Fiddling the meter
Studio pursuits with the violin
Her imaginative use of the violin combines with a state-of-the-art studio to produce some unique multi-tracked sounds. Dan Goldstein meets Australian virtuoso Vylinda...
From an unpromising site, sandwiched on three sides by the District Line, Chiswick High Road, and Stamford Brook bus garage, rises Metropolis Studios - a former power station which once supplied half of west London's tram network, and is now home to one of the capital's most fashionable recording complexes. Converting a listed building, amid this blitzkreig of trains, planes and automobiles, must have been a soundproofing nightmare.
Yet one of the nice things about Metropolis is that, while the acousticians have had to enclose all the live areas and control rooms within an additional 'skin' inside the building, almost all the spaces retain some natural light. As a result, and despite a late-'80s decor that's starting to look a bit bauhaus, the whole place glows with an ambience of laid-back creativity. It's not at all what you would expect from the intense, high-pressure world of the contemporary professional recording studio. But it is exactly the sort of place to be granted an audience with the three people behind Vylinda.
The trio make a veritable Commonwealth Games of a line-up. Violinist Linda (the 'Vy' bit is dropped for casual conversation) was born and raised in Australia, producer and label-owner Sadia is Canadian, while engineer and programmer Stephen W Tayler hails from somewhere a few stops up the District Line. Between them they make a formidable team, capable of using hi-tech methods to produce one of the freshest, rawest sounds around in the long, cool autumn of 1994. Vylinda's debut album, The Kiss, out now on the Chimera label, has the kind of improvised vitality missing from so much of today's sequencer-driven music, while also displaying, at times, an addictive groove sensibility. But what really marks the record out from the crowd is its palette of sounds. Linda's vocals, alternately sung and spoken, are thrown into sharp relief by a selection of extraordinary percussion noises, haunting pads, and flowing lead lines. Where do all these sounds come from? The answer, quite simply, is a violin.
Not an ordinary violin, you understand. This is a five-string electric instrument which Linda designed and had built for her by Gerard Gilet in Australia. And nor are the sounds on The Kiss all the product of hours of painstaking studio twiddling. In fact, they are mostly derived from Linda's matchlessly energetic live act - the show that brought the trio together in the first place.
"Steve and I were at The Orange one day, which is great because you get to see quite a few people in a relatively short space of time," recalls Sadia. "Linda came along, and we looked at each other and went: 'Let's go talk to her!'"
"The way I perform solo," adds Linda, "people are often gobsmacked. There's all this sound coming out of one instrument and one person. I put the violin through a [Yamaha] SPX, plus an octave divider, a flanger, and a two-second delay - that's my rhythm section. I hit the violin around a fair bit, which is my drums and percussion, and basically try to get as many sounds out of it, from one end of the violin to the other, as I can. I do the same with my vocals, too, where possible."
Rather than being an intellectual decision, however, the trio's insistence on using only violin sounds for the recording was derived simply from a desire to re-create as much of the energy of Linda's live sound as possible.
"You have to make up for the fact that, with Linda, there's a strong visual element in her live performance," says Stephen. "To see her stood up there on her own - it's a striking image. You have to compensate for these missing factors on record, so you try to enhance what's there in the first place, to create atmospheres and backdrops to the sound, to fill in the blanks which would not be apparent if you'd just taken a live recording.
"So the way we started every song was to actually ask Linda to perform as she did live. That was so that we could analyse the changes in sound that the song would go through. Then, using that as a sort of map of how the song should be arranged, we'd try to re-create the elements one by one.
"The first thing Linda would do would be to set up the rhythm by thumping the violin to get a bass-drum sound, then tapping it to get an offbeat sound. We would feed that into a delay with regeneration on it to set up a loop, and then I would sample the delay. Rather than just 'freezing' it in the sampler, we'd take a long stretch of Linda just playing this rhythm. Then we would put down, say, five minutes of the 'bass drum' element on tape, or something else to set up a groove, and work from there."
All the experimentation in the world, however, can't disguise the fact that Linda's violin (or any violin, for that matter) can only produce sounds over a fairly limited frequency range. This, as it turns out, was one of the biggest problems the trio had in trying to make The Kiss sound varied and colourful.
"The frequency range of the instrument is limited," Sadia concedes, "and if you're not careful you can find yourself with some tracks that are all 'middle'."
"The point is that it's an electric violin, solid-bodied, and everything that's coming out of it is coming out of the pickup," adds Stephen. "That immediately restricts your frequency range. Certainly, prior to mixing and prior to overdubs, there was a tendency for a build-up of middle frequencies. It sounded very wooden at one point. We became aware of the fact that we would probably need to create highs and lows artificially."
"I've had my Akai DD1000 for four years and I find a new use for it every day. I believe it's one of the best engineer's tools ever created"
And how, exactly, was that done?
"Generally, I was committing quite severe EQ to tape," says Stephen.
"I was aware that I had to make the bass sound low - you know, that reggae mentality where the low instruments really need to sit right at the bottom of the spectrum. Then something had to sit on top, and where we hadn't got high frequencies I would be looking at a combination of EQ and, for some of the more abstract sounds, pitch-shifting up quite a long way. I was also deliberately restricting the more 'middle' sounds to quite a narrow mid-band. Generally, the point around which we pivoted all the sounds was the vocals."
