Many Sound On Sound readers will be more than familiar with the classic 'bedroom studio' scenario, in which the unrelated activities of sleeping and recording share the same space. The well‑equipped home recording studio of SOS reader Raj Dhamu is one such bedroom setup.
The studio, or bedroom, has the commendable quality of appearing spacious and uncluttered even though it's jammed with gear. Opposite Raj's bed is his large Mackie 32:8:2 analogue mixing desk, flanked by a pair of Yamaha NS10M monitors. A rack placed in the corner of the room contains the studio's main recording and processing devices, including an Alesis ADAT 8‑track recorder, while another rack at the end of the bed contains Raj's most recently acquired gear, most of which is still to be used on a recording. The rest of the room is occupied by stacks of assorted DAT machines, processors and record decks, as well as Raj's bedroom furniture.
Raj currently earns his living as a locum pharmacist, working four days a week on short‑term contracts in his home town of Leamington Spa and in other areas of the country. Music is still a part‑time activity for Raj but it is an interest he has pursued since the early '80s. Right from the start, Raj and his older brother Jaswinder have gigged and recorded together, most recently under the band name Guruver. At the time of our interview, Raj had just completed a 10‑track self‑recorded and produced Guruver album which the pair have released on their own Singh Song Records label.
"Singh Song is linked to my brother's book distribution company, so we have the business side all set up", explains Raj. "We have also gone along the Internet route by developing our web site [www.guruver.com — Ed] and we have tried peoplesound as another way of promoting ourselves. I checked out the contract with one of the lawyers at the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters, because I wanted to make sure that we wouldn't be tied into the deal. BACS said it was okay but we wouldn't make any money from it. That's not a problem, as we're using it mainly for networking anyway."
After many years of trying to break into the music industry with the aid of management and record company contracts, Raj and Jaswinder seem to be confident that the DIY approach to recording and promoting their work is a better way forward. In fact, the DIY approach is not uncharacteristic of Raj's attitude to music in general: he taught himself to both play and record. "There was a guitar lying about the house that belonged to my brother, so when I was about 15 years old I picked it up and began to learn", expIains Raj. "I gave myself about half an hour a day and I got hooked on it very quickly. I soon started writing songs and jamming with my brother. Then, as a birthday present, I got a day's booking in a local studio. We did our first demo there, recording the first three decent songs I wrote, and then we plugged the result to the local radio stations. We just used a Roland TR606 drum machine, live bass and live guitar. It was a simple, clean sound and that was quite effective, because it got us some record company interest — we even had meetings with EMI and RCA."
Raj and Jaswinder had originally wanted to find a real drummer and bassist to help perform their guitar‑orientated rock, but their efforts to find the required musicians initially proved unsuccessful. "It was difficult to get people to believe we were playing that kind of music", admits Raj. "We put adverts in local music stores, but got a very negative reaction. I needed some sort of backing so I saved some money and got a drum machine. We thought we would could program it for ourselves at least for that demo, and then later we could play people the product and say 'that's the kind of music we do'. That did work because later on we got people helping us out."
Having used the Roland TR606 and later a TR707 instead of a drummer, Raj began to realise the possibilities technology offered for music composition and recording. Building a home studio was the next logical step. "I started off on a Tascam Porta 01 4‑track, which was excellent for learning how to layer tracks. After that I bought a Fostex M80 reel‑to‑reel, a Seck 12:2 desk, a Drawmer LX20 and a lo‑fi Digitech delay which I don't use much now. I got that setup to make demos to send out to publishing companies. I also wanted to teach myself the recording side of things. At that time the equipment was still pretty expensive; the whole setup cost over £2500. Eventually my brother and I realised we had gone as far as we could go with it, so we thought we'd get something of better quality — that's when we bought the Mackie and Alesis ADAT setup."
Raj's other purchases for the new studio were a Roland JV880 sound module and a Yamaha RM50 drum module. "The RM50 has six mono outputs which you can process individually, plus two stereo outputs, and the JV880 has two stereo pairs", says Raj. "Both units are 16‑part multitimbral and that's enough for the kind of music we're playing at the moment."
