Home Studio Recordist
Blackpool-based band 'The Sensible Shoes' outline their working environment and techniques.
Calling all home recordists... Here's a golden opportunity to pass on those brilliant tricks you've discovered to turn your cassette deck into a fully-blown 48 track recorder!
Well, not quite... but these columns are devoted to what you, the reader, have to say about your own method of recording, your equipment or maybe your experiences in a pro studio. So write and tell us about these or any other aspect of your recording and you may well find yourself occupying these pages.
Ask the typical man in the street what he knows about Blackpool and he would probably mention the Blackpool Tower and the Golden Mile. Pressed further, he might even tell you of the Illuminations and the four miles of breezy Promenade. But very few people would suspect that on one of the back streets just off Blackpool's busy sea front is Instep Studios, a thriving 8-track, home recording facility specialising in electronic and synthesiser music.
The growth of Instep Studios in the short space of two years, from a Portastudio in a back bedroom to its present size, was described by Nigel Bernstein, who runs the studio along with other members of the Blackpool-based band 'Sensible Shoes'.
"In the past we spent a fortune on recording in commercial studios; we always felt ourselves to be working against the clock, under a tremendous amount of pressure to get things done quickly. Pressure in itself is not always a bad thing; in fact the thought of all that money dripping away as the hour hand on the studio clock speeds round, can concentrate the mind wonderfully."
"But there comes a point when you find that the pressure to work fast is stifling your creativity. There are times when you need to experiment and try different ideas, arrangements or sounds; without access to unlimited funds we found working in commercial studios rather a frustrating experience. It was a bit like being a child in a toyshop; all those lovely things to play with but no time to try them all out. Looking around we saw that there was a growing range of home recording equipment coming onto the market, and we decided that we would be better off building our own studio."
"We went out and purchased a Teac 144 Portastudio which was great for learning the basics of recording. We perfected the art of squeezing as many tracks onto the tape as possible. I think on one epic we recorded as many as twelve separate instruments and vocal lines ping-ponged onto the four tracks of the Portastudio. We certainly discovered the problems of noise build-up and tape overload distortion."
"After using the Portastudio for a while we felt that the time had come to move onto eight tracks. We chose the Tascam 38 rather than the Fostex A8 because of its better tape width (half inch as against quarter inch) and consequently its superior performance. The Fostex is good for the price but the Tascam 38 is an altogether more sturdier, professional machine. The only problem we have with the 38 is a faulty brake solenoid. The mechanical brakes sometimes don't come on when they should do with the result that the tape tension arm drops and the motor switches itself off. Rather annoying at times and quite surprising considering the splendid reputation of Tascam tape transports."
"We chose the Tascam M30 mixer to go with the 38. It's a rugged, well-built desk with very good patching facilities on its back panel. A few more input channels for echo return etc. would have been useful, but we also have an MM 12-2 mixer which links up to the M30 to provide additional inputs. Monitoring off the tape while recording overdubs can be a problem as it is necessary to use the input channels to bring in the tape signal, there being only one submix available for performers' cues, and it is very easy to run out of input channels. But on the whole we find the M30 good value for money. The EQ facilities are especially worthy of mention with sweepable bass and midrange cut and boost together with a fixed treble cut and boost. Very versatile. The overload LEDs on each input are useful as are the peak LEDs on the four output meters; we always work with reference to the peak LEDs rather than the mechanical VU meters to achieve the best signal-to-noise ratio. Having only one auxiliary send (or submix, as Tascam call it) is a bit limiting, but on the plus side there are direct outs on each input channel together with insert patch points on each channel and on each input bus."
Instep Studios is located in a converted cellar below a block of flats. Nigel described what was involved in converting a derelict basement into a recording studio. "Basically we had an empty cellar to work with. The first job was to try and install some sort of soundproofing and then to improve the acoustics. We used office divider screens and insulation board to line the walls and ceiling, together with Rockwool and heavy drapes. We also laid down a nice, thick carpet and underlay on the floor."
