Paul Austin Kelly
Interview: Sam Inglis Photos: Richard Ecclestone
Paul Austin Kelly brings a new meaning to the expression 'crossover artist'. As a classically trained tenor, he's sung on most of the world's leading operatic stages, from Covent Garden and Glyndebourne to La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera, as well as singing as tenor soloist in choral works — most recently, Bach's B Minor Mass at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. When his demanding professional schedule allows, however, he devotes as much time as possible to mastering the synthesizers and digital workstations that occupy his own recording studio; and the music he records here could not be further removed from the classical repertoire. Blending country and western, rap, rock and pop, Paul's plan is to create a new kind of music for children.
"I'd gone back into songwriting because I was unhappy with a lot of the work I was doing in classical music," he explains. "The kind of stress you get in classical and opera singing takes its toll, and I wanted to have projects of my own that were completely under my control. When you're doing operatic performances you've got a thousand other things coming at you that all affect your performance in one way or another. I was away from my family, spending a fair amount of time singing opera in Italy. To communicate with my son, I started writing poetry; I emailed the poems to him, and he would email back his comments. It was just a lark at first, but I got really into it after a while.
"I ended up with a collection of about 40 or 45 of them which I thought were really usable, and started peddling them around. I got good responses, but people also said that if you try to sell children's poetry, it's difficult if it's rhyming, because they have trouble selling it internationally. It's very tricky to translate something into another language so that it still has a good rhyme scheme. As things went on, I sort of forgot about it, because I was busy singing opera. And then I remember waking up in the middle of the night one night, with one of the poems in my head, and it was just coming out as a song in my dream. I'd already started building a studio, simply because I wanted to do some recording, so I got up and I went downstairs, and put the song down just using the synthesizer. I used the Triton's arpeggiator to loop a bass track for it and then put the vocals down the next day. The more I looked through those poems that I'd written, the more I realised that I had in fact written most of them in some sort of song form. And that was it!"
Paul has already produced an 11‑song album of his own compositions, Kidstuff, and is currently hard at work setting poems by children's writer Michael Rosen to his own music. He's found that his recordings of the material have met with a much more enthusiastic response than the poems alone: "I had initially contacted illustrator Korky Paul about possibly illustrating one of the poems, and he had said the same thing, which was that his editor was very reluctant to publish much rhyming stuff. Although he loved the poem, he was going to have a difficult time selling it to his editor. A couple of months ago, though, I sent him a copy of Kidstuff, and then the reaction was completely different. He said 'Oh wow, we've got work to do, this is fantastic, I love the CD, and I can think of several things I would like to do right away.' It was a completely different ball game."
In fact, Paul's experience with pop music goes back as far as his classical training, and in setting up his own studio he was rekindling an interest he'd had since childhood. "I'm a crossover artist the other way, really — I started out for 10 years doing pop music when I was a kid, and I went to music school and branched into classical music from that. So now I feel like I'm crossing back to my roots. There was a huge gap in time where I didn't have a chance to do a lot of recording, but when I was 12 or 14, I remember my dad bringing home a Tandberg reel‑to‑reel that had sound‑on‑sound features, so th at I could do two tracks, and even mix in a third track if I was really clever. I spent hours with that machine, and I would set up another old Bell reel‑to‑reel tape recorder he had, that was even old at the time, to get all kinds of bizarre combinations of sounds going, and then add in sounds through my Fender guitar amp. I wrote a lot of songs when I was a kid that I would arrange with whatever electronics I had at hand, and put them all together on that two‑track. And that was really the experience I'd had in recording until just the past couple of years. But even that was useful — I learned how to splice fairly well, and work hands‑on with tape. I had no professional tools at all, but I made the most of all the consumer tools I could get hold of."
