Richard Walmsley reports on an operation to smash the majors... and all other persons of rank?
Looking back on the halcyon days of independent music always brings a tear to my eye. In those days, as I remember it, making and releasing your own record was considered hip. It wasn't an attempt to revive the hippy ethic for the 99th time, or to try and justify the fact that you are still wearing the same clothes that you bought second hand three years ago. It quite often resulted in very stimulating music in fact.
Ah well. I'm probably just getting old, or cynical... probably both. All of which explains why when a record arrived on my desk some days ago, with the logo 'Smash The Majors' emblazened on the label, my Monday morning lethargy remained undisturbed. Which was a pity since it arrived on a Thursday afternoon. What did arrest my attention finally was the accompanying photograph of a clean cut lad and lass both looking relatively well dressed and decidedly unpsychedelic. The same was true of the A side — Losing You, sounding not a hundred miles removed from (late) Scritti Politti, which had apparently been recorded in a bedroom on a Fostex A8.
Sophie and Peter Johnston are, in fact, quite incongruous against the greasy mainstream of the independent world. A brother and sister duo from Newcastle, they have chosen to finance and release their own records after having been dubiously stitched up in contracts by a minor and subsequently a major record label. Making a record on minimal equipment lends itself to styles of music that are unashamed, rough and ready. The family Johnston, however, were aiming for something different, a sound that would be suitable for broadcasting on daytime radio. Though their budget was limited, their aims were reflected in the way they allocated it.
Pete: "I'd sussed that most home recordists spend most of their money on the mixer and the tape recorder. But nowadays records are made with piles of outboard, so I thought I'd go into that area. I just used the Fostex A8 and the 350 mixer, but I bought a few delay units. At one point I had three, the Roland SDE 3000 which had the SX 303 sampling modification fitted, a Vestafire DIG 410 which was cheap but quite good for the price, and I had the Deltalab delay. Then I had the Yamaha R1000 mono reverb, Drawmer gates, Yamaha GC 2020 compressor. I used a Marantz hi-fi graphic equaliser, but I think it sounds as good as anything else I've heard."
Although Pete had access to a sampling facility, he wasn't able to use it to excess because he didn't find its tracking up to it. It was indispensable, however, in the production of the drum sound.
Pete: "I used a Roland MC4 sequencer, and I put a sync code down from that which triggered a Drumatix — actually it went out of sync towards the end of the side for some reason, the chords came out staggered, but I managed to cover it up. You can't really tell on first listening because there's so much reverb.
"The drum sounds on the A side were sampled because the only drum machine I had at the time was the Drumatix. The bass drum was sampled off the beginning of a record, and the snare drum was sampled off a demonstration of a Roland drum machine on an Electronic Soundmaker tape. The hihat and ride cymbals were Drumatix, but the crash cymbal was sampled off a LinnDrum demonstration record."
One of Peter's main regrets in recording Losing You is his attention to quality during sampling.
"I wasn't terribly worried about quality when I was sampling. Most of the samples were recorded using a cheap mike, an AKG D80. But later or when we put the vocal down I bought a Sennheiser microphone, the K3U and ME40 modular one which was really excellent and I wish I'd done some of the samples on that."
Peter's aim was to produce as big a sound as possible using his set up. However, the main instrument he used was the Jupiter 8, bar a few acoustic sounds such as rulers twanging and cats mewing that were sampled as sound effects at the beginning of the song.
Peter: "The chorus was the big thing. I recorded several sets of stereo chords — in the end I got about 10 sets of chords bounced together — because I wanted a very fat sound. The Jupiter 8 is quite thin sounding next to something like the Oberheim Matrix 12, so I deliberately varied the patches, using different waveforms and frequency ranges to get a wide sort of sound."
The drums were bounced onto one track and the chorus chords onto two tracks for a stereo effect, because he wanted to have as many tracks free for overdubs as possible. Again, in retrospect, this was not entirely necessary for the best outcome of the song.
"I wish I'd gone for a simpler sound, because I'd have got a better sound overall if I'd bounced the drums down into stereo. Also I found that as I put things down on top and I ran through the tape hundreds of times, the drum sound deteriorated. To counteract that, I made cassette recordings of the verse I was working on in the overdub stage and only ran the A8 when it was time to actually put the ideas down. Because the overdubs were a bit too complicated I found that I had actually wiped little sections out of the chords, so I had to put in little noises and things to cover up."
Because he wanted to get the most he possibly could out of the outboard gear he had available, the option of creating the final sounds in the mix was abandoned. All the effects were recorded on the multi-track.
"If you only use the effects mainly in the mix then when you put several things through the same effect they have to have the same setting, so I wasn't bothered about not having flexibility in the final mix. On the chords what I did was put them through the delay and pan them. I'd have the main signal going through one channel and delay, or modulate, the other signal. Just in case of phase cancellation, I recorded things that I had done onto cassette and played it back in mono to check.
"I wanted to use some ambient effects, but I wasn't able to, so I tried to simulate that with the reverbs etc. Because things like the Lexicon 224 have several delays built into them obviously that's part of the key to some of these excellent sounds, so I used effects like delaying the reverb, and gating the reverb. The delayed reverb is meant to simulate a larger room where the sound takes a certain time to reach the walls before bouncing back. I chorused the delay, which I found really helpful; I've never seen that sort of thing written about but it's actually quite standard because you can do it with a Lexicon."
The only things added in the mix were some compression, and some of the sounds were put through an Aphex Aural Exciter. The Aphex was very useful as far as reviving the rather tired drum track, but it led to some problems when the band actually went on to make a record out of their song.
"When we got the test pressings back they sounded all crackly and distorted. In a situation like that everyone involved tends to disown responsibility. We did the whole thing through a brokerage called MIS (Music Industry Services) and after a bit of hassle we got them to go back to Porkies (the cutting room) to do it again, but the same thing happened. At this point MIS was getting a bit annoyed and they blamed my tape. But finally they decided to cut it again at Tape 1. There they did a test pressing by putting a laquer on, cutting it, and playing it back. After they had analysed it, they said there was too much energy in the upper-mid frequencies which they put down to the Aphex. The engineer cut some of that out, and compensated for it by pushing it slightly higher up in the mix.
"It was evident that the change had been made, but we decided to go with it anyway. I got the opinion of a local DJ in Newcastle and he said it was okay for broadcasting, but I'm still not completely happy with it."
That's as maybe, but this rather twee looking twosome have already had far more success than is usual from a home recording. Not only has John Peel played the record on his Radio One slot, but Simon Bates has also played it a couple of times, his interest being so great that he got Peter to do a phone interview on his radio show. As a result of all this, MIS have offered the group a distribution deal for the single.
One thing Peter and Sophie do share with the rest of the independent world is a sense of adventure. They have staked everything they have on this record, which has meant selling off a good deal of the equipment they purchased in order to record it.
Peter: "We want to see how far we can get on our own. We can sell singles through Peel, and we've sold about a hundred mail order. If the worst comes to the worst I would get a portastudio and concentrate on the independent scene because I don't think the quality we would get on it would be good enough for the radio producers. It's a shame, but the quality has to be there before they'll even say whether they like it or not."
Feature by Richard Walmsley
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