The story of a CD
Not many people would have the courage to give up a lucrative career in the jingles business in order to record and release their own CD. But that's precisely what Simon Renouf has done, and this is his story...
It was in 1984 that I finally got together my own 16-track facility, after ten years of hiring other peoples'. I had been involved in a wide variety of situations: pop songs recorded with session men, pop songs and albums with bands, advertising jingles, film/TV music, radio advertisement production, etc. I could compose/score for orchestra and most pop group instruments by now, having already acquired a thorough knowledge of musical theory, and was fluent in most drum machines and sequencers. I had spent a lot of time on the then fairly radical Oberheim DMX-DSX-OBXa system, programming it for a number of different clients' applications. But all the time there had been that silent, lurking desire that I suspect many musicians know only too well: I wanted to have my own recording studio, so that I could 'do my own stuff'.
I wanted to somehow get to a situation where the operation of the studio at 'top quality specification' was totally second nature to me. In order to do this and earn money at the same time, I had only one choice: form a music production company. I did and called it 'Ideas In Sound', which I thought most music was. Using what I can only describe as a lateral or coldblooded approach to what you can do in 30 seconds, Ideas In Sound made over 200 radio advertisements.
My fundamental approach to making advertisements was simple: understand, as completely as possible, exactly what it is the advertiser wants to achieve. If it is an advert for independent local radio, then it is more likely that he simply wants to generate sales of his product (and he may not be able to spend countless thousands on air time and 'clever' adverts - the sort that are funny but you can never remember what the product is). So find out how his potential customers relate or should relate to his product and then select the language to suit. Obvious examples: frank, concise, hard-hitting ads for businessmen being persuaded to buy machines for greater efficiency; gentle, caring ads for mothers buying for toddlers, etc. I'll say now that I hated using my creative skills on capitalist propaganda (advertising), but you know what life's like - mouths to feed, etc...
When I hear those adverts now I feel embarrassed - they're all sort of polished and slick. Yet, at the time, some were very successful. In 1986 and 1987 the Hands-On Show organisers, Turnkey, asked me to address a special seminar on the very subject, speaking in terms of my "innovative sparkling creations" in their show programme. They were obviously exaggerating, but it made me start to wonder where I was going.
I remember a launch for a new brand of cigarette in 1986. What seemed like the entire staff and reps of Imperial Tobacco sat watching female dancers cavort around a huge cigarette packet which had just exploded out of the side of a mountain - all in time to the menacing kettle drums and thrashing effects I had composed in my studio. OK, the money was good, but as the fake lightning flashed and the reps sweated in the July heat, I thought 'Simon - what are you doing this for?', in the sort of tone you might hear in an imitation Woody Allen movie. I realised it was time for a new direction.
One day early in 1988 I acquired an 'affordable' SMPTE synchroniser unit, which meant that I could take a totally different approach to songwriting/production. As an exercise, I wrote a 12-minute production called 'Why?', which moved through the themes of loving/leaving/deceiving, changing the song/style/line-up as the production progressed. My newly acquired SMPTE unit meant that I could get the sequencer, a trusty Yamaha QX7, to play from anywhere I chose in the production without having to run the track from the beginning each time.
It was at this point that the outline of the idea for War And Peace began to loosely take shape. I saw it as a CD-only release. The 85-90dB noise floor offered by compact disc was in itself a new area for exploitation. I must say this now: I find the compact cassette an offensive medium for sound reproduction, not only because it wipes 23-30dB off the above figure (I can't bear Dolby B), but also because, except when using very superior equipment under perfect conditions, you don't hear the transient responses of the original mix faithfully reproduced. It seems to me that 'digital' may soon be the standard domestic hi-fi quality, particularly in view of the fact that CD players are currently breaking the £100 barrier (at last!).
Anyway, for my money, a compact disc of War And Peace would enable listeners to hear the music exactly as it left the stereo outputs of my mixing desk - without the hiss of a compact cassette!
