MAGIC CARPET: Recording A '90s Album With A '70s Ethos

Interview | Band

Published in SOS April 1997
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

'70s band Magic Carpet waited 25 years to release a follow-up to their 1972 debut album -- and '90s technology enabled them to do it all at home this time around. ALISHA SUFIT, who played, sang and engineered the sessions, explains how it all happened...

 

Magic Carpet were a '70s phenomenon created by sitarist, Clem Alford, guitarist Jim Moyes and tabla player Keshav Sathe, fusing Western and Indian contemporary music to form what some referred to as Psych Prog Folk. The three took their sound to Mushroom Records and were offered a recording contract -- as long as they found a singer.

That's where I came in. I'd met Jim Moyes at art school, and he knew of my singing and songwriting. The trio became a foursome, making an eponymous debut album in the winter of 1971/72, but the band lasted less than a year, doing a few prestigious gigs, an occasional festival and some radio. Then we split, thinking no more of it.

Until a couple of years ago, that is, when I bumped into an ex-fellow busker and was stunned to hear that the album we had made so long before was now an internationally-collectable cult LP, selling for as much as £120 for an original copy! Perhaps it was time to get the band together again for a chat...

The members of Magic Carpet hadn't seen each other for a while, and I later discovered that a quasi-bootlegger, with two of his cronies, had paid Clem a visit, kindly telling him that I was dead, perhaps with some evil plan to obtain the rights to the record! Very soon, however, the re-issue was out on legitimate CD and mini-fame was ours. It wasn't long before we started to receive a bit of fan mail -- there were people out there who really liked the old sounds. Soon people began to ask if we would get back together. We met up again and, although Kesh had decided to retire, Clem and I, who were playing professionally and doing our own thing, thought it seemed like a natural step to do another album. We decided to do the rush follow-up, 25 years on, to be called Once Moor (Magic Carpet II), and I would bring it out on the aptly named Magic Carpet Records label. Great, but how would we record the new album?

HOME WORK

My good friend Andy Fernbach, of Jacob's Studio, had offered us a really good deal to record down in Surrey, but the Neve desk and vast array of sophisticated gear was far more than we needed for a simple acoustic line-up, and the extra costs could prove inhibiting. I began to investigate the possibilities of DIY recording. After much research, I was seduced by the expertise and support offered by Music Lab, and I was delighted when they delivered the goodies I'd purchased and set them up. They showed me how to plug the looms into the compact Allen & Heath GS1 desk, and attached the myriad umbilicals to the spanking new Alesis ADAT 8-track recorder. I already had an Alesis Microverb III, which was promptly connected. Included in the Music Lab deal was an AKG C3000 microphone, and I would also make use of the AKG C1000S I already possessed.

Being a good girl, I sat down and read the instructions. The manual for the ADAT was very easy to understand, and the boffins at Allen & Heath soon got used to the occasional cranky telephone query from London. The album would mostly consist of songs, so the first thing was to record the guitar and the appalachian dulcimer backing tracks, the washing-lines upon which most of the rest would hang. Track 8 on the tape was designated to record the electronic metronome click track.

I had years of experience as a musician recording in studios, so I'd probably picked up more information than I realised, but I read the documentation that came with the mics nevertheless. Placing the C3000 approximately 10 inches above the sound holes, I gave myself plenty of time to record the instruments, punching in and out with a foot switch where necessary. I soon got used to keeping an eye on the levels, getting as close to red as possible without clipping into it.

An engineer had once told me that the best way to put down acoustic instruments, especially the voice, was to record everything flat, and only to add EQ and effects later. I had plenty of painted canvases on the walls, and carpet on the floor, to soak up any stray, renegade room echo, and I would also draw the window curtains of my attic recording venue.

 

"For me, the ebb and flow of home recording is far more creative and natural than studio recording."

 

Over the years I had learnt a little about recording the voice. I rigged up a pop shield, using a bent wire coathanger covered with an old nylon stocking, and attached it to a stand set up between me and the mic. This dampened any sharp consonants, also shielding the mic from breath noise. I didn't want to use any compression at the recording stage, so I was very vigilant about pulling away from the mic on louder passages, and coming in closer for quiet ones. I paid a lot of attention to diction, because I wanted to ensure that vocal intelligibility wasn't lost later, when effects such as reverb were added.

Later on, I found I wasn't entirely happy with some of the instrumental backing tracks, so I tried recording the voice and guitar together. There was an inevitable loss of separation between voice and instrument, but I had captured the general feeling of spontaneity that I wanted. The good thing about not having to pay for studio time (when money's tight) is that you can start and stop whenever you want, walk round the garden, generally recharge your batteries. The ebb and flow of home recording is far more creative and natural than studio recording, for me.

ETHNIC MAGIC

With the basic instrumental parts down and the vocals in the bag, it was time for Clem, the sitar and tamboura player, to come over. The sitar and tamboura, the latter a sort of four-stringed continuo, are played with the musician seated on the floor and, as I had done with the guitar and dulcimer, I placed the C3000 roughly 10 inches away, just in front of Clem's right hand. We both listened to the existing recorded tracks through headphones, and I would drop Clem in as required.

