Name: Jason McCarthy
Studio Premises: Room in shared flat
Report by: Sam Inglis
Main Equipment: Spirit Studio mixer, 486 PC running Cakewalk v3 MIDI sequencer, MOTU MIDI Express 8‑port MIDI interface, Akai S3000 and S2800 samplers, Kawai K4R, Roland Alpha Juno 2, Yamaha SY35 and Novation BassStation synths, Philips DCC recorder, Lexicon MPX100, Boss SX700 and Alesis Quadraverb effects, Behringer Composer compressor, Aphex Aural Exciter Type C.
Most Sound On Sound readers are pretty serious about making music, but perhaps the greatest test of anyone's determination comes when they have to decide whether to give up the day job. The potential satisfaction involved in making a living from your hobby has to be weighed against the security of nine‑to‑five work, and not everyone is willing or able to make the necessary sacrifices. For Walthamstow‑based SOS reader Jay McCarthy, though, it's just a matter of time. He's already built up enough work as a composer for film and television to allow him to turn part‑time, and is looking forward to the day when he can afford to leave the office altogether and move his equipment out of his bedroom and into a dedicated studio space.
"I generally spend Sunday, Monday and Tuesday working on music," explains Jay, "then go into work in the office for the rest of the week. I find it really difficult to get motivated. I think 'Oh, great I was on the radio yesterday,' and they'll go 'Have you got that pensions report?' My boss is resigned to me leaving, I think. He's been very supportive whenever I've needed to take time off or whatever; if I say 'I've got a job on, I really need to take a day's holiday tomorrow,' he'll say 'Fine'. He knows that at the end of the day, pensions administration and spreadsheet design isn't really my bag!
"I've always been into music," he continues. "I started off playing keyboards and drums when I was quite young, about 11 or 12; my dad used to take me to organ lessons, which didn't really appeal to me at the time! I wanted to become a drummer then, and when I left school and went to college, I got into music technology because I wanted to trigger samples from a drum kit — I was thinking of getting some pads and a little sampler module. I did a music technology course at college, and also did 'A' level music, which I was pretty miserable at — there was too much theory for me.
"I found that MIDI and things came really easily to me; I'm not the greatest performer in the world, so I found it a good way of getting ideas across. I loved using sequencers, from the first time I sat down with an Atari: they had Notator running, and I used to bunk off physics lessons to go and sit in the studio. I got in loads of trouble from my lecturers and my dad about that!
"I went out and tried to buy a sampler, and found I didn't have enough money, and ended up buying a few little keyboards and effects units and stuff like that, because samplers were quite pricey at the time. It just all sort of grew from there. I moved to Reading, where I was in a few bands, and after a couple of years there I moved up to London with a friend. I decided that I really wanted to do music, to write music for TV and so on.
"When I moved up here there were a few people doing films and things like that, and they said 'We need music.' I wanted to get into doing music professionally, and this seemed like the ideal way to get my foot on the ladder. I've got a friend who I moved up from Reading with, and he works at an advertising company, and he'll just ring me up and be very vague, he'll say 'We want something like Prodigy, but AC/DC. And can you do it by Friday?' But luckily, I seem to have a knack of knowing what people want. I think it may be watching too much telly!
"The other thing that interests me is doing sound effects. I've been working on an animated film which is going to be about 15 or 20 minutes long, and there's a lot of foley involved, creating things like car crashes — I used a balloon and squeaked my hand over the top so it sounded like skids — and things like getting people in from the local pub and recording them reading grafitti out from a toilet wall. It's really good, it's given me a free rein. With animation being very surreal, we decided that the sounds don't have to be totally representational of what they are, so there's lots of of pots and pans banging, boiling water, chopping up vegetables, all the old favourites. Anything to make a half‑decent sound, then I usually bung it in the sampler and see what I can get out of it, which is really what I like doing anyway. I don't like using conventional sounds too much."
Sample & Hold
Jay's studio, which occupies most of his bedroom, is very much centred around his two Akai samplers, an S3000 and an S2800, which he likes to use to their full potential: "When I use snares and things, a lot of it's just static recorded from the radio, and treated. I did the title sequence for an ice‑hockey programme on cable TV, and one of the sounds is just me holding a jack and tapping it, put through one of the Quadraverb effects. I think the sampler's an amazing instrument. It's the most flexible instrument there is. You can take any sound and, within reason, do anything with it.
"I've got friends who'll come round and it really annoys me because they'll bring something like a Led Zeppelin drum loop and they'll just trim it and repeat it 16 times. I'll go away, make a cup of tea, watch some telly, come back and they've got this loop and they'll go 'Great, isn't it?' but they haven't really used it to its full potential. When I bought the 2800, which is quite limited now, it cost me about £1200, and to spend that sort of money and just put a drum loop in it seems such a waste.
