We go through the keyhole of another SOS reader, and ask 'who inhabits a studio like this?'
It's always a pleasure to meet members of that diverse and knowledgeable species, the Sound On Sound reader. It provides a timely reminder of just who the magazine is written for, and illustrates the wide variety of approaches to hi-tech music making. Take Paul Lee, for example. He's an experienced music teacher, positively bursting with enthusiasm for his subject, and on a personal quest to bring music to all — whatever their level of ability. When he isn't hammering out scales with his pupils on the piano, he's working in his small but perfectly formed studio upstairs at his home. A devotee of the Hammond organ, Paul received his first Hammond as a birthday present when he was 14, and within a year had taught himself to play it well enough to perform in public. Later, aged 16, he was offered a Saturday job demonstrating pianos and organs.
"I enjoyed it so much that I missed some of my exams to work in the shop — not my music ones though. Then, one day in the shop, someone asked me if I taught and I thought 'why not?'. I've now been teaching for 15 years." Whilst on holiday in Blackburn, Paul popped into the local music shop, keen to try the latest Yamaha organ range. The shop owner offered him the chance to run the Yamaha music school there, and he didn't need to be asked twice. Now married and based in Clitheroe in the Ribble Valley, Paul teaches both piano and keyboard full time, and has gained his ALCM (Associate of the London College of Music) diploma. He's also recently opened his own music studio, Leeway Studio Productions. The idea had been forming in Paul's mind for years, but it was the purchase of an Akai DSP12 hard disk recorder that really got it started. Paul explains: "A few years ago I got the Akai DPS12 and started thinking about doing the studio seriously. Before then I had a Kawai QX80 sequencer, a Korg O5R/W module, and the Alesis SR16 drum machine. I wanted to record people singing or playing solo instruments either for demo albums, self-promotion, or just for their own pleasure. I also wanted to write my own stuff and eventually record that."
Transforming a room in his terraced house into a studio, complete with vocal booth, was no small task, especially when balanced against his job as a teacher. "It took me four months to build the studio upstairs after reading Paul White's Creative Recording books. They're clear and precise with no bull and no figures. I'm relatively practical and I don't worry too much about what I'm taking on. If I'd thought about how much work it would be, maybe I wouldn't have started, but I got a great kick out of doing it. I used to spend about six hours hammering and sawing, and then I'd start work teaching."
The vocal booth's location meant that soundproofing was a prime concern, and Paul described how he went about making it: "First I put a layer of felt insulation on the floor, followed by a layer of hardboard, and I built the framework of the booth over the top of that. I made a rectangular framework, which raised the level again, and an identical one above it. I screwed all the batoning to the wall, being careful all the time and using the cut-up rubber matting to insulate, so there's no actual wood touching the wall. The plasterboard all rests against silicone sealant and the rubber matting, which stops most sound getting through. The wall, which backs onto next door, is about four layers of plasterboard plus three or four layers of other insulating stuff — I've always overdone things."
"My greatest fear was getting the door to fit properly. I used cardboard spacers and nailed the door frame to the door, spaced by 2mm all round. Then I screwed the frame to the battens and once it was all nailed securely, took the nails out of the frame and it all fitted perfectly. Screwing the door to the frame with its inch-thick batoning and insulation was very, very hard. It's a heavy door, and drilling into Accrington red brick is hard work too.
"When it was done, I did the cabling based on what I'd read — there's about £1500 worth of cable alone. I used good-quality Neoprene and balanced as many as I could. I made most of the cables myself as it's about half the cost."
- Behringer Eurodesk 3282A mixer.
- Oberheim OB3 Squared drawbar organ module.
- PC with AMD Athlon 1.4GHz Processor, 256MB RAM, and 60GB 7200rpm hard drive, running Cakewalk Sonar.
- Yamaha D24 MO disc recorders (x2).
Looking around the finished studio, I see an Oberheim OB3 organ module, so I asked Paul if he's ever owned a real Hammond.
"Until recently I had a Hammond A100, which is essentially the same as the C3 and B3, but with built-in speakers. It was the Hammond sound that got me into being a player, and it still gives me that tingle down my back when I play one. Unfortunately, as space is a premium in the studio, it had to go. Fortunately, I part-exchanged quite a bit of other equipment, and ended up with the OB3. It's not as good as the real thing, of course, but it gets some way there. It's hard for me to leave it off my own compositions as I feel it gives them that lovely back drop, and is an alternative to using pad or string sounds in a mix."
