The Units - On Record
An enlightening discourse with this new wave San Franciscan band
A new name to many, The Units hail from San Francisco and are one of a handful of such New Wave synthesiser-based groups producing innovative music. Having caught the attention of producer Bill Nelson, the band were recently ensconced in Rockfield Studios, Wales recording tracks for a forthcoming album for CBS Records. Ian Gilby managed to chat to Scott Ryser of the band, during a break in recording, about how the session was progressing, and recording at home.
"We all write the songs. Basically we all get together and jam until we get on a good rhythm. Then we'll take that, record it on tape, listen back and restructure it. Someone will eventually come up with some lyrics and we'll work them into the music as best we can.
How do you record your instruments?
We usually put the synths directly into the mixer, and through a small PA in the living room, where we rehearse. When a song's pretty much arranged we go into our studio with Mark, our drummer, and work on it.
We record all of the rhythm parts, synths and drum patterns from a Roland TR808 down onto four tracks of our 4-track machine. This is then bounced down to two tracks on another recorder and transferred back to the 4-track, but only on two tracks, thus leaving two more tracks available for vocals.
The studio is a convenient vehicle for us because our equipment is always set up, so it isn't a chore having to set up levels every time. There's no special soundproofing, we simply turn down the master volume if it gets too late.
How did you first become involved with Bill Nelson?
We released an album back in 1979 on 415 Records, San Francisco, which Bill somehow picked up on. We met him after a gig and asked him to produce our next album which we were then in the process of writing. However, that album was never released due to label difficulties. We picked up a record deal with CBS in America in the meantime, and when it came for us to choose a producer we naturally thought of Bill.
He suggested we used Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire to record the album, so we booked in for a whole month. Prior to that we spent time at Bill's home rehearsing the songs.
During that rehearsal period did Bill analyse the songs and make you change structures?
Not really. He liked what we had done and just added a few of his own parts to complement things. It was like having another member of the band. That's really how we see a producer's role - more of a musical collaborator.
Bill's extremely sensitive to song moods, and always tries to bring out the essence of the bands he produces. His knowledge of recording equipment and techniques is exceptional. It's the little touches he adds, like a dash of harmoniser here or a bit of reverb, that bring the music to life.
What were the different stages of recording?
We started by recording a sync pulse control track for the Linn Drum, so later on in the mix if we had made any mistakes we could go back, re-record them and the drums would be in time.
We laid down the bass drum and snare separately, often taking up to five tracks for the snare alone — a direct sound, the room sound and a close-miked amp sound through which we'd put the snare, for example. These then gave us plenty of scope in terms of tonal and ambient variations which we could achieve by crossmixing the different tracks.
After recording all of the drums Rachel played her bass lines on the MiniMoog. She also sang a guide vocal — not so much for our benefit, but for Bill to be able to hear where everything happened in the songs and whether he needed to add or subtract more instruments from the mix.
Then David and I added our own synthesiser parts over the foundation to fill out the song melodies, recording each part track by track and dropping in the odd few note phrases in spare parts of other tracks wherever possible.
Has the fact that you have your own domestic studio set-up influenced the way you work in pro studios like Rock-Held?
Yes. Generally speaking the whole session moves along at a much faster pace because we're more accustomed to the multitrack recording process and the stop/start, punch-in/punch-out way of working.
Using our own 4-track has given us an awareness of the parts we play as a whole, which is something you can never achieve by playing live gigs. Because we also do pre-production demos, we always have track parts pretty much worked out so when we're actually recording those pieces in the studio we concentrate on getting a very good 'feel' going between the different musical parts and then spend an awful lot of time actually perfecting the sounds.
A lot of the synth lines were heavily processed by effects and recorded like that directly onto tape, as without treatments they sound completely false. As you build up the track piece by piece, you begin to get a feel for how it will eventually sound in the final mix. The skill lies in the production, actually knowing which sounds should be processed and which should be left 'dry' for later treatment during the mixdown process. This is where Bill Nelson really helped us out. He's a past master of synth recordings and has a tremendous feel for what is right for a particular instrument within the context of a specific track.
If you leave all of the effects processing until the final mix you'll give yourself an impossible task. For one thing it means that you need a godawful amount of equipment and six pairs of hands at least!
Rockfield Studios actually carry a fair amount of rack-mounting effects devices — AMS digital delays and reverbs, Marshall Time Modulator, for example, but in addition Bill brought along a few of his own toys which he's more familiar with.
You do virtually all of your recording within the control room, don't you. Why is that?
Being a synthesiser-based group, we have the luxury of direct injecting the instruments, with no interference from external sound, so it makes more sense to set up the keyboards in the control room where you can monitor what you're playing over the large speakers instead of a claustrophobic pair of cans. Doing it like that helps you get a groove going, like playing live, whereas listening on cans creates a false impression which we've found almost always results in a lifeless recording.
The great thing about Rockfield Studios is that it reminds us of home. You can start recording when you feel like it, not when you have to, which is the sort of pressure we've been under in the past. This environment suits our way of working just fine, and I honestly believe that it is being reflected in the music that we are recording."