Bedroom recordists Ad Lib engage in pillow talk with Paul Benson
Kate and Jules met each other by chance seven years ago and they've been playing with each other ever since. Though they've done it live on stage with a variety of different lineups and under a variety of names — most recently The Jinx — these days they prefer to do it on their own in the privacy of Jules' bedroom, as Ad Lib.
And it was to this aforementioned bedroom in deepest Heswall on the banks of the River Dee that your intrepid reporter ventured to find out all about Ad Lib and how they make their demo tapes. Like so many home studios, centrepiece of the set up is a 244 Portastudio.
"Originally we had a Teac A3440," Jules explains, "but we couldn't afford a good mixer to go with it so we decided to sell it and buy a secondhand Portastudio. It's about to be sold now — the buttons are out of place and we use it so much the plastic has worn away where the buttons would be if they hadn't come off!"
The reason for the imminent sale is that by accident they stumbled across the Akai MG614 at the music fair and it was lust at first sight. Retailing at about a grand they reckon the Akai will open up lots of possibilities for Ad Lib.
"It's getting out of the realms of the Portastudio really because it's got so many features on it that we can actually use."
Like what, for instance, Jules?
"Well for a start, besides having two effect sends and two stereo effect returns, so you can have a reverb and a delay coming in in stereo, you can also program drop-ins. You get a sync track that doesn't affect your four recorded tracks..."
"And", Kate adds, "it's got six inputs and the brilliant thing is that as you mix four of your recorded tracks you can use these six with total independent volume and put it onto your next..."
Feeding off each other's enthusiasm, Jules explains further.
"If you want to put a sync track down for the drums (which doesn't affect the tracks), you can build up your four tracks, bounce them, add in through six channels the separate outs of the drum box... which if you think about it just gives you a phenomenal result if you get the mix right. Brilliant."
While on the subject of lusting, mention should be made of the Sony PCM machine that also brings a shine to their eyes. But back to the immediate reality;
"After we got the Portastudio we started making demos with the band and did a few live recordings which were fairly atrocious — literally a few mikes around the room. Then we started really concentrating on trying to get a good sound. We had a very cheap drum box at the time — a Korg — and it sounded horrible. We got used to having a mediocre result and it wasn't really progressing. And then we got the Roland TR707 drum box. It just lifted the sound of the demos. It made an enormous difference."
"The change is really worth making," they say. "And that's what we find about IM" adds Kate (who with this kind of tact should obviously do well with PR people!) "Actually when you do read these articles you do pick up things that people have said about a piece of equipment and you bear it in mind".
Nice one Kate, any more tips on drum machines?
"The Roland is wonderful, it really is. We tried the Yamaha RX11 and that was horrible. The snare sound on it was revolting — you have to do a lot with it to get anything." Jules adds that "the sounds on the Roland are good without eq and all that kind of thing. They are good immediately whereas the Yamaha tended to need a lot of eq." Kate amplifies, "they sound very live" and her attention turns to the 727 with its Latin percussion that Ad Lib have recently tried and added to their shopping list.
What about effects then?
"As far as effects units go, we've only got the Roland Chorus Echo, the RE501, which is limited obviously. It's a bit dated but okay — it's got everything on board and, unlike a digital delay, you can use them all at once — you can't actually have chorus and echo on a digital delay at the same time."
Ad Lib also use an Accessit compressor on vocals and occasionally on the bass guitar. Kate, who handles all the vocals, explains that "if it's an intimate song the Accessit will bring the voice very close." "But" adds Jules, "you can write that we think it's bloody noisy, because it is!"
Kate does the keyboards (and a bit of guitar and also the vocals) and uses a BIT 99.
"It isn't that common" she explains, "but I used to have a Yamaha DX9 and I got rid of it because I just couldn't get on with it. The BIT 99 is analogue and digital so you get a bit more of a warm sound to it and for the price it's got more features than others. It's versatile as well and for £600 we'd recommend it to anybody."
"I found the DX9 limiting and the sound very thin. I found I had to chorus a lot of the sounds such as brass. Getting the BIT was a relief — you get a good piano sound, for instance, whereas the Yamaha sounds like an excuse for a piano.
"I've got a Yamaha QX21 sequencer, but I'm selling it because it's difficult to use. It's brand new — I've only had it a month but we'd rather get on with the music than programming. We can cope with programming the drum box because you get an immediate result, but the sequencer is just too much hassle. When we went in the studio we used it, but it took us longer to use the sequencer than to play. It's technology getting in the way."
Fine Kate, tell us about your guitar. I don't think it's a Yamaha is it? No, it's a Chris Eccelshall custom built strat-type.
"Which is rather tasty. It's not a Strat that's been customised, he's actually made it from scratch. I've got Seymour Duncan pickups on it which are vintage Strat PU's made to the same spec as the original late 50s Strats."