Clem and I had decided to collaborate on one track, and for this we both sat down and played together. Clem chose a particular scale and I worked out a guitar backing that would allow him to improvise. We miked the instruments up as before and jumped in while the ideas were fresh. Soon we had our album's title track, 'Once Moor', and it just remained for Clem to add some eccentric Indo/Scottish vocals to complete the piece.

Now it was the turn of Pandit Dinesh, on tabla, to join us in the attic. Old engineers would turn in their graves at the idea of adding percussion last, but it worked. The Indian tabla consists of two separate drums, so I placed two mics about a foot above each and routed the two signals onto one track. We listened to the results at every stage through an ancient pair of Kef Cadenza speakers.

The Once Moor album was planned for release on vinyl and CD, and we had decided on a classical raga as the bonus track for the latter, to bring the running time to slightly more than 60 minutes. This slot gave Clem a platform for his excellent classical sitar playing, and the brilliant Esmail Sheikh was invited to play tabla accompaniment. My job would be to record, sympathetically, the purity of the acoustic sound, with the least interference possible. This classical raga would last approximately 20 minutes, so everyone in the house was asked to be as quiet as mice, because there's no punching in or out with such a piece of music. I miked up the instruments in my usual way and tested for levels, asking the players to demonstrate their loudest sounds. As the piece progressed, the playing grew in volume and I found myself pulling back the faders time and again. We were lucky that the changes in level were not noticeable later, and that the trips into the 'red' were too short to register as distortion.

Finally, the last touches to the recordings were made, with the addition of lead guitar on some of the songs, plus embellishment with vocal harmonies.

MIXED FEELINGS

The unmixed mastering of the album was done, and I now felt it was time to avail myself of some expertise for the final mix. I had been told that the GS1 and the Microverb III were not up to the job, and also that I would need compression for my unruly voice. I knew an excellent and amenable professional engineer and he said he would be able to help me out, so I set off to see him with my ADAT tapes. On reflection, though, I hadn't done enough homework on the production side, and I was still pondering various editorial decisions, all the while cooped up in a well-endowed but suffocatingly hot and cramped little studio, vastly different to the cool space of Alisha's attic! The mix was somewhat hurried, with the drawback that the engineer had never before heard the unmixed masters, but I was well enough pleased when I took my one-off DAT tape back to London.

The next move was a visit to Denis Blackham, master of the pre-production stage, so I drove off to Surrey to see him. Imagine my horror when the one-and-only final mix on DAT began intermittently screeching on Denis' machine. Denis told me that the only hope of getting the tape to play back properly was to use the machine it had been recorded on. There was nothing more we could do that day -- but then he spied a rough mix I had done myself, and he asked to hear it. Before I left, he quietly let me know he preferred the overall sound of the 'rough'.

I went back to London biting my nails, but again I decided to try doing it myself. I had nothing to lose. Using the GS1 desk, I spent the next two weeks experimenting, mixing down onto a simple Sony DTC690 DAT machine. Having driven myself half mad exploring the sound of sound, the general consensus of opinion was that I should use my own master tape, despite the rudimentary equipment I'd used. Again, I had worked with no pressure and no hassles about finance or differences of opinion. If something didn't sound good two days after I'd done it, I did it again, alternately listening through AKG K270 headphones and through the old Kef Cadenza speakers. I achieved space by moderately panning the instruments left or right, mostly leaving the voice or lead instrument centred. I also used only a moderate amount of reverb. I didn't want to lose the intimacy or clarity of the lyrics. The Microverb III provided a modest dose of 'Large Hall', and I only tinkered with the EQ when I wanted distinction for the voice, sometimes increasing the top end very marginally. When I went back down to see Denis he was very supportive of the results. He added a little graceful compression, only where absolutely essential, and I ended up with a pre-master I was happy with, on Exabyte.

ART ATTACK

The final hurdle was still to come. I decided to do all the artwork for the album myself, so I bought a two-year old Apple Mac. Some weeks later the booklet and the sleeve were complete. I had been able to fiddle around to my heart's content, experimenting with fonts and pictures without that awful 'this-is-costing-£60-an-hour' feeling.

Then it was time to visit the charming James Parish at A to Z Music Services in Camden Town, and two weeks later I was beaming at the result. The pressing plant chosen to do the CD has never put a foot wrong in my experience, and the booklet and sleeve printing were excellent. EMI, after diligently ironing out some inevitable naughty little vinyl problems, are still probably the best producers of records in the country, their discs being almost as free of background noise as CDs, but with that extra vinyl warmth of sound.

It all seemed worth it when I got the first fax from Japan. I had sent out a sample CD and back came the response: "It is very fantastic sounds, I think. We would like to order" -- just what every hard-working Crouch End record impresario likes to hear!

 

 

DISCOGRAPHY

Alisha Through The Looking-Glass SUFIT 101 CD, MC 1000 LP

Magic Carpet MC 1001 CD & LP

Love And The Maiden MC 1002 CD

Mirror Image MC 1003 CD

Once Moor MC 1004 CD & LP

Releases from Magic Carpet Records are available from Tower Records, Piccadilly, or to order from HMV and other Tower shops. They are also available from specialist shops and via direct mail order from Magic Carpet Records, at 43 Ridge Road, London N8 9LJ.

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