At Home In The Studio
Zsa Zsa defected from Hungary to Britain with very little knowledge of English. Now she has her own home studio in London, complete with Greengate sampler.
The story of 'have guitar, will come to London and become a pop star' is familiar enough, and we all know the trials which await those brave or foolish enough to embark on this perilous venture, armed only with a budding talent and a head full of dreams. Imagine how much more difficult it is for a girl who first has to defect from the communist block!
Zsa Zsa arrived in London a few years ago, alone and with only a few words of English. Amazingly, she has virtually mastered the language and her dreams are on the point of becoming a reality.
Zsa Zsa's 16-track studio used to be the bedroom of her flat in the Ladbroke Grove area of West London, a place usually thought of as a centre of reggae music.
'Music was in my soul from when I was a little girl, but the only way to follow a musical career in Hungary is through the classical scene, and I found myself much more inspired by the gypsy music than the heavier stuff. As I grew up I realised there was no way I'd get the chance to realise my ambitions in Hungary. Defecting was a big step to take, I mean, I can't go back there now, but I had to do it or spend the rest of my life regretting I hadn't done it. I've had a lot of good luck, but I never thought that one day I'd be sitting here recording myself, surrounded by the marvels of Western technology!'
Zsa Zsa's studio contains an interesting mixture of acoustic instruments; piano, violins, a flute, various authentic pieces of African percussion, and technology, in the shape of the synth, (a Prophet 5), and the latest addition, the DS3 Greengate sampler.
'At first I had a Fostex A8 and an old MM mixer, and we shared the space in my bedroom - but as the studio grew I was forced to move out! I got hold of a Fostex B16 when I found that I needed to expand on the number of tracks at my disposal to accomodate the new ideas I was having, and that meant that the old mixer had to go too. I've now got the RSD Studiomaster 16:8:2 but I put an expander module on it which gives it a total of 20 channels so it's quite versatile. Having two inputs per channel is very useful too, it's made recording much simpler than it was with the MM.'
How did a girl form Eastern Europe come to terms with the world of technology and learn studio techniques?
'My introduction to the recording scene was working for Street Level Studio which started up in my neighbourhood. I was very interested in the techniques of recording and I wangled my way in as trainee engineer. My first chance of a session came when we had a skinhead band booked but the engineer couldn't make it! I had a policy of gatecrashing as many sessions in proper studios as I could, to see how the professional producers worked. This was how I sussed out drum recording techniques, with Tom Newman who also taught me some EQ techniques.
Meanwhile I was putting together an album called 'Making Waves' in Street Level, using time in the night when nobody was booked. This was an album of twelve all-female bands; in fact, every process of making that album was done by women - from the actual songwriting to the sleeve design. It was pretty hard work as I'd end up working day and night for a week at a time!
'I then decided to set up my own studio, starting with a 4-track and not much else. When I started up I had the drum kit in the attic, which you could only get to by climbing up a rickety ladder to use the trap door. Luckily all my drummers were pretty athletic! I used to speak to them through an old BBC biscuit mic, bellowing out such phrases as 'Middle 8, chorus, repeat' or 'Stop! Stop!' Technology came to the rescue in the form of a Drumulator, and I was initiated into the mysteries of programming. Basically, when faced with a new piece of equipment, I read the manual and try all the experiments that are given as exercises. What happened was the drummers now used the machine, so the atmosphere of the studio was not really changed by the advent of the new equipment.
'As the studio really began to take shape I started helping out in the control room at Addis Ababa Studio in West London, picking up more useful tips. It was mostly reggae, soul and African music and I met a lot of African musicians who subsequently came and worked with me in my studio. I've worked with musicians like King Sunny Ade, Fela Kuti and Tony Allen (reputed as the best drummer in West Africa and creator of Afrobeat with Fela). Also there was Andy Anderson, ex-drummer with the Cure, and Souzy Cassea who's on the Starvation single. New York is represented by Blast, who worked with the Eurythmics on the Sex Crime single and video, and I've also worked with Eduardo di Niebla who's a heavyweight of the classical/jazz/spanish guitar scene.'
"...I find myself wondering, as I get to know the way the machine works better, if there is some kind of budding intelligence there."
How has using the DS3 Greengate sampler changed matters?
'It has meant that I can make an infinite range of sounds, instead of using a library. It's the cheapest version of the latest technology in music. I've had it for about six months now and I'm getting much better at using it! Lots of people said 'Don't buy it, you'll never learn how to use it,' and it was a big step as I'd never used computers before, but now I'm finding it easy.
'I've built up a large library of sounds, masses of drum sounds, wonderful percussion sounds, some of them sampled from instruments and quite a lot of improvising around the kitchen sink. I must have banged and hit everything bangable and hittable in the house, and to my delight I sometimes found that ordinary things like a vase or a humble mixing bowl can sound very exotic when you play tunes on them.