I was starting to consider the general question of concepts and their corresponding realities, eg. war and peace - which is the reality and which is the concept? It seemed to me that life consisted of dreams (concepts) and reality. Were the two interchangable and could human beings control the process in any way? Was there a relationship between war, peace and time that could be expressed mathematically with, say, economic and geographic data as inter-related K factors? Is there a relationship between our daily dreams and realities that depends on our 'attitude' to life, ie. what we 'see' or, more vitally, how we see (one man's obstacle is another man's opportunity).
I began to wonder if time itself was an under-investigated area of 'reality', ie. if the present doesn't really exist (it's obviously too short to measure), all we see is the past (which is history) or the future (which basically depends on us). I wonder if music, being the art of time, has a natural affinity to questions of this nature. But most importantly of all, if how we act depends on what we see, we must then act from one of two possible viewpoints only: the past or the future.
I decided to accept the reality of the past, but not make it an automatic basis for future plans. That was it: imagine; envisage; see a better music production, a better world, a better anything. Then turn what you see, or your concept, into a reality. If you live in hope (the future), the results could be interesting.
I started to see War And Peace as a sort of dream in time - a love story set against the conflicting realities of life/death, war/peace, seductive female sentimentality/male brutal reality, etc... I humbly submitted myself for the role of the man and, after a few misgivings, landed the part! My wife, Beth, took the role of female. I began to think that maybe the reason men fight so much (soldiers particularly) is because they both like it and because they are good at it. I think this is the central theme of War And Peace: does man have to resort to violence? Politicians pay soldiers and everybody else suffers. And what about the financial cost, for heaven's sake? Now that Socialism and Imperialism (Warsaw Pact and NATO) are rapidly becoming ghosts hovering over the grave of humanity, I saw the possibility of reflecting something real from my tiny place on this planet.
As a message bearer War And Peace had found its raison d'etre: peace is better than war; it's more fun, you get more done, and people don't die (not from violence, anyway). You just have to try and alter your 'view' of things, which may mean ditching the past.
As a sort of disembodied bundle of ideas, War And Peace began to take shape. I thought of 'New Reality' as an umbrella title to cover what we were doing, and I saw War And Peace as a 40-minute CD exploring that most fundamental of modexes, war and peace. (I thought up the word 'modex' to describe the 'circle of a concept and its corresponding reality'.)
It was now summer 1988 and the 'opus' consisted of two main sections, Reflection I and Reflection II, as simply 16-track analogue productions with a digital drum machine playing live into the mix, via MIDI.
For a long time I had been questioning the status quo - I heard someone in a bus queue say, "Bleedin' Radio 1 and Capital play all them same records all the time" - and wondered why the average song was 2.55 minutes long. Virtually every pop record I was hearing seemed to have the same amount of middle and top in it, ie. around 2-4kHz and 10kHz, presumably so that they'd cut through when heard on the radio amongst the sounds of everyday life, such as the motor car. Fair enough. But I found this continual harshness fatiguing on the ears. I wanted War And Peace not to sound noisy and harsh when played loud in a domestic environment, but I felt I didn't yet have that crucial blend of 'timbres in time' that I envisaged - and it was incredibly time consuming re-recording sections of music onto the multitrack recorder to see which combination of ideas worked best.
The basic tools of my trade at that time were synthesizers (analogue and digital), my treasured 12-string acoustic guitar (which has been everywhere with me), a variety of 'high spec' digital reverb and general effects units, and a 16-track analogue tape recorder which offered a good 80dB signal-to-noise ratio (using Dolby C noise reduction, which I don't mind too much). My mixing desk (offering 32 channels to stereo on mixdown) was the final link, sending the stereo mix to DAT (digital audio tape), the whole lot being monitored on a state of the art concentric speaker system.
