Paul is a key figure in the Surreal to Real independent record company and has achieved success with his instrumental compositions. RM visits his home studio.
Paul Ward is producing successful CD albums of instrumental music from his bedroom 8-track studio and without giving up his day job. Paul White paid him a visit.
In many ways, Paul Ward is a typical Recording Musician reader; he became interested in electronic synthesis at an early age, played keyboards in various progressive rock bands and later set up a home studio so that he could record his own music to a high standard. In the mid '80s, Paul had his first taste of success as part of a synth duo called Quiet Point; they released a cassette album which sold in its thousands, far exceeding all expectations.
During this time, Paul and Neil Thompson, the other member of Quiet Point, ventured into commercial 4 and 8-track recording, using studio down-time to work on their own compositions. But today sees him firmly back in the home studio camp, with one bedroom of his detached house kitted out as an 8-track recording studio, augmented by an enviable keyboard and sequencer setup centred around an Atari ST running Steinberg's Cubase MIDI sequencing package.
Since the break up of Quiet Point following their performance at the 1990 UK Electronica, Paul went it alone and now has his first CD album For a Knave on release through the Surreal to Real independent record company, of which he is Promotions Director. Surreal to Real is principally run by John Dyson (one of the UK's more successful electronic music exponents), Paul Ward and Anthony Thrasher, whose finance got the venture off the ground. Currently the company is promoting albums from major instrumental artists such as Ian Boddy, John Dyson, Wavestar and Mike Shipway.
Though there is a temptation to push all instrumental synth music into the New Age pigeonhole, the company resist this tag with some vigour. According to Paul, much of the material is far too energetic and interesting to be classified as New Age meanderings.
RM: Setting up a company to record and produce music is relatively straightforward, but how do you go about marketing the finished product?
PW:"That's the hard part. We have distributors in this country, primarily C&D services in Dundee. We also deal with Lotus Records, and we can get into some record shops, though this is difficult with specialist music. We deal with Cue records in Germany, and Holland, Crystal Lake in France, and we also have distributors in America, Spain, Belgium, Canada and so on. In terms of publicity, we play as many concerts as we can and we get into fanzines, especially on the continent, as we're now the biggest electronic music label in the UK. The real problem is that we need more airplay; we're building up relationships with a couple of radio stations, Radio Derby in particular having been a huge help, but national airplay is exceptionally difficult for any form of non-mainstream music. Having said that, Radio One are putting together a pilot for a programme on electronic music and we're involved in that. Ultimately we need people to hear the music and not just read about it."
RM: I was curious as to how Paul had arrived at his choice of studio equipment, and it turns out that he has quite strong views on one or two items.
PW: "I chose the Atari computer for sequencing because it is an industry standard and it is easier to swim with the tide than against it. Cubase is absolutely brilliant — I can't praise it highly enough. It is one of the best pieces of software I've seen — and I'm a computer programmer by profession. I find it very stable, but I'm not going to upgrade to version 3 because I've heard that one or two people have had problems with it, and besides, version 2 does everything I need. I know that sounds very Luddite, but I know version 2 and love it. The sequencer is locked to tape via an XRI SMPTE/MIDI unit."
RM: As well as the more modern keyboards, you have a MiniMoog and a set of Moog Taurus bass pedals. Are these left over from your gigging days?
PW: "No, they've been acquired since. There are three things I've always wanted to own; a MiniMoog, a set of Moog Taurus bass pedals and a Mellotron. Two out of three isn't bad, and anyway, I don't know where I'd put a Mellotron, but ultimately I think I'll get one. The MiniMoog is unsurpassed, it's the ultimate analogue synth; sometimes I'll sample it if I want to use it for chords, but most of the time I use it for lead and bass lines. It is driven from MIDI via a Roland MPU 101 MIDI to CV converter which I managed to pick up for just £90.
"I have a D50 but I don't really like it — it's more of a necessity. About 10% of the sounds are fabulous, but the rest are not so good; there are some awful loops and some of the sounds are noisy. I still have a soft spot for my Roland JX8P. I'd prefer a Jupiter 8 — the JX8P does a similar job but it sounds a bit thinner.