"I wanted to expand the memory on it, but it uses the old memory boards, which are about £500 just for 8Mb, so I got the S3000, which is a better machine with 32Mb in it, for the price of two S2800 memory boards. I still keep the 2800: it's got effects which the 3000 doesn't have, and also, if I did get into scoring with orchestral CD‑ROMs or something like that, I'd need as much memory and processing power as I could have. A lot of the time, what I do is program something like drums on one, send it through the desk, add a little bit of ambience or a bit of EQ filtering or something, just to give it a bit of movement, and then sample it again in the other sampler, because these don't have internal resampling, which is a bit of a pain. They've got slightly different operating systems as well, which can be a bit confusing sometimes — the 2800 hasn't got the Multi mode, which is a life‑saver on the 3000.
"The filters on the Akais are sometimes a bit polite. I've got the filter board in the S3000, as well, and it's meant to give you a four‑pole low‑pass as well as the two‑pole, but it doesn't really sound too different to me. But the high‑pass and band‑pass filters in there are all right, quite good for when you're doing things like trying to edit the snare or hi‑hats from a loop. I can spot Akai filters a mile off, they seem so recognisable — I don't know whether it's just because I use them all the time or whether it's something about them.
"I spent a lot of time sorting out my sample library:I've got my sample library all on Zip disks so I've got a backup of each one, and also if I do a project for someone, I'll save everything to another separate Zip disk, and keep that with a backup as well. So if someone says 'We need that', I don't have to go running around wondering whether I wanted 'Strings 1' or 'Strings 7'."
Jay's music is based around samplers and synths to such an extent that there's currently no microphone in the studio, and he has yet to integrate his recently acquired Fostex R8 reel‑to‑reel multitrack into the setup. At present, everything comes directly from the samplers or synths, and is mixed live via a Spirit Studio desk to a portable Philips DCC. "I learned a lesson the other day when I actually had to hand a DAT to somebody, and I was running around all my friends' offices going 'Has anyone got a DAT I can use?' So I went all the way across London just to drop a DAT off: I think my next purchase has got to be a DAT recorder. But I love the DCC, because it's so portable, I can just take it out and sample things, run round the Underground. It's a bit clichéd but you can get some amazing noises. The cassettes are a bit hard to get hold of now!
"I really can't wait to get into using my little 8‑track reel‑to‑reel: I've taped a few things on it, mostly albums that I've got, just to listen to the sound, because it sounds so much better! Generally I don't like to go into the digital domain at all, I like to keep everything analogue. I think analogue recording's more of an art form — digital recording's too scientific for me. I know somebody who's just set up a studio in London with one of the Mackie digital desks, and they absolutely swear by it, but the only time I ever saw one, it was on a shop floor in bits because the software didn't work, and I just thought 'This isn't really right!' I know that I can turn on my little analogue mixer and there it is and it works."
Jay's dislike of digitalia extends to his master keyboard, an ageing Yamaha SY35: "It's just shit. It's so awful. Because I was quite young at the time, I loved the little joystick at the side, the way it wobbles. I've got a few good sounds out of it; it's easy to program, because you can't really do anything with it! You can't actually offset any pitches by anything less than a semitone, there's no filters on it... the string sound's not bad on it though. That's about the only thing I ever use on it. It's got some awful, awful sounds, and it's quite restricted polyphony‑wise as well."
The other synths in his setup include a Kawai K4R module — "For a digital synth, late '80s or early '90s, it's a surprisingly warm sound, and it's got some half‑decent filters on it" — and a broken Novation BassStation. "One of the oscillators is completely knackered," shrugs Jay, "I get some half‑decent sounds out of it still, it gives you that warmish bottom end. Everyone loves to reach out and twiddle with filters and everything. All my friends come round and go 'Can I play with the little blue one again? All you have to do is turn it, and it sounds good!' It's why things like the Quasimidi products are successful, even though I hate them — they're just like Pete Tong in a box. It doesn't really take any kind of inspiration to get something half‑decent out of them, but they just seem so inflexible. It's almost like using presets, you just open the filters and close them again, and open them again, add the bass drum, drop it out, and so on..."
Also leaning by the bed is a Roland Alpha Juno 2, which is much valued despite several broken keys: "One of the chaps I now work with sold me the Juno 2 before I knew him. Then I started working with him, and I used to take bits of music in, and he'd go 'Oh, what's that sound?' and I'd go 'It's that keyboard you sold me', and he'd say 'I couldn't get anything decent out of it!' Some people hate it, but I swear by it, because it's the only thing that gives me any kind of analogue warmth in the studio, now that the BassStation is broken. It's got a chord memory as well, so you can turn it into a sort of monophonic monster synth. It can sound a bit '80s, which isn't a bad thing at the moment, but next year it'll probably be out of date, so I'm going to steer clear of that and use it for pads and things."
