Exclusive guide to recording electronic music
Making the most of studio time. Richard Walmsley reports on electronic music making
Without doubt, electronic music has been the major shaping force of music in the '80s, and it has also changed the type of facility needed for recording. A musician using electronic, or predominantly electronic instrumentation can often now take advantage of studios that have been specifically built for recording their kind of music. Alternatively, already existing studios have been found to be more or less suitable for recording electronic music. But some studios, whilst they claim to be suitable for electronic music, still don't come up with the goods, and ES&CM has recently received several letters complaining about this kind of negative service.
First of all then, what is an electronic studio?
It seems an obvious question perhaps, but it's worth asking. Most obviously it will have, in addition to the basic multitrack, desk, monitoring facilities etc, an above average selection of keyboards, sequencers and drum machines which are put at the user's disposal. These are the main attraction for electronic musicians.
The studio should have a large control room fitted with adequate mic and line inputs, space for setting up synths etc, and a good working atmosphere because this is where most of the recording will take place. It is also likely, though not inevitable, that the traditional recording room area will be small, perhaps designed only for piano or vocals. Though it's not always the case, a large and highly equipped recording area could be an indication that — at least for your purposes — you won't get value for money since you are hiring a facility for which you have little use.
Adequate amounts of patch leads, patch bays, and MIDI leads are a further essential and while you are looking, a MIDI patchbay is also a highly desirable feature.
Although outboard equipment these days is a large selling point in a studio, its value depends largely on what your recording needs are. For instance, you may find an appealing studio which, though comprised of a good deal of outboard gear, yet has little in the way of upmarket reverbs and DDLs.
What you can then do is use this studio for recording backing tracks, overdubs etc, then go to a studio equipped with your Lexicons, Yamaha Rev 1's and AMS's for your mixes. That way you get better value for money.
All of the above however states little more than the obvious. You could still go to studios that fit this description and be disappointed at the result. The difficulties though are in no way mysterious, but occur in various areas that are continuously problematic in electronic music, such as interfacing units with other units, driving machines from trigger codes on tape, monitoring, use of reverb, inadequate desk facilities, and general breakdowns and failures of electronic circuitry.
The key to all this, and therefore the most crucial aspect of the studio, is the experience of the engineers and the general creative and technological attitude of the studio management. Most electronic studios tend to be pricey — they have to be since they often resemble synth showrooms — but they need not be uneconomical. The alternative to using an electronic facility would be to hire equipment and go into a regular studio. Therefore an electronic studio should offer comparable value on the money side, and much better value in terms of keeping things hassle-free and enabling you to concentrate completely on the business of recording your music.
This then is the ideal electronic studio: All the keyboards should be set up ready for use and in perfect working order; the engineers should be familiar with all the instruments, their application and their means of working, to the point where they can direct you to the unit that will fulfill your needs with the greatest speed and efficiency; a comprehensive maintenance service should be available (if the studio is 'Round the clock' maintenance should be also) so that the minimum possible interruptions will occur as a result of technical failures.
Well, as you probably anticipate, it's unlikely that such a paragon of a studio exists, but if you keep the ideal in mind it should at least bring you nearer to it. And in any case, how can you tell what the engineers are like beforehand? This question I will deal with later, but first I will look at some of the other problems mentioned above.
This really is the key to the creative use of an electronic studio and should be recognized by the studio management. All the keyboards and other units should be ready MIDI'ed up, and expertise on any interfacing problems that may occur should be readily available.
But the essence of music is not only the domain of post MIDI equipment, for these days instruments such as Prophet 5 and especially the Mini-Moog, are still widely used and loved. A studio with MIDI'ed Prophet and an RMS MIDI to CV Gate unit for Mini Moog etc would be a definite plus. It is also essential for you to find out if the engineers are familiar with any problems that might occur if you are going to bring instruments of your own into the studio.
Similarly, when it comes to driving units from trigger codes on the multi-track problems occur. An engineer must be familiar with the correct levels at which to record sync codes so that they will drive the relative units properly, and he or she needs also to prevent a user from making mistakes such as recording a guide drum track and a sync code from the same unit at the same time.
