Space Cadet | Ian Boddy
Electronic music is one area where independent status is the general rule. Ian Boddy is one of the UK's foremost electronic musicians, with a label he set up especially for his own releases. David Hughes gets the full story.
Independent electronic musician Ian Boddy warps out of Hyperspace with a new release, The Uncertainty Principle. Report and studio photographs by David Hughes.
When you sit down to talk to Ian Boddy, the first thing that comes across is his apparently limitless enthusiasm for electronic music. His latest release, The Uncertainty Principle, heads a lengthy discography covering the last decade with numerous cassette, vinyl and CD releases as well as an impressive list of live performances. Ian's last appearance in the pages of Sound On Sound coincided with the release of his first CD, Odyssey, way back in 1989. Since then, he has released two more CDs, Drive (1991) and Jade (1992), which originally appeared as a limited edition cassette in 1987.
The Uncertainty Principle deliberately revives the spacey, cosmic tones of early Tangerine Dream as well as the sonic trills and swoops which were a characteristic of Jean-Michel Jarre's better days. However, rather than simply recycle the sounds and atmospheres of '70s-style electronic music, Ian has added his own, highly individual personality to the electronic melting pot, resulting in an album of real quality which manages to sound fresh and accessible.
In many ways, The Uncertainty Principle represents something of a change of style for Ian in that it is very much a 'synth music' album, whereas his previous work isn't obviously electronic music. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of The Uncertainty Principle is that it sounds very different from mainstream British electronic music with some genuinely interesting sounds, samples and atmospheres (several of which defy description) and this makes a refreshing change to the usual John Dyson/Mark Shreeve clones.
Ian was keen to discuss how the album evolved, the trials and tribulations involved in composing, engineering and producing an album on your own, and the joys of getting out on the road and promoting the finished work in the face of limited airplay and apparent disinterest in electronic music from the public at large.
Before we get down to the mechanics of making the album, how's it selling?
"Extremely well, actually. I had 1000 pressed and I've sold 500 or so in three months. I sold 300 on the first day so I don't think there will be a problem selling the rest."
You decided to make the album at home rather than use a commercial studio. What equipment do you have that makes this practical without compromising quality?
"It wasn't necessary to go outside; I purchased three pieces of equipment which made it possible to produce a good-quality CD. Firstly, there was the mixing desk, a Soundcraft Studio 16:8:2, which is straightforward, clean sounding and not at all complicated to use. Secondly, I bought a good quality dedicated reverb, a Sony R7, and although there are several other modules available, there were a couple of extras on the Sony which made it more attractive for the sort of sound I was aiming at. The in-line phaser was a positive attraction and the sound — not the usual Japanese sound, which is rather hard and brittle — was a bit warmer. Finally, I bought a professional DAT machine, a Sony DTC1000ES, which cost a bloody fortune, in fact, double the price of a consumer DAT, just to avoid SCMS (Serial Copy Management System), though I also wanted the ability to record at 44.1 kHz, since mastering plants prefer that, so that they can do a direct digital transfer to the big PCM machines. The end result is probably as good as, if not better than, a 24-track in town. The other main advantage is that I could work at home, taking as long as I wanted over every mix. It took about five weeks to do the whole album. In the past I used to have to finish the whole mix in two or three days.
"The studio isn't ideal soundwise. To get around this, a track would be mixed to DAT then the DAT player would be transplanted to the living room downstairs and plugged straight into my hi-fi; since I know exactly how the hi-fi sounds, I could check that the final mix was OK."
How long did it take you to gather the material for the album?
"The earliest track appeared around March 1992. Later, as the album progressed, it started to acquire a certain 'spacey' feel which wasn't really intentional. I'd been reading A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking, and that may have had some effect. I was also trying to use a lot of old analogue sounds to build a virtually continuous LP, with perhaps only the occasional gap for dramatic effect. I composed a couple of tracks to fit into an interlude section, built around certain sound effects I wanted to use, and after three or four tracks the 'feel' of the album started to come. Towards the end I was literally doing pieces to bridge between the main pieces to help the flow."
Were there any headaches or did everything work first time?
A few tracks didn't get onto the album because they simply didn't work. They had an ethnic feel and I put these to one side and will maybe use them at a later date. I sometimes had to work on a piece quite a lot to get certain sections right — a particular drum fill might take two or three days to get right, another piece might be completed, start to finish, in just two nights. Each track has its own pace and there was a lot of tidying up. The last 5% of the job is getting little things just right, and sometimes that can be a bit of a pain."
What sort of equipment are you using for sequencing?