But at this point - September 1988 - whenever I pressed the Play button, I didn't hear what I really wanted. For example, in Reflection I, Part II 'Do You Ever Dream?', I wanted to explore F major. 'F' is traditionally supposed to have a martial ring to it, and for the first minute or two of this section I wanted to have F (the note, not the chord) pulsing on eighth notes in combinations of 4-bar segments, and have its fifth (C) raised by half a tone every second bar of each segment - a sort of 4-bar groove, reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, over a very heavy bass drum and a general background of explosions and gunfire. (I've long been interested in augmented chords: why does F sound 'different' when part of F augmented, although we know it is exactly the same note?) I saw the note of F, particularly at lower pitches, as struggling to retain its masculine - or martial - identity when confronted with its augmented fifth: a symbol of the male/female conflict perhaps? And when the augmented chord did appear it was supposed to lend a powerful, mysterious force to Woman's appeal ("do you ever dream?") to rigid, pragmatic Man. That was the theory. Each concept like that could take days, even weeks, to realise.
The ideas themselves, albeit in skeletal form, were basically down on tape. After striping the tape with sync code for each part, I had committed ideas to tape as a series of parallel stereo recorded tracks - I tried to record onto the multitrack in such a way that I could leave the mixing desk fixed in a row of permanent stereo tracks on mixdown; tracks 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6, etc were panned left and right permanently. 'It's not what you've got, it's what you do with it' became my motto. That and a daily prayer to be flexible (I'm naturally a rigid sort of person, I think). Experiment, experiment, experiment, but without shutting my ears to the groove of orthodoxy (the mainstream - what other people have done), otherwise it quickly becomes anarchy - and breaking the rules 'just for the sake of it' is an idea that's older than the hills (and not an approach I particularly wanted to employ on War And Peace).
I tried where possible, however, to avoid the standard approach of 8-bar segments underpinning hackneyed chord sequences. Sometimes I used this approach on purpose, eg. when Beth comes in for the first time with the words: "They told me yesterday about you..." But I began to realise one thing: with the limited time and technology at my disposal, I couldn't make War And Peace the way I wanted.
I had no intention of approaching record companies at this stage. I saw good record companies as simply being well-run businesses dealing in pieces of recorded music, just as another company might deal in confectionery or sports goods. Almost without exception, record companies had profit as their first priority, which resulted in policy-making based on and in the past: "Bros was number one last week, so find something similar." OK, this view may be distorted, but if it is anywhere approaching an accurate one, it helps to explain why record companies have a less than perfect image with a lot of creative people - you've only got to look at an A&R man's priorities to see where his intentions lie.
At the end of the day I think the A&R man has a lousy job - if he signs something new and it pays off, great; but if he signs something new and it loses money, his days may well be numbered. If he never signs anything, people hate him for sitting on the fence and not having the courage of his convictions!
It was about this time that I remember reading a Sound On Sound article which craved a new approach to songwriting, exactly at the point when I needed more time to bring my ideas to life. But, production-wise, I couldn't really take the music any further. It was one of the few times I wished I had accepted the place I was offered at the London Hospital, Whitechapel, all those years ago. Just think: I'd be your nice, comfortable, average doctor 'serving the community' now - no challenges to speak of and a reasonable wage to support the family, if it wasn't for this bloody music bug, bending my brain since I first heard it at age nine. At this time I still viewed computers with monitors and software as merely over-priced sequencers (a sequencer being a little box that plays a synthesizer).
And I remember, like yesterday, that gritty night in October 1988: actually it was about 2.30 in the morning; I had been working for hours on the sequencer, kicking an idea around, when suddenly the bloody thing packed up (the sequencer, not the idea). Permanently. It was all I needed. Now what?
It was October 1988 and I had taken War And Peace as far as I could. I had used up enormous amounts of time and energy, as well as a lot of the cash I had made over the previous year or two. Throughout this period I had put all my other musical activities on hold. I couldn't create adverts and pieces of music, and deal with clients etc, and write/produce War And Peace - my head couldn't take switching fundamental artistic priorities like models change their clothes. I was at a sort of crossroads. When my sequencer packed up, I knew I had to replace it.
