Name: Craig Alexander
Studio Premises: Room in family home
Report by: Tom Flint
Main Equipment: Behringer MX3282A desk, Evesham 350MHz PC running Emagic Logic Audio Pro ISIS, Guillemot Maxi Studio ISIS PCI soundcard system, Korg Prophecy and Yamaha CS1x keyboards, Lexicon Alex, Behringer Ultrafex II, Tech 21 Sansamp guitar pedal, Zoom 1202 and 1201 multi‑effects, Korg 05R/W sound module, Alesis SR16 drum module, Spirit Absolute 2 monitors, Sony A6 DAT recorder, AKG C1000 microphone.
A visit to the home studio of Sound On Sound reader Craig Alexander will be enough to convince many people of the truth of the minimalist maxim 'less is more'. Craig's studio is tiny, yet doesn't feel cramped at all. This is all the more remarkable when you consider the fact that he uses the room for business purposes as well as music. Craig and family have lived in the house — a converted school in a village near Rutland Water — for about a year, and most of the rooms are still very much in the process of renovation. However, the studio was the first room to be finished!
"My wife knows I am unbearable if the equipment is in boxes for any length of time!" explains Craig. "This used to be the bathroom, but we moved that upstairs. I'd always had my eye on it as being the office/home studio. In terms of structure it's finished, but I'm always looking to add equipment, so there's a bit of room and rack space to do that. I can juggle things around, but it's a good discipline not to have too much shelf space. It has ended up as minimal as it can possibly be, but it's comfortable to work in and that's the main thing. You can spin around and absolutely everything's within arm's reach."
When Craig isn't honing his creative design skills on his studio, he is applying his talents to design of a different kind. "My real job is designing and sourcing knitwear for the fashion business. I consult a couple of fashion companies and I design collections for several labels. I've set up my life so I can, in theory, work three or four days a week. The fashion industry is a seasonal business, we have busy times and quiet times, and the hope is that when I get quiet times I'll get in the studio. I haven't really had the time so far, because the work side of things has taken over and my wife has had another baby this year, so that put everything on hold a little bit."
Although Craig's musical endeavours have never been his principal source of income, recording has always been a passion close to his heart. "I probably should have gone into music more than the fashion side of things," Craig confesses. "My mother was a piano teacher and she taught me when I was quite young. I just wasn't interested at that age, so I gave it up, to my eternal regret. I can't play the piano properly and I can't read music — but I could at the age of seven! I took up the guitar at 14 and did all the usual things, playing in local bands with aspirations which obviously never really came to anything. I was going to go to art college but I got into the textiles/fashion industry by default. The music has always been in the background as something I enjoy doing, either playing in bands or mucking around, but I've always preferred the actual recording process — putting together a complete song."
The aforementioned 'less is more' principle can also be applied to Craig's minimal collection of studio equipment. Craig attributes his cautious purchasing habit to a bad retail experience which has since made him think twice before parting with any hard‑earned cash. "The biggest mistake I ever made in terms of buying equipment was the first thing I ever bought. I used to work in Conduit Street, where there was a Yamaha shop you couldn't walk past without going in and having a look. It was too easy to get credit in the early '80s, so I just bought a Yamaha MT4X2 4‑track with a mixer and drum machine, which together cost £1500. Several months later I realised that had I gone to Tottenham Court Road I could have got it for half the price, so ever since I've been much more of a canny Scot.
"Now, I don't buy anything when it first comes out. I decide what I want, then wait a good year until the price drops. What annoys me is the fact that every time I go to buy something I have to go through the rigamarole of phoning about 10 shops asking 'What's your best price?' Every phone call you get another tenner off, until eventually you get to the bottom price and no‑one can better it. You end up saving yourself a fortune."
Craig soon began to find the Yamaha restricting, and decided to invest in Hybrid Arts' Edit Track sequencer and an Atari, to expand his options through MIDI. "I bought Edit Track without knowing what a sequencer was really. I just taught myself how to work it. That was the first time I'd ever used a computer."
Later, to replace his Atari, Craig purchased a 486 PC running a version of Cakewalk, and fitted it with a Tropez soundcard so he could use the PC for sampling and possibly hard‑disk recording — with disappointing results. "When I got the PC it became immediately obvious that it was good for some things, but it wasn't good for sequencing. If you did a top‑to‑bottom glide on the keyboard it couldn't handle it and just stumbled and slowed down. It was five years of hassle."
Unable to trust his PC for audio work, Craig relegated it to the role of sequencer and purchased a Fostex DMT8 8‑track for recording, but the setup was still problematic. "I like to build a lot of textures with guitars, and it was just too hard to do with the DMT8. I never really got into the cutting and pasting. I seemed to spend half my time thinking about which track on the DMT8 relates to which track in the sequencer.
"Everything came together at the start of last year when I bought a new Evesham Micros computer for my business. Very quickly, I realised that the five‑year leap from the 486 was massive. Once I knew it could cope with most things in terms of digital recording, I decided it was time to get rid of the DMT8 and move onto that. The 486 is now just used as a word processor for my business."
Confident that the new PC would be able to handle his audio requirements, Craig invested in a Guillemot Maxi Studio ISIS PCI soundcard system, which came with a version of Logic Audio. "The ISIS got a good review in Sound On Sound, and seemed to do what I wanted and needed. It allowed me to get eight tracks in and provided a sampling option as well. Having been used to the Tropez it was quite easy to transfer. The only bummer is that you can only output four tracks at once, and two of those are sampling channels; it's the opposite way round to what I need, because I only ever record one or two tracks at a time. But at the end of the day I'm getting quite good results. The version of Logic I use is just the special edition that came with the Guillemot, but for me it's fine. There so much in the sequencer that you never touch.
