Are computers changing the way we make music? If you're David Gledhill, the answer is an unequivocal 'yes'. Years of playing with guitar bands had left him disillusioned and on the point of giving up when he decided to experiment with recording on a PC. He quickly found himself adopting an entirely new approach to songwriting and production, and his first demo as Slo-Mo was soon attracting record company interest. Two years on, Gledhill has recruited a four-piece band for live outings, and his studio experiments have grown into an excellent debut album. Slo-Mo serves up his laconic vocals over an arresting blend of rocked-up guitars and sample-heavy beats.
"Not having to involve other musicians was the greatest thing for me," laughs David, "because I generally don't get on with many musicians. I hadn't been doing music for a couple of years, because I'd got very fed up with it. I'd been doing anything to avoid doing music, and then got a computer just to see if I was missing out on anything. I'd never done music in this way, and it was like a revolution overnight. Suddenly I was able to do everything myself — the bass guitars, the guitars, the keyboards, the drums, everything."
One of the unusual features of songs like 'Death Of A Raver' and 'Girl From Alaska' is Gledhill's prominent use of Latin jazz samples alongside distorted guitars and beats; and it was actually the idea of sampling an Astrid Gilberto track that kick-started the entire Slo-Mo project. "It all started when 'Stan' by Eminem was out, which I think is one of the greatest pop records of the last 10 years," he says. "Then I was in the back of someone's car and they were playing a Latin jazz compilation. I used to be a really big fan of Latin jazz but hadn't listened to it for years, and the Astrid Gilberto track 'Agua De Beber' came on, and I thought 'I wonder if you could sample that?' I started with the sample, which is in double time, and I put it into half time. There was no real formula or plan, it was just doing that song, which has got a very particular sound to it, and then I got into sampling other Latin Jazz records — I used another sample on 'Girl From Alaska', which I think is from the Stan Getz version of 'Aguas De Marco', another Joabim song.
"With most of the songs I started with samples, but then I started to realise how expensive samples were! Some of the songs had samples on to help me start the songs, and then I took them off or naughtily disguised them — I've become a bit of an expert at using samples but not having to pay for them. I'll chop them up into eighths or 16ths in Fruity Loops and swap the elements around, or reverse some of them. Then I'll play my track and the original sample to lots of people to see whether anyone can spot it."
The idea of using a sample as a starting point led to a radically different approach to songwriting. "Usually it would start with some kind of sample, then my whole approach to it is to record everything as fast as possible. On most of the tracks on the album, the actual parts — the guitars, the basses and so on — are ghost parts, because I found I would do the ghost parts very quickly and then could never recreate the feel. I have a system. I use Fruity Loops for doing most of my drum programming, I use Acid for messing around with samples, and I use Cubase to pull it all together. If you find a system that works I think you should stick to it.
"I would do a quick drum pattern, a quick bit of bass guitar, and a quick bit of guitar, and then it becomes really basic. I have a ghettoblaster with a tape in it on my desk, and I play the song on a loop, have an acoustic guitar, lots of sheets of words that I've pinched out of books — I'm really into books like Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, crazy drug books — and then sing any old crap over the top of the song and record lots and lots of it. Then I'll go away for a week, not listen to any of it, come back a week later and play the tape, and I'll think 'That's a bit crazy, I'll use that.' I'll pick out the bits from the ghettoblaster that seem to work and write them down. The ghettoblaster is a very key thing.
"I'll pick out the bits that I think are good, and then set a mic up and start doing it on to the computer. I always think it must be like a painter doing a painting. I'll put bits on to the computer, and then most of the time is spent just editing in Cubase, moving the blocks, moving bits of singing. I tend to work on the premise that if it sounds good, I'll go with it, and that's why I end up keeping a lot of the ghost parts that I do. That means I have to spend a lot of time cleaning things up sometimes, because I've recorded things a bit quickly. Sometimes I've recorded guide guitar parts with an SM58, which makes everything a bit middly, and spent loads of time EQ'ing them. But I probably recorded 'Death Of A Raver' in 45 minutes; as soon as I get to the point where I'm spending a lot of time doing it, I tend to think it's probably not a very good idea in the first place. Some of the songs have probably got bum notes and out-of-tune guitars, but it's the feel that matters."
In case that all sounds too easy, Slo-Mo keyboardist and backing singer Tracey Wilkinson adds some words of caution: "A lot of people think that the computer will write the songs for you, that if you just stick in a few bits and bobs, the computer will piece it all together and you'll come up with a great song. But if you're not a songwriter and you're not a musician, you can't just do that. If you're a painter then you can do computer art, but that's because first of all you understand the principles of painting. If you understand the principles of putting a song together, then you can use the computer to your advantage, like a tool, but the computer doesn't write the songs for you."
