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TJ STONE: Studio Equipment? Less Is More

Sounding Off
Published June 1999

TJ STONE: Studio Equipment? Less Is More

SOS reader TJ Stone asks whether the mountains of sophisticated equipment available to successful musicians and producers really help to make better recordings.

Production — what's it all about, eh? Arranging, re‑arranging, and then re‑re‑arranging a song until it's finally 'finished' enough to be released to the public for their critical delectation? Or is it the process of arsing about for six months on a project, desperately trying to find that elusive creative spark to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse? If you haven't got any good songs you can always claim that you're really not interested in making commercial recordings and that you're experimenting with the process of recording, using the vehicle of music to express your inner feelings and thoughts, and therefore attaining a higher level of spiritual content within your work. One thing's for sure, your producer's going to love it if you do, because if every artist favoured the straightforward approach to recording, he'd probably be out of a job.

So why the cynicism? Well, first there's the never‑ending stream of articles published in the music press extolling the virtues of has‑beens who haven't had a hit for 20 years but are now delving into the depths of technology, producing (in the opinion of their press office), 'their best and most mature work yet'. And then there's the ones who get interviewed in technical mags — often very talented artists, but what a meal they make of the production process! Does it really need to be so convoluted? I realise that magazines like SOS do invite artists and producers to talk gear, but I think there's a difference between those who are getting the job done and those who have lost their way. Here's a fictional example of the sort of thing I mean:

Terry: "I like to keep things simple while I'm working, so I record my first ideas straight onto an old E16 reel‑to‑reel which I've had for years. I often find that I get almost all the main aspects of a song in place at this point." After his initial ideas have been sketched out, Terry dissects his arrangements and assigns each part to different instruments for recording. Using his SSL console, Terry records straight into his Otari RADAR. "I like the quality of the RADAR; it behaves just like an analogue recorder but it's actually digital. It's probably all I'll ever need."

Once all the tracks are complete, the audio is exported into Pro Tools for further processing. It's at this stage that Terry's samplers come into the equation. Each separate Pro Tools channel is sampled using his Emu Emax II to add that 'low‑resolution, grainy effect' before being recombined and assembled using the new Apple G3 running Cubase VST. "I find Cubase provides a very intuitive working environment. Once my songs are finished, I like to use the Arrange page to cut them up and change everything — add effects, insert a new chorus or play all the tracks backwards. Sometimes I get a new idea and completely start again!"

Terry's collaborator Dave Scroggins will then take the finished DAT tapes, copy them onto his beloved DA88 and begin the process of mastering. Dave explains his role: "Obviously with an artist of Terry's calibre there isn't much work to do on his finished tapes, but I find it easier to completely start again, that way it stays fresh." Dave loves the sound of 88‑piece orchestras and so all the synth parts are re‑recorded... And so on and so forth.

What I'm talking about is extravagance and, wait for it... indulgence. People who don't have to worry about where their next pay cheque is coming from, with studios most would die for, spend months and months producing what are often, at the end of the day, mediocre recordings. I'll admit that experimentation is a great thing and can lead to the best new ideas, but there comes a time when a little discipline is needed to knuckle down and produce a finished result.

I don't think many people continue to make good records for very long after they become successful. Some do, but I think most have too much money and too many resources at their disposal to afford themselves the luxury of, er, doing without — and therefore making the best of what they've already got. They lose sight of the basics (like having a good idea in the first place), and start to believe that only by using every process ever used in the history of recording will they be able to produce a good record. And that's just the artists — the producers are even more prone to over‑indulgence. Many spend their time tweaking every last note until no imperfections are left and every note comes complete with perfect pitch, oodles of effects and zero excitement.

It could be argued that equipment is primarily there to help complete a project or to realise an idea, and that the simplest way to do a job is probably the best way. I must admit that I find myself reading interviews and thinking, 'if you're using a RADAR, Pro Tools and VST as well, you must be doing something wrong', because I'm sure superb results could be achieved with just one of the above items and a good idea. So, what do I suggest to twiddling producers and artists? Well, if you've got one too many Pro Tools, RADAR, or Soundscape systems in your over‑endowed studio, then streamline your setup, get back to the real world and concentrate on writing some great tunes. Oh, and then send your redundant gear to me. Please.

If you'd like to air your views in this column, please send your ideas to: Sounding Off, Sound On Sound, Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambs CB3 8SQ. Any comments on the contents of previous columns are also welcome, and should be sent to the Editor at the same address. Email: