Home Studio Recordist
Mike Drane informs us of his clandestine bedroom activities!
This month we feature Mike Drane, who like many home recordists has ambitions to improve on the cassette-to-cassette recordings he currently produces.
I can't lay claim to being any great recording artist or performer although I did have aspirations along those lines once. Today finds me more at home 'at home', if you take my meaning, and the desire to out-perform the old keyboard heroes thankfully buried.
I am neither a musician nor a sound engineer although I do have a degree in Physics which helps me along a great deal. My home 'studio' is the result of a painful evolution back to basics, understanding the medium and the techniques so as to be creative without the inhibitions of ignorance, to experiment freely, and on a fundamental level, to enjoy it all!
The equipment I have has been put together over the past five years and I can't honestly say that all the equipment I have bought has followed a definite plan and has often veered off into unlooked-for avenues. My first instrument was a fairly cheap electric piano and I loved that for a while until I realised that the sound wasn't too good. What had mattered to me was that it was a keyboard and that I could play in a band with it. It now lives at my parents' house and is something of an antique!
The Korg MS 10 synthesiser followed next and I've been very happy with it and is still used. It's not so good for the 'fat' synth sound due to the single oscillator and -12dB/octave filter, but it is versatile and can create some very interesting sounds. Being semi-patchable is a great help when connecting it to other bits and pieces. I bought a Vox Continental organ to use in a band and although it weighs a 'ton' it does have that beautiful organ sound used by The Doors and The Animals. The drawbars taught me a lot about the creation of timbres by adding overtones selectively. Giving the stand a good shove sets the reverb spring 'boinging' which can also be a good sound, sometimes!
When the Seck 62 mixer came along, my playing and recording elevated to a more conscientious level, taking more care over the playing and keeping the recording quality as high as possible within the limits of the equipment used. Up to this point most of my recording was done with a close friend, Chris Daish, who plays guitar. We would jam for hours onto whatever tape recorder was available. We would then listen to the tapes and filter out what we considered to be the best bits and then re-record them, expanding on the original ideas and themes. This had always been our approach to writing and recording. Multitracking on our small budget was always considered with some doubt due to the poor quality obtained when bouncing tracks from one cassette machine to another, besides which it didn't really suit our spontaneous style of music. We must have hours and hours of music on cassette tape all as a result of 'impromptu' jam sessions and we've been using ideas ever since from this valuable source.
Keeping to the one-take approach has led us to look for some sort of drum machine or sequencer to provide rhythmic accompaniment. We sketched out some designs and eventually came up with pages of diagrams. The whole idea was beginning to get out of hand until we both came to the same conclusion — we need a computer! Along came the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
At that point the Spectrum hadn't been out for very long and there were no addons available (no musical add-ons). It didn't occur to us that there wouldn't be, it was obvious that this was the way things were moving and soon after, E&MM (HSR's sister magazine) published the design for the OMDAC controller which was dutifully built. That did prove a bit of a problem due to the lack of software but has since been overcome by learning Z80 assembler code. We now have a user friendly synth controller which allows us to set up sounds on the Korg MS 10 and save the macros containing the control voltage and trigger data to tape. However, writing the software for a sequencer is proving difficult so is there anybody out there who has written some good code for OMDAC?
I'm still waiting for the Action Replay package from Ricoll Electronics which should arrive any day now (so I've been promised). This should enable us to get involved in the world of digital signal processing. The complete equipment set-up as it stands at the moment is shown in the diagram:
Korg MS10: This is good for bass sounds or tuned percussion, we never really use it for the classic lead synth sound; always the special effects.
Korg Poly800: Truly an affordable poly! The pre-programmed sounds tended to be a bit same-ish and we ended up using about half of them, the rest were either re-programmed or heavily modified. The synth has a lot of potential and suits our sound and the digital approach to control is comfortable after using the Spectrum.
Casio MT41: Everybody must have used a Casio sometime and been amazed at the sounds you can get. It does help to use effects such as echo or chorus and some friends have used distortion as well. Patching the headphone output into the external sound input of the MS10 has produced some superb overdriven sounds especially when using the bass buttons. We use the drum section when jamming to keep the sound together although sometimes using a slapback echo has produced rhythm sounds without actually having any defined timing.
Delay Line: We use an old Electro-Harmonix Memory Man for echo and patch it into the auxiliary send from the Seck 62 and return it to a spare input channel so as to have more control over the final sound. It does tend to be a bit noisy so we are planning on using some form of compansion technique and accept a reduced delay time.
The Sinclair Spectrum is only just becoming important in our music and we haven't really seen all the possibilities yet. The digital signal processing equipment should expand our horizons further when it arrives. It would be nice to produce some sort of 'Digital Musique Concrete' where the control of sampled sounds could be achieved in real time. This would enable us to explore the rhythmic sounds as created by Peter Gabriel using the Fairlight on Rhythm Of The Heat. We'll probably try lots of vocal effects like the old Mellotron choirs and sustained notes. The tape-loop effects of Eno and Fripp - Frippertronics - should also be within our potential.
Apart from keeping myself happy recording at home I've decided to try teaching, and in October I shall be delivering a short course in 'The Techniques of Electronic and Computer Music'. Further details of the course will be available from the Adult Education Department of Southampton University in July.
My hope is to put electronic music on a firm theoretical and practical basis so that the experimentation of other home musicians can become more of a conscious creative experience. I don't really want to put myself in the role of formal teacher, since I still have a lot to learn myself, rather I hope that the learning process will be more of a free information exchange and the members of the class will be encouraged to share their ideas and experiences and hopefully get to the point where they will collaborate at home and explore new avenues and techniques.
You can see that none of my equipment is particularly expensive and is mainly of the 'budget variety'. However, I want to show people that it is possible to create sounds of good quality without spending thousands of pounds; after all, a 4-track multitracking cassette recorder provides similar creative potential to the equipment used by the Beatles and there are budding Lennon and McCartneys everywhere!
My next priority is to build or buy a MIDI interface for the Spectrum and to build the, Maplin Hexadrum which I think has a great sound and is really quite cheap. I would also like to build a Theremin and to try and get it to produce rhythmic sounds by getting people to dance next to it. (Unusual? — Ed) Sometime in the future I would definitely like to own an 8-track studio, such as the Fostex package, which I have come across in small studios and have been impressed by, although at the moment I am still a student and I shall have to wait until I get a 'real' job to afford it!
Feature by Mike Drane
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!