When building up a studio on a limited budget, it's tempting to concentrate on buying equipment that actually makes a noise. However, it's often the choice of other equipment that determines how well, and how easily, you can actually put together tracks. This is particularly important for musicians like Jay who aim to work in music for the media, where things often have to be done in a hurry: "The things I value most in the studio are the ones that don't make a sound!" he explains. "The two things that have really changed the way I work are the Zip drive — obviously, when you've got a 32Mb sampler, you don't want to be constantly bunging disks in it — and the MOTU MIDI Express, which is just a life‑saver, because the studio grew so much. It's not a big studio, but it's got quite a few synths, and obviously with a few of them being multitimbral, you want to make the most of them, you don't want to keep changing MIDI Ins when you're trying to do SysEx dumps. It's worth its weight in gold!"
The things I value most in the studio are the ones that don't make a sound... the Zip drive... and the MOTU MIDI Express.
There are also some tried and trusted processors in the rack: "I started off originally with the Quadraverb, because I knew that from my college days. It's a bit noisy, a bit outdated, but it still holds its own, and gives you your fair share of strange effects as well. The reverbs I thought at the time 'Wow, this is brilliant', but now I've got the Lexicon MPX100, which I got for 190 quid, and it's become my favourite bit of kit, processor‑wise. I'm thinking of getting another one!
"I've also got the Boss SX700, which is for mangling sounds more than anything. It's got some amazing phasers in it. I've got this preset where you use the modulation wheel and it sounds like a wah‑wah. It's got band‑pass filters and pitch‑shifters, it's really good. I want to get something like a Waldorf Pulse or a BassStation Rack, something with analogue filter inputs I can use to mangle sounds with.
"There's the Zoom 1202, which originally I got to supplement the Quadraverb. It's all right — I use it mainly for delays and things, the choruses and flangers are a bit tinny on it. I really try to avoid using the reverbs unless I want it to sound deliberately ropey. Because it does sound ropey! I mainly use it to thicken things up with a short stereo delay.
"The Composer and the enhancer are for the time being across the whole mix. I try not to enhance things too much, so it doesn't sound too tiring on the ears, but I like to compress things a lot, particularly drum beats.
"If I get some more work in soon I'm going to invest in definitely another compressor, possibly a voice channel and a mic, and maybe a patchbay."
Jay is upbeat about his future in the business, and eagerly awaiting the time when he move his gear into a 'proper' studio space. "I'm spending a lot of time at the moment with designers and film‑makers, and getting a lot into the soundtrack side of it. I'd like to do orchestral scoring, but obviously that's quite a way off. 'A' level music and things have given me a little bit of the background for it, and I've studied things like the ranges of the instruments before, but I was actually thinking about going back to college and doing something like that again, because I didn't have the attitude at the time to put myself into anything too theoretical, I just wanted to play the drums. There's a 10‑minute film my friends did, I really want to work on doing the score for that. I'm getting a showreel, getting a CD‑ROM as well, making a web site. I wouldn't mind getting into remixing as well."
And his greatest ambition? "To do the James Bond theme. That'd be the ultimate, wouldn't it?"
Working from home, rather than a purpose‑designed studio, always seems to bring unforseen difficulties in its wake. "One thing I do have a problem with is the boiler," admits Jay. "When the central heating kicks in, it makes a really loud click. I have to work around it by turning the central heating off at the time. So everyone else freezes! But they're generally at work when I'm mixing."
Jay's monitoring arrangements also stem from the difficulties of recording in a domestic environment: "I've got a couple of little Yamaha speakers which aren't really too faithful, so I tend not to use them: what I actually monitor on most of the time is these ropey headphones. I borrowed them off somebody, 'cause I was living in a bedsit over the other side of London. The landlord used to come round on the off‑chance every now and then, so I'd have to be really quiet, and I was using these little headphones — all the foam's come off, and they're probably worth about 40 pence, but I seem to know them quite well, through necessity, and I like to think I can actually make a half‑decent mix on them."
There are also the hazards of sharing a flat with other musicians... "The [dented] Tanglewood Quomaster guitar. I'd had it two weeks and my flatmate Phil, who I used to live with in Reading, came in drunk one night, and he said 'Jay, I'm just borrowing your guitar for a quick jam'. Next thing I heard was him falling down the stairs. I've never forgiven him for it!"