Still surviving the various studio upgrades is a Roland Juno 106 which Raj bought new in the mid 1980s. "I didn't know much about synthesizers, so I read recording and music technology magazines to find out what was good. I've been quite happy using it just as a master keyboard to drive my sound modules. If I ever want to use the in‑built sounds, I can. For most of my analoguestyle sounds I use an Akai SG01V module."
Raj's only studio computer is an ageing Toshiba T2100 486DX2 laptop, but so far he has avoided hard‑disk recording and only uses the computer for minimal sequencing work. "I have thought that perhaps I should scrap all of this and go completely into the computer side, but I've been brought up on traditional tape‑based recording with overdubbing and all that", admits Raj. "I sequence in Cubase 2.8 and I only ever use the Arrange page. The arrangements are very simple; basically drums, bass and a few little frills here and there. If I'm going to be playing live I will put my Cubase sequences onto floppy as Standard MIDI files and then transfer them into my Yamaha QY700, which I bought specifically for live use. It's got great timing and is rock solid. I do prefer things in nice hardware boxes, and I feel safer taking that kind of gear out live. The QY will then run the RM50 for drums, and the JV880 for synth sounds."
After many years of recording his own material with a familiar range of equipment, Raj has developed a fairly consistent method of composing and recording. "I write songs by recording guitar onto a cheap cassette deck with a built‑in mic. After that I'll put a loop into Cubase and use a pad on the keyboard to get the key and the basic structure of the arrangement right. Once I've got an arrangement I'm happy with, I'm ready to start putting on everything else, so I get the sequencer synced up to the Alesis ADAT.
"My first ADAT track will be a guide guitar. I sometimes DI my guide guitar, but otherwise I use a proper mic'd up sound and try to play everything tight, just in case I do want to use that part later. Then I put the bass down, followed by a guide vocal. If I'm happy with everything I'll finish my lyrics and do a complete lead vocal. Next are the backing vocals, and finally the other bits, such as lead guitar, the breaks and the drumming.
"I've only got seven recording tracks on the ADAT, because I use one for striping the timecode, so I do bounce tracks together, but I find that compared to my old Tascam 4‑track, where I had to keep bouncing forever to get a full sound, I now have plenty of space. My vocals aren't as strong as I'd like, so I double‑track them to get a harder sound. I usually bounce guitars, but I leave bass on its own.
"I try to get my sound right at source. I record everything flat and dry without any effects, although I do use a touch of compression and gating from my Drawmer MX20 to get rid of as much noise as possible. I've got a back bedroom with double glazing in a detached house, so that eliminates a lot of noise straight away, but I do make sure the leads aren't crackling, I minimise the amp noise as much as possible, I make sure that I haven't left any unused channels open, and I use the gates. When I'm recording I also try to get the gain structure right. I do all of that very carefully before each take. Some people like some noise, but I try to make it as clean as I can.
Most of Raj's guitar work is done using the Yamaha SF1000 electric guitar which he bought for his very first demo. "It looks more expensive than it was, but it plays really well. It's got a booster button, which I haven't seen on many guitars, that gives the same effect as having a volume pedal, so it's good for lead breaks. The Fender Stratocaster I like for the singlecoil sound.
"I use a Shure SM58 for miking up the Park 15W amp and my 100W Fender combo. I got the Park because I find you always get a better sound from smaller combos, although the Fender still gives a decent sound. I usually set my amps up in different places, such as the hallway or one of the bedrooms. I usually put the amp on a stand or chair and then close‑mic straight into the centre of the cone, which is where I get the best sound, although sometimes I mic it from the back for a slightly different tone."
"My main vocal mic is the Audio Technica ATM4033A condenser. It works quite nicely for my voice and has a nice clean sound which is slightly flattering and probably makes my voice sound a little better than it really is. That goes straight into the desk. Another decent mic I got for a good price was the AKG C1000S back‑electret, which I use mainly for backing vocals, although I have used it on lead vocal on a couple of tracks."
Raj has resisted the temptation to buy too many effects and processors, regarding his studio as a facility which is adequate for tracking and experimenting but not suitable for mixing or mastering. "We take our recordings to pro studios to mix, and to master with the high‑end compressors for a punchier, more level sound, and for that extra‑warm feel you get by using analogue tape. I do try things out here, so when we get to the studio to mix I can tell the engineer what I've tried and what I like. It's only possible to spend so many hours in the studio so it's best to have to have some idea of what you want. When we used to go into professional studios more often, we did plenty of pre‑production to get the song, arrangement, tempo and key right, because we were paying big money for the studio time. That method works for us now. I'm arranging and tracking everything here, so when we get into a bigger studio it takes just a couple of days."
