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John Paul Jones

Recording & Mixing Zooma By Paul White
Published November 1999

John Paul Jones

Bassist John Paul Jones hasn't let the grass grow under his feet since Led Zeppelin came to rest at the turn of the '80s. Constantly in demand for his arranging and compositional skills, he's now produced his first solo album, Zooma.

John Paul Jones is best remembered as the bass player for Led Zeppelin, although his playing and production career stretches from 1960 to the present day and makes interesting reading. From his beginnings as a choirmaster and organist, John Paul Jones went on to be musical director and arranger for the likes of The Rolling Stones, PP Arnold, Robert Stigwood, Mickie Most, Jeff Beck, Cliff Richard, Dusty Springfield and Madeline Bell. And that's just a small sample of the people John worked with in the '60s. From 1968 to 1980, John's career with Led Zeppelin is well documented; since then, he has been busy producing and writing musical commissions for film and TV. Today, he has completed his first solo album project, Zooma, an instrumental album featuring (perhaps unsurprisingly) the bass guitar, albeit often in unexpected ways. John recorded and produced the album in his private London studio, where he agreed to meet me to explain how the album, and indeed his interest in recording, came about.

John Paul Jones"My first studio started with a dream and a Revox tape recorder in 1965. I had one of the new G36 models, paid for out of my money from playing sessions, and I experimented with basic multitrack recording using its sound‑on‑sound overdub facility. I've been recording ever since then, and of course the equipment list escalated — as it does. I've had probably four or five studios where I've tried different combinations of equipment and layouts. My current system is based around a 32‑channel Digidesign Pro Tools system on a 9600 Power Mac, though I also have a Mitsubishi 850 digital multitrack tape machine. I bought it second‑hand several years ago and have kept it going ever since."

Does most of your recording now go straight to Pro Tools, or do you record to tape, then edit in Pro Tools?

"The album was done using the Mitsubishi, just before the new 24‑bit Pro Tools came out. I've been a Pro Tools user since the Sound Tools days and moved up through 'semi‑pro' Tools to the system I now have. Since the 24‑bit version came out, it just sounded better than the Mitsubishi — which also sounds pretty good. I dumped what I had recorded on the Mitsubishi into Pro Tools and immediately it sounded better, so I guess the new Pro Tools converters are an improvement on those in the tape machine. All the overdubs were done directly into Pro Tools. The guitar parts by Paul Leary [guitarist from acid‑punk thrashers The Butthole Surfers, who Jones has produced] were done in America along with some other things. All I did was burn a data CD‑ROM of the Pro Tools session, took it with me to Willie Nelson's studio, and recorded Paul's parts using the Pro Tools system there. Then I burnt another CD‑ROM of that session, took the CD‑ROM to Los Angeles, added some new parts, burnt another CD‑ROM, brought it back home, loaded it up into my system and mixed it. It beats carrying reels of 24‑track tape wrapped in Bacofoil, and having to argue with the guy on the airport X‑ray machine!"

Do you always back up Pro Tools sessions to CD‑R?

"No, the Pro Tools system is linked to Rourke 9Gb hard drives and I have a second Mac — a G3 — with another 9Gb drive plus an 8mm data tape drive. I worked out a way to hot‑swap the 9Gb hard drives between systems, which you can do if you follow a certain procedure. To disconnect the drive, you first have to dismount it, then rescan the SCSI buss. Then I put the hard drive onto the other system so that while I'm working on one drive, the other can be backing up to the tape drive via Retrospect software."

Now that you've done so much work with Pro Tools, would you be comfortable doing your next project entirely to disk rather than using tape?

"Oh yes. But tape isn't entirely redundant. When I master, I usually try different formats to see what sounds best. My Mitsubishi machine has 20‑bit Prism converters and sounds very nice, but then I got an Ampex ATR100 half‑inch analogue machine and tried that, and it sounded fabulous, so that's what I used in the end. It's horses for courses. The final mastering was done on a SADiE system at Metropolis where they did a great job. They have the right equipment and an engineer with a great pair of ears who hasn't been listening to the thing for months. As it turns out, they didn't have to do much to it — half a dB here or there, that's all.

