Name: Lee Davies
Report by: Paul Nagle
Studio Premises: Room In Family Home
Main Equipment: Yamaha TMX percussion module, Lexicon MPX1 effects, Akai S3000XL sampler and Iomega Zip drive, Behringer Ultrafex II enhancer, Alesis ADAT LX20 digital 8‑track, LA Audio GX2 noise gate, Alesis 3630 compressor, Fostex D5 DAT recorder, Korg X3 synth, Fatar Studio 900 master keyboard, Behringer MX8000A Eurodesk mixer, Pentium II 300 PC running Steinberg Cubase VST, Spirit Absolute 2 monitors.
As studio technology becomes more and more affordable, a subtle revolution has been slowly but surely gathering momentum throughout the music industry. It is now possible to produce high‑quality finished recordings in a home studio, and for many Sound On Sound readers this means that it's no longer vital to be signed by a big label if they want their music to reach people. Indeed, there are many advantages in the 'do it yourself' approach. One home studio owner just starting his career in the midst of this revolution is Lee Davies from Burnley. At just 18 years old, Lee already has the equipment, the ideas and the enthusiasm he needs.
Having started drumming lessons at the age of six, Lee has more experience than his tender years might suggest. With a few of his mates he was playing live in pubs at only 11 years of age. In Lee's own words: "Because we were so young — our voices hadn't broken — we played instrumental versions of well‑known tracks. If we were grown men doing that we'd have been slated, but as it was so novel we had loads of bookings. All the way through my school years I did that, putting the money I earned to one side. When I turned 15 I decided I wanted to do it seriously, either to be a drummer in a top band or do session work, which is equally hard."
After attending Drumtech, the renowned drum school in London, Lee was accepted for a two‑year Dip/HE in Pop Music, despite being only 16. He lived in London during that time and learned "a hell of a lot". It was there that he was introduced to Cubase and picked up some arranging skills. At the end of the course, Lee applied for some studio jobs: "A studio decided to take me on; they said they'd assess me for four weeks, unpaid, and would train me up. First thing on the Monday morning of the fifth week I was called upstairs and told they didn't want me. I was a bit upset, to say the least."
You can get lost in the technical side of the music, and I don't want any of that to ever get in the way of making a thumping track.
While sadly typical of the way young people can be used by some studios, this did at least strengthen Lee's resolve. "While I was there, I asked their main engineer about MIDI and he said 'that's beyond me'. So I thought 'right, I'll learn it myself'. After that, I answered an advert in Loot from a band who wanted a professional drummer. I had to go to a warehouse in Salford and, by coincidence, Martin Price (from 808 State) was in the room next door. We got chatting, he brought his Emu SP12 drum box in and I played along with it. We took the track into Pete Waterman's studio and it just grew. He was really helpful about explaining stuff, which was great. Many engineers spend years sussing things out and they don't want to part with their knowledge. I believe the track was released on CD and played around the clubs in Manchester."
Lee has been putting together his studio for just two years but already, helped and encouraged by his parents, he's come a long way. Along one wall are the two main keyboards, a Korg X3 workstation and a Fatar weighted master keyboard. The main rack, with its ADAT, Lexicon effects and Akai S3000 sampler, is positioned next to a Behringer Eurodesk. Sequencing is courtesy of Cubase VST running on a Pentium PC. Lee recalls his first brush with MIDI.
"When I started off it was MIDI that was the scary thing. My background was in drumming, although I had seen some of the more hi‑tech stuff because I used to have lessons with Ged Lynch — the drummer with Black Grape — from between the ages of 10 and 14. I used to go to his house and he'd have these pads set up triggering an Akai S1100. He always told me 'This is what you want to learn about, this is going to take over.' And he was right. He used to show me what could be done, setting off loops from a pad and playing over the top. I didn't really understand it fully at the time, but I guess it got me interested, and that's why I bought the TMX sound module with its inputs for pads at the back.
"When I was 15 I got the Fatar Studio 900 and the Korg X3 Workstation. I find it easier to work with the Fatar, and the keyboard action's better — plus it's great as a controller if I ever want to expand. When I first got the X3 I was well chuffed with it. When I listen to some of the sounds now they are a bit dated, but you can mess with them and in the last few months I've started to program the synth. The keyboard player I worwith, Mark Jezierski, told me that it's not all about the presets it has. If you get in there yourself you can make some cracking sounds. If you have loads of keyboards it's all there done for you, but if you have less gear you can still get what you want. It makes you think a bit harder; with more gear you get a bit lazy."
"A year after getting the X3 I got the Akai S3000. At one point the sampler was really doing my head in but I stuck with it and it's paid off. I've had it for two years but it's only in the last eight months that I've really been able to get the most out of it. I've got the Akai fully upgraded and use a Zip drive with it — although I have had problems with that. Sometimes I save my work, load it in the day after and everything's gone really slow and dropped in pitch. The first time it happened I thought it must be me, but I eventually discovered a workaround: I load in a floppy first. I discovered this by accident one day when the problem happened and I wondered if it would happen if I loaded from floppy. I did that and it was fine, and then my previous samples worked fine too. I expect some readers out there might know a better fix to this.
"Recently I've started experimenting with the filters on the sampler. I've been listening to the Prodigy, and when they build drum tracks up it sounds as though it's coming from a room next door. I thought 'how the hell do they do that?'. Then I started turning the data wheel on the sampler and realised it was a filtering trick. Now I've used the Akai, I probably wouldn't get an Emu sampler. I don't think you should really slag off any piece of kit, but you do tend to stick with what you get used to working with. I have the MESA software for on‑screen editing of S3000 samples but I haven't really used it. I know my way around the Akai already so I'm leaving well alone for now. If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Although he started with a keyboard‑based workstation, Lee now prefers to use a software sequencer to record his work. So far his experiences with his PC and Cubase have been good.
