Having decided to construct a studio for their own use, Damon Albarn of Blur and his collaborators Tom Girling and Jason Cox chose to create an environment as unlike a typical commercial studio as possible. And then they filled it with perhaps the most bizarre assortment of equipment ever collected together...
"In our opinion, gear is built to be abused," remarks Tom Girling, surveying a stack of battered 1970s string machines piled in one corner. "Whenever any piece of equipment says 'It's for this', we don't use it for that," agrees Jason Cox. Both are long‑standing friends and collaborators of Damon Albarn and his band Blur, with whom they have been working respectively five and 10 years — Tom as a programmer and engineer, and Jason as roadie, live sound person, guitar technician and engineer — and both clearly share Albarn's taste for sonic experimentation. For the last three years, the three of them have been setting up and developing the studio in which we're standing, 13, a process which seems to entail buying anything and everything which could possibly be used as a sound source or processor, and leaving it in a heap somewhere.
The studio has been employed both in recent Blur recordings (most notably their latest album, which shares the same name) and in other projects such as Albarn's collaboration with celebrated minimalist composer Michael Nyman on the soundtrack to the film Ravenous (see box). "'Killer For Your Love' off the Blur album was the first thing done here — to see if everything worked, basically," Jason explains. "The record company loved it, so it went on the album. And then we did 'Trailerpark', that was the next thing, and then we started doing the stuff for the 13 album."
Blur's 13 was, in a break from their long‑standing association with Stephen Street, produced by William Orbit (see 'Stellar Orbit' box), working with Jason and engineer John Smith. Meanwhile, Tom was working with Damon Albarn on his contributions to the Ravenous soundtrack: "The pre‑production for 13 was done here," he explains, "and then the sessions moved to another studio, while me and Damon were doing Ravenous here at the same time — so he was doing Ravenous in the morning and the album in the afternoon. It was a bit hectic!"
Because they were putting together the 13 studio mainly for their own use, Damon, Tom and Jason were able to tailor it to their own needs and wants, as Tom explains. "It's such a great thing to have all this stuff lying around — if you're bored for five minutes you can just pick something up and play with it."
"It's a good writing environment for Damon, as well," adds Jason.
"The way that everything's wired has all been done so that everything's as easy to use as possible," continues Tom. "So, for instance, all the keyboards come straight up on the desk with no patching, and he's got a MIDI controller keyboard on his side of the room and I've got the computer on my side, so that if he just wants to start playing stuff on a keyboard, I can start recording, and then if we want to do the drums they're ready to go as well. So it's not like 'Oh, hang on, we need to change this lead, we need to do that, we need to do this.' It's all ready to go."
Convenience is clearly a priority, not only because they frequently have to work very quickly, but because of the way in which Tom, Jason and Damon tend to interact. "Damon basically does the writing, and though he understands kind of what's going on in here, he doesn't want to have to think about it at all," explains Tom. "Which is where we come in. Basically, we remove all the technology side of it from him, so all he's got to do is play keyboards, or come up with an idea — he's focused on composing, and we're focused on equipment, and neither of us really cross over. We are starting to cross over a little bit now, 'cause now we're both getting more familiar with each other's territory. The Ravenous thing was just me and Damon — while Jason was doing the album stuff, we weren't actually working together, so now the three of us are trying to work out exactly who does what role.
"Damon still uses an old cassette 4‑track, which travels with him where ever he goes, and an 8‑track reel‑to‑reel with a little desk at home. The 4‑track is what he mostly uses — it's got a mic built in which makes it ultra‑easy to use, so for example if he's away somewhere he can just sing and strum a guitar straight into it, no leads required. So if he gets an idea at any stage he can bash it out on there for future reference. He also uses the 4‑track for working out bits and bobs at home, like if we've tried to do something new in the studio and its potential hasn't been fully realised — then he'll use the 4‑track at home to work on it a bit more.
"When he brings it into the studio, we either use it as a reference or actually sample bits of it. If it's sampled (well, recorded on disk in Logic) it will either be replaced, or on rare occasions will actually be used in the final project. The quality of these demos often leaves a bit to be desired, but at the same time they definitely have their own unique character, which is something special."
