Home Studio Recordist
There is a house in North Watford with a very nice 8-track recording studio installed in the basement. Although the studio is available for hire, the majority of work that is being carried out is the production work of the owner, songwriter/producer John Hamilton. John calls his studio E.Q. Studios.
Jennifer: I see that you have a Tascam 80-8 multitrack, Model 5 mixing desk, Revox A77 mastering machine, a mastering cassette deck, various effects units, lots of different microphones and plenty of keyboards, but how did you start off working with your own music?
John: Basically, frustration was the main thing. I'm a chartered accountant by trade, and around about 1969, I qualified in Glasgow. By 1970, I had decided that it was a total waste of time and started writing songs in my quiet moments. That's what really got me involved.
At the time I was influenced by bands like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys and harmony groups. That's really what got me going in this direction. I first bought a Bang and Olufsen 2000, one of those little sound-on-sound systems. It was actually quarter track.
I started doing little demos in my front room and creating great gatherings of people outside the house, as we blasted the amplifiers.
Jennifer: Who's we?
John: Me and Chris Harley, who became Chris Rainbow, and a couple of other musicians. We eventually took some demos down to London and got a deal with Chappells Music Publishers and EMI Records. We made one or two singles that mercifully died, at Abbey Road. That was the first studio that I had ever been to, so I went from a Beocord 2000 to Studio 2 at Abbey Road, with predictable results!
It wasn't the studio gear that overawed me, it was the ghosts of my idols. That's what I could see and it frightened the 'b-jabers' out of me. Rather than inspire me, they terrified me — I was a big coward! I was just the guy from the 'sticks'.
Anyway, Chris decided to go to London in 1973 to make his fortune, which he more or less did with his deal with Polydor Records. I decided to uproot myself and my wife in September of that year to move to London. By this time I had acquired a Revox A77 tape machine — that was the sum total of my studio, plus one Beyer microphone.
Jennifer: Were you still working then and using the studio part time?
John: Yes, I was just using the studio for getting song ideas out, but I tried some pretty ambitious things, even in those days. Whilst still doing accountancy, I got a job with WEA Records, which was a sort of halfway house. I thought I'd satisfy both sides of myself, but I ended up in frustration by not making a proper decision.
Then in May '75, I insulted the chief accountant at Warner Brothers and was sacked. This little trauma projected me into music more than anything else ever had. I certainly realised that I just wasn't cut out to be an accountant. My whole life's decisions have been made on the basis of default. I'm not a positive decision maker, I've been thrust into situations like that. About this time, still part-time writing, I now had a Teac 4-track but no desk.
Jennifer: So, how did you do your mixing? John: Very crudely. I made up a small patch bay, which was quite amazing, because I just can't solder properly. Being near to an aerodrome, I did have a problem with RF interference getting down the leads.
Jennifer: How would you do a bounce down to your 2-track?
John: With my patching system, I would use the output level controls of the 4-track to give me the mix and two of the four tracks were joined to the other two tracks by the patch bay. The sounds would then be fed into the Revox. I must tell you how I used to do edits. This guy came down to do a recording and said to me that he wanted me to edit this verse out of this song. I found the verse and hit the stop button on the beat and just cut it. I then wound on the tape until I found the next verse, hit the stop button again on the beat, joined the tape and it was absolutely perfect. I thought, well, that's how you edit. It was just pure coincidence that my first edit was ever right. Later on, it wasn't quite so successful. I had to learn to mark up edit points with a Chinagraph pencil and to make the different kind of tape cuts.
I quit accountancy in late '76 and went into partnership with a young guy. He brought in an Itam 10 into 4 mixing desk. He also brought in a Grampian reverb, various effects units, and lots of microphones. We started to do demos and write our own pieces.
Jennifer: What about the studio itself? Did you take any trouble to make it into a proper studio or did you just put the equipment into a room?
John: It was initially two bedrooms knocked down into one, and then a false wall with a glass panel was put up. There was a reasonable amount of soundproofing, but not 'state of the art', in that the neighbours did find occasion to complain. I would like to give some advice to aspiring home-studio makers. Really do take care of soundproofing and preferably don't set the studio up on the first floor of your house in a bedroom. The sound will just go all over the place. From harsh experience, I found the bass end will travel most easily. The snare drum can be bashed away and it sounds really thunderous, then the bass player just goes boom and it's that boom that wipes everybody out. Still, we carried on in that way for quite a few years.
Jennifer: Of your own project work, did you write more and more music, or did you find yourself with a leaning towards production?
John: Probably, again by default, I started to get involved with production. This was partly because I felt that my writing wasn't up to standard and partly because I was starting to come into contact in the studio with some pretty 'heavyweight' younger talent. I met a young chap from Scotland who was a tremendous writer. I started working with him and at that stage got involved in more of the business end of the music industry.
Jennifer: In what particular areas of your own creative recording did you gain experience with him?
John: Every area in the recording field. From things like mic placement and equalising to the best advantage, any kind of tricks with echo, slowing tape down to half speed if a part got a wee bit difficult. Also, a thing that I discovered around that time was the method of 'hand syncing'. I'll explain. When I was working on a 4-track basis, I wanted to put a 4 or 5-part harmony onto a track without having to do a massive number of track bounces on the 4-track, which would cause a tremendous generation loss. My method was to transfer the backing track from the 4-track to the 2-track and then wind the tape on the 4-track to a clean portion to bounce the backing track onto that point. I would then add harmonies to the remaining three tracks on the 4-track machine. I would then bounce these down onto 1 track and then use the 3 spare tracks for more harmony tracks. Sometimes I would use an ADT effect as well, which the Revox could do because it had vari-speed.