So I visited my local music shop (Gigsounds of Catford, London) and said to Pete, who was his usual helpful self: "Whatever is state of the art in the sequencing field, show it to me". He booted up the C-Lab program and gave me a quick run through its potential. Before you could say "I've got to rush, I've left my car on a double yellow line," I had left the shop with all the gear and Pete shouting after me:
"Whatever you do, make sure you format the disks properly!"
'Format the disks? What the hell did that mean,' I remember thinking as I motored manically home like a man possessed by yet another vision (it was the first time I'd owned a proper computer).
So how did I fare with the computer? In spite of the fact that computers are basically alien to my nature, my learning curve was reasonably steep (out of necessity!) and after digesting the contents of the manual, which is not newcomer-friendly in my opinion, and reconfiguring the mixing desk, I basically had 10 synthesizers, two drum machines and two reverb units (out of a total of four) playing live into the mix, in addition to the 16-track tape recorder.
From this point on it was mainly good fun, because that fundamental problem facing composers - how quickly can I hear what sounds best with what - was virtually eliminated. Other benefits offered by the computer are far too numerous to go into here, but one I found vital was the 'groove' quantisation function: whether you're after a continuous dotted feel or something more subtle, just about anything is possible. For example (on Reflection I, Part II), I managed to get quite a mean-but-gentle swing for what is basically a bass drum pounding a four, with F (the bass) underscoring a groove 'danced' by anything moving quicker than quavers. (The groove 'ratio' you write yourself on the computer, and you can get it to 'infect' any track or instrument you wish.) Thus anything faster than quavers will sound grooved when played in what the manual calls 'real time'.
For me, the most important overall facility the computer offered was the large number of processing options available for each track of data - eg. quantise, groove, and transpose, to name but three of the 10 main options. The sheer speed with which I could drum up ideas and put them on hold still leaves me with a feeling of affection for the C-Lab software.
Thus the computer helped me to almost design the sound and colour of War And Peace using a basic line-up of 12-string and 6-string (played by the unique Billy Jenkins) guitars, chamber and percussion sounds, bass drum orientated rhythm sections and orchestra plus, of course, vocals and effects. So, in terms of music and sounds, if someone asked, "What is the essence of New Reality?" I'd reply: "I would like to think it's based on existing ideas, but is hopefully a new approach to them."
It was now March 1989, time to get down to the final mixes, and our latest baby was born in our studio on March 7th (having a baby at home is something we've always wanted). From conception, he'd developed with the sounds and ideas of War And Peace booming through our home. It was strange, but the first time I really heard him cry was when I was laying down the vocal at a fairly heavy part of War And Peace, when the man has to kill or be killed. Sometimes Beth (my wife) would slip into the studio while I was recording, and this time was sitting breast-feeding as I was overdubbing with headphones. The room was silent except for the sound of my voice. At two or three points while I was recording this 16-bar segment, the baby let out cries of anguish that broke through the general confusion and the death that I was trying to portray. At the time it was unwelcome interruption of the recording process, but now his cries seem to fit the piece somehow (his two-week old protest at the nature of war?) - a strange accident you might call it, but an unplanned true reality. Talk about 'sound on sound'!
In global terms, the recording was now about 80% complete: on pressing the Play button you'd hear a succession of song ideas, most not more than about 1.75 minutes in length - except for 'Soldier Lonely', which was more like your three minute song; and all this was just Reflection I, Part I, the 10-minute opening segment of War And Peace.
As a possible pop music experience, I felt the whole project was nearly there. I wanted to push it further and I wanted a 'bass drum to end all bass drums' (I'm ridiculously ambitious) to underpin the whole production. After a few phone calls to Will Mowat (thanks Will), C-Lab's UK expert, and after trying out an incredible number of bass drum combinations, I managed to get two bass drums (from a Roland D110 and Alesis HR16) playing together without flamming, delay or trigger problems. Because the resulting bass drum (see Figure 1) had a unique combination of woolly bottom-end and hardness (I ignored the 'clicks' at the start - so passe, and to my mind not really a characteristic of bass drums), I could put it very loud in the mix and it sounded good.
