From 24 tracks to 8
Founder of Ultravox and owner of The Garden Studio, John Foxx talks about all aspects of his recording methods and highlights the technological changes that have caused him to rethink the way he composes.
From enigmatic beginnings recording in Phonogram's 24 track studio, John Foxx rose to prominence as mentor of pioneering group Ultravox in the late 70s. After a trio of innovative yet modestly successful albums, John left, dissatisfied with the lack of control he had over the recording process, only to surface a year later with a solo album, Metamatic, recorded totally on 8 track.
Metamatic, something of a milestone in its day, embraced the new technology of synthesisers and drum machines and paved the way for a multitude of chart imitations. John wisely invested the proceeds accrued from the album's success in his own 24 track studio, The Garden, which has subsequently become so overbooked that John now rarely has time to use its splendid facilities himself!
Currently captivated by the recent developments in instrumental and recording hardware, he is setting up a MIDI-based studio at home that will be used exclusively for his own musical pursuits. Here John talks about the past, present and future of recording.
When Ultravox first began, we virtually started in Phonogram's studio at Marble Arch, because Steve Lillywhite was a tape operator there and we used to go in together and record. That was Steve's first recording experience with a band. We made all our demos down there, so we really jumped in at the deep end with 24 track.
It was after recording with Ultravox at Conny Plank's studio in Berlin that I wanted to get right back to recording basics. I felt instinctively that it was the right way to go. It was easy to get 8 track facilities and with the music I was making then, I didn't need acoustically treated rooms and all that... I thought it would be nice to pare things right down, which I did.
Originally I demoed Metamatic on 4 track, with a Teac A3340S at home. I always liked the quality of those Teac machines, somehow you can get a very deep perspective to sounds if you record your echoes correctly — deeper, for some reason, than on other machines. I can't define it, but it is definitely something I like.
I worked at home for a bit on 4 track but it was limiting because there was so much bouncing down. So I thought I'd extend things to 8 track and I went into Pathway which was a tiny studio in Islington, London, that I'd used for demoing songs once before.
It had a remarkably good control room, in fact it was dead accurate sound-wise. I tried to analyse why it was so good later and it was because there was no room interference between your ears and the speakers, as the room was so tiny anyhow that your ears were literally one foot away from the speakers!
They used Tannoy monitors in there, which I've always liked because they are so neutral - they don't have an artificially emphasised high end as on JBLs. The bass could have been a bit tighter, but generally speaking they were wonderfully accurate. When I mixed things in that studio, I checked them out in a cutting room first, before I started mixing the album properly, just to see if things worked, and they did.
The recorder was an Otari 8 track which was a really good machine, very clear and precise, that gave a good sound on one inch tape.
I kind of designed the Metamatic album to go onto 8 track because you can't do a 24 track type of production on 8 track format without it sounding inappropriate or losing quality. In fact, the most successful song from that album, 'Underpass', only required six tracks. The idea of the whole album was to use these relatively new instruments (synthesisers) in what I felt was a new way, to make purely electronic music.
Personally, I like the discipline of working on 8 track - I recorded the Metamatic album on 8 track for instance - there was no choice, you just had to commit yourself to whatever you had on the tracks. I spent some time thinking about individual songs, but it was a joy to work with as most of the indecision was eliminated at source so when it came to do the master mix, it was simply a matter of balancing the sounds you had - and that took around twenty minutes.
That was a really satisfying period as it enabled me to do a few things myself and play about with sounds. Rather than worry about filling up all these tracks, I could concentrate very finely on each individual sound - it was a delight to be able to do that actually. Ever since, I've realised the value of that approach.
When I record on 24 track what I quite often like to do is use more tracks because I like to record echoes as I go along, or reverbs, if I find a really good one, and then I find that the performance that you do is affected by it and if you try to recover that later on, it doesn't always work. It's good to have another track with the reverb effect recorded on it so that you can mix it all together later — that's ultimate control then. But often in the past I've recorded effects on the same track as the instrument, and it's worked out alright - when you come to mix, it's acceptable.
