Home Studio Recordist
Peter Maydew | Peter Maydew
This series welcomes contributions from you, the reader, about your home studio set-up, recording techniques and adventures in the studio.
This month we feature Peter Maydew, who may be familiar to some readers, having worked on the early editions of Electronics & Music Maker our sister publication.
The standard procedure for becoming a musician nowadays, so far as I can deduce from interviews and so on, goes something like this. The eager youngster hears his teen hero on the radio, wants to be like him, buys an instrument and learns all his hero's songs. If he is talented, he will sooner or later come up with some of his own original material; he may even get a home studio eventually, and perhaps learn something about the electronics which makes all his gear possible. True to character, I did everything backwards. I even had a recording set up before I could play an instrument.
It all started when I was given an electronic construction kit at the age of 11. One of the things you could build was a two transistor radio, and I was soon listening to the pirate radio stations on my crystal earphone. Having built all the things that the kit could build, and now knowing all there was to know about electronics (or so I thought) I decided that I wanted a tape recorder; since I hadn't enough money to buy one, I would build one.
Well, of course I didn't know all there was to know about electronics, and the tape recorder took a long time to build; in fact it was three and a half years before I finally cobbled together my first working recorder. It didn't work very well, but it did have three heads (because I couldn't make the thing work any other way) and it could do echo. I was soon making all sorts of weird noises, mainly bits of records recorded at the wrong speed, backwards and so on, and I borrowed my brother's acoustic guitar (which neither of us could play) to make yet more noise.
I soon got my first electric guitar: cautionary tale for beginners follows. Because I couldn't play at all, I asked the shop assistant to play it for me; which he did, skilfully disguising the warped neck which made playing progressively more difficult higher up the neck. It was a semi-acoustic, and feedback was easy to obtain — more noise! I also began to learn a few chords and simple riffs, but I never was interested in learning other people's songs; I was fascinated by the complex sounds made by musical instruments. The actual notes were almost irrelevant, and I still don't have much of an ear for a tune.
As soon as I had some money, I bought a proper tape recorder, an Akai 4000D on which I could overdub by bouncing from one track to the other, adding a new layer each time. A dense abstract sound flowed naturally from this set-up, aided by a rickety homemade synthesiser; no keyboard, just a collection of unpredictable oscillators and ring modulators in a box.
The next step was a four track recorder, one of the first Teac A-3340 models, which is still doing sterling service after more than nine years. It was now possible to do the standard four track recording followed by a mixdown, but I kept the 'wall of sound' approach, bouncing back and forth in stereo instead of mono. Echo featured highly in these recordings, and quite often the tape was not rewound but turned over and sent backwards at the end of a piece, giving a potent mixture of forwards and backwards echo on the final recording. If any mistakes were made, the whole thing was submerged in echo and used as a background for further overdubs. Any imperfections in the equipment would mount up over so many bounces, and effects like phasing and the accentuation of certain frequency bands would occur spontaneously.
The sound is best described as the aural equivalent of mixing all the colours in a paint box, a sort of 'khaki noise'. Melody, harmony and rhythm are largely absent, replaced with texture, resonance and an atmosphere that only two dozen overdubs can produce! Voices from the radio, backwards guitar, home-made percussion, and other noises now impossible to recognise (let alone recreate), appear fleetingly and then retreat into the electronic mist.
Most people wouldn't call this music at all, it requires a different attitude from the listener, rather like Eno's ambient music or Satie's musique d'ameublement. Despite that, I had fifty LPs pressed and sold them privately. Fame and fortune eluded me - not unnaturally - but Alan Freeman did play an extract on his Saturday afternoon programme, and as a result of the interest generated I joined a local group. At last, I began to learn how to use the equipment and to play my instruments almost conventionally.