Residing next to the OB3 is a Fatar Studiologic master keyboard and a Roland JD800. "When I do a piano part, no matter how good the sound is, you can't be quite attached to what you are doing. With the Studiologic, I play totally different piano parts to those I'd do on a synthesizer keyboard. All I wanted was the weighted keys, and they feel good — they have the right amount of resistance and bounce on the keys. It's useful in the studio in case I ever get someone in who needs to be accompanied by a classical pianist, and I can play my own piano parts with conviction. If I want other controllers, I have the JD800."
As a Roland JD800 owner myself, I asked Paul for his thoughts on it. "I absolutely love it! The sounds are so rich and vibrant, and it's so easy to use. You can still get some realistic electric pianos and lead guitars, but this synth is more about being a digital Roland Jupiter 8, producing lovely pads, and with the complete hands-on control. The only limit is the 24-note polyphony." The MIDI outputs of the two keyboards are merged in his PC using Cakewalk Sonar software.
"Cakewalk does the job — I've had no trouble, and it's stable. I updated to Sonar from Pro Audio 9, and it's such an improvement — so quick and easy to use with two soft synths and a Roland virtual Sound Canvas to boot. And I love Sonar's version of 'Acid Loops', which makes composing with drum and instrument loops a real breeze
"As I'm very 'hands on', I use the Kenton Control Freak to program my mixes in Sonar. I don't want to do it all with a mouse, and using sliders is all part of the musical experience. The Kenton also drives the Vaz soft synth and other hardware synths, such as my Yamaha VL70m."
Although he uses several software synths, plug-ins, and other PC software, Paul remains reluctant to put everything inside his computer. "Even though the computer is excellent, I'm uneasy about using it for everything — they play up sometimes. My soft synth occasionally won't find the soundcard, or it shuts down by itself. I don't like staring at a screen either, no matter how big the monitor is.
"I use the Yamaha D24 eight-track to record my desk submixes onto, and I can later archive them onto magneto-optical disc. Everyone has the Alesis or the Fostex, but this is a great unit. I bought it end-of-line so it was a bargain. This year I'm hoping to do location recording, so it'll be ideal for that. I can connect eight mics into it via a small desk, and when I'm back in the studio I can process the recordings on computer via an ADAT link."
Musical snobbery is a theme Paul returns to often, and he caught me out with it effortlessly, switching from a discussion about jazz and classical music to his own hero, Barry Manilow. As my smile faded, I realised he was quite serious. "One of my biggest influences is Barry Manilow. I appreciate him because he's a fine musician and arranger, the king of the ballad, and just feel the quality of those piano chords! But I'll happily listen to classical music, and I love jazz. I'm very much into the jazz style of piano and organ playing: Fats Waller, Jimmy Smith, and so on. I've listened to and read up on dance music and I've started doing that too!"
"I think there's still too much snobbery with music and I hate that. I recently told a music teacher colleague that I was working on some garage music and he said 'what a load of old rubbish that is'. I told him that dance music often relies on just one chord and he said 'how awful'. But when you've got to make that music sound even slightly interesting for five to ten minutes, that takes a great deal of musicianship, so there's an argument both ways — and he took the point in the end.
"The other snobbery behind music is how it's produced. I still don't think anything can produce the quality and colours of a symphony orchestra, but at the end of the day, music is a product to make you feel better or enhance a particular mood. Whether it's produced by an orchestra, or by somebody tapping away on a computer who knows very little about music, if somebody gets something out of it then it's done the job. This is something born from my experiences as a teacher: by helping people of varying abilities, you get sympathetic about musical talent. Every person, regardless of ability, has their own standards and enjoyment of achievement.
"There are so many wonderful aspects to recording: hearing a quality singer in your studio, or writing your own songs. My composing has developed with age, and I'm busy reading the SOS articles on lyric writing at the moment. My wife did a Media and Business Studies degree at college, so I've asked her to help with the promotion for myself and other musicians too. Eventually I'll pay one of the singers I've worked with to record my songs, and I'm really looking forward to that. Another thing I'm enjoying is helping people to arrange their own melodies."