"By the same token, a lot of the musicians we know in Sheffield will say to me 'I could do what you're doing with a computer,' and I say 'Well, do it!'" agrees David. "It actually doesn't work like that. The computer only does what you tell it to do, and it only plays back what you put into it, so even though it's the most key thing for me, if we couldn't do these songs acoustically I wouldn't be too happy. I think you should be able to play a good song on the bagpipes and have people understand it. It's not dance music we're doing, it's songwriting, but the thing I love about the computer is the fact that it allows you to change arrangements. The power it gives you is unbelievable."
Gledhill's 400MHz Pentium II machine may be unbelievably powerful in a conceptual sense, but it's hardly at the cutting edge in computing terms. Nevertheless, he doesn't feel the lure of faster PCs or newer software versions: "I've just bought a really powerful laptop, but I can't seem to make the transition. It's like having an old blanket. There was a piece in Micro Mart where they were saying 'To do music on your computer you need at least a PII 500MHz,' and I'm sat here with a PII 400. That's just nonsense. Actually you need hardly any equipment. All you need is lots of imagination and a bit of equipment. The version of my album that will be in the shops I even mastered myself — it wasn't even mastered in a studio."
Despite the limitations of the machine, David rarely finds himself having to resort to off-line processing or bouncing down to conserve CPU power. "I run everything in real time, because I don't actually use that many effects. I always get to the point in the last part of the song where it's dropping out all the time, but for mixing down in Cubase, that doesn't matter."
The other equipment in Slo-Mo's Sheffield HQ is equally humble. "A lot of my friends have much more sophisticated studios than me, but I have neither the time nor the inclination, nor the money," says David. "I know a lot of musicians who hate the Spirit Absolute 2s, for example, but the room that I recorded the album in is six foot by seven foot, and for some reason it just seems to work in there. However it sounds in there when I've done the mix, if I then play it in the Walkman and in the car it just seems to sound right. I'm not interested in replacing them, because they really work. And the Cambridge Audio amp isn't even a proper studio amp, it's just a hi-fi amp anyone could buy from Richer Sounds."
- Pentium II 400MHz PC with Creative Labs Soundblaster Live soundcard.
- Steinberg Cubase VST v3.5 MIDI + Audio sequencer.
- Sonic Foundry Acid loop sequencer.
- IK Multimedia T-Racks mastering software.
- Joemeek VC3 input channel.
- Oktava MK219 and MK012 condenser mics, Oktava ML52 ribbon mic and Oktava MKL2500 valve mic.
- Cambridge Audio A1 power amp.
- Spirit Absolute 2 monitors.
- Roland Juno 106 synthesizer.
Nearly everything that has to be recorded with a microphone — vocals, electric and acoustic guitars — passes into Gledhill's PC through his Joemeek VC3 preamp and one of a growing collection of Russian Oktava mics. "If I'm being brutally honest, the thing that I find hardest to do is to record an electric guitar and make it sound really good," admits David. "That's something I'm still getting to grips with. I just go straight into my Trace Elliot amp and use one of the Oktava mics. I've actually used them all for recording guitar — I like the MK012, the condenser mic, that's a really good mic for electric guitar, and the valve mic is brilliant. All the Oktava mics are just immense. I've used Neumanns in studios, and I can't hear the difference between the Oktavas and the Neumanns, and I can't believe how cheap they are. I got the 219 to begin with and was completely blown away by it, and I've just ended up getting more and more of them because they're so cheap. On the new album I'm using the ribbon mic for the vocals, into the Joemeek with a bit of enhancement and a bit of compression, and it just sounds amazing.
"There were a few songs on the album that I used an SM58 for the guitar, because it does give it that punchy sound. For the bass guitar I have a Marlin Sidewinder, and I plug that straight into the Joemeek and straight into the computer and it sounds amazing. I can't see the point of buying any more stuff for the bass guitar because it just sounds so good. I've got a particular setting, I have the compression on full, but I don't have the Attack on, and I have quite a lot of enhancement — up to about 7 — and with the bass it has that real kind of Ampeg stack sound. I think a lot of it is luck, a lot of those things have come about through me trying to record it and thinking 'That sounds crap,' and trying again and trying again.
"All the tracks on the album have bass guitar on them, but I've also got a Roland Juno 106, and what I sometimes do is double up whatever the bass is doing on that. If you blend the two you can get a really punchy sub-bass sound. Live, we block it up as well, with the keyboards. I'm a real bass and treble fiend, I love lots of bass and treble."
