Setting The Record Straight
Why has this top record producer - the man behind Culture Club's phenomenal success on vinyl - given up using the Fairlight in favour of a Steinberg Pro-24 system? Why is he so upset about the myths that surround digital recording? Ralph Denyer went along to Levine's new studio to find out...
Sound On Sound had been informed that top record producer Steve Levine wanted to give an interview in response to what he felt were misleading quotes and information that had recently appeared in the 'trade' music press concerning the application of digital recording technology and MIDI in a pro studio environment. Ralph Denyer went along to meet Levine and programmer/musician Julian Lindsay at Levine's own, recently set up, private studio in London.
In his studio, record producer Steve Levine has built up a complete digital recording system along with sequencing, synchronisation and MIDI equipment and instruments - though the range of equipment does encompass the odd 'classic' analogue synth such as a Minimoog. The finance for his studio and equipment came largely from Levine's success as producer of the first three Culture Club albums (and associated singles of the period), prior to the band working with Arif Mardin for their last non-compilation album. (It's Steve Levine, incidentally, not to be confused with Stewart Levine, who produced Boy George's recent No.1 'Everything I Own' and Curiosity Killed The Cat's 'Down To Earth'.)
The actual studio consists of a relatively large room which houses a DDA mixing console, monitoring systems, racked processing equipment and a wide range of synthesizers and computers located along the length of one wall. There are separate booths for recording acoustic instruments and two Sony digital multitracks are also housed in a separate area. As if to show his enthusiasm for anything 'digital', Steve Levine has surrounded himself with every useful bit of modern gadgetry - from the very latest Sony DAT digital cassette player (not yet released in the UK) to a Stepp digital guitar.
Of course, opinion is based on knowledge, experience, analytical ability, perception and many other intellectual qualities. But Levine feels that some of the media, in tandem with various individuals in the music business, have created false impressions of the emerging technology of the past few years. Over to Levine...
"The whole point of setting this studio up is that we believe in having a very easy working relationship. We don't believe in suffering for our Art! I mean, obviously, we work hard and we work long hours, but to help us we had this studio ergonomically designed in terms of where things are positioned, the size of the control room - to give maximum comfort - and where and how all the keyboards are maintained. And we've read interviews in some magazines where people have said: 'This is my set-up.' And it's a complete mess! There was some article on this one German guy who's got eight Roland MicroComposers and it showed this flow chart of how things were connected - and it looked a complete mess! I cannot believe it and I'm completely shocked because I know a lot of people just starting out read these interviews and assume that's the way it is.
"Also, people are continually slagging off MIDI. But MIDI is extremely good. It works very well. You know, it's no big deal. It's only a communication bus but some people seem to have their life ruled by it. There are one or two aspects of it which are perhaps a little bit of a grey area, but if you know where these are, you can work around them.
"But I've worked with sequencers since the day they first came out, so all these things are nothing compared with the problems I used to have. Years ago, even just a simple thing like a synthesizer going out of tune was a major headache in the studio. I've worked with every conceivable computer programmed sequencer - from the Roland CSQ-100, to the Prophet switch type, to the ARP ones that had the sixteen click thing that you'd line the notes up with. I've worked with an ARP 2600 synth also - in fact, I've just bought an ARP 1600 which I'm very pleased to have as part of my set-up here. But people just make such a big deal out of MIDI and sequencing.
"Up until recently we used the Yamaha QX1 sequencer with great success but that wasn't a popular machine - people didn't realise how brilliant it was. It was a really excellent machine. The only problem was it wouldn't record an external sync signal, but there are ways around that as well. Our problem was we were always running out of tracks because the QX1 only has eight. We were finding we were doing more and more things before we actually put them on tape. So then we changed over to the Steinberg Pro-24.
"We don't use the Fairlight II's sequencer anymore because it hasn't kept pace with technology and I find Page R - although it is very good for programming drum parts - is not particularly good if you start doing polyphonic things. And CAPS [the sequencing software for the new Series III Fairlight] has been so slow in coming out - we can't wait for that. Undoubtedly, it is going to be very good when it does arrive but it isn't here at the moment, and it's not going to be ready until July at the earliest which is too far away for us - we can make a couple of hit albums by then!
"Julian [Lindsay-Levine's programmer] and I both have a Steinberg/Atari system, which is good because if he programmes something at home he can bring in the disk - or if we work on something here in the studio, he can take the disk home to do some fine editing. So we have both got an identical set-up here in the studio and at home. And I think basically the Steinberg is brilliant! We have just got the SMP-24 synchroniser, which I must say does improve it immensely."