And then came the string department. I attempted to get as wide a variety of string sounds as I could - it is refreshing to have continual changes in tonal colour - and to this end the Atari 1040ST computer and Roland D110 synth expander were priceless, allowing me to change sound patches many times during a production, each patch a subtle (or dramatic!) change in mood.
I've quite frequently used an FM violin sound, delayed (50 milliseconds), modulated, fed back, digitally reverberated, and then recorded onto its allotted stereo pair of tracks on the Fostex B16 in a 90%/10% wet/dry ratio. This is great for traditional type string orchestra sounds. In Reflection II, Part III 'A New Day Is Dawning' (the last track), I was trying for the sound of 15 to 20 first and second violins softly playing (a la Haydn/Mozart) 30 to 40 feet in front of the listener against sampled birdsong, which represents the new dawn.
After years of creating bits of music, certain ground rules of production seemed to make themselves felt: for example, more than one timbre playing the same note? Preferably not, because often each tends to steal the other's thunder. I noticed that when timbres were allotted to pitches that suited them best, a sense of space was enhanced, even though I had them forward in the mix. Again, the computer was invaluable for zooming through this process.
But where this approach helped most was in the recording of the acoustic guitars. I wanted them to cut through the whole mix without having to resort to psychoacoustic enhancement or compression (it mostly sounds vile on acoustic guitars anyway, unless you're doing it specifically for effect). I followed the simple classical rule: place the mic where it sounds best, usually about 6-9 inches from the strings, and not directly over the sound hole. This way the characteristic frequencies are picked up but not that horrid boominess so often associated with badly placed microphones. Then myself on 12-string and Billy Jenkins on 6-string played the right chord/music at the appropriate point, hoping it'll be 'all right in the mix'. I also managed to capture that 'zing', as Billy's fingers moved rapidly up and down the fretboard.
I found myself consciously moving away from using synthesizer piano sounds - especially FM piano sounds. Maybe it was because every record I hear seems to use them, and they've been done to death. Also I wanted to move away from the general approach, so common in pop music, of using chords for backing. Playing chords is marvellous for simple accompaniments to a vocal performance, but for anything even slightly more complicated than that chords become a liability, and you can unwittingly cause yourself great problems as you wonder why everything begins to sound muddy and unclear, with duplicated musical thirds, fifths, etc all over the place. So apart from the 12-string and 6-string guitars, which actually sound good when the right chords are played, I avoided using chords in the commonly understood pop context wherever possible.
During May and June 1989, we finally recorded all the vocals, again trying where possible to avoid using the Aural Exciter. Sometimes it was necessary, to make the vocals stand out from certain types of instrument combinations, and occasionally it was useful for giving a sort of unreal presence to some female solo sections. I regard vocals as being tremendously important in the recording process, and I have the vocal mic permanently patched through a compressor, followed by a noise gate (both by Drawmer). I prefer the signal to arrive on tape as good as I can get it, since I don't like to do too much doctoring of the off-tape signal later.
Having the Alesis Quadraverb patches changed as often as necessary during the mix (via the computer) was incredibly helpful, of course, and the Quadraverb generally was marvellous in terms of both sound quality and flexibility, but a little time consuming in the programming department.
At this stage, Louis Todor, friend and freelance sound engineer (balance is his speciality), helped tremendously by lending a fresh pair of ears at this vital eleventh hour. When I thought everything was perfect, I'd ask him to listen critically; he was invaluable. We listened to many mixes together under all sorts of conditions and through all sorts of speakers. Thanks Louis.
Now that it's over and the first CDs are out of the factory, it is strange to hear so many years and ideas of your life coming out of two loudspeakers! But at least now, finally, when people ask me "What sort of music do you write, what is it you want to say?", I can reply: "Listen to War And Peace." But now it's time to move on. I've been having ideas about the relationship between space, time and love...
The 'War And Peace' CD is available for £9.99 (plus 50p postage). Please make cheques payable to 'New Reality'.
New Reality, (Contact Details) or Tower Records, (Contact Details).
Feature by Simon Renouf
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