Since we started our Readerzone articles four years ago, intrepid SOS reporters have been all over Britain in search of interesting readers' studios to feature. This month, we're a lot closer to home. Rob Jackson is a Geordie by birth, but for the last few years he's been making music in and around the fair city of Cambridge, not five miles from the Sound On Sound offices.
Rob is primarily a guitarist, and has developed an unusual electric style based around the EBEABE tuning, using string-benders to achieve a sound that is sometimes reminiscent of a pedal steel. As well as backing local luminaries like Boo Hewerdine and the Broken Family Band, he also plays solo instrumental pieces using a Line 6 Delay Modeler to create looping textures in a haunting style he describes as 'Celticountry'. His latest project is a band called The Low Country, with a sparse, American sound that calls to mind the likes of Lucinda Williams and Low. "The mission was fairly simple, in that I wanted to form a group that would play very mellow country-type music, hence the name," explains Rob. "My only other preconceived ideas were that there would be no drums and that we would use strings, bass, electric and acoustic guitars. The style of the music and the format of the band meant that we were looking for a very special singer and we found that in Emily Barker who's a genuine country girl, albeit from Australia. Not only does Emily have a great voice, but she also has an extraordinary talent for really feeling the song and singing it like she's lived every line. We're very lucky to have her. Then we have Anja Dove who handles all the string parts [using a Bridge electric violin for live work], myself on electric guitar, and we've just found a bass player, Alex Machell, who also sings rather well."
Rob's demos for The Low Country have already been aired on John Peel's Radio One show, and like his solo recordings, are all the more impressive when you consider the modest setup used to create them. Rob has had a home recording setup of one sort or another for years, but he's never gone down the four-track route. "I've played guitar since I was about 13 and I remember doing the two-tape-cassette-recorders thing fairly early on — bouncing tracks back and forth until it became total mush," he remembers. "That was my principal composition tool for quite some time actually, then I went straight to a fairly elaborate MIDI sound-module-based setup using the old Yamaha CX5 computer. I spent several years tinkering with that pretending that I was going to do the music for the next James Bond movie while paying off an enormous credit card bill!"
These days, the CX5 is long gone, but Rob's early experience with computer-based recording hasn't put him off. A fast Windows XP PC running Cakewalk's Sonar MIDI + Audio sequencer is now Rob's main recording tool, with a Joemeek MQ3 input channel and M-Audio Audiophile soundcard supplying the rest of the signal chain. The studio space, such as it is, is simply a corner of his living room.
- PC running Windows XP Pro.
- Cakewalk Sonar v1.3 MIDI + Audio sequencer.
- IK Multimedia T-Racks mastering software.
- Sonic Foundry SoundForge editor.
- M-Audio Audiophile 2496 soundcard.
- M-Audio SP4B Studiophile monitors.
- AKG C3000B, Audio-Technica ATM33a and Shure SM57 mics.
- Joemeek MQ3 and VC3 preamps.
Rob's unusual guitar technique and setup contribute to his distinctive sound. "I've sort of painted myself into a corner with my guitar, such that I can't really play a normal one any more," he laughs. "My number one squeeze these days is a '78 natural Telecaster. I love it. It weighs a ton and sustains for days. I've got two string benders on there operated by palm levers with my picking hand on the top E and B. A guy in the US called Bill Bores is putting the finishing touches to a custom-designed triple bender as we speak. We're very excited about that, as it'll have several unique features. Bill is a genius. Like most other string-bender players, I got into it because I wanted to be able to play pedal steel-type licks. I love that sound — it's something I've worked on quite a bit. As for pickups, I'm your typical saddo gear-head, always trying new stuff and I've a drawer full of pickups to prove it. My favourites so far are a set of Bill Lawrence units, a 280TN and a 290TL. They have a really nice, big full sound, and they hum-cancel too."