I like to make decisions about what echo and reverb I want to hear on a track when I'm excited by the sounds I'm hearing. I find that if I play with the sound, I get ideas from that sound and as a result I play much better. If you did all the adding of effects, the real sculpturing of the sound, later, then you wouldn't have the excitement of the performance in there.
I've always tried to use the electronics of recording and playing to take the hard work away, so that I can concentrate on creating exciting, stimulating music, whilst making it seem like play and pleasure to me.
A clear example of that for me, was when I did a track called 'Pater Noster' on The Garden album. I linked up a Roland vocoder and a Lexicon digital delay for the first time, and started singing through it. That song came immediately and I recorded the whole track in under two hours all by myself with a drum machine. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life because I'd got the sound combination right - there was my real voice with this deep reverberation, and all kinds of mutations created by the vocoder, plus digitally recorded drums that I could control.
All I had when I recorded Metamatic was one ARP Odyssey synthesiser, a Roland Space Echo and their very first programmable drum machine - the CR78. Very little else. Occasionally I hired in a Harmonizer and that was it... oh yes, I forgot the Elka string machine which I used for polyphonic things in the background, put through a cheap MXR phaser pedal. If you turned the phase effect up to maximum on that, you could get odd arpeggio effects caused by the phase sweep.
I find that with cheaper equipment, because the effects are more crude than with refined gear, you can actually get more bizarre and interesting effects out of them. That's the attractive side of gear for me - it's not the obvious things it can do, it's always a case of pushing it to extremes to see what you can get out of it.
On the last album (The Golden Section) there were lots of effects I got from using cheaper devices. I did have the choice, if I wanted to use an expensive phaser then I could, but I actually found that the cheaper ones were far better for my purposes because they gave a more eccentric sound. I enjoyed using them more as a result.
Are you ever stimulated as much by the top-end of studio equipment?
Not as often — but definitely with something like the AMS digital reverb. I got terrifically excited when I first tried that out because it's beautiful - one of the deepest and best reverb sounds I've ever heard. I've also got a Lexicon 224 reverb which I've had a long time, but it doesn't have that depth. I always look for a reverb unit that gives me that perspective back behind the speakers - the Lexicon does a bit, but the AMS has got real depth to it. And the Quantec Room Simulator also; a beautiful piece of equipment.
I've always been interested in that illusion of depth and I think we're at the point now in recording where painting was when it was purely representational. When an artist paints a picture that's got perspective in it, it's all trickery, obviously, because he's painting on a flat surface, but you trick your brain into experiencing depth in the picture.
It's the same with recording: what you're effectively faced with is two bits of cardboard that are moving in and out (the speakers), and with that equipment and a lot of electronic fiddling, you've got to trick people into believing that they are actually perceiving things that are in different spaces.
I always like to organise a song so that you, the listener, feel as if you're going through a series of spaces, and they open and close, become claustrophobic or wider, like horizons of sound, as you progress through it. It has to be appropriate to the song and what it's about, but I do like that feeling of perspective. For me, it's the most exciting thing about recording, the ability we've got to control the aural space we perceive.
It's ironic isn't it, how, with the advent of digital reverb, people are becoming more aware of true reverberation and the room environments that surround them.
Yeah, it's funny really. I've always been keen on using room ambience. We used to record instruments in different rooms as far as possible. When I was doing The Garden album, for instance, we recorded a lot of the vocals outside. I do a lot of walking, and I noticed when I walked through the wood whistling, that you heard sound reflections from the leaves. You get some wonderful reverb effects in woods because you get different rates of echo bouncing back off the surfaces - especially with chestnut trees which have very broad leaves. This sounds very eccentric I know, but if you try it out you can hear it immediately.
If you go into a beech glade, for example, it won't give as good a range of reflections as with chestnut trees, and on The Garden album we set up microphones for the vocals outside, recorded a verse, say, and then a middle eight indoors, in the studio, to get a more claustrophobic sound. The difference was quite noticeable.
The thing that has been most exciting to me over the last few years has been the effect of good reverberation units; things like the AMS and Quantec. I like the sound of the AMS better than anything else - it's also British. I won't let that colour my opinions though, it's still got to compete with the best and the AMS does, in terms of both sound and cost. Fortunately, these days I'm not that limited by cost considerations.
