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Paul Ward: Surreal To Real

Interview | Artist By Paul White
Published August 1994

Paul Ward plays a key role in the thriving Surreal To Real record company, is about to release his second solo album — and still holds down a day job. Paul White caught up with him backstage, after his impressive live performance at the recent EMMA festival, to find out how he does it.

As one third of the independent record company Surreal To Real, Paul Ward has enjoyed success both in the field of business and as a Surreal To Real recording artist in his own right. Following his stunning set at the EMMA festival in March (as mentioned in the show report in June's SOS), he is about to release his second solo album, The Fear of Make Believe. But his activities in the music field stretch back over a decade. Interested in electronic synthesis at an early age, he played keyboards in various progressive rock bands, and had his first taste of success in the mid '80s, as part of a synth duo called Quiet Point. After setting up a home studio, he dabbled in the world of commercial recording, but today he has returned to the convenience of home recording. His current 8‑track setup includes a collection of keyboards and synth modules, both old and new, driven by an Atari ST running Cubase. With more third‑party production work coming in via Surreal To Real all the time, Paul says he now spends more time producing than writing.

Equipment And Recording

To begin with, I asked Paul about his home studio, and his choice of instruments.

"I chose the Atari computer for sequencing because it is the industry standard, and Cubase is a brilliant sequencing package — although I still prefer version 2! I'm very keen to explore Cubase Audio, which looks like a dream come true — to be able to handle vocals and guitar parts in the same way as MIDI parts. Soundscape also looks interesting, and I may move from the Atari to a PC. The Ataris are OK, but with the best will in the world, they're not really professional machines. I know the PC very well because of my day job [Paul is a computer programmer], and I've already got one, so all I need now is the software and the interface.

"The Minimoog provides the classic analogue sound, and I use this most of the time for lead and bass lines, though I'll occasionally sample it if I need polyphony. I also have a Roland D50, and I find about ten percent of the sounds are fabulous. But the rest are not so good; there are some awful loops, and the sounds can be noisy. I still have a soft spot for my Roland JX8P, though I'd prefer a Jupiter 8.

"The Korg Wavestation is probably the best‑sounding instrument of recent years, and it still has the ability to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I love the fact that the sound evolves, and that I can make it sound like an analogue synth; I've created bigger analogue poly sounds from this than I have from any analogue synth. The problem is with the programming side. If I make an alteration to a patch that's used in five or six different performances, those performances are changed. Even if I have a performance saved on a card, editing a patch in the machine will, in effect, change what I have on the card. Despite its wonderful sound, I've finally lost patience with it, and I'm hoping to move onto a Kurzweil K2000, though I'm not sure exactly how that works in terms of patch arrangement. If it works in a similar way, then perhaps that's not for me either. Either way, I'm keeping all the Wavestation sounds I've developed so far on a card, so that if I come across a Wavestation SR for the right price, I can recreate my old patches."

What appeals to you about the Kurzweil K2000?

"Several things, not least that it's a good master keyboard, complete with wheels. I particularly want a good piano, and I'm knocked out by the Kurzweil piano sound. The sound quality is excellent, and I like the way the sounds are built up. And, because I've got an S1100, I can dump samples straight into the Kurzweil, without buying the sample upgrade."

Are there any new instruments that have come out over the past year or so that you think might make a valuable contribution towards your palette of sounds?

"I am intrigued by physical modelling, and it'll be quite exciting to see where that goes. I like the idea of being able to design new instruments based on, say, a 15 foot pipe with a bell at one end and a reed at the other. That would be my interest, though — creating something that doesn't exist, rather than trying to accurately emulate a saxophone or flute. Similarly, when I use a string pad, I'm not trying to be a string player, I'm just trying to create a certain musical impression."

Have you looked at the Emu Morpheus yet?

"I need a keyboard at the moment, that's the problem. I've listened to some of the factory sounds, and it's a good instrument, but it doesn't excite me in the way that the Wavestation did. When I first heard about Morpheus, I thought I'd be able to morph one sound into another, but what's really going on is that you're morphing one filter setup into another, which isn't quite the same thing. However, it does produce an evolving sound, which appeals to me, so maybe I'll take a closer look once I've got a keyboard sorted out. I need a keyboard with proper bend and mod wheels — I don't get on with the single controls fitted to my Roland keyboards.

The Korg Wavestation is probably the best‑sounding instrument of recent years, and it still has the ability to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

"The Quadrasynth seems like a very nice controller keyboard, but I didn't feel it had anything new to offer in the sounds department. The sound quality is very good, and perhaps the presets don't do the machine justice, but it didn't appear to be breaking any new ground. What excites me more at the moment are things like the add‑on MIDI‑triggered filters that various people are starting to build."

