Synth players in search of Heaven need look no further than West London, where a recording studio puts the emphasis firmly on hi-tech musical equipment, but doesn't charge people the Earth to use it. Simon Trusk pays Paradise a visit.
One of a new breed of recording studios that specialises in things hi-tech, Paradise lives up to its name by providing a healthy selection of keyboard instruments old and new. We gauge its success and talk to its resident engineer.
QUESTION: What do you do if you've got a Fairlight sitting in your living room and your name isn't Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush? Well, you could return it to the shop from whence it came and plead temporary madness. Or you could hire it out for sessions at a time at an extortionate daily rate. Or you could start up a recording studio based around it.
A certain man by the name of Gerald Gouriet went for the third option, and that, essentially, is how Paradise Studios came into being just over a year ago. Paradise is one of a new breed of studios that places little emphasis on acoustic recording, and consequently centres its activities in the control room. There you'll commonly find row upon row of synthesisers and other hi-tech gear lining its walls, ready to be called into concerted action. And because this equipment is such a central feature of the Paradise modus opera ndi, use of all the instruments including the Fairlight is included in the basic studio rate.
If you've been drifting in search of paradise for a long time. I'll spoil everything by telling you it's located at the lower end of Chiswick High Road in West London. And Abbey Road it is not. The studio is so small you'd have trouble swinging a cat, let alone a synthesiser, yet somehow it manages to give the appearance of being reasonably spacious. But then, the people who run a studio like Paradise don't have to worry too much about space - they're probably never going to record a ten-piece brass section, let alone an orchestra.
Having visited Paradise at the beginning of the year and been impressed by what it had to offer, I conveyed an interest to the Editor to discover more. He wasn't too sure at the time, but made the mistake of going on holiday shortly afterwards. I took swift advantage of this, and one sunny morning in September found me wending my way westwards, trusty Walkman in hand, to speak to first engineer Martyn Phillips, who joined in October of last year and is therefore something of a Paradise veteran.
WHEN PARADISE opened its doors to mere mortals for the first time, it had the aforementioned Fairlight, a DX7, a JX3P and a Drumulator to its name, together with a Soundtrack 24-track tape machine and a custom-built RAM 42-into-24 mixer. In addition to Phillips, the staff currently consists of Greta Gouriet (Gerald's sister), who handles the administration, a roster of freelance engineers that includes Danny Hyde and Phil Da Costa, and tape op Adrian Fry. Between them, they keep Paradise open 24 hours a day, which is bad news for burglars.
The Soundcraft machine was replaced in January by an Otari MTR90 24-track, while April of this year saw the studio undergoing a refit at the hands of Turnkey Two. This gave them a modestly-proportioned acoustic area, a new desk in the shape of an Amek Angela 32-into-24 (which is due for computerisation in '86), and a PPG Wave 2.3 and Waveterm A to complement the Fairlight.
The photographs should give you some idea of the range of keyboards that greets you on entering Paradise. Some bands come to the studio to do nothing but keyboard overdubs, while others will do all their recording work at Paradise and go to one of the bigger SSL studios, such as Sarm West or Good Earth, to do the mix ('SSL is still flavour of the month' — Phillips).
Bands who've used Paradise include Fashion, Psychic TV, the Cocteau Twins and Carmel, but the studio takes on work from a variety of other sources, too. In the past, Paradise has been a temporary resting place for The Spiral Dance Company (music composed by Barrington Pheloung, a well-known composer in the modern dance arena), a Channel 4 wildlife documentary, background music for Rediffusion TV, music for a new Paul Daniels kids show, and the latest Pernod cinema advertisement. Free the spirit, as they say...
And the variety of clients the studio attracts is reflected in a similar variety of requirements Paradise has to cater for in order to keep customers happy and sustain its reputation. Some come in and play around with the sounds available until they find something that triggers them off, others have a very clear idea of what they want to do and the sounds they want to do it with. Dance music producers are particularly prone to coming in with a record and saying 'I want that sound'.
