On The 8-Track - Sackville Sound
Inevitably the time comes for every band to say "let's make a demo". That's all well and good, but where do you go to make your demo? The 8-track studio is the obvious choice because of money and because it is the ideal medium. However, it is not so simple. A band's first experience in a studio is absolutely critical. If it goes well the world is your oyster. If it is a disaster, it may well be the end of a band's career and ambitions. If the first recordings are absolutely dire, the band may well become so disillusioned that all incentive to carry on is lost. If it is because the band is no good, then it's just as well. Unfortunately, not every 8-track studio is as professional and experienced as they should be, and a novice band will not necessarily be able to judge.
This said, there are a lot of very good 8-track studios run by very dedicated and talented people, and ultimately you just have to trust to luck. If it doesn't work out the first time round it is perhaps worth risking another go elsewhere before you give up.
This series of 8 track features will endeavour to seek out some of the better facilities available and discuss the various approaches and recording techniques which can be used on a small budget.
The first studio in the series is Sackville Sound in Hove, Sussex. It is fairly new to the scene having been in operation for about six months. They are especially well serviced by the fact that they also have a multitrack and keyboard centre above the studio, so equipment is never a problem.
Owned by husband and wife team, Terry and Jane Holmes, this studio has the musician very much at heart. Terry, who is also the engineer, seems to almost go overboard on making sure that everybody understands everything that is going on and making sure that everyone has his say.
Terry arrived in his present situation via the well travelled route of playing, leading to experimenting with recording, to going out with his 4-track to record other people, to ending up with a proper studio of his own. It has been hard work but it has paid off. The studio itself is a pretty fair size for 8 track. At the moment there is simply the recording area and the control room. There will soon be a rest room behind the control room, and a separate isolation room adjoining the recording area. The studio has had fairly minimal acoustic treatment — rock wool in the ceiling, and walls built within the existing walls in order to soundproof adequately, and these covered with some sort of block board. The end result is walls about 18" thick. It is not quite a 'room within a room' as the top professional multitrack studios would be since the floor is the original. However, the reason for floating a floor is to stop the sound travelling into the control room and in this instance it was not deemed necessary. On the studio floor there are several sections of carpet which may be moved around at will, thus creating a different acoustic environment for each session. Plans for the future include deadening up one end of the room since the acoustics at the moment are fairly live. The new isolation room will be as totally dead as they can achieve, and thus every possible requirement can be met.
Acoustic treatment in the control room has involved a lot of experimenting and resulted in the placing of absorbent tiles on the front and back walls and thick cotton curtains on the side walls. This has ended up giving the engineer a very clear picture of what is going on, but those standing elsewhere in the room are not quite so lucky! So, next on the list is an overhead bass trap to absorb those frequencies at the back of the room.
The equipment is based around a Soundcraft Series 2 16/8 mixer with 16 monitors, a Teac 80-8 8 track machine with DX-8 dbx noise reduction, and an Ampex ATR 700 stereo machine for mastering. Monitoring is on Lockwood Academy II's with Tannoy drivers and powered by Amcron D150A amp.
In addition to the studio monitors there are also several reference speakers including the fairly standard Auratones, found in almost every studio, as well as various hi-fi speakers, and even a car radio speaker. This is particularly necessary in an 8-track studio as many bands do not realise quite how different the thing will sound when they get it home, and it's as well to get the shock in the studio where it can be discussed and explained!
Ancillary equipment is quite plentiful, due largely, it must be said, to its proximity to the shop upstairs! It includes, on a permanent basis, the Fostex Digital Delay Line and Stereo Reverb System (although the full range of Fostex effects is available); a Drawmer dual Gate; EXR Exciter (a budget version of the Aphex Aural Exciter, which creates a sound illusion which should be heard to be explained; a Tresham Audio Graphic Equaliser, 2 Pye (stereo) Digital Compressors; Delta Lab Digital Delay Line (soon to be supplemented with the Effectron range); and a Marantz SD3030 cassette machine. As you can see, a very nice set up.
On the instrument side, keyboards, machines and the like are readily available for hire (nominal charge), and as for audio equipment, there is an arrangement with Audio Rents in London which is quick and easy, so there's no problem there. Among the keyboards readily available are the Juno 6 and Juno 60 from Roland (as well as their TR-808) and the Korg Poly 61 programmable synth.
Microphones are just as plentiful and varied. The main vocal mic is an Electro-Voice PL20 dynamic microphone. In addition to this there are a handful of Shure SM58s and 57s, a Sony C-38B (large diaphragm condenser microphone), Sennheiser 421, a Beyer Dynamic 201, Audio Technica condenser and some AKG D12E's for miking up bass drums and bass instruments in general as they give a lovely rich sound.
Sackville Sound is not an idle venture. The Holmes' dedication is illustrated by the fact that they sold their goods and chattels (ie. their flat) and invested their all in 194 Church Road, Hove. As well as the money, there has been a tremendous amount of sweat and graft, knocking down walls, putting up ceilings and generally bringing the whole thing together.