At the heart of a good electronic studio these days must be a syncing unit such as a Friendchip SRC or a Roland SBX 80. These units enable all sorts of differently specified drum machines and sequencers to drive each other, and they also save space on the multi track because the tape only needs to be 'striped' once. Some studios still use a system based around a Linn drum, but whilst this may suffice for an individual artist, for anyone wanting to get the maximum benefit from a studio comprised of a wide selection of units, the SRC or SBX is a must.
Units like the SRC are also extremely useful if you want to overdub sequencer type parts on an old tape whose code has deteriorated or which does not have a code, since they can also work from audio information. However a clever engineer should be able to suggest other means of re-syncing a track such as running the multi track at half speed and laying a click down manually.
To a large extent reverb is the key to making synthetic sounds come to life, and therefore the studio that you use for mixing should be well equipped with reverb and delay units. It is becoming very trendy these days to use many different types of reverb, because not only does each type of unit, from echo plates, through the cheap digital reverbs, to the Lexicon 224, have a different character, but using more than one unit when mixing down enables you to have different length reverbs on various instruments, placing them fore and aft in the mix.
Technology however, has not yet brought us the perfect artificial reverb, and many artists and producers still like to use acoustically derived reverbs, because such effects can really penetrate a mix. This type of reverb is created by feeding the signal into a live room and re-recording the sound, thus creating a true reverberation which has a complexity of structure that is still unequalled by even the most expensive reverb units. Look for a well built live room with a shaped ceiling to avoid standing waves.
Noise gates are also a desirable feature, for not only can they be used in their primary function to clean up the sound of the recording, removing tape hiss (especially on desks without noise reduction) and extraneous noises resulting from extreme eq settings, they can also be used to create sequences, to change the envelope on a sound and for panning effects.
In every kind of recording, economics are a constant factor to be taken into account, therefore highly trendy facilities like automated SSL desks are hardly going to be available to everyone. There are in fact a lot of more relevant features to look for.
Over the next few years, computer based sequencing systems are going to have an enormous impact on electronic music. In the first place they enable a musician to create most of his or her music at home, cutting down on recording time, whilst increasing writing flexibility. But also such a system can extend the studio capacity by running the precomposed tracks on Fairlight, UMI, Jellinghaus etc along with your multi track, only recording them onto tape at mixing down stage, giving you a facility comparable to a slave reel. This however is not possible with a desk that does not have a lot of channels, so it is essential to assess the capacity of the desk beforehand.
In a studio where you are going to use equipment that you may be unfamiliar with, it is very important that the monitor system is of the highest quality. With an instrument that you know well you can often compensate for bad monitoring. But if you want the best value from a studio that is offering you the use of a lot of unfamiliar instruments, you actually have to hear what they should sound like.
The important thing to remember here is that it's no use having a lot of gear put at your disposal if the relevant expertise is not provided as well. Obviously then, you need to meet the engineers before committing yourself to using a studio and also listen to recordings that have already been made in that studio.
One of the best recommendations is if the engineers are musicians and use the studio themselves. This ensures that not only do they know the gear well, but that they can use it creatively, and can see things from the musicians's point of view.
A studio that keeps abreast of new technology is obviously the ideal, but it's no use if the engineers haven't got their act together. A good way to ascertain how competent the engineer is, would be to ask to hear him programme the DX7. The whole DX range is a hard one to bluff your way through, and it is a better test than asking him to demonstrate say a Fairlight.
An indication of the studio's commitment is whether or not they have a comprehensive library of sounds and samples, including such things as ambient reverb samples which can be put onto things like bass drums etc.
In recording you should expect suggestions from the engineer about instrumentation, programming etc. His knowledge of the equipment in the studio will mean that he adds a lot on the production side, and this should not be resented, since it is the raison d'etre of the studio. As you are working therefore, the question you should be asking yourself is whether or not the engineer's experience is adding something to your sound that you wouldn't have arrived at using a conventional studio.
This article was written with the help of three top class electronic studios, Paradise, Lillie Yard, and Guerilla.
