I first became aware of Phoenix J when I was asked to master some tracks she'd finished, and I really liked what I heard. When I discovered that she'd done all the engineering and production herself in a home studio based around a Roland VS1680, I thought it would be interesting to go along and find out how she worked. Phoenix was originally from Singapore and, to start with, I asked how her interest in music and songwriting had first begun.
"My mother had a rickety old upright piano at home, and although I didn't study it formally, I picked up a few tunes that my mother showed me. I stayed with my grandmother almost every day and she had this old guitar, which was thin, very small and fitted me perfectly. I used to go through these thick song books she had, which included lots of pop songs with the guitar chords, and I did some singing and playing in school before developing an interest in music technology. I was doing a Mass Communications course studying radio and TV production at the time — that would have been around 1992 — and happened to attend a Yamaha presentation where they were showing home MIDI setups, which is what got me going.
"I started out using just a Yamaha TG100 GM synth module connected to a Mac Classic running Band In A Box and Passport's Trax sequencing software. After that, I progressed to the Yamaha SY99 keyboard that I still have, and added a Mackie CR1604 mixer with an ADAT, which all became my first proper studio back in Singapore. For vocals I used a Tandy Realistic PZM mic, not fixed to a flat surface as intended, but just on a mic stand. I had to work very close to it, but it gave a very warm sound, and that was what I used to record my first album, Binary Star, which made the top 40 in the international charts in 1997.
"I had worked with an Australian producer who was using a slightly larger setup based around a pair of Mackie CR1604 mixers. He was the one who introduced me to the Realistic PZM mic, which was great because it was so cheap. When we recorded at his home studio, we used to record the vocals in his bathroom, which had very reflective tiles and gave a good live sound. The only problem was that since the mic was omnidirectional, I had to work very close to it, literally kissing it! And it's not meant to cope with constant moisture that results from such close vocal miking, so it eventually lost its clarity."
- Apple Mac G3 computer running Emagic's Logic Audio Gold MIDI + Audio sequencer.
- Boss SE50 multi-effects.
- Emu ESI4000 sampler.
- Joemeek VC3 optical compressor/preamp.
- Korg N5Ex sound module.
- Rode NT2 microphone.
- Roland VS1680 multitrack hard disk recorder.
- Sony HRM multi-effects.
- TLA Fat Man vocal channel.
- Yamaha 01V digital mixer.
- Yamaha SY99 synth.
With success already under her belt at home, Phoenix decided to move to England and try breaking the album in the West. She now works from her home studio in Ross-on-Wye, which is situated in a soundproofed wooden building at the end of the garden.
"All the recording is done using a Roland VS1680, which I really love. That's sync'ed to a Mac G3 running a fairly old version of Emagic's Logic Audio Gold to handle my MIDI sequencing. I also have a Yamaha 01V digital mixer, and all the MIDI gear used to go through the 01V, which I used to mix down to stereo tracks on the VS1680. However, now I tend to track everything directly to the Roland, which is fully expanded with four effects. I normally track everything flat and dry, unless I need more effects than the Roland can supply. I don't really use any outboard effects any more, though I have a Boss SE50 and a Sony HRM multi-effects box."
"If I need more effects, I sometimes use the two effects processors in the 01V. I was looking at some of the cheaper Lexicon reverb processors, but I use so little reverb that I haven't bought one yet. Sometimes I don't use reverb at all, just subtle delay, but it depends on the type of music you do. Trance and dance use lots of reverb, but I've been mainly writing and producing pop, dance and R&B, and usually the vocals are quite dry. I listen to a lot of CDs by other artists to find out what they do, and it certainly seems quite dry to me.
"I'm currently using a Rode NT2 mic, which works really well. I bought the NT2 after experimenting with an SM58, and although I actually used it on some recording work, it wasn't giving me the sound I wanted. I knew I really needed a condenser mic, but I couldn't afford a Neumann, so I read all the reviews, and at the time the NT2 seemed like a good choice."
Vocals are obviously the main part of Phoenix's productions, and I was interested to find out what types of processing she uses on her voice.
"I use some compression, of course, and I also use an external mic preamp, since that's one area where the VS1680 is weak — I find it lacks sensitivity and gives a somewhat thin vocal sound. Originally I used a Joemeek VC3 as a vocal preamp and processor, and managed to get some very good results from it. I later got the first version of the TLA Fat Man, and because that didn't have a mic preamp, I'd feed the VC3 through it and into the Roland. I only used the Fat Man's compressor, though, not the one on the VC3 as well, but lately I've gone back to using just the Joemeek, because if you string things together, the background noise starts to build up.
"In the first instance I record as flat as possible, as you suggest in your Recording and Production Techniques book, but then I may add a little EQ, in addition to a little reverb or delay. Also, if I'm planning to do a nice sounding demo, I'll also use the mastering processors in the VS1680 to give the whole mix a bit of a sheen. However, I've learned it's better not to do this if the mixes are going to be professionally mastered at some later stage."
As both the performer and the producer, I asked Phoenix about her approach to recording and what she feels her particular strengths were.