As for the most popular thing in Paradise, honours are currently shared between the Fairlight and (wait for it) the Minimoog.
Phillips: 'People want the Minimoog for its bass sounds or for playing lead lines. I must confess I've found nothing to outdo the Minimoog in terms of bass lines. Everybody says that, but it's true. We also often find ourselves sampling a note into the Fairlight or the PPG, and using the basic timbre of the Minimoog polyphonically.'
THE FAIRLIGHT is still the most-used item in Paradise's arsenal of equipment, though. Predictably, it's Page R that's used the most, by virtue of the fact that it's quick and easy to use. Phillips finds it's possible to get results from Page R much more quickly than with any other system he's worked with, and in an environment where time means money, that's obviously a great attraction.
In contrast, he can only ever recall the Fairlight's MCL being used once - most people just aren't familiar enough with its workings to make its use practical in a studio environment.
Customers also appreciate the CMI for the ease with which they can create effective samples on it. Phillips again:
'If someone thinks of a sound, it's very easy to come in here, sample something which approximates it, and then manipulate the sample till it sounds correct. The beauty of sampling on the Fairlight, as opposed to any of the other machines, is what you can do with the sample once you've sampled it. You don't need such a good sample as you do with, say, the PPG or the Synclavier. We've got some good samples which were taken off cassette and then worked on heavily.'
Paradise now has a library of Fairlight samples that consists of some 60-70 disks, and these cover a broad spectrum of sounds. In fact, Paradise has most of the popular drum machines either sampled into the Fairlight or recorded on Sony PCM - from which sounds can be sampled at a moment's notice into the Fairlight or PPG, or put into the AMS DMX or Bel BD80, to be triggered off a click on Page R. If anything, recent sessions have seen the AMS and the Bel used instead of a Fairlight sample, simply because they have a better bandwidth and 16-bit resolution.
The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted a real piano (a Yamaha upright, in fact) cohabiting with a Simmons SDS7 kit in the acoustic recording area. Acoustic miking is by no means foreign to what is extensively a solid state Paradise, and the piano gets used quite a lot.
'There's still no substitute for the piano', says Phillips, with more integrity than originality. 'The Kurzweil comes very close, and I know some people prefer it, but the beauty of the piano is that you can mike it up in different ways to get different sounds, which you just can't do with the Kurzweil, of course.'
The Simmons brain is used more often than the kit, usually triggered off Page R as most of the studio's clients don't use live drummers. If drummers are brought in, they're most likely to use an acoustic kit together with a couple of Simmons toms.
Paradise bought their PPG system after witnessing the 2.3 and Waveterm B in action at the Frankfurt Music Fair last February. It was the 'B' that swung the pendulum in the PPG's direction, so [an] upgrade to that version is imminent. The PRK Processor Keyboard, latest component in the PPG system, is also on the Paradise shopping list.
Phillips has found that effective sampling is harder to achieve with the Waveterm than with the Fairlight, but values the German system for the quality of its samples, which he says have a very sharp, clear character. For this reason, the PPG is often used for sampling percussive sounds, while the system's synth section has filled a gap on the purely electronic side of things.
Phillips: 'What it really boils down to is that the PPG has its own unique sound quality. The acid test is to sample something into the Fairlight and PPG, and they sound radically different. After a while it becomes very apparent that what is needed is not another Fairlight sound, but a PPG sound. This also applies to the other instruments. It's generally clear whether what is required is a DX7 sound, or a Prophet or other analogue sound.
'I find it quite useful to juggle between completely analogue sounds and digitised analogue sounds. Each of them has a certain way of placing sounds in a mix, in the same way that using different instruments or using reverb can place sounds in a certain way.'