The Akai had gone by this time, to be replaced by a Toshiba quadrophonic recorder. This was a domestic machine which couldn't do synchronised recordings, so it was used only for playback, and a typical session would go like this: drums, bass, guitar and keyboards would be recorded on four separate tracks on the Teac. The tape would then be transferred to the Toshiba for playback, and mixed onto two tracks on the Teac using a Lamb Labs 4 into 2, my only mixer at the time. The other two tracks on the Teac were used for echo during the mixdown, then overdubbed with vocals etc. This process could theoretically be repeated, but in practice the quality was so atrocious (due in part to the Toshiba, and partly to poor technique on my part) that the second mixdown was always the final one; from Toshiba to Teac once again.
When the rest of the band headed for London to seek their fortunes, I started work on a solo project along more conventional lines than the LP. Some tracks still involved the Toshiba, used a bit more carefully this time, but for the final mix and some of the basic tracks I used a Teac 32-2B ½ track stereo recorder. This time, the first four tracks were mixed into stereo on the new machine: the ½ track tape could now be put on the four track, where each channel occupied two tracks. Two more overdubs could now be done, and the process repeated if necessary due to the good quality of both machines. This method has the advantage that the first recording can have four simultaneous tracks and yet still be mixed in stereo; the alternative — with a Portastudio say — is to bounce three tracks onto the fourth in mono. Electricity and Magnetism was released on cassette because of my disappointment with the pressing of Distant Skies and has so far sold eighty copies by word of mouth (mainly my mouth). The cassette was duplicated on a professional loop bin system, which I can heartily recommend as giving much superior results to in-cassette copiers, or some bloke with a garage full of ill-maintained cassette decks.
The other helpful addition to my equipment at this time was a Korg KPR55 drum machine, which provided the impetus for over half the tracks on the album. At last there was rhythm, harmony and melody - including three classical pieces by Satie — but no vocals, since I can't sing, not even in the bath!
The centrepiece of the equipment nowadays is in fact the smallest of my reel-to-reel recorders — a Fostex A8, used with their 350 mixer. A Technics cassette deck completes the recording gear, and monitoring is done with a home-designed amplifier and speakers. A Great British Spring provides the reverb.
Other effects include a fuzz box, an ensemble unit (a kind of chorusey 'spreading out' effect), six band graphic EQ, a phaser/flanger, an analogue echo box and a spectrum shifter. This device increases or decreases the input frequency by a variable amount, so harmonics present on the input become distinctly non-harmonic once processed! Harmonizers, Transpozers, call them what you will, multiply the input frequency rather than adding to it so that harmonics stay harmonic. The shifter is not a substitute, therefore, but it is effective on a small shift, especially in the feedback loop of an echo set up so that successive echoes rise or fall in frequency. It can also do phasing, frequency doubling and other more weird effects. Echo is still my favourite, and I've recently finished building an E&MM digital delay, with a second unit on the way; I'm already carried away with the possibilities of just one!
Finally, there is Ill-Bred Fred, who now helps on many of my recordings. Fred is in fact a Sinclair 48K Spectrum computer with a home-built interface; he can play all my synthesisers at once, better than I could — if a bit soullessly — and can be programmed to play drums, triggering the sounds in the Korg KPR55. He can also play along with himself, using sync pulses on a spare tape track, and there is a very strong temptation to sit back and let Fred do everything! Because Fred plays perfectly every time, he is very helpful when writing a piece as variations can be tried out immediately.
A typical recording nowadays will start with Fred playing everything, or at least as much as is needed to establish the skeleton of the piece. Then as many instruments as possible are re-recorded by real musicians; the overall structure of the piece is always apparent no matter what order the instruments are recorded in. The contribution of each instrument to the overall sound is obvious to the player, making improvisation and phrasing easier to judge; as long as the sync track remains intact, even Fred's parts can be altered to fit in with some new idea.
Every new piece of equipment gives me more control over things which were previously limited or even dictated by the set-up; perhaps unfortunately, they also suggest new possibilities of their own, and there are no longer enough hours in the day to explore them all. I only hope there are as many new developments to be kept up with in the next twenty years.
Feature by Peter Maydew
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