The Studio That Tom Built
Turbo-charged recording techniques
If you've ever been troubled by a drum machine that sneers at you, had your inspiration snarled up by a tangle of overweight jack cables, or been tempted to buy a Black Forest Gateau in order to get a preserved cherry, then Tom Robinson's studio method may be for you.
Songs, like people, can come into the world with varying degrees of aid from technology. It falls to the producer to bridge the gap between the equipment and procedures necessary to create a satisfactory sound and the original idea as conceived by the songwriter. Having been at various times bassplayer, songwriter, leading light of his own band, vocalist with Sector 27, player and programmer of synthesisers and electronic instruments, studio designer and label owner, Tom Robinson appreciates better than most the different angles from which a song may be considered. As producer of much of his own current material he has very clear ideas about how to guide a song from the first riff to the final cut.
Central to Tom's techniques are three or four basic products by Roland and a whole boxful of strategy cards by Brian Eno. The cards, which are available commercially, are simply a series of cryptic messages such as "you are an engineer", "is it finished?", "use less notes". The Roland products are equally simple and versatile. Although Tom owns an SBX80, swears by an RE501 Chorus Echo and is recording much of his current song with a Juno 106, it's the Drumatix and TB303 Bassline which he finds indispensable. In songwriting terms these are the points of departure.
You weren't an engineer — that is to say you didn't have control of the recording process until around 1981, which by Tom Robinson's account is the approximate date for two revolutions. 'Two enormously important things that happened were the invention of the programmable rhythm machine and that of the Portastudio. The first programmable rhythm machine was Roland's CR78 in 1979. It had programmability almost as an afterthought, but everyone started using them. Phil Collins had one and Warren Cann liked it so much he had one customised, stripped down, given separate outputs and put in a perspex case. It wasn't perfect — there was no steptime and you had to programme it by hitting that horrible rubber button, but then came the TR808 and the start of the Bedroom Revolution.
'All of a sudden you didn't need a rehearsal studio to try your songs out anymore and the TR808 — along with cheap & simple home multitracking — became a milestone, a watershed in music. For the first time songwriters could simply communicate ideas and arrangements they had in their head to other people with a cassette.
'Actually Roger Linn also introduced his Linn LM1 around the same time but you had to be rich as Croesus to own one. The TR808 was quarter of the price and its analogue sounds somehow seemed to 'breathe' more than digital ones which tend to be a bit brutal, really: either 'on' or 'off. The all-time most widely featured drum machine on records is still the TR808: you can even hear one on Paul Hardcastle's "19"— particular sounds like the sidestick and cowbell are very distinctive. Actually Roland have always come up with drum machine sounds that just don't exist anywhere else — the metallic hi-hat chink on the CR78 was another example. The TR909 which has both digital and analogue sounds is badly underrated since it also has a wonderful implementation of MIDI.
'By the time the Tom Robinson Band collapsed I was spending all my time replying to fanmail and trying to live up to an image instead of writing new material and meantime getting patronised by snotty hacks in the music rags as I gradually ceased to be a pop star. After Sector 27 fell through I moved to Hamburg to get away from it all, taking my Portastudio, Bassline, Chorus Echo and the trusty TR808 on which I eventually wrote "War Baby". (I've since switched to a TR606 Drumatix because it's quicker to programme and you can use it anywhere: it's powered by batteries as well as a mains adaptor, and you just plug headphones in the back.)
'I think the effect of all this technology has been a shift of emphasis. Before 1981 the problem for most young bands was how to reproduce the live excitement of their stage act on record. I remember with TRB how going into the studio was like a visit to the dentist: you hated every minute of it, but felt better afterwards. Since '81 more and more new groups have begun primarily as a recording unit: their problem now is reproducing the excitement of their recorded work on stage.
'Another result is that everyone's becoming a multi-instrumentalist: bands are getting smaller because you can multitrack while you're writing the songs. Band members no longer need to specialise on one instrument — two or three people can cover everything between them.
In a business where the distinctions of 'amateur', 'semi-pro' and 'professional' have at times been jealously guarded, Tom Robinson the producer speaks a language any musician would understand. The sacred Fairlight gets short shrift: "It's the price of a semi-detached bungalow and goes out of date every 18 months — it's a yawn. No product over £1,500 has much immediate effect on the course of music.
'Consider cars as an analogy — the first Daimler-Benz inventions were gimmicky, overpriced and hopelessly unreliable: no threat at all to the horse and cart. Then as now the privileged rich were paying the R & D costs for the rest of us! The real revolution only began when Henry Ford came along with his Model T and brought the car to the people. That's the position manufacturers like Roland are in with the equipment they produce.
'Take the SRV 2000: being able to get a serious professional reverb for under thirteen hundred quid will make a massive difference to recording techniques in the next couple of years, whereas Lexicons ten times the price have been around for ages. Roland's sync box is a third of the price of the SMPTE Reading Clock everyone's been using, and has far more useful features from a musical viewpoint.
'As to the future, a great many producers still use AMSs costing thousands simply for the sampling capabilities which again were originally thrown in as an afterthought — it's like having to buy a whole Black Forest Gateau every time you want a preserved cherry. I look forward to people like Roland coming in on the act with something a bit more affordable — meantime I've got the Boss DSD 2 sampling pedal which is great fun!!
