An interview with the ex-After The Fire keyboard player about his home recording experiences and equipment.
Having enjoyed a reasonable amount of success with his old band After The Fire, keyboard player Peter Banks is now bouncing back, alongside drummer Peter King, with a new band — Zipcodes.
The band's material was written and prepared in Peter's home studio, and it was here, in a Walthamstow semi, that his chat with HSR took place.
Coming into the music biz along the fairly typical route of college band etc, he has had many and various equipment set-ups at home. These, combined with experience in numerous commercial 24 track studios all over Europe, have led him to a fairly unique position for choosing his own gear.
"My first ever home studio had the Revox B77, which I now use as my mixdown machine. Then I had a Teac 80-8 eight track, with an Allen & Heath desk. Then I had a Soundcraft 8 track with a Soundcraft desk, and then I got a Fostex B16 with a Soundtracs 16-8-16."
Why the change in 8 tracks?
"The Soundcraft was a 1" tape format and the Teac was ½", so it was an upgrade really, in quality as well."
Apart from the fact that you don't buy something you don't like, it has become fairly obvious recently how much Peter thinks of his Soundtracs desk as he has been appearing in their advertisements as an endorser. So why?
"Well, I tried all the other mixers: I've had Teac mixers, Allen & Heath, Starsound Dynamix, Soundcraft - and this beats the lot. It's as simple as that."
"There's more headroom - you can get the faders right up and you don't get gravel noises in your speakers, which is what I found with all the other mixers."
"For some reason this desk is really well thought out. It is a 16 channel desk, but all the monitors have got fader reverse and EQ, so you've got another 8 EQ'd inputs, which is totally brill! And just the way they've connected the monitors to the main system, the patching is the reverse of what a lot of other mixers have done. And it's totally lateral - it's really easy to have everything plugged in without having to repatch."
"I like it a lot — good sound as well. Plus I do adverts for them!"
Yes we know.
"Really, genuinely, it is the best one at this sort of level. I really like the LED bargraphs - that matches the Fostex so well."
The reason Peter started thinking about recording at home was because, whilst he was with After The Fire, he began to feel a need to really know what their studio tapes were like. Having been sent off home with a cassette in his pocket which really didn't sound that great, he, along with other band members, began to feel quite dissatisfied.
A couple of the guys acquired Portastudios, and then there was the famous Revox. The vague initial curiosity was now stimulated, and Peter began to learn.
"The Revox was a real asset for listening to all the band's studio mixes and everything, and that's how I got into the recording side. I just started off writing songs - doing the bounce thing, ping-ponging on the Revox."
"I borrowed one of the band's Portastudios for a while and I got into the idea of using the studio for a songwriting tool and developed from there."
"The first system I had here", here being the spare bedroom, "was the old Teac 80-8 8 track and an Allen & Heath SD 12/2 which had the Starsound Dynamix logo on it, and I got a patchbay. It was only a stereo mixing desk, but I managed to work quite adequately with all the direct outputs and everything on a patching basis, because I was recording more or less only one instrument at a time. It wasn't a problem just being a stereo desk. I was using a Tascam line mixer with the first channels (8 into 2, whatever it was, Model I mixer) and I used that for extra effects sends, so I ended up having four effects sends off a tiny desk. That was a very good system."
"I wrote some material for another album (Batteries Not Included) and there is some stuff on that album that we did in this room. We started here, and transferred across to 24 track. And what's more" he said, getting into overdrive, "people still go on a bit about Teac and Fostex stuff being non-professional because it works at -10dB, but we actually brought in a rough mix with tuning tones on it on ¼" tape, which I transferred to 8 track. We varispeeded it down, and we recorded some vocals here, filling up all the other tracks."
"At the time we were recording at Musicland Studios in Munich, and we took the 8 track tape out there; speeded it up with these tuning tones that we'd put on the ¼" tape and synced it back into the 24 track. That's on a couple of tracks that were successful commercially, which is quite good."