To go with his Telecaster(s), Rob has also amassed a fair collection of amps, ranging from a tiny Tokai transistor model to a vintage Fender Vibrolux, but these are used only on gigs. "For the most part, miking up an amp just isn't an option for me," he says. "I record at home and while I really like the sound of tube amps, especially old Fenders, the problem, as you know, is that you've got to get them cooking a bit before nice things happen tone-wise. The neighbours just don't appreciate arguments about having to push a non-master-volume valve amp into natural distortion! So, I've been using the Award Session JD20 for a few years now and I really like it. It's got good drive and EQ controls plus a nice speaker emulator. More recently, I've discovered that by adding a little Maxon Compressor in front of the JD20, you can get a pretty passable imitation of a tube amp's natural sag — it certainly feels like it when you play. Finally, I stick a lo-fi Maxon Analog Delay pedal at the end of the chain set to provide a soft muffled slap-back. To my ears, that was the icing on the cake as it makes it sound just like a really badly-miked cab in a horrible room! [he laughs] Sometimes I'll add an Electroharmonix Holy Grail reverb in there if I need to interact with the reverb effect while I'm recording the guitar part, rather than adding reverb afterwards — you play differently when you can hear the effect. So aside from the Holy Grail, which is digital pretending to be lo-fi analogue, it's all analogue stuff. The whole amp modelling thing has passed me by, and to be honest, I'm just not interested right now."
For recording acoustic instruments Rob has an AKG C3000 condenser mic, which he uses on violin, placing it around 12 inches from the sound-holes. Perhaps surprisingly, however, he sometimes prefers to use a Shure SM57 dynamic for acoustic guitar: " It varies a little bit. On a couple of tracks with The Low Country, we've recorded the vocal and acoustic at the same time and I'll use a SM57 for the guitar. All the acoustic on my own CD was recorded with that mic, even the solo pieces — I really like that grainy approximation of the actual sound you can get with the SM57 — a bit like the charm of an old black and white photograph. For a bigger, authentic and more lively sound, I record the acoustic in stereo using a pair of Audio-Technica ATM33a condensers. I much prefer doing that to get an engaging stereo spread from the guitar than say, double-tracking the part. I used to do that a lot, and while it can obviously work well for some stuff, it somehow feels wrong for what we're doing in The Low Country."
Rob is in the process of recording his third solo album: his first, So Low, was a largely acoustic affair, while Wire, Wood & Magnets showcased the layered electric guitar pieces he performs live. The recorded versions are created in quite a different way from their live counterparts: "It's generally quite different, although when I record, I might start with a loop and hang parts off that just to get the track going. I'll also add acoustic to the recordings for more tonal variety. Live, I only use the electric and tend to play very clean, using very few effects, often just the Line 6 itself. For the solo CD, I felt the need to make it more interesting sound-wise, so I used a lot more effects. For those recordings, I just kept stacking up parts and sounds by jamming along, and keeping the stuff I liked. Then I started stripping it all back so the notion of some kind of arrangement took shape. My first solo CD was all done with a fairly cheap soundcard, and somehow, everything ended up sounding a bit grainy — sort of like a digital remaster of an old analogue recording gone wrong. Having said that, I grew to like it over time. My newer solo recordings are much better thanks to a software and hardware upgrade.
"I'd used Cakewalk for years, and of course Sonar had to follow. What I love about Sonar right now is that it never seems to crash on my PC. I only do audio and I'm certainly not what you'd call a power user, but there's nothing worse than music software crashing when you're trying to work on something — it totally kills the moment. I like Sonar because it's fast, stable and serves my simple needs without throwing me any annoying curve balls. I've only done a few fun tracks with drums, and for those I used audio samples from Cakewalk's Drag & Drop Drummer. I spent most of the time on those projects dirtying up all those pristine studio-quality drum samples and loops so it sounded like a cheap kit recorded in an industrial unit! Mostly though, everything I do these days will be with audio, unless that James Bond soundtrack offer ever comes along!"