Above all else, Raj comes across as an organised and determined individual. His studio is immaculate, and despite the lack of space he has a setup which suits his needs. Raj sums up Guruver's DIY ethos and plans for the future: "Now we're into doing everything by ourselves, basically because it's more enjoyable and we retain a lot more control over everything. At the moment we are just promoting this CD, so it's early days. Hopefully I'll be spending less and less time as a pharmacist and can make music my proper career. I did have the idea of converting one of the garages into a studio, but it's my mother's house and she didn't want that. I think the thing to do will be to get a unit in a business complex and set up as a commercial venture, either just for Guruver's music or for other people to use. I know it's difficult to make money in this business, but I'm sure I can find a niche."
- Alesis ADAT
- Toshiba T2100 SL 486DX2 laptop PC
- Mackie 32:8:2 mixer
- Roland JV880 sound module
- Yamaha RM50 rhythm sound module
Raj's Tascam Porta 01 4‑track is now stored in the overhead cupboards above his bed, along with his decomissioned Roland TR606 and TR707. Raj explains why he has kept his old equipment instead of selling it in the SOS Reader' ads. "My feeling is that when you buy equipment you should try to buy things that you're never going to get rid of because they're always going to be of some use in the future. So as my studio expands, all of this equipment will still be used. Bouncing tracks is not the ideal situation so I will probably upgrade the Alesis ADAT to one of the newer range of hard disk recorders like the new Tascam MX2424 or the Mackie HDR24/96 — but it will still be good to have the ADAT, in case I work with someone who uses that format."
As explained in the main text, Raj does the mixing and mastering of his recordings in professional studio facilities. "We mastered and pressed our CD at a place called Sound Disks in West London, which is run by the daughter of John Bonham [Led Zeppelin drummer]. There was a guy working there who was very helpful with the artwork, so we just supplied our own photographs and they turned it around in a couple of weeks.
"If I'd done it completely here I don't think it would have come out so well. The songs, arrangements and sounds would be the same, but it would lack the extra polish and sheen you get from a professional facility. This is a bedroom, at the end of the day. I have considered buying a mastering processor, but you have to take into account the cost of something like that. Are you going to use it to its fullest capacity? You may or may not, but rather than taking a risk I thought I'd spend that money taking the album into a pro studio."
KEYBOARDS AND SOUND MODULES
- Akai SG01v synth module
- Roland Juno 106 synthesizer
- Roland JV880 sound module
- Roland TR606 drum machine
- Roland TR707 MIDI rhythm composer
- Yamaha RM50 rhythm sound module
RECORDING AND PROCESSING
- Alesis ADAT digital 8‑track recorder
- Behringer Ultrafex II enhancer
- Boss SE50 stereo effects unit
- Drawmer LX20 gate
- Digitech DX777 delay unit
- Mackie 32:8:2 mixer
- Yamaha REV500 multi‑effects processor
- Toshiba T2100 SL 486DX2 Laptop PC
- Yamaha QY700 hardware sequencer
- Steinberg Cubase 2.8 software sequencer
- Yamaha NS10M studio monitors
- AKG C1000S microphone
- Audio Technica ATM4033A microphone
- Shure SM58 microphone
GUITARS AND AMPS
- Yamaha SF1000 electric guitar
- Fender Stratocaster electric guitar
- Fender F230 steel‑string acoustic guitar
- Lincoln 4‑string electric bass
- Fender Performer 1000 100W combo
- Park G10 15W amp
- Marshall MS2C mini amp
- Boss CE2 Chorus pedal
- Boss OD1 OverDrive pedal
- Crybaby Wah
- DOD FX62 Bass Stereo Chorus
- DOD FX80B Compressor Sustainer
- Ebow Plus electronic guitar bow
- Electrolabs Fuzz pedal
- Marshall Bluesbreaker II pedal
- MTR DI3 DI box
- TL Audio VP5051 voice processor
- Emu E6400 Ultra sampler
- Digitech Studio Vocalist EX