State Of Independence
Dave Stewart On Going It Alone In The Music Biz | Dave Stewart
The major record company route is not the only one to musical success. Dave Stewart has successfully avoided the majors and still manages to make a good living from his home-produced music. Here, he charts his musical history.
Despite having completely avoided the major record companies, Dave Stewart and partner Barbara Gaskin have been making a successful living from music for over 10 years, building up a healthy fan base at home and abroad. Here he reflects on a pop career which went disastrously right.
My fabulous pop career started way back in the incense-filled, patchouli-scented late '60s, when the term 'band' was first applied to those pop combos brave enough to grow their hair one and a half inches longer than the rest and have their legs surgically remodelled to fit the bell-shaped trousers of the time. Like anyone else with any sense, I had the leg operation, borrowed a Vox Continental organ, learned a chord, and bluffed my way into a band — a blues/psychedelic group called Uriel, formed by embryonic cosmic guitar twanger and school chum Steve Hillage.
You learn fast when you're 17, and Uriel developed rapidly from a fumbling blues band playing at the school dance to a complex experimental outfit playing at Slough Tech. Somewhere along the line, Steve Hillage left, the hair got seven or eight inches longer, and the name (which, some idiotic manager insisted, sounded too much like Urinal) was grudgingly changed to Egg. Later came Hatfield & The North, National Health and Bruford, brainchild/surname of drummer Bill (he of Yes fame). The latter band, with John Clark on guitar, Jeff Berlin on bass, me on keyboards and Bill on drums, were pretty popular in the USA, and for a couple of years we touted our eccentric brand of virtuosic so-called 'jazz rock' round the US club circuit. By this time, the emergence of the punk movement began to detract from our efforts somewhat. If the British music press were to be believed, people like me who knew how to play their instruments were reactionary fascist bastards of the first order. Naturally, I objected to this mindless anti-musical stance (as well as all the gobbing, and so forth), but the real body blow was the return to drainpipe trousers. Many of us simply could not afford the expense of a second leg operation, and quit the business for good.
Trouser-related problems apart, none of the above-mentioned bands rose much above 'cult' status, and none were ever invited to appear on Top Of The Pops. But that was OK — for us, the charts had no credibility at all, and the idea of rubbing shoulders, or even appearing in a list with the likes of Mud or Showaddywaddy was about as appealing as a red hot poker up the bum. No, the idea was simply to play some good, original music, and in attempting to do that each band in turn built up a small but intensely dedicated audience, some of whom still write to me today asking when Egg will reform! Any sort of A&R interference with these groups' music was completely out of the question. If someone at the record company so much as hinted at a musical change, the atmosphere became violent. This 'hands off' approach is known as musical integrity, and it's what you have to have if you don't want a record deal nowadays.
By now it was 1981, and by rights I should have become a cynical old fart and quit the business. Instead, I became a cynical old fart and hung on. Legs suitably reshaped at an expensive Harley Street clinic, I continued my rather odd relationship with the music biz by releasing a single under my own name. To tell the truth, after 12 years I was a little tired of group politics and wanted to indulge some of my wilder sonic instincts by recording solo. The song in question was the Jimmy Ruffin classic 'What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted', and the guest vocalist was velvet-voiced matinee idol Colin Blunstone (once of The Zombies, a pop combo even more ancient than Egg). Though releasing the single was initially just an act of mad bravado on my part, it surprised everyone (especially me) by zooming up the chart, and bingo — before you could gutturally bellow 'sell out', there I was on Top Of The Pops, looking very sheepish and standing at the back in a dark overcoat in case any National Health fans spotted me.
Emboldened by the British public's inexplicable desire to exchange money for three and a half minutes of my miserable synthesized rumblings, I recorded a daft version of the whingeing, lachrymose teen lament 'It's My Party' with my friend Barbara Gaskin on vocals. Despite the fact that I had just had a conspicuously successful and profitable debut single, virtually every UK record company turned this down. (The ones I could get to see, that is — the others wouldn't return my calls). Shows how much they know — this record also zoomed to the top of the UK singles chart like a rat up a drainpipe, and lodged there for four weeks. Barbara and I were stunned. We'd only done it for a laugh, but now people were hailing us as 'geniuses'. Fortunately, I was too paranoid, and Barbara too sensible, to believe them.
The two singles were recorded on basic, and distinctly unsexy equipment. I had two synthesizers, an amusing but crude device called a 'Claptrap' (which was supposed to resemble handclaps, but sounded more like crushed crisp packets), and a Simmons SDSV kit that went 'doum', 'kaf' and 'tish'. Everything had to be played live (apart from the Claptrap, which could play on demand a relentless 4/4 beat at some unpredictable and unrepeatable tempo), nothing could be synched to tape, and the synths went out of tune every 15 minutes. But I learned something when recording these tracks — never let the bloody machines get the better of you. The natural inclination of that particular set of gear was to sound crude and unmusical, but by varying and tweaking the sounds a lot and subtly changing the tempo here and there (a major headache involving 2-inch tape edits!), we managed to impart some nuances and avoid that awful mechanical, repetitive quality that epitomises so much synthesizer pop.