Paul's current setup is not tape‑based, but centres around a Roland VS1680 digital multitracker and a Korg Triton keyboard workstation. Other key equipment includes a Roland HPD15 HandSonic percussion controller, Line 6 Pod guitar preamp, Neumann U87 microphone, Joemeek VC3 voice channel, and a Tascam DA45HR 24‑bit DAT recorder for mastering, along with acoustic, electric and fretless bass guitars, while his living room houses a Steinway grand piano. He explains how he arrived at his decisions when equipping the studio: "I had to look at what my own talents were, and that helped. I had rudimentary guitar abilities but I knew that, given the proper amount of practice time, I could be quite a decent guitarist. I had adequate keyboard skills, which I've had since I was a child. Guitars and synthesizer make for a good basis for any kind of pop music that you want to turn out these days. Vocal skills, obviously, weren't a concern. I knew I needed a good acoustic space, and that was a problem, and I knew I needed a good microphone, which was just a question of finding out what microphones worked particularly well with my vocals. I played trumpet for 12 years and I've just gone back to it in the last couple of months, and that's added another angle to the sound which I'm very keen on.
"The biggest difficulty for me, I think, was getting the kind of vocal sound I wanted, and working out how I wanted my vocals represented in this kind of music. I started out using an Audio‑Technica AT4033, just through the preamps in the Roland, and it sounded awful. So I ended up using the Joemeek VC3 — I eventually bought another one so I could do some stereo work, miking the grand piano — and I graduated to a Neumann U87, which I love. When I want that sort of warm, rich, very folky sort of sound, I'll use the Neumann through the VC3 with a little bit of compression, EQing it slightly, but not too much. I find with my voice it works quite well even fairly flat. The lovely thing about this room, with all the wooden cabinets and shelving, is that it creates a very warm vocal sound, and it's also great for acoustic guitar.
"I first used the U87 making a classical recording with a guy named Chris Blaclik, a recording engineer who runs a company called Soundtrack Productions. I had spent some time in the engineering room with him while we were making that record, so I got a lot of tips from him. I told him I was putting together my own studio, and talked to him about mics and various pieces of equipment. He had been using the U87 on that particular gig, and I just fell in love with the way my voice sounded going through that mic."
As Paul does very little MIDI sequencing (see 'Out Of Sequence' box), his Roland VS1680 has an absolutely central role in the recording process. He explains why he chose this particular unit: "Electronically, what I wanted was something hands‑on, so I love the idea of a digital studio in a box. It was a lot more appealing to me than spending 12 hours a day with a mouse. I felt that I was spending more time with computers than I wanted to anyway — all my business stuff and correspondence is done on a computer, so I really liked the idea of having faders and everything hands‑on, a more traditional approach. I started out with a Yamaha MD8 Minidisc recorder when I was first putting the studio together, and it was a nice sound, but it was so limited. Even at that point I was sending off emails to Bob Katz and driving him crazy with questions, but he was always very friendly. He didn't recommend the Roland, but thanks to the SOS reviews and a helpful chap named James at the Guitar, Amp and Keyboard Centre in Brighton, who actually let me bring it home and play around with it, I was really wowed by it. It's a wonderful way to work. I immediately put the other effects board in so that I had more options; I haven't yet upgraded to the 1880 even though the A‑D converters are greatly improved, because I'm waiting for the 24‑track version."
Electric, acoustic and bass guitars all feature prominently in Paul's tracks, and a key tool is his Line 6 Pod preamp: "I want to upgrade to the Pod Pro eventually, just to get a slightly cleaner sound, but I use the Pod for everything. I'll put anything through that — I'll even put the Neumann mic through it and use it on my voice, occasionally, just to get a different colour to the vocal sound. I use it for the guitars, I've used it with the Triton, I even put the bass through it once. It's a wonderful unit.
"With acoustic guitar, what I've been doing more recently, using two tracks, is DI'ing one track and miking the guitar on the other. Recently I started using the Neumann on the Yamaha guitar. Before that I'd been using the AT. They're both great sounds, but they're very different; it depends on whether you want a fuller sound or one with more bite. But I've really got to love the way the guitar sounds double‑tracked Often I'll put the DI through the Pod."