"I took my time mixing. I generally work with Richard Evans, the house engineer at [Peter Gabriel's studio] Real World, and he looked after the recording of the album. We used a live drummer, then I replaced all my parts after the basic recording was done. We had time set aside for mixing, but then I got 'flu which kept me out of it for about a month, so in the end we didn't have much time left. Then Peter Gabriel called Richard and offered him a project he couldn't refuse, so I got him to mix three of the shorter tracks, then decided that rather than getting in another engineer, I'd mix the rest myself. I can mix most things; all I had to do was learn how to mix drums."

What problems did that give you?

"The drums were well recorded, but you put up all the faders and the sound spreads right across the monitors — it's huge. I thought, 'What am I going to do with this?' But I learnt very quickly through trial and error. Basically, I worked from the overhead mics downwards trying to fit everything together and get it to a manageable size. I didn't use much EQ, and just a little compression. If something didn't sound right, I tried to fix it by rebalancing it rather than reaching for the EQ. It's only when something was really impossible that I'd hit it with EQ or something."

Can you elaborate on how you use the Pro Tools system? Pro Tools is capable of both recording and mixing, yet you have a Euphonix CS3000 digitally-controlled analogue console.

"Obviously all the editing is done in Pro Tools, and I also do quite a bit of the muting in Pro Tools too. Rather than leaving a cut to the desk automation, I'll literally cut the waveform in Pro Tools to delete anything I don't want. That way you don't have VCAs banging in and out all the time. You can also clean up squeaks and other noises on guitar parts — though I tend to leave my squeaks in because it's part of the sound. I try not to overclean things, but with guitars, there's often a bit of noise before a part comes in that can be usefully silenced.

"Sometimes I'll do a bit of compression within Pro Tools using the Focusrite TDM plug‑in, and if anything is out of tune I can repitch it. I haven't tried the Auto‑Tune plug‑in yet, but I hear it's very good. On one track called 'Snake Eyes', there was a point where the strings first come in that sounded a little bit at odds with the steel guitar. I didn't want to retune the orchestra to a funny tuning because then the organ comes in and it all kind of glues together. It was just on a couple of little run downs where the intonation wasn't quite right, so I just moved the steel part down by a few cents and it all worked.

"When I get to the automation stage and I have the balance about right on the Euphonix, if something still sticks out I may go back to Pro Tools to tweak it. Desk automation systems are always a little unwieldy for trying to hit just one or two notes, so it's easier to pull down the offending parts in Pro Tools using the graphical envelope editor."

Kyma Chameleon

This album features mainly drums and bass guitar, with additional reprocessing and textures generated by Symbolic Sound's Kyma sound design and synthesis system [see the 'More On Kyma' box]. The result is quite eclectic, and I'm curious to know how you conceived it. You could almost legitimately call it drum & bass, though of a rather different kind than most people imagine when they hear that term used!

"Well, yes, except that there are no programmed drums at all on this album. That's the way I like to play rock and roll; in fact the only programmed sounds are the sound effects. As you say, those came from Kyma, which can do any kind of synthesis you can imagine, FM, additive, granular, phase vocoding... It is potentially complex, but I've always been interested in the possibilities computers could bring to synthesis, which means Kyma doesn't present the learning curve for me that it might to some people.

I've followed computer synthesis techniques through the ages and I used to regularly go to electronic music concerts in the late '70s. I was brought up on analogue VCS3 synths in the early '70s, and in fact the suitcase model was my idea... It had such a great patchboard and was much more flexible than the Minimoog, though the filters never sounded as good. I always felt sorry for the guys whose first synth was the Yamaha DX7, because they didn't have that analogue background. I actually quite enjoyed programming FM sounds. Anyway, I was used to programming and thinking in algorithms, and even before Yamaha came up with their system for FM, we were all trying to work out how to control FM modulation on the VCS3 using one sync switch as an index and another as a modulator.

