Meet Gary Clark
Scottish band Danny Wilson were led by Gary Clark, who regards his debut solo album Ten Short Songs About Love as his finest work to date. From conception to birth, it was made entirely at home. Phil Ward drops in on the basement studio, and finds both album and proud father doing very well
'Whatever happened to the art of songwriting?' If you hear anybody ask this question, look at them with pity and say...
Those who recall Danny Wilson's 'Mary's Prayer' with affection have good reason to celebrate the debut album of a singer-songwriter called Gary Clark. Not only did he write the song, suggesting that the new collection is just as likely to be brimming with melody, but Gary has also preserved much of the spirit of the band by continuing to work with Danny colleagues Ged Grimes and brother Kit. Technical assistance was amply provided, too, by a fellow musician hell-bent on discovering the secrets of recording. Gary Thomson played session trumpet with the band, and struck up an accord with Gary C. which led them to rethink this whole record-making business. Why spend a fortune on aimless days in plush studios? Why give over ultimate artistic control to engineers just because the manuals are in Japanese?
Why indeed. In the midst of a home recording boom, it's logical for healthy grown men like the two Garys to get involved, and with strong publishing foundations laid by Gary Clark's undoubted and growing stature as one of the country's leading songwriters, the citadel of recording seems all the easier to sack. As Gary shows me into a compact control room, which quickly fills up with the combined output of three incorrigible smokers, he reveals the secret known only to Those Who Record At Home: "This used to be a bedroom."
Secret out, we can all relax. "I spent the recording advance for this solo album on a desk, a tape machine and a patch bay. Plus doing the room out, of course. I used to have a smaller, MIDI-based setup, but once I'd got bitten by the recording bug I realised it was time to ditch the whole big studio ethic."
It's an investment. While saving money on this album, future projects should be even more cost-effective now that the initial major purchases have been made. And with half a beach's worth of sand suspended above the ceiling in the name of sound-proofing, this is no half-measure. But it's not just an accountant's whim. It's a move that brings genuine artistic benefits. Gary Thomson, for one, agrees that technological advances mean that musicians are discovering the joys of recording for themselves. "Removing all the middle men was really fun. We could go straight from the idea to the record coming out."
"It's all about trying to figure out a way, yourself, of getting what you hear in your head onto tape," adds Gary C. "Easily the most enjoyable record I've ever made."
The two Garys started the demos using an Akai 12-track, but found it unreliable enough to prompt a rethink. "The results were quite good, though," thinks Gary C. "When we came to that stage of thinking about a producer, we realised we could take what we'd been doing a step further. We did one mix elsewhere - at The Townhouse - and ended up doing the rest here."
"Obviously there's a lot of stuff out of our budget range," Gary T. points out, "especially valve outboard gear that we both really like. But we were happy with the results we could get with standard digital units. We also thought of getting a Fostex 16-track at one stage, but decided that if we had a 2" tape we could take it elsewhere for remixes. Portability is a major consideration. So we settled on an Otari MX80."
But not everything gets multitracked, as Gary C. reveals. "A lot of the sequences are running live when we mix. Pretty much all of the drums are coming off the R8, and maybe triggering some samples, and then we overdub hi-hat and cymbals. But a lot of the limitations helped in forming the sound, in fact: let the technology dictate the parameters you're going to work in."
The vocals, guitars and sundries were recorded around the flat, although there are still neighbours to worry about when it comes to a drum kit. Having perfected the art of sequencing with Danny Wilson, Gary approaches the keyboards and drums with practised ease, but part of the deal is discovering how to record 'real' things. Even with Sessionmaster pre-amps available for the electric guitars, Gary admits with an ironic shake of the head that they "kept coming back to Marshalls! It's really a search to find the right combination of technology with real instruments. Like, I bought a little Wurlitzer electric piano, which ended up on a lot of stuff. It provides a character you couldn't get out of any of the boxes. The acoustic piano was important like that, as well."
