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LAWRENCE RAY: Back To Base, MP Records & Blue Water Studio

Readerzone By Sam Inglis
Published June 1999

LAWRENCE RAY: Back To Base, MP Records & Blue Water Studio

Name: Lawrence Ray
Report by: Sam Inglis
Studio Premises: Ground Floor Flat
Main Equipment: Roland VS880 digital multitrackers (x2), Korg X3 workstation, Boss DR660 drum machine, Akai CD3000XL sampler, Dynaudio Bimea monitors, TC Electronic Finalizer mastering processor.

Father‑son business partnerships in popular music have, over the years, had mixed success. Ever since the early days of the Jam, Paul Weller's career has been overseen by his father John, who stuck with him through the bad times of the late '80s and reaped the rewards with his resurgence in the '90s. Murry Wilson masterminded the early career of the Beach Boys, rocketing them from anonymity to America's answer to the Beatles — but his sons eventually rebelled against his bullying and artistic interference, precipitating an ugly split. And Marvin Gaye, of course, was eventually to be murdered by his father...

It remains to be seen whether dub reggae/dance band Back To Base will scale the heights achieved by any of these artists — or, indeed, meet tragic ends — but the partnership between father Rod Ray, who manages the band, and his bassist/producer/programmer son Lawrence is certainly proving fruitful. The band have played over 120 gigs in the last 18 months, and recently headlined a special gig to launch John Peel's recent Channel Four series Sounds Of The Suburbs, having been featured in the episode that focused on their home town of Hull. Thanks to a distribution deal with Pinnacle, their self‑produced debut album Electric Eye sold over 3000 copies nationwide.

The album was recorded and produced by Lawrence in the band's own Blue Water Studio and, along with other releases by Back To Base, released on their own Maximum Power record label. The label, which is largely run by Rod, has also recently diversified into dance music, releasing tracks by local dance acts TOTL and Tiny Roland (!) as well as remixes of Back To Base tracks, all of which were also recorded at Blue Water. MP Records' continuing growth has also led them to employ press officer Jane Wilson on a part‑time basis. I met Lawrence, Rod and Jane at Blue Water Studio to find out how they record the music that appears on MP Records, and gain some insight into what's involved in running an independent label (see 'Local MP' box).

Clear Blue Water

Blue Water Studio: to the left is the rack that travels with Back To Base to gigs, containing their live mixer, sampler and X3R synth.Blue Water Studio: to the left is the rack that travels with Back To Base to gigs, containing their live mixer, sampler and X3R synth.

Blue Water Studio, which the band plan to make available for commercial hire as well as for recording their own material, occupies one room of a ground floor flat in Hull, with the adjacent sitting room sometimes serving as a live room for recording drums and the like. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Blue Water setup, equipment‑wise, is the absence of a recording mixer — while live mixing duties are handled by a Mackie 1604 VLZ desk, Lawrence Ray records and mixes everything using only a pair of expanded Roland VS880 hard disk multitrackers. Sequencing and synthesis duties are handled by a Korg X3 workstation — there are no computer‑based sequencers — and everything is sync'ed in a chain using MTC. The first VS880 acts as a master, the second as slave and MTC source for the X3, which in turn controls the other sound sources.

In the absence of a recording mixer, Lawrence makes full use of the VS880s' ability to combine recorded audio tracks with input signals at mixdown. Vocals, guitars, and bass are recorded to the VS880s' hard disks, as are the band's live drums, while sequenced tracks from the X3 workstation, Akai CD3000XL sampler and Boss DR660 drum machine are brought in using the VS880s' analogue inputs. Tracks are mixed live to DAT, the stereo output from the slaved VS880 being brought into the master unit through itdigital link. "From now on," says Lawrence, "I'm making it a policy to use the Complete Mastering Mode, which is the no‑data‑compression mode. That knocks the VS880s down to six tracks apiece — 12 in total — but for a full band that's still plenty: six tracks on your drums, bass, couple of vocal tracks, guitars. And of course, if you're using sequencers, they run over the top of these tracks, and with two of these VS880s together, you've got eight inputs. I mean, all right, I'd like another one, but then who wouldn't?"

