I have been recording my own music for about five years now. I began with a 90 minute epic of music inspired by 'Lord of the Rings' using an old Welson organ and various effects (such as the really imaginative 'blowing water through a pipe' which featured prominently in 'The Dead Marshes') recorded onto two hissy old cassette decks. Sometime later I got my first synthesiser - the Korg Micro Preset - which enables me to sound 'just like Bo Hanson', or so I thought. Since then I have added a thing or two to my bedroom studio.
During the last three years I have spent almost all my money on equipment and by the end of this year should have finished my ambitious buying programme (I said this last year). I also played for a while with a band called Oasis who played harsh, uncompromising electronic music along the lines of 'Nights In White Satin' and 'I Wanna Stay With You'. I got the name 'The Soft Room' from the computer game 'Adventure' (the original mainframe not the watered-down Atari version).
The synthesiser is such a versatile instrument that it sometimes seems necessary to use both hands and feet to produce a simple monophonic lead line and to be in complete control of the various parameters of sound which, on an acoustic instrument, tend to be taken for granted but on an electronic one are often neglected. Why doesn't someone bring out a cheap, fully-variable monosynth with a touch sensitive keyboard? The main drawback to conventional subtractive synthesis (i.e. the only kind you and I can afford) is that it utilises the same basic waveforms all the time. These wave forms are used because of their high harmonic content, which can be filtered off as required.
However, it is possible to generate a completely new harmonic series by this method. Subtractive synthesis can produce its most interesting sounds when waveforms are added, multiple oscillators combined and used in sync., ring modulators used to create a strange interaction of harmonics, and when various low frequency waveforms are introduced. In a two oscillator synth with a synchronisation facility, if the second oscillator is at a different frequency than the first, the sync switch 'pulls them together', altering the phasing of the second oscillator.
Instruments that make use of additive synthesis techniques (e.g. the Fairlight CMI) can produce any harmonic series you programme into them by building with ultra-stable sine wave generators. It takes many such oscillators to produce a waveform as rich as a sawtooth and the price of computer-assisted instruments will be prohibitive for some time yet. There are two ways of getting a lot of sounds on tape in a budget system. One is to have a few instruments and spend all your money on a multitrack tape recorder; the other is to have more modest recording facilities and lots of instruments.
I prefer the second method where I play and mix several keyboards as well as simultaneously co-ordinating sequences. Its disadvantages are that mistakes cannot be removed, so the whole thing must be done again (after a cooling-off period - mistakes make me mad which makes the music get worse)! Doing it this way requires fairly precise pre-planning as reverb, for example, cannot be added to an individual instrument after recording one 'track'. I use two reel-to-reel machines with a Roland mixer - there would be little gained by having a four-track although it would be more easy to handle. Eight-track is the minimum I would use and the appearance of Fostex on the scene means it is more than likely I will have one in a couple of years.
To explain how my studio works I'll go through the recording of an individual piece - in this case it's 'A Journey In The Dark' (yes, more Tolkien) from the Flowmotion album (my first piece on vinyl, hopefully not the last).
Most things I do are done in three stages, which I call Tracks for want of a better word. Thus I record Track 1 onto my Akai GX4000DE, which consists of a multichannel sequence (featuring a borrowed Korg SQ10/MS20 linked to my Korg SQ10/MS50/MS20/Delta set-up) in stereo plus a solo piano piece (the piano - a Roland MP600 - is also borrowed!). I tend to draw a diagram of the link-up for complex sequences.
Track 1 is then passed onto the line in on my Akai GX4000DB (alas without Dolby although I'm hoping to construct a nice stereo noise reduction unit from the May 1981 issue. Being blessed with two left feet, so to speak, with a soldering iron it's good to have a friend to build things). The output from my Roland KM60 goes into the microphone socket on the 4000DB containing the basic chord progressions of the piece played on the Delta (partially) Polyphonic. I'm very conscious of the fact that most electronic music uses the same old chord progressions so I try to vary this a little by throwing in the odd major sixth or diminished with added 13th or whatever; I've decided it doesn't really matter which. This then becomes Track 2.
The process is repeated back onto my 4000DB with the melody being added on my Wasp/Caterpillar and Korg MS 20 (with the filter being controlled by the MS50's envelope generator). I actually prefer to do the melodic lines on my Octave Kitten synth because of its fat 24dB filter but since it's usually either being repaired or malfunctioning I tend not to bother. This final track becomes the 'master'. Often on the last track I put in special effects for 'atmosphere'.
I no longer use a drum machine since I prefer to make my percussive sounds with the synth/sequencer. I think this makes a more individual sound and anyway the DR55 only has one voice which I like (the bass drum - well it's hard to get that wrong)! Doctor Rhythms can be heard on most DIY tapes so I really had to get rid of it.
I write music at the strangest times - being a shift worker I find the night shift to be the most productive. I then take my grubby pieces of music paper home and work out the piece on piano until it's ready to record. I rarely sit and play synths for pleasure - they only get switched on when I'm recording, working on a sound or technique I've thought up or even on the rare occasions when I force myself to practice something. Monitoring is done with spaghetti-like Sony MDR3 headphones (which I trip over at least once a day) and often recording is done late at night since, despite attempting to construct my own mains-interference filter, a tape can be ruined when any electrical appliance is switched on or off in the house (causing 'pop' or 'crack').
I've always been a lover of classical music and would like, in future, to utilise more classical-based compositional techniques as I learn better control (and restraint) of my instruments. Much of today's music makes use of 'a wall of sound' where everything is going at once. I'd like to rediscover the crescendo and sudden dynamic changes (to wake people up) and quiet passages. I'd also like to break away, if possible, from the predictable slow-fading techniques which are over-used especially for bringing sequences in and out. If I know myself at all I'll probably just continue cheerfully doing Tangerine Dream impersonations! Oh well...
Originally I tried sending tapes to various magazines including Face Out (who were encouraging and who put me in touch with Dennis Emsley), Sounds (who simply ignored them) and Mirage (who weren't impressed). Finally, I made contact with David Elliott (Neumusik) and Ian Dobson (Flowmotion) who - (thank goodness someone liked me) - offered to distribute them on their own cassette labels. I can now reach anyone who's interested and, perhaps, begin to justify this expensive hobby (obsession?). More people are getting involved in the same way which must reflect a growing disillusionment with more established and expensive commercial music. I hope this trend continues and, at the same time, that the small fanzines and labels stay true to their aims. So if you have a craving to produce your own original music, or to hear some done by someone else without profit as the main raison d'etre, then check out the various dedicated publications (no - not at your local newsagent) which are around if you look. Of course, you can simply spend your time watching TOTP - but when was the last time you came away satisfied?
Feature by Paul Nagle
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