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Readerzone: Gary Amos

Location Recording With A Portastudio By Paul White
Published February 2002

The subject of this month's Readerzone, somewhat unusually, doesn't have a home studio at all, but instead has chosen to concentrate on location recording — and with his modest Portastudio‑based setup he's achieving a degree of local success in the heart of Somerset. Gary Amos has been close to the music industry before, as manufacturing manager of what was once the Philips CD factory in Blackburn, and is, in fact, a professional engineer — well, a chemical engineer, anyway! Gary takes up the story.

READERZONE: Gary Amos with Tascam 788 Digital Portastudio."It all started as a joke, really. Some friends in our Somerset village said they were forming a band and I offered to be their roadie! Before I knew it I was in a garage on an industrial estate, sorting out microphone leads and allowing my friends to relive their youth by playing at being a '60s and '70s cover band. As things progressed, rugby club, pub and birthday party gigs came along, and I found myself as their 'sound engineer' and general dogsbody, replacing blown transistors, making stage wiring looms, and so on.

"Early on, to make myself useful during weekly rehearsals, I started to tape the village‑hall practice sessions in order to (diplomatically) help the band improve, playing back songs over the PA. Then Sound On Sound was discovered and I was amazed at how inexpensive multitrack recorders had become. So I invested in a Tascam 424 MkII Portastudio."

The purchase of the 424 marked the start of a real addiction to live sound recording for Gary, though he's had a long‑standing interest in music.

"Judging by the SOS reader surveys, at 46 I must be at the upper age range of people starting out with this hobby. I did have a go at recording some 20 years ago, but good equipment was really out of reach financially. I briefly took piano lessons in my late '30s, but I only got as far as Grade Two, and I became disillusioned when I saw how fast my daughter was progressing with her lessons. Hi‑fi has also been an interest for me, right from my student days. To save money back then, I built my entire system from kits, and I still build my own loudspeakers.

"Subconsciously, I suppose I always had an interest in recording, as I used to listen for good arrangements and effects in a lot of the progressive '70s music. I used to buy records more for their recording quality, whether they were rock, folk or classical."

(Almost) Absolute Beginner

The 424 cassette multitracker has been reviewed in SOS a number of times and, despite being an entry‑level machine, is capable of producing very good sonic results. Gary explains how he used it:

"Typically, drums were sub‑mixed through the band's Yamaha powered PA mixer via an aux into one channel, with auxiliary two used for vocals, and the bass and lead guitar would feed the remaining two channels on the four‑track. At live gigs, with the auxes used to feed the four‑track, the PA headphone output had to be used as the vocalists' stage monitor feed, but you could, with care, get some acceptable recordings with a nice '60s feel. Two‑hour evening practice sessions might yield only one good take, but eventually, using the band's Zoom effects unit and a second‑hand Alesis 3630 compressor, I was able to produce some passable demos on cassette. We used the services of a friend in the village who was a self‑employed pro in the music business to master and duplicate our first CD. The band were delighted, though I don't know what SOS's Demo Doctor would have thought! Fortunately, Michael Law, the person who duplicated our first CD, has been very helpful and acts as my personal demo doctor. Having been in the business for 25 years, working with well‑known artists, he can provide an instant critique of my recordings.

"My early attempts at mixing usually resulted in over‑emphasised vocals, with everything swimming in reverb. Weekly practices running a PA and recording, with the weekend to mix down in the lounge at home, soon started to develop into a routine. I could turn around six songs onto cassette or CD for band members to listen to before to the next practice. I've read a number of books on recording, and I've taken note of the SOS technique pages, but you soon find that there's no substitute for experience. You learn an awful lot about live sound just with basic equipment and amateur musicians."

Encouraged by the good results he was finding it possible to produce, Gary began to think of adding more equipment.

