Mainframe: Sound Sampling
A focus on this computer-based band, their home studio and newly-developed sound sampling device that is changing the way they record.
'Mainframe' is Murray Munro and John Molloy. They are a highly distinctive progressive modern band creating music in their own very distinctive style who have embraced computer technology with enthusiasm and a degree of inventiveness which spans both the music itself and their visual performance. That same inventiveness has been the driving force behind their own digital sound sampling sequencer unit, the Greengate DS:3, of which more anon.
Murray and John came together in a more or less conventional pop band during 1981, John being a classically trained keyboard devotee now eagerly pursuing the burgeoning families of synthesisers in addition to his 'anchor' piano, and Murray the guitar, vocal and songwriter member. Difficulties of rehearsal facility and conflicting time considerations eventually led to the departure of the duo to form 'Mainframe'.
The name was chosen because of close associations with computers in their musical development and means, of course, that family of 'big-daddy' computers normally found only in large companies, banks, etc... Their stated aims were simple: (a) Bring to modern music the complementary advantages of computers without abandoning normal instruments, and (b) Bring the advantages of personal microcomputers to the aspiring recording band at a price which all could reasonably afford. That they have achieved both is demonstrable as anyone who has heard their latest 12", Into Trouble With The Noise Of Art, will surely agree.
Mainframe's studio is called 'Makeshift' - not because there is anything makeshift about either the recording equipment, though modest by most standards, nor the quality of the sound reproduced, but rather by the fact that Murray from the earliest days was caused by his long-suffering mother to "Shift some of this stuff so that I can get in to clean..."
The studio grew from the very early decision to invest in equipment rather than studio time for the production of the band's demo tapes and eventually discs. An equipment list is appended but it will be noticed that the original 4-track recorder is still the mainstay together with the Ampex ATR700 which they regard as essential for their mastering. Everything produced so far by the band has been recorded and mastered in this studio. With a discography now standing at a figure of eight - four singles and four albums - 'Makeshift Studio' can claim to have upheld the good principles of home studio recording.
This is not the place to discuss the band's use of computers on stage in live shows - the excellent graphics projected with a video mix as a creative complement to their show have been reported by the music press on several occasions: rather we shall highlight Mainframe's methods in their own and other people's studios both as musicians and producer/sessionists. Which brings us to the Greengate DS:3.
This device came about as a matter of necessity, like many a good invention. The decision by the band in 1982 to produce and record a concept album - Tenants of the Lattice-Work - brought with it the concomitant decision to use electronic percussion. This was due to the unavailability of a drummer at the time and, more seriously, to the fact that even good neighbours can hardly be expected to put up with the incessant thud of a bass drum throughout the long periods of laying down a series of backing tracks for a full album. The nearest sufferer gave an ultimatum restricting bass drum work to a thirty minute period on a Saturday when she was out shopping!
This was obviously impossible so various synthesisers were pressed (and extended!) into production of drum sounds with varying degrees of success. It was at this point also that a stalwart supporter of the band (David Green) appeared 'like a wraith o'er the marsh' and quietly placed a very home-made-looking printed circuit board in the band's collective hands, saying modestly that this was a drum machine of sorts...
As the band and many of their friends owned Apple computers it was only logical that David Green's PCB should have been based on this excellent workhorse computer - really the forerunner of all personal micros. The embryonic DS:3 was placed within one of the Mainframe Apples normally used for stage graphics, and the first somewhat long-winded sound samples were laboriously knitted into backing tracks for Tenants.
It was but a matter of moments before the immense possibilities of the device became apparent to the band, who, of course, were well aware of the hugely expensive and complex sound samplers such as the 'Fairlight' and the 'Emulator'. Thus was Mainframe able to move into the rarified regions of sampling/sequencing at virtually no cost other than the 'wee small hours' efforts of David, the designer.
John and Murray being progressive, precise and particular in their demands on the device and its designer, very soon assumed the mantle of "Specification Managers" and guided David in his further development work. The result has been that the DS:3 is very much a playing musician's instrument rather than a hard-to-drive computer peripheral in which guise it first saw light of day. The decision to manufacture the device for commercial sale followed and the firm of "Greengate' was formed to further the development of this and other exciting future musical products.
But it is the use of the device by Mainframe which is of primary interest to the home recording engineer. Murray enlarges: "We are in the midst of a revolution in the creation of music. It is the advent of the small, affordable microcomputer which has put paid once and for all to the cheap 'white noise' drum machines which heralded the beginnings of electronic percussion."
"Listening to virtually any of today's chart songs will show to an enlightened analyst that electronics in the form of digital sampling and sequencing are present in a high percentage and to a degree which would be impossible to create even with the cleverest tape editing."
"It is this digital electronic manipulation of real sound, especially in drum parts, which has till now been available only to the few who could afford the expensive devices which produce such sounds."
