Home Taping: Tom Robinson
Tony Reed gets Turbot charged
Odd fish, the Turbot. During the course of its life, both of its eyes migrate from the centre to the side of its head. A fact which probably doesn't cut much ice with you but it matters to the Turbot. And to Tom Robinson, who's named his home studio after the fabulous flatfish.
Turbot studios, housed in the former garage of Tom's small mews flat in West London, is a relatively new development in the life of a man who first gained widespread public recognition in the late Seventies, at the head of his eponymous agitprop garage band, TRB. Since then, Tom has worked on a number of projects culminating in his present status as solo artist, and as the chart success of War Baby attested last year, his current sound demonstrates a mature progression from these earlier ventures, in both production and musical terms.
All the more remarkable then that War Baby and the forthcoming album (provisionally titled The London Apprentice after a well-known gay pub) were both recorded, from scratch to master, in Turbot Studios.
Tom bought the entire set-up as a package from Don Larking Audio Sales, who oversaw the conversion of the garage into a soundproofed, 'room within a room' by freelance builder and acoustician Eric O'Neil. The result, a large, comfortable control room area, and an equally large general purpose recording booth/storage area acoustically screened from the control room by a pair of sliding glass doors, took just three weeks to complete: "Since Eric works for himself, he's got no interest in taking ages to do the job."
Much of the recording is done in the control room, but for vocals, drums and the like, Tom has a large pile of acoustic tiles which can be temporarily fixed anywhere inside the second room, altering its acoustics from natural liveness to almost total deadness.
Following Tom's brief, and budget, Don Larking's equipped the studio with a Soundtracs CM4400 desk, arranged in a 40 input/12 subgroups/24 track monitoring/2 track stereo configuration, and a Soundcraft SCM 762 24-track tape machine. Monitoring is via a pair of Super Red SRM15X Tannoys and, on top of the desk itself, a pair of the industry standard Yamaha NS10s:
"Complete with tissue paper which can be draped in front of the tweeters to cut down some of the brightness of the top end, though I always say that if God had intended us to listen to NS10s with bits of tissue paper stuck on them, he'd have made them like that in the first place'"
Power comes courtesy of a Quad 520 amp. Tom is clearly a fan of this 'package' approach:
"It's just the same as buying a domestic hi fi — you can either buy loads of different boxes, try and work out which speakers are best with which amp — or buy a complete system from one firm, and know that everything is compatible with everything else. Just plug it in, turn it on, and it'll work...
A Tascam 52 ¼" tape machine sits in one corner:
"15 ips, no Dolby — we use it for spinning in and edits."
For mastering there's a Sony PCM 701 Digital Processor and 'bog-standard' Betamax hi fi video:
"It's incredible — a sound quality that George Martin could only've dreamed about back in the Sixties — and all for less than £1500, including VAT. That's the equivalent of £120 in 1963!"
Value for money is clearly a touchstone for Tom:
"I try always to stick to a Policy of 'if it costs over £100, don't buy it.' You get more music for your money that way."
The studio's effect rack bears witness to the theory, for sitting alongside the ubiquitous Drawmer noise gates and Yamaha REV7 reverb, is that same company's budget-priced multi-effects unit, the SPX 90:
"If you could only have one effect, it'd have to be that — as an all-rounder, I much prefer it to the REV7, though there are some effects you can only get on that — the 7's great for really short, ambient things, like bass drum reverb."
DDL duties fall to yet another Yamaha, the D1500:
"Which I got when they dropped its price to about £300 — it was such an incredible bargain, I couldn't resist it.'
He also finds time for Roland's SRV 2000 reverb, again as a general purpose unit: "And I'm not just saying that because I'm an endorsee!"
A Bel BD80 four-second sampler earns its place in the rack:
"As a kind of palette knife — you know, you've got a backing vocal multitracked, so you scoop it up with this, and dump it wherever you want over the master tape."
There were some initial teething problems with the desk:
"High-frequency crosstalk on some of the channels, so you'd get a cabasa coming down the guitar line, but a factory mod took care of that. I also had to get another modification done privately, because the Soundtracs doesn't have any facility for switching between the NS10s and the Tannoys..."
