From his remixes of dance music through his record releases with LA Mix, Les Adams has specialised in making a lot out of a little equipment. His latest project is a solo LP, as Simon Trask finds out.
Les Adams is already well known as a DJ and remixer. Now his home-recorded debut album should bring him into the limelight as an artist.
IT HAS BECOME COMMONPLACE TO SAY THAT TECHNOLOGY has narrowed the gap between professional and home studios. But for proof you need look no further than the debut album from DJ, remixer, engineer, producer and recording artist Les Adams of LA Mix. On The Side has been recorded and mixed entirely at Adams' house deep in the wilds of Newport Pagnell, where he has built a 16-track studio into an upstairs room measuring less than ten feet by ten feet. Carpeted walls and triple-glazed windows have been put in place to pacify the neighbours, and some heavyduty air-conditioning has been installed to pacify the studio's previously over-heated users. Meanwhile, dominating the tiny landing is a stand containing two Technics SL1200 MKII decks, a GLI 1010 Audio Processor and a GLI 3990 Preamp/Mixer, the setup which Adams uses to put together Capital Radio's New Years' Eve mixes, which some of you Londoners may be familiar with. This can be wheeled into the studio whenever needed.
On The Side will surprise more than a few people with its musical depth, variety of musical styles and, above all, its classy production work. While the recent hip house single 'Get Loose', the second single 'Check This Out' and an '89 version of the first single '(Don't Stop) Jammin' form what is perhaps the more expected element of the album, the remainder of the tracks show that Adams is able to work in a variety of musical styles without descending into pastiche. There's the garage soul of 'You Are The One' featuring Audrey Francois on vocals, the lilting jazzy instrumental 'Breathe Deep', the beautiful soul ballad 'Don't Turn Away' which gives long-time session vocalist Chyna (probably best known for her infamous wail on SAW's 'Roadblock') the chance to shine on lead vocals, the 10 City-ish 'Love Together' (the new single) with Kevin Henry on vocals, the Alyson Williams-ish swingbeat soul of 'Just Waiting' with Juliet Roberts on vocals, and a surprisingly effective rap ballad version of the 1979 Lowrell classic 'Mellow Mellow (Right On)', which introduces 19-year-old male rapper Sweet Pea to the world. Backing vocals are supplied by Juliet Roberts and another experienced British soul singer, David Grant.
As well as showcasing a healthy number of old and new British soul vocalists, the album is distinguished by some tasteful sax, flute and piano solos by Mike Stevens, intelligent use of synthetic and sampled sounds, thoughtful and well-balanced arrangements, an impressively clean overall sound and pleasingly uncluttered mixes.
AS WE SIT IN ADAMS' STUDIO, HE IS quick to scotch any preconceptions people might have that the album is all his own work. LA Mix is very much a three-way effort between himself and his partners Emma Freilich (with whom he shares his life as well as his recording studio) and Mike Stevens. Each of them brings something distinctive to the group, and it's this very diversity which is their strong point.
"I don't play any keyboards", Adams admits, "but I'm there engineering the sessions and I'll put forward ideas of what I want people to play. Mike, on the other hand, is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist. He'll sit there and play a guitar part, then a sax solo, then some keyboards, and then a flute solo. All the live instrumental parts on the album, including the solos, are played by him. Sometimes he gets a bit overenthusiastic with his playing, and we have to hold him back. With dance music you've got to keep it kind of simple, because when people are out for a night at a club they want to hear something that's exciting and hooky; they're not going to sit there marvelling at how clever the solo is.
"Emma is very good at coming up with hooky riffs. Once Mike's done all the pads and the solos we'll sit back and think 'what this needs is some little hooks', so Emma sits down at the keyboard and comes up with them. Also, of the three of us Emma is probably the strongest songwriter. But in practice we swap roles all the time. For instance, I normally do the mixes, but then Emma mixed 'Breathe Deep' on her own."
The studio is based around a Fostex E16 tape machine and a Studiomaster Series 5 16:4:2 desk which has two extra modules to take it up to 24 inputs, with a Seck 12:2 desk functioning as an effects submixer.
Adams can't speak highly enough of the Series 5: "It's had a very hard two years but it's been 100% reliable. The only thing that's ever crackled has been the monitor pot, and one squirt of switch cleaner cured that. Also it's the smallest 24-channel mixing desk with the kind of facilities it has; anything bigger and I'd have to move house!"
Adams is planning to add mix automation courtesy of two Studiomaster IMP1 16-channel MIDI muting units which plug across the desks insert points. The muting works on MIDI note ons and note offs, and so can be run from Adams' Pro24. Adams is enthusiastic about the prospect.