This is a gorgeous Yamaha grand piano which sits in the front room as if to illustrate a glossy studio brochure. However, a Korg SG1 is used both as a mother keyboard in the studio and as Gary's trusty piano on the road. All the basic parts are input into the sequencer via the SG1, but the piano sound is saved for the stage. With the exception of the opening track, 'This Is Why, J', the presence of the Yamaha in the front room is fully exploited throughout the album. So how do they handle being proper sound engineers?
"Everything's trial and error," admits Gary. "We've got one noise reduction unit, but no Dolby, so this Soundcraft Sapphire desk has been good because it's got a gate on every channel. We've had to be pretty careful about gating everything well, and using mutes. There's no automation, so when it comes to the mix there's about three of us lined up along the desk. Seriously, though, it's been the best move I've ever made for recording."
As well as the introduction of proper grown-up recording paraphernalia, Gary's studio has seen a marked expansion in the modules that formerly comprised the C-Lab-based pre-production studio. "You collect stuff as you go along. We came to doing orchestral stuff, and I'd heard that the Proteus 2 was pretty good, so we tried it and I did really like the string sounds. You tend to find that you get used to what a certain box can do, so that you immediately go for a certain sound." They avoid presets, and have built up quite a library of sounds. Gary T. explains the division of labour. "We never use the multitimbral capacity of any of the boxes. You'll know that there's a certain area of the Proteus 2, as Gary says, that's really good for strings, and that's it's gig, it's not used for anything else. Similarly, the bass parts were nearly all one sample from the S900, because it worked so well. We don't tend to split things up: each thing does its own job."
Including synthesisers. The Oberheim Matrix 1000 was the main choice for synthetic sounds, augmented by a habit of running the Wurlitzer through programs in the RSP550 and the DEP 5 to "fuck up" the sound. And although intrigued by E-mu's Vintage Keys module, especially in the search for combining classic and unusual sounds, Gary T. sees no substitute for original units which you can use and abuse in your own sweet way. "Take the Wurlitzer: you can take the line out from the headphone jack and it gives you a level where it just has that lovely, rich transistor-distortion which you can't get from the line out without it breaking up completely. It's an area of dynamics you just can't get from a module. There's a limit to what you can do via MIDI, although these units are amazing compared to what you could use only a few years ago. Even with the things you can do, there's also a limit to the patience you can apply to rummaging around in edit pages. We certainly tested that on the cello in 'A Jackson In Your Kitchen'; we spent ages in C-Lab getting it just right. It worked - that was the Proteus and it is incredible what you can do. But to have to go through that for every single instrument..."
Gary Clark is a guitarist who discovered keyboards. The songs can be strummed and hummed, but for several years now his innate curiosity for sounds and styles has broadened his palette. "That's how this album was essentially made: keyboard-based, starting with C-Lab, putting down the basic structures and grooves, and then starting to replace some of the sounds with real stuff. Actually writing the song would probably take place at the acoustic piano, but the very early stages of putting it together structurally would be done on the computer. Even more recently, what I've been doing is using a pretty straight groove for a click, and starting with guitars again - actually writing on guitars again."
Even so, 'This Is Why, J' came out of jumping into the sequencer and experimenting with patterns and grooves. In fact, Gary admits that the first song he ever wrote using a drum machine and keyboard setup was 'Mary's Prayer'.... "It was with a Juno 60 and a crappy drum machine I had at the time, and I worked out this simple white-note thing. But I gradually got more proficient at the keyboard, without a sequencer originally, but then I got an Alesis MMT8 and finally C-Lab. It's an ongoing process. For me it was from guitars, to keyboards, then to piano when I got my first publishing deal, and then MIDI and sequencing.
"Because I started on the guitar, I tend to have a song-based approach to sequencing. Usually there'll be a song that you could play before I get too heavily into the production side, because at that stage you're hearing things in your head all the time, and you need a focal point. You can keep overdubbing and replacing sounds forever, and you need to keep sight of the core of the thing."
