Another 'through the keyhole' glimpse into one more SOS reader's studio.
Thank goodness someone invented the motor car. It may be one of the most environmentally unfriendly things on the planet, but if it weren't for the car, houses wouldn't have been built with garages, and without garages there would be hundreds of musicians with no shelter for their home studios!
SOS reader Simon Greatbatch still has space for a car in his garage, but the end of the building has been partitioned off to create a small office and control room, and the adjoining shed, once just a bare‑brick outbuilding, has been transformed into his main studio. For Simon, the setup is almost ideal; his business as a freelance web site designer and his musical projects take place in the same space, and home is right next door. Nevertheless, setting everything up to his satisfaction took a lot of time and effort.
"When we moved into this house, about seven years ago, this room was nothing more than a brick shed tagged onto the end of the garage," explains Simon. "It had a really battered old door and was literally just a brick shell. Initially I padded it out with battens and plasterboard, and I put up one of those aluminium‑strip and tile suspended ceilings you get in offices. There was still no window, but I just needed somewhere to put the equipment away from the house, so I could turn it up loud enough to get a decent soundand not wake the kids or disturb the neighbours. It sufficed for a while, but with no natural daylight it was a horrible place to work.
"At that time I still had my office in a study room in the front of the house, but it became impractical to live and work in the same space, so I decided to convert the end of the garage into my office. I got the builders to put the door in the garage wall and cut a section of the end wall out to put in the patio door that opens into the studio. I'd always fancied having a studio room with a patio window.
- AMD Athlon 800MHz PC with Alesis ADAT Edit card.
- Steinberg Cubase VST sequencer.
- Yamaha EX5 keyboard workstation.
- Mackie SR24:4 analogue mixer.
- Yamaha O1V digital desk with ADAT interface.
"A mate of mine very generously helped me build a plasterboard partition wall to separate off the rest of the garage from the office. Then we padded the walls with battens, insulation and plasterboard. There's rockwool in the ceiling, and the windows and doors are double glazed. It's not perfectly soundproofed but you can have it extremely loud and hear very little when you stand outside, although I am fortunate that on one side there is nothing but fields.
"Today there are two rooms separated by a patio door, which means I can record vocals or live instruments with some separation between the performance and recording area. It's not perfect yet, because I still need to add acoustic treatment to make the studio more neutral‑sounding. The whole lot was converted from what was really just a crappy little shed and garage into a studio and office for about £1000."
Simon's studio is now a well‑lit and comfortable room flanked on two sides by work surfaces and recording gear. The studio is based around a PC with AMD Athlon 800MHz processor, running Steinberg Cubase VST, a Mackie SR24:4 analogue desk which takes inputs from the studio's many keyboards and sound modules, and a Yamaha O1V digital desk that is primarily used to interface with the computer's Alesis ADAT Edit soundcard. Although he still intends to improve his studio further, by purchasing more outboard processors, Simon has not put his music on hold until then. Instead, he has plans to start a small independent record label and is currently producing a local band and a vocal artist — and he's involved in several collaborations. All told, it seems that Simon has never let caution stop him from taking a gamble: during the 15 years during which he has been involved in music, he has ploughed time and energy into many projects which have brought him mixed portions of success and failure. Fortunately, he remains optimistic and puts it all down to experience.
"I started with a Casio CT202 keyboard and Jen SX1000 synthesizer, both of which I bought to use live," remembers Simon, "but eventually I realised the limitations of them, so I got a Roland Juno 6, and later a Yamaha CX5M music computer. The CX5 was a painstaking thing to program because it was all notation onto the staves, but in those days it was really cool to have a TV screen on stage because everyone thought it was a Fairlight, so I started using the CX5 as my keyboard. In my ignorance, I thought that it would be really easy to have the drummer play along to the sequencer, but he didn't like the idea of having to wear headphones or being restricted to a fixed structure.
"About that time I began to enjoy the studio stuff more, so I started recording in my bedroom. I replaced the CX5 with an Atari running C‑Lab Creator. I also bought a Kawai K1 synth, a Roland D110 sound module, a Yamaha FB01 module, a Tascam Porta 01 Portastudio, a Roland drum machine and a Prophet 2000 sampler. I was still living with my parents, so I was working to fund my studio and getting into as much debt as I possibly could! The first decent setup I had was a Fostex A8 8‑track reel‑to‑reel, an Alesis Microverb reverb, and a big Stellarmix 16:8 desk that was horrendously noisy — but at the time it was a choice between that and a Seck.
"Eventually I started another computer‑based band with a drummer who had a Roland electronic kit. We went out live with everything hooked up to the sequencer, but it was an nightmare because we had a huge rig which kept crashing in the middle of the set."
