Stranger than fiction
At the controls with one of Britain’s freshest guitar bands
Record companies like to attach strings when they stump up for recording sessions or equipment. Carte blanche doesn't come until that first platinum LP. But Scottish band Strangeways are pioneers of surefooted self-production. Chris Kempster digs the new breed...
As with so many artists in recent years, Strangeways are a band who've taken matters into their own hands, turning their backs on record companies in the quest for artistic freedom. Their own facility in Lincolnshire provides a stress-free environment in which to create and record their music. As we sit in their spacious front room, seemingly made smaller by the presence of a Red Setter and slobbering Great Dane, lead singer and guitarist Ian Stewart takes up the story of how the band got together.
"David (Stewart, bass) and I played in the same band in the early '80s, gigging a lot around Glasgow. Then about ten years ago we came down to London, looking for a record deal - the usual story. We got one with an independent company, made some line-up changes, and got in Jim Drummond (drums) - and that was it. We played anywhere and everywhere, recording three albums at Power Play studios in Zurich. We kept going back 'cos it was a great place to be. It was all on the back of a major deal - a real 'learning experience'. It was through an independent company that was licensed through RCA in New York and REO in Germany."
After making three albums in a conventional way, what prompted Strangeways to go it alone?
"Well, we had the usual bust-up with the record company a few years ago, and decided we needed the freedom to do what we wanted when we wanted. So we started to look for someone to back us, and get the gear we needed to get our own facility together. The first person we went to was John Henry, as we had always used his facilities and had known him for a long time, plus he was a big fan of the band. We did some 4-track demos live on a Tascam 4-track, and he liked it and gave us an Akai 12-track recorder."
In fact, John Henry liked the results so much that he gave them carte blanche to put together a list of gear which they wanted for a studio of their own, and this included an Amek Einstein desk, Fostex G24S multitrack and Lexicon PCM70, amongst others. How did the band's interest in recording develop over the years?
"The very first album was a total learning experience for us. I think when you go into the business with a major deal and no experience of the business, you tend to keep your mouth shut. In retrospect that was the wrong way to make an album, because the band has little input. At home, in contrast, we can be laying things down and the lack of pressure means you get great takes. You get things going when you have that freedom. You're relaxed, whereas in a studio you have time allocated and you have to perform in that time. Our music is now so live-orientated that it has to be right at the time, and it's a great way to do it. It's great to have everything set up ready to go."
Strangeways' latest album, And The Horse, was recorded by themselves using their current gear, but in a different location to where they are now.
"We got it together in another building - in fact, we had all our gear in an old church about 15 miles from here which in the course of things we lost (the church, not the gear) but we ended up with this place, which is great. We were in a big church room for the album and we took the tape machine down to John Henry who had a big rehearsal room, and did all the drum tracks there with a live desk. He's got a Soundcraft - we stuck everything through that live and cut all the drum tracks in that room, and then came up here into the church. The main recording room is 30 feet - a huge room, so we had everything in there and just did all the overdubs there."
Acoustics can sometimes be a problem when recording and mixing in a room not specifically built for the purpose. But this aspect of recording is not particularly the most important area for Strangeways.
"To be perfectly honest with you, the technicalities of that never interested me. They are there, and some people treat them very very seriously, especially the bass frequencies and stuff like that. It is very difficult to gauge them, but once you have learnt the room and use near field monitoring, nine times out of ten you can achieve what you want to achieve. The emphasis for us is very much on the playing aspect, everything else (soundwise) can be got back. Something else we learnt on this album was the influence cutting has on a record. It's incredible how they can cover a wealth of mistakes, but they can also add a great vibe to it - it's unbelievable. It generally sharpens it up. We even mastered a track from cassette. Nick Griffiths (who mixed the album) came back up when we were sequencing the album to go through all the tracks. I played him the cassette of the track 'Through The Wire', to set the scene, and he just went 'gosh'! All we had was the cassette, so we mastered it from that, and it still sounds great."
With so many new project studios opting for digital 8-track systems, Strangeways opted for a more traditional route in the form of a Fostex G24S.
"We love it. We've used the best in lots of studios, so you really know how to judge things and how to measure things. At Power Play in Switzerland we used Otari MTR90 machines and SLR desks, and we've mixed in places like Olympic studios in London. So you really have a lot to measure how good this stuff is. Quality-wise, I think if you were to put an MTR90 against the Fostex and record in the same environment, and ask people to do an AB test, they would be hard pushed. We find Dolby S very good. You can hit the tape really really hard and listen to it come back, and it sounds pretty much like the way you put it down. That's what you want for your money, plus it's a really good, logical machine."
Moving on to their choice of desks, the band settled on the Amek Einstein, a popular desk in project studios for its versatility and cost-effectiveness.
"The desk is a revelation - I just love it. We went through a whole bunch of packages. We had the choice of three packages - A, B, and C, and that was the A package. We wanted it because it's automated, and we can expand it as well. It's got a good patch bay, double sets of EQ (on monitor and channel signal paths), lots of effects sends - all the things you want, basically. It's brilliant; idiot-proof."
Not many home studios can boast automated mixing, but this band have it covered, courtesy of the Supertrue automation on the Einstein. But do you need a maths degree to operate it, or can the average personal studio get to grips with such professional gear?
"It's dead easy. You switch the monitor on and it gives you a readout of all 48 faders that are in use. We're also looking forward to getting an upgrade called 'Virtual Dynamics', which adds dynamic processing to the system."
Guitars are obviously a major ingredient in the Strangeways sound, and recording them in a one-room studio (without separate control room and live room) could present problems, so how do they go about recording guitar parts?
"The whole philosophy behind what we do is to get the levels, and then turn all the faders down on the desk. So with that you can really thrash it all down as loud as you want and not have anything circulating back round the mics. We basically mic up cabs with a Shure Beta 57 - it works really well. Sometimes we use radio systems, which is quite effective instead of using leads - they compress a little bit but you still get a good signal."
When it comes to recording bass, everything is DI'd - they find that the Steinberger needs very little doing to it to get a good sound, while the fretless needs a touch of compression. Glancing at the drum kit set up in the corner, I wonder where the usual clutter of microphones is, until I notice some tiny contact mics attached to each dram. They're little AKG contact mics, and they sound fantastic. The band use them in conjunction with Beyer MCE81 overheads.
As with many studios where tracks are at a premium, effects are generally left to mixdown, except for those on guitars which go straight to tape. On backing tracks, whatever sound comes from the guitar cab will be used, so long as it's relevant. Although they're quite happy with their studio setup as it is, as usual there's always something else that could make their studio a better place to work.
"The next major thing will be more modules (for the Amek) and another tape machine, because the way the band plays you can do two or three takes of different instruments. Not every one of them is going to be good but you can't come back to it a month or so later to decide whether to mic it. With 24 tracks you tend to have to make these decisions earlier, and I'd like to have the luxury of having another machine, another chance of building things."
With a nationwide tour in prospect, followed by the start of work on their next album, Strangeways are very happy with the way things are going. Having their own studio has freed up their creative processes, and relieved them of the pressures piled on by record companies. More importantly, it has given them the control over the recording process that was lacking in their earlier albums. The result of this new freedom is And The Horse, and we've ten copies of the CD to give away. See side panel for details.
On The Re:Mix CD:
03 The Great Awakening
This disk has been archived in full and disk images and further downloads are available at Archive.org - Re:Mix #2.
Interview by Chris Kempster
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