The Big Dream
Tony Reed takes the high road to Kilburn
Jim Bell won't get fooled again. A few years ago he moved South from his native Newcastle, confident that stardom was only a hair's breadth away. He'd already got further than most home-tapers ever dare hope. His portastudio dems, building on a solid foundation of gigging around the Northern club scene had brought him a manager, a little money, and a publishing deal. Now it had brought him a tape leasing deal with a recording studio.
On the face of it an attractive deal, it effectively meant free recording time for Jim in a pro studio. If he didn't make it, he payed nothing. If he did, well it was only a few 'points' (percentage of royalties) off his income.
He didn't make it. And the little money that he would have earned vanished in the points owed to his manager and the studio. He didn't even have a master tape to show for it — under the terms of the leasing deal, it remained in the hands of the studio.
"I do get it back eventually," he sighs, "...in about 15 years, I think."
Jim's unemployed now, living in Kilburn, but he's all set to have another go with the six piece band he's been fronting for the past two years, The Big Dream. And dreaming has nothing to do with it: "I realised that these days, people are putting up 40 grand, 50 grand — making masters, shooting videos, before they even have a hint of a deal. I can't compete with that. I figured with everyone else doing it, the old fashioned approach might still work..."
He began sending out demos again, netting himself a serious manager in the shape of Beeb producer Barry Andrews (see last month's IM&RW) and tentative record company interest. Why? Barry Andrews explains: "It was the quality of the songs, and of the sound. I just couldn't believe that it'd all been recorded on a pretty basic home set-up."
It's true. Jim's punchy, commercial Rock which would sit comfortably in the charts alongside Tears For Fears and Talk Talk sounds like it benefitted from at least a well set-up 16-track production.
In fact, all of his recordings are made on a linked pair of Tascam 244s (though the day I visited, a 'less flexible' Fostex 250 was sitting in for one of the well used Tascams, out for rest and repair.) He'd rather have an eight-track, but the HP is crippling enough as it is.
So how does he get such a Pro sound? Being The Big Dream's sole songwriter is a help. As lead vocalist, lead guitarist, fair keyboard player and drum programmer, Jim is well set up to get his ideas across to the second guitarist, bassist, keyboard player, drummer and backing vocalist who make up the band. Hired originally on a purely session basis, the other Dreamers still maintain that relationship to him, though his fellow singer Dee, is appreciated in her role 'chief sounding board' for Jim's ideas.
Playing live along the South coast scene last year saw the band gaining a decent following, tightening up their material — and getting nowhere. The inevitable move to London was made, and the emphasis thrown back on recording... Jim's studio is a bare 10' x 6' box room in his flat. Resting on top of a flightcase to the right of the door is his Prophet 5 ("a nice standard synth", augmented on occasion by the keyboardist's Poly 6.) Beside it, his two guitars, a Fender Anniversary Strat, and a Yamaha SE600, both Kahler equipped.
Facing them on the floor, is the effect board — volume pedal, line switching (live, he likes to cut between his two JC 120s), and a selection of Boss effects — Overdrive, Turbo Overdrive, Compressor, Chorus, and Noise Gate, chosen for "their body — good bottom and mid-range".
Next to them, an ordinary Marantz hi fi amp provides amplification for the set-up, a Technics double cassette deck serves as mastering and copying facility, and his latest pride and joy, a Yamaha SPX-90 Multi-Effects unit, first fruit of the new management deal, fills in for reverb, gate, compression...
"I tried Rev 7s, SRVs, but they're 16-track gadgets. This has got flanging, chorus, parametric eq, all in stereo, which is marvellous. Perfect for this level of recording. The width of sound is incredible. The only thing is, I want another one now..."
Moving on from the Chinese takeaway character of the SPX, we encounter another recent acquisition, a LinnDrum, looking expensive: "But I got it cheap, second-hand. It's a bit temperamental dumping to tape, but the sounds are really clear and positive."
On the kitchen table at the rear of the room rest the cassette decks, and flanking them, an impressively large pair of Goodman's Magnum X speakers.
"Hi fi standard again, but good sound, a true sound — I use them for monitoring and it sounds the same when I play the results elsewhere."
And how, I wondered, does Jim actually deploy all this gear? Classically: "I sit down with a guitar, and write with that, don't even touch the machines, except maybe for a basic rhythm off the drum machine, and end up with a song, maybe 10 minutes later, maybe two days later. You mustn't let the technology swamp you."
With the song written, Jim switches everything on, and lays down a basic version to take with him to rehearsal with the full band: "Guitar, vocal, basic drums... the arrangements are already written, but everybody fits their own bits in. I get the drummer to program the drum machine, and I think it shows — he's very quick with it, can actually programme exactly as he plays... we get a very human feel in the patterns."
At the recording stage, each member of the band in turn comes in to play the parts they've already worked out on the basis of the early demo, and in rehearsal. ("Doing their homework", as Jim puts it.)
One track he played to me, a Duran Duran-style, big production called The Burning, is fairly typical of the procedure: "One whole machine is devoted in the first place to the Linn pattern, complete with reverb and effects, which I then record over to tracks three and four on the other machine, in stereo. Then I put down guitar and bass, with effects, on tracks one and two, and bounce back again to three and four on the first machine, again still keeping everything in stereo..."
And so it goes, adding in a further two instruments at a time, bouncing back and forth between the two machines, adding in effects, staying in stereo throughout.
Jim uses the stereo pan and different reverb settings for each instrument to place them very precisely in space: "There's no point in just having every effect panned hard left and right, or putting massive, distant reverb on everything — you've got to use all the space between the two speakers, there's a massive room in there. Place the vocal right in front, the guitars around it, the drums at the back..."
Despite a decent array of mikes, (an Evans SM58 copy, a Shure Unidyne, and a couple of AKGs) vocals are, he admits 'a real headache':
"I get paranoid mixing my own vocals, putting it too far back in the mix — I think you should get someone else to mix your vocals, really. I use the SPX compressor on vocals now, but I was using my pedals before that — very crude, just used to stop the level needles dead, but I sacrificed sound quality for the way it made the vocal sit in the track."
Guitars go through the pedal board and straight to the portastudios. Used in conjunction with the ubiquitous SPX reverb, Jim feels the combination gives him as much flexibility as he needs: "And in a block of flats, you can't go close miking cabs anyway!"
With the help of his new manager, Jim will soon be returning to a professional recording studio, this time with confidence, a strong set of songs, and a good deal of technical skill gained through his extensive and impressive home recording history. Maybe this time, The Big Dream will be within his grasp.
Feature by Tony Reed
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