The studio was originally furnished with two Tascam DA88 digital 8‑track recorders, but in line with the emphasis on convenience, these have now been largely superseded by a Pro Tools system in a portable rack. "We've got 64 tracks of Pro Tools," explains Tom, "but only 16 in and out. We've got two removable 9Gb drives in there for the audio — you can have up to eight in there, so if you want more space you can just phone up a hire company and say 'Right, give us another drive'. No hassle at all."
Tom and Jason have also recently acquired portable Apple Mac Powerbook computers, running Emagic's Logic sequencer. Logic is also their software of choice for recording with Pro Tools, and the computers are set up in such a way as to make transferring projects as easy as possible. "The Powerbooks are linked up using an Ethernet connection, which will eventually also communicate with the Pro Tools system, and via SCSI to the samplers. For us, it's much better to be able to keep our own material and everything together, so we can just start records at home and then bring them in," explains Tom.
The two G3 Powerbooks are also loaded up with a comprehensive selection of software synths and samplers, including Koblo's Vibra 1000 and Vibra 9000, Bitheadz's Retro AS1 and Unity DS1 ("Although I haven't managed to get it to work properly yet," admits Tom), Steinberg/Propellerheads' Rebirth, and Arboretum's Metasynth. "All these aren't used very often," says Tom, "But I'm sure as we get more familiar (when we don't have to concentrate so much on what we're doing) with the whole system it will become second nature. These soft synths are all driven by OMS, which I think I have finally sussed out completely.
"In addition to the synths, we are using things like Recycle, Peak, Mesa, Toast Audio Extractor and a nice little piece of software called Convert Machine. These are all to deal with samples — Convert Machine does a good job at converting any useless audio file formats, like WAV, into useable ones, like AIFF — this tends to be used mainly for downloaded samples from the net."
Much thought has gone into configuring the software for maximum convenience. "I managed to create a JV1080 Mixer/Editor in Logic's Environment," Tom continues. "It took me around six hours to do, but the amount of time that it will save in the long term is amazing. The reason why the JV Environment is quite complex is because of the fact that it uses both SysEx and controllers — sometimes both to perform one function. But the end result gives me control over level, pan, effects sends, effects type, filters, outputs and a load of other bits and bobs. This is a dream for film work as it means that when I load a piece of music, all the settings are automatically recalled for me — I just sit back and press play — no fumbling for sounds (which can look very unprofessional in front of a director). I'll also add other Environment bits later for things like the Novation BassStation, and then a bit further down the line there will be Environments on the G3s to control the outboard effects units."
Sometimes you want the equipment to do a bit of abstract creating itself, and that's where analogue pedals come in. You start getting noises out of them you wouldn't even think you could get, just because a pedal can't handle whatever's going into it.
Neither Tom nor Jason has any regrets about abandoning their ageing Atari ST, which now gathers dust next to a pile of 1950s valve reel‑to‑reel tape recorders. "Now, looking back, everyone we were working with had Mac systems, and they were saying 'How? How are you doing it on that?' And now I think, Christ, how did I do it?" wonders Tom. Of the Logic/Pro Tools combination, he says "It's like almost learning what's possible in a recording studio all over again. It's a whole other world that's opened up. It's amazing how much you can do, and how easy it is to do as well! Before, we were basically doing stuff with pedals, we'd spend an hour trying to get the right sound out of the pedals in different combinations — but now you can do it with plug‑ins, bosh!"
Given Tom and Jason's interest in sonic experimentation, it's no surprise to find them enthusing about Pro Tools plug‑ins. However, while they clearly find Pro Tools invaluable for editing, and for quickly and flexibly processing recorded sounds, it's obvious that for real experimentation they prefer to mess about with analogue kit at the recording stage, where time allows. "We've used Pro Tools and Logic as a way of demoing stuff, to start off with — using it as a piece of tape, and then just taking bits and chopping them up and using them as samples. The way we come to it now, we've got Pro Tools and the analogue stuff, it's a good combination of the old and the new. If you've got both, you can discard the bad bits of each system."