"When I used to record with the X3 it did the job fine, but it's better on the PC screen — you can see what you're doing. I don't really use Cubase's drum editor. I tend to play my drum parts in then use the key editor. If I'm programming drum tracks I use pads with the Yamaha TMX module. I rig up the pads to trigger the TMX, then send the MIDI data to the S3000 and record it that way. The odd note might slip but if I want to shift notes about I don't need to re‑record; I can use the key editor to move things around.
"I've never had any problems with Cubase since I got it set up. My PC only has 32Mb of RAM but for MIDI it works fine. I want to get a decent soundcard — the Yamaha DSP Factory or the Korg 1212 — so I can do more audio tracks. RAM's cheap, so I might put 128Mb in the PC, and then I'll have the power to run those fancy plug‑ins too. A good soundcard will mean I need more channels on the mixer so I'll probably get a little sub‑mixer to dedicate to the sampler — a Mackie or something. Once I have a decent audio card for the PC, I want to sync it up to the ADAT. At the moment I mainly use the ADAT for live stuff. If I want to incorporate some vocals into a track I take them from the ADAT, bang them into the sampler and trigger that from Cubase.
"I'm learning more about Cubase all the time. The thing I like best is that if you have an idea for a song it doesn't take more than half an hour to knock together a rough arrangement by cutting and pasting lots of little chunks. I find Cubase so easy; I haven't used any of the other major sequencing packages, though as I said before about the Akai, you tend to stay with what you use first."
Lee and his working partner have ambitious plans for where to go next: "I've been talking with Mark about setting up our own label doing dance acts. I like listening to melodic dance music. I guess this might be unusual for a drummer! The stuff I write is like house music but I really love drum programming in any style: rock, pop, hip‑hop — you name it. When it comes to dance music I push all my licks to one side. You have to think about the listener. Joe Public isn't interested in how complicated the rhythms are; put in little bits every now and again to give it a bit of class and that's all you need. If you're overdoing it all the way through that turns people off. A lot of the riffs you hear in the charts, and a lot of the music, is very simple. What they're doing is playing a simple riff and using modulation. Even though its just the same riff, you listen to it on the radio and it's catchy as hell.
"We're working at the moment with a chap called Stephen Bayliss who was on the Michael Barrymore Show about a month ago. He's a phenomenal singer and Mark thought the song was good, but just not arranged properly. We're going to have a try at re‑arranging it. We just want to get known and have people come and use our services. I've had some of our dance stuff played locally in clubs because I've pushed it myself. A DJ in a club doesn't care if he's playing a Philips CD‑R or something that came from a top studio — if it makes the people dance."
On the subject of new gear, Lee is quite restrained. Evidence, perhaps, that his focus is on the music rather than the technology?
"A patchbay wouldn't go amiss, but you can get carried away saying you need this and that. You make do with what you've got, and I'm certainly happy with what I have here. No‑one should get fazed by any 'you need this gear' bullshit. The main thing is the song. It doesn't matter whether or not you used, say, a Lexicon reverb: if it's a cracking song the man walking down the street won't care what reverb it was. Even some engineers agree. The best interview I read was the one in Sound On Sound with Mark Taylor about that Cher track [see the 'Tracks' feature on making Cher's 'Believe' in SOS February 1999]. The gear he had was basic, none of this Pro Tools stuff, and the article was really informative. Some interviews with top engineers make it sound as though you can't do anything without this or that piece of gear but I'm still finding new ideas from what I've got. You can get lost in the technical side of the music, and I don't want any of that to ever get in the way of making a thumping track."
"Just before Christmas I got the Behringer Eurodesk, the DAT recorder, the ADAT and the Lexicon MPX1. I love the MPX1 — it's brilliant. I've not really messed with the parameters yet. I tried reading the manual but it did my head in. For me, the presets do it: If I'm recording a vocal, I bang on the 'vocal plate' and it's there. Sometimes, if there's a certain drum loop that needs skip or shuffle, I put a delay on it. Being a drummer I can set the delay time by ear.
"The Behringer Ultrafex enhancer is good for fattening up the bass. It just gives more depth. I like it because it's simple: low mix, high mix, no messing. It has two channels and I tend to use the first channel for low and the second for high, which gives me full control with two auxiliaries on the desk. I apply just a bit, because if I push it, it starts to get a little noisy."
"I find the EQ on the Behringer Eurodesk phenomenal. I did play around with some others — in particular, the Mackie 8‑buss — but I can't fault the Eurodesk because it's so easy to use. When I first got it I used to panic if the red light came on but now I don't worry if it's peaking on the desk as long as it sounds good to my ears. I looked at the Yamaha 01V, the digital desk, but it's got all those pages and menus! It wasn't for me. With the Behringer, everything's there and I'm happy with that. Sometimes the more fancy gadgets you have, the further you get away from the music. You start experimenting and then when you look at the time, you realise you haven't actually recorded anything yet.
"When I'm mixing I tend to bring my hi‑fi in from the bedroom so I can hear what things sound like on that. What I will do in future is have it rigged up in here all the time, so I can switch between them. After all, most people are going to listen on their hi‑fi and not on Spirit Absolute 2s. In the past, with my previous desk, I overdid things. Tracks sounded great in here, but when I listened on a hi‑fi I thought they sometimes sounded mushy — maybe too much reverb. Now I take a break, listen to something else and come back to it. Then I can hear things better."