Forget the Fairlights, ditch the D.D.L.'s — ES&CM reader Graeme Robinson shows how you can beat it with the big boys, using just a couple of multitracks.
...on the big boys. Megabuck sounds is something most of us can only dream about. Graeme Robinson is an ES&CM reader, who's found an alternative as Tony Reed discovers.
There you are, taking a breather from your latest multitrack masterpiece. You turn on the radio, and there's Depeche Mode's next biggest hit blasting back at you, megadollars to the minute. It's got the lot... Emulators, Synclaviers, A.M.S.'s... even some people. And it sounds great. So it should — the technology behind it could probably run a medium sized national economy for a decade.
What do you do? Hope your rich Auntie has a heart attack? Give up?
It's a familiar situation. So when a demo tape hit my desk a few days ago featuring some of the biggest orchestral samples you'll hear this side of the Frankie album (listen to the tape, and you'll see what I mean), I was intrigued. When the brief intro sheet with the tape claimed it had all been achieved on a cheap home recording set-up in someone's bedroom, I was incredulous. It seemed like a good idea to have a word with the man with the mammoth sound, Graeme Robinson...
A couple of days later, and Graeme's broad Yorkshire accent is tickling my shell-like for an impromptu interview: Who's involved in your project, Graeme? "Well, there's Martyn Alderdike on Guitar, Michael Dixon on second guitar, and me on drums, bass and vocals. There's also a guest vocal from a friend of mine on the second track on the tape. His name is Nigel Brooke. That's it."
I think it'd be fair to describe the tracks as funk/disco, with the addition of these massive sounds. What gave you the idea of going for that kind of sound?
"Well, it's quite a long story. Me and the others have been into ambient and avant-garde-ish stuff for ages, those uses of electronics.
"We've got some very definite ideas along those lines, using some kind of digital set-up, maybe an SDS7, and a couple of GR700 guitar synths. It's very important to us that people should be able to play that kind of music live...
"But, of course, money is a big problem. Playing 'commercial' music is one way to get it... On the technical side, I'd already started to try and find ways round it... at the time, I was using a really cheap tape recorder, taping people talking, and doing sort of 'scratch mixes' of what they were saying. The pause button clicked all the time, and quality was lousy, but it was a start. Then I went down to London to play some drum sessions at various professional studios."
I saw a lot of what I think is wrong about the way electronics are used there... people seemed really surprised that someone of my age ("under 30") could actually play in time, for one thing! Everyone these days has got the attitude of 'Synthesiser Operators' — not players. I want to put some of the excitement of really playing back into electronic music...
"When I got back from London, it all began to come together. I found the orchestral bits more or less by accident on an unlabelled cassette of... Shostakovitch, I think it was. It took a long time to isolate just those crescendos... usually an oboe'd come in or something... but when I found a good bit, I'd just re-record it onto another tape, and hang on to it. The voice is a Born-again preacher type, taped off a T.V. documentary."
So — you had the basic 'noises', and presumably a riff worked out. How did you proceed from there?
"We had three machines to work with... A JVC KD cassette deck, which has a totally silent mechanical action. We used that for the 'drop-in' sounds, as there's no click on its pause function.
The main recording was done on a Fostex 250 and a Tascam 244. After a couple of run throughs, I played the whole of the drum part, in time with a click track from a Dr. Rhythm, onto all four tracks of the Fostex."
The quality of sound you got on the drum track was quite remarkable... how did you achieve it?
"I had the drums set up in my bedroom, with some old mattresses stuck up on the wall for soundproofing. I close-miked everything, just using whatever was available — Shures, that sort of thing... and run all the leads downstairs to where the Fostex was, as a multicore... I had to cut a hole in the door, though, so I could shut it when I was playing! When everything was plugged in, we took it in turns to monitor the drums or to hit them, shouting instructions up the stairs when we wanted a mike moved or something!"
"Anyway, when the drums were down, we did the first transfer, in stereo, onto two tracks of the Tascam, at the same time as laying down live bass and guitars. That left us with two free tracks. One we used for a guitar 'sequencer' pattern, leaving the other free for effects. Back again to the Fostex, and we added 'ambient' guitar — that was done using a Roland SD100 DDL, set to about 350 ms. We had a prepared mono vocal tape which we used as a guide, as we recorded the vocal onto the Tascam, then it was just a matter of dropping the remaining vocals in stereo, onto the remaining track. "
"Our biggest problem was syncing everything together doing it this way. Even though both the Fostex and the Teac were set at the same speed, and started at the same time, by the end of a long drop in, they'd be ever-so-slightly out of sync. The only way round it was trial and error. Same thing with the prepared tapes, cutting them in at just the right place. You just got the hang of knowing when to the let the button go after a while."
What about tuning on the 'orchestral' samples.
"Yes... they were a bit wayward at times, but tweaking the varispeed took care of it. If you listen very closely to the finished item, there are some tuning and timing problems, but they're not that noticeable."
"The main thing was arrangement... It was essential to get the basic track down right, but when it comes to the 'drop-in' stage, it was simply a matter of doing 'rough mixes', thinking about it, and eventually coming up with something you liked. The second 'Remix' track on the cassette, Miracle Mix, was just something I did on my own one afternoon a couple of days after the main session.
"In fact, all of the drop-ins on the tape are arranged as extensions of the drum part... so if I ever get an SDS7..."