"The big revelation is the standard plug‑ins that come with Logic, which I'm using more for creative effects. There aren't that many of them, but the ones it's got can do a hell of a lot — you can edit them considerably. Quite often I just record a wee bit of guitar, double it up and then loop it. Then I start mucking around with the effects and it might just lead onto something. It's certainly not replacing any of the outboard. It's more a case of using it to create new sounds."
Craig has also found the recall and mix automation in Logic extremely useful. "I've set up a starting song sequence with the basic sounds I would normally use, and I just change them as I go along. Then in terms of automation and mixing I do as much as I possibly can on the computer before it gets to the final mix, in terms of fade‑outs and panning."
Craig's extensive use of Logic's automation has taken the strain off his studio's Behringer MX3282 desk. "I had a Mackie 1604 desk about a year ago but I ran out of inputs. I was tempted at the time to look at digital desks, but I like the immediacy of the knobs on an analogue desk. Everything goes through it for the final mixdown, so I can muck around during the final mix. I EQ very little, but it's got a parametric middle which I try to use creatively rather than for any other reasons — you can really mash up a drum sound. If I can, I try to keep all my drum sounds separate, so if I want a snare to do something weird, I can patch in one of the effects units on the desk or just use the EQ.
"All my effects and keyboards are wired into the desk all the time. I think most people use subgroups for mixing stuff down onto 8‑track, but obviously everything I do is in‑line to a stereo mixdown, so I don't use the subgroups in that respect. The Behringer Ultrafex is on one of the subgroup inserts. By shoving it on a group you can choose which tracks or which sounds you want to pass through it. If I just want to bang out a drum sound or something like that, I can just shove it through. Eventually I will get something like the SPL Vitalizer Jack and put that on another subgroup. I'm still a bit of a novice really in terms of the complexity of how a desk is used.
"All the outboard gear is run through the desk. I use the Zoom 1201 creatively for unusual effects and for mushing samples around. Sometimes I'll sample a guitar riff, then shove it back through the desk and mess around with it using the Zoom. I've sampled bits of drum riffs from the Alesis drum machine and then shoved them back through, resampled the results and then used it as a new piece of accompaniment. It's got all sorts of weird things in it. You can plug a microphone into the back to do a vocoded effect and it's got loads of weird distortion effects.
"The Lexicon Alex was one of my 'waiting until it comes down' purchases. I couldn't really afford it so I waited and waited. I still prefer some of the reverbs that come out of the Zoom but maybe I haven't got used to the Lexicon yet. It is a bit cleaner, so I tend to use it more as my overall final reverb."
Craig's most important studio sound‑generating tools are his two keyboards. "The CS1x is my controller keyboard. I tend to use the Performance as a main sound and then use four of the other sounds in a multitimbral setup. It's got some great sub‑basses. If you're not a real programmer you only tend to scratch the surface; I tend to find a sound I like and tweak it for a specific song just to get started.
"I've had the Prophecy about a year. When it first came out I played it in a music shop and I thought it was brilliant. I could see it was going to be a real classic synth and I was desperate to get one but I just hung on and eventually bought it second‑hand. It's monophonic but it can be quite an inspirational thing, one sound can really set you off. I usually set the sequencer going and muck around with the sounds and knobs. If something happens I might use a little bit of it — it's been the start of quite a lot of songs over the last year."
For mastering, Craig uses his Sony A6 DAT, but it has also found other more creative uses in the studio. "The tuner and video are here mainly just as sources for samples. Quite often I leave the TV running in the living room with a tape in the video. It's wired so I can plug it straight into the ISIS and sample off it. It's the same with the tuner — sometimes I'll just leave it set to Radio Four and record straight into the DAT machine and see what comes out. Then I take a snippet and sample it. I use anything that might lead me onto something. The snippet might disappear completely eventually but is a starting point.
"I've got a CD writer which came with the Nero CD burning kit. I've left the old CD‑ROM drive in the PC so I can copy the finished CDs. That allows me to make recordings that I can send out instantly. Before I would do small print runs of CDs, but it's such a rigamarole when you've got to take the DAT elsewhere to get it done. So for the price of printing 30 CDs, I bought that."
Content with his new studio, Craig is optimistic about the future. "This year my resolution is to start doing something with the music. I know a lot of people who work on fashion shows, and they're always looking for interesting music. I'm going to put together a CD for a couple of people when the fashion roadshows come round — if they're interested, it could be done just for them. It would be quite interesting to write music around a collection or theme. The long‑term plan would be to make a living out of the music side of my life and commute less or never, but I'm under no illusions. It's amazing — when I think of the four‑track I bought years ago, it was crap really. I never got anything decent out of it. I've been gradually buying sensibly, building it up and now I can get decent results. Whether the music's any good is another thing!"
Craig's three guitars — Squier Strat, an Ovation‑style semi‑acoustic and Yamaha acoustic — are essential sound sources for his instrumental music. Craig explains how he records them. "The Yamaha goes straight into the computer miked up with the C1000. The actual acoustics are not as good in this small space as they were in my last studio. It's amazing the difference it makes; it's just not quite as warm in this room. I don't EQ on the way in, it's quite nice to get it straight into the PC and start mucking around using the plug‑ins, but at the same time I could improve it with a preamp.
"With the semi‑acoustic I use both the C1000 and the built‑in pickup. It's just a cheap £90 guitar, so the actual sound you get out of its pickup isn't very good. I get a better sound from the C1000 but I put both through the desk, record two tracks at the same time and mix them on the computer. The Squier generally goes through the Sansamp preamp, which is one of the few things that just never goes down in price. It doesn't look a lot for the money, but I compared it to a few other DI boxes and the difference is quite dramatic."