One of the good bits of Pro Tools, for Tom and Jason, is its flexibility. Although their ideal working method, where no deadlines apply, tends to favour using analogue processors at the recording stage, this is frequently impractical on real projects. "Because of the way we work in here, which is very fast, things are liable to change a hell of a lot from when you start off," says Tom. "So it's not necessarily a good idea to start recording stuff really distorted or compressed or whatever, because five minutes later you might decide you have to have it really clean and pretty. So when we're recording it's left pretty clean, and we wait and see where the tune's going."
Where they do use plug‑ins, it's also unsurprising to find them ignoring the intended use for a particular plug‑in. "We're probably going to get Amp Farm," promises Tom. "But it won't just be for guitars, it'll be for anything — drums, whatever." Particular favourites include MDT, a multi‑band dynamics plug‑in that allows you to draw compression curves ("It's also got five bands of EQ," explains Tom. "You can compress all the five bands separately — you can take the bass drum and the snare drum in a loop and treat them differently.") and Antares' Auto‑Tune. "We did a manual filter thing on the Korg MS10, with the filter self‑oscillating and making a note like a theremin," Jason explains. "Obviously it's hard to tune it to a precise pitch with a knob, so we put it through Auto‑Tune. And we've used it as a vocoder‑type effect."
Another plug‑in that sees a lot of use at 13 is Ionizer, the 512‑band EQ audio restoration tool — which, ironically, is mainly employed in cleaning up the sounds that they coax from their heterogenous collection of ancient analogue kit!
For, despite the presence of their Pro Tools rack and several computers, one glance is enough to make clear the fundamental obsession that lies behind the setting up of 13: experimenting with hardware, the older and more obscure, the better. Every corner, every shelf, and every cupboard is piled high with equipment ranging from classic vintage synths to childrens' toys — if something makes a sound, it seems, it has a place in the studio.
"This is one of the refreshing things about working with Damon — we keep getting pieces of equipment we use once. You never know what he's going to turn up with when he comes in," remarks Tom. "More often than not, every week, he'll bring one or two new things in that he's found."
It is, explains Jason, the unpredictable nature of analogue equipment that really gives it potential for experimentation: "The controls on digital gear are really specific, so that if you say 'Right, I want more distortion on its own,' you just get more distortion. If you use analogue stuff, though, it starts doing things itself. Sometimes you want the equipment to do a bit of abstract creating itself, and that's where analogue pedals come in. You start getting noises out of them you wouldn't even think you could get, just because a pedal can't handle whatever's going into it."
Although 13 appears to be full to the brim with old analogue keyboards, it's perhaps surprising to see that there are few obvious 'classics'. The keyboards in the control room, which are the most often used, include a Roland SH101 and JX3P, various Moog monosynths, and a Korg Polysix. Elsewhere, an SCI Prophet V lies buried among a heap of plastic toys in the live room, but there's no Minimoog or ARP, no Fender Rhodes, no Jupiters or Junos — and while there are a couple of battered Hammond organs, they're both very much of the cheesy '70s home‑keyboard flavour. There are also some modern workhorses, including a Yamaha P100 Clavinova — Damon's master keyboard — the inevitable Roland JV1080, fully expanded, and a Novation BassStation Rack.
It seems that both Tom and Jason often prefer to work by layering sounds from their different monosynths, rather than using polyphonic machines. "We've got all the monosynths we really need," explains Jason. "The Moog Prodigy and the Rogue are superb. We're one‑fingered keyboard players, really."
"On one of the remixes that we did, we had five synths all playing the same line — the SH101, Rogue, Prodigy, Source, BassStation — and that was fat!" Tom continues. "I've never been that impressed with Junos, really. Obviously, all of these are CV and gate synths, so we've got a Kenton Pro 2 MIDI‑to‑CV converter, and the SH101 is controlled by the BassStation. The Polysix has been retrofitted with MIDI and eight CV and gate outputs."
"It's basically another Pro 2 in the Polysix," continues Jason. "But it's very temperamental, it's a pain in the arse. The trouble with the Polysix is, it just sounds like Duran Duran — it's got that bloody mid '80s chorused string sound."