In this month's system feature, we focus on sequencing with a human touch: DX7 and SH101 in perfect harmony.
Steve Marshall's music has been heard by many of you but few know his name. Sam Hearnton goes underground to track down the man and his method.
Steve Marshall is a lucky man, one of relatively few musicians who have managed to make a living and career from their hobby. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect, is the fairly basic system he has used to achieve this. It shows that you do not have to spend a telephone number figure to acquire a reasonable sound.
Who is Steve Marshall anyway? Most of you won't be familiar with his name but you might have heard some of his music at one time or another, as he is quite a prolific composer, doing everything from jingles for TV to soundtracks for film and theatre.
The heart of his recording set-up is his two bedroomed flat in the South East of London. Here, housed on some DIY shelving is a diverse variety of instruments, acoustic and electronic, analogue and digital, hi-tech and lo-tech. Surprisingly perhaps, all this was paid for largely by just one ad, his first and perhaps his most successful. This was a commercial for Widsom Toothbrushes which you may recall from 1984. It's won a number of industry awards and although no longer still being aired in Britain, it is still being shown in other parts of the globe, the royalties continuing to provide a reasonable source of income.
His multitrack is a well-used Teac A3440S with which he masters, via a RSD console onto a Mk.1 Revox PR99. His only effects are a newly acquired Boss DDL, which replaced an elderly Revox A36 that was used for tape echo, and a custom made reverb, built around a couple of old Hammond organ springs by ES&CM contributor Jake Rothman, specifically for Steve.
Pride of his extensive instrument collection is a Yamaha DX7 but he also has a Roland SH-101 and a largely superceded Casio MT30. Besides these he has some acoustic gear including a Eko 12 string guitar, a Hofner Senator, a Koto (which he sometimes plays with an E-bow!), an upright piano, saxophone, even a toy xylophone - you name it. This reflects Steve's philosophy of utilising anything that can be used as an interesting musical sound. Indeed, he is often to be found wandering round scrapyards and forests armed with a hired Nagra and his Shure SM58 looking for sounds to add to his extensive sound library. Percussion is provided by a Roland Drumatix and a Boss HC2 Hand Clap and again, a wide variety of odds n' sods contribute that little bit extra interest to the sound.
How did River Voyages (featured on the tape) come about?
"It was the first time I'd ever used the DX7 - it was just after their launch and I hired one of the first available. I had done a documentary for the BBC called A Wedding In Las Vegas and the bloke who produced that asked me to do the title sequence for a new series called Great River Journeys Of The World. I also had to do some incidental music and River Voyages was one of them. I had a real panic getting it done but eventually I was told the BBC was not going to use it because Vangelis had said he was going to do something instead!"
You've achieved quite a natural sound and yet it still remains electronic. Was that something you consciously tried for?
"Yes. It's the toy piano setting on the DX7 which actually sound more like a Gamelan (a Japanese instrument similar to vibes). I had the SH-101 doing the backing on the sequencer and I played along with it on the DX to make sure the piece was tight. The Roland is doing this really slow harmonic sweep which puts a little movement into the sound - a sort of very slow chorus effect. There's also a genuine panpipe on it. One of my friends bought it for me in Peru as a present. I can't play them properly so I just played a single note and then varisped it. You can hear it at the beginning of River Voyages. Again the fretless bass and brass are DX presets. Dead simple, really" he deadpans in his soft Yorkshire drawl.
You've got a very unusual looking mixer.
"Yes, it's a RSD 10-4 or 8-2. It's a prototype and it came from RSD's R&D department.
They only made ten of them because they would have been too expensive apparently. It's got two band sweep and fixed treble as well as things like dedicated returns for mixdowns. It was intended originally for four track so you've got four sends and four VU meters but if you go up to eight track you needn't upgrade the mixer because you've got eight returns. It means you've only got another two channels for sending but you can monitor off all eight whilst you're laying down tracks. If you're working with synths and you're only doing one track at a time it's ideal. It's also very small."
"I've got away with doing lots of stuff on the four track and some people have assumed I have a 24 track! I usually fill up four tracks, bounce onto two on the Revox and take that tape and put it back on the Teac and record on the other two tracks. I've repeated that with up to three bounce downs. The music's been played on the telly and no-one's been the wiser."
Your signal-to-noise ratio is quite remarkable for someone who's not using noise reduction.
"Most of that's down to the Revox. It's probably the most important piece of equipment I've got and not only because it's got two octave varispeed."
I didn't think the PR99 had any varispeed... "Well, it's like the remote control. I built it myself from some Studer circuit diagrams."
Are you going to move up to eight track? "Yes. Ideally I'd like the Tascam 58 because it's more sturdy than most and it's got a built in SMPTE sync facility - but I can't afford it. So I'll probably get the 38."
Coming back to your synths, do you find yourself still using the SH-101 now you've got the DX7?
"A fair amount. It really is a smashing instrument. I did everything on there until I got the DX. You can get things like a fretless bass sound, it's just harder work."
When you described the DX sounds you used on River Voyage you said all the DX sounds were presets. Have you tried to make your own FM sounds?
"Well, the presets are sufficient for most people. I've made two good sounds on it and all I managed to do with the others was degrade the presets. It's sound really is lethal. I do a lot of musical sound effects so all the bizarre sounds it can do are very useful. It's ideal."
Moving onto your effects, the spring reverb is unique, I'd imagine. How do you use that?
"Well, the Boss DE200 has two stereo outputs on it so I send the reverb into the DDL and set up a stereo chorus effect and it sounds wonderful. You get this amazing sort of shimmering reverb. Lovely."
"I've also had my Drumatix modified. It's got separate outputs, it was useless without them. I have managed to get a decent tom sound by combining it with the SH-101. I just set up a descending tom sound on the '101 and trigger it whilst combining it with the snare from the Drumatix. You get this nice smack on the front of the sound.
"The main trouble with the TR606 is that by the time I'd got that end and had separate outputs put in, bought the clap machine and the Sync Track, I might as well have bought the TR808!"
How do you build a rhythm track? Presumably you also use the DE200's trigger sync facility?
"That's right. I use the MPC Sync Track to put a pulse down onto tape and then I sample different sounds into the DDL and keep bouncing down. It means that I can build up a good sound and everything's in sync. But really, I'd like a digital drum machine. I've been looking at the SCI Drum Traks and that's amazing."
So are there any other bits of equipment you'll want to acquire in '85?
"Of course! I particularly would like a vocoder. I've looked at the Korg and the EMS and I'll probably go for the Roland one (the SVC-350). I also need a compressor and some Drawmer gates. I quite fancy this new MIDI/CV DDL that Tim Orr's designed too (the Powertran MCS-1).
"It's funny, really - when I bought all this stuff I thought, 'great - I've wanted all this stuff for year and now I've got it', I thought that would be the end, but it's just the beginning!"
Feature by Sam Hearnton
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