"In about 1990 I was looking for a high‑end DSP machine of some sort and came across an advert for Symbolic Sound. I read one of the papers that [company founder] Carla Scaletti had written, then called her. She sent me a system and it went from there."

How many aspects of Kyma have you explored? For example, have you found anything useful to do with granular synthesis?

"The end of the first track on Zooma features granular synthesis. Basically, it's about being able to specify the parameters of a lot of envelopes controlling a lot of oscillators at the same time, something you can't achieve on analogue, because you generally only have a limited number of oscillators. With Kyma, you can have as many oscillators as the processor will run — literally hundreds."

Did you design the synth sounds specifically for the album tracks or did you come across sounds that inspired you to write the tracks the way you did?

"Both. It's easy to find a sound and then work something around it, but it's much harder to create a sound that you've got in your head. It's a good test of your chops, and of the user interface. The Kyma user interface is actually very good, but if I want to change something, they're usually pretty good as I'm an alpha tester for the system — I can call them up and make a suggestion and they come up with a new version I can download."

Basses & Instruments

The album features a lot of bass instruments, some of which are quite obscure. Can you tell me something about the guitars and instruments you used?

"Well, since the Zeppelin days, I've always had multi‑string basses. I used to use 8‑string basses as early as 1970 — a regular bass with octave strings — and for a project I did in 1984 with Diamanda Galas, I had a new 8‑string bass made because my old ones were showing signs of wear. That was made by Hugh Manson, brother of Andrew Manson, the man who made my three‑neck acoustic guitar and my other acoustic instruments. Now Hugh makes all my electric guitars and Andrew makes all my acoustics. Hugh is also coming on tour with me as my guitar tech.

"I then wanted to go further, so I got him to make a 12‑string bass with a low B and a high C, again in octaves. It turned out to be very heavy for stage use and I was never really happy with the sound of the low B, so I asked him to build a 10‑string bass that goes from E to high C. That's what most of Zooma is done on.

"The other unusual instrument is the bass lap steel guitar. I've always played lap steel, even from when I was a kid and used to turn a bad guitar into a lap steel because that was all you could do with it! I stuck at it, and I used to take a little Gibson steel guitar with me when I was on the road with Zeppelin so I could play it in hotels. For Zooma, Hugh made me a bass lap steel, which has eight strings starting at bottom E. It uses wound strings and covers almost the range of a bass plus a regular guitar. Fortunately, all the old techniques came back, so I knew where things were and I knew how to keep it in tune. It's not like a pedal steel, but I do have levers on the bridge so I can change tunings between songs. I tend to use it with quite a bit of distortion."

"... if there's a bustle in your hedgerow... er, how's this one go again?" John with the custom bass lap steel guitar in his live room."... if there's a bustle in your hedgerow... er, how's this one go again?" John with the custom bass lap steel guitar in his live room.

I'd like to talk more about the processing, because it's evident that you didn't just put the bass through a DI box and a compressor...

"No. I tend to use amps to record and maybe a little bit of DI to give the sound some definition. The distortion all comes from the amp, and all my basses are wired in stereo so I can have each pickup feeding its own amp. The neck pickup went through an SWR bass rig while the bridge pickup went through a little Matchless 30. Since then I've discovered the Fender Tonemaster, which is unbelievable. It's so loud, but you can hear the notes clearly, even when you use a lot of overdrive. That's the amp I'm using on the album tour.

"The only guitar effects processor I used much was the TC Electronic G Force, which is great. On the track 'Zooma', it's basically 10‑string bass all the way through to which I added electric Mandola to make the melody sound clearer. There's a run down in the bridge section where it sounds like another 10 guitars coming in, but all I've done is hit the G Force pedal. I also used TC's Fireworx when mixing.