"The Korg Wavestation is simply the best instrument to come out of the music business in the last decade. There are only two instruments that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end — one's the MiniMoog and the other is the Wavestation. The only problem with the Wavestation is that I feel it's badly flawed in the way the sounds are organised. Each Performance can access up to eight Patches and those patches can either reside in RAM 1, RAM 2 or even on a memory card. If I were to change a Patch in RAM that is used as part of a card performance, then that card performance is rendered defunct. You can have a RAM card sat on the shelf and still, potentially, be editing its sounds as you work! A lot of the cards I use expect the factory RAM presets to be intact so I can't overwrite them — I have to try to do everything using cards. The same problems apply to tones and Wave-sequences within Patches. Any one of them can be pulled from either card or RAM bank, which is a nightmare!
I can see that Korg tried to provide the player with total flexibility, but I feel that there should have been some limitations to stop you getting into trouble so easily. But I can forgive this machine a lot because the sounds are just phenomenal."
RM: At the moment, a lot of your music is sequenced so you don't need a vast number of tape tracks. Do you find eight tracks adequate for your needs?
"Though I run all the sequencer stuff 'live' into the mix from the sequencer, I'd prefer to be able to commit everything to tape because it can be really hard recreating an earlier mix with all the possible variables."
PW: "Eight tracks are adequate, but I really could do with more to make life easier. The Tascam 38 running with dbx noise reduction is a good machine, but ultimately I might go for an ADAT if only because of the easy upgrade path it provides by way of number of tracks. But I'd like to see it prove its reliability first, so I'll wait a while yet.
"The old Allen and Heath System 8 desk is a bit long in the tooth now, and I took all the VU bulbs out because they kept blowing — it looks better with no lights than with some lit and some not. It isn't a bad desk, though the EQ could be better and the aux sends can be a little noisy, but if you're careful, you can get very good results. It's been responsible for three CD releases so far. Ultimately it will be upgraded."
RM: Considering the quality of your recordings, the monitoring system appears rather basic. Is there a reason for this?
PW: "The monitors are Tannoy Stratfords driven via a Sony hi-fi amp. Surreal to Real have a proper Quad power amp, but I'm not used to the sound of it so I work with what I know. For the moment I'll stick with the system, but I will probably swap the monitors for something with a better bass response when I can. There's also a pair of car hi-fi speakers — or should I say low-fi speakers — and in some ways, they are more useful than the Tannoy Stratfords. If the mix sounds reasonable on those, then it tends to sound good on anything.
"Mastering is done to a Tascam DA30 DAT, which has a very nice sound. Regardless of what people might tell you, what you get off this machine isn't exactly the same as what you put onto it; it's almost as though the sound has been glazed — it's got a shine on it which is very very nice."
RM: When it comes to outboard processing, I normally associate instrumental music with some fairly heavyweight effects, but your selection seems very down to earth.
PW: "There's a Yamaha REV7, which is getting on a bit now, but even older than that is the Yamaha R1000, which was Yamaha's first budget digital reverb unit, featuring just four mono presets. We had one originally but sold it to buy the REV7 and quickly regretted it. The sound you can get from an R1000 when creating gated drum sounds is better than the REV7. It's mono and it's noisy, but if you feed it through a noise gate to get a gated drum sound, it's brilliant. I use it on a track on the latest album and it really works well.
"I prefer to get my gated drum sounds this way, because all the gated presets I've ever heard don't sound the same as real gated reverb. I don't know why that is — perhaps if you're using a long decay time on the reverb, you get something hanging over from the previous sound next time the gate opens.
"The Alesis Quadraverb is our concession to modern effects, and for the money it is phenomenal. You have to be careful with the input level, as it can get a little bit noisy if the level is too low and is easy to overload if the level is too high, but in terms of sound quality it's amazing. If it had come out at five or six hundred pounds, I would have still considered it to be worth it.
"The first thing I did when I got it was wipe out all the factory patches, because there's a tendency to rely on presets — which may sound good, but there's a danger you'll start to sound like everyone else. Every time I want a sound, I create something appropriate rather than simply calling up a patch and using it, but there are certain types of treatment I tend to prefer. I like to set up the effects in the order chorus-echo-reverb or pitch shift-echo-reverb if I'm working on a lead sound. There are also certain ambient things I use for drums, and in these cases, I'll edit the basic presets I have created rather than starting completely from scratch."
RM: I see you have a couple of Drawmer DS201 gates, which is only fair and patriotic as they're built only a few miles up the road in Rotherham!