"The biggest problem acoustically was in the control room; because it was quite small and box shaped it tended to have a nasty boominess at about 100Hz. We lined sections of the wall with plywood panels backed with Rockwool and constructed a resonating bass trap. This had the desired effect of reducing the boominess, whilst top end reflections were easily dealt with by covering some of the walls with heavy folded drapes. The acoustics of the studio and control room are now quite acceptable and we managed to do the whole job ourselves without spending a vast amount of money. I would strongly recommend anybody attempting something like this to read up on the subject beforehand to get a grasp of what is possible. There are plenty of books on acoustics in the local lending library."
Outboard equipment is very important in determining the sounds available from a home studio. Andrew Clarke, who plays the keyboards in the Sensible Shoes, explained the signal processing equipment in use at Instep Studios. "Most of it is constructed ourselves. We built the Powertran digital delay line with three-quarters memory (1.2 secs); we use it a lot for echo and chorus effects. We also built an E&MM compressor which comes in handy when recording vocals and bass guitar. We've a home built stereo spring reverb based upon Maplin driver modules and long spring lines. It's quite good for vocals and keyboards but like all spring reverbs, it's a little 'boingy' on sharp, percussive sounds. We hope to replace it in the near future with a Yamaha digital reverb."
A typical recording at Instep Studios would start with a drum pattern on the Korg KPR77 drum machine (soon to be replaced by Yamaha RX15 digital drums). There is also a Simmons SDS8 drum kit at Instep which can be played live or can be triggered from the Korg using an interface box built by Nigel. Next, the Roland MC202 MicroComposer would be used for the bass lines and/or sequencer parts. These may be put into the MC202 in real time or in step time. A sync track would then be recorded onto the Tascam 38 together with a guide drum machine/MicroComposer track. This guide track would not be used in the final mix; instead, the sync track would trigger the MicroComposer and drum machine. In this way it is possible to increase the number of tracks available beyond the eight on the tape recorder.
Vocals, guitars, percussion and keyboards will then be added. Vocals are recorded with an AKG 330BT microphone which gives consistently good results and is also useful for brass and other lead acoustic instruments. An AKG C451 condenser mic is used for quieter instruments such as acoustic and Spanish guitars. A recent acquisition to the microphone department at Instep, is a Realistic PZM. Nigel thinks there is no better microphone available for the money, and strongly recommends its use by all home recordists. Certainly at £20 each they are by no means expensive.
The keyboard set-up at Instep consists of a Roland JX3P, a Roland SH101 (useful when linked to the MC202), and a Korg MS10. "We will be getting a Yamaha CX5M computer as soon as they become available. As well as using it for its FM sound facilities, we hope to use its multi-timbral composing features as the centre of a multitrack MIDI recording system. We want to be able to sync the CX5M off tape in much the same way as the MC202 MicroComposer. We can't wait to get our hands on the little beast; the prospects are very exciting."
Are there any particular hints for the home recordist that the Instep personnel would like to pass on? Nigel thinks the following three tips are worth mentioning. "Firstly, ensure that you get good quality recordings by keeping the tape recorder clean and demagnetised and by using the best quality tape (Ampex 456 takes a lot of beating). Don't save pennies on cheap tape; its definitely a false economy. Secondly, always listen to your completed recordings on different equipment and in different environments. This will point out any colourations in the sound that might not have been immediately apparent at the recording stage. The room you monitor in, and the audio equipment you use all affect the nature of what you record. You should be aware of any self-induced colouration and make allowance for it. Thirdly, if you can only afford a single outboard effects unit then a good quality reverb is the best thing to go for. Judicial use of reverb makes all the difference between an amateur and professional sounding demo."
Nigel sees a healthy future for home recording. "Equipment is so much cheaper these days. You can set up a 4-track recording facility on cassette for less than £400. It must be good for music that so many people have access to recording equipment. There's a tremendous amount of innovative music being made at the moment and we feel that more people should release their own material on cassette or on record. The Sensible Shoes have released a single, entitled 'Game', on the Instep record label and we are currently on the look out for groups with a similar interest in electronic music."
If anyone thinks they might like to record a single on the Instep label they should write to Nigel, c/o Instep Music, (Contact Details).