Sometimes it's easy to forget that home studios packed with synths and samplers aren't solely the preserve of the dance fraternity. British soul artist Ola Onabule does all his recording and the managing of his own label from his Brixton home.
Hearing a homespun dance number storming the charts barely raises an eyebrow these days. The plummeting prices of quality MIDI equipment and studio gear has broken down many of the barriers in accessing a wider audience for your music than your mum and Larry your long‑suffering goldfish. But that's dance music. Meanwhile, most other genres remain the preserve of 'real' studios and real flesh‑and‑blood musicians. By necessity, Ola Onabule has gone about trying to emulate the major studio sound, the feel of musicians jamming in a studio and the polish of a professional mastering room — all in the comfort of his Brixton‑based maisonette. His first album, More Soul Than Sense, did just that and enjoyed considerable commercial and critical success, selling close to 6000 copies, while the single 'You'd Better Believe' was playlisted on Jazz and Kiss FM. This year sees the release of Ola's second release, From Meaning, Beyond Definition, on his own Rugged Ram label.
Ola explains his working ethos particularly eloquently: "There's enough music made from the A&R man's point of view, or from the accountant's point of view. There's a legitimate space that should be reserved for music that sounds the way the artist intended it to sound. I'm doing my best to defend that space."
This DIY approach may have made for some hard work, but it has afforded Ola the sort of creative freedom he wasn't enjoying during a tenure at Warner Bros' Elektra Records.
"In 1991 I got signed to Warner Brothers but it all fell apart about a year later. I had one notion of how soul music was supposed to sound, they had another — and they weren't compatible. So when that relationship ended I spent a year or so looking around for another deal and found myself in so many situations where people began saying the same kind of things that I heard at the beginning of the last relationship. I read the warning signs and I knew my future wasn't going to be with a major record label."
There's a legitimate space that should be reserved for music that sounds the way the artist intended it to sound. I'm doing my best to defend that space.
So what is wrong with the soul and R&B scene in the UK that we can't give our artists some freedom to express themselves?
"Soul music is in a weird place in Britain at the moment. A lot of people think it's doing well because they see the likes of Mark Morrison or Damage, but really they're pop acts, they're not R&B soul acts. Soul music is defined by its practitioners, like Earth Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder and Take 6. As a style it is lost amongst the blues, gospel and jazz end of black music. This is different from black people singing pop, which I think is what a lot of people, including record people in Britain and Europe, think of as soul music.
"For now, most of the soul acts I know and identify with in the UK are running their own labels. Sure, there are parallels between the space that I occupy and that people in the underground dance scene occupy; it's born out of the same need to produce music in the absence of any other assistance — it's the spirit of getting on with it."
Quiet And Studious
Ola has taken the design and layout of his studio very seriously. Most people pick their house because of the suburb, because of the stonking conservatory, because junior can go over the road to The Ridings school for the best in education... Ola needed his real estate to be above a shop. Finding the right property solved some of the studio's volume constraints, but Ola didn't stop there: windows have been double‑glazed, a second ceiling has been installed and rockwool stuffed into the recess, the false ceiling has been treated with acoustic tiles, while rugs and a sofa finish off the sound treatment.
I think the world is becoming a 'get on and do it yourself world', and as far as I'm concerned, having your own studio is the first step.
"I have to suppress any worries about my recordings not being able to effectively compete with the major studios. I have to make the best with what I've got, and be all the more careful about keeping noise levels low. Noise is probably the most important concern, since there's a lot of vocal stacking, a lot of live mic work. As you can hear, we're on the main road out of Brixton, with all the traffic and the buses going by. I have to make sure that I record in the dead of the night. I pile things up against the window, and use various other techniques here and there, so I get as close as I can to that quality studio sound.
"The characteristics of the room are now pretty good. I was a bit worried when I was putting the room together because I knew I couldn't afford the best treatments around, but the advice I got was that once you put all your gear in here, and you've got bookshelves up, your CDs and records, and your sofa, all of those things will do what a bass trap and expensive treatments would do."
If you take a look at one of Ola's CD releases you'll notice from the credits that the DIY approach carries on all the way to the point of mixdown. Virtually all the instrumentation and production is done solo in his long hours spent in the studio.
"I'm musically literate and I can play enough drums, guitar and keyboards to put most of the record together, but the technology allows you to get away with so much. For instance, at the times where I haven't the proficiency to play at the correct speed, I can often slow the sequencer down and take my time. But whenever I find myself confronted by something I can't do, I know, thanks to my session work, that I can contact some of the best musicians in London. They're always very understanding, they're always willing to come and lay a track down for much less than they would if they were doing a session for a major."
