JJ Jeczalik And The Art Of Toys | JJ Jeczalik
Best known for his pioneering sampling work and his role in The Art of Noise, JJ holds strong views on the creative use and abuse of studio equipment.
Paul Tingen tracked down 'JJ' Jonathan Jeczalik at Monster Rat studios to debate philosophy, sampling and the benefits of lo-fi sound.
Before getting down to the serious stuff, I asked JJ how his Berkshire studio ended up with such a wacky name — was it simply a pun on a certain world-class studio at Montserrat, or was there more to it? As it transpired, the name arose through his infant god-daughter's chance encounter with a particularly large rodent on the site of the then-unbuilt studio. Bizarre beginnings — yet though Air Montserrat was, sadly, flattened by a hurricane in 1989, Monster Rat Studios in Berkshire still stands proud, located in a converted garage within easy travelling distance of its owner, the man with the name to confound all known spellcheck software. JJ is the larger-than-life character who was, together with keyboard player and orchestral arranger Anne Dudley, the driving force behind the Art Of Noise in the seven years of its existence.
JJ was also the man who tamed the Fairlight; he first came into contact with it through The Buggles' Geoff Downes, for whom he was a keyboard roadie. When The Buggles split, JJ carried on working with its other half, producer Trevor Horn, and developed a career as a Fairlight programmer, putting it to its most (in-)famous use on the 1984 Frankie Goes To Hollywood sessions for their Welcome To The Pleasure Dome album. For JJ, the lo-fi, rock 'n' roll-like sound quality of the Fairlight Series II became the single largest influence on his approach to music. He remarks:
"The interesting thing about the Fairlight Series I and II is that your samples come back radically different. They sound as if you've put them through a 100-watt Marshall amp. For me that adds an element of rock 'n' roll which I've always valued and exploited. I now use mainly a Series III, but I generally sample at 15K, rather than 44.1 K, because I like the grunginess it gives you. It reminds me of the Series II."
One direct result of his early Fairlight exposure is that JJ's approach to equipment is based on very different criteria to the ones most people have.
"I still run the 1987 software on the Series III. It's reliable and functional. I've never believed in chasing software updates just because they're new. What I'm always looking for in a machine is what it imparts to my music. Does it give you a thrill of some description? Does it create excitement, like suddenly doing something you didn't expect? With the Fairlight II, the sound quality was sometimes so appallingly bad that couldn't even recognise what it was I'd put in!
"I think there's a middle ground somewhere between the two extremes of pristine sound quality and grunginess. But I can't see that chasing the ultimate bandwidth technology is going to enable anyone to make better records; at the end of the day what matters is melody, harmony and rhythm."
Born the son of an English mother and a Polish father, JJ is not a man bred for diplomacy, as becomes clear from his barrage of opinions, ranging from the refreshingly common sense to the extreme and the bizarre. My problem is that he won't tell me which is which...
JJ's musical work room is a converted Berkshire garage with large windows looking out over a pastoral green landscape and a tiny neighbouring wooden shed, which is his office. "It's called Micro Rat," he deadpans. The studio area consists of just one room, with a storage area in the back where he keeps his tapes plus 60 Datastreams for the Fairlight. The studio is embellished with lots of natural wood.
Centrally placed is a small Soundtracs PC MIDI series desk, to the left of which is an extensive keyboard rack, holding his two Fairlights, a couple of keyboards and an Atari Mega 4 computer. It's entertaining to think that JJ does all his mixing at this tiny PC desk, helped by Gary Langan, original Art Of Noise member with whom JJ has been working again over the past couple of years. The Art Of Noise itself has been placed on an indefinite 'sabbatical' because the three co-owners of the name, JJ, Langan and Dudley, cannot agree on a joint project.
As a result, JJ is presently without a deal and working on other projects. One of his outlets is in advertising; listen out for the music for Southern Comfort, milk, and NatWest commercials, which he wrote, amongst others. Other projects involve a collaboration with guitarist Alvin Lee. It seems JJ has a penchant for digging out forgotten guitarists; he was the man who brought Duane Eddy together with the Art Of Noise. One new project is called Nu Yauc (pronounced 'New York'), and there's something else in the offing called 'The Altar Of Etcetera', which involves Gary Langan and Sankha Guha, former presenter of the Rough Guide TV travel series who also apparently "plays some mean guitar".
"I think there's a middle ground somewhere between the two extremes of pristine sound quality and grunginess. But I can't see that chasing the ultimate bandwidth technology is going to enable anyone to make better records."
All these ventures are written, transformed, regurgitated and mixed at Monster Rat Studios, proof that you don't need SSL/Neve and digital to make CD quality material, and it's perhaps time to let JJ explain the rationale behind the different bits of equipment there. Echoes of his low-tech, unpretentious, rock 'n' roll attitude are abundant.