"Eventually I purchased my own AKG C1000 microphones for drum overheads, and we bought an SM58 and an Audio Technica Pro25 kick drum mic out of band funds, to supplement the very basic Peavey stage mics. The recording quality improved. A Traxdata consumer CD recorder completed the basic recording setup, and then routine production of CDs at home was possible via my hi‑fi. With no more than £1000‑worth of gear, I could easily make demo CDs at a quality that was consistent with the musicians' capabilities. Experimenting with a four‑track, effects unit and compressor was a great way of learning the basics. I'm glad I started out on simple analogue equipment before going into the digital domain."

Main Equipment

  • AKG C1000 (x2) and AT3035 mics.
  • Alesis 3630 compressor.
  • Joemeek VC3 preamps.
  • Tascam 788 digital Portastudio.
  • Traxdata CD writer.

Orchestral Manoeuvres

Having developed a taste for location recording, and with an interest in most genres of music, Gary decided to have a go at an orchestral recording. The AKG C1000s had been purchased with this in mind, as well as for drum overheads. Once more, Gary was making sure he got maximum use from every bit of his equipment.

Luckily, when he approached the Somerset County Orchestra, based in Taunton, their committee were keen to have a recording of their Christmas concert based on dance music through the ages.

"The programme varied from chamber, concerto and orchestral, through light music, to a modern composition including rock instruments, plus a 100‑strong school choir! This was a challenging multi‑mic job, really, but my modest setup at that time could only stretch to simple direct‑to‑stereo recording. In fact, I used the 424's preamps feeding the CD recorder, to get a 16‑bit digital recording. Tapes were used as a back‑up, but the dynamic range of the music was beyond the capabilities of a cassette multitracker!

"In the end, the recorded sound quality was excellent. I had the luxury of working in a proper control room in a brand‑new arts centre, and a little help from the resident sound engineer. I used the C1000s as a coincident stereo pair, situated about 2m behind the conductor at about 2.5m height. They captured the sound well, albeit with too much emphasis on the brass section, a thin string section, due to the number of violinists, and a rather distant choir. The varied programme was a superb learning experience.

"The master CDRs were mixed down via the Zoom unit, to add a bit of artificial reverb to the dry acoustics. Editing from CD to CDR had to be done with very basic facilities. Edit points, fade‑outs, and so on, had to be noted on a sheet of paper as the two master recordings were compiled onto a 70‑minute CDR master. I had a local duplicating company produce 30 copies, and I used the Expressit software to produce labels and inserts at home. I even sorted out the MCPS royalty payments!

"The orchestra were amazed at the sound quality. The conductor would have liked the balance changed — the brass section tend to drown the strings — but I had to explain that this was not a multi‑mic Deutsche Grammophon recording! Given the sound quality of the amateur orchestra, the recording was entirely adequate, and it was a good souvenir for the members of the orchestra and public."

Going Digital

Gary next became involved in a project which has proved to be a long‑term proposition, working with Lucy Stroud, a local songwriter whom he saw performing in his local pub and invited to support one of the band's gigs.

READERZONE"I produced a live recording for her, on the 424, and then we recorded 10 new songs at a village hall, simultaneously onto the 424 and CDR, using one track for vocals and one for guitar. It was a low‑budget, stereo, 16‑bit digital recording, purely for demos to give to pub landords. We're now doing a higher quality album project with new equipment.

"I'd started to outgrow the 424, and I felt that digital multitracks were becoming affordable. After a lot of research I settled on the Tascam 788, because it had the right features at the price for the way I work. This, coupled with a couple of Joemeek VC3s and the new Audio Technica 3035 microphone, gives something very close to a professional sound.

"Lots of the articles in SOS have inspired me to have a go at recording a wide variety of instruments and musical styles. My basic approach has been to scour the local papers for details of gigs and concerts, and then ask if I can record the concert, at no charge, to learn microphone techniques and get used to a wide variety of acoustics. Most musicians are delighted to have a recording of their live performance. It's quite remarkable what you learn from doing each location recording.