An interesting point, this. One of the things that gives The Kiss its live feel is the relative absence of multi-tracked vocals. And in addition to giving Linda's voice its own 'space' in the frequency spectrum, the production team also concentrated on getting the vocals down on tape as early as possible, allowing the rest of the arrangement to be dictated by them, rather than the other way around.
"From a production point of view," opines Sadia, "it's critical that tracks should be built around vocals, rather than the vocal being introduced to sit somewhere on top of the mix."
Stephen Tayler concurs: "In most of the projects I've worked on, the earliest point at which you could put the vocals down, the more beneficial it's been."
For the Vylinda sessions, this was particularly true of the tracks that were built around a conventional song structure; others, though, were developed in less commonplace ways, from simple melodies or sound bites, and these were treated differently by the production team. Linda's eclectic repertoire also necessitated some shifting from studio to studio - but the Metropolis complex was itself big enough and varied enough to ensure the trio never had to leave its protective inner walls.
"Most of the initial stages were done either in Studio E or in Studio D, which have SSL E-series desks," says Stephen, stressing the significance of the choice of desk at different stages of the production process. "Additional overdubs or tweaking were done on the Neve in Studio C. For the mixing stage I really wanted to have a hard, aggressive sound. That's not what I would normally think of getting from an SSL, but for this project, to get the kind of bite that I wanted, the SSL G-series in Studio B turned out to be the best option. The entire process was completed in 18 days."
Mitsubishi digital multitracking was used throughout, but the shuffling from room to room dictated that there was no set method of processing sounds.
"For the looping and the sampling, we were using a combination of whatever was around at the time," says Stephen. "On some of the first tracks we were using an Akai MPC60 in conjunction with a Bel DD2600 stereo delay. We also used an Akai S1000 for some of the looping, a Roland SDE3000 for delay effects, and of course AMS."
One of the key chunks of hardware, however, was one Stephen brought into Metropolis from home: an Akai DD1000 digital recorder/editor.
"It gets used so much," he says. "I've had it four years and I find a new use for it every day. I believe it's one of the best engineer's tools ever created. Yes, it's a great editor. But it'll also chase any other recording device. It can be used for audio tracks in any situation. It can be used for looping, pitch-shifting, and triggering via MIDI. And recently I've been getting a lot of sound-on-sound techniques out of it by digitally bouncing within it... I'll use anything that's appropriate, whether it's the most hi-tech, top-of-the-range studio gear or the real budget stuff."
"The production team concentrated on getting the vocals down on tape as early as possible, allowing the rest of the arrangement to be dictated by them, rather than the other way around"
Well, it's nice to have the choice. It's also nice to be able to book 18 days at Metropolis (rate card on application) and not have to keep watching the clock. Linda's publishing company, PolyGram Australia, chipped in with some of the recording costs, while earnings from earlier recordings enabled Sadia to stump up the rest. Whatever the expense, though, this is one production team which firmly believes recording in cheaper studios can be a false economy, as Sadia herself explains:
"So many people go into studios that they think are cheap. But they end up having to hire in a load of outboard, and spend so much more time trying to accomplish their goal. I hear about a lot of people who've spent six weeks in a little studio somewhere, and they've overcooked the thing, and ended up spending thousands in the final analysis. You feel like saying to them: 'Why don't you go into a good studio, play the song, and be done with it?' A studio like this, which has 24-hour maintenance, where if something goes wrong it gets fixed immediately, gives you instant access to better production values."
It also, in the case of Metropolis, gives you an on-site mastering facility. Which, if you're the producer and you also happen to own the record label your sessions are to appear on, can save a lot of mixing time and money.
"This was the first time that I'd actually started working with a mastering engineer while the project was still in development. It was Tony Cousins here at Metropolis who mastered the album with me, and he gave us advice which made it possible for us to compensate for mastering in the production. That made it so much easier when it came down to mastering."
Speaking of mastering, Sadia has a couple of other album projects cooking, though they're likely to remain on the back burner until after the major labels have bombarded the market with tasty new morsels from established artists and pick-n-mix compilations in the run-up to Christmas. She remains committed, however, to the idea of the producer as record-label owner, and is determined to use her role in the struggle to keep music moving.
'The last thing you want to do is have a record produced by a committee," she says. "Yet this is what tends to happen with A&R departments. An idea that has force and fire gets watered down with each set of decisions that are taken around it, until what's put out is something that merely serves the lowest common denominator. When people work for these multi-national corporations, ultimately they have to answer to bean-counters. As a consequence, what they try to do is emulate something that's already been successful. And the likelihood is that it won't be successful, because that record has already been made and sold!
"As a producer, I want a vehicle for stuff that is innovative and different. That's what the label gives me. If I like it, it's my judgement. I don't have to go to anybody and say 'please'. The only A&R meeting is the one I have in the mirror with myself in the morning!"
Regarding the other two members of the trio, Stephen Tayler is busy working on a number of projects, all the while keeping in mind his desire to make his work as an engineer "as transparent as possible". And Linda is also busy, working on material for a new album which seems almost certain to be produced by the same team.
"I have wilder ideas," she says. "I want to take the violin to a new area which is where no-one has taken it before, a different direction. Use it in dance music or heavy metal. I'd like to use some other sounds in there now, but I don't want to use the violin as a MIDI instrument, or as a play-along instrument for a band."
On The Re:Mix CD:
04 Vylinda: Cazerine
This disk has been archived in full and disk images and further downloads are available at Archive.org - Re:Mix #4.
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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