"When the Korg Triton was reviewed in Sound On Sound, I immediately popped down to the Guitar, Amp and Keyboard Centre in Brighton — I'd liked the Trinity a lot when I first heard it, and according to all descriptions the Triton was an improvement on it. So I went down and played it for a couple of hours, driving them crazy with questions. I like the fact that it has the sequencer and sampler built in — even though I don't use them a lot, when I do need them they come in really handy. They're really easy to use, very accessible, and since space is a bit of a problem for me I needed to try to compress as much as I could into the room I've got."
"I've gotten more into using the Automix features on the VS recently," says Paul. "At first, every time I wanted to do something I couldn't do by twiddling a knob, I'd think 'Oh, if I'm going to do that, I'll have to Automix it', so I'd just leave it out, because I wasn't sure what I was doing. And having to deal with the Roland manual was a nightmare. So I ended up getting what they call on the VS Planet bulletin board the 'brown bag', which is the 'alternative' manual. If you went on the web site and asked for the 'brown bag', somebody would email you this alternate Roland manual that someone wrote while working for Roland. This person left, but the manual's still in existence, it's just unofficial. And it was much more helpful; it cleared up all the fogginess in the original Roland manual and helped me to understand Automix. So now I'm using that a lot more for individual parts and adding effects within the tracks that you can't actually do on a live mix.
"I kind of like the idea of just tracking everything and then doing a big mix session, that's always the way I imagined it, but it never seems to work out that way. I seem to want to satisfy my ears as I go along, so I end up mixing as I track, so that what I hear in the headphones when I'm putting on a new track is fairly close to the way I'm imagining the whole song sounding. I tend to work that way anyway. I tend to go into the studio with the song basically complete, and the sound of the song in my head the way I want it. The rest of the time is spent trying to capture what I hear in my head, rather than sitting down and experimenting to see what I come up with. I don't tend to work well that way, and I do tend to have preconceived notions of how I want the final product to sound.
"I don't use a lot of compression. If I use the Triton for bass parts they tend to be a bit compressed anyway, so I don't add anything on that. I use compression on the electric bass, some on the voice just to keep it a bit more controlled and give it more of a commercial pop sound, and a bit more on acoustic guitars. I tend to add compression as I'm tracking, and not on a mix. I do drive things fairly hard, right to the point of distortion, and then pull it back. If I find that the master levels are too high, I bring everything down and start working the levels back up again.
"One of the other things I came into contact with when I was working with Chris Blaclik at Soundtrack Productions was the Tascam DA45HR, which I think is still the only 24‑bit DAT machine available. He used two of them at the same time to record all his opera productions. He did direct lines through the mixer right into the DA45 and the sound quality was fantastic. Mastering from 24‑bit into the HHB CD burner works really well — there's good dithering on the Tascam, and masters always sound very clean and full of life. I record at 24‑bit on the Roland, mix directly to the Tascam, and then dither from the Tascam to the HHB."
Although the realm of home recording is a long way from the classical world in which he's spent his professional life, Paul Austin Kelly has realistic and purposeful ideas of how he wants to use his studio, and is very clear about what he wants to achieve with his music. "I still very much enjoy singing classical music, and certain operatic work, but it's fantastic having this project that's completely my own," he declares. "If it's good, it's my fault, if it's bad, it's my fault, and that's a great feeling. I remember cottoning on to pop music forms at a very young age, because most of the children's records I heard then were really rubbish. They not only weren't recorded well, they weren't performed well, and on most of them, if there was an original composition or song, it was just awful. And I think that there were a lot of people out there making some money producing children's works who just didn't have any respect for kids. I think too many people condescend to children musically — yet children could really benefit from something that has all the facets of the contemporary pop or folk music that adults listen to. I'd like to push that and try to find out where the market is, because I think there's a real need for kids' music that features valid, interesting musical forms and quality performances."
Paul Austin Kelly and his Walking Oliver record label can be contacted via www.paulaustinkelly.com
- Roland VS1680 digital multitracker.
- Korg Triton workstation.
- Roland HPD15 HandSonic percussion unit.
- HHB Circle 5 Active monitors.
- HHB CDR850 CD writer.
- Lexicon MPX100 effects processor.
- Line 6 Pod guitar preamp.
