We highlight three recording studios that place the emphasis on music hardware rather than expensive recording equipment: in order of price, East London Community Studio, Hollow Sun, and Computer Music Studios.
With the possibilities afforded by multitrack sequencing becoming greater by the moment, we highlight three recording studios that take the emphasis away from complex recording equipment and place it instead on music and computer hardware. Dan Goldstein and Paul White
There was a time - not all that long ago - when only the likes of residential 24-track recording establishments provided a decent range of electronic musical instruments as part of their service to customers, and the ill-equipped synthesist wanting to get his/her music on tape was forced either to pay those studios' formidable hourly rates (even though only a third of the tracks available would be likely to see any use) or to spend a small fortune on hiring instruments into four- or eight-track facilities.
However, the recent trend towards multitrack recording of instrument parts - brought on by the advent of MIDI and its related computer interfaces - has led many musicians away from magnetic tape storage towards solid state memory for their compositions. As a result, there seem to be a growing number of studios offering more in the way of musical hardware than recording gear, and their popularity among synth players is increasing daily.
A small flat above an off-licence round the corner from West Ham United's football ground may not sound a very likely location for one of London's busiest synthesiser recording venues, but then again, East London Community Studios is not exactly a common or garden setup. For one thing, their range of music hardware gives potential for more tracks of real time recording than the mind can comfortably conceive, and for another, use of the studio's facilities is absolutely free, without charge, and for nothing.
There is a catch, of course. Your musical output must come up to the high standards set by the studio's owners, but if you're lucky enough to be selected for some studio time, ELCS offers a veritable treasure trove of synth equipment both old and new.
The studio is run full-time by Tony Chapman, who started the venture in order to provide a facility where musicians could come in and work at their leisure, without the constraints imposed by having to pay for the services of a commercial studio and the continuous clock-watching that implies. His enthusiasm is for just about any sort of music so long as it's composed and performed in an original way, and it was the lack of such music being commercially-available that first put the idea of ELCS into his head.
The recording side of the studio's hardware revolves around a TEAC A3440 four-track recorder (for which Tony has boundless praise) and an RSD 16-into-4 desk (ditto), and for the present there are no plans to take the number of tracks any further, simply because the music equipment offers so much in the way of storage capability.
Star of the music hardware line-up is a full Sequential Circuits 'Traks Music System', complete with SixTrak poly-synth, Drumtraks percussion machine, Commodore 64 home micro, CBM64 interface/sequencer and black and white monitor. Not surprisingly, this system has proved popular with both Tony and the people who use his studio, but that hasn't detracted from the possibilities offered by ECLS' older analogue equipment, which includes a Yamaha CS15 ('a brilliant machine: you can do almost anything with it if you work on it long enough' - TC), a Solina string synth, and the popular Roland combination of SH101 monosynth and MC202 microcomposer. Latest acquisition is a Roland Juno 106, which offers a 'completely different set of sounds to the SixTrak', and just about all bits of gear can be interfaced together by the use of ingenious clocking devices that Chapman has either 'discovered' in music dealers ignorant of what they were really capable of or built from scratch.
At the time of writing, East London Community Studios are entirely self-sufficient, and it's not a state of affairs that's likely to change in the near future, as Tony explains.
'When we first started, we wrote to all the equipment distributors and manufacturers asking them to donate gear, but none of them helped, so we had to go it alone, financing the studio from my accountant partner's income and a little bit of money I managed to earn from repairing bits of audio equipment and building electronics projects for people.'
But given that they offer their facilities entirely free of charge, why didn't ELCS go to a government organisation for funds?
'Well, we did consider it, but the way I see things is that as soon as you accept backing from organisations, you compromise your independence. You lose total control over what you record and what you don't, and that's something we've never wanted to do, even though it would have made things easier.'
