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Readerzone: Cam Nisbet

Home Studio By John Walden
Published August 2002

What's the connection between SOS, a set of bagpipes and Richard Branson's round-the-world balloon escapades?

The answer is SOS reader Cam Nisbet, a qualified bagpipe teacher (and an excellent guitarist), who also composed the music for a TV documentary on the Virgin boss's first attempt to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon. So how did this native Scot get from bagpipe lessons when he was seven to his present home studio and the occasional TV music credit?

Pipe Dreams

READERZONEPhoto: John WaldenCam's introduction to music began with his parent's encouragement to learn the bagpipes, but his musical interests took a dramatic change of direction in his early teens. "I remember hearing Thin Lizzy play 'Still In Love With You' — I must have been about 14 years of age — and after that I just wanted to learn the guitar. My parents finally agreed to buy me a guitar on the condition that I kept playing the pipes as well." Although starting in mainstream rock territory, Cam's musical influences have broadened over the years and now include Brian Eno, David Sylvian and Massive Attack.

Recording activities are slotted into a fairly unconventional working arrangement. "I'm a partner in a marketing business working mainly from home. It isn't really a full-time job so, along with the responsibilities that come with two young children, I have enough time to get on with some musical things. With another guitarist I'm doing three or four gigs a week playing a range of covers, which also generates a bit of money. Working from home is great, though, as it allows me time in the studio."

Cam's recording work includes a respectable list of credits for TV and an album project with a long-term vocalist/songwriter collaborator. "The TV work sort of happened by accident, and to be honest, it's not something I've really gone after in a big way. I'm primarily a guitarist and songwriter, and the album project I'm working on is really my main focus in terms of the studio."

Wish You Were Here

Given the impressive recording setup that now forms Cam's home studio, it's perhaps surprising that his interest in recording technology only dates from the mid-'90s. "During the '80s I was using a cassette-based four-track as a songwriting notepad. I moved up to a Tascam 488 eight-track in 1993, but it really wasn't because of a particular interest in recording technology, just a way of demoing basic song ideas to other band members."

All this changed with a chance meeting while on holiday in Jamaica during 1995. "I was just sitting on a diving expedition boat and happened to be wearing a T-shirt that had some reference to Glasgow on it. This guy asked me if I was from that area and it turned out that he was, as well. We got chatting and eventually the conversation turned to work. I said I was a musician and he said he was a TV producer, at which point I thought 'Oh yeah...', but it turned out he was the genuine article."

It also transpired that he was looking for some music. "He'd recently done a documentary on Richard Branson's attempt to sail across the Atlantic and had been asked to cover the first of Branson's attempts to go around the world in a hot air balloon. The project was still some time off, but he asked me to send him some music. Anyway, when I got home I put some stuff together on the 488 and sent it through. On the back of that I got offered the job."

Cam realised that he was going to need something a little more sophisticated than his cassette multitrack if he was to deliver music suitable for broadcast, but fortunately another element also fell into place. "It turned out the documentary had been pre-sold to something like 200 countries, so on the basis of having secured the music, I managed to sign a publishing deal with Warner-Chappell and decided to use the advance to set myself up with a decent home studio."

Studio In A Box (Or Two)

Aside from the Tascam 488, Cam was starting pretty much from scratch in terms of establishing a home project studio. "I bought my first copy of SOS and started trying to work out what I needed. I rang around some of the bigger suppliers asking for advice and quotes on a complete system, and eventually I got a good deal from the M Corporation. While I've added a number of things since, the core of the equipment I have in the studio was bought in one go."

Studio along a wall: The Mackie desk is the hub of Cam's well-specified yet traditional studio setup.Studio along a wall: The Mackie desk is the hub of Cam's well-specified yet traditional studio setup.

When the boxes arrived, Cam began to realise what he had let himself in for. "The M Corporation supplied the whole system but it was up to me to connect it all together. I eventually got it just about working, but I'm not a big fan of the documentation supplied with this sort of kit. For example, the Mackie mixer was a real challenge. Signal routing really did take some time to get to grips with and the diagrams in the Mackie manual were the only really useful bit!"

