Success On The Side | Paul Hardcastle
Paul Hardcastle, despite his low profile of late, has been a busy man. Paul Ireson reports.
Paul Hardcastle has been out of the public eye for a good few years now, but the rows of gold records on his studio walls attest to the success of the work he's been carrying on out of the glare of publicity.
Most people will remember him as the creator of '19', a massive hit single which made him overnight, and a groundbreaking dance record. As he recalls, at the time it was hard to get record companies to accept dance music as anything other than a specialist interest. "You'd send a demo out to a record company, and they'd just say 'no, it's just some dance record'." The tide has certainly turned. "Try that now. 'Is it a dance record? We'll have it!'"
Those that don't know Hardcastle from '19' might remember that he penned the current Top Of The Pops theme tune (which, by the way, is worth about £150 a week in royalties — nice work if you can get it), and the music for the BBC Supersense series.
One reason for the low profile has been the all-too-common contractual problems, as he tried to strike out on his own after tiring of the compromises and limitations imposed by being under contract to a major. His record company tried to stop him, and the result was that Hardcastle continued to write, produce and release a stream of dance records, many of them hits, under a string of assumed names.
"I was lucky I wasn't an up-front vocalist. I was doing lots of records under different names, which I can't mention but which I've got gold disks for. The Deff Boyz, for example; I can mention that because it was after I'd got out of the contract, but they'd never have known that was me. I don't really crave attention, so I've been very successful, but in my own way, and with none of the hassle that usually goes with it."
The income from all this work, and of course from his early hits, has enabled Hardcastle to realise his aim of building a first-class personal studio, which he completed when he moved in to his current house three years ago. It's here that he does all of his work, and the studio is probably unique for a professional audio studio in that there isn't a multitrack tape recorder in sight. All live audio is recorded on an NED Direct-to-Disk system, and the Synclavier on which the Direct-to-Disk system is based is the heart of Hardcastle's music production. The ultimate home studio?
His current work is mostly released on his own Fast Forward record label. This, and a variety of other small record companies, set up as and when necessary, have been an important element in Hardcastle's creative and commercial freedom. It could have been all too easy to slip into obscurity without a record deal, but Hardcastle has always tried to be master of his own destiny, and this is one way of ensuring it. Although he's a relaxed, easy-going interviewee, you have the impression that he always gets his way.
Current projects include a sax-led jazz-funk album ("very classy... along the lines of Kenny G and that kind of thing") under the name of the Jazzmasters (actually Hardcastle, sax player Gary Barnacle, and vocalist Helen Rogers), and First Light ("basically me with a sax player, and a couple of singers"). An album he recorded recently with Jaki Graham, under the name Kiss The Sky, has just been released in Japan and is selling very well. With the depressed state of the UK record market, Hardcastle tends to look abroad for distribution for a lot of his material, and in this case secured deals in Japan, Germany and the US before even seriously thinking about the UK.
Hardcastle can afford to indulge himself to some extent: "I can just come in here and make albums, and if somebody wants them they'll take them, but for me now it has to be good fun. As long as I've had good fun doing it, it doesn't matter if nobody wants the album. I don't need a record label to say 'don't bother to go and do that', because I've worked hard to be in a position where I can say, no, I want to do it. I always said that I would build a decent studio if I had the chance because, with my first deal with a major label, I had to ask them if I could go and do a demo. And sometimes they'd say no!"
The studio that gives Hardcastle this freedom is located in a low building in his enormous back garden ("mind the Rottweiler", he warns our photographer as he scouts for exterior locations). The control room, dominated by an AMR24 console, looks in on a small live area (used mostly for vocals), and against its left-hand wall is the Synclavier, run in conjunction with a Mac IIex. On top of the Synclavier sits a Korg Wavestation. "I use the Wavestation for its sounds, and as another controller keyboard — the Synclavier has a weighted keyboard, which isn't right for everything."
Hardcastle bought his Synclavier over five years ago with the proceeds of '19', and clearly never regretted it. His particular version has 32Meg of memory, and fixed and 600MB removable optical drives. It provides most of his sounds, and its powerful sequencer is the only one that he uses. As with many owners, he cites its ease of use, and the speed with which he can work, as main reasons for sticking with the instrument. Speed is important, for Hardcastle likes to work spontaneously and finish tracks quickly, rather than slave for hours polishing and tweaking. "I've got more sounds than I'll ever use," he admits, "but I still use other gear too."
The addition of the direct to disk recording capability was a natural step. "When I bought the Synclavier I suppose I wasn't doing so much vocal stuff. Then I was going to buy a Mitsubishi digital 32-track multitrack, but direct to disk was a new idea, and it's so quick. It really amazes people who come in here and are only familiar with multitrack tape." The system has enough disk capacity for 24 minutes recording on each of its eight tracks, and recently-acquired Editview software integrates the sampling and Direct-to-Disk facilities and makes operation even faster.
Moving on, a rack of modules provides a fair range of sounds to back up the Synclavier. One of the newest additions is an Emu Procussion, below which are a Roland MKS70, MIDIMoog ("it still goes out of tune; I was told it wouldn't"), Oberheim Matrix 6R, Korg DVP1, a slot for a Yamaha G10 guitar controller unit ("great with the TX802"), Roland D110, Roland P330, Yamaha TX81Z ("great for little clavs and so on"), and a Roland Planet P ("actually, I don't think I even turn that on any more").