Jennifer: By ADT, do you mean automatic double tracking?
John: Yes, that's right. Eventually I found that I had on the 4 tracks, maybe about ten voices. I would then mix those across to the two track in mono. I then found the original place of the piece of music on the track, and then bounced the harmonies from the 2-track onto a spare track, using the vari-speed and sometimes my hand on the tape reels, keeping them in sync with the original material. I would then have on one track of the 4-track machine maybe ten voices. At that time I got a reputation for making a big sound out of a 4-track, which was very gratifying and great fun to do. These were the little tricks that I learnt as I went along.
I suppose the other thing that I learnt was how to 'chat up' musicians! They're a pretty dull lot if you don't work on them and get them laughing and enjoying what they are doing. I think that is as vital a part of the recording process as recording itself actually coaxing the best out of musicians.
Jennifer: You said that you really did start creating big sounds in your 4-track studio, however, when you changed to 8-track, did you find that you could create an even bigger sound?
John: Temporarily, although I would say that the sound is better now. It sounded instantly better as soon as I got the 8-track. I know that I can get a lot better still, in that the graph of improvement with the 4-track was about two-and-a-half to three years in achieving good results. It's going to be the same with the 8-track, as I keep learning new methods and tricks. I'm so spoiled with the 8-track, I keep falling into old 4-track habits. I keep thinking how wonderful it is that I don't have to 'hand sync' for a start, for harmonies. I've got the pure luxury of maybe 6 tracks there for harmonies and it's great. I find it a bit of a nuisance that I can't bounce to adjacent tracks, but I do keep a careful eye on that. Apart from that, it's very good, but I know that in a year's time, assuming I haven't won the pools, I will still be using 8-track.
Jennifer: What are the monitor speakers that you are using?
John: They are kind of 'chopped about' Goodmans speakers. They have the original bass drivers, which I hope to replace in time because they can only handle 50 watts. They are not really too bad for this room at present. The tweeters are very high quality units and were bought from a PA friend of mine. The mid range uses standard Goodmans units. The sound is quite well balanced. I've got a graphic equaliser that was lent to me by a kind friend. That does help me to get the sound spectrum right. I borrowed a spectrum analyser and set up the balance for this room.
Jennifer: From talking with you, John, I really do get the impression that you are more of a musician rather than a recording engineer?
John: I acknowledge, semi-reluctantly, that a knowledge and awareness of engineering is vital. An enjoyment of it I'm not so sure. There are people, I do believe, who do enjoy engineering. Engineering is something that I accept as a necessary function of making music. Music making to me is the instruments and then the engineering, and that makes the sounds. That's just my view because I am a musician that just happened to get involved with recording.
Jennifer: With what projects are you involved musically at the moment?
John: Pride of place is a singer/song-writer Anne Barrett. We tend to use the studio at the moment for working out our ideas before we go into the 24-track studio to put down the master. My ideal compromise would be to have a 16-track system and do the masters here. However, at the moment I do not think that the 8-track is sufficient for me to create masters.
That's the main project that I'm involved in and she keeps me quite busy because she is a prolific writer. I also do some writing myself, but I'm a little bit sceptical of my talents as a writer. I tend to write for fun. Although that's my main project, people do come in to use the studio. One or two professional writers avail themselves of my services. There's Mike Bell, contracted to ATV music, and he's a very fine writer who pops in and does his own 'thing'.
Jennifer: When you are not involved with your own work, do you hire out the studio facilities?
John: Hire out, semi-selectively. It can be very 'numb-crushing' working for lunatics! Believe me, I have had to do that, much to my regret. It's really great when working with professional people. That kind of work I'm thrilled to do. So if anybody is seriously involved with music, I would like to help them.
Jennifer: I see that you use dbx noise reduction. Do you like it?
John: The dbx units are excellent. I also use them for creative purposes. I almost always record with the dbx system encoding, but on playback I switch to bypass. This gives a kind of compressed effect and makes certain instruments like the piano, really sparkle, like on 'Hey Jude' by The Beatles. It does tend to breathe a bit, so I also use a noise gate to cut out the breathing effect.
I am very pleased with the dbx and for anyone at my level the dbx is really good. I like to get maximum level on tape with the minimum of noise, so what I do is push the faders right up until the peak reading LEDs are hard on. I then pull the faders back until the LEDs are just flickering on peaks. That way I know that I'm getting the maximum level onto the tape without distortion.
As you can see, most of my studio is music orientated, and I think that I have spent as much money on instruments as I have on recording equipment.
Jennifer: So where do you go from here? I take it that you hope that the work that you are doing here in preparation for the 24-track is going to take off?
John: That would help, but I think that would be like winning the pools. My other project in the studio also involve earnings to an extent. What I really want to do, either sooner or later, is to expand the physical size of the studio. I'm going to knock that wall down that's behind you. That will be the new control room and maybe I'll get myself a modest one inch 16-track multitrack machine. That is my next aim.
The soundproofing is excellent and I don't get any more problems. I used 24 sackfuls of Micafill soundproofing fibre-glass chippings. That lot is above your head right now. Also every wall is false. So the soundproofing is very effective. I've had 'new wave' bands in here and I couldn't believe the volume, yet I've gone outside and there was absolutely nothing to be heard.
Jennifer: Thanks a lot, John, for the chat.
Feature by Jennifer Johnson
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