Perhaps not surprisingly, ELCS are constantly inundated with demo tapes from musicians and composers hoping to make use of their generous facilities, despite the fact that the studio's major - indeed only - form of promotion is by word of mouth. Tony doesn't deny that most applicants are unsuccessful, but if a particular group of musicians do get to win ELCS' seal of approval, they'll find they don't just get an eight-hour day in which to find out how to use all the studio's facilities, perform a series of pieces, and then record and mix them.
'It's not unusual for us to let someone just stay in here and muck about with the synths before they even start recording. It's almost impossible for anybody to come to a synth for the first time and do brilliant things with it, so it's pointless asking people to. If we're enthusiastic about someone's music, if they're doing something that's fresh and original, we'll give them as much time here as we can.'
That attitude, of course, results in a full diary and a long waiting list of budding composers, but Tony is happy so long as what they're doing is interesting, and so long as their music can stand up to being reproduced outside his studio.
'I can't deny the fact that a recording studio enables a musician to do things that aren't possible live, but the beauty of our enormous sequencing capability is that it allows you to perform the music you've recorded on stage as well, and we've always considered that a very important part of our work - encouraging people to make their music live as well as in the studio.'
So, with only another ten years or so of HP repayments ahead of them before ELCS becomes financially viable, the electronic musicians of East London look to have a bright future ahead of them, with a free studio whose proprietors (if that's the right word) are as committed enthusiasts of new music as you're likely to find.
Moving a good 250 miles westward, we find E&MM contributor Steve Howell (he of Modular Synthesis fame) and his Cardiff synth studio, Hollow Sun. Steve is one step ahead of ELCS in that his recording facility is based around eight-track equipment, but then again, Hollow Sun doesn't claim to offer its services free of charge...
Steve first got into recording about six years ago in a very basic way, using two Sony domestic reel-to-reel machines to record his own synthesiser compositions and, although this was very limiting, it did provide a valuable grounding in studio techniques. With such a simple system, a lot of thought has to be given to track organisation and life is a constant battle against noise but, judging by Steve's early tapes, he was wringing the last ounce of performance from his equipment, and that resulted in some impressive-sounding demos.
The original intention was for Steve to record only his own work, but a number of people, impressed by the results he was getting, persuaded him to take on work for other musicians, predominantly synth players.
Almost by accident, Steve got into writing TV music after being asked to provide incidental music for a play, and in fact the majority of his work is now for television. I asked him what differences there are in producing incidental music as opposed to pieces of composition in their own right.
'Yes, there are big differences. The approach has to be much more disciplined when you have to fit the music into specific lengths of time, typically 30 seconds or so, and of course what you record has to be sympathetic to the subject matter of the TV programme.' The list of Hollow Sun's available equipment is an impressive one. MIDI polysynths are well represented by a Yamaha DX9 and Roland JX3P, but as with ELCS, these by no means overshadow older analogue synths, in this case an ARP 2600 modular synth with an Avatar guitar synth as an expander. Drum machines and sequencers include the Roland Drumatix/Bassline combination and CSQ100 monophonic digital sequencer, while an MPC Sync Track has proved an invaluable syncing aid in recent months, and any of the system's components can be fed through a number of outboard effects such as a Yamaha R1000 reverb, Boss DE200 digital delay, and Ibanez HD1000 harmoniser.
On the recording side, Steve's pride and joy is an eight-track Cadey recorder, a one-off built for one of the directors of the Cadey company. The machine operates with one-inch tape and features valve electronics, while each track has a built-in noise gate that can be switched in and out as required.
'The Cadey does look a bit antiquated', Steve admits. 'But with Branch & Appleby heads and Papst motors, it's built to last, and its basic sound is good. There are no refinements (not even a tape counter!), but it was either this or a Fostex A8 at the price and I think I made the right choice.'
Ask Steve to name the most important musical instrument in his collection, and he won't hesitate in replying...
'Definitely the ARP 2600 modular system - there are so many things you can do on it that simply aren't possible using non-modular synths. That isn't to say that there isn't a place for the polysynth - the DX9 and JX3P are both great synths - but I consider them a supplement to the 2600, rather than vice versa.'
