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MARTIN BUSHELL: Mixing In A Basement

Readerzone By Tom Flint
Published December 1999

MARTIN BUSHELL: Mixing In A Basement

Name: Martin Bushell
Studio Premises: Home Basement Studio
Report by: Tom Flint
Main Equipment: Studiomaster Mixdown Gold mixer, Roland VS1680 V‑xpanded, Atari STE running Cubase v2.0, Pentium I 233MMX running Steinberg Wavelab and Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro, Yamaha AN1x synth, Yamaha NS10 monitors, Akai S1000 sampler, Line 6 Flextone DSP guitar amp, AKG 414 microphone.

Whilst showing me an accurately crafted clay head he's recently made and a meticulously drawn storyboard for an animated cartoon, musician Martin Bushell half jokes that he really wants to be a sculptor. A rubberised moulded face, designed by Martin to look like a generic politician, is one of the many other curiosities in the studio. It's called Punch Head, and thanks to a hidden piezo pickup plugged into a Casio FZ1 sampler, the harder you punch it, the more it screams. Punch Head almost won Martin a manufacturing deal with an American toy company, who had planned Bill Clinton and Bob Dole Punch Heads to sell during the last US presidential election. Another piezo, strapped to a house brick, doubles as a home‑made bass‑drum pedal for his Roland Octapad. "It's just a house brick and a transducer. I opened up a Simmons drum pad and found one of those little 30p Maplin piezo things, so I made a bass drum pedal out of it," explains Martin enthusiastically.

Martin is clearly a creative person, and his basement studio under his home in Plaistow, East London, is a fine mix of convention and invention. Of course, the great thing about a home studio is that it reflects the personality of its owner, custom‑built to suit their tastes, preferences and peculiar ways of doing things — and Martin's setup is pure Martin. "Doing this, you are isolated and insulated. I don't have much contact with other people doing the same thing, so I don't know what's normal or if what I'm doing is unusual," he admits.

Can You Dig It?

Somewhere in here are Martin's Studiomaster desk and Roland VS1680 multitrack recorder..Somewhere in here are Martin's Studiomaster desk and Roland VS1680 multitrack recorder..

Martin's previous bedroom studio proved to be inconvenient for accommodating visiting musicians, who had to trail through the house to attend recording sessions. In his search for a new home, Martin specifically requested that his estate agent find him one with a cellar so he could take his music underground. Eventually Martin found his house, but the basement simply wasn't deep enough to work in. Some major excavation needed doing straight away: "I had a builder start the job for £1500. Then he said he'd have to underpin my walls to dig it as deep as I wanted it, which was going to cost £50 a foot. It's 28 feet long and 18 feet wide, so I chucked him out!"

With no builder to do the work, some substantial DIY was needed. "There was a sort of rough conglomerate here already, so me and my chums brought a massive drill down and dug it out," explains Martin. "It took about two months to dig and we filled three skips full with gravel. It was a lot of slog carrying the gravel up those stairs! A friend of mine happened to work for a company who supply fabric for flyovers, so we brought the metalwork down here and did the underpinning ourselves."

Three years on, the studio is well‑established in one half of the basement, and is ideal for Martin's needs. "It's supposed to be for me to write in, for my own personal projects. I play in a covers band at the weekends which earns its keep, along with music for TV which I'm getting more and more of. I also have a lot of DJs working down here.

"It was my brother who got me into music. He said 'I've got an brilliant idea for making lots of money and getting lots of birds — form a band!' So he asked for a guitar for Christmas, but he also wanted a stereo, so he talked mum and dad into getting the guitar for me so he could still get his hi‑fi. He played the guitar for about 10 minutes and then gave up. I carried on playing."

Martin still considers the guitar his main instrument (a view illustrated by his fine collection of acoustics, electrics and basses), and often favours his Casio PG300 MIDI guitar over the keyboard as a tool for sequencing. "It's a MIDI guitar with built‑in synth, same as the Casio VZ10. I'm not a great keyboard player, so if I've got an idea that's got to go down quickly I'll plug that in to get it into Cubase and use that scratch version, and start tarting it up on there. When you're playing you get spurious notes — as you take your finger off the string you'll get a flat note, and you get a lot more notes appearing on the screen than you hear, so I either use the take I've done with that and start doing editing, or try to work it out on the keyboard."

He originally began buying recording equipment to help create his own demo tapes. "I originally bought the Tascam Porta 01 to record guitar music, but started buying keyboards to try and get decent sounds on the demos; the keyboard was a necessary evil. I bought an Atari when they first came out and Steinberg's Pro 24 sequencer. After that I got a Casio FZ1 sampler, a Roland TR505 and JX3P. I used to stick a old mic in an upside‑down cymbal for reverb! Soon people started coming to me to record their stuff on the Portastudio."