PW: "Again, they're an industry standard. I bought them purely on reputation, but they are totally brilliant. They do the job and they don't get in the way. I've even used them in situations where there's been a complete drum mix to process and I've wanted to split off certain drums, and we've actually picked out individual beats using the key filters. I also use the key filters as equalisation by selecting the key listen mode, which can be useful in the case of a particularly noisy track or for taking out some bass. I wish they'd bring out a box with just eight sets of key filters in it!
"The Alesis Quadraverb is our concession to modern effects, and for the money it is phenomenal. If it had come out at five or six hundred pounds, I would have still considered it to be worth it."
"I still have an old Scintillator to provide a touch of harmonic enhancement — which works fine, but I'd like to check out some of the newer designs, such as the Vitalizer. But I'll keep the Scintillator because it's so good at bringing out cymbals.
"Last in the rack is a home-made autofade unit, which is actually one of your designs published years ago in a certain magazine that you used to work for. It works brilliantly and gets used on just about every project. It is very quiet and does the job, though I'm thinking of putting a fine fade time control pot on it, as the single pot is rather coarse. I might also get MIDI triggering added to it. I have to confess that when I first built it, I couldn't get it working, but we have a technical guy who looks after our equipment and he sorted it out. He also added a fade-in option and fitted better-grade chips. It's probably the quietest bit of gear in the studio!"
RM: Of course, there's more to making good recordings than having a room full of equipment, however good. Do you have any useful techniques that you'd like to pass on?
PW: "Something I learned, partly by reading about it and partly by experimentation, is what I call sympathetic equalisation. Most sounds are concentrated in a certain area of the audio spectrum, and if you can use your EQ to home in on this, and to cut those aspects of the sound falling outside this band, you can help the sound stand out without interfering with other sounds in the mix. For example, if you have a snare drum interfering with a bass drum sound, you can take some bass out of the snare sound and, likewise, take some of the top out of the bass drum sound. You don't always need all the frequencies in a sound to be present for them to seem to be there once the sound is heard in the context of a complete mix.
"You usually have to be fairly subtle with this kind of equalisation, especially if any boost is used, or you can destroy the original character of the sound, but in the case of something like a hi-hat, I'll roll off as much bass as possible. Even though you don't expect there to be any bass in a hi-hat sound, it's surprising how many times you find low frequencies are present from things like the pedal thump on the floor — minor details like that can really damage a mix."
RM: How do you treat the deployment of effects, because with this kind of music it's easy to go over the top, especially with reverb (I hope Mike Simmons is reading this — Ed!). Indeed, excess reverb has become almost a hallmark of New Age music.
PW: "One of the aims of Surreal to Real is to kick the New Age tag right out as far as we are concerned — that's not what we do. That's not to say that New Age music is a good thing or a bad thing, but everybody seems to have a set idea of what electronic music is about. I don't do long, ambient pieces and I don't use gallons of echo and reverb. On the keyboards with internal effects, I'll use these to their best effect and use the outboard on the instruments that don't have any internal effects processing, such as the MiniMoog and JX8P. Now that I've got the Akai S1100 sampler, which has built-in effects, I don't even have to dedicate a reverb to drums any more. The reverb that's in there is better quality than the outboard.
"Though I run all the sequencer stuff 'live' into the mix from the sequencer, I'd prefer to be able to commit everything to tape because it can be really hard recreating an earlier mix with all the possible variables. Not only do you have to get the sounds and balance right, but you have to use the same effects settings. What I have done on occasions is to mix the sequenced tracks down onto a stereo pair of the 8-track and then play the live parts onto the remaining six tracks (or five if I keep the time code). This robs you of a degree of flexibility when you come to do the final mix, but if I'm not happy, I can go back to running the sequencer and change things about. An automated desk isn't a priority for me at the moment, because you still have the problem of recreating all your outboard settings and finding your original sounds. What's more important is to get enough mixer channels to handle all the keyboards and instruments without having to compromise and enough tape tracks to allow me to get sounds onto tape with their effects."
The inevitable final question is always to do with plans for the immediate future, and while Paul is always working on new music, at the time of this interview he was preparing to take part in a major electronic music concert in Holland on October 31st. The Klemdag Festival, as it is known, is in its fifth year and this year is staged at Het Turfshif in Breda, which has a concert hall with a seating capacity in excess of 1000. I found out after the concert that they attracted around 1500 people and sold a considerable number of CDs, which is very encouraging.
Paul's Album, For a Knave, is available via the RM CD page in this issue or directly from Surreal to Real at the price of £11.95.
Feature by Paul White
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