As with any dedicated electronic music studio, it's of paramount importance that the equipment at Hollow Sun should not get in the way of the music and that patching should be as straightforward as possible. To this end, Steve has built two patchbays - one for audio signals and one for CV and trigger connections.
'It was essential really, as trigger connections vary from synth to synth and it's no fun groping around at the back of the equipment trying to trace interface leads - the patchbays make things so much more simple.'
Steve's knowledge of synthesisers and how to record them has extended his studio activities to tuition, though he stresses that this is in the use of equipment rather than playing technique (truth be told, Steve's no mean ivory-tinkler - he just doesn't want to set himself up as an authority on the subject). Hollow Sun as a facility costs musicians £7.50 per hour, but for that you get the studio, use of all the instruments in it, and Steve's expertise: in many cases, he ends up playing as well!
In conclusion, Hollow Sun's geographical location ensures that it's busy for much of the time and is likely to get even busier in the future, while Steve himself is hoping to get more involved in television and film work, though he's already got to the stage where his synthesiser studio has risen in status from being a hobby to becoming his livelihood...
Returning to London, we find another Welshman, Terry Lloyd, at the helm of one of this country's most forward-looking recording facilities, Computer Music Studios.
Originally intended simply as a means of demonstrating the advanced technological equipment Terry sold (he is the official UK importer for such prestigious brand names as Syntauri Corporation and Octave Plateau), CMS' recording equipment (consisting of a Tascam eight-track and RSD 24-into-16 desk) has now become so popular with musicians that the 'shop' part of Computer Music Studios is having to be relocated in a room adjacent to the studio itself.
'We got the eight-track equipment because it's always easier to demonstrate an instrument if you can show a customer how it'll work in a studio,' Terry explained. 'But things have got a bit out of hand. So many people want to use the gear as a recording studio that we're having to put the shop equipment in another room.'
It's not hard to see why.
In addition to the alphaSyntauri and O/P Voyetra systems already mentioned, CMS offer two Apple-based sampling systems in the form of the Decillionix DX1 and Greengate DS3 (see review elsewhere in this issue) add-ons, as well as a full range of hardware from the likes of Roland, Yamaha and MXR.
The studio side of the operation also offers a number of elderly and/or secondhand equipment that nonetheless sees a lot of use, viz a Roland SH2 monosynth and CSQ600 sequencer, and a recently-acquired Simmons SDS5 electronic drum kit.
The Simmons has been surprisingly popular,' Terry reflects. 'A lot of people are using it in conjunction with our MXR drum computer, which is interesting.'
The studio's success can be measured by the fact that the radio and TV jingle clients (who form a large part of CMS' custom) just keep coming back for more, and in the fact that the studio was recently the scene of the recording of a new album of Hawkwind's Bob Calvert, testimony to the quality that can be achieved using only eight recording channels.
Meanwhile, Computer Music Studios have been lucky enough to acquire the agency for some Apple-based MIDI software from LEMI in Italy. Although the first batch of software is yet to arrive in this country, Terry has boundless enthusiasm both for the versatility and user-friendliness of the programs and for the usefulness of the Master Clock, LEMI's version of the Mini Doc, for want of a more accurate expression.
'We got the first one in here a few weeks ago, and it'll sync just about anything. In fact, it's proved so useful, I can't really imagine how we ever coped without it!'
Well, in addition to spreading his retail wings and thereby dividing his sales and recording activities more decisively into two parts, Terry Lloyd has now opened his studio to students on the Cass London recording course (the first batch were taking their lunch-break when E&MM arrived at CMS' West London headquarters), as well as to bands not requiring all the computer and electronic instruments - they get charged a nominal £6 per hour as opposed to the standard rate of £8.
Wherever you look, it seems, the small synthesiser studio is doing better than ever. Long may they continue to prosper.
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