On the Level
Session player, freelance producer and 1-Level keyboardist Duncan Bridgeman discusses what it's like to live in a recording studio for 11 months of the year. Interview by Dan Goldstein.
Few people would envy the lifestyle of a man who spends almost every waking hour within the confines of the recording studio, but 1-Level synth player Duncan Bridgeman is just such a man. What does the studio do for him?
In a large, smartly furnished 24-track studio less than a short-hop bus fare from Arsenal football stadium, a blond-haired, slightly-built figure is standing over a hot DX7, desperately trying to perfect an overdubbed synth line. The sound is that of a marimba - the DX's own factory preset being augmented by an acoustic sample courtesy of a Powertran MCS1, the two linked together through MIDI - and the player is Duncan Bridgeman, session musician, freelance producer, and one-third of 1-Level, one of this country's best long-term 'dance-floor-with-feel' prospects.
The band have had a second album, Shake, released last month by Virgin, but Bridgeman has already undertaken a further project in the form of an album production job for Spanish hopefuls Radio Futura; the marimba overdub is for them. He works in conjunction with 1-Level bassist Jo Dworniak, and together the duo already have a number of production achievements to their credit. Most notably, they played on John Foxx's 1983 long-player The Golden Section, and formed 1-Level with reggae singer Sam Jones the same year.
'Jo was working as house engineer here at Musicworks', recalls Bridgeman, having successfully completed the overdub at the fifth attempt. 'I was working as an insurance clerk, without ever realising that it was even possible to make a living out of making music. I mean, I'm from a fairly conventional middle-class background, and you don't get given music as a possible choice of career when you're at school - you're just told to be an insurance clerk.
'It was only when I met Jo that I discovered the possibility of studio work, and we started playing and recording here in the early hours - when there was no one booked in to record. Then Sam's old band, Brimstone, came in to do some recording, and when Jo played Sam a tape of some of the stuff we'd done together, he wanted in. He put some vocals on one song we had called 'Give Me', and that was our first single.'
Any problems getting a record deal?
'No, none at all. Virgin were the first company we took it to, and they agreed to put it out straight away! They've been great ever since, giving us as much time as we need to make each album, and as much money, too.
'The single was quite successful, especially in America, and it was good to have that success early on, because it set us up here before we'd even got started as a band.'
Since then, though, none of 1-Level's 45rpm releases have looked likely to hit headlines. As the press release says, they gave the charts a warm glow without ever setting them alight.
But the non-arrival of superstardom isn't for want of trying. Certainly, the band's songwriting skill, playing ability and inventive production technique deserve wider attention, even if Bridgeman and Dworniak have other irons in the fire.
'That's the good thing about earning your living as a producer as well as a musician', comments Bridgeman, who clearly relishes the prospect of fulfilling either role. 'If you're just a musician in a band you're lucky if you do one album a year, but if you produce other bands as well you get the chance to do maybe four or five, which means you spend almost all your time in the studio.'
Doesn't that get tiring?
'Nope. I love it. We've been at Musicworks almost continuously for the last five years, but it's really the only one thing I love doing. At the moment I'm living off doing production work with Jo, though we never take on something we don't feel is worth doing. You can't really attempt to produce an album properly if you've got no interest in it - that's why it's important that we enjoy everything we do.'
So much for Bridgeman the producer. His keyboard-playing skill (the odd overdub or two excepted) is also beyond question, and he's been playing synth on and off ever since meeting up with Dworniak. What got him interested in electronics in the first place?
'Difficult to know, really. I guess I was just getting into playing music when the first reasonably cheap synths were coming out, so it seemed natural to get involved with them.
"I'm from a middle-class background, and at school they don't offer being a musician as a career - they just tell you to be an insurance clerk."
'The synth I started off with was a Korg 700S monophonic, which was old but good, plus a Roland string synth that I could play chords on. Since then I've been through a whole load of stuff, mainly polysynths. I've had a Jupiter 4, a Prophet 5, a Rhodes Chroma, a PPG Wave 2 and, most recently, the DX7.
'One thing I have realised is that timing is all-important when it comes to buying keyboards. I paid £1600 for my JP4 and even more for the Prophet, but they'd hardly be worth anything at all now. I don't think I could give the JP4 away now even if I tried, and the Prophet's hopeless because even though it's a V2, it's still impossible to keep it properly in tune. You know, you'd put it in Unison mode and it would sound like you were playing five notes at once!
'A similar thing happened with the Chroma. I bought mine just before the DX7 came out, and I suppose I bought it for the idea of it as much as anything. You know, the idea of all that programmability, that was what appealed to me. But then the DX7 arrived, and that's got another degree of programmability again, so now I tend to keep the Chroma at home and use it for doing Joe Zawinul impressions; it sounds just right for those!'