"I bought the desk because it was so small and also because it was the right colour." Entirely serious face — but surely? "Well, another important reason was the MIDI compatibility. I use an Atari Mega 4 computer with Notator software and run the desk from that. Notator is great; it has a dual function for sequencing and mixing."
And it gets more interesting. Like the cheapo high street keyboard he uses as his master keyboard — the Fairlight keyboard abandoned because it provokes MIDI loops: "My master keyboard is the rather wonderful Yamaha PSS680. I'm about to dump it for the new version with the full-size keys, but the 680 has served me well for a long time. It's completely MIDI compatible, and it's got loads of preset rhythms, plus programmable reverberation, samples, and in-built stereo speakers. It's really impressive. There's some really awful stuff on there too, things so awful that they become good. I mainly use the Proteus 1XR module for a sound called Heaven, a combination of piano and strings which is awesome."
Monitoring in JJ's Monster Rat is taken care of by two Yamaha NS10s complemented by a JBL SB1 sub-bass unit sitting underneath the desk, "...to get a good bass sound, so I don't get that horrible, squeaky noise which you get from NS10s on their own. They're driven from a Quad 405 amp."
JJ's multitrack is the Fostex B16, which has sufficient tracks because he doesn't mind submixing things down either to DAT or the Fairlight and then flying them back onto the 16-track.
"I balance the levels in the mix very carefully in such a way that I can leave all the faders up on the desk." And when he does submixes into the Fairlight, does he use the 15K sampling rate? "Oh, yeah. It sounds fine to me, it's not distorted. I mean that in a purely subjective sense — you don't want records that sound distorted.
"At the end of the day, there's no mystery to recording or mixing — it's just a group of people or an individual's perception of what things should sound like at a given time. And it changes over time, which is why I like to do my final mixes to DAT, so I can't fiddle with them anymore and ruin them. You have to abandon your mixes, otherwise you just keep grinding things flat so that they become massively uninteresting. You can waste an awful lot of time thinking you're improving things, and what was once a good idea goes out with the bathwater."
Monster Rat's outboard gear is pretty basic too. The most modern box in sight is a Lexicon 224XL reverb, which is "rather wonderful", and then there's an antique early 70s Eventide 1745M digital delay, one of the first digital effects ever made, plus a Master Room Spring Reverb. The Urei 1178 compressor is, says JJ "essential. I can't live without it," and complementing his setup is the Friendchip TCR1 time-code unit, which "just regenerates time code and sorts out all the crap. I haven't had any problems with time code since I put it in. It just sits in the SMPTE system and cleans it all up. Before I used to have a few glitching problems." All in all, it's a pretty basic setup.
"The most interesting area for me is capturing some real ambience, recording things in interesting places that impart some sound to them, so that they have a unique quality of their own."
Says JJ: "You can always want more, but I tend to rent in stuff as I need it. I would like another delay unit, but until the moment that I deem it to be vital, I won't worry. I don't think I need more than the minimum equipment, because it's only once you feel you've got a good piece of music that you can start fiddling around with extra delays and effects — they won't help you make decent records in the first place. Your first job is to get your ideas out of your head and onto tape, and then you can mess around with them and hopefully improve them by means of effects or whatever. But if your idea wasn't any good to begin with, it doesn't matter how much time you waste with Lexicons and AMS's."
All this leaves two bits of gear undiscussed: JJ's DAT recorder and his Fairlights, Series II and III. They both play a central role in that area in which JJ is one of the world's prime exponents: the art of sampling and sample application. Practically all the samples on the six Art Of Noise albums come from one of his Fairlights. His leading role is acknowledged by the fact that the Advanced Media Group is shortly to release [a sampled CD], though JJ concedes it's still a work in progress.
"I have the equivalent of the Maxwell rip-off in sample data. There's so much — I could quite easily fill a double CD. I have about 60 Fairlight [tapes] of 150 Mbytes each and that's one of the reasons I want to make the sample CD. If there's a lot of information on a Datastreamer, it can take half an hour to download and you might only want to use a little section of it. So I'm working towards creating that sample CD as my own library." When will it be ready? "I don't know. It's imminent."
Why does JJ still use the by now slightly outdated Fairlight as his sampling machine? How does he feel about devices like Akai's S1000 or the new Macintosh based samplers?
"I just like the way Fairlights work. They're really very graphic and have very big VDU screens. True, they're not as wonderful as they might be, and there's been a lot of recent and cheaper technology that surpasses all they can do, but they're still unique. I really can't handle the funny little LCD readouts on modern samplers like the Akai. Technically, the Akai S1000 is brilliant, but until someone comes up with some way I can see a big picture of the sound on a screen, I'm really not that interested. And I haven't looked at SampleCell and the Macintosh, because I've got enough bloody computers here as it is!"