Realising that it wasn't possible to successfully create the live MIDI band he had hoped for, Simon gave up the live work and begun a project with ex‑Weapon of Peace musician Mick De Souza. Simon explains how they begun collaborating. "Originally our band were signed to Mick's management agency but he wanted to produce more music so I started to work with him, and soon after we decided to set up a little studio in his cellar, doing Soul II Soul and Coldcut‑type material. We sold my Fostex A8 and invested some money in an Akai MG1214 12‑track, which was a big white machine that used Akai's own brand of video cassette‑style tapes. We already had my keyboards but we also got a Korg M1 and an Akai S950 sampler. I was doing all the engineering and production, and practically all the arrangements, so I did learn an awful lot, but after about two years we decided to wind it all down. I came out with less gear than I went in with, and I had a bit of a lull for two years.
Not all of Simon's endeavours were destined to come to nothing, however, and one particularly successful collaboration in 1992 provided him with an opportunity to become a published songwriter. Ironically, the success was born from the failure of 'Plan A'. Simon takes up the story...
"I started doing a lot of work with a good mate of mine called Dave Ashley and we met a chap who was managing one of the then Gladiators. He asked us if we fancied writing some stuff for his Gladiator, who he wanted to turn into a pop star, so we wrote some really OTT Lisa Stansfield/Stock, Aitken & Waterman‑type commercial material. Then the very day we went to finalise a recording deal we read on the front page of the paper that she (the Gladiator) had been kicked out of the series. I'd given up my job because I thought we were onto something big, so in desperation I phoned up the producer of the show, who turned out to be 'nasty' Nigel Lithgow from Popstars. We explained the situation and asked if we could put some ideas forward for the program, and he said yes. We got a rapper and a vocalist and put the composition together using an old Studiomaster desk, another Fostex 8‑track and a borrowed Casio FZ1 to fly in vocal samples. We sent our work to Nigel and he agreed to use it. They called it 'Gladiator's Rap' and it appeared at the end of all the Gladiators programs in 1993. We'd used such a basic and old setup that we were really pleased that we had achieved airplay. That was just a phone call to the right person, so I guess that as long as you come up with the goods there are opportunities there for you."
Commercial enterprises aside, Simon admits that the most satisfying musical project he's ever taken part in was a challenging commission he recently received from the Staffordshire Arts and Museum service, one which led him to work with some local young offenders and prisoners. "I was working with a writer called Martin Glynn, who had been asked to create the narrative," explains Simon. "I had to record all the sound effects and all the narrative parts and put it together to form a 70 minute‑long radio play. The idea was to get the kids and prisoners to express their thoughts and their general attitude to life through music. Although some of them are thought of as being the lowest of the low, they have got some really interesting things to say and a lot of creativity that they've never been given the chance to express.
"Some of the prisoners we worked with were high‑profile, category‑'A' prisoners, so I was nervous before I went in. I took a Yamaha Promix desk, my computer with an SW1000XG soundcard, and the Yamaha EX5 workstation. The prisoners' lyrics were recorded as best I could, but it was really hard to do with gates clanging — it's not exactly Air Studios! Some of the vocal recordings didn't come out very well, and it was difficult to get an ordered atmosphere, but it was the only chance I had to capture it.
"The young offenders are basically teenagers who have lost the plot a little bit, so they go to a local community institution instead of school or prison. I did a week‑long residential session with them as well. I put down some very basic rhythms and loops and got them to write lyrics or cut stuff in and out.
"One exercise was to send them outside to find anything that could make a noise. They were coming back with twigs, stones and cans and we were sampling them into Cubase and using Cool Edit for sample manipulation. We were completely mangling the sounds to create futuristic sound effects. Cool Edit has timestretching, pitch‑shifting and various filters, and you can apply Direct X effects. For example, we recorded the sound of a cup full of pebbles being shaken and moved it down five octaves, added some reverb and ended up with a sort of mad alien‑landscape sound. That was all that some of the kids could contribute, but they were amazed at what they could do with stuff that you can find anywhere.
"Ultimately all the characters were played by the prisoners or the kids and all the music has contributions from the kids, so it was a case of collating all the bits, putting them in the right order, and then adding sound effects. For the finished recording I created a stereo file of each scene and of each song and then mixed it all together onto two tracks of Cubase. Then I recorded that as a WAV file."