Do you find eight tape tracks is really enough for your recording needs?

"Eight tracks are adequate, but I could do with more. The Tascam 38 running with dbx is a good machine, but ultimately I might go for an ADAT, if only because it's so easy to add tracks by adding another machine.

"The monitors are Tannoy Stratfords and I'm used to the sound, though I will probably swap them for something with a better bass response when I can. I also use a pair of car speakers, and if the mix sounds reasonable on those, then it tends to sound good on anything. I master to a Tascam DA30 DAT, and though DAT machines aren't supposed to colour the sound, the DA30 seems to add something that I find appealing.

"I have a Yamaha REV7 reverb, which is getting on a bit now, but even older than that is the mono Yamaha R1000, which has just four mono presets. It's noisy, but if you feed it through a gate to get a gated drum sound, it's brilliant. I prefer to get my gated drum sounds this way, because none of the gated presets I've ever heard sound the same as real gated reverb. I don't know why — perhaps if you're using a long decay time on the reverb, you get something hanging over from the previous sound next time the gate opens.

"The Alesis Quadraverb is my concession to modern effects, and for the money, it is phenomenal. You have to be careful with the input level, as it can get a little bit noisy if that's too low, and it's easy to overload, but the sound is amazing. I wiped all the factory patches, because there's a tendency to rely on presets, and then there's the danger you'll start to sound like everyone else. I like to set up the effects in the order chorus‑echo‑reverb, or pitch shift‑echo‑reverb if I'm working on a lead sound. There are also certain ambient things I use for drums, and in these cases, I'll edit the basic presets I've created, rather than starting from scratch.

"I bought my Drawmer DS201 gates purely on reputation, but they are totally brilliant. I've even used them in situations where there's been a complete drum mix to process, and I've been able to split off certain drums using the key filters. I also use the key filters as equalisation, by selecting the key listen mode. I find this can be useful in the case of a particularly noisy track, or for taking out some bass. I wish they'd bring out a box with just eight sets of key filters in it! I still have an old Scintillator enhancer which works fine, but I'd like to check out some of the newer designs, such as the Vitalizer."

Working Methods

There's more to good recordings than just good equipment, and Paul has a few thoughts to share on the subject of recording and mixing.

"Most sounds are concentrated in a certain area of the audio spectrum, and if you can use your EQ to home in on this, you can help the sound stand out, without interfering with other sounds in the mix. You don't always need all the frequencies in a sound to be present for them to seem to be there, once the sound is heard in the context of a complete mix. You have to be fairly subtle with this kind of equalisation, but in the case of something like a hi‑hat, I'll roll off as much bass as possible. Even though you don't expect there to be any bass in a hi‑hat sound, it's surprising how many times you find low frequencies are present — from things like the pedal thump on the floor.

"I don't do long, ambient pieces, and I don't use gallons of echo and reverb. Now that I've got the Akai S1100 sampler, which has built‑in effects, I don't even have to dedicate a reverb to drums any more. If a keyboard has built‑in effects, I'll tend to use them.

"Though I can run all the sequencer stuff 'live' into the mix from the sequencer, I've always preferred to be able to commit everything to tape, because it can be really hard recreating an earlier mix; not only do you have to get the sounds and balance right, but you also have to find the same effects settings. What I used to do on occasions was to mix the sequenced tracks down onto a stereo pair of the 8‑track, and then play the live parts onto the remaining six tracks, or five if I'd kept the time code. That way, if I wasn't happy with the balance when I came to do the final mix, I could go back to running the sequencer and change things about. However, these days, I tend to leave all the desk faders at 0dB, and mix using MIDI volume commands — so recreating an earlier mix when working entirely from the sequencer isn't so much of a problem.

"I like to use some soft‑knee compression across the whole mix to add a little punch to a piece, and certainly some hard‑knee compression on individual sounds to tighten them up. This is particularly important on instruments like the MiniMoog, where there may be two oscillators making up a sound, running slightly out of phase with each other. Depending on the relative phase between them when a note is triggered, the sound can either be very strong if the waves are in phase, or it can be quite weak if they are out of phase. Applying compression goes some way towards making the sound more even. I'm currently using a Drawmer M500 Dynamics Processor, which can perform all the dynamics tricks I ever want.