Martin admits that once he was bitten by the recording bug, he soon found that his commitment to his day job began to dwindle. "I didn't like doing a proper day job, and the music was starting to pay its way. I was working during the day and doing all this in the evening. Then I began taking more and more time off work. I'd slip off in the afternoons and solder up the loom for this desk. Eventually I went sick until they paid me voluntary redundancy! I used that money for a Fostex R8, a DAT recorder, an Akai S1000 and Studiomaster desk. It all seemed necessary to get a better and better demo."

Since then, Martin has continued developing his setup, acquiring more equipment, yet still keeping his old stuff. "I keep these gadgets because they're worth tuppence when you sell them. I've sold bits before: a Sequential Pro One, my Fostex R8 and Roland SH101, and I've got through quite a few drum machines, but most of them are now just paperweights! I've got a Mackie 16‑channel mixer that's slipped down the back behind my VS1680, and a Boss TR660 drum machine that's slipped down the back there as well. It's still plugged in — you can sometimes hear it breaking through on a channel of the desk. It reminds me I've still got it! There's something wrong with my Oberheim Matrix 1000 — every sixth note doesn't play — and the Drawmer LX20 compressor has now packed up; the lights don't come on any more!"

The Essential Collection

Martin's outboard rack: from top, Dbx 286a mic channel, XRI XR400 MIDI patchbay, Zoom 1202 multi‑effects, BBE 362NR Sonic Maximiser, Korg SDD2000 digital delay, Alesis Midiverb II multi‑effects, JHS delay unit, Drawmer LX20 compressor, ART Multiverb multi‑effects, Alesis graphic EQ, Frontline X8 stereo mixer, and (bottom) Marantz cassette recorder.Martin's outboard rack: from top, Dbx 286a mic channel, XRI XR400 MIDI patchbay, Zoom 1202 multi‑effects, BBE 362NR Sonic Maximiser, Korg SDD2000 digital delay, Alesis Midiverb II multi‑effects, JHS delay unit, Drawmer LX20 compressor, ART Multiverb multi‑effects, Alesis graphic EQ, Frontline X8 stereo mixer, and (bottom) Marantz cassette recorder.

At the heart of Martin's current studio proper is his Studiomaster Mixdown Gold desk. Recording duties are handled by a Roland VS1680 which has been expanded with two VS8F2 effects boards, making much of Martin's racked outboard redundant. "I use the VS1680 onboard compressor for DI bass and guitar and occasionally drums."

Martin's Line 6 Flextone DSP modelling guitar amp also sees a lot of use: "I record bass through the Line 6 so it's got a little bit of dirt on it and then compress it in the 1680. Guitar is also mostly DI'd with the Line 6. Sometimes I'll mike up the Line 6 with the AKG." Prior to the purchase of the 1680, Martin had been running Cubase VST/24 v3.6 on his Pentium 1 233MMX PC, and had even dabbled with a version of Emagic Logic Audio Platinum, but both packages gave unsatisfactory results. Martin describes the problems. "I bought a PC to get Cubase working but it crashed. All aspects of audio went out of sync, and never at regular time delays that could be rectified with millisecond offsets. I did try to use MIDI only, but the tempo of Cubase slowed down when I tried to master onto Cool Edit Pro. I spent more time fiddling with the computer than making music. Three other people I know bought PCs and have not been able to get their program to work. It's a bit of a bugbear this Cubase on a PC — does anyone get it to work?

"There's something to be said for buying your computer from a music shop, which I didn't do. They knew nothing about music software so there's no support but I think the truth should be told, it gets in the way of doing music. I tried Logic Audio, but that didn't do something I wanted it to do. If I'm doing a drum fill in Cubase, I can instantly shift the MIDI notes and assign them to different drums. I tried that on Logic Audio and it didn't do it! Also the instructions that came with Logic were too much for my patience. I went back and persevered with Cubase on the PC for another couple of months. Eventually I bought the Roland VS1680 for recording and another Atari to do the sequencing. Now I don't use Cubase on the PC at all."