"The big change in facilities and sound quality now that I'm using quality preamps and the 788 has enabled me to produce CDs from an organ concert at Wells cathedral, a lute and recorder recital, a string quartet, jazz band, a soul band, and the Samba Sulis Brazilian percussion ensemble from Bath. Of course, I'm also continuing the longer‑term album project with Lucy Stroud.

"I'm now routinely using a new lottery‑funded village hall for recording. It has excellent (if lively) acoustics, but you can use them to good effect by placing the musicians and microphones carefully. Sticking to one main venue is very useful — I'm used to the hall and its acoustics, and I can record drums without needing to put any reverb on at all during mixdown. You just have to be careful and not get too much spill into the mics. The hall also has the advantage of being in a rural situation, well away from any noise. We do get the odd roof creak, due to thermal expansion — usually in the quietest passage of a song! — but it doesn't happen too often. The downside is setting up the gear for each session and that's where the simplicity and portability of a Portastudio and the Joemeek preamps gives me an advantage."

With such a simple setup, does Gary never yearn for more sophisticated gear, or even the convenience of computer‑based editing? His answer is unequivocal.

"I have no wish to spend my time with MIDI and computers. I prefer working with real people and live sounds to sampling and sequencing, even though I do have Cakewalk and a Yamaha keyboard. I suppose it must be my age. Music technology has brought us some great sounds, but it can make things so clinical that the human element is neglected. There's a lot of satisfaction to be had by tracking down and recording someone with (say) a real harpsichord rather than using a setting on a synth. And because I make contact with such a wide variety of musicians, I can use their services on the album project, too. I was able to get a Latin percussion backing on one of the songs by offering to do a recording for the Samba Sulis ensemble.

READERZONE"For the money, the Tascam 788 is an excellent piece of gear. People might look down their noses at Portastudios, but the sonic results have been good enough to please professional musicians. They even sound good on £2000+ hi‑fi systems. The main market for my efforts is band demos and very limited runs of CDs for musicians, so why would I need anything more?

"There are some compromises — such as only having six simultaneous inputs, getting digital distortion with some programme material well below the metered 0dB level when mixed, and some effects limitations. But they force you into improving your own recording techniques. I'm sure you learn more by striving to get release quality recordings out of semi‑professional gear. Anyway, the equipment I have is probably far superior to what was used on some of the pre‑'70s music I listen to . An engineer in the 1960s would have given anything for eight tracks, let alone digital mixing, editing and effects! Moving to a digital hard disk system shows you that the main limitation is in your own sound engineering abilities, rather than the equipment."

Future Perfect

Gary's compact setup has been chosen with great care, bearing in mind his levels of expertise and his requirements at each stage. He's a great example of what enthusiasm and a flexible, optimistic attitude can achieve, with a location recording sideline going from strength to strength, and even a recent local newspaper feature to raise his profile — and he still manages to hold down a conventional job.

"I would love to become a recording engineer full‑time — just like many other readers, no doubt! But realistically there is still so much to learn, and in the short term finishing a good quality‑album project with Lucy Stroud is my main aim. It may only sell a few hundred copies at her local gigs, but I'll get more of a sense of achievement out of that than I did running a CD factory making 200,000 chart CDs per day! Maybe the hobby would be less enjoyable if I had to earn a living out of it anyway. Eventually I'll have to solve the problem of driving my wife and teenage children mad hearing mixdowns in the lounge of my 'sad' music, but at the moment there is no space for the traditional home studio."

Complete Gear List

  • AKG C1000 mics (x2).
  • Alesis 3630 compressor.
  • Audio Technica 3035 large‑diaphragm condenser mic
  • Home hi‑fi for monitoring and mixing, with Arcam Delta 90 amplifier and home‑made Wilmslow Audio Volt Studio monitors.
  • Joemeek VC3 preamps (x2).
  • Shure SM57 dynamic mic.
  • Tascam 788 digital Portastudio.
  • TEAC SCSI CDRW (for multitrack backups).
  • Traxdata CD writer.
  • VDC Star Quad OFC cabling (at least 100m).
  • Plus access to band's PA and mics.