"All the sequencing was done on the Akai MPC60 and Steinberg Cubase (version 2.1). Virtually all the rhythmic stuff was done on the MPC60. I find it's quicker, easier and tighter than the Atari. And one really important aspect of the MPC60 is that it's very easy to transpose the key of a sequence in real time which you can then improvise over. It's a pain in the arse to try and get Cubase to do that. It's a real irony that the very first digital sequencer I ever bought, a Roland CSQ100, was able to do this."
What about the rest of the gear?
"The rest of the synths were basically a Korg Wavestation, which mainly did the lead lines, the sort of guitar-type lead sounds, the old trusty D550, which doesn't get used a lot these days but provided a couple of useful pad sounds, the TX416, again for just a few bass sounds, and an old Roland MKS30, which tended to do analogue bass/sequencer type sounds. The real workhorse was the S3000. In fact, I used a combination of the S1000 and the S3000. The S3000, literally, was released halfway through the mixing of the album, so it didn't get used as much as it would have done now, but certainly it got used for a lot of the sampling, both musical sounds and choirs, bass sounds and additional percussion sounds and a lot for sound effects."
The 'spacey' feel of the album is due very much to the old VCS3 beloved of Jarre and company.
"Actually, the VCS3 arrived just after I'd finished the album. The VCS3 sounds are, in fact, samples on the S1000. It's a superb machine, capable of all sorts of weird sounds. I'm also using my old Roland System 100 modular system driven from a Boss MIDI-to-CV converter to try to re-create some of the atmospheres and effects from my first album, The Climb, which is about to be re-released on CD."
How was the final CD compiled?
"Everything was mixed to DAT, then each track was transferred digitally to an Akai DD1000. A lot of the tracks were mixed down in sections. For instance, the opening section, which is about a minute and a half, was actually mixed as a separate track even though the next part of the track fades in over the top of the first, because I wanted to use all of the effects at once for a particular kind of special effect, and I couldn't repatch the rest of the track and get it to work with a different mix.
"Another example would be the end of 'Supernova', which has this massive metal percussive sound, literally like fifty tons of scrap metal falling down a mineshaft. This is roughly 20 seconds long, but was mixed as a separate piece on the DAT. All of these bits, like a jigsaw puzzle, were built up in the DD1000. There were no fade-outs or fade-ins on the DAT master and each piece was longer than I needed. I then compiled a cue list in the order that I wanted the tracks to appear and then shuffled them up until they all matched in terms of time. I could then mess about until I got the fade-ins just as I wanted, and there were some very long crossfades!
"When everything sounded just right, the completed album was transferred digitally back to the DAT and that became the master copy."
How do you classify your music, apart from broad mainstream electronic music?
"I wouldn't even know where to begin, but it always gives me more pleasure when a non-electronic music fan likes my stuff. I would say that anybody that is into the main electronic music scene like Jean-Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis and so on would probably like most of what I do. I have also noticed that a few of the people who are into The Orb like my stuff."
"There's a few of those people who actually seem to like some of the stuff I've done because some of it is not that far removed. There's a shift of emphasis — a few more chords and key changes that you don't tend to get in that sort of music — but a lot of the sounds I'm using go down well with the House crowd. I'm sure a lot of those people are starting to rediscover the likes of Tangerine Dream and (Klaus) Schulze and I think that's great. Things come around again, and then get changed, reassembled into a new form. One of the things I tried to do on one or two of the tracks, quite unashamedly, was recreate some of the atmospheres that Tangerine Dream had created in the mid '70s on Phaedra and Rubycon because I hadn't heard that sort of stuff for ages. Nobody seems to be doing it and none of the modern day synths can actually produce those sounds in any case."
How do you feel about the rest of EM? How do you see it developing and who do you rate in this field? Who do you listen to?
"I very rarely listen to anybody else's new stuff. Most of my CDs are replacing my old albums of Tangerine Dream and Jean-Michel Jarre, Schulze, Vangelis, but it's all stuff from 10 or 15 years ago. I don't really rate much of what they're doing these days, to be quite honest. I listen to quite a lot of classical music as well and that probably comes across in a couple of the pieces like 'Time's Arrow.' I did a piece on Drive called 'Crucifixus,' which was my arrangement of a 17th century vocal piece for eight voices. (The only cover version I've ever done!). 'Time's Arrow' was actually my composition but followed that classical, baroque sort of harmony line."
I'm interested in the mechanics of releasing your own CD. Obviously the CD cover creates the initial impression so how did you come up with the design?
"Gary Scott did the art work. He's local and had done the art work for Odyssey and Drive in the past. With the art work finished everything was packaged off to Nimbus and, a couple of weeks later, 1000 CDs arrived on the doorstep. And, believe me, that's when the difficult part starts. All the composition, all the mixing, all the finance is easy! The hard part is selling the bloody things!"