Complete Gear List
- AMD Athlon 800MHz computer with Alesis ADAT Edit card
- Aiwa DAT Machine
- Boss SX700 effects unit
- Creative Labs Soundblaster 64
- Mackie SR24:4 analogue desk
- Rode NT1 microphone
- Roland UA100 USB Audio Interface
- Tannoy Reveal monitors
- Yamaha O1V digital desk with ADAT interface
- Yamaha SW1000XG soundcard
- Alesis QS6
- Casio CZ5000
- Kawai K1r
- Roland S760 Sampler
- Yamaha EX5 workstation
- Yamaha FB01 FM sound module
- Steinberg Cubase VST MIDI + Audio sequencer
- Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro digital editor
- Yamaha XG Edit patch‑editing software
Getting Into Gear
Although Simon's studio setup is modest by the standards of some, he has purchased carefully, so that every item performs a useful task. He provides a tour of the essentials: "I swapped my Yamaha Promix 01 for the Mackie SR24:4, to get some more channels. It's really just a sub‑mixer for the keyboards. Now I need some compressors to go on the channels. I use the Yamaha 01V for its dynamics and for getting audio into the computer. It gives a nice clean signal but the digital compressors are a bit harsh, so I want a valve‑based mic preamp for vocals. The 01V plugs into an Alesis ADAT Edit soundcard in the back of the PC, and that allows me to record eight individual channels at once. I have a multicore coming through the wall from the office, so I can have a real drummer in the office area using eight mic channels.
"I'm halfway through a project with a couple of the prison lads, where they play acoustic guitars and sing. I took my laptop into the prison, with my Roland UA100 as an audio interface, and used four mics to record simultaneously onto separate tracks in the laptop. I have my office computers networked, so it's easy to transfer information from the laptop to the main music computer. When I'm not using the UA100 as an audio interface, I use it for additional effects.
"I use a lot of plug‑ins. There's an SPL Direct X tube plug‑in called Tubewarmth which gives a really warm sound when you crank up the overdrive. I use the Cubase compressors quite a lot. I think they're actually quite good. I try to get the signal right when it's going into the computer so I don't have to take up too much processing power when I'm doing the mixdown — although the whole dynamics section doesn't take up much overhead on the computer — but even if I compress on the way in I sometimes add more using the Cubase processors.
"I bought my EX5 because it offered everything in one box but I became disillusioned with it at first, because it was riddled with operating system bugs. Since then I've put loads of ROM upgrades in there, so it has the latest OS, but there are still things that it does really badly — for example, it only works some of the time if you send a drum kit through the individual outs. Soundwise, it's fantastic as long as you don't expect to do everything at once.
"Until recently I was using a £30 PZM mic from Tandy, which gave a nice clear sound, but I get a much broader sound with my new Rode NT1 and I don't have to EQ it as much. I did try a lot of mics before the Rode, specifically an AKG C1000, but that just sounded muddy in comparison to the PZM. I'm really happy with the Rode.
"I still occasionally use my Roland S760 sampler, which is a bit long in the tooth but has awesome sound quality and filters. Since I've had Cubase I haven't done much sampling with the 760, but I have it linked up to the monitor in the corner. I use it a lot for drums and I have some nice string samples for it, but it would be nice to have a dedicated module. The problem is that if you spend a load of money on a professional sound library, you still need a few powerful samplers to run a decent arrangement, so at the moment I get by using the samples off the S760. Some of the low string sounds and brass stuff on the QS6 are good, although the the strings do get a bit screechy when you get up to the higher registers. Generally I use the EX5 for the brass and woodwind arrangements."
The various setbacks and false starts that Simon has experienced during his musical career seem to have done nothing to dampen his enthusiasm or his ambition. He sums up his plans for his studio and his musical career: "I'd really like to get into soundtrack work — say, programme theme tunes or backing scores to a drama series. I intend to start a small, independent, web‑based label to provide an outlet for any work that is produced here. I've got a network of talented musical friends but they're not getting the opportunities because it's so difficult to get any label interest these days. Through a collective site we can showcase our music and perhaps get some DJs behind us who are prepared to play it. I'm not bothered about making shedloads of money out of it — I just want to get it out so people can hear what we are doing.
The MP3 audio files located in the righthand sidebar are taken from Simon's song collaborations with Ni Singh.
"I've been working with a really talented singer and songwriter called Silvio from Dudley. He's a massive bloke with an amazingly high voice. We did a lot of work together over 18 months, trying to get that '80s‑style big sound by using a lot of orchestration and Trevor Horn‑style production. He attracted quite a lot of label interest but they must have thought he was a bit too OTT, or perhaps they couldn't find a market for him, because nothing came of that project. Now we're doing a lot of dance‑orientated stuff here.
"I'm also working with a good friend of mine, Ni Singh, doing a type of Anglo/Asian music under the name of Cassava. We're mixing urban beats and sounds with Asian and Oriental samples from all sorts of weird sources. Ni will compile a batch of samples, then I'll find what I like and build a track up around it. Once the basic music bed is there, he'll pick some lyrics and try to match them to whatever music's going on."