"As regards drums, you can do wonderful things with samples, but when you compress a complete drum mix, I think you get a far better sound than you can achieve simply by adjusting MIDI volumes and velocities."

In our recent interview with John Dyson, he spoke of your help with sounds and production. What exactly is your role?

"Well, when I help out with John, what I mainly do is production and/or engineering. John's good at getting a very big, orchestral sound, and I think my strength lies in getting a big, produced, rock sound. I like big drum sounds and punchy bass lines — he's been saying for a while now that I must give him lessons on how to get bass sounds out of the Pro One. When I go in, I add my ha'penn'orth by setting up his bass sound, getting a good reverb sound on his drums, or whatever. Between us, we might then co‑produce Shaun D'Lear's material, or something that Anthony Thrasher is doing. That's part of the symbiotic nature of Surreal to Real.

"Sometimes, John will help me with my material, and his input tends to be more artistic. I had a track a couple of weeks ago which I thought sounded too much like somebody else, but John told me not to worry about it, and even suggested that I should increase the similarities by doing certain things with the strings and bass line. And if I want huge pad or orchestral sounds, John is the person I go to. There was one track on my last album called 'Love, Lies and Magic', where I wanted timpani and cymbals to provide a really big lift at the end of the song. John came along and provided the gen on how to do it, and the track was ten times better for it. If I'd done it on my own, it wouldn't have worked, and I was even considering dropping the track from the album before John saved it. We've all got our own strengths and weaknesses.

You're just finishing your new album; how does this differ in approach to your previous album, For a Knave?

"On this album, more than on the last, I've been careful to avoid quantising anything. I've used a real drummer, recording via MIDI drum pads, a real bass, and a real guitar, which is something I'd not done previously. I'm trying to create more of a performance feel with this album; there's a temptation to try to over‑perfect everything, and I'm trying to avoid succumbing to that temptation.

"One thing I've done on this album is to use the S1000 for loops, or even for recording guitar solos. You can record several versions of a guitar solo, pick the best, and then dump it to tape, which means you feel more inclined to experiment without the fear of messing up the recording. The same applies if I'm doing a solo on one of my non‑MIDI synths such as the Minimoog. And let's face it, even if you have a synth like that MIDI'd up, it doesn't sound the same when you're using pitch wheel and modulation. I set the sampler to start sampling on receipt of a MIDI note, so that it starts at the appropriate point in the backing track, and then I play my solo. When I replay the backing, the sequencer starts from the same place as it did when recording, and the solo starts in perfect sync. And if I find I can get a better solo by using the start of one take and the end of another, I can start glueing those things together.

"I think the musical content is a logical progression from what I've done before. But I am using simpler lines, and not trying so hard to be clever, as I think I did on the first one, where I felt I had something to prove. I'm also using simpler sounds; when I first got the Wavestation, there was a temptation to use huge bell and choir pads, but as soon as you start to put them into context, you find they don't work so well — they occupy too much of the frequency range. Now I'm using things like Mellotron string and choir samples, which sound awful if you listen to them on their own, but once they're in the mix, they sound great. My influences are still based in '70s progressive rock, and though that did get something of a bad name, I think it's making a bit of a comeback.

"The album should be out by August, and it's going to be called The Fear of Make Believe — though don't ask me what the track titles are yet!

The View From The Outside

Do you find it helps to look at a project from the outside?

"Definitely. You can always see the good and bad points in somebody else's work — you get too close to it when it's your own. You might spend two weeks writing a bass line — as far as you're concerned, a great one — and then somebody might hear it and come up with some criticism. Your instinct is to defend it, because of the effort you've put into it. My wife — or she should be my wife the time you read this — she's brilliant at that. I can spend a few nights working on something, then I play it to her and she says 'That's crap, it hasn't got a tune'. That just cuts through it all, and tells you exactly what you need to know. Sometimes John [Dyson] or Ant [Anthony Thrasher] will listen to something I've done, and tell me the middle bit's too long or something. And I'll say, 'I'm not shortening that'. But when you think about it in the cold light of day, and you can step back from it, you know that they're right..."

Surreal To Real

Paul's first CD album For a Knave was released by Surreal To Real, the company principally run by John Dyson, Anthony Thrasher, and Paul himself. The company markets albums from major instrumental artists such as Ian Boddy, Wavestar, Mike Shipway, and John Dyson, and also presents the EMMA electronic music festival — hence Paul's triumphant performance there this year. Both For a Knave and The Fear of Make Believe are available at £11.95 each from Surreal to Real, P.O Box 33, Evesham, Worcestershire WR11 6UX.