This is a control room-based facility with a small piano/vocals room. Used by chart bands, film composers and independant acts mainly for overdubbing and recording backing tracks.
It offers an extensive collection of keyboards, sequencers and drum machines, (inc. Fairlight and PPG) and the knowledge and expertise that will help clients to fully realise the potential of the instruments. Martin Phillips is one of the engineers at Paradise.
Martin: "Musicians tend to lose interest in an idea if it is taking too long to set up. All synths, new or old, have a character, so a studio that enables you to use all kinds of synths in a contemporary manner is what you need to aim for."
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Set up by composer Hans Zimmer initially as a private studio, Lillie Yard has a relaxed atmosphere and bases itself to a certain extent round the Fairlight, using the Linn 9000 as the studio's main sequencer. The 64 channel desk (with George Massenburg automation) is set up for ease of use with the large numbers of electronic units in the place. Fairlight Page R is regularly used as a substitute for a slave reel, and the inclusion of both Fairlight and Yamaha DX1 means that it has a good complement of PCM and FM sound, as well as old faithfuls like Prophet and Minimoog.
Austin, the main engineer in the studio, claims to be one of the few young electronic engineers with an experience that ranges beyond purely electronic mediums.
Austin: "I know that a Marimba isn't just a sound in the Fairlight library!"
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Also set up initially for private use by the group Torchsong, this comfortable West London studio aims to keep abreast of new technology (its latest acquisition at the time of writing being the Yamaha QX1 sequencer system) and also to offer creative help in the use of the instruments. The main user of the studio is Torchsong's William Orbit, who also composes film music there, and the high degree of communication between engineers and in-house users means that clients are soon made aware of innovative and original techniques that cannot necessarily be found in the instruction manuals.
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What problems did you used to run in to when recording in cheap studios?
"They always used to run out of leads — they didn't have enough patch leads. Also faulty equipment, like desks that didn't work or noises that were undesirable."
What do you look for on the outboard side?
"Graphic equalisers are very useful, because no matter what desk you're using there's always going to be some area of frequency which it doesn't cover. Often a good way to get round using cheaper desks is to invest in a good graphic to give you finer control.
"If you go in with a plan and have a fair idea of what you want it to sound like when you come out, that's the main hurdle. If you've got a good idea when you go in you'll have a good result when you come out."
What do you see as the most important new developments in recording electronic music?
"The basis of electronic music when I started was having multitrack facilities. But I'd say from now on, the most important innovation is the computer, because things like this make it much easier to overdub at home — if you've got enough keyboards — and it's obviously better because you can change the speed of it and the pitch won't change, so you can fine tune the speed of the track, it's all going to run from SMPTE so you can go onto tape later, but do all the initial work at home."
Do you like to use a lot of effects?
"For a long time at home I just used a Roland Space Echo and I used to add effects and tape them as I went along, building the picture up slowly. That's quite a good way of working at home, and it can give you a lot of ideas for when you go in to the studio, because you can play the engineer what you've done and he's immediately got an idea of how you want it to feel."
Is it essential for an engineer to have experience of electronic music?
"Yes, because it is a different concept of working, especially triggering things back from tape or interfacing equipment, because it is a fine art really. Even with MIDI it can still lead to a lot of problems. You can have slight delays between sequencers depending how they trigger, and other ridiculous problems, such as the Yamaha RX11 drum machine not being able to read its own code, and having to be run off a Linn code."
How is your studio set up?
"It's a Soundcraft 16 track on 2" tape, with a 24 channel desk with 6 auxiliary sends. Most of the stuff we do is DI'ed in the control room, so most of the money and work has gone into the control room as opposed to the other room. As far as effects go, we've got an MXR Pitch transposer/harmoniser, MXR digital reverb, MXR compressor, Lexicon DDL, Drawmer noise gates and Yamaha R100 digital reverb. What new additions are you contemplating for the studio?
"We're going to get some more digital reverb, because to me that is the key to good quality recording clarity, because then you can put different reverbs on different instruments. If you put all the instruments through one reverb you just lose clarity. We're also going to get more noise gates, again for the clarity and separation."
Feature by Richard Walmsley
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