The mixer‑less setup, which uses all the recorders' analogue inputs at mixdown, obviously means that scope for using outboard processors and effects is drastically reduced — but fortunately, Lawrence is more than happy with the onboard effects processors in the equipment he has: "To be honest, I've got effects coming out of my ears. I mean, there's two multi‑effects processors in the VS880s, two in the X3, two in the Akai — think of all the wiring you'd have with that much outboard!"

This down‑to‑earth approach to equipping a studio reflects Lawrence's forthright views on production: "There's a lot of poncing about with recording, to put it bluntly," he says. "There's all this fuss about vocalsbut if you've got a good vocalist, they could sing into any mic you like and sound good. You get out what you put in — if it's a good‑sounding snare drum, it'll sound good. If it's a good vocalist, she or he will sound good."

Lawrence uses a Shure SM58 on both male and female vocals, and records drums using a collection of Shure SM57s and a pair of AKG C1000s. "You might spend a good week getting a cracking drum sound," he notes, "and then when you've got a good drummer in there, the tracks'll be down in an afternoon."

Back To Base's music is notable for its mixture of live drumming with sequenced kick drum, hi‑hat and other percussion. "We always sequence the kick drum," explains Lawrence, "because it's the key point in the music that everyone else can play around. The sequenced drums give the real drums a bit of a lift — it's a lot easier than getting loads of people to stand there with tambourines!"

The Akai sampler is a relatively new addition to the Blue Water setup, and is partly intended to expand the sonic palette available to the band in performance: "People used to say to us, even when we didn't have a sampler, 'Ah, you've got loads of samples' — but it was just the keyboard. Now, though, what I'll be doing is taking what was on the multitracks, sampling it, splitting it up and putting it out through all the effects. Then we can use it live. We could even have a gospel choir on stage with us!"

Indeed, the entire Blue Water equipment rack is clearly designed to be plucked out of the studio at a moment's notice and whisked onstage: it even includes a Korg X3R, the rackmount version of the X3, to do live the work that the workstation version does in the studio. "It might not be the best sequencer in the world," explains Lawrence, "but it's the one I've got to know, the one that all the songs are programmed on to. It just made sense to get a rack version of it, so we can just take our disks out of there and we're off. The way to play live is that you do need each piece of equipment on separate channels for the venue — it's no use just taking a Minidisc as stereo backing."

Keeping It In The Family

Rod Ray, manager of Back To Base and MP records, with their part‑time press officer Jane Wilson.Rod Ray, manager of Back To Base and MP records, with their part‑time press officer Jane Wilson.

It's very clear, both in their individual approach to recording and their business efforts in setting up MP Records, that Lawrence and Rod Ray are very protective of their artistic and commercial independence. Analthough they have been tempted by offers from others who want a hand in their fortunes, they're clearly not going to accept any form of compromise: "We had an offer from a millionaire," exclaims Rod, "through a fan of the band — his brother had become a millionaire through selling insurance, and he heard the band and quite liked them, and made an offer. Which we refused.

"Basically, it would have meant having to move south, get rid of the singer, and do ridiculous things which just showed a total lack of knowledge of the music. They asked me, 'Are they good‑looking enough?' I said 'Lawrence is a good‑looking lad, but he's put on a bit of weight lately.' They said, 'Tell him to go jogging!'"

Being your own boss may be hard work, but at least you don't have to do exercise...