"Because we had done that, I thought we must get a professional standard machine - even though we were able to get everything working okay. So I moved up to the Soundcraft 8 track 1" - the original Soundcraft machine, and a Series 2 12/8 mixer."
"Then I heard about the Fostex B16 recorder, so I sold my 8 track and waited until the Fostex came onto the market and bought that and the Soundtracs 16-8-16 which is truly wunderbar!"
Yes, you said that already!
"But I do see this set-up principally for me as a tool for songwriting. Even though I've got the 16 track, I've done stuff here straight down to ¼" - mainly vocal material."
"When I first got the system, I got a band in here - drums in the kitchen and everything - to get to know the system. I gave them a week's recording for the cost of the tape so that I could get to twiddle the knobs, which was really great. By the end of the week I'd got to know how the system really worked. Now I don't worry too much about getting perfect levels and everything. I don't see it from an engineer's point of view more from a musician's point of view."
To continue with the equipment: Peter's studio, as you can no doubt see from the photographs, is fairly compact, with the equipment built around the walls. The mixing desk, machines and keyboards along the main wall are supported by a bit of home made carpentry-wizardry because he came to the conclusion that there would probably be too much weight for the floor to be expected to take. In the corner, behind the effects rack, "I've got a (balanced version) Great British Spring reverb: it's pretty good stuff."
"In the rack there's a Roland stereo flanger/chorus (SBF325), which is excellent for keyboards; and the new Boss D200 DDL, which is totally brilliant - it has got a Hold facility and you can freeze a sound in there and trigger it from a rhythm box or a sequencer, so you can sample sounds. You can vary the pitch a bit but... I've done tracks just sampling noises - voices and things. That's fun. For the money, it is definitely good value - 300 quid or something."
"I've got a Teac CX-310 cassette deck which was very cheap. And then I've got a truly fabulous system of track sheets which is on the computer (Sinclair Spectrum), so I don't have any paper track sheets."
Isn't that very long winded?
"No, you can put it on the tape if you want. That does take a long time. My program gives you a tone to line up the tape at -3dB and everything, but I just number the reels and then just call up whichever reel number I want."
What else have you got?
"I've got a Turnkey patchbay. The speakers are Auratones, and Yamaha NS10s which everybody's raving about in the business."
The Auratones are perched on either side of the console, whereas the Yamaha's are hung quite high up on the two long walls, facing the wall with the window behind the computer VDU. How did this arrangement come about?
"When I worked out where they were going to go, I had string everywhere! It's worked out so that where I'm sitting now facing the mixer, each speaker is equi-distant from my ears, although I have to mix like this, which is just a bit infuriating!" he demonstrates as he collapses into a fit of giggles. What he means is that his head has to face the wall behind the speakers instead of the desk. "But that's the problem of a small room."
"It's true! I had to have the speakers somewhere where I could hear the speakers and play. It is actually the optimum place for reflections for this listening position."
And how did you work that out?
"I had the 'Fostex Cookbook' and I ploughed through that. I set up, well I had a dummy head here" he indicates his own sitting position, and once more collapses into a fit of the giggles. You begin to wonder why he bothered to take it all so seriously since he obviously can't help laughing at the thought of it. Or maybe he just knows what his dummy head looked like, and we're left guessing.
The dummy head...
"I put something on the microphone stand and I had all these bits of string - I had a bit of string across there (from one speaker to the back wall). I worked out where the centre part of the speakers would go and I kept moving this bit of string stuck on the wall with tape, with all these lines, and I measured all the possible sound reflections. The reflection off this (window) wall must be twice the reflection off that (mixer) wall or something. And that wall (door, behind the speakers) shouldn't come into it at all. So I had bits of string coming to these ears on this dummy head, and that's how I worked out the monitoring position."
Does it make any difference it you shut the blind?
"Funny you should say that... no! I'm sure it would make a difference if I had the old acoustic foam panels, but they're so expensive."
Is the glass not more reflective than the wall?
