Spotlighting Katrina Bihari.
Katrina Bihari shares her secrets with Sam Hearnton Katrina at home.
Female synthesists are virtually nonexistent, not even an endangered species but more one approaching mythical status. Perhaps it's the machismo imagery often associated with vast banks of equipment.
More likely, women are put off by the white coated crypto-boffins like Thomas Dolby and the beardies-on-the-make approach personified by Tangerine Dream. Whatever, I can only think of Annette Peacock and honorary member Wendy Carlos (preset pushers like Kate Bush hardly count) as holding a torch for women synthesists and they ain't no spring chickens. More Pterodactyls.
Katrina Bihari is, of course, the exception that proves the rule. Not only is she the owner of the first Prophet 5 to hit these shores but she runs her own 16 track studio to boot. Couple that with a background Virna Lindt can only dream about and you have This Month's Model.
"I was born in Budapest but I defected, or as it's called in Hungary, deserted. I can't go back now, I'm a British citizen."
After travelling the world, assimilating different cultures and music, Katrina has ended up in a rather damp but homely terrace house converted into flats. Despite, or rather because of, the 16 track, Katrina has definitely Suffered For Her Art, going without essentials to help pay for her gear until the all important record deal comes along. Her flat is littered with instruments: percussion, violins, guitars, flute, an elderly upright piano...
"I'm a multi-instrumentalist but a master of none. Most of the time I lay down guide tracks and get really good musicians in to do the final take. The musicians are the most important thing," she insists. "Then comes the gear."
For her, synthesisers are important additions to her musical armoury but no more so than any other instrument, however humble.
"The first instruments I ever played were the acoustic piano and guitar, so maybe that puts me apart from a lot of people playing music now. To me, every instrument is a musical instrument and I evaluate it as such. Synthesisers are often very sophisticated, lots of work and thought goes into their design and in the right hands they're fantastic instruments, but no more than, say, the talking drum is a beautiful instrument. In its own way, it took just as much genius to put that together."
Her parents are both well-known writers in Hungary, so it comes as no surprise to know that often Katrina's songs start with the lyric.
"It can be just an idea or a feeling. My original transcripts for a song are sometimes ten pages long. Having said that, the lyrics I'm proudest of are those that are shortest but say the most, so I throw away line after line."
After she's finished a lyric she works out the melody either on her guitar or upright. Only then does she move into the studio. Her equipment takes up the whole of her second bedroom. An RSD 20-8-2 (16-8-2 with expander module) mixing console, Fostex B16 and Revox are the mainstay of her recording gear, a Quad 303 and a pair of Auratones providing the monitoring set-up. A homemade patchbay and her only effect, a Roland RE-301 Chorus Echo, share a shelf with an old Aiwa cassette deck. Main instruments are a SCI Prophet 5 and a newly acquired Greengate DS:3 and Apple IIe computer. An impressive system but not the one she started with.
"At first, I had two cassette machines and used to bounce. Later, I got my first multitrack, a Teac. From there it was a Fostex A8 and eventually the B16.
"My first synthesiser was a Roland SH-2 but I soon got fed up with it because it was monophonic. I want to gain a foothold in the music industry and to do that I've got to be on the frontier of new developments, so as soon as polyphonic synthesisers came out I had to get one in order to be on the frontline.
"I've always tried to buy things before they become popular and sell them before they lose their popularity, which means I always have to look ahead to see what the next thing to come onto the market will be. When I sold my Roland synthesiser, I was able to sell it for the same amount of money that I bought it for."
And from there you went on to buy the Prophet. Why?
"I think it was intuition. I've got an early model there... it's no. 223."
Ah. I'm full of wonderful trivia. In fact I know this was the first Prophet 5 to hit the UK. Dave Vorhaus used to own it, didn't he?
"That's right! When I was first getting into synthesisers I read an article about how he was the first man to make a synthesiser album in this country - White Noise, I think."
This must be one of only fifty or so Prophets in the country with the original SSM chips. SCI changed over to Curtis on the Rev 3.
"Yes, I know. It's got a much better sound than the later ones. And before you ask, it is not an instrument I will part with! Out of all the analogue synthesisers, I think only the Prophet 5 and Roland Jupiter 8 are going to stay."