THE MINIMOOG has qualities already referred to, but what of the other synthesisers? Well, the Paradise Prophet 5 gets used for chordal parts and 'odd noises'. Phillips: 'It's very quick to rustle up a sound on, so if someone thinks up an abstract synthesiser noise, the Prophet is usually the first thing I turn to. The Juno 106, meanwhile, tends to find use for its lush string-type sounds, while its Roland stablemate, the JX3P, has a more edgy sound and is capable of producing more complex voices. 'I don't find it as rich as the Juno, so I don't tend to use its chorus', says the engineer.
Phillips has been programming sounds on the DX7 since the early days of the instrument, and appreciates its versatility. But many clients simply don't possess the patience to wait around for five minutes while the engineer comes up with a suitable sound. And Phillips nas noticed that whereas at one time nobody had anything apart from the factory presets, quite a lot of clients nowadays come in with their own RAM packs, containing voices of their own and sounds culled from various other sources. In Paradise, the resident DX7 has Syco's MX 1 memory expansion board (which has 128 sounds onboard), five RAM cartridges, the TX7 sounds, and the two original ROMs.
Yet according to Phillips, all is not well with FM synthesis in a studio situation... 'The DX7 seems to be losing popularity. I think I've learnt some of its limitations in terms of sonic capabilities. It's a fine-sounding instrument on its own, but it has a very annoying habit of disappearing in the middle of a mix once things are overdubbed on top of it, so you have to use it with care.
'On the other hand, you can often get similar sounds on the PPG which retain their presence. The Fairlight also cuts through well. But even so, if you use PPG on everything, things tend to become clouded and you can't distinguish what's going on.'
As an engineer who's spent a large part of his working life surrounded by keyboards, Phillips' views on the role of musical instruments in the contemporary studio are worth hearing, too.
"I regard the keyboards almost as an extension of the mixing desk. They are other elements to the sound that you've got control over. In most studios you just get control of all the outboard gear off the mixing desk. With keyboards, you've got filters and everything else thrown in as well.'
And the extent to which Phillips regards the keyboards as an integral part of the sound-structuring process is evidenced by his description of a stock multi-instrument string sound, which uses everything. 'I use the DX for a little bit of bow at the front, a PPG string sample for the continuing bow, a bit of pulse-width Prophet to give a nice top end, and both Rolands chorused up to give added richness — with perhaps a bit of Fairlight to add some more to the front end. You can get some very nice string sounds that way!'
SO THAT'S what happens when you're surrounded by rackfulls of keyboards all day, everyday. Mind you, there's a more serious aspect to working alongside so much modern technology. More than most in-house engineers, Phillips is at the beck and call of people who think they know what they want. And if he can't deliver the goods, or provide the customer with a more suitable alternative, he's in trouble.
'You could spend a whole morning going through the Fairlight library, discovering whether any sounds are particularly useful to you. So if someone says "I'd like a bass drum sound", you can say "well, I can offer you 30 samples on the Fairlight, 10 on the PPG, and sounds from the Drumulator, RX11, Linn and Linn II, Linn 9000 and TR707 (on PCM), and the Simmons Brain... but I think what you probably want is this ".
'A few people who come in do know about the Fairlight, but they are in the minority. Certainly, having the Fairlight here means that the engineers who work here usually have a better knowledge than the Fairlight operators who come in, who perhaps haven't had so long with the machine. The professional Fairlight programmers are often slower than the service we can provide, because we're working with it all the time.' Now there's confidence for you.
Yet although the Fairlight is the most-used of Paradise's machines, Phillips sees it as part of his job to encourage clients to make use of other instruments as well.
'Occasionally someone comes in who would never consider using a DX7, or never consider using a Juno. But in general, it's easy to show people that everything has its own place, everything has its use. There are very few instruments that are inherently bad. Even the Korg MS20 gets used every now and again, because it has the right sound for a certain piece.
'One of the beauties of a setup like ours is that you appreciate everything for its strengths and use it for its strengths, without having to put up with its weak points as well.'
