The column that makes recording rewarding. Chris Maillard's got it taped
Gary Masters. Both a name and statement of fact; the name he's pretty well stuck with; the activity he's put a lot of effort into improving.
And a fair amount of cash, too — despite the £600 Yamaha MT44 portastudio that is the main recording device, the outboard gear and the instruments take up a large slice of loot. It's all well chosen, perhaps unsurprisingly when you know that Gary spends his working life selling gear of a hi-tech type from a well-known West London musical microchip shop.
So when it comes to what to buy and why, he's extremely sussed. And this mastery (whoops, there goes that gag again) of the tricks of the tape have resulted in very polished demos indeed. The music he expends all this time and expertise on is a musically complex blend covering most of the bases between Classical and Jazz/Rock, veering towards the danceable on its way and swerving through the AOR singer/songwriter's patch.
Gary's a Music School product, explaining his tendencies to get Bach, and the musically intricate nature of some of his songs. He plays saxophone and flute, but most of his stuff is written and played on keyboards — two of them — comprising a Yamaha PF15 electronic piano and the ubiquitous and presently overused Yamaha DX7.
Surely some duplication, though? Can't the DX7 do the PF15's job and more?
"No, not really," he explained. "People say the PF15 is just a DX7 or DX9 or whatever, but the sound's much warmer and richer. Unfortunately it's too noisy for recording with because of the hiss from the amplifier stage, so I don't use it that often.
"I must admit I find the DX7's sounds cold, though it's an excellent synth. If you listen to commercial productions like, for instance, Alison Moyet's stuff, you'll hear the DX bass sound and mixed in with it real bass to give it the warmth and richness that it hasn't got on its own. I've decided to use guitar for that occasionally, though I'm not a great guitarist."
Talking of beefing up sounds, drums are handled by the Yamaha RX11 — a machine which most would be more than happy with, as its digitally sampled sounds have been praised to high heaven by some very discerning listeners. However, Gary's quest for perfection, or possibly just his personal taste, leads him to indulge in the black art of 'borrowing' drum sounds.
His chief accomplice in this is the Boss DE-200 digital delay, a cheap and workmanlike unit whose restricted bandwidth is made up for with its sampling capability.
It's not the foremost of the Masters collection of effects — that honour goes to the Yamaha R1000 digital reverb — but in conjunction, the little and large of rack-mounted devices produce a most impressive result: "I used the Boss to sample snare," confesses Gary. "At the beginning of Side Two of the last Weather Report album, there's a snare beat where the drummer, Omar Hakim, really belts it. Great sound. So I sampled it with the DE-200, put it through a graphic equaliser to brighten it up and add a bit of the top end it lost in the sampling, and put it through the R1000 set on a long reverb time. Then I recorded it onto tape.
"The next bit is the clever bit — because there's no setting for gated reverb on the R1000, I re-sampled it from tape with the long reverb recorded. As the DE-200 hasn't got a very long sample time it cuts off the end of the reverb and there you are — that professional gated reverb snare, waiting to be triggered from the RX11."
But to sidestep the clever bits for the moment, let's step through some of the basics of the set-up. The mixer, for instance, is the MM-30 that went with the Yamaha MT-44 portastudio package when it was first released. It's now been massively revamped, but despite the improved aesthetics of the new one (no more Airfix kit plastic) Gary's still in love with the much-maligned original version.
"The funny thing is the graphic they put on the old mixer was a bit of a joke — it seemed as though it had been slung in as a last-minute thing to make it look good rather than for any sensible reason.
"But when I started using it, I found that the little seven-band thing was just about good enough for bringing back the punch and clarity that you lost after a lot of re-recording. If you push the top end you just get hiss, but with the graphic you can emphasise the frequencies that make it punchy without making it too harsh and hissy.
"Having said that, though, I've recently got the new Yamaha graphic, the 31-band 2031, and you can pick out frequencies really exactly to get an individual sound just right. I still like to put the final mix through the graphic on the mixer, though, just to balance the end result.
"When I monitor, you see, I use a fairly normal hi fi set-up of a NAD 3020 amp (clean, basic, reliable and fairly cheap — I'd recommend it to anybody) and Acoustic Research AR48LS loudspeakers. I tried the 38s, but they weren't bassy enough, and the 58s were too bassy. But that's just my taste and I bought them because they were good hi fi speakers, not because they were flat studio monitors. They're commercial, very coloured, and obviously everything you play through them sounds better than it really is. Which is, of course, what hi fi speakers are supposed to do.
"But I find I can get round that by playing the first mix at normal, quite high levels. You can get the balance roughly right, but of course anything will sound good at that sort of volume. Then for the second mix I'll drop the level until it's really quiet. That is when the faults stick out, like if the vocals are too quiet, the bass is too loud, or whatever.
"On a commercial album when you drop the volume it'll still sound good and you won't lose anything from the mix. That's how I want my demos to sound."
Despite the fact that the tapes are of exceptionally good quality, Gary still treats them as demos. In his hunt for a deal (which is, after all, the aim of the tapes) he uses them to give A&R men the idea of his songs' potential.
"Mind you," he warns, "there's a lot of rubbish talked about A&R men — it's one of the great myths of the business that when you play them a tape recording quality doesn't matter because they'll be able to judge the strength of the song no matter how badly it's done.
"That's just not true. They don't expect master quality necessarily but they like to think that a song won't want much doing to it, that with a bit less noise and a little more production it could be a hit. So the better the quality of your tapes the better chance you stand of impressing somebody."
And one good tip he's found is stereo. Yes, remember that, Portastudio owners?
"A lot of A&R men have big speakers in their offices, one each side, so playing a mono mix is going to sound a bit boring. If you do things like pan two guitar parts or a cowbell in opposite directions it'll keep the track moving and liven it up.
"I actually do all my mixes in stereo — unusual, I know, but it gives every instrument its own individual placement in the mix and opens it up really well. Drums, for instance, benefit greatly from being panned, and double tracking parts and putting one on the left and one on the right makes the track sound much fuller.
"However, it does mean that when you're overdubbing you have to bounce twice as many times as you would otherwise need to. I do something that most people won't try because they're afraid of noise building up; I bounce all four tracks from the MT44 onto my cassette deck in stereo and then bounce them back every time I need to overdub.
"The thing that makes it possible is a good stereo deck. Mine's an Aiwa S770 with Dolby C which records brilliantly. In fact, the Dolby makes recording come back even brighter than they went down which is great. However, the Dolby does 'breathe' a little after a lot of re-recording; some signals like hi hat get this sort of 'pumping' effect on them. But that's not so noticeable in a mix, really."
What is noticeable is the extreme clarity of the Masters tapes, a testament to his recording methods and the care he takes over getting the right sounds in the right places. Mind you, there are limits...
"I went through a period of real perfectionism, taking hours and hours to get exactly the sound I wanted," he confessed, "but finally I realised it was missing the point. The tapes were getting better and better but the songs were getting lost in the production. Now I know I can get a pretty good sound easily and then concentrate on the one most important thing — making the most of your song."