It's still early days, but already Paul's studio is starting to achieve good-quality results. I'll let him have the final word. "What I want most is to put my enthusiasm for music across to other people, so I hope when they come for lessons and to the studio they pick that up. I want to demystify and take away the snobbery. I want people to get enjoyment out of music, even if it's just someone wanting to record a simple little song to take home and play to their family."
- Alesis SR16 drum machine.
- Aiwa tape recorder.
- Behringer Composer Pro compressor — "I use it for doing a submix of compressed drums or 'pre-computer' compression on vocals. It's very quick to set up and I find it quite transparent. I think Behringer is great quality and I don't know how they do it for the price."
- Behringer Eurodesk 3282A mixer — "A good value versatile desk with 32 channels, eight groups, and eight aux sends. There's four-band EQ for some of the channels, but I think that EQ on any mixing desk is built to a price and it's a little grainy. I find with voices you shouldn't do much anyway — maybe add a bit more depth or presence, boosting around 3 to 4kHz."
- Behringer Tube Ultra Q — "This has a fine-sounding EQ for more detailed adjustments. Sometimes I use just the valve warmth to add a bit of that X-factor to vocals and mixes."
- Behringer Ultrafex 2 and Virtualizer multi-effects.
- Beyer DT100 and Sennheiser headphones.
- Boss DR202 groove sampler.
- Dbx 266XL compressor.
- Dbx Quantum Mastering Processor — "It gives everything a polished, punchy feel, and drums come to the front. Whenever a CD leaves here it's an advert for the studio, so the Quantum makes a big difference."
- Emu ESI4000 sampler — "With the effects and extra outputs; it has 32MB of RAM plus a CD and hard drive. I use it a lot for orchestral stuff, pianos, and also with Wavesurgeon on the computer using a home-made extra long SCSI lead — actually two leads welded together."
- Emu Proteus 2000 — "I like the woodiness of the American synth sound, making a nice contrast to the very different tone of the Japanese stuff, and it's pretty intuitve to use. In the future, I plan to add the Peter Siedlaczek orchestral expansion board."
- Grundig Minidisc recorder.
- HHB Circle 5 monitors and Samson Servo 170 amp.
- Joemeek VC3Q preamp.
- Kenton Control Freak Studio Edition controller.
- Korg 05R/W module — "The most user-friendly of the lot. It's quick to use in Multi mode, or to stack sounds in Combi mode, and there's one particular electric piano I can play for hours, plus the strings are great too."
- Lexicon MPX500 effects — "It's so logical and easy to navigate, and I tend to use the Rich Plate algorithm the most, or I'll use the Large Plate and cut down the time so it doesn't clutter the mix. I don't even bother storing the patches because it is so easy to get back to what want each time."
- Oberheim OB3 Squared drawbar organ module.
- Philips CD player.
- Philips CDR775 CD recorder.
- Rode NT2 condenser, AKG D3700 Vocal, and Realistic PZM Microphones.
- Roland JD800 synth.
- Roland JP8080 synth — "Another classic from Roland, again it has a rich musical sound complementing the JD800. It always feels special to use and I can get buried for hours programming it, and it matches the studio decor!"
- Studio logic SL990 master keyboard.
- Yamaha D24 MO disc recorders (x2)
- Yamaha VL70m module — "An awe-inspiring instrument that's so expressive. When you play a flute or saxophone, you realise just how limited playing a sample is. When you play the VL70m with a breath controller, modulation wheels, aftertouch, and so on, it feels really natural — the way you can blow a saxophone harder and get more definition, or more distortion on the reed, is just great. I also use it a lot for distorted, overdriven guitar solos."
- Zoom RFX2000 effects — "The Zoom is completely hands-on and has a 32-band graphic equaliser and multi-band compressor. I like the lo-fi effect for grunging up drums, and it has an absolutely cracking vocoder."
COMPUTERS & SOUNDCARDS
- PC with an AMD Athlon 1.4GHz Processor, 256MB RAM, and a 60GB 7200rpm hard drive.
- Midiman Midisport 2x2 and 4x4 interfaces.
- M-Audio Delta 66 soundcard.
- Terratec DMX 6fire soundcard.
- Plextor 8/2/20 CD writer with Adaptec SCSI interface.
- Cakewalk Sonar.
- Sonic Foundry Sound Forge v5.
- Oberheim OB-Tune plug-in.
- Vaz+ soft synth.
- Wavesurgeon sample editor.
- Zero-X sample looper.