I've seen reverb affect recording dramatically over the last year. For example, on that last Cocteau Twins album, Head Over Heels, they've used reverbs above all else. If the instrumentation - it's basically guitar, vocals and Drumulator - had been recorded fairly 'dry', it would have sounded a bit boring, but they decided to use the reverbs and create something altogether different. Reverb should never be underestimated on any recording.
There are other ways of giving tracks a sense of space other than using reverb. Say, if I'm playing strings, then I can create a ten second loop of sound very quietly and sync it underneath the main track. You get a very atmospheric bubbling behind the track that way which sounds like a very long echo and it really does give an impression of space. It's not something you're conscious of, but it does affect the apparent size of the track.
The first time I discovered it, actually, was by accident when I'd left the Space Echo sound-on-sound switched on and I heard this bubbling effect in the background which I really liked.
Good quality reverb is becoming available to the home user with devices like that Yamaha R1000 unit and MXR's 01a model. It's like it was originally with digital delays, you'll soon have a whole spectrum of them; but you should never throw the old ones away. I've got a Great British Spring in The Garden studio that I use quite a lot, because it will always find its own space within a track, and where that's appropriate, it will work.
There's also that new, small plate reverb by NSF. I heard that and was really impressed by its quality. You can do a lot with it, that you can't do on a comparably priced digital unit. Obviously, there's going to be a big battle in that area in the near future but at the moment that plate's wonderful if you're working at home. I'm going to get one because I think there's still a place for one, even in a studio like The Garden.
I'd like a sampling device that could analyse rooms, a bit like the AMS sample and hold facility, so that you could walk into St. Paul's Cathedral, say, and analyse the reflections accurately enough to be able to store them as a reverb pattern in a machine.
The 'Taj Mahal' setting on the Quantec Room Simulator is an example of that approach isn't it, except that the user did not sample the sound himself?
That's probably the next step for digital reverb units. It'd be good to be able to select the reverbs yourself - record a room's ambience and carry it around with you. It's those possibilities that excite me.
Things are now at the technological stage that I personally wanted back in 1978/79, with sequencers and drum machines that will actually obey you! I used to spend months on my knees trying to sync things together - it was a horrible nightmare, playing sequences at half-speed by hand.
That was why the Roland Space Echo was such a good machine. If you worked your sequence out so that it changed every two or three notes, you could use the echo repeats to keep things going all the time.
Thankfully that's all finished now; through MIDI you can control equipment easily without losing so much nervous energy along the way. I think that's why a lot of early synth music sounded so lifeless... it was because people were actually half dead by the time they actually got round to recording anything!
I'm always trying to get a bit of balls into synth music because it all seems to be a bit limp. I always try to use rock-type sounds in that format.
What special techniques do you employ to achieve that end?
Putting synths out through amplifiers is the best one. I put the signal from the synth straight into an amp and play that into a room, then put microphones some distance away from the amp's speaker to get a sense of space on the track, and record the synths from the mics instead of direct injecting them. That process helps beef up the synth sounds considerably.
Sometimes I would layer several tracks of ARP synth together, put those out through an amp and re-record those to get a meaty sound.
At Pathway there was a home-made reverb plate made out of tin foil with two contact mics, that was dead right for the synths. It responded perfectly with the ARP. That was the only reverb used on Metamatic, apart from the one in my Space Echo which is a fairly limited spring reverb that 'pings' immediately you put any transient signal through it.
I think Roland Space Echoes have been a real boon. When I started off there weren't any digital delays, apart from the astronomically priced ones, but the Space Echo was beautiful - you could have stereo effects, it made any synth bloom and it was wonderful on voices. I still use tape echoes now; I've got a Roland Chorus Echo (RE501) in The Garden studio which I wouldn't part with for anything because there's always a place for it on a track.
Yeah, it's a shame really, because people have run away with the idea that delays must be digital. The Roland Space Echo is a truly creative piece of equipment that can still do things that no other device will give you...