After our 10 minutes of fame — it's not much fun, by the way; simply a license for complete strangers to ring up and invite you to open sports shops in Croydon — it was time to take the plunge, and spend some of the royalties. Determined to avoid the old cliches of buying one's parents a house in the country, or becoming a heroin addict, I decided nevertheless to spend the cash as wastefully as possible, and promptly went out and bought cart loads of recording equipment. Nothing too heavy at first... a Portastudio here, a Yamaha REV7 there... I thought I could handle it. But soon I was on to the hard stuff, like the AMS RMX16 digital reverb and Sony PCM-F1 digital processor.
It was time also to make musical policy decisions; Barbara and I saw that a lot of people had enjoyed our single (even if the majority of them were only four years old), and decided we would continue our collaboration. As we were by now living together, this was one of the easiest and happiest decisions I have had to take. In early 1982 we began work on our first album, unwittingly embarking on a long and fruitful recording career which spans one decade, and looks set to last a good couple more.
Time to fast forward again. Barbara and I spent much of the next few years banged up in other peoples' 24 track studios — Trident, Good Earth, Spaceward, Matrix; the first three defunct, the last still going strong — learning our craft and evolving our musical style. We chose not to sign a deal with a British record company, having seen at first hand their lack of judgement over 'It's My Party' (An 'uncommercial' record which sold over 750,000 copies in the UK). Instead, we set up our own Broken Records label and proceeded to license our tracks to companies round the world who liked our stuff; financing our own recording and artwork, then leasing the masters to a company to manufacture and distribute the records/CDs/tapes. Unlike a recording contract, where the record company pays the studio bills and owns the recordings forever, the artists retain the long term recording rights, and get a higher percentage to reflect their initial investment. In return for an exclusive but temporary license, the licensee pays an advance which (hopefully) covers all recording and artwork costs and leaves the group with some profit. Obviously, this system won't work for everybody — you need capital and contacts. Barbara and I had both, and found it an ideal way to retain artistic control, while avoiding all the corporate bullshit that comes with a record deal; endless, arbitrary demands for remixes and 12-inch versions (which always struck me as completely pointless), interminable delays, people in 'meetings' or at lunch all the time, and interference in musical direction — who needs it? Barbara and I have made a decent living by licensing our albums to good, friendly companies in Japan, USA and Germany, and though our relative lack of profile in the UK sometimes frustrates us, I don't think we would have survived as a musical entity (or indeed, as sane human beings) if we'd signed to EMI or CBS.
By 1986, aided by the 'cheap gear revolution' spearheaded by companies like Fostex, we had amassed enough equipment to set up our own recording studio at home. I was, and am, a quality freak who agonises over hi-hat EQ's and can spot distortion or tape hiss at 100 paces, but it became obvious even to me that shelling out large amounts of money for rooms containing Studer 24-tracks, Dolby 'A' and SSL desks was not the most sensible way to go. The technology was there to get a great sound in your living room, provided you bought intelligently and recorded carefully. We bought a Fostex B16 (later upgraded to the G24S) and never looked back. One of our albums, The Big Idea, contains tracks that were recorded on a B16 and mixed at home, alongside others that were produced on the above mentioned Studer/Dolby 'A'/SSL combination. There is no difference in quality to my ears, which is pretty remarkable given the price differential! Below is our current home studio equipment list, and here, at last, are some words on how we use it.
Our studio comprises two rooms, the main recording studio (Room 1) and a smaller demo room (Room 2). All the final recording and mixing takes place in Room 1, with Room 2 used as a vocal booth. We cannot, at this stage, record loud or large items like drum kits or Welsh choirs in our house, but that's OK — given the portability and excellent, clean quality of the G24S tape recorder and 2412 mixer, we can easily uproot, bung the gear in the car, move to another studio with a good live room, capture the overdub and bring it back to our lair. As I spend an inordinate amount of time in Room 1 mumbling distractedly over a hot sequencer, these occasional forays provide a welcome change of scenery and stop me from going completely bonkers.
The first step in recording a track is to do a thoroughly worked out, sequenced version of the backing track (which can also double as a stage version), and record it onto DAT. This will typically involve four or five MIDI modules (currently featuring the Korg gear heavily), one or two samplers and an E-mu SP1200 dram track. The DAT mix is piped via tie lines into Room 2 and recorded on two tracks of Barbara's B16; she can then experiment with lead and backing vocal ideas over the pre-mixed backing while I move on to my next masterpiece. Room 1 contains two mixing desks: a TAC Scorpion 32:8:2 (purchased in 1986 with the proceeds from a TV soundtrack job) and a newly-acquired Fostex 2412. The TAC handles the tape and outboard returns, while the Fostex desk takes all the instrument and microphone inputs — the stereo outs of the 2412 run into two auxiliary channels on the TAC. The two desks are interchangeable quality-wise, but the compact, light Fostex 2412 is the one I take out on gigs!