Mixing With The Right Crowd
It's at the mixdown stage that Ola finally relinquishes command. Not to say that his half‑inch tapes are sent out of house to be mixed — oh no. Ola brings in a freelance engineer to mix for him.
"When I was going to mix the first album, I spoke to a number of engineers. One guy came in, looked at my effects units and mumbled, 'I never work with anything less than a Lexicon 350L', made another disparaging comment about the speakers and left in a huff. 'How on earth could I be expected to soil my hands on such budget gear?', that sort of thing. Then Tufty [Mark Evans, who has engineered for Jennifer Rush, Elton John and Let Loose, amongst other notables] came along, and by this time I was a bit nervous, I started to get an inferiority complex. But he was completely OK, he walked into the room and seemed more impressed than anything else. Knowing his reputation, I was pretty relieved."
Martin Rex (responsible for mixing The Shamen's 'Ebenezer Goode', amongst other hits) mixed Ola's most recent CD. I asked what sort of preparations Ola made for his arrival.
"I just zero'd the desk before he came in and left him to it. Because I work almost entirely alone, when it comes to the mix I'm just relieved to leave it to someone else. I trust what he does, he really understands the idiom. But the words Martin bandied around a lot were 'less gear, more talent'. By the end of the first few sessions together, I was really locked into the idea that it's how you use what you've got. If you've got the most expensive gear in the world and it's just sitting there looking at you, and you're not finding out what it can do creatively for you, then it's a waste of money."
Obsess Is More
Ola loves his studio and his gear with a passion, and it's obvious that everything in it is lovingly tended.
"I think the first thing I bought was a Kawai R100 drum machine. It only had about 12 sounds, and they all went 'klunk'. The kick would go klunk, the snare would go klunk, but I still thought it was the definition of sex itself at the time. Ever since then I've just been putting all my money into gear.
"I run Notator on the Atari. Just about everybody I know has moved onto either a Mac or PC‑based system, and the pressure is on me to change, but I know this system so well. Once or twice the monitor has conked out and has gone out for repairs, but I can still do some rudimentary work without the monitor. I know all the key commands and I can just guess what it will be doing at any one time. I'm very wary about changing this system.
"The [Korg] Wavestation is my master keyboard. Up until a very short time ago it was a Roland D70, but I sold it because I was desperate for that monophonic beast over there [pointing at the Waldorf Pulse], which has fulfilled my dreams and made my life complete [said with a worrying lack of a tongue in his cheek!]. Ever since it's come into my life I've been a very happy man. It's just a beautiful sounding monophonic synth. I've worked with other monophonic synths, but I have to say that even the Minimoog has moved to second place in the list of monophonic synths in my estimation. It's just all there, and MIDI‑wise it just so sexy, everything sends out a controller message.
"The [Roland] MKS20 is my synth for keyboard sounds. It's not known for a good acoustic piano, but its organ sounds and its Rhodes pianos are very pleasing. The MKS20 is a keyboard player's passion, almost all keyboard players get all moist when they start to talk about the MKS20.
"This is my workhorse multi‑effects unit, the [Digitech] Studio 400. It's great, I just stick a sound through there and tweak until I'm satisfied. I think it was a Sound On Sound review that spoke very highly of it, the reviewer said 'If you're thinking of buying a Lexicon, why not get two of these, you won't regret it'. I haven't.
"My desk is an Allen & Heath Spectrum. It's not brilliant but it's got loads of channels, MIDI muting and it does the job. It's a little bit noisy and is also prone to exacerbate any earthing problems. I haven't got any earth problems at the moment, but when I get a new piece of gear it's a bit of a tricky period. I iron out noise through trial and error, really. I found that I couldn't have both earths out or in on the two [Akai] S1000s — one of them had to be earthed and the other unearthed. The same principle seems to apply to the two [Alesis] Quadraverbs. It's an on‑going battle.
"Of my processors, my pride and joy is the Audio + Design compressor which I picked up fairly cheaply from Tony Larking Audio. I was going to splash out on a valve compressor but didn't have the money, and an engineer friend suggested that I should take a look at this. Everyone who has come here to work has fallen in love with it.
"The Tascam 16‑track reel‑to‑reel I can heartily recommend, especially now that I've seen quite a few of these in classified ad pages. They're going for about £1500. They really do the job, especially for someone such as myself who really likes to stack vocals. Even if I went for the hard disk recording option I'd do it in addition to what I've already got. I like the look of the Akai DR8 or DR16."
Someone who's made such a success of his musical life so far might be expected to have some useful advice for other fellow musicians. Any parting words for those who want to strike out on their own?