More generally, Phillips feels that a lot of music technology is underused, the equipment at Paradise being no exception - though in the studio's case, it's time that must shoulder most of the blame. 'The only times we really try to stretch the machines are when we're doing in-house work, when obviously we're not paying for the time. Then we can spend time valuably experimenting with the more time-consuming aspects of a machine — like the Fairlight's tuning page, for instance. You then get quicker, and end up being able to offer these services as a realistic part of the session.'
As for the recording medium itself, Phillips foresees analogue tape sticking around for some while yet. It's his experience that analogue recording can help a great deal when it comes to 'containing' synthesised sounds, which have a tendency to sound 'dissipated' when used together. On the other hand, digital recording seems to work best for natural sounds.
If all this sounds a bit much, Phillips admits that 'engineers are generally much more pernickety than clients when it comes to getting a sound absolutely right — and the engineer is the last one who's happy with a sound'.
But then that's part of their job, I guess.
IN A PLACE like Paradise, it's inevitable that that interface will play some sort of role in the proceedings. In fact, Phillips sees MIDI's greatest asset as being that it encourages the use of all the studio instruments because of its ability to create composite sounds through layering. Almost all the instruments at Paradise are MIDI'd up to one another, with the Quark 999 MIDI Link 'patch bay' at the heart of things. Even the Minimoog is MIDI'd via the JMS CGX MIDI-to-CV interface, and at the time of writing, the Fairlight was just about to undergo a MIDI retrofitting operation. Only the Korg MS20 is not directly sequenceable, though it's still triggerable.
The MIDI Link allows all the outputs from a single input to run in parallel, and therefore avoids the worst problems inherent in chaining via MIDI Thrus. It had been Phillips' experience that chaining more than four synths resulted in bits frequently getting lost en route, resulting in Note Off problems. 'There's also the omnipresent MIDI delay, which you learn to workaround by having the most percussive sound, or the voice that has the sharpest attack, on your master instrument.'
Paradise's setup of Fairlight, PPG and MSQ700 sequencers allows most of the music that's recorded there to be put onto sequencers before going onto tape, even if, in practice, some clients get 'a bit panicky' if nothing is on tape by the latter part of the session.
'Most people are used to thinking in terms of developing one line at a time, putting it down on tape, and then turning to the next problem.' Not surprisingly, then, multi-part sequences are far from being the order of the day at Paradise. Instead, the usual approach is to have several instruments playing a single part over one MIDI channel.
Still, Phillips finds himself continually disappointed by new sequencers, so much so that he's yet to find one that allows him to do what he wants to all the time. His ideal would be a polyphonic Page R with all the MIDI control of a QX1, but that looks no nearer coming into being than it did a year ago or more.
Mention of a polyphonic Page R brings us to that looming pinnacle of excellence, the Series III Fairlight. Unlike a lot of people, Phillips doesn't leap at every opportunity to condemn the current Fairlight for its limited bandwidth and eight-bit sampling. If anything, he finds the shortcomings can be something of a boon when working with other instruments, as the colourations they induce can help to place a sound in its own environment. At the same time, he's wary of some of the present model's age-induced idiosyncracies, such as the requirement to pre-assign numbers of voices to different samples across the keyboard (something that's in direct contrast to the PPG, which dynamically reallocates voices to match your playing), which he hopes won't find their way onto the new machine.
Still, like everyone else and their dog who owns a Fairlight, the management at Paradise plan to upgrade to the Series III as soon as possible - which, with luck, could mean early next year. The new Page R (retitled CAPS, for Composer/Arranger/Performer/Sequencer), which offers 16 polyphonic tracks utilising the Fairlight's own voices and a further 64 tracks that can be sent to either slave CMI voice units or via four MIDI Out ports, should prove an irresistible addition to Paradise.
CONTRARY to what Kid Creole would have you believe, there doesn't seem to be much wrong with Paradise at all. There's not a cloud or a harp-strumming angel in sight, but the atmosphere is cosy, the equipment list enviably long, the staff knowledgeable and helpful, and the rates low enough for you to be able to afford a couple of bars of Bounty mid-session.
Feature by Simon Trask
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