Is Skill In Music
Old tech, hi tech and silly hats. Richard Walmsley, our man in the sensible shoes, Walmsley investigates.
What have a Harmonium, a Phono-Viol and a CX5 computer got in common? One answer could be that they are all musical instruments. Another answer could be Andre Schmidt.
A Belgian (not French) emigre, Andrew has been occupying himself variously running a small equipment hire company, trying to make the big time with an outfit known as Funky Schmidt and Barnet, and doing production of bands on his own home studio set up, consisting of (amongst other things) a Fostex 250, Yamaha Rev 7, CX5 computer, two DX7s, a Drumulator (with the Korg KMS 30 MIDI sync unit) and a wide assortment of instruments such as the aforementioned Phono-Viol!
Especial in his interests is Round-Away-Wrong, an all female combo, combining elements from medieval madrigals and twentieth century computerised backbeats. The ensemble's instrumental line-up consists of Sue on 'cello, Leslie Downes on vocals and Phono-Viol, and Jane Bailey who in addition to being the main writer also adds vocals, guitar and — I suppose it was obvious really — Harmonium. When doing gigs, Round-Away-Wrong use a mixture of live instruments and pre-recorded backing tapes, and Jane and Andrew work together closely on this aspect of the band's music.
Initially they used two track tapes mixed down from four track onto a Revox A77. The main problem with this approach was flexibility, and a great deal more preparation was necessary in order to come up with a satisfactory tape, as Andre explains.
"We would record instruments that either couldn't be played live, or which actually sounded better pre-recorded, like drum machines etc. Basically the problem is that you can do the mix of the instruments in your house, but when the tape is being put through a PA, you get something like a clarinet coming over much louder than everything else. What we ended up having to do was take all the gear to a rehearsal studio to do a mix, which does help."
In the end Jane and Andre realised that in fact the quality was not significantly improved by using two track tapes, and they decided to just use the Fostex 250.
"By taking the four recorded tracks out of the Direct Out sockets, we were able to get a better live mix — we can adjust it for each soundcheck and change the levels during a performance. But also, using those outputs (as opposed to the Tape Out sockets) I am able to sub-mix, and change the sound without touching the PA."
The basic ingredients of the backing tapes which Andre and Jane record in their studio are drums, either Drumulator, Linn or TR909, CX5 sequences — mainly for bass lines, and one or two DX7 parts. They record the drum parts with gated reverb on the snare and bass, but all the other parts are recorded flat. Using reverb tends to complicate the ambience of the venue at which they are playing and makes the sound rather indirect and mushy.
"I prefer to put things in live and mix them down, rather than bouncing things down. I never bounce very important things like bass or drums down, but if we also need a couple of DX lines and a clarinet or vocal then I will bounce down taking say a DX string sound on track three over on to track four and adding another DX part live. You can do that with the DX7 because it really cuts through and doesn't suffer like other things from being bounced down."
The reason behind Andre's distaste of bouncing is one of quality.
"We tend to keep things very simple, whether doing backing tapes or actually working on songs. Just using a basic idea like drums, bass, two DX parts and a vocal does sound a bit simple. But it doesn't sound simple, because just two lines from the DX can sound crystal clear and very powerful, and they combine to make something out of the ordinary. But if you want to do more parts, then the best way to preserve quality is to play them all in live — or as live as possible — or get a machine to do it."
Hence the CX5. However, using it does have it drawbacks, one of which is the still sadly inherent hitches in syncing that occur when using MIDI.
"I wrote a pattern fora cabasa which we had sampled on a Powertran sampler. The MIDI from the CX5 was triggering it late, but only by a fraction of a beat. So what I did was to program rests in before writing the whole song into the CX5. (Well actually it's normally better to program in a couple of complete rests on the CX5 anyway, if you want everything to start together, but that's just an internal thing anyway.) I then wrote the cabasa part as it ought to have sounded, but I then shortened the rest before it started by one 32nd triplet. In other words, the cabasa was programmed to play one 32nd of a triplet before everything else, but because of the bad MIDI syncing it actually came out exactly in time."
On the walls of Andre's flat/studio, are two PZMs (Pressure Zone Microphones) which have proved a real boon both in his recording of music, and also for live work as well.
"I find that the PZMs are much warmer towards the voice. But also they are much easier to record with because they don't peak so easily and the sound quality is more even. Initially it is harder to get a signal with them and you have to have more gain on the Fostex's inputs — which is not such a good thing."
Jane and Leslie of Round-Away-Wrong both record vocals using the PZMs.
"I have to get right up close to it," Jane explains, "about three or four inches, and I also position it on a mirror which seems to give a wider, harder sound as well. It also means I can look at myself while I sing..."
The PZMs have also enabled Jane to use her beloved Harmonium at gigs as well. "We used to have loads of trouble with it, and we tried all sorts of miking up methods — close miking and so on. But either it would feed back really easily or otherwise we'd get no signal, or hardly any volume. So we tried sliding the PZMs in at the back of the instrument and it worked perfectly, without feedback, and with a really good, clear sound."
Jane has also been searching for a bit more, shall we say, oomph? Oh alright, let's not. She has been searching for a bit more dancefloor orientation in her MIDIeval compositions, and to this end she has been working with Peter Justins of Sudden Sway, in his eight track home set up. Using the Emulator II's sequencer instead of Harmoniums and Phono-Viols she is able to work on vocal arrangements without doing any quality impairing bouncing down.
"I program all the parts into the Emulator's sequencer, and then put a code from the Emulator on to track one of the eight track. I never record those parts on the multi track at any time. Then I drive the Emulator from the tape while I add the vocal parts. I used to sing in a madrigal group, which is where a lot of my ideas derive from, so I put anything up to seven vocal parts down on to the multi track. Then I record the whole thing at the mix down, mixing all the instrumental parts on the Emulator down onto the two track along with the vocal arrangements. The whole effect of doing this is like when Andre tries to get things down live on the Fostex; it just preserves the quality so much more so that it's crystal clear. You really wouldn't be able to get that kind of quality on eight track any other way, and also it's better because you have more control if you want to make different mixes of the same song."
This contemporary approach to recording will, however, not take away from Jane and Andre's devotion to Harmoniums, Phono-Viols or exotic headgear, you will no doubt be glad to know. Which reminds me what is a Phono-Viol? Well try to imagine an old His Master's Voice gramophone and a violin making love. Now imagine the offspring of such a union. Yes, you've got it!
Feature by Richard Walmsley
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