Blue Water Studio Gear List

The layout of Blue Water Studio.The layout of Blue Water Studio.
  • Akai CD3000XL sampler.
  • Boss DR660 drum machine.
  • C Audio RA3001 power amplifier.
  • Dynaudio Bimea active monitors.
  • Fostex D5 DAT recorder.
  • Iomega Zip drives (x2) and Jaz drive.
  • Korg X3 workstation and X3R rackmount synth.
  • Mackie 1604 VLZ mixer (live use only).
  • Marantz CD player.
  • Omniphonics footprint amplifier.
  • Philips CDR870 CD recorder.
  • QED stereo headphone amp.
  • Roland VS880 expanded hard disk multitrackers (x2).
  • Samson E31 graphic EQ.
  • TC Electronic Finalizer mastering processor.

Led Zeph

One of the other ways in which Back To Base have sought to raise their profile is through the collaboration with celebrated poet Benjamin Zephaniah, 'Nu Blue Suede Shoes' which appears on their latest promo CD. "Finding talented vocalists in a relatively small area, without a huge musical scene, is a problem," admits Rod. "Particularly the kind of vocalists you want for dub stuff. But when Lawrence was watching the television one night, Benjamin Zephaniah came on, and he sampled him and put it over the top of the music. And we said 'wouldn't it be great if we could get him to do it?'

"Now, I have a theory that most artists are quite open to do things. Your problem is getting to them, particularly in the music world. But through various channels, we got in touch with Benjamin, and I said 'look, we'd like to be able to put one of your poems to music'. He said 'Well, I don't really do that kind of thing and, I'm very busy' — and he is — but I kept sending him stuff. And he was appearing very recently at the Arts Theatre, and he just came on the blower and said 'I'm coming up, and I'll record with you'. And he did, and he'd written this poem just for the band! Not only is he a nice bloke, he wants to join in — you know, he looks for ways to be creative. Lawrie put the tune down, and they worked on it a bit, and it worked really well."

Local MP

Having recorded Electric Eye, the band found themselves in an all‑too‑common situation — while they faced a lack of interest from major labels, bitter experience made them reluctant to entrust their future to shoestring independent operations. They ended up, therefore, starting their own label, MP Records. "The band Lawrence had been in previously had been signed," remarks Rod, "but the bloke who signed them did nothing with them — he just signed them and left them, and actually took a year out of their lives. They said 'right, we've been signed, something's going to happen now,' but he didn't do anything. I think he was a conman. And I was determined that whatever happened we should not actually be held back in any way from going on to the next stage. So when they made this CD, we approached a few labels, and the thing was, it just seemed that anything which had the word 'reggae' associated with it, in spite of people in the press saying it was the coming thing, was the kiss of death. On the other hand, we got an immediate offer of distribution from Pinnacle. So we said, 'Well, what do we do? We keep going on', so we formed our own label."

Rod is emphatic about the importance of adequate distribution: "The problem with distribution deals is that, particularly in the late 20th century, any delay that people have between making the decision, parting with their money and getting what they want is a risk area. What we need, therefore, is mass buying by the big chains. In contrast with all other forms of what you might call art or music, the producers of pop music are at the mercy of those people who control the outlets, but you just cannot allow that to get in the way. You've got to go round it, over it, whatever."

The success of Electric Eye, and the continuing drive to raise Back To Base's nationwide profile, has recently led MP to add local dance acts TOTL and Tiny Roland to its roster of artists, as well as producing more dance‑friendly remixes of Back To Base material. "When you start a new label with a new band," says Rod, "in a sense the band's profile raises the label's profile and vice versa. At the same time, that's also why we've got involved with using other artists and so on, because it's quite obvious that in terms of prestige, the more people you have on a label, the more important you appear."

He explains why he feels putting out remixes of Back To Base material is an important factor in extending the band's appeal and increasing their coverage in the music press: "As a band, you might not be into the dance scene, but then if you take bands like Faithless, when you hear their ordinary stuff, it doesn't make you want to dance, but they have spin‑off dance versions of stuff that they do. When you look at the music magazines, they occupy such narrowly defined categories, that unless you have something they feel comfortable putting in that category, it's quite hard to work out exactly where you fit in."