"It's more of a danger on the computer," thinks Gary T. "When you're working with tape, by the time you've gone through the actual process of getting the sound right, you're much less likely to discard the recorded track. Having got the sound that far, you tend to keep it. Especially with electric guitar, because you go through the whole process of playing along with the track, rehearsing the part, deciding whether it's going to be an amp or a pre-amp, which room the amp's going to be in... You're involved with the whole sound from the very beginning."
The most positive side to the flexibility that sequencing provides is in arranging, and this where Gary C.'s sensibilities as a writer can find a particularly sympathetic response from the machines. "One of the beauties of the drum machine factor is that you can play something, like a guitar lick leading into a chorus or something, and at any point right up until you've committed the final mix you can make the drum track follow what the guitar's playing. It actually enables you to keep a 'live' sort of feel to it. So with the computer stuff, what we do is start with a basis, and then tweak it all the time as each thing recorded onto tape has an effect on the sequenced stuff."
"Right up to the last minutes before printing a mix," points out Gary T., "Gary or Ged [Grimes] would be at the drum machine, changing maybe one snare or something just before a chorus. The mix itself actually triggers ideas, and it's great to have the facility to act on them."
"But," continues Gary C., "with the guitar you've got to get it right. Well, you can scrub it and try again, but you know that that's what you're going to be doing for the next few hours. It's also amazing how a percussionist can bring drum machines to life. Karlos Edwards, who added real hi-hat and cymbals to all the tracks, made an incredible difference. I think hi-hats are the hardest thing to get out of a machine, anyway. But if Karl starts pushing it, it makes the drum machine almost sound a bit late, so you get a 'human' feel from it; or if he puts in a lazy feel, it can sound like the machine is pushing!"
Having only 12-bit sampling during the making of Ten Short Songs About Love meant that stereo sampling was out, and while the odd tambourine part may have been dropped in, the drums were confined exclusively to the R8. But since completing the album, Gary has begun to experiment with drum loops, working on a track that uses two loops running in an S1000. And on another new track, detuned percussion sounds are combined with real snare and bass drum. "The way I'm going is to get more contrast between what's real and what's coming off machines," he reveals, "so that the machine things are much more obviously machines, while the Wurlitzer piano, the Telecaster through the Marshall, the drum kit, are all genuine and provide a real rootsy feel."
"Most of this album wouldn't have worked with loops," concludes Gary Thomson, "because the whole thing has been about programming up drum parts which suit each individual song."
It was Gary T's SoundTools that was used to digitally edit the album, and provide a few extra samples. "It all grew from the idea of making the album here. We thought if we're going to record it, we might as well master it to DAT. And if we were going to do that, it made sense to be able to edit it as well. It was great for compiling the album, and testing different combinations of tracks and running orders."
"Another thing," adds Gary C., "was doing two separate mixes onto it, on different days, and then dropping a section from one into the other, so that when you listen back you detect a sudden shift. You can't put your finger on it, but it's like the whole environment has changed. The middle-8 of 'We Sail On The Stormy Waters' does that." Gary T. reveals the inspiration. "We got into those Beach Boys tracks where the edits are quite obvious.
They're magical, because suddenly you're into a different session. SoundTools is a really quick way of doing that. It also enabled us to get into phasing whole tracks, and backward tape... all the old tricks!"
Gary Clark sums it all up. "The first Danny Wilson album was largely Fairlight, which was great but you needed a Fairlight operator. So it's only now that we're getting hands-on experience of the technology. And this stuff is doing much of what the Fairlight did for us then, but it's much easier to understand and it's much, much cheaper!"
Whether you have a record deal or not, the budget will define your limits and you have to work within them. Proteus 2 can provide an excellent string section for anyone who can't afford the LSO - which is me, you, and Gary Clark. And for anyone who smokes, Gary has the following suggestion: "The next thing on the shopping list is air conditioning..."
Interview by Phil Ward
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