The only guitar effects processor I used much was the TC Electronic G Force, which is great. On the track 'Zooma', it's basically 10‑string bass all the way through to which I added electric Mandola to make the melody sound clearer.

"When recording, I tend to keep the mic fairly close to the cabinet, but I'll move it around until it sounds good. I'll also use a distant mic, and with the Matchless, which has an open back, I'll mike it from behind as well. Then it's just a question of balancing the tracks when mixing until the sound does what you want it to do."

Has the Chapman Stick ever interested you?

"I have a Chapman Stick somewhere. I tried it for a while, but it's a bit like learning bass backwards. But I have a Stick player on stage with me so when I'm playing the steel, he can play the bass, and when I'm playing bass, he can play play melody lines. There's a lot to do, as there's only me, the Stick player and a drummer — a real power trio. But that's nice, because it leaves lots of space."

You clearly didn't have the urge to add much ordinary guitar?

"Well, I'm not a guitarist — though I can do guitary things on the lap steel bass guitar. If I want guitar played properly, I'll get a guitarist in, though the only real guitars on the album are Paul Leary's guitar solo on 'Zooma' and some pad guitar parts I added on a Gibson SG. As with the drums, I used mic placement and balance to shape the guitar tone rather than too much EQ — you find the mic that's got the edge, then pull it up or down as needed. The biggest problem was finding room in the mix for the guitars while still leaving room for anything else. They really do eat up space, especially when you use overdrive. Actually, I did use quite a bit of EQ on the low end because my bass is taking the place of a regular bass plus the guitar side."

Releasing an instrumental album is a brave move, particularly in the UK, where there seems to be little commercial respect for instrumental music.

"That's true, but I've had very good reactions both here in the UK, in Germany and even in the States. They're saying there's nothing else like this around, and though that can also be a bad thing, people seem to be waiting for something else that's exciting and has intensity and passion. It's not a dance record or a big beat record — I've given no consideration to tempo in that regard."

I understand that your choice of record company is rather unusual?"

"To be honest, I wasn't looking forward to signing with a major record company, although it was felt that I should because they have the right distribution. One of the reasons that I did this record was to get out of producing for a bit. I got fed up with it. You can spend a lot of time working with a band, and then suddenly the guy who signed the band will leave or get fired just as the record is released, then the company will often just sit on the record. Through no fault of anybody's, the record gets dumped. I hated the business for that, and everybody has stories like that to tell.

"However, my manager handles Robert Fripp as well as David Sylvian and Bill Nelson. I asked what Robert did about his own records, and was told that although King Crimson comes out on Virgin, Robert has this other record company called Discipline Global Mobile. The artists retain their copyright — Robert insists on this — and there are no contracts at all. Actually, that isn't so unusual, because in the early days of Zeppelin, we never had a contract with Peter Grant, much to Atlantic's horror when they found out!

"I was a little unsure at first, because I wondered how much interest there would be in an instrumental album from a bass player. I thought about mail order and the Internet, but in addition to mail order, Robert's company also has really good relations with Pinnacle and Rykodisc in the States, so it started to sound better. And I think that if enough people get to hear the record, a fair number will like it because there really isn't anything else out there like it. I'm lucky in that I've been able to make the album I wanted to make and I have my own studio to do it in. I also wanted to make music that was fun to play — I didn't want to be in another band, and I didn't want to be part of a democratic project for that matter, so I thought if I did a record, I could take it out on the road and tour. That's what I'm doing now, taking in Europe, the UK, the States and Japan."

If all goes well, what next?

"This project has given me a lot of ideas, some of which I'd like to develop, and it think it would be quicker next time. I'm more confident in my mixing. The steel and bass stuff really worked well and I also like the way the riffs and the electronics work together. I may use more keyboard on the next album, but this wasn't a keyboard album — there's only one organ solo on the whole album. The multi‑string basses don't sound like anything else that's going on at the moment — and ever since I heard Duane Eddy, I wanted to play melody on the bass."