There's also a small selection of old analogue keyboards: a late-model Prophet V with a MIDI retrofit, a Roland SH101, and a Juno 6. "I use the SH101 for bass sounds a lot, and it's MIDI'd up via a Groove convertor."
Hardcastle is not, it emerges, a big fan of programming digital parameter access synths. "Sometimes I've sat around for five or six hours programming a new synth, and then thought 'sod it, I'm not interested in the song any more'. It's taken the feel out of programming; it drives me mad. That's why I became one of the preset boys." It's also why a JD800 has recently taken residence in his studio. "If I'm looking for a sound I can do it in real time on the JD800, which is very different from some other instruments. I think a lot of people are going to copy that; they certainly should. The way you have to look at it is this: if I've got a song to write, is it worth my time programming that Matrix 6R when I could earn the money, in the time that I programmed it, to go out and buy a different synth."
He has, however, developed his own way of creating original sounds from synth presets — on the Synclavier of course. "I'll change the sounds through a few processors, or sample them into the Synclavier and make my own sound by manipulating them in there."
A close look at the studio's monitors reveals an unusual arrangement — the nearfield monitors are modified KEF C20's, with Kenwood car stereo speakers literally glued in place. "I monitor very loud, and they're the only bass drivers I've had that can actually hold up. I've got so many blown speakers upstairs."
A second rack is filled with effects units. These are topped by a record deck ("my biggest effects unit"), below which are two Korg SRV3000s, a Yamaha Rev 7, an SPX90, Lexicon PCM70 ("I really love that, especially for vocals), BSS compressor, Digitech Smartshift, and Drawmer gates. Not a huge selection "but I use the Synclavier for effects. Its voice structure is a little like that [pointing to the D110] in that it has partials; if I want a delay I can take a sound, set different delays for each parts — put some attack on, say, the third delay, make it so that the original sound comes in last, and fade in each delay like a backwards echo. Sometimes it does sound a bit too clean though."
Another limitation of this technique is that way you can't play off an effect in real time, reacting to the echo on a lead line for example. "Yes, but I still do that, using the SRV3000, though I actually tend not to use effects that much.".
When working with other musicians, he tends to present them with completed tracks, to which they then add their contributions. "When I'm working with a singer, I present them with the whole song: here's the verse, the chorus, this is the melody. But I'm open to other people's ideas, I'm up for that. With the Jazzmasters it's slightly different, in that we all write together — it's the only project where I really get to whack a few ideas around with other people."
Acoustic contributions go straight on to Synclavier Direct-to-Disk tracks. "I tend to use them up quickly, after all there are only eight tracks. But because there's no noise I can chuck everything — say we've got two tracks for vocal leads, six for different harmonies — into the polysampling from the Direct-to-Disk, and wipe the eight tracks and have them back ready for use again. I could add more Direct-to-Disk tracks, but I've run out of channels on my desk already... in any case I think it's better to be creative with what you've got."
This method of working, besides being quicker and better integrated into the MIDI environment than using tape, also allows more creative freedom. "There are times when I've had a chorus written, and transferred it from the Direct-to-Disk to the sampler, and all of a sudden I play it in a different place, and it sounds good. You might write a chorus in a certain way, then trigger it a bar late, or halfway through the 'chorus'... it's very creative, very good for experimenting with things in that way."
Hardcastle is keen to talk about his music, but becomes even more animated when explaining how easy it can be to sell, as opposed to just press, your own records. Anybody can do it; the only catch is that it takes work. "With my first record company, which I formed with Steve Walsh, we literally took my first record round all the record shops in an old Mk III Cortina. When I first started, I was so happy to sell 1,000 records, to think that 1,000 people in the world owned a record that I'd made. Think of it like this: if you get rid of 1,000 records, you've maybe made £400, and you've gone from having something on cassette to actually having a record. And you go on from there.
"It's easier if it's dance music, because the right shops can sell the records to DJs and kids who love up-front white labels. But there's not just the UK — if the track's halfway decent exporters should take around 500 records, and your record gets to Italy, Germany. If you can't afford printing, just get a rubber stamp for the labels. It really does work like that, and it gives you hands on experience."
He does accept, however, that this is not possible with all types of music " I don't know about other stuff, but you can always shift dance records, because DJs need a constant supply of new records. A simple trick, if you want to sell a few records to finance yourself, is just to look up the dance chart, listen to what's happening, then add your own ideas to that. If there's one little element that's been in another hit record, as long as it hasn't been flogged to death, that'll make it sell."
And with a bit of luck, things will take of from there. "Once we'd created a buzz, by getting the records to the right shops, the distribution people take over and get it all round the country. On the Deff Boyz, for example, we sold a lot of records in that way. Then we did a techno, house thing under the name LFO. I think the funniest thing I did was an Acid album, which I did in about a day and a half — it was just what people wanted. Shifted about 40,000 copies. I can hardly listen to it now, but I'm sure it went down a storm at raves. That, to me, is how to have a successful commercial record company."
The next we'll be hearing from Hardcastle will probably be the Jazzmasters album, although he's waiting for the record market in the UK to pick up before he releases it. In the meantime, the BBC are planning Mansense to follow Supersense, and guess who's doing the music.
Interview by Paul Ireson
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