Home Taping Is Skill In Music
Hansa Berlin can produce quality demos on a Yamaha MT-44. Martin Moody got right on the case
Hansa Berlin is the name of a famous German recording studio which has in its time played host to most of this country's more 'international' acts, and it is also the name of a young duo from Leighton Buzzard whose recording resources could not be further from the spirit of their namesake.
Yet the brash and enthusiastic demo they sent us recently stood head and shoulders over competition produced on much more 'professional' equipment... and, after all, it's not everyone who can afford the luxury of a 'typical' eight-track set-up. (Though you may be forgiven for thinking so given the usual run of our Home Recording features). It seemed like time for a chat...
The Berlin boys turn out, in fact, to be a boy and a girl (despite an unfortunate sex-change granted to one of the duo by sister publication Electronic Soundmaker!) Bubbly 17-year-old Clive (spiky black hair, Stevo impression and mouth) takes instrumental honours in the band, whilst vox comes courtesy of 19-year old Paula (bright red hair, a word in edgeways, and quiet authority).
I understand from your letter that you haven't been going that long?
Paula: "That's right. I put an advert in Melody Maker at the start of the year, asking for a synth player, and Clive saw it purely by accident..."
"...Somebody brought it into college, to cut up, and I just came across the ad while I was looking through it. I never buy it... it's too expensive!"
So right from the start, you aimed at a duo rather than a band?
Paul again: "Well, it was the first thing I'd been involved in... I started out thinking of a band, but when Clive came along, it just seemed to make more sense to keep it as a duo..."
"Which suited me, too," interjects Clive, "The first band I'd been in had just folded, and I was intending to do something on my own, using the gear I'd bought, but I don't like to sing and play, (despite putting in a very creditable performance of Brel's Amsterdam on the tape). So when Paula came along, well, it just worked."
Ah yes, the gear... tell me about it...
Clive rattles the ice in his orange juice. (Whatever happened to the hard-living Rock 'n' Rollers? I guess they must all have died.) "The first thing, I bought was the Casio 101, a couple of years ago. I didn't know anything — I thought it was a synth! — but I liked the presets and the full-size keys — I hate mini keyboards! — and it was the closest I could get to a poly — we use it a lot, specially for piano and organ things. Bass lines are from an old and dodgy ARP Axxe synth, transposed down to make it a bit 'meatier'. Paula brought in the drum machine, a little Kay one..."
Paula's turn to interrupt: "It's not very good, but it is cheap, and there are a few things you can do to make it sound better."
"Well, I'm usually the one that programmes it, and of course it's really only got that fixed A and B memory thing on it. On one song, I wanted it to change from a firm main bit just once, on the middle eight, to a chugging, swingy rhythm — so I waited till the right moment, and switched it over manually.
"That was quite straightforward — it was harder to actually get a better sound out of the machine. One thing that has worked quite well is to speed up the tempo a bit beyond what we need, record the rhythm, then varispeed the track down to the proper pace — that thickens up the sound, but it's a bit hit and miss. Another idea that has worked better — and we've used it on vocals as well — is to record two tracks identically, but very, very slightly out of sync, to get a broader sound."
A sort of un-automatic ADT in fact?
"Yes — and we only found out by accident, when I tried to re-record the drum machine but hit the button just a bit too late."
And how about recording — I understand that you use a Yamaha MT— 44... most people seem to go for the Portastudio these days — why didn't you?
"Because we couldn't afford it, basically," replies Clive, knocking off the last of his orange juice.
"...originally, we only intended to use it for backing tracks for stage work, and we got a good deal on it, with the mixer (the MM30) thrown in... It was a fair buy at the time, since we were able to use it a lot, both for live work and recording, but I see now that you can get the whole package (patch bay, storage box and the mixer/recorder) for the price we paid for half of it!"
I understand that you just bought an SH101, Paula?
"Mmm... like Clive, I had a little Casio, and a guitar — a beaten-up 'f-hole' semi-acoustic Hagstrom — great for posing with" — (and featured to good effect on some of the pair's newer material).
"...then I saw someone playing an SH101, and I got the chance to buy one cheap," continues Paula. To begin with, I just set up sounds out of the manual, and mucked about with them until they sounded right, but I'm starting to use it a bit more imaginatively now... though not the sequencer, because it's too limited for what we want at the moment..."
"I'd rather play it live anyway," adds Clive.
(Paula sticks to singing live, "I'd rather give it 100% — though she can play guitar and a bit of keyboards).
And has this 'try it and see' approach carried over into the way you do recordings?
"Definitely... we push the stuff we've got to the limits — we have to, really — but it's all done in a non-technical way. For instance, on the vocals, although the mixer has got a built-in echo, it's not very good, so we record Paula's voice in the rehearsal room we use. It meant Paula could let herself go a bit, and because the room we use is quite bare, it's got quite a nice, natural echo which comes across on the tape.
"I've also been trying a few 'trick' things out as well, using the multitrack. On one of the latest tracks, I recorded a drum-machine pattern on track one, turned the tape over, played big chunks of chords from the song in reverse order on the guitar, then turned it over again and bounced it down. So you end up with big wodges of reversed guitar fitting into the song... it sounded great!"
Have you run into any problems using the '44?
"Well monitoring is a bit tricky — the headphones give you tracks one and three out of the left side, two and four out the right, and we've only got one mono amp, a FAL Disco thing," (I wish I could put into words the sneer in Clive's voice on that word 'Disco'...) "...so," he goes on, "we usually just record everything 'flat' direct into the MT44, missing out the mixer if possible, to cut down on noise, then mix it down, via the mixer, onto a Pioneer cassette deck a friend of ours has got. It's ideal because, although it's only a hi-fi machine, it's very good quality, with separate record levels for left and right, good metering, stuff like that."
"At first, I was surprised how different the finished tapes sounded according to what you played them on, but I'm learning to deal with that, using the graphic Eq on the mixer to compensate."
Do you produce 'finished' mixed tapes for live backing?"
"No — I read somewhere about Bronski Beat keeping the tapes unmixed, with one song on each cassette, for live, and that's what we do now."
"It gives us a lot more flexibility," adds Paula. "We tried it with everything mixed down on just one tape but it was really horrible if you just wanted to miss out one song — you can't fast-forward with an audience in front of you!"
So 'creative' mixing — drop-ins and fade-outs and stuff is saved for the demos, is it?
"Yes — we're starting to do things like start a track with just me on piano and Paula singing, then fade up the other instruments... I'm always trying to find ways to get more stuff on tape..."
'More stuff'... like what, Clive?
"Like using the external input on the Axxe as a sub-mixer for the drum machine, or using it to get sort of polysynth effects from the Casio — though the catch is, you have to play the Axxe at the same time as the Casio to get any sound out of it. We've also filled out some tracks by using the Axxe to add a low-key background drone... you know, more stuff!"
Paula leans forward: "That's why our material is so eclectic — we don't have the resources to play things straight — we're forced to improvise. Whatever else it is, our stuff doesn't come out bland."
And the future?
Paula: "A Shirley Bassey cover, more gigs, a better drum machine..."
Clive: "...or a real band."
Paula bristles a little: "I like the sound of drum machines."
A slight difference of opinion, there. Inevitably, though, it's Clive that gets the last word, but in this instance there's no doubt that he's speaking with the full approval of the other 50 percent of the band: "What we want now is to get noticed."
Given what they've already achieved in a few months on minimal equipment, it'd be a shame if someone didn't take them up on their offer.