Richard Walmsley goes to Basingstoke to find two Fostex fans
Basingstoke isn't a place that many people visit purely for pleasure. In fact many think of it simply as one of the outlying suburbs of London. But they're wrong, and you can get a good half an hour's cruise in down the M3 — well at least 12 or so tracks of ZZ Top — between leaving the suburbs of greater London, and arriving at the suburbs of Basingstoke on business.
Which was the case when I drove out to there to meet John Revell and Lee Russell, two gentlemen who spend a great deal of time accompanied by a Fostex X-15 multitracker, a Yamaha mini keyboard, some guitars and a few pedal effects units doing something which is extremely rare these days.
No, not home taping — that's becoming increasingly common these days, hence this column and my presence in Basingstoke. What I am in fact alluding to is the fact that John and Lee make, wait for it, music for music's sake — well, at least for their own pleasure. They don't actually think that a very convincing demo can be done on their equipment as it stands at the moment.
What they actually do is mix quirky lyrics with song tracks drawn from many different styles of music, from "Country, Rock and Roll, and Disco, to out and out comedy versions of tunes like If You Go Down To The Woods Today, or rather So on va au bois aujord hui in their version, sung as a cross between Jacques Brel and Pinky and Perky.
The heart of their set up is the X-15 multi tracker which they've been using now for about a year since ceasing work with a stereo cassette deck and a Ferrograph reel to reel tape recorder. They use it in the usual bouncing down configuration, bouncing down first three tracks, then two, then recording the last two tracks straight. This is no Compass Point but the pair do manage to get some quite experimental sounding results from their gear. The only keyboards they have access to are the small Yamaha pocket keyboard and a Wasp monosynth — the staple of home recordists the world over. The main effect they make use of is an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man delay, and a couple of pedal guitar effects — a phase and a distortion pedal to be precise.
But first back to the X-15. The biggest problem they've found with this so far is getting the right level on the guitars and synths. They never DI the guitar or the Wasp because the levels tend to shoot up too high and they have to turn the gain right down in order for it not to distort. Basically this means that all the instruments are put through the Sessionette combo they use.
John: "It's better that way anyway. You get a bit more life in it because of the echoes around the room. It gets a bit lifeless if you just put everything straight into the tape."
They work in what must be quite a typical home recording situation — a bedroom — and a very small one at that. The general result of recording in such a small space is a rather undesirable 'boxy' sound. On the whole John has avoided this sound even on the amped-up instruments.
John: "Well we have to keep the noise to a minimum because of the neighbours, and because my mother and father aren't all that partial to Rock and Roll. But I do find that we're able to get a reasonably warm sound out of the amp even at low levels and I think the sound doesn't come out sounding too boxy because there's not that much sound to bounce around in here."
The effect that they use most of all is the Memory Man delay. The natural reverberations of the room are all that they have on their instruments and on the vocals, but vocals need a bit of echo in order to make them stand out.
John: "We either use it with the delay at a normal level or for a kind of slap back echo on Rock and Roll type of tracks. It's not a very sophisticated piece of equipment, I know, but it's useful all the same because you have to record each effect as you record the track and it means that you get different types of effects on each instrument and you get more separation that way."
Although neither John or Lee use very sophisticated instruments, they have built up quite a distinctive style based around the varispeed control on the X-15, and the fact that with cassette multi-tracks reverse recording is made much easier.
John: "You can get quite good sounds out of the Wasp, but it makes it a bit different if you record it backwards. Because the attack comes at the end of the note it sort of sounds weird and spacey."
Lee: "But we also use the backwards sounds with the phase pedal, or with some chorus from the Memory Man which just adds a bit of texture to the sound. On one track we begin it with a cymbal played backwards and with a bit of phasing as well. It's normally quite hard to tell where to play things when the tape's back to front, but something like that is easy because you just hit it at the beginning of the track. Well it's the end of the track of course when you're actually recording it, but it's still much easier to locate."
John: "The other thing is that you've got to make sure you remember to route the recording signal to the opposite side. Like, if it's for track three in forward gear it'll be track two when you record it. Likewise if it's track one in forward it'll be track four in reverse. That's just a mistake you only make once and you learn not to do it next time, but even so once is too often if you've just lost a really good take, or some chance thing that you wouldn't be able to get again."
John and Lee's whole approach is very much one of committed DIY, using modest instrumentation, or even objects which are not instruments at all to make sounds with.
John: "The Yamaha keyboard may not be the most sophisticated instrument to use, but it does have a lot of uses. For instance, the string sound on it can be very good for going behind guitar chords, especially with a little bit of chorus on it. You don't have it up loud but just use it like a backwash and it sounds quite, er, professional?"
Lee: "We just use a Soundmaster 88 drum machine which sounds okay, but we also put a bit of phasing onto it which not only makes the sound that much more interesting but it also helps them to come through a bit better after they've been bounced down onto one track with the bass and guitar, or whatever you put onto track one."
John: "Basically we have the attitude that everything is usable, whether it's normally instruments or just things you find lying around. Like a Disco track I did, I used some rubber tubes that I picked up from the place where I was working and got different sounds by blowing down them. The main problem with things like that is knowing how to record them. Like, where do you put the mike? If you use it in one place you don't get any sound, if you put it up near your mouth all you get is breath, and that's bad."
Whilst John and Lee are somewhat short of space and equipment they do prefer working in this way, having had quite a bit of experience working in eight and 16 track demo studios. When you're trying to do something experimental that has to come up to your own expectations, rather than those of the record buying public, it's the preservation of the original mood of the piece that matters most.
John: "We've used studios to do our stuff, but although you might get a bit better quality, because it's another engineer who doesn't really understand what you want, the feel of the piece can often get lost. This way it might take a bit more trouble but at least we come out with what we want at the end of it."