Everything is mixed entirely within the PC, using the stock Cakewalk plug-ins, including the basic reverb and EQ. "I've found I can get the sounds or make the adjustments I want using those basic tools," explains Rob. "I'll admit, I've never compared the ones I use to the ones that people would say are better. I guess it can get a bit like replacing the stock pickups on your Telecaster! I think it helps when you're only using the effects in a subtle way, like rolling off a little high or low end or whatever. On the more recent recording project with The Low Country, I'm mostly going for a more old-style retro sound, so it's a good thing when those reverbs aren't super-realistic or whatever — it becomes part of the sound, so I just fiddle around with the parameters until it sounds good to me. I actually spend quite a bit of time making things sound less than pristine. I've just discovered that the Tape Simulator plug-in can do quite nice things with emulated saturation for example — I've used that on almost everything except the vocals. It really makes the guitars sound like they were recorded loud."
The final stage in the recording process is mastering, when Sonar gives way to Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge editor and IK Multimedia's T-Racks mastering suite. "I really like T-Racks," says Rob. "I mix down from Sonar and create a 24-bit file which T-Racks can handle. I generally like to roll off the extreme low end so the speakers aren't struggling to pump out stuff you can't actually hear — it's not like we're a dance act. I also use the compressor on the overall mix plus a little of that stereo enhancer — that's very cool so long as you don't overdo it. For some reason, if you do, and your stuff gets played on the radio, it sounds a bit weird. The limiter's good for grabbing the really bad spikes that I've missed during audio edits, although I will generally go back and fix those if I see the needles on T-Racks pumping excessively. I only use Sound Forge to top and tail and normalise. Then I'll burn a reference CD-R and do the usual thing of listening to it on as many different setups as possible — hi-fi, ghetto-blaster, Walkman, and so on. Then I make notes of things that I think should be changed and go back through the whole cycle. For a track for The Low Country, I'll do that five or six times on average, before I decide to let it go."
Recording The Low Country was a rather different challenge from Rob's solo material. For one thing, the band's music is largely acoustic and pretty delicate, yet Rob's living-room 'studio' doesn't really offer many options for keeping the PC and its intrusive fan noise out of harm's way. How much of a problem is this? "Well, there's where you get a kick-back for using a dynamic mic," he laughs. "We recorded all of this stuff in the same room as the PC, and I managed to screen out a little PC fan noise, which I should really look into replacing by the way, by erecting a foam keep-fit mat barrier that acted as a sort of vocal booth. I'm sorry, this is really all very low-tech! The other big problem was traffic noise from outside the house and you can actually hear that if you solo some of the vocal tracks. Luckily, all that stuff got swallowed up with other instruments when it came to mixing."
Another problem was recreating the feel of a live band performance, when the songs were actually being built up in layers through overdubbing. "For the first batch of Low Country demos, we mostly tracked guitar and vocal at the same time. It was a problem down the line, but I just had to go with it and concentrate on making sure Emily was comfortable enough to give a good vocal performance as she was more used to singing and playing at the same time. So there was quite a bit of spill between the acoustic and vocal tracks but I just worked with it. As Emily is a singer at heart, rather than an egomaniacal guitar player like myself, she was very good at overall song dynamics, so she wouldn't be scrubbing away on her acoustic during the delicate quiet verses for example."
Faced with the problem of capturing a tight but live feel when recording a slow ballad through multitracking, Rob hit upon an interesting solution. "On the more recent stuff, we've done the vocals separately, and on a couple, we played to my home-made click tracks. I think it's really important to establish the feel of the song first, as we don't have any percussion in there. Our version of 'Oh! Susanna' is a good example, especially as it's the slowest version you will ever hear! Now you don't really want to be singing that over a click hammering down precisely on every beat of the bar with military marching-band precision, do you? So what I did was loop four bars of me hitting the guitar strings through the Line 6 in a sort of boom-de-chock swaggering type pattern — imagine a scene from an old western with the cowboy slowly riding into town. I'm sure there's a better way to do this, but it worked. That silly little loop is what gives the song its feel, but of course we never actually used it in the finished mix. When we play that one live, we all have to imagine our little cowboys slowly riding into town."