For many of the Sound On Sound readers featured in Readerzone, the home studio is very much at the heart of their musical activity, whether they write music for picture, record their own songs or offer their services to others. For Ed Dewson, singer/guitarist and principal songwriter with The Serious Hat Band, however, recording always comes second to the demands of a punishing live schedule. Though the band have used their studio skills and home setup to record three albums, studio time has to be snatched between the hours spent organising, travelling to and from, and playing up to six gigs a week. As well as Ed, drummer Michael McCabe and bassist Barrie Trower, the organisation has grown to include full‑time publicist Rick Darris, recording engineer and sometime keyboardist Chris Young, manager Rob James and booking assistant Buster Forest, and the management side now handles several function bands as well.
Ed and the band have managed the rare — in this day and age — achievement of making a decent living from being a live band playing original material. Recording, for them, is a matter of creating a promotional product to sell at gigs and increase their income, rather than a bid to top the charts. "The ethos of what we do is very much one of cutting out the middleman," explains Ed. "We don't offer deals, but if we sell 20,000 CDs, we make about nine quid on each one, whereas if we were signed to a major label we'd probably sell more, but you're not going to get more than a quid or a couple of quid."
"We do tend to cut out the middleman whenever possible," agrees drummer Michael. "For promotional items, for instance, instead of going to a company for ideas, we'll source it ourselves and try to get something a bit more homegrown. In doing all the stuff ourselves, we're getting a better idea of everything that's involved. It puts us in the sort of position where we know 100 percent what's going on, as opposed to putting it in the hands of someone else."
Ed continues: "When you're 18, you think 'Right, I'll get signed up to a record company, and then I'm there.' And even in the eyes of the public that's true as well. We do a lot of small gigs, we play in pubs and clubs, and when people see us in a pub, they often come up and say 'Blimey, why are you guys playing here?' But we're thinking well, it's because we'll sell 50 CDs tonight and 30 T‑shirts, plus we'll get our fee. You can walk away with a grand a night from just a little pub gig."
The band's most recent album, Don't Rush Me, was recorded in the North London house that serves as their office, equipment store and studio, before being mixed at Norwich's Purple Studios and mastered at RPM. "It took about two or three months to record," explains Ed, "but bear in mind we're out gigging all that time, so it's not two or three months solid, that's two or three months within a hectic gigging schedule. Because we gig a lot, the band are very tight and the songs are pretty well developed, so all the details have been worked out already. The disadvantage of doing a lot of live playing is that you're always f***ed.
"We got the album mixed at Purple Studios in Norwich. That actually works really well for us, because we've only got two ADATs, so what we tend to do is, say, record drums on eight tracks, then record them down to a stereo pair but keep the tape, and then we dub to the stereo pair. When we go to mix down we've still got the eight tracks, so we go to a studio with five ADAT machines. We're really big on backing vocals, so we have the luxury of putting down quite a few of those, spinning them back onto eight or 16 tracks of ADAT.
"Because we're essentially live, it tends to work that we set the tape going, play through something, and then tidy up on the ADATs — however, we always do backing vocals on Cubase, so we can layer them up. If it's, say, a four‑part arrangement, we'll do three different recordings of the same part, and you get that big lush Boyzone‑type backing vocal that sounds like a massive choir. So we always do that in Cubase, but then we spin it back onto the tape. I learned all my stuff in an analogue 24‑track studio, so I'm a bit nervous about leaving things to exist on their own on a computer disk. I know ADAT tapes are as likely to go wrong as a computer disk, but I feel once it's on tape it's there and I've got it. We tend to use Cubase for correctional‑type work — we do do the occasional cheat — if a drum bit went wrong we might nick a bit from the first chorus if it went a bit haywire in the second chorus."
The control room and studio equipment are located in the garage adjoining the house, but the Hat Band's recording sessions exploit the whole space available to them, as Ed explains: "Usually Michael'll be sitting in the office here with the drums miked up, we'll put Barrie in there with the headphones, and then I'm often in the studio. So we do a take and then replace whatever needs to be replaced. Whatever we want to keep we'll keep, everything else can serve as a guide."
"We don't play to a click," insists Michael. "Obviously you'd get great tightness, but I think you lose a lot of the emotional input."
"It does make things a little bit harder if you're pissing about in Cubase trying to get things to line up," acknowledges Ed, "but it doesn't actually make too much difference. If there's a wrong note you can cut it out or something like that, but you haven't got a great deal of flexibility with your timing, because obviously things don't line up with the bar lines. No matter how ace you play, there is a little bit of tempo fluctuation, so you can't say 'Right, we'll take the first four bars and move them.'
"The line‑up's bass, drums, keyboards and guitar, but it's acoustic guitar — people always think it's going to be a really folky sound, but it's not. I always double‑track the acoustic guitar so it's one left, one right, and I'll sometimes put a bit of chorus on it. I tend to put a C3000 down near the soundhole and then something like a Ramsa P50 somewhere up the neck. Occasionally I'll mix in a little bit of DI as well. I've tried a million different ways of getting a good, fat acoustic guitar sound. It's easy to get that kind of country jangly light sound, but in what we do the acoustic guitar provides the guts in the middle range, so the way that I eventually settled on doing it, and how it was done on the last album, is just to do two takes of everything with a two‑mic arrangement and pan it left and right. That works really well, you get a good thick sound and it gives it a bit of body because the timing's never exactly the same. But given that we play the songs live all the time, I was quite surprised, when we first did it, how similarly I play it if I play it twice, you know, I play exactly the same kind of feel.