Let's talk about the CDs, the costs.
"Well, without going into exact amounts, basically 1000 CDs with 1500 full colour covers, plus the cost of mastering, came to a shade over £2000. That included 500 spare covers since these are the most expensive single item to produce, and if I need to press another 500 CDs then that's an expense saved.
"I keep good records of what I sell. Some I sell direct myself. I've a mailing list which I keep adding to, bit by bit, and I sell some at gigs. Then there's various specialist distributors, such as C & D Services in Dundee, Lotus Records, Neu Harmony, and a few shops as well. I do have contacts abroad and I export directly to a couple of people in the States, but not many — the States is quite a frustrating market to sell in. There are a few people in France, but the main outlets abroad are Germany and Holland — I've sold quite a lot there. Overall, I've worked it out that I get approximately an average price of £7 a disc."
And does that money go to you yourself?
"Yes. Because I've done it all myself, there are no royalties to pay, there's nobody else in the chain. You can quickly work out that my breakeven point is three hundred discs."
And you've passed that point already?
"Yeah, so that gives a rough idea for anybody that wants to do it. But if you're not quite sure, because you haven't got a market like mine, start off with 500 discs. There's no price advantage per unit cost in going to one thousand rather than 500 discs. There might be if you go below 500 discs, and even then I think the penalty is only ten pence a disc. So you could get 500 discs and 1000 covers and that would keep your costs down to about £1500, in which case your break even point would be a bit less, maybe 250 discs."
What have you got planned for the future? Are you going to do anything with your own record label, Something Else records?
"Well, I've just finished a sample CD for Time and Space. This is called Ambient and I'm in the process of doing another one. As far as I know, it was unique at the time — there weren't any drum loop samples, there wasn't anybody going 'Hey ho, get down,' or anything like that. It's mainly analogue sound effects and textures, a few outdoor atmospheres and a few ethnic percussion samples.
"I've also toyed with the idea of producing other people, but I think it's probably best, in the short term, to concentrate on my own stuff, because I do feel that if you try to release other people's music on your own label, there is a bit of a divided loyalty between pushing other artists and pushing yourself. So, to be fair, I'd rather just push myself and that's the whole reason for doing it."
How do you publicise yourself?
"Obviously, the gigs are very important. I've done two in the UK recently, one of which was for Radio Derby and I'm also playing at Klem in Holland, the biggest EM event in Europe, much bigger than UK Electronica. I'm hoping to get across to Germany some time to do some promotion for a radio station over there. I could do more but, to be quite honest, the problem is time. Of course the big down side of doing all this yourself is that you get bogged down in the business side of things, which some artists pretend to get very precious about and don't want to get involved. But you've got to try and split your mind in two halves if you're talking about the business side of things, talking to distributors and chasing bills. Then, when you go into your studio to compose, you've got to try and forget all about business and get into the composition and music side of things."
What advice would you give to somebody starting out now, in your position 10 years ago. How would you do it differently?
"I'm not sure I would do it differently, because I haven't pursued music as a full-time career. Obviously, I've got a full-time job, I'm married, I've got a family, and I don't want to pursue the music career to the detriment of those other things. I think gigging is very important — I did a lot of gigs early on, the first few years at Spectra and that. What I've found — I think — is if you're starting from scratch and a CD is not on the cards, it's got to be a cassette and there's various little cassette labels who might put your stuff out. You might sell maybe 50 then you might do a second cassette and sell 100. Then, after a few years, because you've sold 150 or 200, take the plunge perhaps and do a CD.
There's a couple of CD labels that might take a chance on it. If not, maybe you can finance it yourself. But it's a case of building up bit by bit. I think gigs are quite important because they do capture people's imagination, because there are not that many people who can pull that sort of thing off live. And there's a big demand for it live — people are always moaning that I should do more gigs.
"What I've found with the CDs is that when I had one out it sold reasonably well, two sold reasonably well. It's only when you release the third and fourth you get a snowball effect, because obviously you get a load of orders when it first comes out but that then generates more interest in the old ones, and you're continually getting lots of little orders. It might only be fives and tens but it all adds up, so every month now I'm getting orders. And the great thing is earning enough profit from the third and fourth CDs to pay for the fifth, so when you come to the fifth it's self-financing. You don't have the worry of trying to get a record contract, or going to the bank and pretending that you're Jean-Michel Jarre. And that's the level I've got to — it's self-financing. I don't have to put any money from my job into it — I don't have any arguments with my wife. I can use the profits to put into new gear."
On The Record
Interview by David Hughes
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!