"The revolution has now reached a zenith with the non-drum sounds sampled and edited to the exact requirements of the musician in such a manner as to open up entirely new fields of music. In fact, far from putting musicians out of work, the advent of high quality digital sampling will expand the capabilities of virtually any musician who cares to take the trouble to update himself on modern technology - a chore which is not that onerous with computers as user-friendly as the Apple."
John continues: "As a band we have observed how the 'big names' in record production are using digital methods to lay down ideas - perhaps driving sequencers to trigger digital delay lines which are storing real sounds. The AMS digital delay is widely used in this way and, of course, is a very high quality product."
"We, however, could not contemplate the purchase of such devices - we just do not have that kind of money. With the DS:3, however, we have a first-class digital drum machine and any real sound we wish on a five octave keyboard.
Murray: "The DS:3 has allowed us to take musical 'risks' in that we are not restricted to built-in sounds - we can put any sound into a sequence and change it at will. All this has greatly assisted the production of a truly Mainframe sound - original and our very own."
John: "But let no one lose sight of the fact that computers alone will never make music - anyone using computers to create music must be a musician first and foremost!"
Mainframe's studio equipment is listed at the end of this article but the band are united in agreement on the most vital items:
(a) A high quality mastering machine.
(b) Parametric EQ on the mixing desk.
(c) Dbx or similar noise reduction.
(d) DS:3 (of course!) with a good library of well-edited sounds.
Murray does most of the engineering and has some definite ideas on the special skills required of the 4-track user: "As an engineer with only four or eight tracks available to you, it is vital that you know exactly where you are heading with a particular song. This is obviously easier if one is the musician, producer and engineer all rolled into one because you will have a clear idea in your head of the end product."
"We tend to put lots of ideas down on cassette first. These basic ideas do three excellent jobs for us: they allow us to plan the further work on the number; they sit as a reference for our levels, and they allow us to work out our track 'bounces' - a must for the small studio."
"It is just such experience in planning for the final result that gives us the confidence to over-emphasise the initial tracks. Most people record the bass and snare at too low a level to begin with and then find that they cannot bring them up enough in the final mix. So don't be afraid to keep your bass and snare high up initially."
Mainframe go about a typical recording in a way similar to this:
(1) Working with a sequencer, first send the sync pulse to Ch.4 on the 4-track recorder.
(2) Finished drums & percussion (all worked out on the DS:3) to Ch.1.
(3) Bass line to Ch.2.
(4) Sequenced melody fills to Ch.3 (while you still have the sync code on Ch.4).
(5) You now have some options depending on the song:
5a: Chord pattern to Ch.4.
5b: Stereo mix to the mastering machine using Ch.4 to drive another sequence to the stereo mix while simultaneously laying live chords depending on how many hands you have available!
5c: Bounce Ch.1,2,3 down to Ch.4 leaving three free channels.
(6) Using fresh tape, bounce the stereo mix back to the 4-track on Ch.1 & 2 with live overlays as required. This leaves Ch.3 & 4 for vocals or complex lead lines.
(7) Mix everything to the stereo master taking all precautions with noise etc.
Murray and John have limited outboard equipment but what they do have is used to the best effect. They firmly believe that a good digital reverb unit is mandatory. Their Yamaha does trojan service in this area and the recent addition of a Drawmer Gate and Compressor/Limiter allows them to shortern reverb times, gate any noise intruding and trigger sequencers. In a 4-track studio this experience allows them to anticipate and pre-plan work in the larger 24 and 48 track establishments where they produce and session for other bands. On this topic Murray expands:
"Having one's own studio gives the luxury of throwing away junk ideas without incurring the expense of a big studio cost. You do not have to be watching the clock when trying out new ideas nor do you have the 'big' engineers tapping their fingers while you get a drum pattern right!"
"In the same manner as I referred to the cassette earlier, the 4-track home set-up is used as an introduction to a 24-track studio, utilising all the pre-planning and consequent time and cost saving. There is no point in going into a big studio if you do not have a very clear idea of what you want to achieve. Most of this will be on your reference cassette and the degree of confidence engendered by this preplanning is a great boost to getting the sound right without wearing everyone to a frazzle with 'try-outs'."
John continues: "We have been very fortunate to be able to work in some of the big London studios such as Roundhouse, Tapestry, EMI, Red Bus and Capital Radio, to see how things are done, and then we modify our own methods to suit the smaller set-up. From there we have been able to show some of the Big Boys a few tricks of ours which they would never have thought of in a 24-track world!"
Mainframe have never regretted the formation of 'Makeshift Studios'. It has given them the freedom to keep control of their own sound right through to the final lacquer cutting in a way that shows in the 'Mainframe' style. Their discography is given below and much more it appears is in the pipeline. Truly a band which has made the very best of home studio recording!
Further details about the band 'Mainframe' and/or the DS:3 Sound Sampler mentioned in the article can be obtained from Mainframe, (Contact Details).