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GLENN BROOKS: The Pearl Works

Published February 2001

GLENN BROOKS: The Pearl Works

For some people, a studio is not a studio unless it's packed to the rafters with racks of vintage keyboards and esoteric recording equipment. Others take a more minimal approach, content to let their computer provide their sounds, add their effects and mix and master their recordings. Sound On Sound reader Glenn Brooks and his Thornton‑Cleveleys‑based studio fall firmly into the latter category. Working under the name The Pearl Works (, Glenn has a small recording studio, furnished with a modest collection of equipment, in the front room of his house. At the heart of the setup is a Pentium III 500 PC running Steinberg's Cubase VST v5.0 and loaded with software synth plug‑ins including Steinberg's Model E and Native Instruments Pro 5 and B4 Organ.

"It's probably just a phase I'm going through but I prefer to keep everything digital because there's no hiss", explains Glenn. "That's sad in a way, because it means I'm using my hardware synths less and less. The way it's going, everything will be inside the computer. The studio's not as big as I'd like it to be, but for the things I'm doing I don't need mega amounts of space. If it ever gets to the stage where a vocalist is coming round, I've got a downstairs loo to record them in!"

By day, Glenn works as an IT consultant, which provides his main source of income, but although he hasn't yet managed to earn a living from his music, his studio is more than just a hobby. "I'd love to be a producer. That's my goal. Eight hours a day I sit in front of the computer for my job, but it's not interesting. I'd rather be in front of the computer with Cubase. Even if I got a wage for it that would be a start. This is where my heart is. Coming home and doing this is tough on my private life as well. I don't get to see my fiancée Gina half as much as I'd like to, but she understands. If something does come of it, it should be big."

Factory Worker

The outboard equipment stack, comprising, from top to bottom: Boss DR550 drum machine, Alesis Midiverb III effects processor, Fostex 2016 mixer, and Kawai K4r, K1r and Korg 01R/W rack synths.The outboard equipment stack, comprising, from top to bottom: Boss DR550 drum machine, Alesis Midiverb III effects processor, Fostex 2016 mixer, and Kawai K4r, K1r and Korg 01R/W rack synths.

Thanks to his day job in IT, Glenn has been using the Internet as a source of information for many years. As a result of one particular web browse, Glenn started working with The Vocal Factory, a web‑based organisation which provides high‑quality MP3 vocal samples for remixing. Now, much of Glenn's time is taken up doing remixes for The Vocal Factory. He explains how it started.

"I've known about the Internet and I've been using it as a technical resource for years, but I hadn't really looked at it as a music resource or somewhere you could create a community until recently. I'd been writing songs and trying to get people to come and sing them. Getting a vocalist was hard, but getting one that could sing or didn't have an attitude was a nightmare. So I was resigned to just doing instrumental music. Then, while I was trawling through the Steinberg newsgroup on the web, I saw an ad from The Vocal Factory saying, 'Remix professional vocals free of charge', so I looked into it.

"The two guys who run The Vocal Factory have a back catalogue of songs on DAT doing nothing. Their idea was to give people like me the chance to work with some professionally pre–recorded vocals. You sign on to the site and then you download one of their songs as three or four MP3 'zipped' files. One has all the verses, another the chorus or bridge, and one has ad‑libs. There's also a low‑quality Real Audio guide track of how they originally recorded the song. From that you can get the tempo and key and some sort of idea of how it goes. The vocals are quite well encoded, so they don't really lose any quality, and once they're in the mix you can't tell they're from an MP3 file.

"I send in a snippet of my mix. They have some A&R guys working for them, who listen to the mixes. If they like them, they ask for the full mix and they try to pitch them to record labels. If the label picks up a mix, the remixer (ie. me) gets a one‑off fee. The Vocal Factory are the writers and own the publishing to the song, so they'll get the biggest share. But if, for example, you write a mix that makes number one, they will negotiate a better contract to keep you. There are no prizes, but they guarantee your stuff gets played to proper A&R men. I always do one where I keep it as commercial and as short as possible, plus a far‑out mix of what I'm into, with my own flavours.

"Every six weeks they put a project up and it's always in a different genre, but that's not necessarily the style they want for the remix. If you want to do a Morris‑dancing mix of it, you can! Anything goes, basically, but they have an idea of what's current and popular. You can pick and choose, but I do as many as I can, as quickly as I can. I want to keep my output constant, because one of them, one day, is going to be the one."

It's a testament to the opportunities available for musicians via web sites these days that Glenn has managed to find other mix work besides the Vocal Factory collaboration. He tells the story...