The DX might have programmability, but few people have so far managed to exploit its potential to the full. Has Bridgeman succeeded where so many would-be programmers have failed?
'No, not really. I have managed to come up with some really great sounds of my own, but I haven't worked my way into the DX in any logical way. If someone heard one of my DX sounds and asked me to change one particular component of it, I really wouldn't know where to start.
'But that doesn't seem to matter, because the DX sounds so good even with just its preset sounds in it. It's particularly good in natural ambience.
There's a great room here at the studio where we plug synths into amps to get the sound of natural acoustics. But actually, I still prefer the sound of the PPG, because the DX can still sound a bit thin when you put it in a mix. You know, the PPG always stands out no matter what you mix in with it, but you find you have to work on DX sounds before you can really hear them properly, especially bass sounds.'
Yet in spite of his love affair with digital synthesis, Bridgeman has found himself even more attracted by the potential offered by sound sampling, as he explains.
'I love playing with studio toys, and the latest one I've got is the Powertran MCS1. I bought mine ready-built not long ago, but already it's come in really useful. It's so much easier to use than something like an AMS, loops are dead easy on it.
"If somebody heard one of my DX7 sounds and asked me to change one particular component of it, I wouldn't know where to start."
'I've been sampling all sorts of things. One thing I've been doing a lot of is sampling bits from old 1-Level master tapes. I know it sounds funny, but it means you don't have to go to the trouble of creating a good bass sound when you know you've used something like it before. And the other thing I've been doing is sampling records, which is a lot of fun. I've got a whole album full of Gerry Anderson TV music, so I've been nicking bits of string sounds from Captain Scarlet episodes; and the bass line from the Avengers theme music - that's a great one to sample...'
No worries about the copyright situation, then?
'Oh yeah. But that's part of the art of sampling. You've got to alter the character of something like a snare drum sound, just in case somebody recognises their sound. I've been going through my collection of Beatles records, trying to find a Ringo Starr snare strike that hasn't got guitars all over it as well, but even if I find one, I'll have to change it a bit.
'But the whole thing seems a bit stupid to me. I don't really see how anybody can claim to own a snare sound. I mean, nobody owns the sound of a violin, do they? And what's the point in people developing all this sampling technology if nobody's going to be allowed to use it? It's daft, if you ask me.'
Well said, that man. Mention of Zawinul and the Beatles leads us to the question of Bridgeman's musical background. 1-Level have their own, distinctive summer-funk style, but the keyboard player has been involved with all sorts of different musical projects. What are his main sources of inspiration?
'Well, I was brought up on The Who and Bowie, so I've got my roots firmly in pop music. But then I met Jo and he's a real jazzer. He introduced me to people like Weather Report and all that sort of stuff, and over the last five years I 've been listening to an awful lot of jazz.
'But lately, we've both been listening to a lot of pop music again, especially 12-inch singles. I think the 12-inch is a really great medium, because it lets the producer or engineer show his work to anybody who wants to listen. If you put a lot of effort into, say, recording a backing track, you know that on the seven-inch it's going to get lost because what matters most is the song. But on a 12-inch, you've got the time to put the spotlight on something like the drums or the bass line - the things that don't get heard usually.'
If the pop music of today is more attractive to Bridgeman than that of five years ago, does he think the standard of pop music has gone up since that time?
'Well, not so much the standard of the music, because I think it's the music staying the same that makes pop successful, but certainly production has improved a lot. If you listen to something like Frankie or Scritti Politti, the things that are on their 12-inchers are a real step forward; that's the sort of standard I'd like to live up to as well.'
By this time, four swarthy Spaniards have entered the Musicworks control room, and Bridgeman has waltzed over to his keyboards to pose for photographer Vosburgh. Once the Radio Futura album is out of the way, where do he and partner Dworniak go next?
'Well, we're going to be doing more stuff with 1-Level quite soon, plus any production work we feel like doing. What would be really nice is if we could have a couple of really big hits with 1-Level. That way we'd earn enough to maybe record some more serious music. Obviously I like what we're doing in the band now, but now and again Jo and I get into a really good groove and start playing really well together.
'When we first started playing here, we were both a bit innocent and we didn't really know what we were doing. We misused a lot of the gear, but what we came up with was fresh and exciting. It's that freshness that I want to get back to. Neither of us are ever going to be that innocent again, but we could get that feel back by taking things the other way - making music for other musicians to listen to. Muso Music, I guess you'd call it. Yeah, that sounds good; I like the idea of doing that.'
Muso Music it is, then.
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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