Having taken delivery of the equipment in November '95, Cam set it up at home and had to deliver the music for the documentary by February '96. "I had time to learn how to switch it all on so it worked and not much else, certainly not enough time to think about the setup of the room or the acoustics. Still, the job got done and the producer really liked the music. To be honest, when we moved back to Scotland and bought this house, I just saw this room and thought 'OK, the studio kit will fit in there'. I literally just arranged the equipment as you now see it and did little else in terms of studio preparation. My main concern was noise and how the neighbours might react but, in fact, they're great and are really quite interested in what I do. Anyway, I don't like to mix at high volume and I do a lot of tracking with headphones, plus I can work a lot during the day when nobody is around to disturb."

Diagram of Cam's studio layout.Layout of Cam's studio.

Working Methods

The vast majority of Cam's audio recording is still done on the Alesis ADATs purchased in this initial studio setup phase. Cam is happy with their performance and reliability, and his pragmatic attitude also extends to computer selection. "When I was looking at my options in '95, audio recording on a Mac or PC was still fairly new technology and the cost was pretty high. The ADATs were already tried and tested. I purchased an Atari to run Cubase and, despite most people now having migrated to the Mac or PC, I still use it for all my MIDI sequencing. I knew many other Cubase users so I thought I'd have plenty of people I could turn to for help."

The Atari ST running Cubase and the Korg X3, which is used as the master keyboard, form the core of Cam's MIDI setup.The Atari ST running Cubase and the Korg X3, which is used as the master keyboard, form the core of Cam's MIDI setup.Cam also has a relatively new PC with Cubase VST 5 within the studio but is still happy to stick with the Atari. "I haven't really explored Cubase on the PC much, although the machine does get used with Wavelab, Sound Forge and Rebirth for work on samples or stereo audio files. The Atari is wired up next to the Korg X3 keyboard, so for sequencing it's really convenient. In fact, the Atari essentially runs the whole studio with everything else sync'ed up to it via the JL Cooper CuePoint. I was never really a fan of sequencing as I just didn't like the idea of sitting in front of screen and creating cut-and-paste music, but I knew it would be essential for the TV stuff since I wasn't a good enough keyboard player. Anyway, it was the right choice as not a great deal of the TV work has involved guitar-based music except the occasional classical guitar piece — it has been mostly keyboards or sample-based material."

Cam's close relationship with this one producer has resulted in a fairly specific approach in writing to picture. "With that first project, there was quite a bit of time between our first meeting and the programme finally being broadcast, so I got the brief pretty early. The producer also sent me cuts at various stages of the editing, so I had plenty of time to develop some ideas. I didn't really have the technology to get sync'ed up to the pictures via SMPTE at first, and to be honest I still just work straight from the pictures even now. Much of what I've done in these programmes has been music to create a mood or atmosphere, so exact sync isn't always critical. As I have a good working relationship with producer, he trusts what I'm doing, so the process works without too many problems."

Bizarre Guitar

Cam's collection of acoustic and electric guitars are often used as sonic starting points and recorded into the Akai CD3000XL sampler.Cam's collection of acoustic and electric guitars are often used as sonic starting points and recorded into the Akai CD3000XL sampler.

A few things have changed since Cam did his first TV project, including the addition of an Akai CD3000XL sampler that's become a key to his working methods. As well as using it for the playback of standard samples and drum loops, Cam likes to layer guitar sounds within the sampler to create textures and pads. "The Akai is what I'd describe as a 'desert island' piece of equipment, but I reckon I'm still only scratching the surface of what can be done with it. I like to time-stretch guitar stuff, basically mangling guitar sounds — things like plucking a guitar and then taking away the attack to see what is left and building up layers of sound."

The other guitar-related technology Cam is glad to have within his studio is digital amp modelling. "For me, things like the Pod and J Station have been a revelation. They've got me really excited about recording guitar parts again, and in a home-based setup like this, it's possible to get excellent guitar tones onto tape without the hassle and noise of miking an amp. I also like the sort of stuff Andy Summers did with the Police and you can create those sort of textures with something like the J Station."

So Solid Kro

Cam is quick to acknowledge that his success with TV music has happened as much by accident as design. "I'd love to do more of it, but primarily I see myself as a guitar player and songwriter. I certainly don't consider myself to be a composer, so the TV work is a happy sideline. If I could get a really good guitar gig, that would be great, however in terms of the studio, what I'm really keen to complete is an album project."

Working as a duo called Kro with a singer he's known for a long time, Cam has over 20 fully developed tracks that are currently being fine-tuned. In contrast to his TV work, the songwriting process for the album almost always starts with guitar, although Cam tends to use sequenced bass lines to avoid sounding like a guitarist playing bass.