'It's the first drum machine I've had which syncs up to the tape machine properly, which means that I can add percussion, trigger off sequences or even change the drum pattern at the end of recording something. I tend to work very hard at making the sounds themselves interesting as I've got no expensive effects. I also take care with the equalisation so that I've got sounds spanning a wide range of the frequency spectrum.'
I asked Zsa Zsa if she felt that her gender had made any particular difficulties in the mostly male world of recording.
'As a woman I've had to overcome some of my own conditioned attitudes. There was a built-in timidness that said, 'Oh no, I can't do that - not me.' I've had to fight this all the way, from when I first put two tape machines together, and especially now I'm moving into the more advanced technology, but I guess I wanted to do music so much that I was able to cut through all that.'
As a songwriter and performer, what's your attitude to all the equipment in the studio?
'More than anything else I see myself as a poet, and to me the mixing desk, the computer and all the gadgets - they're tools, in the same way as my guitar or my piano is a tool, to express some words that I really like. It's poetry that my inspiration for music comes from. Also, I've always seen machines as friends. I spend hours staring into the monitor screen of the computer and occasionally I find myself wondering, as I get to know the way the machine works better, if there is some kind of budding intelligence there - sometimes weird things happen. I might be programming a drum pattern and when I press the record button things go haywire. I'll try it again and again but the machine refuses to let up and in the end I think that it's the machine telling me where the beat should go. I think I'm creating a whole little dreamworld in that room!
'To be more logical, I think that using the Greengate has helped me to be a better musician by giving me a better understanding of the nature of sound. It has also influenced the way I think, as machines are so logical and unemotional.'
"...I sometimes found that ordinary things like a vase or a humble mixing bowl sounded very exotic when you play tunes on them."
How do you set about writing your songs?
'First of all I work out the song on piano or guitar and try to imagine the final sound. I get as good arrangement as I can to bring out the dynamics of the song and I listen to a lot of other music, analysing the order of verses and chorus. I realise that my songs have to include certain elements that people can relate to. When I'm happy with the arrangement I go to the Greengate and choose drum sounds for that particular song. I put down the bass drum, snare and hi-hat, keeping it as simple as possible at this stage because I find that the more spaces there are, the more interesting the music becomes when it all comes together. I put this on tape with a guide key board or guitar and a guide vocal.
'Sometimes I then find that the arrangement is wrong. I try to listen to the song for a couple of days, and then if it's wrong I'll go back to square one - ie. the guitar or piano. If I'm happy I put down the bass line and I usually work very hard on it so that it tends to stay there. If I feel the song needs little sequence patterns I put them down while the tracks are still empty. I do the percussion on the Greengate usually unless a friend walks in who just happens to be a good percussionist. I try to put down as few keyboards as possible and make sure each has strong rhythmic or melodic lines, and prefer little running melodies that run into each other to block chords. I try not to crowd the frequency spectrum by keeping each keyboard part within a certain octave so the keyboard part occupies a certain band on the spectrum, as I think it satisfies the ear when the music has interesting things going on at the bottom end and at the top.
'I'll often add a second bass line, very subtly - little accents on certain beats, so that the effect on the music isn't overpowering. Then comes the hardest part which is the vocals! I have to be critical and objective when I'm engineering my own voice and I keep asking myself if I can do it better. I start with the lead vocals which I'll have practised along with ideas for backing vocals. Being a vocalist I tend to consume four, five or six tracks with vocals, and also I sample speech, sighs, groans, etc. on the Greengate. This can create an eerie effect that I just love!
'When I got the backing vocals down I might throw out the keyboard tracks and start again. I make sure at least one track is played by someone else, because I find that once I've got the basics down, another person's creativity can add more life to the song.
'Now I do a rough mix which I listen to for a few days, and then if I'm happy I'll do a proper mix. Luckily whatever I do in my studio seems to sound much better everywhere else. If it sounds good to me on my Auratones then I know I can feel confident about playing it to people.'
What would you say was the greatest advantage of having more tracks?
'It's basically because I'm interested in arranging. It can be to your advantage if you want to take a recording one stage further. For instance, I recently recorded a single in a 24-track studio, called 'Sabotage', which was recorded in a single day because literally everything had been worked out at home.'
Do you have any words of advice to fellow studio owners?
'I try never to pat myself on the back but continually to strive and to be ready to scrub things that don't work. They may be good in themselves but not in the context of that particular song. I like to play rough mixes to non-musicians, I'll just put them on a cassette player and see if they react to it. If they do, it makes me very happy because then I know I'm reaching my goal.'
Feature by Claire Holdsworth
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!