"Epic records have set up an online A&R site called 'Deal With Epic', where you can upload your stuff and they'll sign you if you're good enough. Firstly I looked on their forum message board to see what people were saying, and someone had asked the question 'I'm a lyric writer, can I just put my lyrics up there?' Epic wrote back and said 'no, we want full songs', but a label called Babywax had replied saying people could send lyrics to them and they'd have a look. So I dropped them an email to see if they wanted any material remixing. A guy called Danny James rang me back and asked me to send some stuff. He runs Darkside Music UK and Babywax records and is the song writer for Babywax. I already have stuff on the web, so I just gave him the URL to download. He rang back and said it was brilliant stuff, and he asked me to do a remix. He sent vocals on CD done by Penni Tovey. She's otherwise known as Arrola, the singer from Ruff Drivers. I've done three or four songs for Danny so far."

Where It All Began

Glenn's small but uncluttered home studio.Glenn's small but uncluttered home studio.

Glenn's interest in music technology began back in the early '80s, when the computer‑based studios and Internet collaborations were just a twinkle in a software designer's eye. Glenn describes some of the steps he had to take to get to where he is today.

"I first got into Depeche Mode, Erasure, Propaganda and Yello — those sort of bands are my influences. They really got me thinking 'I want to have a stab at this myself', so I bought a Yamaha DX100. But I was a bit shocked when I took it home, because it didn't have a built‑in speaker! I was only about 13 or 14. The Ensoniq ESQ1 was one of the first serious bits of kit I bought, and I've never found anything better as regards keyboards. It has an onboard sequencer, which is one of the main reasons why I got it. After that I got into MIDI. The DX had MIDI but I didn't have a clue what it was back then.

"I bought a Boss DR220 which had a tape out so it could record a sync track onto tape — which was useful, because the Ensoniq can read a sync track — so it was sync'ed with the tape driving the keyboard. The ESQ1's only 8‑part poly and 8‑part multitimbral, so it was stealing notes, but there was nothing better at the time. The pad sounds took up the most polyphony, so I used to bounce them onto tape and sequence the rest. I didn't have reverb or delay, so I used sequencing to replicate a delay. I couldn't do the same with reverb, so then I bought the Alesis Midiverb III, which has MIDI and has four effects at once."

Glenn's early recordings were achieved with nothing more than a Tandy mixer, two tape decks and lots of bouncing. After that, he graduated to a Yamaha MT4X cassette 4‑track, then a Fostex 280 multitracker, before finally moving into the digital domain with his VST setup. A few keyboards also came and went along the way, including a Sequential Prophet 5, a PPG Wave 2.2 and a Korg M1. "With the M1 I thought 'Wow, I've arrived! This is all I need," admits Glenn, "but when the Korg 01R/W came out I was blown away, so I part‑exchanged for it.

"I was a bit conned with the Kawai K4 rack. The keyboard version with effects was brilliant, but the shop I bought the rack from never mentioned that it didn't have any effects. When I plugged it in, it sounded totally lame, but I have managed to get some decent sounds out of it. Now I record the K4 as audio in Cubase, then apply all my plug‑in effects from within the sequencer.

The Sounds

GLENN BROOKS: The Pearl Works

Many of Glenn's sounds are now generated by his growing collection of soft synths and samples. Glenn describes how they are generally put to use in his recordings. "I've got absolutely thousands of drum sounds and loops, although I try not to use loops if I can help it. If I've got a loop in mind I'll use it, but I'm not one for trawling through sample CDs — it wastes too much time. I tend to write the drums myself. I've got the Steinberg LM4 VST Instrument with the Wizoo kits, which are awesome. They make it sound as though you've got a drummer in your house. I tend to use traditional sounding drums rather than Roland 909 or 808 sounds, so LM4 is the main tool.

"The most recent software instrument I bought was the Native Instruments B4 Organ. That's useful because the commercial mixes I do sometimes require an element of cheese — which I don't particularly like, but it's got to be done. The Waldorf PPG, and the Steinberg Pro 5 and Model E instruments are absolutely brilliant for analogue sounds, and I've got some fairly decent multisampled SoundFonts for guitar. The Ensoniq is very good for synth‑bass sounds, so I tend to write the bass part using that, whack on the delay from the MIDIVerb, then play around until something sounds good. I play everything in using the Ensoniq, which is basically my controller."

Glenn masters his own recordings within his computer, ready for posting as MP3 files on his or other web sites, or for burning to CD. Once again, software has been instrumental in all aspects of mastering and file preparation.

"I use Steinberg's Wavelab to convert vocals coming in on MP3 to WAV files. In the case of my work for The Vocal Factory, the vocals have been recorded professionally but using analogue equipment, so when you open them up you can hear a little noise. I use Wavelab to clean them up and get rid of any bleed. I also de‑ess everything and optimise the volume a bit, before bringing the audio into Cubase.