For Slo-Mo live shows, David Gledhill's guitar and vocals are augmented by three additional 'real' musicians, but there's also a Minidisc player on stage to recreate some of the more sample-heavy elements of the songs. This places some obvious restrictions on what they can do, but David seems unconcerned: "I really like playing to a click live. It doesn't bother me at all. The drummer always says 'We don't need to use a click,' and it's not good in one sense because you can't ad lib, you can't change things, but it works well. The other three — Tracey on keyboards and vocals, Kim the bass player and Liam the drummer — all tend to play the same thing every time, whereas with the guitar and vocals I'll change things all the time because I get bored, and that gives it a different edge.
"In the old days I had a four-track, and I would tend to do things on that and then spend hours in rehearsals with everybody putting their two pennyworth in, and working on it. These days I do the tracks, everybody in the band gets a CD of the track, we go to the rehearsal, we use a Minidisc backing for the samples and stuff, so you have a click, and we can generally get most of the songs right first or second time. I'm not really into spending hours and hours in rehearsals fine-tuning things. I think bands think way too much about what they're actually playing live, rather than the performance of what they're playing live. If you've got something so it's like driving a car, so that you can just do it in your sleep, once you get to that point, when you play live you can spend all your time giving the performance and getting into it. We've probably been playing the same set for a year now. We don't change the set order and we don't change the songs, because you're always playing to people who've never heard you before. The problem with most musicians I know is that they're writing and performing for themselves, but at the end of the day, most people who are watching can't play an instrument, they don't care whether you can play your instrument. They're having a drink and they want to be entertained."
The Slo-Mo sound is pretty aggressive and in-your-face, and David Gledhill has fine-tuned his mixing and mastering procedure for maximum punchiness. "The computer's so digital, and a lot of my time is spent trying to get everything to sound as analogue as possible. Which you can do, you just have to be prepared to play around with effects and use limiters and compressors. With some of the tracks, studio engineers in Sheffield have asked me what kind of vintage compressors I used, what kind of desk, but you don't need any of that stuff if you're prepared to use your ears and put a bit more time into it.
"There's a VST effect called Magneto, which I have as a master effect on everything I do. Sometimes I'll take it off and everything is digitally distorting, so when you see my sound waves at mixdown it's like a pile of bricks, but Magneto actually gives it the analogue warmth that I think is lacking. When I output my mixes in Cubase I usually run them through the DSP Aural Enhancer, which I have on a very light setting, just to give it a bit of top end, then into Magneto, get that mixed down, and then I put that mix down through T-Racks. I took about three months just to master the album, and that was using T-Racks, mastering it, burning it to a CD, listening to it in the car and on the Walkman. I spent three months doing that over and over again until I thought it sounded like a record. That was incredibly hard, but I'm glad I did it.
"T-Racks is just immense. With that, I just found one particular preset called Sweet Vintage Master II, and it's worked on everything, so I don't play with any of the controls, I just put that on and put everything through it and it seems to sound amazing. For about a month of using it I couldn't get it to work, and then I thought 'Well, it's got all these default settings on it, I'll give them a go!' and it's the very last default setting. We sent my masters away to someone else who could have mastered them, and he said 'These are the loudest masters I've ever heard in my entire life.' It's on the point of distortion, but I love the sound of old Motown records where everything was actually distorted, and to get to do that on a computer is actually really tricky. My tip to people is Magneto, which I think is probably the single greatest effect you'll ever use, because it makes everything sound warm and rich, and T-Racks for the mastering."
Slo-Mo's album should be in the shops by the time you read this, but there's no time for David and his colleagues to sit back and admire their handiwork. They're playing as many live shows as possible in order to promote the release, while David is back in the studio whenever time allows: "I've just started recording a second album and I've changed the way I work a little bit. I'm now using real drum samples in Fruity Loops and programming all the drum beats up, programming all the fills and spending a lot of time trying to get them to sound real. I'm getting pretty close, actually. That's a real challenge in itself, to create drums where people don't listen to them and go 'That's a drum machine.' It can be done, but you have to make sure that everything's a little bit off all the time. Drummers never hit things the same volume, and in Fruity Loops you can change the levels of all the different components in a loop. But with the first album, if you take a song like 'Death Of A Raver', the first track on the album, I'd have a drum loop, I made my own loop in Fruity Loops with drum sounds, and then I think I stole another drum loop off somebody's record. For some of those songs on the first album I actually have five different drum patterns all running together, and they all mush together."
So will the second album see Gledhill making any more radical changes in the way he approaches his music? "I'm quite simple," he laughs. "Once I find something that works, I can't see the point in changing it — unless you find something that works better."