I suspect that it is every electro-musician's dream to own a mammoth studio equipped with massive 'wallpaper-job' synthesisers, 24 track tape machines, goodness knows how many track mixing desks and all kinds of digital doobries with a lovely entangled mess of wires and leads sprouting from every nook and cranny.
For instance, how many times have you picked up a Schulze, Tangerine Dream or Jarre album and turned green with envy at the photos of those almost ludicrous machines. Well - I'll happily admit to being one of those dreamers - and a dreamer I shall remain unless I win the pools (which will be difficult 'cos I don't do them!).
All is not lost for us paupers however - it's possible to create music of good sound quality with an absolute minimum of equipment; the artistic quality is, of course, down to personal opinion! I recorded an album called "Thoughts of War" using the sound-on-sound method with the following equipment:
1. Yamaha CS30 Synthesiser - this is an instrument which I would still buy now because of its price, power, quality, flexibility and last but not least, a built-in sequencer. Basically it has 2 VCO's, 2 VCA's, 2 VCF's, no less than 3 EG's, LFO, Noise Generator and one of the most comprehensive modulation circuits to be found this side of a Moog System 55.
2. Hohner K4 Strings - the cheapest string machine around at the time ('79), it's not too hot by itself but when fed through the external input of the Yamaha, it can be filtered, modulated, sequencer-chopped, etc., etc.
3. Flanger and Phaser - these two foot-operated F.X. units can transform the nature of any sound quite dramatically - especially when the flanger is used on the string machine.
4. "Budget" Hi-Fi system - used as a complete monitoring system.
5. Revox A77 L/S with Dolby - I bought this second-hand four years ago and it is still working perfectly, despite the fact that I haven't had it serviced once - it's some machine! The reason why I opted for the low speed version (3¾ i.p.s. and 7½ i.p.s.) will become apparent later on.
Now to the recording process itself. Well, firstly, you obviously have to have some idea of what you are going to do before you plough into all of that expensive tape! The way I 'compose' (if I may use that word) is purely by 'doodling'; in other words, I just play around on the keyboards until I 'hit' something interesting, be it a rhythm, melody, chord sequence - whatever. I then tend to stick with this idea until I have worked out some suitable sounds to use. Let's say, for example, I find a really interesting rhythm and also a natty little melody - nine times out of ten the rhythm is programmed into the sequencer complete with desired tonal quality. One of the synth's oscillators is now taken by the sequencer, leaving the other VCO free to play the main melody.
At this point the record button of channel one on the Revox goes in - and off I go. The process is similar to a rock band I suppose, in as much as the rhythmic and main melodic sections (i.e. the guts) of the piece are recorded first. From here on the piece would develop something like this - suitable chords plus a second (often harmony) lead line will be recorded onto channel two with channel one being 'bounced' over simultaneously (and you have to get the mix right here!). And then channel one is used again for extra chords, lead lines, s.f.x. and general twiddly bits with, of course, channel two being bounced over at the same time.
The completed composition is now on channel one - but it sounds very lifeless - in desperate need of echo or reverb. Here is where the strength of a low speed Revox lies - by using the machine's own internal echo facility at 3¾ i.p.s., a very rich and clear repeating echo can be achieved, which, to my mind, brings the music to life. The piece is now finished, and because of the way in which the echo process works, what you are left with is channel one still 'dead' and channel two being merely channel one echoed. And, at the risk of dropping a trade secret (con trick actually!), this process occasionally gives the impression that the sounds are jumping around within the stereo field.
With careful use of the sequencer clock speed and the tape echo, I am able to make the sequences sound vastly more complex than they really are - after all, the CS30 only has an 8-note sequencer with no time spacing facility.
Bearing in mind that when the tape echo is added absolutely everything is echoed, one has to allow for this from the start. This sound-on-sound method does need practice, but then so does everything in music. For instance, I have reels and reels of tape with 40 minute epics all over them - you know the type - where the sequencer runs for 39 minutes and never changes key and everything else drifting in and out - sounded great at the time, but now? Oh boy!
I have learnt (slowly) that it is far more effective to get to the musical point than to dawdle around the fringes hour after hour. The masters of electronic music always state the main theme (or 'motif' if you're into Wagner!) very early on in the compositions e.g. Schulze's 'Mirage' or Tangerine Dream's 'Ricochet', and thereby eradicate any irrelevant distractions.
This is what separates the musicians from the technicians and I think it applies more to electronic music than any other kind of music.
The temptation is to leave the machines running, but the experience is gained in the final human control over the machines. Not as easy as it sounds!
I hope that by this article and with my record, I have proved that one doesn't need a studio like Mission Control to produce records or tapes of good sound quality - because if the S.O.S. method works, it is very satisfying. I'd still love to own a 24 track machine though!
In the past few weeks I have been in the process of finalising a new contract with Uniton Records in Norway, which, provisionally, will last for 3 years with a minimum of 3 new L.P. releases during that period. To go along with this contract I have also been offered an advance to enable me to purchase some new equipment. I'll then be in the market for the new Tascam 38 8 track machine, the R.S.D. 8:4 mixer and a high-speed conversion for my Revox so that it can be used for mastering.
The presence of an 8 track system will of course change my whole recording process drastically but it will require a period of intense self-instruction in the art of multitracking first!
While I await the arrival of the spondoolicks for all these goodies I have been busily preparing new pieces of music in 'sketch' form for future use. And when I eventually do the final recordings on the 8 track I will, in most cases, forsake my string machine and hire a Prophet V and/or a Roland Vocoder Plus for a couple of days, to take care of the chordal work. Also, very recently, I have acquired a Sequential Circuits Pro-One which will take on most of the sequencer work.
I hope to have some master tapes completed around March 1983 and there's a possibility of concert performances to support the resultant album. This will probably be titled 'Assassin' which, incidentally, has no profound meaning — I just like the word!
Feature by Mark Shreeve
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