The Studio

John's Euphonix CS3000 desk, with Dynaudio and Yamaha NS10 monitors. In the background, his guitar and organ room can be seen faintly, with his custom three‑neck acoustic guitar and lap bass guitar.John's Euphonix CS3000 desk, with Dynaudio and Yamaha NS10 monitors. In the background, his guitar and organ room can be seen faintly, with his custom three‑neck acoustic guitar and lap bass guitar.

As you can see from the photographs dotted around this article, John Paul Jones' studio is a serious facility. The main monitoring comprises a pair of Dynaudio monitors running from Chord 612 power amps and there's also a REL Studio subwoofer under the Euphonix console to extend the range of the system. A Box stereo width meter sits atop the desk.

"That's an incredibly useful thing. Phase isn't so much of a worry these days as we're no longer concerned about what will cut onto vinyl, but it's still nice to know what's going on with the phase. If you get a few chorus effects going, you can end up with some strange phase shifts. I don't leave the Box on all the time as you just end up staring at it — I just plug it in when I need it."

Unusually, John Paul uses an old Sony F1 video camera and cheap TV set to keep an eye on the control room meters or the Pro Tools screen when he's playing in the studio area. A Peavey PC1600 MIDI controller is used in the control room for operating Pro Tools, and driving Kyma (via MIDI maps), but there are other controllers too: "When I'm recording acoustic instruments into Pro Tools, I've got a set of MIDI bass pedals I can rig up as a remote control, and also a Yamaha FC10 foot controller that does much the same job. That means I can sit in the studio, watch the TV monitor to see what's going on, and turn the system on and off with my feet."

The machine room contains the Euphonix mixer racks, four Pro Tools 888 interfaces and the Capybara DSP rack that powers Kyma. Emagic Logic Audio running on the Mac 9600 handles the MIDI sequencing.

"I've used pretty much all the different sequencers at one time or another, but I've ended up with Emagic's Logic Audio because it's flexible and surprisingly robust. I don't use it so much for recording audio because I have Pro Tools, though having said that, when I'm demoing songs as a part of the songwriting process, I do use it. For example, when I'm writing the bass parts, I also work out the drum parts so the drummer knows exactly what he's going to play. Sometimes I tell them that from the waist up, they can do what they like, but their feet are mine! If it's a riff‑based song, I'll use Logic Audio to record the various parts and then sequence the riffs rather than having to play all the way through. I write the drum part into MIDI in real time, then have it drive samples. Once that's right, I write out the part. On the album, of course, everything is played live."

The MIDI system comprises a collection of instruments from different eras, starting with the VCS3 and going right up to the Kyma software synth.

"I have a Roland MPU101 MIDI‑to‑CV converter so I can use my EMS VCS3, and I have a Waldorf Microwave that I rather like. Sometimes I'll mock up something with an analogue synth or the Microwave then program it into Kyma, or feed it into Kyma for reprocessing. I have a Roland JX8P with hardware programmer which is good for general synth work, along with a Korg X5, though I have a Yamaha KX88 weighted keyboard for piano parts. I use the Korg for working out voicings, then I'll transfer the data into Coda's Finale scoring software to print out the parts. Finale will also play back the score over MIDI, which is really useful for checking notes. The scoring sections in MIDI sequencers, including Logic, don't go far enough, which is why I use Finale."

John Paul's studio is based around a Fostex cassette multitracker and a Shure SM58... well, OK, not really...John Paul's studio is based around a Fostex cassette multitracker and a Shure SM58... well, OK, not really...

John Paul's studio is based around a Fostex cassette multitracker and a Shure SM58... well, OK, not really. This quite extraordinary studio contains the following stunning gear (clockwise from bottom): Euphonix CS3000 desk, monitors for G3 and 9600 Apple Macs running Pro Tools and Emagic Logic Audio. In front of the monitors is a Gallery PX10 Production Palette controller for Pro Tools, and a Yamaha MIDI keyboard and multimedia speaker system. Under the desk in custom smoked‑glass‑fronted cabinets are the 9Gb Rourke hard drives, the Macs themselves, Digidesign Pro Tools interfaces and Capybara hardware for the Kyma sound design system, as well as an Opcode Studio 3 multi‑port MIDI interface.