Before getting the SMP-24, Levine did experience problems trying to sync the Steinberg Pro-24 to the two Sony digital multitracks he uses. Now, with the SMP-24 he has not experienced any problems in this regard. A quick recap on the basic merits of the Steinberg Pro-24 when used in conjunction with SMP-24 is in order at this juncture...
The Pro-24 software runs on an Atari ST computer and allows up to 24 tracks of MIDI-controlled instruments, effects and sounds to be recorded as a sequence on a 3.5-inch floppy disk. The Atari 1040ST - which allows full and best use of the Steinberg's facilities because of its one megabyte of onboard memory (RAM) - allows incredibly complex sequences to be developed. Pitch bend, tempo changes, you name it... The Steinberg has - arguably - the most extensive MIDI editing facilities available and basically, if it's MIDI information, the Steinberg stores it on disk as part of a sequence.
Its partner, the SMP-24 synchroniser, allows sync-to-tape for total editing creativity and control. For example: a recording is built up, firstly by recording MIDI information on the Steinberg which is then synchronised to a tape machine via SMPTE timecode. Live instruments are then played and recorded on tape in sync with the Steinberg via SMPTE. Then, if a synthesizer part needs to be changed, you simply go back to the Steinberg, load the disk containing the sequence you wish to alter, edit bits as required and re-record the edited section once again. In my opinion, the most cost-effective two thousand-ish pounds you'll ever spend. Back to Levine....
"We occasionally experience a hiccup with the system, but in most instances we find we can sequence parts quicker than doing them manually, plus they're a damn sight better! And we have the facility that if we record a part and I come to mix it and it's not quite right, we can quickly re-do it. The track we're working on today is an exact example - the brass (sequenced on the Steinberg) wasn't quite right, so we re-did it just before I mixed it. Julian had the patch all set up and it was just: Away we go!
"I think Julian will agree with me when I say that he probably knows the Steinberg system better than anyone else. And I think it is very important that when somebody comes into a studio like ours, the people that work here all the time should know precisely what's going on, because they'll occasionally be called upon by clients for advice.
"There are a lot of people in this industry who just do not know what they are doing with the equipment. There's loads of people who do not know what they are doing with the Fairlight, for instance. I mean, they're just absolute buffoons with it! I'm not saying I know the Fairlight as well as the people in Australia but I do know it very, very well. But I've seen other people with it that are buffoons and I have an example - where, unfortunately, I can't quote the person - but a guy was booked to do Fairlight programming on a session and when he was down here, he asked me a question about the Fairlight - like could I tell him something? He didn't know, and there is something seriously wrong with that situation. After all, he is the one who's getting paid as a programmer! And there was the poor client saying, 'I've got this great programmer coming down.' But if that programmer had to ask me that question, then it's clear he doesn't have a fundamental understanding of the Fairlight."
Every day, it seems, more studios and musicians at all levels are going for the Steinberg system, to the point that it has nigh well become an 'industry standard' in Europe, though various sequencing packages that run on the Apple Mac apparently dominate the studio scene in America. I suggested to Levine that his move to using the Pro-24/SMP-24 in favour of Fairlight's Page R sequencer - which he already had - was a very important endorsement of the product.
"Absolutely, and I've said that to Fairlight. Here is a system that is absolutely perfect. It really does do the job. And although the Fairlight sequencing isn't as good, overall the Fairlight is still the only machine that will give us the high quality sound sampling we need. There is nothing on the market which is better.
"We've tried everything, including the Synclavier, and there isn't anything else that sounds better and is as easy to use. To be fair, there are a few things the Synclavier does that are better than the Fairlight. It is definitely a case of whichever system you prefer, so I shouldn't really say one is better than the other."
The topic of conversation changed to that of the usefulness and ease of operation of Levine's two Sony digital multitrack machines.
"It's so easy to sync these two 24-tracks. I'll show you how easy it is in a moment. When people go on about digital editing being a problem, and all this sort of stuff, it really annoys me. I see these features in Studio Week and they are a great example - totally misleading! They did a whole big feature on digital recording and they never asked me for one single comment on it. And, as you might know, I had the first digital multitrack machine. I've been using it longer than anyone else and consequently I think I'm more familiar with digital recording than anyone else. The trouble is that record company A&R men pick that magazine up - they might just flip through it - and take what they read to be gospel. I think that publications like Studio Week have a moral obligation to get their facts straight. I read about A&R men saying digital this and digital that, and you can't do this and you can't do that...