"Wavelab is also handy for working on fade‑outs, and I use it to apply a maximiser. You think the audio is as loud as it will go, but when you put it through this maximiser it's louder! I've got Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge as well, which is a lot better for pitch‑shifting and time‑stretching.

"I compress the hell out of vocals and drums using Cubase's built‑in compressor. I use that mostly because it's instant and has very low overhead on the CPU. I've also got Steinberg's multi‑channel mastering compressor, which is good for a complete song where you want the bass or top end boosted a bit. A lot of the plug‑ins you can't run in real time, otherwise your computer will just die, so I apply many during mastering.

"I use a Sound Blaster Live! card in the PC. There's a breakout box, which means you're not fiddling round the back of the computer all the time. It's got S/PDIF I/O, MIDI In and Out, and a couple of line inputs on the front. It can take up to four simultaneous inputs, but I never use them because I'm not recording much audio.

"The beauty of this setup is that I've got 8mS latency. So the VST instruments work almost instantaneously. Until I got a decent soundcard I had a quarter of a second of latency, so I just didn't use the VST instruments."

Although Glenn's setup seems to be becoming ever‑more digital, there's still a place for the good old‑fashioned keyboard in the studio. Furthermore, an ageing acoustic guitar leans against one studio wall, ready for when Glenn starts his planned guitar lessons. It seems that the day when an entire studio resides on the hard drive of a PC may never actually arrive in Glenn's studio.

"I'd never get rid of the Ensoniq, because I've written most of my songs with it", exclaims Glenn, "but I was thinking of getting a Triton or Trinity because I've always been impressed with Korg stuff. I want to get something that's going to be totally different. The Nord and Virus virtual analogue synths are good, but they're not producing sounds I haven't heard before. That's probably a difficult thing to ask of a synth, but there's nothing out there at the moment that's making me think 'I've got to have that'.

"After I got the Korg 01R/W, I said to myself 'If I can't write any decent music with this kit now, there's something wrong with what I'm writing. I might as well hang my keyboard up.' At the end of the day, some of the best tunes have been written with just an acoustic guitar."

Main Equipment

  • Pentium III 500 PC with 256Mb RAM
  • Creative Labs Live! soundcard system
  • Steinberg Cubase VST/32 v5.0 sequencer and VST virtual instruments
  • Ensoniq ESQ1 keyboard
  • Korg 01/RW rack synth

Glenn's Gear

  • Pentium III 500 PC with 256Mb RAM
  • Creative Labs Live! soundcard system
  • Steinberg Cubase VST/32 v5.0 sequencer
  • Steinberg Wavelab v3.01 digital editing software
  • Steinberg B4 Organ and Model E virtual instruments
  • Steinberg Mastering Edition ME mastering processor
  • Native Instruments Pro 5 virtual instrument
  • Waldorf D‑Pole filter
  • Waldorf PPG Wave 2.V virtual instrument
  • TC Works Native Reverb
  • DB Audioware Dave Brown's Plug‑in Suite
  • Waves L1 Ultramaximizer
  • Waves Renaissance Compressor
  • Boss DR550 drum machine
  • Ensoniq ESQ1 Keyboard
  • Kawai K1r rack synth
  • Kawai K4r rack synth
  • Korg 01/RW rack synth
  • AKG K55 headphones
  • Alesis Midiverb III effects processor
  • Denon amp
  • Fostex 2016 mixer
  • Mission 737R speakers

Hearing Is Believing

"I do 90 percent of my monitoring through headphones so I can really hear fine detail, but I've got some Mission hi‑fi speakers just to see what it sounds like on Joe Smoke's hi‑fi. I've also got some mini speakers for MP3 stuff. Nine out of 10 people who are downloading MP3s are going to be playing them through the speakers that come with their computer package, which tend to be crap, so I bought some crap speakers with a bass box that rattles your fillings out."

Glenn Rises Up: Web Chart Success

At the time of our interview, a remix of Glenn's, entitled 'Melody Rise Up', is enjoying some considerable success in several web charts, as he explains. "At the moment I've got a number one on the MTV Europe Undiscovered charts on the Internet. I'd shoved my track up on, just to see what sort of feedback I'd get from it, and it got to number one. Then they submitted it to MTV Undiscovered. I didn't know anything about it. People go onto the site, download tracks, and vote. I went to number one in the Dance charts at the beginning of November. Then they compile a chart of charts (dance, rock, pop and alternative). I went straight in at number one on that for December."