It's like the 'Man' says, most Muso's dream of having their own studio someday, but like a lot of ambitions it often dissolves into an all or nothing syndrome. Getting our "Demesto-studio" together happened more by accident than deliberation. Literally that is! It all started one night, by being dragged into a trad band rehearsal to supplement an itinerant rhythm section. Most of the players frowned at my guitar and amp, so I never actually switched it on. That is until one stormy night when the Pie-ana player blew his lid and split. Suddenly I was no longer one of the great unwashed, and they chorused 'Plug it in Johnny, wind it up and go-go!' From then on my motto became 'If you can't join them — beat them'.
The music transgressed through every phase you could name, ending up as Heavy-Metal, and eventually getting banned from more places than we were booked. During this period, many feeble attempts were made at recording, ranging from a Fidelity reel-to-reel with crystal mike, to a portable cassette player strategically placed on the floor. Well, it certainly had ambience, with every single clatter being picked up, together with the strains of competing Bingo callers and juke boxes.
During this time, however, a few original musical gems(?) had been incubating, and crying out to be put down on tape. We had a brief stab at a two-track studio someone had set up in a disused and supposedly haunted cinema. It was a step forward, but the guy spent more time fiddling with the gear, than we did recording, and we had to be placed so far apart to get adequate separation, the drummer had to lip read to get his timing.
Then one wet Monday I was blithely riding my push-bike home, at only 29.5 mph (honest) when I was sideswiped by a car driven by the wife of a Fuzz man. Apart from lifting me 30 feet across the road, she actually complained I had bounced on her bonnet!
Well, at first I thought 'That's that', but it's an ill wind they say — etc, and remembering that I still belonged to a well known cycling touring organisation, I contacted their legal department.
Perry Mason-Rock couldn't have done a better job, they put the bite on. More than enough for a new bike, in fact just enough for the deposit on a TEAC 3340-S. So I picked up an old frame from the dump, re-cycled my bent bike, and blew the rest on the 4-track.
We couldn't afford any accessories other than a mic, one reel of tape, and a pair of quadrophonic cans. The jump in quality was startling, but with a recorder as a friend, you don't need critics. All those bits we used to fake our way through on a live show, now sounded worse at each playback.
At first we tended to squander the use of tracks, with most of the rhythm sounds on one and everything else just scattered around the remainder, but a bit of discipline and planning gradually takes over, and it's surprising how much can add on a 'take', especially with a running 'drop-in' which is easy on the Teac.
Eventually we acquired a four-channel power amp enabling us to replay each track through its own speaker (4 x Poly Planar which we built ourselves). This avoids switching and enabled a more critical assessment. This was also coupled to a stereo tuner, record deck, and an Akai three-head cassette recorder. Our present mix-down unit (also self built) is totally passive, but with pan, effects send and receive, plus thumbwheel switches allowing us to cross-patch any input or output, and generate tape-echo during recording. The mic inputs of the recorder are very sensitive and easily overload on close-miking so we have constructed a double four into two mixer, with five-band graphics on each channel.
Noise and distortion was troublesome at first, but a bit of detective work cured that. For example a combo amp was giving us static, what with noisy controls, hum, CB and police breakthrough, even picking up Radio Moscow late at night. However, careful earthing, replacing pots and judicious use of kitchen foil has improved its performance so much we can even use the input channels of the combo as an additional mixer.
Tape, no corners should be cut here, only the best is good enough. We tried once economising with unlabelled tape and although the response and definition seemed fine, the final mix-down never matched earlier results. Doing an A/B comparison with a top quality tape gave a staggering 12dB increase in output for the same input level as the cheapo brand. Maxell and TDK are favourite now.
The band has now shrunk to a duo — it's much harder, but freer, and the music is better, having developed a style of making each note or sound really count, and utilising harmonies to the full. Yet so far our individual ideas are still widely diverse enough to avoid falling into the trap of an M.O.R. standard duo sound.
Our music puzzles some people, partly because of N.D.I. (no detectable influence!) and every number is really different, not by design, it just comes out that way. If one had to put a label of it we'd settle for 'Social Comment', probably as a result of playing in all those 'dives'.
The first studio was set up in the bedroom, tricky but interesting, at least it provided a better line than 'Come up and see my etchings'. We used to say the acoustics were better, but they weren't really convinced.
The technique that suits us is to get the equalisation on each instrument and track exactly as we want it at the start, double checking on playback as we go, by listening to everything at normal hi-fi room level before proceeding. Then we use cans for the full recording to tighten up the timing, because every metre of distance between you and the sound source represents about a three millisecond delay (not many people know that!).
Our instruments consist of an Ibanez steel, and a Yamaha gut, six-string acoustics, a Vantage, a CSL, and a souped-up Wilson with preset tone and levels operated by pneumatic foot switch (six-string), a seven string Custom, combined bass and lead guitar with tremolo arm and built-in five-way active electronics. A standard four-string electric bass, a Pakistani banjo operated by typewriter keys, a five-octave Teisco with a three-way keyboard split, and our piece de resistance the "Pukerphone": merely a section of plastic drainpipe with grooves cut across, but with the addition of a mike and reverb it becomes an amazing electronic marimba. Although we mainly use guitars, each one has a characteristic sound of its own if you treat it right.
Accessories include electronic drums, home-built but tweaked up really neat, Dod analogue echo, Melos tape echo, phaser, fuzz, and wah, plus a beat-up drum kit, which having repaid its cost of £15 several times over is now in semi-retirement. Oh, yes, and some Indian goat bells — in fact we are willing to give any sound source a chance, even persuading one puzzled North Sea oil baron to start up his seven-litre "Transam" to get a really throaty engine sound for one number. Also whirling a mic around on 10 feet of lead to get a doppler effect — not very commercial but different.
"So what!" you may well ask, and we would be the first to agree that it all seems quite a ways from the totally different ball game of the pro studios, but 'all is not gloom, buddy' for all of a sudden it seems the cleaner and more spontaneous sound of four-track is coming back (that's if it ever went away).
Finally, for those of you that could do with a glimmer of hope or encouragement: Surprise surprise, one of our cheeky little compositions entitled 'Working in a Factory' (what else?) has just won an international song competition, and soon should be straining the loudspeaker cones of your trannies. Admittedly it's been re-recorded by someone else, but it has spurred us on to try and produce an LP cassette of our own: 'Vintage Demestos', and besides, you'll be able to sit there and say 'I'm sure I could do better than that'.
For our money, imagination is the name of the game!
Side A Track Listing:
26:46 Home Electro-Musicians: Johnny Demestos
E&MM Cassette #6 digitised and provided by Christian Farrow.
Feature by Johnny Demestos
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