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Torch Baring

William Orbit

Running your own studio, writing your own soundtracks and surviving someone else's Hollywood. William Orbit speaks.


How to run a studio, write soundtracks and do peculiar things with stereo. Paul Colbert asks a Torch Songer.

THIS IS not the story of Torch Song, but of one of its luminaries (ha, ha). William Orbit is one half of that band renowned for its intelligent, dramatic dance tracks and inventive production.

And Torch Song's own studio, Guerilla, has enjoyed a stream of work, establishing a countrywide reputation for snappy remixes. When Torch Song underwent a thinning of personnel this year, William Orbit took over the full time running of Guerilla, in between his bouts of outside production (Stan Ridgeway's "Camouflage" and the Belinda Carlisle's album) and soundtrack writing for Hollywood. A useful man to talk to. So we did.

When the weight of Guerilla settled on William's shoulders there was some rationalisation to be done, ie selling things. He began a quiet year flogging off gear, and ended a successful one by buying back the latest versions: "Though just because the manufacturers bring out something else with a few more knobs on it doesn't mean that what you've got isn't valid any more. In fact there are very few real innovations that come out. Most of them are cosmetic or marketing."

Of course you don't actually have to buy anything at all. There's always renting, a common studio ploy but one sadly underused by many bands. Renting is for PAs, lights, vans and studios, they say. Wrong. Hire companies don't just stock their shelves with pricey rackmounted gizmos. If you're recording at any level of expertise and a track isn't working then a change of guitar could be all that's needed to effect a rescue. And they can be cheap.

"It costs ten pounds a day to hire a Marshall combo. You could easily spend more than ten pounds' worth of studio time trying to get that sound another way." A rule of thumb is two per cent of the cost of the instrument per day.

Guerilla is small; not a studio to boast a live room with clouds around the ceiling. But it has established a countrywide reputation as a re-mix studio, even if 'rescue' is a more accurate term for some of the tapes brought to William.

"The general mistake is drums. Drums have to sound contemporary and listeners are so educated about drum sounds these days. It's like a haircut. Goes out of fashion very quickly.

"I don't think record companies always know exactly what's wrong with a tape that's given to them, they just know there's something about it they don't like. It could be too much noise but they don't know how to express that."

Faced with puzzled A & R man, the first line of defence for eradicating noise is gating. Or if the studio is well equipped there are the new Single Ended Noise Reduction Systems (single because they don't work in two stages like Dolby, which has to encode the track on recording and decode it on playback). Or if you can't remove it, cloak it.

"If you've got a noisy track then that doesn't really matter if you've got a hi-hat on it because that will hide all sorts of things. But if there's nothing bright on the track then you've got problems. I've heard certain artists who put crickets or animal noises on — naming no names, like Eno. Some of his are obviously slowed down, half speed records. If you do that, the frequencies drop by half and any noise is really noticeable. But if you stick a cricket on, or something high and similar in its frequency response which is meant to be there, it masks all the noise.

"In Guerilla we had the best noise reduction of all — an air conditioning system. In case anyone was wondering, we turn it off these days."

Right now William is completing his first solo album, planned for a spring release. Songwriting has been back to "guitar and strum... the best way" but his intended discipline of simple demos only quickly slipped away. "Couldn't use an 8-track: kept getting tangled up in the leads."

In 1987 he hopes to set up a separate recording HQ in America. Some good soundtrack offers fell through in 1986 when directors seemed oddly reticent about sending their creations out of the country. A protective bunch, recalls Mr Orbit.

"You have to remember that a soundtrack is somebody else's baby at the end of the day. What you're doing is only part of the director's thread along with a whole bunch of other things."

Sometimes directors will have a good idea of the style of music they want; other times very little. "They hire people called music editors whose profession is being articulate in all forms of music and being able to express the director's thoughts. They normally provide a temporary score, cutting favourite records into the movie to give an idea of the mood. They use examples, even at the rushes stage, because a movie without any music plays badly. Much of it will depend on how musical the director is, some will even use music on the sets to inspire actors."

If you've ever sat all the way through the credits at the end of the film, perhaps while the audience either side of you looks for the keys/wallet/teddy bear it lost under the seat, you may have spotted the words 'Dolby Stereo' flitting up the screen.

This has absolutely nothing to do with Dolby noise reduction. Oh no. It confronts the fact that cinemas are larger than living rooms. If you're sitting on the far right of the cinema next to one speaker, then without Dolby Stereo, everything would sound as if it were coming from that speaker, including the voice of an actor very obviously delivering his lines on the far left of the big screen.

"To get round this you have to have a centre speaker to fill it in, and there's also a horseshoe of speakers at the rear of the cinema to supply the Sensurround. In theory, each of the four elements has a separate track, but in practice there are only two multiplexed tracks on the film and these contain the four discrete elements. It's a very complicated system.

Any mixing therefore needs to be done into four channels, but there are yet more complications. The multiplexing system is based loosely on phase differences and the process of encoding it has the side effect of messing up your stereo image.

"You pan something hard left and it goes into the surround, or you pan something almost left and it ends up in the middle." So mixing is done with a dummy matrix box which will reproduce in the studio what Dolby Stereo will do in the cinema.

"Also in a cinema you've got huge sub woofers capable of putting out very low frequencies at high volume. You have to monitor on big speakers. The craziest thing would be to monitor on NS10s because you might be boosting the bass not realising you're putting on loads of 30Hz. Play that in the cinema and BBOOMMMMMMMMM... Sensurround the bend.

"When I first went to Hollywood to mix they had three mixing desks stuck together. There were so many elements, 80, 90 or 100 different tracks — 40 for dialogue, 40 for effects, 20 for music — all going on to these two multiplexed stripes. To them 24 tracks is a home studio... very humbling."


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Ibanez Roadstar RB760 bass

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The Ears Have It


Making Music - Copyright: Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

 

Making Music - Jan 1987

Interview by Paul Colbert

Previous article in this issue:

> Ibanez Roadstar RB760 bass

Next article in this issue:

> The Ears Have It


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