"No it isn't, it's more or less the same. At the frequencies that the glass is reflective, the wall is reflective as well. The wall absorbs lower frequencies than the glass because the glass is thinner and the wall has greater mass."
In addition to these complicated monitoring manoeuvres, there is a third set of speakers used for reference, which, although officially speaking they live in the sitting room, they have been known to find their way upstairs, and these are the Tannoy Oxfords.
"They give me a lot more bass because they're just physically much bigger. I've got a switch here, by the desk, and I can have any combination of monitors I like and that works really well. I can get good mixes."
As you can see, once again from the pics, there is not a great deal of acoustic treatment in the room, well actually there isn't any at all.
"It's too bright in here, much too bright. Well, not desperately bright because I compensate for that. I check the mixes downstairs — which is a mainly carpeted, furnished room - on the Tannoys (and the Tannoys are pretty bassy). I know what master tapes should sound like because of how a thing sounds on a record or the radio. Once you've done a couple, you begin to work out what sounds correct. So probably to you the mixes I do in here are horrendously sharp, but that's because they need to be oversharp because of the hardness of the walls."
"I am going to construct some Helmholtz resonators in the corners" (see HSR Oct 84 edition) "they counteract standing waves of bass, lower frequencies. But you see, this thing, previously known as an airing cupboard" (indicating some cupboards on the wall opposite the mixer) "is brilliant for cutting down — it acts as a bass trap, yes, it's quite a useful thing to have in a studio!"
At this point photographer Matthew Vosburgh was prompted to enquire why, if the room is so bright anyway, should you try to cut down the bass?
"That's the funny thing about Helmholtz resonators! If you have a resonator, you stimulate the bass frequencies, therefore it resonates in tune with the bass, so therefore, you cut down the bass on your mix. At the moment you over-emphasise the bass because you don't hear it in this small room."
"So, if you have resonators it balances the whole thing out. You see, I use my patent method of sticking a lump of foam across the speakers (or across the tweeters) to cut down the treble so that I don't overdo it - don't under do it I should say. So I just jam a piece of foam across the tweeter and turn the treble up, and then you compensate for it."
Next we took a look at the microphone collection. There is an AKG D202, two AKG C451s with CK1 and CK5 capsules and, Peter's pride and joy, an old AKG C28 valve microphone with power pack et al.
"The C28 tube microphone is amazing for vocals and things - very warm. On the last set of 24 track recordings we did, I took this down to the studio and did all the voice on this, rather than Neumann U87s."
Are you particularly fond of old mics?
"I'm a fan of this one. Valve microphones generally sound very nice, no doubt about it. This one is very warm and yet it's really sharp. Voices sound brilliant on it - they sound better than they do in real life! It brings out all the harmonics and sibilants."
We then started to discuss some of Robin Lumley's thoughts on microphones which he expressed in his HSR interview in the September edition, in particular his recommendation to spend as much of your budget as possible on old microphones.
"Yes. there's a lot of sense in that. I think what he said was, if you get the sound going into the mixer right, then there's no more problems. That is so true. I'll definitely go along with that."
"As for my other microphones, the D202 is good for bassier things and the CK1 is very nice. Originally, I got the CK1 capsule for a general purpose mic, and then I got the vocal version (that was before I got the valve). I can now have these two 451s on a drum kit, as a stereo pair, and I've got another thing - a Sennheiser K3-U, which is like a more budget version of the AKG 451, but it works very well on snare."
"As for microphone recommendations, I definitely recommend getting these C28s because they're dirt cheap - they're about £150 - compared to how much valve mics go for, that's pretty cheap. And an AKG 451 and £K1 capsule costs about £150 these days with VAT."
Instruments around the room include a Fender Strat with a telecaster neck; a Yamaha CS80 ("still my favourite synth") and a MultiMoog, both of which he tries to steer clear of since they are distinctive of After The Fire days; latest acquisition: a Yamaha DX7 with the KX5 ("it's a dummy MIDI keyboard that works with the DX7 for slinging round your neck and posing with. It's great actually. It's got all the things the DX7 does; all touch response, breath control, modulation, pitch bend, sustain.").