"Musicians can get too dependent; it's like they need a manager to wipe their nose. I find that in any given situation, if I hang around too long without anything happening I'll do it myself. If I had a song that needed a brass band recorded, I wouldn't worry about whether or not I could record a brass band in this room or not. I think I'm more likely to just book them and find ways around it. Financially, our Rugged Ram label breaks even and makes enough profit to keep our interest, but ultimately it's about not hanging around waiting to get signed, or about being signed and making some very heavy compromises. Getting the music done now with more or less no artistic compromises is very satisfying, and I've got the technology to thank for that. It would be fantastic to be given a blank cheque, but in the absence of that cheque what I'm doing now is very satisfying.
"I'd say that even if you are going to get a major‑label deal, the first thing to do on your way to world domination is to set yourself up in a studio with the intention of releasing stuff yourself. What you'll learn will be invaluable: how to work the equipment, how to arrange your songs, things like that. As a result of my work here in my studio I've gone on to write music for film, do jingles, produce other singers — all because I do a lot of work myself. Also, when you release records yourself you find out about distribution companies, manufacturing, and how much it all costs. I think the world is becoming a 'get on and do it yourself world', and as far as I'm concerned, having your own studio is the first step."
One of the outstanding features of Ola's sound is the lead vocals and the rich layering of the backing vocals. Once again Ola is himself responsible, demonstrating the tonal versatility of his voice and the ingenuity of his recording techniques.
"My lead vocal is recorded straight to tape using the Beyer MC740. I route the signal through the TLA valve EQ as the mic preamp, adding compression at 2:1 with my Drawmer gate. I'm really partial to heavily stacked backing vocals, especially on the acapella tracks. I get the dense sound by tracking each harmony three to five times on my Tascam multitrack, using the pitch variation knob to add a bit more harmonic interest. Sometimes I'll add more harmonies by sub‑mixing the first 15 vocal tracks and sampling them off to a stereo pair, freeing up the tape so I can track up the remaining harmonies.
Finally, I mix all the tracks to a stereo pair, sample them off and pass them through a pitch‑shifter set to detune between +2 and ‑2 cents at the mixdown stage."
Some EQs Are More Equal Than Others
"The TL Audio EQ is terrific. I'm into EQ in a big way; I like the flexibility that it offers. This one goes across the entire mix, along with the compressor. But I also use it to doctor specific sounds, not in a correctional way, but creatively. I hardly ever touch the desk's EQ. When I'm working on a tune I'll use its EQ almost as a sketch‑pad EQ. So, for instance, when I'm working and find a kick I like but it hasn't got enough of what I want, I'll get an approximation using the desk's EQ, and doctor it later with the TLA parametrics when it comes to committing it to tape.
"Good EQ is certainly a staple on the signal‑processing side of recording; it's up there with a good compressor in importance.This stuff is getting cheaper as well. I got my TL Audio EQ for £500 and I know it's dropped in price since then [you should be able to pick one up for around £350 — Ed]. I only found out about the quality differences between EQs in the last couple of years. I used to have some cheap parametrics, but the difference between good EQ and crap EQ is phenomenal, and good parametric EQ is truly a creative tool, while bad EQ is a liability."
"When I've got a day of recording horns I'll clear more space in the studio. I'll have trumpet, trombone, alto and tenor sax in for the session and have two mics between them. I've got an AKG C3000 and a Beyer MC740. The Beyer's top end is brighter than the AKG, while the AKG's mid is more pronounced, so I'll tend to use the AKG on the trombone and tenor, leaving the Beyer for the trumpet and alto sax. It's not the best sound in the world in here, but it's not too bad either. I listen a lot to my Earth, Wind & Fire recordings and the brass section on those, and I still haven't quite got the sort of sound they have. I don't know what it would take, I've been told it's down to the size of room. Size does matter apparently".
- Akai S1000 sampler
- Akai S1000PB playback sampler
- AKG C3000 condenser mic
- Alesis Quadraverb multi‑effects (x2)
- Allen & Heath Spectrum console
- Audio & Design compressor
- BBE 462 Sonic Maximizer
- Behringer Multifex
- Beyerdynamic MC740 condenser mic
- BSS DPR902 dynamic equaliser
- Digitech Studio 400 multi‑effects
- Drawmer gate
- Drawmer compressor
- Korg Wavestation synth
- Lexicon PCM70 reverb unit
- Pioneer 4‑speed CD‑ROM drive
- Roland JV1080 synth module
- Roland MKS20 digital piano
- Roland MKS70 analogue module with PG800 programmer
- Roland Octapad 2 MIDI drum pads
- Symetrix 528E Voice Processor
- Tascam DA20 DAT machine
- Tascam MSR16 multitrack
- TL Audio 2011 parametric EQ
- Waldorf Pulse monosynth
- Yamaha DX7 synth
- Yamaha NS10M nearfield monitors
- Yamaha SPX900 multi‑effects