Uncle Tom gives studio advice, from a Portastudio to a great big 24-track.
Tom Robinson has two studios. One has 24 tracks. One has 4 tracks. He still uses both. Paul Colbert asked him to describe in sensible steps the ways of getting from the small version to the big version.
"The next step would be a drum machine, and the newest one through there is the Roland 505 which I think is just astonishing. I think Yamaha's RX11 is an ergonomic disaster area. When you boot up the thing you have to go through a ritual to stop it accepting incoming MIDI information. And I think the snare is slightly late. All right for laid back American grooves but in terms of feel it won't play back dead on the beat, but we're talking milliseconds, and every drum machine has its own quirk."
"For one, all-purpose cheap mike I'd have to say the Tandy PZM because for 25 quid the quality is phenomenal. You'd have to go up to at least a Shure SM57 to better it, in my opinion. For optimum results you fix it to a wall and put in special high voltage batteries for the maximum output. Take them out again when you've finished using it.
"It's very ugly, you can't groove with it in the mirror and it's not hip but none the less I would buy that and use the rest of the money I would have spent on a Shure on some other equipment.
"For those who haven't heard of the PZM (Pressure Zone Microphone) it works quite differently from other mikes by using the surface it's attached to as the receiver for the incoming sound. There is a plate already fixed, but sticking the PZM to a wall is even better."
"A reverb. Always. You can do without delay lines and flangers, but a Portastudio can sound unnatural without some kind of movement around the sound. Cheap reverb sounds sound cheap. Of the cheaper versions the Accessit is the least cheap sounding I know... nice and warm.
"I've got the Roland SRV2000 which I would recommend, and the Yamaha Rev 7, but I bought the Accessit because studio engineers and roadies have this problem in common. They nick anything good. Beware of having an effects unit that's so good you keep ripping it out of your recording setup to use at a gig or rehearsal. It's important to have a home set-up that will turn on with one switch, you don't want to keep patching it together or you miss out on your most creative ideas. Can't stress that enough.
"On the SRV2000, not many people know it will do backwards reverb as well. It's not in the manual, if you go into the non linear mode and take the reverb time right down, it goes into minus figures. But if you want one unit that does loads of things, then there's the Yamaha SPX90 which even Swain and Jolley use for the reverb sound, and the harmoniser is fabulous, in stereo."
"This is an aside but I would very strongly urge any band not to let a roadie flight case their stuff unless they are about to travel by air. The pattern goes like this. The band gets a deal, money goes in the bank, roadies say great, and one day the band turns up to find their treasured instruments safely protected in new flight cases. So you've got your vintage Fender bass, but you can't carry it home and it won't fit in the car, so you start leaving it at the rehearsal room. Then, after the tour, the gear doesn't come back but goes into the lock-up cage ready for the next gig. So you buy yourself a cheap Japanese bass to use at home... consider it... to use jamming down the pub with your mates, writing songs, all the most important creative things in your career, while your best bass is mummified in an iron case in Acton.
"Don't let it happen."
"Well, if it sounds good on your hi-fi, it will sound good to the A&R man. Dave Stewart used to mix the Eurythmics stuff on a ghetto blaster with the desk plugged into its phono sockets. An industry standard monitor is the Yamaha NS-10, everybody has them, so if you know what it sounds like on them, you'll know what it will sound like on someone else's system. If I had to economise on my studio now, the first things to go would be the big Tannoys. About 90 per cent of the work is done on the Yamahas."
"The main thing is to check the impedance. Mine are 400 Ohms, and that would be quiet on a Portastudio, so before you buy your headphones, try to check them on what you'll be listening to. I'd actually go for a set of Walkman phones."
"At this point anything you now buy should work for the 8 or 16 track you'll upgrade to one day. There is a case for investing in the future."
"The next big buy would be this... the Sony PCM 701 digital recorder, because it's digital - that's better quality than George Martin's wildest dreams with the Beatles, and it costs 1500 quid including VAT. If you have one of these you can record the band live, spend the day routining and rehearsing, go straight down with a hired desk or your live mixing desk and you've got unbelievable quality, ready for release, no tape degradation at all. Also you can bounce four tracks from your Portastudio on and off the Sony with no degradation in quality at all."
"A Portastudio is good enough for a long time, because that's what you write songs on, and it's songs that persuade a record company to stump up the money for your studio improvements. Really, concentrate on making music.. forget about sound effects and get on with the job of writing songs, because if you don't get past that point, you shouldn't be investing in all this. "War Baby" was written on a Portastudio.
"Personally, I don't see any point going to eight track, I never bothered. Another four tracks don't make the song any better. Once you start getting into eight tracks you start trying to produce the fucking thing. What's the point of that? A&R men aren't going to listen to your demo to hear if you've got the best possible bass drum sound.
"If you are going to upgrade, get something you can master on, like the Fostex B16. Again Swain and Jolley do a lot of their backing tracks on their B16 and transfer that to the 24 track."
"Get one. They're eight quid, and you get them from Tandy." (Mr Robinson holds up a small buff coloured box which contains a single speaker about 50mm wide, and an amp.) "Put a guitar or vocal through it and mike it up and you've got immediate Marshall stack compression. It has a strong lineage. It was discovered by Gabriel and Lillywhite during the making of 'Gabriel 3'. They used it on so many things on that album. Lillywhite did the Sector 27 album and brought the Archer with him.
"And it's like having a monitor in your pocket. How often have you been in the studio trying to check a sound or a setting on your synth or guitar while the engineer is messing around. If you don't want to put headphones on, just plug this in."
"The Turnkey catalogue. Apart from all the specs about the equipment, they actually tell you what a gate does and what reverb is. Well worth reading. And it's free."
"My longest standing musical partner is Steve Laurie, the drummer I've used since about '81. He was in a band called Cosmetics. I'm also collaborating with Paul Harvey, a very fine guitar player and 'brain' who helps with the arrangements and above all comes up with parts... sit him down, play the backing track and a part emerges. His timing is superb, that's the difference between a good musician and a great musician.
"We're playing "A Month Of Sundays" during May - every Sunday at the Duke of York Theatre in St Martins Lane with Saturday nights out of town to warm up.
"At the same time we're continuing to work on the album here. Were trying to get it finished by the beginning of June and then it will be down to the record company. I'm never so rash as to say it's coming out until the record company have heard the tapes, accepted them, received the master copies, sent you the cheque AND it's cleared.
"We have finished a single called "It Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing", which, as you might guess is a song about cocaine. That's coming out early in June. Most of the album I've produced myself, but for a single, it's best to go for an outside ear, a guy called John Adam. And Steve Jolley helped me out with one of the songs."
"I know I'm not a great musician and not technically a very good singer, but I have an ability to act as a filter, to select the best ideas that people throw at me.
"I always work best in collaboration."
Interview by Paul Colbert
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