The fact that high fidelity isn't one of JJ's prime concerns was already noted in the opening paragraphs, and it's something which extends to his attitude towards sampling. The crunchy sound quality of the Fairlight is one of the attractions of the machine for him, and he concedes that he doesn't take any special care to preserve the original character of the sample at other stages either: "I don't go for this digital in, digital out stuff. It's now quite normal to be able to take a digital output from your CD player and plug it straight into your sampler, but I actually like twiddling knobs, so I always go via analogue and via the mixing desk. To me that's essential. I will always try to put my stamp on a sample — add some reverb or EQ and so on.
I don't want to get any more dross in there than I have to, because it uses up storage time, and at the end of the day, it's very frustrating when you end up dumping things because you find them unmanageable for what ever reason.
I don't like the way of working where you sample loads and loads of stuff and then sort it out later. I always try to put things into the Fairlight so that when it comes out I go: 'Yes, this excites me. I feel inspired to do something with this', rather than just thinking: 'oh, well, it's just another sound isn't it?' I need to get some feedback from each sample I take."
"You can never anticipate how anybody is going to react to the music you make. So be yourself and make it provocative. Whatever you do, provoke a reaction! There's too much mediocrity in the world."
Going back in time, JJ remembers that he used to record his samples on a quarter-inch Revox. After that, he switched to F1, and for the last three years, he's collected samples on DAT, using a Sony TCD-D10 portable machine. But he finds DAT machines very irritating.
"I use DAT as a matter of grudging convenience. They're very small and rather fiddly. I like seeing a bit of half-inch tape spooling around. The frustrating thing is that you just can't tell where you are with DAT just by looking, whereas with a good, old half-inch or quarter-inch — I sound like an old fogey — you can see the leader so you know where you are."
The 'old fogey' admits to a somewhat Luddite attitude towards the science of sampling as a whole and holds no reverence for microphone type or placement. "I simply use the microphone which came with the D10. On most past occasions I have been in the company of some very professional engineers who handled microphone selection and placement by second nature." And what if you don't have an experienced engineer at hand? "Then it's a process of trial and error. The most interesting area for me is capturing some real ambience, recording things in interesting places that impart some sound to them, so that they have a unique quality of their own — not something added by a Lexicon or AMS reverb. Another thing I always do is look for accidents, sounds which you weren't intending to record, but which can be much more interesting than the sound you were planning to get."
It all makes one wonder whether there's a place for hi-fi sound in JJ's life at all. Doesn't he admire the work of, for example, Bob Clearmountain, the world's most renowned mixer/producer/engineer who is famous for the extremely transparent and powerful way he mixes music? JJ jumps to the challenge with relish:
"Let me tell you a story. A few years ago I went to see an old university friend of mine and she said: 'look at this new stereo I've got.' She put an album of mine on and said: 'Doesn't it sound great?' But it sounded awful. So I dug one speaker from underneath the bed, took the other one from the bookshelf, put them back in phase and stood them somewhere else, and it sounded a lot better. Most of the world's population simply haven't got a clue about audio. If it sounds OK on their box it's fine with them. Consequently, when you're trying to mix something, you're trying to make it sound good on any box. It's frightening where things go: headphones, boom boxes, car stereos, ghetto blasters, mono, TV, you name it. And your mix has to sound good on all those different bits of gear all the time."
One last question. Does JJ have any advice for budding musicians, engineers, producers or sampling experts? He shakes his head in bewilderment at the prospect of people wanting to enter the music industry:
"My advice is: don't! It's not the kind of industry which helps you to be caring and unselfish. The way it works is that if you're successful, you are wonderful; it reinforces all kinds of horrible little things in your character. I didn't wake up to that until I had children. I suddenly realised that my responsibilities aren't just to myself anymore, and also that when you misbehave in an egocentric way or are unpleasant to other people, it will come back to you. That's why selfish, arrogant, little shit attitudes won't wash anymore. And if you believe in reincarnation, you might come back as a lawyer — and I think that's even worse than being a struggling musician!"
And what about struggling musicians who, despite all this, still want to become successful?
"Well, first and foremost, never trust anybody who says: 'trust me.' Next: be professional — by which I mean, when you have a meeting or an audition, come half an hour early and make sure your fingernails are clean, and that you know what you're up to. And never lie. If you can't do something, say you can't do it, so you can't be faulted. Naturally you build yourself up a little bit, but at the end of the day, when someone is paying you money to do a job and they discover that you can't do that job, it will be the end of the relationship. Whereas if you say: can't do it, but I'll find somebody who can', you're without fault." JJ muses for a moment and then says sharply: "Always remember that you don't really know anything. You might know what a chord is called or how a sequencer works, but ultimately, you can never anticipate how anybody is going to react to the music you make. So be yourself and make it provocative. Whatever you do, provoke a reaction! There's too much mediocrity in the world."