Spotlighting Poly Magoo.
Peter Gleadall unravels the story of Poly Magoo and The Gaff.
Poly Magoo (Pete Gleadall, programming/guitar, Christine Jouandet, vocals, Frederick, lead guitar, Alan, percussion, and Lesley, backing vocals), are one part of a musical cooperative, Blue Ridge Productions, who, fed up with the general lack of cheap recording and rehearsing facilities, took things into their own hands...
The result is a compact studio located in a fully-soundproofed basement in N. London, The Gaff. Based around a Teac 34 Multitrack and RSD16-4 mixer, the studio's recording equipment has extended over the three years of its existence to include a respectable collection of mikes (Shure, Sennheiser, AKG's,) and a small but effective range of outboard gear, (Fostex 3070 Compressor/Limiter, Eventide harmonizer/delay, and an unspecified 'old' 31-band graphic Eq).
The co-operative's buying policy has bought a fair amount of horsetrading to the instrument front, with the latest acquisition being perhaps the most interesting to date - a Greengate DS:3 sampling system. Budgets remain limited, though, and some imaginative solutions to studio problems have had to be found. Pete Gleadall takes up the story:
"Our reverb comes from two of the instrument amps, with the noise being suppressed by the compressors' built-in gate.
"...Our first instrumental purchases - aside from the guitars and stuff that people already had - were an MC202 microcomposer, a JX3P poly, a Drumulator, and a Teac 244 Portastudio. This set-up lets us write and arrange material at home before rehearsing and recording at The Gaff. For Holiday (featured on the tape - Ed) was written like that. The main riff came about originally using a 'marimba' sound on the JX3P's step-time sequencer. The 128 steps available sound a bit limited at first - with each step being a single note, chord, tied note or rest you get about eight bars of music - but we connected one of the Gate Outputs from the MC202 to the Trigger-In on the JX3P, which lets the MC202 act as a controller, from which we also ran the Drumulator, via the Roland Sync socket. This gave us a lot of flexibility, since it meant we could sync both the drums and the sequencer to tape, and do overdubs. The tricky part was programming the 202 to produce the right gates at the right time. This meant programming gate values of 0 when we didn't want the sequencer to play, and values of 12, for example, when we did. Then, by using the 202's Chain function, we could build up complex, non-repeating sequences, recorded at the right place. So, recording verse, chorus, verse would mean programming 12 to play the verse, then 0, then 12 again, and 'dropping-in' the choruses on an overdub.
This method kept us going for about a year and a half, then we got an MSQ700. We thought the combination of the sequencer, the JX3P, and a DX7 belonging to the other half of the co-operative (a band enigmatically called John) would be ideal. But it wasn't as easy as that. The MSQ's good points were its ease of use, and choice of real or step time programming - BUT - the fact that it could only hold one chain of sequences consisting of up to eight parts was a major drawback as far as we were concerned. This was brought home to us when we were lucky enough to be offered the chance to use David Vorhaus' Fairlight for a couple of days (one of the first purchasers of a Fairlight in this country, and an acknowledged authority on the machine.) The way we had learned to program and compose on the old JX3P/MC 202 set-up matched exactly the format of the Fairlights' own Music Composition Language sequencer, Page C." (makes a change from Page R-Ed.)
"Using the Fairlight briefly brought home to us the need for a wider range of sounds and a more flexible method of composition. But of course, Fairlights are - ever so slightly - out of our financial grasp. We looked around at other computer-based systems, and that's when we first heard about the Apple-based Greengate DS:3. It's 4-voice multi-timbral sampling and sequencing sounded almost too good to be true, so we dragged David Vorhaus along with us to Greengates' H.Q. to take a look."
"We were all very impressed at what it offered for the price, and in the way the company were dedicated to developing the system, via cheap expansion cards for the Apple, or updated disk-software. So impressed, in fact, that David bought one as well. That's right - 'Fairlight owner buys DS:3!'"
"Out went the MSQ700, and we started reprogramming all of our material, and sampling everything in sight - including the kitchen sink. For Holiday was programmed into the sequencer of the DS:3, and checked with the existing program in the Drumulator. We're still able to use the MC202 as a master controller (Gate out to Clock in) since the DS:3 is compatible with all of our system. It's much easier now, too, since it only needs one repeating note, as a clock signal, rather than the complex start/stop information we had to use before.
"The bass line on the track was a multi-sampled Wal - three different bass slaps, split across the DS:3's keyboard, so that when the sample's played, it's never more than an octave away from its naturally occurring pitch, avoiding the 'mickey mouse' effect" (The excessive speeding up or slowing down of a sampled note 'read-out ' as it gets further from home- Ed).
"The original marimba sound on the track was replaced with an African thumb-piano (a Mbira), which lives amongst a jumble of 'ethnic' percussion at the studio - again, multi-sampled.
"With all the samples ready, we set about recording the track, beginning with the sync-pulse from the MC202 to track 4 of the Teac 34. Then, using the sync, we recorded just the snare from the Drumulator onto track 2; this so we could have backwards reverb leading up to a snare beat at three points in the song. All you have to do to get the effect is turn the tape over, so it's running backwards, whilst sending the recorded snare to the reverb, and recording just the reverb on track 3. Turn the tape over again, and there you are - reversed.
"Onto the sampled bass line, track 1, very quick, and then guitar. Frederick was just recovering from a spell in hospital, and didn't feel up to playing his part - so we sampled his sound, and did it that way... An effective argument against people who think sampling is replacing people in music - we needed his ideas, and his sound, which would have been lost to us, if it hadn't been for the DS:3.
"The guitar went down on track 2, and subsequently bounced to track 3, leaving the backwards reverb to be dropped in and out of the final mix where appropriate. The finger piano sound went to track two, with the DS:3's four separate outs going to different channels on the mixer, for separate Eq and reverb. With the basic tracks down, came the hardest bit - bouncing tracks 1 to 3 onto track 1 and 2 of the Portastudio in stereo, whilst adding in drum parts, courtesy of the sync-pulse. As usual, we used the Drumulator's separate outs through the mixer, with gated reverb on the snare (and occasionally, the bass drum) to beef up the sound.
"We had also decided that we needed 'that' epic snare sound in the choruses only, so we sampled it off a record (guess which one?), and triggered off the Drumulators' cowbell. Balancing and panning the track, supervising this first mini-mix, was quite a headache.
"After the bounce, guitars and main vocals went onto tracks 3 and 4 of the Portastudio. We either D.I. the guitars, or close mike the amps, depending on the kind of sound we want; and vocals are generally compressed, with some subtle Harmonizer (though Christine's voice doesn't need much in the way of effects.)
"Back again to the Teac reel to reel, in stereo, on the first two tracks. Backing vocals came next on the choruses, to beef 'em up a bit, then some manual percussion - four octobans, four rototoms, the odd cymbal - well Heavy! Adding manual percussion really adds life to programmed rhythms.
"After finishing the recording, we had a listen, using a pair of Pioneer car stereo speakers, and our customised Goodmans as the main reference monitors, powered by a Yamaha hi-fi amp. Christine decided to double track the lead vocal - to good effect - and after that we did the mixdown onto a borrowed Revox, (next on the shopping list, along with an eight-track). That's it!"
Blue Ridge productions hope to expand operations beyond the collective shortly, using the DS:3's new Eprom Blower to provide a 'while-you-wait' programming service for all ROM-based digital drum machines, such as Linn, Drumulator, Oberheim.
Feature by Peter Gleadall
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