Despite these problems, Martin still uses his PC for audio editing using Syntrillium's Cool Edit Pro, and for additional effect processing using Steinberg Wavelab. "I use Wavelab so that I can use the DirectX and VST plug‑in effects and processors, as Cool Edit doesn't support DirectX. If I was using Cubase as an audio recording system I could use effects on separate tracks like enhancing and EQing vocals for instance, but the only thing I master on to the computer is the stereo mix, which will not suffer much reverb but does improve with compression and enhancement. I also use Cool Edit if it's a difficult mix; I'll do it section‑by‑section, verse, chorus, and then once it's all done I'll join it all back together. I don't use the VS1680 automix because it's too fiddly to change if mistakes are made. If there's a bit of mains hum at the beginning of a recording, I go into Cool Edit, record a profile of the noise for two or three seconds and use it as a template to remove that particular type of noise from the song. There's a terrible recording round here of a mate's band in a working mens' club with loads of ambient noise. I took that noise as a profile, just as an experiment, and it made it sound like it was in a room this size but gave it a weird acid trippy kind of sound at the same time."

The PC is also used for burning Martin's various projects to CD, using Adaptec Easy CD Creator. Elsewhere in the studio is an aging Akai S1000 sampler which Martin considers his most useful studio tool. "I've got effects and memory expansion boards for it. The CD‑ROM drive is slow, so I keep sounds on the Zip drive as it loads up quicker. I use a lot of CD‑ROMs but the ones I use most are the official Akai ones. I spend loads of time on the drums trying to get them to sound like a real drummer. You normally get two hi‑hats, an open one and a closed one, but when you try to do a real drummer there are loads of inbetween ones. When drummers come up to a build they get excited, their foot gets loose on the hi‑hat pedal and it starts to open a bit. so I get an open hi‑hat and then shorten the decay with the Akai's ADSR envelope so there's a graduation of decay. I then spread them around the keyboard. I've experimented with silly things like playing the kick back through a practice amp, sticking a snare drum in front of it and miking up the springs on the snare so when a tom or bass is playing it makes it rattle like a real kit. I've also played a practice amp into this room and miked up the room ambience to bring a coherence back to the drums. A little bit of room ambience makes the stereo field wider."

Speaking Of Sound

Martin still sees the guitar as his main instrument...Martin still sees the guitar as his main instrument...

The studio's monitoring arrangement is somewhat unconventional, with Martin favouring the 'all turned on at once' approach. "The NS10s don't have enough bottom end, the JBLs (TLX 9) have got no mid so the NS10s fill that out, and I had nowhere else to put the Amstrads so I plugged them in. They're just off a home stereo. There's no real method to that pile, I think the most important thing is to know what your speakers are supposed to sound like. I stick CDs on of stuff I like before I mix and do A/B tests. Even if your speakers are too mid, coloured or knackered, if you know it you can deal with it. I put one stack in the corner because I get a ringing in one ear so if I've got a DJ working there, I have that stack turned up loud and the other one turned down. DJs always want it cranked up."

On the top of Martin's Christmas list is a new Rode NT2 valve mic to replace his AKG 414. "I bought it second‑hand and it's been knocked around. I had a feeling that it's not quite right because it sounded a bit dull." For recording vocals, Martin has been creative with his limited space, building a small vocal booth under the basement stairs. The vocal corner has thickly carpeted walls for sound insulation and a red 'submarine light' to provide the right atmosphere for vocalists.

Martin's most recent ventures have been scoring music for a variety of television programs including documentaries about guns (Gun Law currently showing on Sky) and aeroplanes, a Dutch gameshow and a children's animated cartoon. "I'd like to do some more TV work but I'm just trying to get my foot in the door at the moment. I'm recording a demo CD of TV snippets to send out and I bought a directory with about 500 independent TV company addresses. I'm treating it like getting a deal for a band."

Surprisingly, Martin doesn't use any sync‑to‑picture, preferring to sync the music and video by hand. "It works and can be quite accurate. If the tempo is 120bpm two bars before it's started, I know I can hit start after four seconds and that's two bars so it will come in on time. I don't want the whole issue to be clouded by equipment, if I get something that synchronises video then I've got more nightmares ahead of me. If I just keep it simple, just doing this title music, I'll be happy."

Pragmatic Practice

Two of Martin's most important recording tools are his Marantz C205 cassette recorder and his home answerphone. Martin explains. "That Marantz cassette player has a mic built in. Someone gave it to my dad years ago. If you get a good idea, it's quicker just to turn that on and record straight into the mic rather than turn everything on and load all the programs. When I'm out in the car I'll take a recording of a backing track and drive round the M25 singing along to it at the top of my voice. The best things come to you in the car so I'll often use my mobile to call my home answerphone and sing a melody down the phone. Unless you take a dictaphone with you, you forget these things."

Martin's Guitars

  • Tanglewood acoustic.
  • Fender acoustic.
  • Squire Strat.
  • Casio PG300.
  • Gibson Flying V.
  • Epiphone Sheraton.
  • Marlin Jasmin.
  • Jackson Dinky standard.
  • Danelectro U2.
  • Framus Bass.
  • Squire Precision Bass.