You can do everything you can do on an analogue machine - and more - on a digital tape machine and you've got far superior sound quality."
The following is a basic explanation of how Levine carries out some operations using the Sony digital multitrack recorders. The main two subjects we covered were the physical editing of Sony digital 24-track tape and Sony synchronisation routines. These examples are intended to give an indication of how easy it is to use these machines in order to lay some digital myths to rest, not to provide a substitute for the Sony owner's manuals.
"First of all, on the last project we did - a 12-inch single for Funk Crew - I copied the multitrack digitally; it doesn't lose a generation. I copied five different sections of the multitrack that we needed and I spliced the whole thing up, physically cutting and splicing the multitrack tape.
"I wear rubber gloves when I'm doing this because you have to be very careful with the tape. Sweat damages it and you can crush it. You have to wear gloves, use a clean razor blade and place the tape in the special digital editing block very carefully. The tape is so fragile that you mustn't use a chinagraph pencil to mark your edit points; you have to use a felt pen because when you draw the chinagraph down the tape you can crimp it.
"So, obviously, you have to be a little bit more careful than with analogue tape. And you don't have to use too much splicing tape. The tape heads are so tiny - if you use an inch of splicing tape, the wrap around the head is affected and you get a severe signal drop-out. So I tend to use a tiny little bit, approximately one centimetre long.
"I now had five edits from the original multitrack tape, so I spliced them together to form the 12-inch track on the slave multitrack machine. Before recording the overdubs we made another copy of the tape I had just put together, because you can't record over a physical splice. Obviously, the SMPTE synchronisation track on the copied tape will now have jumbled-up code because of the edit points. The timecode numbers won't be consecutive. So to solve any potential problem, we re-striped the tape with a new piece of code that went from zero to seven minutes - or whatever the end figure was - and then we overdubbed again. Julian ran the Steinberg in sync with the new code and we added new instruments to our newly-made backing track. Not one edit failed. It was absolutely perfect. We played back off the master multitrack machine into the SRC timecode reader, out of the SRC on to the slave recorder's code track, and then all the other tracks were transferred digitally.
"To lock the two Sony multitracks together (to give you 46 recordable tracks or to allow digital transfers of sections of one tape to another), if you have zero code on both machines - which we try to do wherever possible - all you do is this: You press SLAVE, CLEAR, STORE, and SYNC OFST (sync offset) on the slave machine, then you press PLAY on the master machine and the two tape machines lock together in a second. (The master now controls the transport mechanism of both machines.)
"Both tapes have to have codes that are exactly the same. So you stripe the tape before you use it - with the control code for the Sony machines, not a SMPTE code.
"If you want to do something more fancy - for example, you like a brass line that is on a song intro and you want it at a later point in the arrangement - all you do is first press PLAY on the master machine and STOP when you've located the brass line. You then take the slave machine off SLAVE (so that it's not controlled by the master machine) and you advance the tape and then STOP at the appropriate point in the arrangement where you want the brass line to come in. You then press SLAVE, STORE and SYNC OFST on the slave machine. It then calculates what the offset is.
"If that's not right - you might not have hit the STOP button absolutely bang on - then you press RECALL, then SYNC OFST, and then you can adjust the offset time (the difference in tape position) between the two machines, plus-or-minus a millisecond at a time, until the two machines are absolutely synchronised as you want them.
"The easiest way is to have an identical 'cue' track recorded on both machines so that you can check for phasing. The other way you can do it is to hand edit by moving the tape capstan manually. If you record something on the Sony's analogue track, you can then listen to it when cueing up the machines, like on a normal tape machine. Then you just press SHIFT, which loads the stationary time into the memory, and then that becomes your offset time.
"Any transfers between the two machines - track-to-track, or through my patchbay any track to any other track - can all be done digitally so there is no loss of quality. For example, if I've got several vocal tracks on the master machine but I want them on tracks on the slave machine, I could patch two leads to directly transfer them digitally, with no loss of quality. If I want to bounce the tracks together, I bring them up through the DDA mixing desk and then bounce them across to the slave machine. In most cases with vocals, you tend to add things like compression, or gate them or something, to get them nice and clean. And that's it - finished. It's that simple.
"People make such a big deal about working with digital tape machines when, in fact, it is so easy. People who slag off this technology have nowhere near the experience of it that I have. Probably they haven't even seen a digital tape machine! There are only two things you can't do on a digital machine - you can't play the tape backwards, and you can't play it at half-speed - but you can varispeed it up and down a significant amount."
Interview by Ralph Denyer
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