The Home Electro-Musician
A new column introducing musicians with their own home studios.
With so much electronic music making taking place, E&MM looks with interest at musicians' home studio set-ups and invites possible contributions from readers
Setting up a studio is a difficult job at the best of times but if you don't possess the required qualifications or experience to join an already established organisation the only way to pursue one's musical aspirations is to go it alone. 'But I couldn't afford to get my own studio together,' I hear you say. 'Couldn't you?' I retort. I managed it and I don't class myself as rich. It's not a cheap venture but then it needn't be that expensive especially nowadays when every electronic device comes served with chips.
It all depends on your attitude. What constitutes a studio? Is it a 48-track computer mixed system with banks of gleaming microprocessed polysynths raring to go at the touch of an alpha-numeric keyboard or is it a small room in your house equipped with a few 'domestic' tape recorders, a home-made mixer and a couple of inexpensive but versatile synthesisers? Nice though the first idea may be (there's not many of us who haven't drooled over the equipment listing on the back of Tomita's albums) if you have the creativity to produce good results with your smaller set-up then think how good they will be when you unleash that creativity in the studio of your dreams.
My studio is quite a modest affair by some peoples standards, but using it I have written and recorded the music for some twelve plays (including the first ever stage production of 'The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy' which was toured around England and Wales) and two documentary/information type films. I've also appeared on BBC radio in connection with my musical activities and have appeared in a BBC2 documentary about electronic music with Tim Souster. I've used the computer controlled electronic music studio at Cardiff University and have given lectures on synthesisers and their use. I've had the good fortune to be involved in a whole host of other activities in this field too numerous to mention, so it just shows what can be done with a small set-up.
The way I record is very straightforward. I record a backing track on one machine and then transfer that to the other machine whilst adding another synthesiser part, mixing and balancing levels etc. as I go. This may not seem a very good system but by recording at as high a level as possible and by judicious use of EQ the results can be surprisingly good. By doing this I find I can 'bounce' between the two tape recorders quite a few times. I normally do about four overdubs but I have done as many as nine and the results were fine (honest!). The one facility I do miss by not having true multi-track facilities is the ability to 'drop-in', but by careful planning of overdubs (i.e. laying down as many parts as possible in one take), it's as good as 4-track recording and by the time I've spliced the tape up a bit the results can be very good indeed.
Another trick I use to broaden my sound is to use echo and flanging. I feel that these two effects are as important a link in the synthesiser chain as the filter or the envelope generator. Synthesisers, when plugged in directly to a mixer, are very flat and have no spatial placement at all. A miked up instrument always has a break in the process — that is, the distance between the instrument and the mic however near or far that may be. A synthesiser does not have this break and so requires spatial enhancement more than any other instrument. If you use echoes at different speeds within one piece of music you can create even more depth — just listen to Larry Fast or Tomita to see what I mean. You can also use repeat echo to create some startling rhythmic effects, especially if you split the straight and echoed signal left and right in the stereo image.
But before all this, of course, I consider it important to have a good basic sound. Effects such as those I have mentioned can beef up a poor sounding synthesiser but this is not the same as starting with a good sound which can be further highlighted by using effects. I have chosen my instruments very carefully for their sound and their versatility. The ARP Axxe, although a one-oscillator device, is capable of producing a wide range of tones, partly because it has the unique ability to connect every parameter to each other simultaneously and so is as good as a small modular synthesiser. The Wasp has a strong Moog-like quality and for the price is 'fat' sounding and, when used with the Spider digital sequencer, is capable of generating rhythmic patterns. The Boss programmable rhythm unit I have is an ideal partner for the Electronic Dream Plant set-up as you can drive the Spider off the Boss's clock output. The snare drum is crisp and the bass drum is tight and punchy and, of course, the fact that it is totally programmable means that you can create the rhythm you want instead of having to rely on those awful 'mambas' and 'sambas' offered by preset rhythm machines. The Boss also has a programmable accent with which you can programme a certain amount of 'feel' into your drum pattern which gives even more scope. My polyphonic keyboards were also chosen for their versatility. My newly acquired Yamaha PS20 (reviewed in E&MM's June issue) has a wide range of polyphonic sounds which are ideal for some of the music I write. It also has an arpeggiator which flies up and down the keyboard picking out the notes you are depressing a la Jupiter 4. When used in conjunction with the sequencer (you can trigger the Spider off it) it really is a remarkable effect. The Crumar Performer has a silky string sound which can be modified by its own three-band graphic equaliser to produce a vast range of orchestral sounds (including a beautiful Tomita-like choir effect) and it also has a very versatile brass sound which, when used with the instrument's delay vibrato, can give some great polysynth sounds. It also has an output for the straight sawtooth oscillator signal which I put through the ARP (I've modified the Crumar's gate output so that it can trigger the ARP) for even greater versatility. All the instruments go into the Prokit mixer kit where they can be individually echoed or flanged (I use the mixer's foldback send as an effects send to the flanger).
As you can see, I have a simple but effective system which works well for me. You don't have to go to such lengths for your studio; there are a lot of really excellent synthesisers on the market which are very versatile and which would be a good investment. Nearly all of them are fitted with control voltage and gate in/out sockets and so would form the basis of your studio, allowing you to expand when you needed to or could afford to. There are devices like the Teac Portastudio (although I feel a secondhand reel-to-reel 4-track would be a better buy if you could get one) which bring real multi-track facilities within the reach of most people who have the mind and the inclination to get on with creating electronic music.
But despite the vast array of electronic gubbins, you may or may not possess the most important factor - creativity. Most people can twiddle knobs, make noises and record them... there is little musical skill in that! A good electro-musician, however, can make good electronic music with just one fuzz box and a three-head tape recorder, which brings me back to my first point: you don't need banks of the latest technology to produce good, creative music. With a bit of ingenuity, amazing results can be achieved with next to nothing. In fact, minimum resources can often improve one's creativity. I can't deny that I want a modular system with a computer controller and an 8-track, but I must be realistic and realise that, for the present time at least, these are beyond my means but I will happily continue to make the best of what I have and exploit each device to its full.
Feature by Steve Howell
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