- Joemeek VC3 voice channel.
- Neumann U87 and Audio Technica AT4033 mics.
- Tascam DA45HR 24‑bit DAT recorder.
One of the most interesting aspects of Paul's way of working is that he rarely uses the sequencer in his Korg Triton, and even though he's recently installed a PC in the studio, he doesn't use this for sequencing either. Instead, everything is played in live on the Triton or the Roland HandSonic, and recorded directly as audio to the VS1680. Even the drum parts are laid down live, any mistakes being corrected by dropping in: "I did a demo CD called Keeping The Flame, and the drums were all done from the Korg Triton, by basically pounding on the keys. There wasn't one thing on that CD that was looped or sequenced, it was all done live — and you could hear it, there's a real looseness in some of those tracks! I ended up using the Triton drums a fair amount on Kidstuff as well, but I used a click track, so that they had a bit more stability. When I got the HandSonic, that's when everything changed. A couple of the last tracks I did on Kidstuff, and all of the tracks on the Michael Rosen CD are done with the HandSonic. That's completely changed the way I work. It's one of those electronic devices that is a valid instrument in its own right. You can sit and practise it, and the more you practise, the better you get. It works just the way a drummer would work, so if you like using your hands and you like that sort of live sound, you can get pretty much anything you want out of it. I love the fact that it is very editable, you can change the timbre of any pad, and pan the pads anywhere. You can double up tracks, as well — if you can't manage to play the hi‑hat part at the same time as the bass and snare, just put it on a separate track and pan it slightly to the right, and there it is. The D‑beam I use occasionally, and I often program it for something specific that I know I'm not going to have a hand free for. I've used it one track on Kidstuff, 'Haunted House' — there's a wonderful thunder that they've programmed in on the D‑Beam, that I would use as I was playing the drums, I would just wave a hand over there and get a big clap of thunder.
"I certainly see the value of sequencing, and I can see a time when I would want to explore that more fully. But I find a lot of it sounds rather cold and clinical, and not really appropriate to the kind of songs I write. Rather than spending all my time working with software, I prefer to spend it actually making music. So when it comes to putting down a track, if something goes awry I'd rather spend the time dropping in corrected parts here and there than doing all the cutting and pasting that goes on when you're sequencing."
So what prompted him to bring a PC into the studio? Paul's main aim, it seems, is to gain greater editing and effects power over the audio in his VS1680, perhaps through a program such as Datasonics' VS Pro: "I think that what I'd like is to have more control over what I'm doing on the Roland. I'd love to be able to take rhythm tracks, for instance, run them into some software and clean them up a bit. Being able to look at actual drumbeats and know exactly where they fall, and be able to just slightly shove them over a bit individually would be great. The other thing I'd like to be able to do is just colour individual tracks without using up the Roland's effects — I've got two effects boards on the Roland, and that's fine, but often I find that I still don't have room for just the effect I'm looking for in one particular place."
Unlike most home projects, Paul Austin Kelly's recordings have benefited from treatment by one of the world's leading mastering engineers. "I had Bob Katz at Digital Domain in Florida do the mastering on Kidstuff, and an amazing change came over the whole thing," says Paul. "He gave me a lot of tips, too. When I used the Korg Triton for the bass tracks, he didn't like some of the things I was choosing. Listening back to it and hearing what he was doing, he would take some of the bass tracks and EQ them and thin them out and give them more definition. So now, if I decide not to use the fretless Yamaha, and I want to use the Korg for a bass part, I know how to go about choosing the right bass for that particular song. If I run it through a preamp I can also EQ it to an extent so that I can bring more definition out. It brings more clarity to the mix, and there's less muddiness to the bottom end."
If you're interested in hearing 'before' and 'after' examples of what top‑class mastering did to Paul's songs, check out the audio examples here on the SOS web site.
The extracts are each 7.5Mb (BIG!) WAV files, which you will need to download before you can replay them in a suitable application (Quicktime, Media Player etc). Turning them into MP3 or RealAudio files would defeat the purpose of including them for comparison purposes.