Although the other half of Zipcodes (Pete's new band) is a drummer ("yes we use real live drums") Pete uses an old Roland CR78 CompuRhythm for writing: "I much prefer working with those kind of rhythms than with a Linn or something."
"I've also got an MF1 sync unit to put the codes on the tape. It was a project in Electronics & Music Maker. It's adequate - you have to be careful with it. You have to be very careful getting the right level. If you get slightly too much level, it speeds up and slows down and goes crazy. Actually it worked very well today! In fact I did a track today with it and for about the first time ever, it worked first time!"
I wondered if Peter had considered an autolocator such as the Applied Microsystems unit.
"Well it is 600 notes, which is quite a lot of money. I would like to get one yes, and I hope to work towards buying one of those when I've got some more sheckles. I like the look of that unit a lot."
"Oh yes, I've also got this Casio MT40 keyboard for writing on tour - stick the old Walkman headphones into the headphone socket — write songs on the road."
"I use Ampex 456 tape because on the B16 you have to use 456 to get the level, but I find Agfa 468 on the Revox is very good — better than the Ampex. It's quieter and it's easier to line up on the Revox. It's odd because the Revox is lined up for Ampex, but Agfa's actually better. I also use TDK cassettes!"
"The way I work - I have all the instruments plugged through the desk and I route it down to stereo cassette. So I get a sequencer going, a rhythm box going, and I play and I sing all in one go and record straight on to stereo cassette, and that's my 'Mark I' demo. I then go to the Fostex B16 and do four or five tracks of the Fostex and record a kind of demo of the demo, which is my 'Mark II'. Then I get together with the lyric writer Pete King (I do all the music) and we do a proper 16 track demo of that, and that's how we work. Then we repeat that in the 24 track studio."
Is that for planning?
"That's right. Get the parts worked out, get the backing vocals. That's our standard way of working and it works quite well. Often the 16 track demo we've done here has a really good atmosphere: good performances and everything, and we do have trouble repeating them."
Why don't you just keep them then?
"Because I'm using this place as a tool. We're not so much into the technical side... levels and things like that. In the studio we usually have producers and engineers which allow us to concentrate on the performance. But sometimes the technical side in the bigger studios gets in the way of the performance and the soul and emotion and all that. And the clock watching... you're under so much pressure to get the thing done, and you know how much it is costing you - when you're singing, you sometimes just clam up! Whereas here at home, you just do it until you get it right — even if it takes you ages!"
"The number of times you repeat the recording of a song, there seems to be (round about four times or something) an optimum time when the thing really comes together, and beyond that you don't want to record it again. With our method the fourth time is when it really happens (stereo cassette, 1st Fostex, 2nd Fostex, Master)."
"Some songs we've done more than that and they're definitely — even though they are good songs, it's getting a bit tedious to do them."
What about mixing? Do you do many mixes, or just a few?
"Here? We do lots of mixes on cassette here and sometimes I get a really good one. Then we try to do it on here (Revox) and we don't get it as good. I love working technically at home — working on one track and building it up, then mixing it while you're doing it, rather than doing a whole load of tracks and then having a separate day for mixing. I think it's much better to mix it as you go along, as you finish a track, because all the time, on the last few overdubs, I'm using all the channels on the mixer as the monitors - not the monitor section - I don't ever use the monitor section to listen to the track - I listen to the input channels."
As Pete leaps up and down demonstrating how he fills up all the channels, including the fader reverse on the monitor channels, and pictures fall off the wall, and the photographer falls over the tape recorder and his flashlight umbrella thing tries to take my eye out, Peter is prompted to ask: "Are all your interviews like this?" No they're not, I said, mopping my brow. So what about this philosophy you wanted to tell us about?
That's not really a philosophy Pete.
"Yes it is."
More a method.
"You're right... the philosophy method. Oh boy... and I thought I was really good at interviews!"
Interview by Janet Angus
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