Yes, you can get marvellously long echoes. I used to take them into professional studios, after recording Metamatic, where the engineers would look down their noses at you holding this antiquated Space Echo. I used to just say 'well okay... get me an echo that's as long and as detailed from your digital delay' and they couldn't. They could only give a simple, linear echo... but on the Space Echo you get varying echo intervals because of the many tape heads. There are still, today, very few digital units that can match it - I suppose the nearest contender is the Electrospace Time Matrix which gives you up to eight individual echoes that can all be set at different delay times.
Till recently, tape echoes gave you a more complex sound back off tape because a digitised sound is only, obviously, as good as the sampling circuitry inside the digital delay. I think if you analysed and compared the two, it wouldn't be as complex a signal coming back from the digital machine as from the tape. And your brain can hear the difference.
I never despise any piece of equipment that I come across just because it is cheap, I always investigate it and try and get something good out of it.
One thing I've found particularly interesting to use to record vocals at home, is the Boss Playbus with the additional headset and microphone. It's very convenient because you can play in effects. I've rigged up a system so I can use my own headphones and their microphone, and listen to the mix. It doesn't tolerate loud vocals very well, it cracks up a bit if you use a wide dynamic vocal range, but for demoing it's really good. It's also good for putting synths through.
I'm really pleased with all the products that are coming out now like the OSCar, which I think is a brilliant synthesiser. Thats £400 or so - it's got digital waveform creation inside it and it'll soon have MIDI fitted to it as well I believe.
Monophonic synths like that are actually capable of giving you a much better bass sound than most polysynths. I was surprised to find that I couldn't get the delivery of a bass frequency in a shorter time from a polysynth, as I could from a mono. The MiniMoog, for example, will give you very short duration bursts of deep sound that you just can't obtain on any polysynth that I've experienced.
On the Roland Jupiter 8, I found I couldn't get the bass solidity I wanted - even in unison mode. You can't arpeggiate in unison either, which to me is an appalling design error. You should be able to get a huge, fat bass sound out of it in mono mode, because you rarely do polyphonic bass runs.
What use do you make of acoustic instruments in your recordings?
I've always liked grand piano - it's a very sensitive instrument and you can do a lot with it. You can use it mixed into bass sequencer patterns because it has a very full bottom end, or you can treat it through effects boxes.
There are still many sounds that you can't synthesise accurately, such as a saxophone, which I love. The obvious thing is just to use them whenever they fit the mood of a song. Strangely enough when I do use them, they don't stick out as being overly different, because they fall within this whole acoustic environment that I try to create on every song. The whole idea of music, for me, is to remove you from the place you're in and take you somewhere else. I often find that a little thing like a piano is emotionally indicative of a particular mood or atmosphere, and you can use that as part of your musical vocabulary when you record a song.
The area of recording which I find really mysterious and exciting is where things mingle and you get sounds merging into other sounds so that boundaries are dissolved and you're not sure about what instrument is playing what. The track still functions, you still get the basic pulse and rhythm of the song, but inside it are all these perspectives that shift around a bit - it's like architecture. You can't quite hear all the parameters.
I think it's insulting when things are delivered absolutely cleanly because there's no room left anymore for your imagination. I find it exceptionally dull listening, except in the case of someone like Kraftwerk, for instance. What they do is so mathematical that there's a pure joy in it's approach.
What are your views, then, on current production styles as epitomised by a producer like Trevor Horn?
I've always admired Trevor's work as pieces of craftmanship, as they're undoubtedly some of the best around at the moment. I think Gary Langhan, who works with him, is a marvellous engineer also. But again, it's too precise for my own taste.
Actually, I wanted to work with Trevor at one point because I would have liked to try and put something confusing into that context. He has an ability to make things work in every situation: he and Gary together have done things that work wonderfully well in discos and at home on your hi-fi, which is a rare things these days.
On 'Two Tribes' by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, there's actually a bit of confusion in the sound. It's a rock 'sound' which is something I always look for, and it's the first time their work has affected me on an emotional level. There are sections in it where you can't make out what's happening but it is still tremendously exciting.
People who have captured my interest more are bands like U2 and Simple Minds. Steve Lillywhite, who produced both bands, is very good at causing the instruments he records to change roles halfway through a song by merging them into reverbs. Trevor Horn is now beginning to touch that, he's getting away from being 'over clean'.
