It ain't heavy...
A guitarist who's at home with hard-disk recording
How does a mad axeman like Geoff Whitehorn get to be recording a new album using a pair of Akai DR4d hard-disk recorders? And what does he think of all this technology, anyway? Chris Kempster tells a happy tale of love at first byte...
To many, the world of hard-disk recording sounds like the exclusive domain of computer-literate, technologically advanced musicians and engineers. But the arrival of veteran axe-grinder Geoff Whitehorn's new album is proof that hard disk recording has well and truly arrived at street-level.
Geoff's latest release, Who 2 - Big In Gravesend, was recorded entirely at home, using a couple of Akai DR4ds, and was put together while Geoff took time off from touring with Procol Harum. Weighing in (in real terms) at about the same price as a Tascam Portastudio did a decade ago, the DR4d could be looked upon as the Portastudio of the '90s - the big difference being that the quality is good enough to put out on CD. Now that's what the personal recording revolution is all about.
But Akai hardware is better-known for its role in luxurious studios and programming suites than small home setups. How did a rock guitarist like Geoff get involved with the DR4d?
"Well, I was knocking out tracks in my spare time using my old Fostex A8 eight-track but, to be honest, it had seen better days. The speed stability was driving me mad. Some days it would be crap, other days it would be fine, depending what way the wind was blowing. You would record what you thought was a perfectly good guitar part, then come back the next day and find it all over the shop. And dropping out was virtually impossible - you'd have to leave at least half a bar, or it just smeared."
Time, then, for our man Whitehorn to enter the digital domain. The question was: which route to take? It was at a Nottingham music fair, wearing his hat of Marshall demonstrator, that Geoff learnt the benefits of the DR4d, which Akai UK's Dave Caulfield suggested as an alternative to ADAT.
"I sort of recoiled in terror," Geoff recalls, "but Dave said 'you don't have to be a rocket scientist to use our one'. So I dubiously agreed to give it a go. Then it arrived - and it had a manual like a telephone directory!"
Yet, far from requiring weeks of manual-reading before being able to record anything, Geoff found the DR4d very intuitive, mainly due to its front-panel layout, which is reminiscent of a tape recorder.
"I plugged it in, and after about two minutes I threw the manual away. There really is nothing to learn: if you can work a sequencer or tape recorder, you can work this. It looks like you're working with a tape recorder - apart from the editing possibilities. If you ignore all that, it works in exactly the same way as any four-track recorder does. It's just getting your head around the idea of working without tape. It's like, where has all that information gone?"
It may look a bit like a tape recorder, but there are a few things you can do on a DR4d that you sure can't do on a tape-based multitrack. Geoff explains: "There is no comparison between the flexibility of the DR4d and, say, an ADAT. With this hard disk thing, if something is in the wrong place, you just move it - end of story.
"For example, there was a solo that [guitarist] Phil Hilborne had done for me on the old A8. I bounced it across onto the DR4d, and just moved it about until it was in time. I dumped over one bit of it to start off with, and then just moved phrases as necessary."
Not content with merely moving phrases around, Geoff was prepared to get down and sweat with the cut and paste facilities, and even constructed a short solo note-by-note - all in pursuit of finger-picking perfection.
"On one track there was a very fast bit of guitar, and I replaced single notes to get it exactly right. They were real snapshot drop-ins - but the Akai does it totally seamlessly. If the performance is good, then the machine will let you do all sorts of things you never dreamt of doing with analogue."
Using the DR4d's internal 240Meg hard drive gave Geoff plenty of time to play with, though this could be extended by daisychaining another external drive.
"I'm not really into writing nine-minute epics," he reflects. "But I could always go out and get another drive if I needed it."
One disadvantage of hard-disk systems is having to back everything up once the drive is full. Did Geoff find this tiresome?
"Well, being a lazy bastard, I tend to record until the machine can't take any more and then start backing stuff up. I work on one track at a time, then I figure on five or ten minutes to back it up, which is nothing.
"It's a weird concept. When I first started I thought: 'I don't really understand this - how do they get four tracks going down to two [on DAT] and come back to four in the right place? I still don't really understand how it works, but I know it does. I've had the odd reload mistake, but it's always been my fault, not the machine's."
"My daughter and wife are the best producers I know"
While the guitars and vocals were recorded onto the pair of DR4ds, all the backing tracks were sequenced using an Akai ASQ10, driven from the DR4's internal MIDI board, and run live when mastering down onto Geoff's Sony DTC-55ES DAT. The move into sequencing came about when Geoff was asked to demonstrate for Marshall in 1986:
"For the demos, you had to come with backing tracks [on tape], so to start off with I had a drumbox, then I began to program drums and stick some synth on, and then stick some bass on - but it was a right mess. Now I just sequence everything and get on with it, and of course you can edit it, to within an inch of its life and have great fun."
Geoff's arsenal of MIDI gear has steadily grown over the years, and now includes a Roland JX8P synth (used as a master keyboard), Alesis D4 drums, Roland U110, U220 and D110 sound sources, Roland R8M drums, and Akai S01 sampler.
"I've never had a sampler before, but for odd sounds it's fine," he says. "I did sample the guitar on one track - some distorted chords - and it's very easy to use, although fairly limited."
Far from shying away from complicated sequencing and programming, Geoff actually enjoys the whole process and takes particular pride in his drum programming.
"I really enjoy editing drums, I think it's great fun. A lot of people say that you can hear if it's sequenced drums, but you can't if it's done right."
That's certainly true of the tracks on his album, on which the drums are entirely convincing. Guitar-wise, everything goes through a Marshall JMP1 preamp which gives the wide range of overdriven and clean guitar sounds needed, without resorting to the fizzy-distortion programs of some effects units. An Alesis 3630 compressor was used on guitars and vocals, and almost all effects were put on at mixdown, courtesy of a couple of Rocktron Intellifexes.
Using the Akais means that Geoff can work at home and still get top-class results, and this suits him fine: "I love working on my own at home, because if you get pissed off you can just go off to the pub, instead of being stuck in a studio with some song that's not working."
But isn't the lack of someone else's opinion and criticism a problem?
"It is true that you can disappear up your own arse very easily. But my daughter and wife are the best producers I know. They tell me if it's crap, or they'll shout out if it sounds good. I don't miss working with a producer or an engineer, and while it would be wonderful to be able to afford people like Simon Phillips, if you want people of that standard, you need a budget of a quarter of a million pounds."
Seems like home will continue to be a recording studio for Geoff. Are there any plans for the expansion of his trusty hard-disk system? Maybe to the new Akai DR8, for example?
"Yeah, the DR8 comes with an onboard 16-channel digital mixer with panning, effects, and everything. But if I want to expand what I've already got then that's no problem. All this stuff is perfectly compatible. I could have the two DR4s hooked up to the DR8 and mix it all in the digital domain within the DR8."
The dawn of a new age in recording is with us, and Geoff Whitehorn is living proof that it doesn't have to be the sole preserve of computer boffins, programmers, and engineers. With the right package and the right approach, this technology can be used by everyone. And that includes even that most diehard sceptic of technological progress, the 'fretmonger'.
As Geoff puts it: "I'm as computer-phobic as the next guitarist, but as far as I'm concerned there's no element of rocket science involved with the DR4."
Interview by Chris Kempster
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