"My recording process is very simple — what some listeners perceive as special vocal treatments are often the result of me layering several vocal parts. My speciality is in vocal production and coming up with vocal ideas to create an effect. For example, where a producer might layer two parts to create double-tracking, I might layer four parts for a backing vocal, sometimes using three or four-part harmonies. Another technique I find useful is to process the parts slightly differently, even if they're singing the same line.
"On the last song I recorded, I used four similar parts organised as two layers, but processed each layer with a different reverb and delay treatment. I might also EQ the layers so that when they're all heard together, they sound as though they've gone through some type of filter, and I can always pan the layers to different positions as well, of course."
Since the VS1680 only offers 16 tracks, I was curious about how Phoenix managed to record so many vocal layers, but she seems to have found a good working method.
"I mix as I go along, and I've discovered a useful technique using the VS1680's virtual tracks. First I record my MIDI parts to separate tracks, using the mute or solo buttons in Logic to kill the unwanted parts, and do a rough stereo mix so that I have something to work to when I do my vocals. Next, I go to the second layer of virtual tracks and record my backing vocals, which may take up around eight to ten tracks, and I'll also do a stereo mix of them and balance the vocals against the stereo mix of MIDI sounds.
"While I try and do these stereo mixes as carefully as possible, because all the original parts still exist as virtual tracks I can go back to the MIDI sounds and rebalance them if necessary. I set all these up as different scenes in the VS1680 so I can move between them very quickly, and I'll keep building up my composition that way, knowing I can always go back and change any of the parts if there's a problem.
"I'm so used to working this way now that I usually know what's going to sound right, so there's not too much going back and remixing. The vocals are the most important thing, so I have to get those right, but I have a pretty good idea of what's going to work in the final mix when I'm balancing the stereo mixdowns. I also know the Roland pretty well now, and which mic technique to use for getting the sound I want. It sounds like a lot of work, a lot of trial and error, but it isn't really, and often the first mixes are fine."
Even though Phoenix takes a pragmatic view of studio equipment, like most SOS readers, she still has some ideas about extending her studio further. In particular, I wondered if she was interested in using the Mac for more audio-related tasks, such as editing.
"Well, I love my Roland, so I guess I'd choose a VS2480 if I was upgrading, which you can use with a monitor for more visual editing. But I'd still keep my VS1680, as it's always good to have a backup. I'd also explore the idea of using the computer for audio, and while I might go in that direction one day, I'm not sure what soundcard or audio interface to use, and I don't want to buy anything that might be detrimental to the overall sound quality. I also need to learn more about how the different audio interfaces actually sound, maybe by going around a few other studios.
"I'd like to be able to see all my audio at waveform level, and I believe there's now a Logic VS software version that will give me better integration and easier editing. I think that has to be the next thing for me to get. I know I'm just at the tip of the iceberg with all my equipment, and eventually I'd like to get into Logic and all its capabilities so I can use it in the way it's meant to be used. However, I have to be careful and prioritise how I spend my money on studio equipment."
As Phoenix is obviously interested in exploring the possibilities of computer-based recording, I asked her if she'd thought of maybe going halfway. Perhaps she could do the bulk of the audio recording on the Roland VS1680, but use Logic for those audio parts where a lot of editing is necessary?
"I already do copying and pasting in the VS1680, and before I bought it I was considering the Digi 001 so I could record my audio into Logic. But I was getting conflicting advice as to which audio interface I should use, and I need to write songs, not get bogged down in decisions over which equipment to buy. Another consideration was that I wanted a means of recording where I didn't have to rely on a computer to do everything. I've been in too many studios where the computers crash all the time.
"This one guy had about five crashes in the half-hour I was there — he had the full works installed. But, touch wood, my old version of Logic has never crashed, not once. With the VS1680, everything needed for a mix is saved there, and as I record and sing in the same room, I turn off all the unnecessary equipment in the room (including the computer) to keep background noise to a minimum when recording. I also like the idea of being able to take my Roland anywhere I go, as it's obviously very portable compared to the G3."
I asked Phoenix about the final mixing procedure, and what she'd have on the 16 tracks of a typical song.
"On the last couple of songs I've done, I kept the lead vocal separate from the stereo backing vocal, though on some previous occasions I've submixed them all together. That leaves the remaining tracks for the instrumental sounds, where the drum parts would be kept in stereo, the bass mono and the guitars sometimes stereo, but sometimes mono depending on the track. Electro-acoustic guitar parts tend to go down in stereo, and although I play some of my own guitar parts I also use sample library material or other players if that's more appropriate. The samples are further processed using effects if necessary, but not all the time. I may also use two guitar parts and split them up in the stereo field."
When I first heard the mixes Phoenix had recorded, I was immediately impressed by her arrangements and terrific voice. She leaves plenty of room for the mix to breathe, and will often bring in unusual sounds at quite a low level to add interest, but without cluttering the production.