Vocals and acoustic guitars are all recorded in the studio room using an AKG C3000 microphone. "The original idea was to do the sequenced stuff here and to go into a commercial studio for all the guitars and vocals. However, the J Station has made it possible to do the majority of the electric guitars here. We'll probably redo the vocals and acoustic guitars elsewhere to add a bit of sheen, but the results we've been getting here are not bad. Originally I was concerned about my ability to mix in this room and I'm sure it's not perfect. Having two sets of speakers helps and we make sure the mixes get listened to on other systems including the car hi-fi.

"I'm always amazed when I read the SOS Demo Doctor column and see comments like 'it needed 2dB at such-and-such a frequency'. That gets me worried about how well I can do things here! For the TV work I know the audio quality is fine, but with music-only stuff it's obviously more critical. There's all sorts of stuff I'm sure I should know more about, like compression and EQ, but also areas I'm getting more confident with such as using stereo position to create space within a mix."

In terms of style, Cam is happy to point to the influence of artists like David Sylvian in the album's material. "Ideally, we'd like to get some interest in the album and maybe a distribution deal of some sort. However, we're pretty realistic about the situation. Because of my music publishing contacts, we've been able to play the material to some industry people and, while they might like it, it's not exactly mainstream commercial pop. Someone told me the sales figures for David Sylvian's last album, and those sorts of numbers would make it difficult to establish a new artist. Still, we're really proud of the material, so we'll explore all the various possibilities when the recording side is complete." Interested readers should listen to the sample tracks on the SOS web site — Cam would welcome some feedback.

Future Plans

While the album project has Cam's immediate attention, he's also keeping a keen eye on the next direction for his studio. "I can see the attractions of audio on a computer and I might well go for a new iMac at some stage, although it would still be mainly for MIDI use. I'm not a fan of constantly upgrading and I don't want to be a computer technician. What I want is a stable platform that I can live with, whether it's a computer or dedicated hardware. I've looked at the Mackie 24-track systems and the idea of dedicated hardware certainly appeals to me, particularly as you can hook up a monitor to the system."

Cam Nisbet is obviously happy with his lot and pragmatic about where his musical activities have led him. "If Richard Branson had made it around the world on that first balloon trip, the take-up on the programme sales would have been in a different league and I guess the royalty payments on the music might also have been a little more substantial. On the other hand, if I hadn't invested in that Glasgow T-shirt and a Jamaican holiday, I'd probably still be using the Tascam 488. There's an awful lot of luck involved in the music business."

As Heard On TV

Cam may think of his TV work as a happy accident, but the credits on the major UK terrestrial channels speak for themselves. A number of these programmes have also been shown in various European countries and the US.

  • Three Men In A Balloon (1996), ITV's Network First.
  • The Great Balloon Race (1996), BBC's Horizon.
  • Racing With The Wind (1997), C4's To The Ends Of The Earth.
  • The Adventurer (1998), Channel 5.
  • The Great Balloon Race (1999), BBC1's The Mission.
  • The Last Great Adventure (2000), Discovery Channel.

Complete Gear List

  • Aiwa cassette deck.
  • Akai CD3000XL sampler.
  • AKG C3000 microphone.
  • Alesis ADAT multitrack recorders.
  • Alesis monitor speakers.
  • Alesis Nanoverb effects.
  • Atari ST with 4MB RAM running Cubase.
  • Behringer Composer compressor.
  • Behringer Ultrapatch patchbay.
  • Boss ME5 effects.
  • JL Cooper CuePoint synchroniser.
  • Johnson J Station modelling guitar preamp.
  • Korg X3 keyboard.
  • Line 6 Pod modelling guitar preamp.
  • Mackie 24/8-buss mixer.
  • Mission bookshelf monitors.
  • PC running CubaseVST 5.0, Wavelab, Sound Forge and Rebirth.
  • Rocktron Intellifex effects.
  • Roland DEP5 effects.
  • Roland GS6 effects.
  • Roland JV1080 sound module.
  • Roland SDX330 effects.
  • Samson 180 power amp.
  • Samson 150 power amp.
  • Shure SM58 and 75 microphones.
  • Sony JE520 Minidisc player.
  • Tascam DA20 DAT recorder.
  • Various other items including five guitars, pedals and amps.