"The good thing about using note ons and offs is that you can quantise them and shift them around in the sequencer; the possibilities seem quite endless."
The Seck mixer, however, comes in for some harsh criticism for its crackling faders, and is only tolerated because Adams doesn't need to adjust the effect levels in real-time.
Monitoring is taken care of by Yamaha NS10Ms and JBL Centuries running off a Rotel RB850 50-watts-per-channel domestic hi-fi amplifier. For synth sounds Adams uses a Roland D50, Yamaha DX100, Roland Juno 106, Yamaha TX802, Yamaha TX81Z and Oberheim Matrix 1000, while the drums department is taken care of by a combination of Roland TR909, Roland TR626, Alesis HR16 and samples on an Akai S900. The S900 is shortly to be augmented by an S1000 complete with time-stretching software; Adams expects to use the S1000 for more sampled drum sounds and for spinning in vocals.
Rather than work one drum machine to death, Adams tends to pick and choose sounds from the different machines with great attention to how they sit in a mix. His library of sampled drum sounds includes some R8 sounds, but he intends to buy an R8 too, and is also on the lookout for a TR808. And while the 909 isn't used all that heavily on the album, it does see regular use in Adams' remix work. Roland drum machines win the day once again.
"In a big studio you think that whatever you put onto tape is going to sound good because the equipment's great - here I'm working in limited conditions and I'm careful."
Effects processing is provided by two Lexicon LXP1s, an AMS RMX16, Ibanez SDR1000+, Yamaha SPX90, Korg SDD100 delay and two Boss DE200 sampling delays. This array of hi-tech gear is sequenced from Pro24 running on a 1040ST, synced to tape via a Yamaha MSS1 SMPTE/MIDI synchroniser, with everything routed through the Studiomaster and Seck desks via patchbays.
"With everything I do, Pro24 is running live in the mix, and that's usually with about eight to ten sequencer tracks. Some have composite parts on them, firing one sound but different parts in the tune. Then there are sequencer tracks such as keyboard parts which I put to tape and mute afterwards on the sequencer, so altogether I probably use around 15-20 sequencer tracks. I never record drum parts to tape, though; they're run off the sequencer during recording and mixdown."
A Sony DTC 1000ES DAT machine fitted with an HHB 44.1kHz record mod is used for mastering, though if he needs to do some tape edits first, Adams records onto a Revox PR99 via a DBX15O noise reduction unit (about which he can't speak highly enough) before going to the Sony. For cutting he uses Tape One studios just off Tottenham Court Road, who take a DAT tape recorded at 44.1 and bounce it digitally to a Sony 1830 for the actual production master tape. It seems that DAT is not only a perfectly acceptable mastering medium nowadays, it's almost become the norm for professional work.
Adams explains that this impressive array of gear has been built up bit by bit over the past few years.
"It was always a case of 'I could do with another reverb; yeah, I can afford one', then a couple of months later I would have done a couple of remixes and I'd be able to buy another noise gate. Now the studio's really at the stage where we don't need to expand it much more, which is a good thing because we'd need a bigger room. If we went 24-track it would be purely for compatibility reasons, so we could send a two-inch master across to America to have some vocals added, for instance. But the album really demonstrates what we can do in here."
And indeed it does. So how exactly did he go about achieving the album's impressively clean production?
"I take great pride when I'm recording onto the E16 that everything is as clean and as quiet as it can be, because I know that when I'm playing the tape back the Studiomaster isn't as quiet as an SSL. I just make sure that at every stage of the recording process I'm using the mixer and the tape machine at their best working conditions.
"There's a lot of space in the tracks on our album, and it's virtually noise-free. I'm quite proud of that, because we've done it on equipment which you would not expect to be noise-free. I've heard stuff that other people have done on E16s using mixers similar to this, and there's been noise all over the place. How do these people get such bad results? They just don't take any care, they don't take any pride in what they do."
In fact, far from wanting to work in a 48-track or even a 24-track professional studio, Adams sees definite virtues in the comparative limitations of his home setup.
"When you're working in a big studio with all that expensive equipment, you almost think that whatever you put onto tape is going to sound good because the equipment's great. Whereas here I'm working in limited conditions and I'm careful. For instance, when I choose a bass drum I choose what I think is the right one, and I also choose my keyboard sounds carefully. When I record onto the multitrack I make absolutely sure that if the source is not quiet then I gate it. If I'm recording a bass part to tape then I'll make sure that all the channels on the desk that I'm not using arc muted, and the sequencer is only playing the bassline, so there's no chance of any spill on the multitrack.
