockhausen, Cardew, Birtwhistle et al, I felt myself ideally placed to put my audio-engineering skills to good use in building my own electro-music workshop. This plan had to wait many years until such time as circumstances allowed. I finally took the plunge in October 1982 and built an eight-track system around a grand old modular Moog Synth, that I've had for about six years. This instrument has been the mainstay of my technical and musical experimenting during that time and despite its age, is sufficiently large to compete with modern synth. trends and, in pure sound terms, to outshine most of the contemporary machines — it's definitely a Stradivarius Synth!
When I set about designing my workshop, certain major practical decisions had to be taken first. To begin with, should it be a regular small recording studio in the normal way but with the accent on synths, or solely a synth workshop, with the layout centred around the synth rig itself? What would be the special requirements of the latter?
The more I considered the problems, the more I realised that in order to achieve maximum flexibility and at the same time allow for future expansion as technological advancement and musical tastes developed, the studio system should be laid out as if the various pieces of equipment were all part of one massive modular synth.
In order to 'read' an unknown synth, the advice has always been to start from the outputs and work back to the generators (the easiest thing to get out of a studio synth is silence!), so the studio layout began with the monitors and the recording chain then worked back to the various sound-sources.
The first real problem was compatibility. When using synths from different manufacturers, the main problem has always been to make the various trigger and gate voltages interfaceable. Luckily the sequencer section of the Moog IIIc has a comprehensive trigger voltage interface which is simple and dependable. I decided that the only way to achieve maximum flexibility was to bring all the main signal paths up to a common studio patch-field, and to divide this into three discrete parts, corresponding to the three types of voltage used in signal generating, audio, DC control and trig./gate.
1. AUDIO: The audio part of the patch-field contains all the main audio inputs and outputs of the synth tie-lines, the mixing desk, eight-track and stereo tape recorders and the effects units — equalisers, compressors, echo and delay etc, the same in fact as in any normal recording studio.
2. CONTROL DC: This is rather more complex, and fraught with technical gremlins, most of which can be exorcised by careful screening. All the main control voltages arrive at this section for re-routing to the various devices. It will now be possible for me to install VCAs into the mixing console to enable me to use, for example, a sequencer of any format to control certain re-mix sound parameters, rather than merely controlling the pitch etc. of an oscillator bank. This will offer limitless possibilities far beyond simple computer mixing — e.g. during re-mix to stereo, musical elements or control data in audio form (for later conversion to DC by envelope followers or Pitch-to-Voltage converters) could be programmed into the synths, to be replayed 'live' during the mixdown. Certainly many complex effects could be controlled by a comprehensive sequencer patched to the desk's VCAs. At the moment, I achieve this by inserting the IIIc's VCAs across the channels and controlling them from a cue track via a sequencer or whatever.
3. TRIGGERS: These are the life-blood of a studio synth system, and of course provide the most headaches. Each manufacturer has his own idea about how to generate the command signal that controls Envelope Generators (ADSRs) and envelope followers. The IIIc uses a switch-trigger (S-Trig.) that shorts a fixed voltage to ground, its own sequencer bank requires a voltage trigger (V-Trig) of +1.5 to 5V. Luckily this is just about compatible with Roland equipment which needs a V-Trig of 4-15V, so hooking up a CSQ 100 was not too serious a problem via the IIIc Interface module. ARP gear on the other hand has two command signals, a V-Trig. to initiate the ADSR cycle and a separate gate voltage for sustain duration.
I've been able to standardise the various triggers on the patch-field to V-Trig., and by using the Moog's audio to V-Trig. converter, I can use a click-generator such as an LFO's differentiated square-wave or the TR808's closed hi-hat to make the click-track that my music depends on initially.
THE CLICK TRACK: This, for the uninitiated, is one track of a multitrack recording used in the early stages of a recording session as a time-keeping track or mechanical cue track.
Most modern synths can read an audible click off tape and convert it into a trigger. The possibilities of click-track manipulation in electro-music are endless and would constitute a separate article, but just to whet your appetite, imagine if you will three tracks of your multitrack master whose backing-track (the basic rhythmic and melodic elements of a song) has been laid against various patterns of clicks generated from a rhythm-box or sequencer.
Track one would be the basic time-keeper, say straight sixteenths, track two could give secondary accents to trigger, e.g. a sequencer loaded with a bass figure, track three could cue a chorus or 'middle-eight' pattern, or cue a second sequencer playing against the first.
Track one can be subdivided on replay via a sequential switch to count every four beats, for an example giving a command on beats 5 and 13, or an analogue sequencer could be stepped through the cycle of 16 by the click track simultaneously cueing a second sequencer on beats 1 and 9... the various permutations are endless.
These techniques are only the tip of the iceberg and have taken no account of the new digital technology. I have hopefully explained my own system of rhythm and cue manipulation and thus the necessity for my electro-music studio layout to be the way it is. Space does not allow any discussion on the formation of the sounds themselves — that's a whole new story!
Feature by Rikki Sylvan
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!