"If there's one thing I learned over the years, both from reading and practical experience, it's to space things out so you can hear the different parts clearly. When I was at MIDEM [a record industry trade show held annually in Cannes] last January, I produced a sampler CD with snippets taken from my new 13-track album and soon realised that three of the tracks sounded too crowded. So I remixed them when I came back, redoing the vocals and spreading the guitar parts out more. I also changed the stereo width on some of the vocal parts, which makes a big difference.
"You really need to live with tracks for a while after you've mixed them, before going back and fine-tuning them. I'll play my mixes in as many places as possible, including my car CD player — it's worth the 30p it costs for a CD-R. And I'll also listen from outside the studio door, unless it's raining! Tiny computer speakers are also good, since they can show up problems I don't notice on my main Genelec speakers."
Most of the instrumental sounds for the arrangements come from Phoenix's ESI4000, including any drum loops, and over the past couple of years she's become more interested in creating her own samples, "though it can be quite tedious and time-consuming." I asked her how she goes about getting the right sounds for her songs.
"With drums, sometimes I'll layer different kick sounds to get the right effect — a trick I learnt from another producer I worked with. I've done quite a lot of drum-loop programming, but since I'd rather concentrate on my voice, I've moved over to using mainly sampled drum-loop libraries. The nice thing about good loops is that you don't have to worry about programming the nuances of a real drummer, although I'll still add percussion and other sounds over the top.
"I love the use of pizzicato strings as a percussive sound. Most of my other sounds are samples extracted with the Emu ESI4000 sampler, which I find produces a much better, more current and more realistic sound than I can get from my synths and modules. I use my other sound sources mainly for timeless, classic sounds like my signature shamisen and koto instrumentations. My Korg N5Ex does actually have quite a number of cool, well-sampled sounds."
Now that Phoenix relies more upon off-the-shelf sample libraries, I wondered if she had any favourite sources of bass and drum sounds, especially as these are central to her style of music.
"I love the sound of the double bass, but it doesn't usually come across very strongly. Sometimes I'll add sub-bass to existing bass sounds by layering, which is another trick I picked up from talking to other producers. On occasions I'll use maybe three layers of bass sounds, and I also like to use pizzicato sounds in with the bass.
"For drums, I love the Downtown samples — I wish they'd do more — and I also like Total House. Even so, I find many of the loop libraries, including the ones that come with the Emu sampler, are too heavy on the hi-hats, and there isn't enough space for the vocals or other instruments. Total House is a bit like that, so I have to figure out how to get around it, possibly by programming new loops myself, or perhaps using Logic's Hyperdraw to pull down the level of individual beats a little."
Being a fan of Groove Control-enhanced drum loops, I wondered if Phoenix had ever experimented with such sample libraries. In addition to changing the tempo of the loops, you can also edit the velocity of the MIDI data to change the balance of things like hi-hats, which could be a good way of solving this problem.
"Pretty much all the samples I have are in audio format, so I have to load them into my sampler the hard way. The Groove Control libraries do sound interesting, though I rarely change the tempo of library loops because of the loss in quality due to time-stretching."
As a relatively demanding user of mid-range hardware samplers, I asked Phoenix if she ever had problems with the limitations of polyphony or memory.
"Compared with other samplers around at the time, the ESI4000 had a good polyphony and a fair amount of memory. In fact, that was one reason for choosing it: Akais are very good, but I read the specs and the Emu had better polyphony. While I don't have a problem with the polyphony in the sampler, I did have a problem with note-stealing in my SY99 once. Suddenly my sustained strings would cut off if I had a lot of parts playing. However, this isn't an issue now I record everything to the VS1680 and each part gets played back individually.
"I don't have a Turbo card for the Emu, so I only have four outputs, two of which double as inputs. To get around this, I track parts to the Roland one stereo pair at a time by soloing tracks in Logic."
Phoenix is clearly talented, but I wondered if she found it easy to work by herself in this way, where you have to write, perform, engineer and produce everything yourself, or whether she felt limited by the lack of somebody to collaborate with.
"I have a writing partner who is very good with lyrics, but has no real musical background other than having an ear for the overall picture, so he can't really help me with the detail. But I'd love to work with a fellow musician, a dance producer or a programmer who is really good at programming drum loops, or adding some other live element to the mix. It's so important to have someone you can have a two-way dialogue with, somebody to bounce ideas off. It's pretty lonely doing everything yourself and you can spread yourself too thinly if you're not careful."
Finally, I asked Phoenix whether she felt other artists had influenced the direction of her work, and who she might be interested in collaborating with in the future.
"One of my big influences is Kate Bush. I bought her records after somebody told me I sounded a bit similar, and I've become a big fan of both her music and stage performance. While she produces her own material, she always works with somebody else, which I'm convinced is a good thing. Occasionally, when working alone, you get excited when something sounds really good and you forget to eat. On the other hand, I've tried to work with people who sit in front of the computer all the time, and then you don't get to have any input because there's only one set of controls! You need to complement each other.
"Perhaps working with a musician who needs my vocal skills would be one way to go — a programmer who needs a singer/songwriter, for example. It would also be great to work with an established producer, as I know I could learn a lot."