"I always try to get a sound which sounds flat when I record it, because I'm aware that if I'm going to add any EQ in the studio that it introduces noise, and I hate noise. If you've got to EQ a sound to get it right then it's the wrong sound in the first place. I usually use EQ when I'm setting up the mix; if, for instance, a keyboard part isn't cutting through quite as it should then I'll use a bit of whatever frequency it needs to bring it forward in the mix."
Of course, to know what needs to be done in the mix you need monitors that you can trust. The JBL Centuries are the studio's workhorse monitors. Adams has used them for 14 years, valuing them for the detail of their reproduction.
"I try to use bass sounds that aren't demanding on amplifiers - I want to make sure that the average domestic hifi power amp is going to reproduce what I record."
"They've got a very clinical sound", he explains. "They only reproduce bass when there's bass there. Nobody could say they have a flat response, but they're very tight, very punchy, which makes them great for dance music. The monitoring in this studio doesn't have to be as flat as monitoring in a commercial studio, because it's only used by me and the immediate team, and we know these speakers. If the studio was for hire to other producers then I'd have to get different monitors, because I don't think another producer could walk in here and happily work with the Centuries if he didn't already know them."
The NS10s, on the other hand, are an industry standard. However, Adams cautions against using only NS10s in a studio.
"They're very misleading at the bass end. You can't hear depth on them at all. There's no reason why you should be able to, because they're a small speaker. But when people I know with home studios who've only got NS10s come here and I put their stuff on the JBLs, suddenly all this bass appears and they realise they've got to get some other speakers as well."
Despite having plenty of experience of club sound systems through his years spent DJ'ing, Adams still had to learn the hard way what not to do when producing a dance record for the clubs.
"I always used to go for deep, thundering bass sounds, which sound collossal in the studio or on a really good sound system like Paradise Garage in New York. But in your average Mecca-type club, or any club which has a Bose sound system, the speakers just can't handle the energy of a deep bass sound when they're already being pushed to their limits, as they invariably are. Bose have this stronghold throughout the UK, but although their speakers are great for mid-range and top, when it comes to bottom end, forget it.
"Nowadays I use warm, rounded bass sounds, with not as much bottom end on them as you might think. And I use a good, tight, kicking bass drum, like the 909 bass drum, which thumps. Bose speakers, or any speakers running at high level, will handle a 909 bass drum. I try to use bass sounds that aren't demanding on amplifiers. I want to make sure that the average domestic power amp is going to reproduce what I record, which is why I use the Rotel. Also, if this amplifier cracks up on something I'm mixing then I know the average club system will crack up too, because it's gonna be driven a lot harder than this thing is."
NOW 33 YEARS OLD, ADAMS RECALLS that his DJ'ing tendencies manifested themselves at an early age.
"I've been collecting records since the age of three or four. At primary school I used to put out the record player for morning assembly; it was my job to put the records on. I also used to listen to the pirates, Radio Caroline and Radio London; I can remember crying uncontrollably when Radio London went off the air. In fact, I always fancied myself as a radio DJ. When I was a kid we built this little studio which was basically a mic and two old auto-change decks wired through a switcher to an old Ferguson tape recorder. We used to have speakers wired up all around the house; I hate to think what the load was on the poor old valve amp!
"My first serious studio was when I was about 18. I had an Allen & Heath mini-mixer and a couple of Pioneer belt-drive decks with Shure cartridges. It was still very much for radio. I used to record my own radio shows on cassettes and send them to my girlfriend in the West Country"
Well, it beats love letters, I suppose. But alongside his radio ambitions Adams had always been interested in the technical side of how a record was made, and even a couple of years before leaving school his ambition had been to work in a recording studio. However, it wasn't to be. Leaving school at the age of 15 with no qualifications, he soon discovered that even recording studios wanted people with '0' and 'A' levels. Deciding to opt for what he felt was the next best thing, he went to work in a hi-fi shop in Tooting called REW. In the event he ended up working for REW for 11 years, rising to become manager of the professional audio division at a branch in Charing Cross Road. It was here that he began to familiarise himself with mixing desks and multitrack tape machines.
But he had also been running a mobile disco with his brother since the age of 16, and had developed a love of dance music. Eventually he left REW to work as a professional DJ, because "for me the love of music was more important than the technology behind it". It's a philosophy which he still holds today.
He spent the next couple of years working as a DJ, then one fateful evening as he was driving back from a gig he tuned into Radio Caroline and a show called Disco Mix Express which consisted of running mixes of records. The DJ, Tony Prince, asked for people to send in their own tapes of mixes; Adams duly obliged with three mixes, and two days later received a phone call from an excited Prince. Not only did he have all three mixes played on air, but he found himself in at the ground level of Prince's fledgling Disco Mix Club, providing taped mixes for the Club in the early '80s.