To the right of the computer monitors at the top of the picture are a Korg TR‑Rack synth module, Waldorf Pulse monosynth, Kurzweil K2000R synth, Akai S3200 sampler, and Peavey PC1600 MIDI hardware controller. At the top of the picture, John's older analogue synths can be seen — an EMS VCS3 and a compact Moog modular.

To the right are the keyboards and rack processors — a Novation MM10X controller atop a Yamaha KX88 weighted keyboard (almost out of sight), a stray Korg DTR1 guitar tuner, a Yamaha QY20 'walkstation' sequencer, a Roland JX8P synth with hardware programmer, and (in the wooden rack) a GML EQ, TC Electronic Fireworx multi‑effects and G Force guitar processor. Running down the racks top to bottom, left to right, John has an Eventide H3000SE Harmonizer, Roland SRV330 reverb and SDE330 delay, Lexicon PCM70 and LXP reverbs, Yamaha SPX90 multi‑effects, EMS reverb and sampler/delay units, Lexicon Prime Time delay and Klark Teknik analogue time processor.

The next rack contains the vast audio and MIDI patchbay and a Jeanius Electronics Russian Dragon time processor, but the next is stuffed with desirable dynamics processors, including Drawmer DS201 gates (x2) and DL221 compressor/limiters, Dbx 902 de‑essers (x2), an Audio Design compressor/expander/limiter, Euphonix dynamics processing, and Urei 1176 black‑face limiters (x2).

The extreme right rack contains ancient Decca Records and Neve compressor/limiters, an Aphex Type C exciter, and a Survival stereo panner. The video camera John uses for level monitoring can also be seen on top of this rack. Finally, in the extreme top right, the ATR100 analogue half‑inch stereo recorder and Mitsubishi 850 digital tape recorder can just be made out. Phew!

Baa Baa Black Dog... JPJ & Electronic Music

"In the early '70s, I was working with this guy who did all the communications between the Apollo lunar module and ground control, a pure mathematician who was also a Led Zeppelin fan. We started designing a system that would do sound generation, and eventually it was going to do orchestration and arranging — everything. We didn't realise at the time that Bell labs were working on the same sort of thing and we didn't have much in the way of resources, but it did get to the point where we had a program for the DEC PDP10 computer. We went into a computer facility with a guitar amp and some crocodile clips, messed in the back of this computer that we'd hired for the morning, and played 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' with this awful sawtooth waveform coming through the guitar amp. It took ages and involved great rolls of paper tape. The computer guys just couldn't understand where the sound was coming from!"

More On Kyma

Kyma's new v5 front‑end control software.Kyma's new v5 front‑end control software.

Kyma is a computer‑based sound design/synthesis system developed by a team of electronic music graduates and enthusiasts in California who got together under the name Symbolic Sound in 1989. Running on Mac or PC, the computer acts as the front end for the sound shaping (by means of a user‑friendly and mainly graphical drag‑and‑drop interface), while the DSP power required to do the number‑crunching involved in the sound creation is supplied in a separate piece of hardware connected to the computer, the Capybara rack unit.

As John Paul Jones explains elsewhere in this article, the system is very flexible, allowing for real‑time synthesis in the computer in a number of styles from analogue‑style subtractive, through FM and right up to modern‑day resynthesis and granular techniques. Real‑time sampling, hard disk recording, and audio processing are also possible, which explains why the system has a lot of fans amongst sound designers and music‑for‑picture composers in the States (for example, the system was used to create some sound effects for the new Star Wars film The Phantom Menace earlier this year).

Since the system's emergence in the early part of the decade, significant revisions have been made to both the front‑end software and the Capybara hardware, and the system now stands at version 5.0. SOS will be looking at Kyma in more detail in a forthcoming issue.