Moving onto your recording set-up, I think a lot of people reading this are going to think that a 16 track home studio is a little, er, excessive...
"I don't believe in making demos. What I'm trying to make here are masters. 16 track is essential for me. It might sound funny from a person surrounded by all this gear but I maintain that there is no music without feeling and I can't get that feeling if I think 'This is a demo'.
"My whole aim all the way along the line has been to come up to mastering quality and as I'm not a rich person I've had to build it up gradually. A couple of producers I've spoken to have assured me that the master I've done here can be transferred to 24 track, so a lot of it can be kept, the original feeling that went into the music can be captured and the whole thing prettied up. I don't have an expensive microphone, only a Shure SM58, so basically anything recorded with a microphone will need to be re-recorded."
Are you happy with the B16?
"Well, if I could afford it, I'd have a 2" 16 track, obviously. Coming back to my original point, there has been this great explosion of home recording but most people have only thought of it as demos. I have heard stuff made on a four track cassette machine that sounds better than stuff done in a 24 track studio!"
You were saying earlier that you tend to just lay down guide tracks yourself. How do you get hold of good musicians?
"There is a 24 track studio, Addis Ababa, round the corner. Whenever I meet a good musician I literally drag them back there and get them to play on my music which you could never do if you were having to book a studio. With my studio I can capture spontaneous expression. I have played with some wonderful musicians. People from Sunny Ade's and Fela Kuti's bands who were only passing through town. That sort of thing cannot be achieved unless you have your own recording facilities. When people stop thinking about home recording equipment as substandard demo machinery, they will be getting somewhere."
Katrina's latest purchase is a Greengate DS:3. In order to buy it she had to say goodbye to her Drumulator and DX7.
"The Drumulator was a good instrument but I got bored with the sound. The DX7 is not one of my favourites because it is not a user-friendly instrument. I love the sounds on it but somehow I never got into it properly. I like the sound of digital synthesisers but with the Prophet 5 there is a physical interaction. With the DX7 I felt I was doing brain surgery only without having taken the course!"
So, onto your DS:3. First impressions?
"It's very difficult to use at the moment, mainly because of the manual. I've made myself a complete pest and I ring Greengate up ten times a day and say 'This is not working! What do I do?' and some poor person at the other end of the line has to sit down and take me through the steps! Having said that, I'm sure that once you've familiarised yourself with it, it's great.
Have you sampled anything yet?
"I sampled my electric guitar. By accident, I clipped the beginning of the sound so I didn't get the actual attack of the guitar. But when I played it back I found I had a new sound! It sounds like an organ but you can hear the strings in it as well. Wonderful.
"I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of the looping software. I think Greengate are like the Sex Pistols of the industry. A lot of people in the business don't like them, they think the DS:3 is a bit of a threat because it's so cheap.
I see you've got an RSD desk. Bit better than mine...
"I'm really pleased I made this choice. It's made my set-up much more flexible. It's got two inputs on every channel plus an effects in and out which is very helpful. It means I can have the outputs from the B16 in the mixer, bypassing the patchbay, and yet at the same time use the same channel for incoming sounds, like a drum machine, just by switching between the inputs. Before I had a M&A desk and that only had one input per channel - chaos.
"It's very easy to use. I can use it blindfolded now. I'm not a very technical person. All along the way I knew that machinery was there and that I needed to use it but it's never been for the sake of being able to operate the machines, it's been for the sake of the music. When you're making music and getting carried away with ideas you shouldn't have to think about technicalities."
The track on the tape, Secret Agent, was recorded by Katrina along with a couple of friends on guitar and keyboards. The main sequence is played by hand on a DX7 whilst the percussion is courtesy of a Drumulator.
"I wrote the lyrics at one sitting. It's about all the secret agencies that are operating behind the scenes causing revolutions and carrying out executions. It took a long time to lay down and get the musicians I wanted on it. At the end of the day, I wouldn't make all that effort if the lyrics went 'Oh Baby! I'm a virgin - come and fuck me!'"
So the future looks bright for Katrina Bihari. Ex-Orange Juice drummer Zeke Manyika is covering one of her other songs (Cowboys and Indians) and there's active interest from Warners and Celluloid records. She'll be working with a producer (Big Name) as you read this and is preparing for the final offensive. Katrina will make waves.