His recording methods appear to encompass the latest advances in technology, such as sampling whole verses into the Synclavier digital keyboard and playing them back when required. A sort of digital editing...
Exactly. He's using a digital tape recorder really, but played back from a keyboard. That's the good thing about 'digital' - once you realise that things can be digitised, there's no end to it. You can construct and reconstruct anything from what may be very unpromising beginnings, that will be coherent and still sound spontaneous. That's what's being done with Frankie Goes To Hollywood - it sounds like a rock band, but it's actually a very careful reconstruction of a rock band.
The improvements in recording technology seem to be shifting the emphasis back onto the music. Would you agree?
Yes... and that's where it should always be really. I hate it when technical considerations get in the way of being excited by what you're creating, because then you've lost it - and I've lost it lots of times in my career!
I get to the point where I mix a track but feel it's dead, it hasn't got what I wanted, so I file it away - it lacks that vital spark.
Technology is now at a point where you are free to utilise it creatively, especially with the introduction of MIDI which allows you to synchronise drum machines and synthesisers effortlessly, with few distractions.
Once all the research and development has been done at the pro studio end, then the technology itself is very cheap to produce and reproduce, as exemplified by the new Allen & Heath CMC24 mixing desk with digital routing. With that, you've got rid of patchbays forever.
What I think is particularly interesting is that the technology is actually coming from the bottom now - from the cheap end - into the big studios, because there aren't really any digital routing patchbays in the bigger studios yet; but that'll be standard within a year I think.
It's a beautiful idea really, not having patchbays, because those GPO jack plugs are always a pain in the neck - you've got to clean them regularly as they fill up with dust and start crackling; they're also extremely expensive and it takes one guy several days to solder the damn things together. But now, with the advent of digital routing, you've got a superb design that people can afford at home.
It's within reach now that people will be able to sit at home with virtually a digital studio. It's on the cards and it'll happen, I reckon, within two years, where you've got a computer and a touch strip of mixer controls. It can be as clean and neat as that because that is really the logical end.
It's possible even now to have a complete digital studio set-up. If you just use synths and vocals you can MIDI everything. With Roland's MSQ 700 MIDI sequencer, you can even merge tracks digitally and record the whole lot, plus vocals, onto a Sony PCM F1 digital recorder. There are going to be systems like that, but more sophisticated, that are totally computer-controlled. That's what I'm aiming to do myself.
Now that it's possible to digitise things, computers can be employed to control devices. Once you understand the type of programming that's gone on inside the likes of an AMS delay, and you've got access to that via computers, then there's nothing you can't do. You could programme your own echoes and reverbs through a track, sync it up on signals from tape through MIDI, and the degree of control possible would be absolutely stunning.
You've also got cheap sampling facilities now like Mainframe's DS3 device. They've designed this sort of mini-Fairlight that does sampling. It's a lovely idea and it won't be long before people work out systems to use a computer and an 8 or 16 track recorder, and then it's open to home enthusiasts to build their own sounds. There's going to be a real flood of those kind of designs for home use over the next year or so.
It's just become clear to me over the last few months exactly what is possible. I've always liked this idea of being able to do it all at home, instead of stepping into an 'alien' studio environment which you don't feel you're in control of. Then, you lose out because you're too cautious and don't take the chances you might do if you could make a cup of coffee, nip round to see a friend, come back, and get a new perspective on what you've recorded. You've got to have room to make mistakes and you can't do that in a studio that costs £60 an hour or even £10, which is equally expensive to many musicians.
The only thing big studios will be able to offer in the future, will be the effortlessness of use, because you're going to have personnel around who can service and maintain them, and be capable of linking up all the combinations of equipment required. Probably, the main use of them will be as a different environment so you can get away from your front room..?
The only thing you'll still need is an acoustically controlled room that has a completely flat frequency response, so that you'll know whatever you're hearing is what's being recorded on your master.
I'm a firm believer in people doing things for themselves, it's the only real way of acquiring any knowledge. As soon as you let a producer or an engineer alter your ideas according to their own perspective, you start to be removed from your original intentions. The more you understand what you're doing, the better equipped you are to deal with that kind of shift. That's why learning at home is a real advantage.
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