A church, a portastudio, and a blue hippopotamus? Well, what do you expect from a band called Sam-I-Am?
What do a blue hippopotamus, a Portastudio and Sam-I-Am have in common? Not much you might think, but on the day I went to see Mike Church at his west London flat, he was busily colouring in and tracing little blue hippopotami as that's his job. He works freelance as an artist for a company who do cartoons/animation for adverts. A Portastudio is what he records on, and Sam-I-Am is the name of the band.
Mike formed the band with singer and lyricist Kathy McDonald about 18 months ago with the usual sort of lineup: you know, drums, bass, guitar (Mike) and vocals. However, after various gigs around the London circuit, including The Greyhound in Fulham, they decided that a tape of the songs would be a good idea. At this point, the bassist promptly lost interest when he found that spending money would be involved, and the drummer thought that he looked better on stage than in a studio, and he left. Not to be put off, Mike and Kathy invested what money they had in some equipment that would enable them to write and record their songs in the comfort of their own home.
Before I saw what was used to record on, Mike played me a couple of songs they had done at home. The vocals were loud and clear, the drums certainly had punch and the overall sound was big enough to make me assume that they had an eight track system tucked away next door. How wrong I was. The Sam-I-Am setup is based around a Tascam Porta-One, the portable four track recorder and mixer. Seeing this, I started to ask how they got such a good sound.
"We bought the Porta One because we couldn't afford the 244, and for us the Fostex portastudio didn't have as many facilities as ours and it didn't seem to be as versatile."
Instead of spending a limited budget on the 244 portastudio, Mike and Kathy opted to buy a good all-purpose microphone and a digital drum machine, to supplement their other instruments.
"I got the AKG D320B for a mike as it has a built in bass roll-off switch, which we find very useful on most things. And I used to have a Soundmaster drum box that wasn't very good, so that was replaced with a Korg DRM-1 digital drum machine."
Mike has a varied collection of guitars and effects that are put to good use as he treats most sounds before they are recorded on tape.
"I've got a Washburn Tour 24 with a 'Wonderbar' whammy bar; it used to have a different tremolo system that was rubbish as it was made of brass, so it wore out really quicky. But Washburn replaced it with the 'Wonderbar' for nothing, which was very good of them."
The Washburn is the main guitar and is supplemented by a heavily customised Hohner Strat copy that once saw life as a fretless. An Ibanez Roadster is used for the bass parts, and being active gives a wide range of sounds. This is essential, as the music of Sam-I-Am varies from having a Reggae-type bass, to a bouncing Funky bottom end. A classical guitar of Oriental origin and a Les Paul copy with a Di Marzio humbucker of unknown origin completes the string section. Effects pedals include a Boss Super Distortion and Feedbacker, a Boss noise gate, Ibanez flanger, an Electro Harmonix Memory Man delay, and Melos Tape echo that uses a cassette instead of the more usual tape loop and has a "very bright sound that's good for guitar and vocals". Using these guitars, a Moog Rogue and a little Casio PT20, Mike gets a wide range of sounds, so wide that what I thought were keyboard sounds in fact turned out to be guitars! I wanted to know how he did it, and how Sam-I-Am typically recorded.
"Usually it starts off with a guitar part or a drum machine pattern that's good to play with, but generally I put the basic idea of the song onto tape, and then program the drums to fit the song, finding the best groove. At this point, I'm not too bothered as to what sounds are being used, as I pay more attention to getting the structure of the song right, so the drums punctuate the change from the verse to chorus, for example."
With a basic idea of the song on tape, with a bass part added, Kathy enters the proceedings. She works closely with Mike on the format of the song, trying out different vocal ideas, seeing what changes, if any, need to be made. Having decided on the format of the track, Mike then rerecords it. It's at this point that things start to get treated soundwise. Mike has a Yamaha G100 212 guitar combo that has a very good reverb unit built in, and it's through this that most things are recorded.
"For guitar, I go through my effects and then into the amp, and for rhythm guitar I take off as much bass and middle as possible to get a clean cutting sound. The Yamaha has a very musical parametric eq so I fine tune the sound with that. I take a line-out from the back of the amp that goes through the noise gate and then it's DI'd into the Portastudio."
Mike uses different echoes and a very distinctive guitar sound that's achieved by careful amounts of compression and chorus/flanging, that thankfully doesn't sound like the much copied U2 sound. He also puts the Korg drum machine on tape using the reverb from the guitar amp. How does he get such a good drum sound bearing in mind that it doesn't have separate outputs?
"I usually compress the drums to get a more punchy sound, and it's the use of reverb that makes them start to sound distinctive. Sometimes I turn on the flanger for certain parts of the song on the drums, and that can give a lift or a mood without going over the top. It's the sort of thing that you don't notice straight away, but it helps."
So with drums on track one, a rhythm guitar on two, a bass part or second guitar part is then added. The three tracks are then bounced onto track four, and then the fun starts.
"Depending on the track, I then record the bass or lead guitar. For bass, I always compress the sound to even out the differential in output of the strings, and I may use some flanging to give some colour to it. For lead I Mike up the amp as it gives a more open sound, and I can use some feedback if it's needed."
Vocals are next on the list, but these are left uncompressed as a rule to let the dynamics of Kathy's singing come out. A pair of Beyer DT30 headphones are used for the overdubs and also for monitoring, as these give an uncoloured faithful representation as to what's happening musically. Mike used to use some little Hi-Fi monitors, but found they were misleading.
"They were too trebly and very middly, so I used to overcompensate on the bass end, and when I listened to the mix on a decent system it had a huge dub-style bass. It's okay sometimes, but not if you're expecting a normal sound."
When the vocals are done, percussion and other melody lines are added — "guitar parts or little keyboard parts" — to finish the recording process. Sam-I-Am have four tracks of things musical to mix, with the drums, guitar and bass on track four, second guitar on three, vocals on two and percussion and melody lines on track one. The mixing is done in another room of the flat, a room that has a pair of Wharfdale Lazer speakers, a powerful Sansui amplifier and a JVC twin cassette deck. The Wharfdales are very accurate and "are not flattering at all", in Mike's experience. The JVC is "very reliable as regards the quality, and also it runs at the correct speed." How many people have horror stories about cassette decks running fast or slow? I know I have a few.
Mike and Kathy now have a complete live set's worth of material recorded and mixed at home, and they have already been offered some live work just on the strength of their home demos. The next step for them is to get a bass player and drummer to join them, something that they are not about to rush into.
"We want to get people who are into doing the same thing as us because we don't want to play live just for the sake of playing. We want to put on a show rather than be just another band playing live, and when we have a viable band we then want to go into an eight or 16 track studio to record the songs properly."
I wonder if they need to, if the two songs I heard are any indication of what can be done at home on their modest setup. Whatever, with the contacts they have in the graphics and animation business, and a "video in the pipeline", the future of Sam-I-Am looks good.
Feature by Peter Gleadall
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