The Vinyl Solution
If you want something done, sometimes you've just got to do it yourself... Genie Cosmas explains why and how she recorded and released 'Rep Sunset', her band's debut album.
Waiting for that elusive record deal is more often than not a waste of time. A&R offices are deluged with demo tapes, most of which will probably never be listened to by the record company. A recent survey by Q magazine, in which they sent blank tapes to record companies, confirmed this suspicion. Given the frustration involved in trying to cut through all this, I decided to take the plunge and release Fish Out Of Water's debut album myself.
I decided to look for a good 16-track studio to record the album, as that would be adequate for our purposes. Also, the cost would be around half that of a 24-track. Two priorities for the studio were that it should have a grand piano in good working order, and that it had a 2" multitrack. After some searching I settled on RMS Studio in South London. They had a good George Rogers grand piano and a Studer A80, and musicians I knew who had used the studio had liked the results — RMS has a good reputation for recording independent artists' work.
RMS has a nice cosy atmosphere as it was built in the downstairs part of a house. There's access to a back garden area if you need a breather, and a kitchen with a fridge, cooker and a fine selection of herbal teas. The control room is comfy, and both recording rooms can be seen clearly from the control room, which houses a Studer 1600 desk. The main recording room has wooden panelling on one wall, and the other three are painted canvas over Rockwool, to create a sound that is bright but not too ringing. The live room has a parquet floor and plaster walls covered in woodchip, with five areas of glass to enhance the live sound. The main benefit of the studio layout was the visual contact for the musicians with the control room, and the studio's relaxed atmosphere.
The engineer at RMS, Andy Le Vien, proved to be excellent, and he was well able to get around any problem we encountered. Additional help in production came from a computer music expert acquaintance of mine, Jonathan Warner.
Voice, piano, saxophone and double bass were the first on to tape, recorded live — Fish Out Of Water usually perform live as a quartet, and I wanted as live a feel as possible. We decided to record on to good condition second-hand 2" tape in order to cut costs. Piano and double bass were recorded in the live room, and sax and vocals in the main recording room. Sometimes we separated vocals from the saxophone, recording vocals in the control room, making it easier to redo parts where necessary. The additional instruments, namely percussion, viola and flugelhorn, were added at a later date.
On two of the songs, the live approach was complemented by sequencing repetitive left hand keyboard parts. A Bel BD80 delay was used, triggered from a click track, to lay down a grand piano sound. Different samples were used for the key changes in both songs. The procedure took some time, but it was well worth it. I was so impressed that I have since bought an Alesis MMT8 sequencer to use live on those particular songs.
The total time for laying down the tracks was 55 hours, spread over seven sessions in a six week period. Gaps of a couple of weeks between sessions gave me time to listen to and digest what had been achieved in the studio. Two of the tracks we had recorded had not worked out, and rather than fork out more than my budget allowed, I decided to use two others that had been recorded two years previously on 24-track, and remix these for the album.
The two additional songs were remixed by Andy and myself at Soho Studios, an affordable 24-track. The rest of the songs were mixed at RMS, going on to 1/4" tape via a Studer B67 reel to reel. On one song we decided at this stage to add a loop of a New York traffic sample, triggered by a key change. The mixing process took 27 hours in all, spread over four sessions.
Now that the music was complete, I had to find someone to design an album sleeve and cassette cover. I contacted a local design artist whose original style appealed to me — Russell Mills, who has done a lot of work for musicians, including Brian Eno and David Sylvian. I explained what I was doing, and that the budget was somewhat limited, but he seemed interested so I sent him a tape. I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to do the design.
Finding a distributer proved a difficult undertaking. The independent distributers such as the Cartel were unwilling to take a chance on a band that weren't established, however by chance I ran into an old college acquaintance who had since started a small distribution company. Movement Soul are an exciting new company with a lot of enthusiasm. They liked the music and agreed to try and sell 500 copies on a sale or return basis. I therefore decided to manufacture 1000 records and 250 cassettes — a small quantity, but it's better to test the waters first than be stuck with a living room full of boxes.
"I therefore decided to manufacture 1000 records and 250 cassettes — a small quantity, but it's better to test the waters first than be stuck with a living room full of boxes."
I decided to manufacture tapes as well as LPs in order to give the buyer a choice of format. Compact disc was too expensive, even though the profit margin is higher. I found a company who could handle the entire packaging process for both album and cassette: vinyl pressing, sleeve printing, cassette inlay printing, and cassette labels. Going to different companies for the separate procedures would have been cheaper but it would have meant a lot of running around to keep track on progress. Being eight months pregnant, I wanted to minimise my active involvement.
I found the quality of the work good, but the company did lack initiative. A few delays and mistakes could have been avoided if they had taken the trouble to contact me beforehand. I also had to chase them up constantly to make sure the job was being done properly and they weren't too far behind schedule. A trip to attend the laquer cutting was worth the extra expanse, and it allowed me to ensure that the songs were equalised to my liking.
The records and tapes arrived on my doorstep a week after my baby girl Natasha was born, two months before the launch of the album. Everything was as I had intended, except that the album sleeves came out looking duller than expected — they had been printed on reverse grey matt rather than reverse white matt. However much trouble you go to, there's always something that's not quite right.
I put aside 100 LPs for sending out for publicity purposes, and compiled a compact press release with a photograph of the band. Copies of the album went to magazines, local and national radio, local press and TV programmes. 'When in doubt, send it out' was my attitude, since the main reason for this venture has been to publicise the band and what we've been doing for the last three years. I cannot expect to do more than break even, since to make a profit requires extensive distribution accompanied by high profile publicity. I also sent copies of the completed cassette to record companies that I've dealt with before, looking for a licensing or compact disc deal.
A series of gigs were planned in May 1990 in order to promote the release of the album. I only accepted venues where the terms were reasonable — I have become fed up of earning a pittance to perform, something so many bands put up with these days. Fewer gigs with guaranteed income was preferable to more gigs with an uncertain financial return.
Last but by no means least of the problems I had to deal with in releasing Red Sunset was that of money. I went to see my bank manager at an early stage and convinced him of the seriousness of my project. I managed to find a guarantor, and secured a bank loan. I kept in touch with the bank continuously throughout the project, and was even allowed to exceed the original budget when I found my costs higher than expected.
The whole procedure has not been cheap. £5,000 is nothing to an established record company, but to me it is a small fortune. The experience has been invaluable, but difficult. Still, it has taught me an enormous amount about how the record business works.
Fish Out Of Water's debut album, Red Sunset, was released on May 1st 1990. It is currently being distributed to record shops by Greyhound Records ((Contact Details)), and by mail order via Stream Records.
LP £6.99 + £1 p&p.
Cassette £6.50 + 80p p&p.
Stream Records, (Contact Details).
Feature by Genie Cosmas
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