"In other fields of music it can be important that brass sounds real - with dance music it's not so important to get everything sounding real as it is to get everything sounding powerful."
As DMC began to grow, so did Adams' mixing and tape-editing skills, and he became well known for putting together megamixes ("compilation" mixes of an artist's greatest hits). But it was when he graduated to multitrack remixes that he really began to learn the ins and outs of a professional recording studio. The turning point for him came when he teamed up in '86 with Pascal Gabriel, who was working as a freelance recording engineer at Hollywood Studios in East London at the time.
"Pascal was learning from me the construction ideas behind making dance records, because he'd never really worked on dance product before", Adams recalls. "In return he was showing me how to use all the technology of the studio. We worked well as a team."
Adams' first big break as a solo artist came with the single '(Don't Stop) Jamming', which he refers to modestly as "an experiment in the studio which someone happened to like and put out". The record reached No. 47 in the charts in October '87, but it was the follow-up single, 'Check This Out', which really made his name, climbing to the number six spot in May '88.
Back in those heady days when the idea of DJs making records was still a novelty, the DIY ethic was rekindled by tales of chart-topping dance records being recorded on a shoestring budget. By the time Adams came to record his first single, he had assembled a relatively modest eight-track home studio based around a Fostex A80 tape machine and the Studiomaster Series 5 desk when it was still 16-channel. A Yamaha QX5 handled the sequencing, while the sounds were provided by the DX100 and S900, and a solitary SPX90 handled the effects.
ALTHOUGH ANALOGUE SYNTHS HAVE BEEN undergoing something of a renaissance recently, thanks to dance music, the even balance of analogue and digital synths in the Adams studio reflects a general working philosophy.
"I don't really have a leaning towards FM or analogue sounds. I have leanings towards certain sounds for certain applications", Adams explains. "To be honest, I actually know very little about the internal workings of synthesisers, and I don't care if it's FM or if it's analogue or whatever. I judge things purely by what my cars tell me. You can get too involved in the technical side of things. At the end of it all we're trying to make exciting dance records, and we just use the sounds which we feel allow us to do that.
"I can say that I like to use 'Arco Strings' on the D50 for my string sounds. For bass sounds I like to use the Oberheim Matrix 1000 or the Roland Juno 106, which of course are both analogue, but I also use 'Solid Bass' on the DX100. The bass sounds on the D50 are a joke, though."
It seems that the D50 is about to be ditched in favour of an M1 or M1R for the sounds, and possibly a DX7 II for the feel of its keyboard. One instrument which isn't about to go is the S900, which Adams characterises as the workhorse of the studio. In particular it's used for sampling drum sounds off CDs, an activity which Adams feels is quite legitimate because many of the sounds he samples have come from drum machines in the first place and therefore aren't copyrighted.
Sampled rhythm loops crop up much less frequently in LA Mix's music, though 'Get Loose' has a loop of Atmosfear's 'Dancing In Outer Space', which was cleared by the record company, and 'Love Together' has a short percussion loop which hasn't been cleared and therefore remains anonymous!
"We used our own percussion on top of it", Adams adds. "Sometimes we'll start with a loop, add our own percussion and then take out the loop because the track sounds better that way."
The S900 is also the source of a sampled Kawai grand piano which is used for all the piano parts on the album because "it's a great house piano sound."
Instrumental authenticity isn't something that's high on Adams' list of priorities: "In other fields of music it can be very important that brass sounds like real brass, and if it doesn't then you get a real brass section in. But with dance music it's not so important to get everything sounding real as it is to get everything sounding powerful. For instance, to get the brass sound on 'Mellow Mellow' I used 'Hard Brass' on the DX100, another sound from the D50, vet another sound from a TX802 and one from a TX81Z, and then there was a low tone from the Juno 106 which gave a bit of body in the background."
Call it the democratisation of technology, call it the relentless drive of market forces. But when Adams left school in the early '70s, lack of exam qualifications, coupled with the closed nature of the recording industry prevented him from realising his ambition to work in a recording studio, and he had little choice but to pursue a different career path. Such are the forces which shape lives.
Less than 20 years on, today's youngsters (yes, you out there) can take matters into their own hands in a way which wasn't open to Adams, and Adams himself is able to record in his own home using an array of technology which makes the professional recording studio of yesteryear look primitive - not to mention with a skill which makes exam qualifications redundant. On The Side not only illustrates how the production quality gap between home and professional studios has closed, it marks Adams' step from DJ and remixer to fully-fledged artist.
Interview by Simon Trask
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