"All the vocals bar one on the last album were done using a C3000 and a Focusrite preamp. It's a nice piece of kit but not top‑notch. But when we mixed there were tuning problems on one of the vocals, so I redid it at the studio. They had a whole succession of top‑notch kit, but I can't tell the difference between the one recorded at the studio and the ones we did here. I was about to buy one of the Neuman TLM mics, because in the 24‑track studio I used to work at they had a U87 and it was great, but I thought 'What's the point, if you can't tell the difference between the two of them?' I mean those Mackie monitors we've got, OK we've not got them on decent stands, but you should be able to tell the difference in clarity and so forth. I think once you've put it through the desk and it's all EQ'd and mixed and mastered, you get to the point, with the kind of music we're doing, where it's not necessary. If you're doing high‑end jazz or classical or whatever, it's probably different, but for the kind of level we're at and the type of music we're doing I don't really think it's necessary. I suppose it depends whether you're interested in gear per se, or whether you're just interested in getting the product out."
Ed's attitude to recording and production, as this suggests, is best described as 'pragmatic': "The way I approach it is, I'm aiming to sound like Crowded House or something like that, and obviously we're not going to be able to do it with the gear that we've got, and with the resources and time that we've got, coupled with the fact that we're always knackered because we're out gigging all the time. So I hope that by aiming for something like Crowded House, we might create something interesting in our own right. Although we're probably not going to achieve what we set out for, we'll end up with something that sounds interesting and will sell, with a bit of luck. The bottom line is how easy the music is to sell. We're not particularly anal, musically."
Bassist Barrie dissents from this point of view: "I am. You've got to tweak the sound, you've got to have a few different sounds. I can't play unless the sound is utterly gorgeous. The problem with bass is that it always sounds the same in every song. You should be turning around and tweaking it, because the bass doesn't sound the same in every song on a record, does it? Let's face it, sometimes you want to get the treble a little bit less or a little bit more — you want to it to sound different each song. Especially with us where Ed plays acoustic — it's not like electric guitar where you can change the sound."
Ed, however, has the last word: "Whenever we do a take and a car goes past it always sounds good on record, and you never notice it anyway. As long as it's not swimming in hiss or something like that, it's all right. How many times do you listen to a CD and think 'Oh, that's not a very good bass sound'? I've never listened to something and thought 'Oh, that sounds terrible.' Some of the Blur albums — Parklife is a good example — some of the sounds on there are not amazing, but as a unit they sound great because the production's so fantastic. But that's down to arrangement. If you listen to the sounds, the guitar playing's as messy as hell; I don't know how they recorded it but it sounds like they just chucked an SM57 in front of a cab — I wouldn't be surprised if they dangled it over the front of the cab. But the arrangements are so good, and so different for the time it was done, that it sounds amazing anyway. I think there's a lot of time spent on getting the right sound, and not enough time spent banging out the notes. If you've got the situation where you can build up a track organically, which obviously in a home‑studio‑type environment you can, then I don't think you need to worry too much about the sound."
Making a living as a gigging band brings its own perils — but it's also given The Serious Hat Band a keen eye for any opportunity for self‑promotion, as drummer Michael's story illustrates: "The band got attacked by a guy with a baseball bat a few years ago. Ed's Takamine guitar still bears the scars. He just marched up on the stage mid‑song and went 'bam, bam, bam'. Three strokes, bass player in hospital. They did a great piece in Time Out about it at the time."
- Alesis ADAT digital multitrack recorder (x2).
- Behringer MX8000A Eurodesk mixer with meterbridge.
- Casio and Technics DAT recorders.
Ed: "We don't tend to master to DAT so much now, because I've had a few problems moving DATs from studio to studio. I don't know if it's just because my DATS are not lined up very well. If we're mixing in‑house, we tend to master directly to CD‑R through the computer, or if it's not very important, to Minidisc."
- Mackie 1604 VLZ mixer.
- Mackie monitors.
Ed: "The Mackie monitors are fantastic. We don't really get the most out of them at the moment, because we don't have them on decent stands. They're probably our next purchase. Obviously in a room this shape and this size, the sound is never going to be perfect but I think, to be honest, with monitors and mixing it's just a question of listening to loads of stuff on them."
- TSC Nashville Apple Mac clone running Cubase VST, linked to ADATs via Korg 1212I/O card.
Ed: "If we're doing a big project we'll get two 19‑inch monitors in, which is great."
PROCESSORS & EFFECTS
- Alesis 3630 compressor.
- Alesis MEQ230 graphic EQ (x2).
- Behringer Multicom four‑channel compressor.
- Behringer Virtualizer Pro multi‑effects.
- Focusrite Green channel strip.
Ed: "A brilliant piece of kit, great customer service as well — I get really annoyed with companies that don't back up customer service. It went down and they had a replacement out to me really quickly. In fact, I got a call from the managing director saying 'Just checking you're happy with everything'. It kind of made me think I should get more professional‑grade stuff, rather than getting the cheap and cheerful stuff."
- Lexicon Alex and MPX100 multi‑effects.
- SPL Vitalizer Jack enhancer.
- Yamaha REX50 multi‑effects (x2).
- Zoom 1202 multi‑effects.
- AKG C3000 and D112.
- Audio‑Technica PZM.
- Beyer M201S.
- Ramsa P50 (x2).
- Shure SM57s and SM58s.