Is it all worth it? Terry certainly seems to think so, and his approach to his customers is genuinely refreshing. The guy is almost ridiculously obsessed with making everyone comfortable and happy with the proceedings. His opening comment was, "I'm very keen on involving the whole band in the mix you know, letting them all keep their hands on the fader for their particular bit and things like that" (which had the unfortunate result of making me burst out with "You must be mad!"). He agreed and laughed. As the interview carried on, however, it became clear that this was a genuine statement and although he must have the patience of a saint, he is absolutely devoted to creating a happy atmosphere.
Very few bands at this stage will come in with a producer, although they do often have strong production ideas of their own having listened carefully to other people's records. Terry has several little 'tricks' which are not so much to do with the technicalities of recording, but more to do with the inexperience of a young band and helping them to give of their best.
To start off with he will avoid recording people one at a time. "If a guitarist is the least bit inexperienced or nervous and you chuck him in the studio on his own with his mates gawking at him through the window, added to the fact that he has probably never played his part on his own — tell him to start playing and it's fatal."
So whenever possible he will start off with the whole band in the studio and lay down all the guide tracks at the very beginning. Patient explanation of what to do and why seems to be the key to Sackville success, and this you can imagine is pretty admirable if you can achieve it without talking down to the band. Putting them at their ease is what it's all about. Amongst Sackville's varied clientele, there has been a young punk band who did not know that much about music, let alone recording, and yet they felt able to go to Terry to have their guitars tuned with ne'er a blush. That must take some doing!
Terry endeavours as much as possible to break the sessions up, and so at any given time there are probably 2 or 3 bands in the process of getting their demos on tape. If the band have booked 4 or 5 days, there will be a break after 2 days when the band are sent away with a rough mix, 'working cassette' as Terry calls it, and told to take a couple of days out listening to the tracks and thinking their ideas through thoroughly. When they come back, they will have concrete ideas and criticisms which may be dealt with quickly and efficiently. Thus time and money is saved which would otherwise be wasted through the band's inability and lack of experience, to make these decisions quickly.
Depending on the band's budget, Terry will ideally set aside a complete day for mixing and the same process of taking time out will be exercised again.
This tactic is really rather clever and illustrates the thought that has gone into this setup. The philosophy behind it is that this is just one of the many little problems you get in an 8-track that you would never come across in a 24-track. A big name band going into a 24-track is perfectly capable of working 72 hours flat out and producing a single or whatever. But it is their experience that allows them to do this. Recording to them is a much more logical sort of business, they know what they're doing and how to do it. Young bands, on the other hand perhaps know what they want, but not how to do it and maybe not even how to explain it.
If the finances restrict the mixing time, Terry will insist on a small break between recording and mixing. "I send a few of them off to the beach (500 yards down the road), grab something to eat, have a cigarette, and then we can all get stuck in with clear heads."
The main problem with 8-track recording is the number of tracks, funnily enough. It is a rather odd number to work with, but there are a few tricks which the engineer must manipulate in order to achieve the full potential. These include track bouncing: "The skill is in using complementing instruments and thinking ahead well enough to know what effects you will want to use on them at the end. It is also about choosing instruments which are not too near to each other in sound. Other tricks mean using tracks to their full — track sharing. If you have several things just doing little bits here and there, instead of giving them a track of their own and bouncing each one down, let them all use the same track. And the other thing is of course live recording. This must inevitably depend on the band, but it is obvious that the more instruments you can record live the more you will get into your 8 tracks.
So the 8-track engineer is kept pretty much on his toes. The sessions by their nature are much shorter, there is less time to calculate, and less equipment to utilise than when you are recording masters. It is a fairly major achievement to have a band in for 10 hours and send them home with completed demo tapes. Clock watching is essential. At this end of the market, if you tell a band it will cost them £100 to make their demo, they all chip in their money and there is none over. So right from the word go Terry is watching the clock. Setting up time is free and then in the first hour the backing tracks go down. If by 5 hours they haven't started the vocals Terry will start to drive them on, and if by 7 hours mixing is not in sight it is explained very carefully that the mixing should be!
The studio is also made available to bands who have nowhere to rehearse before they come in to record at the very reasonable rate of £2.50 an hour, and with the recording at a straight £8 an hour you know exactly where you are. Bands who have made use of this facility include Bob Grover and his band, Pookie-snackenburger — the professional buskers, Rhythm Tendency and Bamboozle — ex The Mobiles.
The studio is ideally situated very near the sea and the station, with excellent parking facilities and lots of food and drink available in the immediate vicinity. Tea and coffee are on permanent supply in the studio and if a session is going particularly well, Jane will provide meals at cost (around 70p a head), to avoid a down tools to go off and eat.
Feature by Janet Angus
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