Kate also uses a Session MkII amp "which is well recommended" and Jules plays a Les Paul de Luxe and has a Lab Series amp he doesn't use much "because the Session sounds better." Jules also plays an Aria SB1000 bass through a Trace Elliott MkIII bass amp which, though he says are considered to be the best in the business, he doesn't think a lot of. "It's badly made and doesn't sound that wonderful. It's over-rated".
All Kate's vocals are handled through an SM58 which they both agree is "a great little all-rounder."
Jules describes the way Ad Lib go about recording a track as "really basic". After programming the Roland, which has both a mixer and separate outputs for each voice, all the voices except the bass go into the reverb unit. Then out of the reverb unit into a double Tandy jack plug adaptor which has the dry bass drum track fed into its other input. The sum of these is then fed to the Portastudio.
"The bass drum goes in dry because it would swamp things up too much if it had reverb on it" explains Jules.
"The dry bass drum and everything else with reverb sounds okay. It's very important to get reverb on the snare and equally important to keep the bass drum dry.
The double jack plug adaptor is a Tandy goody and is preferred to using a separate channel on the Portastudio as the result is cleaner since it's not going through all the electronics of another channel.
The structure of the song on an instrument goes down next — either a keyboard or a guitar. This track could even be a piano and may be rubbed off later. If the song is going to have, say, three keyboard tracks on it, two will go down onto tracks 1 and 2, and then they are bounced onto track 3 adding the third keyboard. An Ad Lib tip here is that if you have a track where you're not playing all the way through — if you drop out for the middle eight for instance — then turn the mike selector off so there's no hiss coming through the channel. So if you don't want extra hiss, as soon as you're not playing anything, turn it off and that will keep it clean.
It takes a bit of time to get this mix right and the three keyboards end up on one track, in mono of course. Next comes the bass and Ad Lib say it's important here to make sure that the bass track is not next to the drum track as the bass frequencies of the latter can interfere with the former, producing a "fluctuating sound".
So now we have drums on track 4, keyboard bounce on track 3, bass guitar one track apart from drums on track 2, and then if there's guitar on the song (which there often is) this will usually now go down onto track one.
"This is where we bounce onto the stereo deck. If we want echo on anything or a bit more reverb that we didn't record, then we'll pull it through the auxiliary send and receive for each channel returning in stereo. So the result while not true stereo (as the send is mono) is pseudo stereo."
This is then bounced onto the stereo deck, a dbx equipped Teac A550 RX, "cramming in as much level before distortion as you can". Because of the way Ad Lib's system is wired, they can't add anything as they bounce down to stereo but after checking the stereo mix through a pair of Tannoy Stratfords, it is then fed back to the Portastudio usually adding a stereo keyboard "which is nice as it spreads nicely".
An Ad Lib trick here is to record the stereo bounce with the dbx on and the chrome tape setting selected. Not using cheap tape is a definite tip and Ad Lib use chrome tape, and this opens up an interesting possibility. When they play it back for re-recording on the Portastudio the chrome selector on the A550 is knocked off, "which gives it a sudden burst of treble, really sparkles it up." The re-recorded tracks on the Portastudio thus regain the life that a third generation copy would have lost.
"Then we've got tracks 3 and 4 in stereo finished. That's the music. Then Kate does vocals." A backing vocal is recorded on track one and then bounced onto track two adding either the same part or a harmony. Then onto track one goes the lead vocal and any guitar solos — as the lead vocal drops out, they'll drop in a Jules solo.
For a clean sound the guitars are DI'd and for a distorted heavy sound they are always miked up. The bass can be miked up (more usually) or DI'd.
So what are the results like? Kate explains. "We've been in and out of studios ourselves, with other bands doing sessions for them, both 16-track and eight track, and we just found that we came away with naff mixes and every time have to go back in. You know what it's like in a cheapy demo studio. We always get much better sound, much better sort of life to it off the Portastudio and you don't clog it up either — you just keep it simple".
"If this thing (the 244) was new," adds Jules, "I'm sure it would sound much better — sometimes it sounds a bit cluttered because there's no room for independent things to breathe, but a new one would give it that sparkle of life. I believe with a properly working Portastudio and a Sony PCM we could make a really good demo".
Ad Lib describe their music as "commercial" and they've been doing the usual rounds of record companies trying to persuade the powers that be that this is in fact the case. A favourable reaction from Arista and an invitation to Barbados are their best results so far. They are serious and dedicated to what they are doing and they are committed to making it. All their cash goes into their studio. As I was leaving Heswall I asked them for a final word.
"Just say that these two are just waiting here and have got to be signed," Kate argues, while Jules was a little more direct: "Just tell the A&R people to call us on (Contact Details)."
Feature by Paul Benson
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