Tom also found the desk's quoted top Eq range of 12K disappointing:
"It's 10 if it's a day, so to top it up, I've got a pair of TC Electronics parametrics. Oh, and a pair of dbx 160X compressors, because they're gentle, and cheap. Here's a tip — get Turnkey's catalogue, even if you aren't going to buy anything from them. I didn't know what compressors were for until I'd read that."
But Tom insists, for the money, he couldn't have done better. The Soundtracs onboard automated muting and routing he describes as:
"A piece of piss to operate. Set up your send and receive channels, store the patch, hit the button at the right point in the song — bingo!"
To prove the point he'd done just that as he was speaking.
"And the routing's so flexible — using the 12 group channels as extra inputs — all with full eq, all with six sends — I can get up to 52 channels for mixdown."
Despite the sophistication of the computer compatible Soundtracs, he's made it his own, with small personal touches, like the gaffer tape linking the two master faders, and the Thunderbirds-style talkback mike.
"Actually, the casing's just there for pose value. Inside the shell, it's an SM58."
There's one further personal touch, too:
"When it was being put in, I said to Don Larking: 'I must have jack sockets. Jack sockets are essential.' Every musician uses jack leads, right? And every engineer uses cannons. They said 'You can't have jack sockets without DIs. The impedance'll be all wrong.' So I said why don't you take the DI boxes, and put them behind the jack sockets on the patchbay? So they did."
He smiles. One small triumph for the semi-pro engineer.
During the recording of the new album, Tom, his regular engineer Mick Godfrey and guitarist/occasional cowriter Clive Mulcahy spent a lot of time in the control room, putting ideas straight onto 24-track. It's a new departure for Tom, who describes himself as a 'slow songwriter', and one which he admits can be dangerous:
"I scrapped three full 24-track versions of one song — about three months work — because I'd suddenly realise that the verse should really be the chorus or something..."
The mix'n'match approach extends to the actual recording process itself: to inject variety into a guitar part, for example, Tom will have the verses played on an SG through a JC120, and the chorus on a Fender Strat, close-miked through a 50 watt Marshall 'for raunch.' Though he has been known on occasion to use a cheaper method of obtaining that overdriven sound.
"It's called the Archer mini amp, about eight quid from Tandys, looks like a transistor radio. Plug your guitar in, close mike the speaker, and there you go. Something I got off Steve Lillywhite. He used it on Peter Gabriel3."
A further example of Tom's previous working methods — and the thing that still ties him closely to the semi-pro ethic — centres around the writing of War Baby.
For nestling in one corner of the storage room, next to boxes of Shure SM58s (still his favourite mike in defiance of the engineer who makes him use one of the two Neumann 87s the studio has on loan) is an archetypal home recordist's set-up. A Casio CZ101 synth, Roland and Korg drum machines, a Yamaha QX7 sequencer, and a Fostex 250 Portastudio. The only outboard gear is an Accessit reverb — "too semi pro for Mick to pinch for the studio." Nearby rests the original TRB Fender P Bass and two guitars, a Fender Tele and a Squier copy. Typically, Tom prefers the sound of the copy.
It was on this set-up that, over a period of a year, Tom wrote War Baby. He still has all the original demos, and listening to them in turn you can hear the development of the song — at first, just a chord sequence, and minimal drum machine backing. Gradually, as he slots in tape after tape, you can feel it come together — early versions feature Dr-Who-style electronics, jungle noises later, and Bimbo Acocks' sax solo sets the seal on it — one short step from Portastudio to Pop success.
"Unfortunately, I can't say 'I always do this, or that, this is my magic formula' — and since I haven't had but one hit in the last three years, I wouldn't recommend anyone to follow it anyway. But I do think it's important to keep it as semi-pro as you can — you always have the most fun jamming with your mates. I could have afforded an eight track for ages — I resisted it. You start to produce things then, before you've got your ideas sorted out... four track or 24— nothing in between."
One final question Tom. With you being so cost-conscious and all, could you tell us how much this little lot set you back?
"The basic cost of the studio, including the building work, was £41,000 — adding in everything else in here takes it up to about £46,000."
Or to put it another way, a permanent, master-quality 24-track facility for about the same price as one album's worth of pro studio hire. A smart fish, the Turbot.
Feature by Tony Reed
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
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!