Much of what I do is based on the idea of repeatability, so I tend to leave my keyboard/module outputs and desk EQ and fader settings at pre-determined levels. That way, I can change between sequencer versions of different songs without having to drastically reset everything. Generally speaking, the old analogue synths and 12-bit SP1200 samples need a bit of brightening up, but the digital synths and workstations sound great at source, and can be EQ'd internally if the need arises. One habit I have retained from the early '80s is the practice of running my old Prophet V, DX7 and TX7s through battered old Roland RE301 Chorus Echo units, whose chorus effect imparts a nice warm stereo spread to those potentially harsh mono sounds. Engineers have pleaded with me to find clean, digital substitutes for the mushy 301s, but I've yet to find a unit that can give such a nice effect.
Once Barbara has explored all the vocal possibilities of a song on her 16-track demo, we'll start recording the song for real on the 24-track. First thing to go down is a stereo mix of the sequencer version, synched to tape via a Roland SBX80. At this point, all tempo changes in the original sequenced version have to be duplicated in the SBX80, which can be laborious if accelerandos or rallentandos were used. The stereo backing track is only recorded for guide purposes, but it's nice to record something so complete-sounding so early on. (One recalls with a shudder days spent recording sampled bass drum parts at Spaceward studios) Next, we'll usually record a sequenced hi-hat playing fours all the way through the song, as a tempo guide for sections where the music stops or the drums drop out. Then, when I'm satisfied that everything is synching properly (if there's a drop-out on the time code track, now's the time to find out), Barbara records a guide vocal.
In contrast to the keyboards, which are extremely easy to record, the vocals need some thought. Engineers often thoughtlessly slap compressors or limiters across lead vocals, but I don't like the clouding effect this has on Barbara's beautiful natural tone. To accurately reproduce her sound on tape, we use a Neumann U47 microphone (there go the Australian royalties), very little EQ and no processing. To cope with sibilance (sometimes a problem, as Barbara sings rather quietly) and variations of dynamics, we've developed a recording technique where I manually ride the vocal to tape, boosting the quieter low notes and pulling back the 'esses' and louder high notes. This can create hairy moments, especially if I lose concentration and inadvertently push a high note on the word 'sausages' up 20dB, but mostly it works very well. In fact, since she bought the U47, Barbara's microphone technique has got so good that the need for level riding is minimal.
With five of the 24 tracks already occupied (stereo backing track, guide hi-hat, guide vocal, time code), it's time to think about any jobs that might require loads of tracks. Backing vocals always require loads of tracks. On the megalomaniac, anti-everything opus 'New Jerusalem' on our album The Big Idea, we recorded a 25-voice Welsh choir on the choruses at a studio in Caernarfon. There were only three parts, but we recorded each part separately in stereo, and double-tracked them. Barbara normally only uses six tracks for her backing vocals (three parts, double tracked), which we bounce to mono, but on the occasional anthemic chorus (as on the ranting 'Trash Planet', from our most recent album, Spin) she might use 10 tracks or more. Experience has shown us that in her case, triple and quadruple tracking can be counterproductive, because her singing is so consistently accurate that phase cancellation between the tracks often occurs! We always record our backing vocals on to DAT at the same time as bouncing them down; these are very useful samples for live gigs, and as sonic material for me to mess around with. However, we never 'fly in' sampled backing vocals from one part of a song to another — this goes against our philosophy of trying for an organic, non-repetitive feel.
The next stage in recording a song is to look at all the sequenced MIDI parts and see which ones should be separately recorded to tape. Some parts can stay 'off tape' (unrecorded) and run live in the mix, others may need to be recorded for specific guide purposes. (For example, a percussionist overdubbing on one of our tracks might want to hear the sequenced percussion very loud in the headphones, so we'll record it on a pair of tracks). Other sequencer-driven parts may require the sound of three or four modules blended together to optimise their sound, so they will be recorded. This leaves the traditional, played keyboard overdubs; generally speaking, I play all my solos and most of the bass lines direct to tape. Being only human, I have to drop in sometimes, but the automated drop in and out facility on the G24S's synchroniser card gets me out of trouble when I make a mistake.
There are two more important steps on the road to recording a track, which we can call 'lead vocal' and 'fairy dust'. Space and time (and, I dare say, other dimensions not yet discovered by man) do not permit a detailed examination of these processes, nor of the vital mixing and digital editing stages that follow, but suffice it to say that recording a lead vocal depends more on everyone being in a good mood than everything else, and the 'fairy dust' phase is where imagination runs riot, samplers and outboard devices really earn their keep, and I have my most fun! Maybe there'll be time to write more about this later, but for now I must return to room 1 and resume battle with our latest untitled, and supremely unfinished, album. Thanks for reading, and sorry if the above was A) too technical, B) not technical enough.
On The Record
Feature by Dave Stewart
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