'It's not meanness that makes me like the lower-priced technology: you just can't really work at your best with a piece of equipment that leers at you and says "This had better be good because I cost ten thousand pounds — Nile Rogers and Trevor Horn use me". I bought a Linn Drum when I'd made some money from "War Baby", but I sold it again and went back to the Drumatix. Actually the Linn was rather hard to sell by then...
'The cheaper equipment used by semipros has a wide influence not just because of cost but because it's easier to work with — there's a professional level of technology I loathe, involving great thick Belden cables, XLR connectors and enormous brass jack plugs — and putting everything that moves into a flightcase. It's all so cumbersome that by the time you've set up to play you've lost your original idea.
'My own way of working is to have an idea for a song, sing it into a Walkman straight away to remember it, then dash to the Drumatix and set the groove. The drums come first because they're so important — it's the heartbeat of the whole song, which is why Steve Laurie is the only full-time member of my band: good drummers are rarer than rocking horse shit...!
'I work out a basic structure with the Drumatix and Bassline — both very informal machines that don't take up much space but let me map out a whole song on them. It's also useful to photocopy a sheet of manuscript paper with blank bars numbered on it — that way you can work out the arrangement bar by bar even before it gets onto the portastudio. The portastudio lets you work out vocal and guitar parts for the song — which then become the basis for the main 24 track recording.
'I've been lucky enough to work with a series of well-known producers over the years: Ray Davies (Cafe Society), Chris Thomas and Todd Rundgren CTRB), Steve Lillywhite (Sector 27) and Richard Mazda (North by Northwest). And Robin Millar did most of my last album — though I produced the "War Baby" and "Atmospherics" singles myself. The most important thing I learnt from all of them was not to let things pass if they're merely okay — go back and correct that out-of-time drum track, even if it means doing the whole song over again.'
The desk Tom uses is the Soundtracs CM4400, with a Soundcraft 24 track and Tannoy monitors. But although "bedroom technology" is no longer appropriate at this stage in a song, the name of Roland still crops upa great deal. 'Take my Chorus Echo — it's still an extraordinary machine: the old RE201 transformed live sound mixing back in the 70s, and even today no DDL has the same warmth and texture for studio work as this RE501. Another Roland effect I use a lot is the CE-3 stereo chorus — it's only a tiny footpedal but it's so quiet I use it hardwired into the desk for making mono synths and things come alive: the bandwidth is quite remarkable...
'The SBX-80 has the potential to influence studio techniques enormously: as I say, it has all the advantages of the SRC in retriggering drum machines and sequencers from SMPTE, but Roland's implementation of MIDI also includes information about which bar number you're on. So you can start the tape from anywhere in the song, the SBX-80 does a quick calculation and then it will start an MSQ100 or TR909 running from the right place in the next bar. Not many people know that, as Peter Cook would say. I tried it using a Yamaha drum machine but they haven't bothered to implement that aspect of the MIDI spec...
'Roland are actually very good at things like that — another reason I like the Drumatix/Bassline setup is the way they keep in step while you're programming a song — you can check through the song bar by bar on both machines simultaneously. Not many people know that either — and I only found out from Kendall, the top demonstrator at Syco Systems... My one major gripe about the SBX-80 is the handbook which takes ages to understand. I do wish Japanese manufacturers would take the same trouble translating their manuals as they do developing the products in the first place!'
'The technique of making records is quite similar to oil painting in many ways: the portastudio is like your sketchpad, the polysynth is the palette on which you mix your tone colours, and the 24 track tape is the canvas on which they have to be carefully applied. That's why good cheap sampling machines will become so important — as a sort of audio palette knife to let you scoop up sound from one place and move it to another.
'I'm currently recording a song I co-wrote with my sax player Bimbo, using his Juno 106 for most of the keyboard parts. You can often get an exciting effect by blending different versions of a similar sound: for one section we recorded three flutes together with the Juno and panned them out across a stereo pair of tracks. Mixed with a pair of Fender Rhodes parts the Juno also features as a sort of background wash — again like a painting. At the bottom end we used the Juno doubled up with string bass and an occasional bit of fretless. Added to the basic musical lines are what I'd call "events" tracks: odd bits of guitar and percussion that can be brought in momentarily through the song as little features to add interest and excitement.
'The studio itself is laid out with the priority on leaving time and space for the creative process. It's hard to make good records, or even good demos in a hurry — which is why portastudios and all that inexpensive home recording stuff Roland make are so important. For a limited outlay you get unlimited recording time, allowing you to be more painstaking and yet more adventurous at the same time. What I've tried to here at Turbot Sound (TRBot — geddit?) is develop a 24-track system with that same flexibility.'
The Tom Robinson approach to studio production is unpretentious but completely uncompromising. Products are used for their capabilities, not just their status. The MM-4 MIDI junction ('without which one cannot do') is spoken of as warmly as the SRV-2000 or Juno 106. The impression is of a setup where everything is used to its fullest creative potential rather than discarded in favour of the latest gimmick. Computerised mega-instruments are not seen as a substitute for ideas but as an actual inhibitor, especially in the early stages. And while it's also true that Tom owns some enviable pieces of gear, he sets more store by the most up-to-date use of technology than the most up-to-date technology for its own sake. The result has been tracks like "War Baby" itself, "Atmospherics", "Cabin Boy" and (soon) "Spain". Musical technology is the carrier wave for insight, integrity and a seminal songwriting talent.
Roland Newslink - Autumn 85
Gear in this article:
Feature by Mike Hilton
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