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Toyah Wilcox: Leap

Interview | Artist By Paul White
Published January 1994

Toyah's first pop album for several years, Leap, was recorded not in an expensive commercial studio, but in the type of home recording environment with which many SOS readers will be intimately familiar, as Paul White discovers.

Since marrying Robert Fripp, Toyah has maintained a lower public profile than she did at the height of her pop career, but she has remained musically very active and has just completed a self‑financed album project with her young, local backing band, Friday Forever. Rather than work in a large West End studio, she wanted to capture a live feel to the album and resorted to home recording in the literal sense of the word. Armed with a couple of Alesis ADATs and Robert Fripp's effects rack, supplemented by her live stage equipment, she has put together a refreshingly organic album comprising both new songs and old songs given new treatments.

The technical side of the album was handled by Paul Nicholson, her live sound engineer, Chris Binns, and David Singleton who usually works with Robert Fripp as recording engineer and producer, doubling as equipment technician. I arranged to meet Toyah, Chris and Paul at her Wiltshire home where Toyah obligingly filled in the details of her latest venture.

Toyah: "I'd been touring live with a local band called Friday Forever, doing old material in a contemporary style, and it was going down so well that we decided to record it exactly as we'd been playing it. Since I haven't had an album out since 1991, I felt it wouldn't be right just to release an album of the old, early punk stuff, without any new stuff on it. So we picked six of my new songs which begin the album, and then follow them up with songs taken from Sheep Farming in Barnet, my punk album, right through to the hit singles.

"The album was recorded at Chris's house, where we could maintain the group without outside interference. We hired in what equipment was needed and used Paul's Soundtracs Solo console for recording and mixing. The house had four or five different rooms that we could use for recording, including various outhouses and a stable."

Recorded Live

How much of the album was recorded live and what was the extent of the overdubbing?

Chris: "The drums, bass and guitars were played totally live in one room with the guitar amps miked up in different rooms throughout the house, which meant we got plenty of separation and everyone could still play in the same room. The basic guitar sound was the result of natural amp and speaker distortion rather than lots of overdrive or effects; we did try DI'ing the guitars, but eventually, miking up gave the best results, apart from the bass, which was DI'd."

Did you use any special drum mics for the job or did you use whatever you have for your live work?

Paul: "For the bass drum, we first tried using the Beyer 380 but ended up using an Audio Technica ATM25 which worked very well. We used a good old Shure SM57 on snare and an EV357 on hi‑hat, plus a combination of EV 408s and 308s on the rack toms. The overheads were Beyers; a 201 on one side and a 69 on the other."

I'd assume, then, that you used only very light damping and left the kit pretty live too?

Paul: "Yes, it was very live, you can actually hear the toms ringing on a couple of tracks, but that's the feel we wanted. We didn't use any gates on the drum kit as I've always thought of the drum kit as interactive; I like all the drums to play off each other.

"For vocals we used a Beyer MC740 capacitor microphone at a distance of around 12 inches all the way through the project. It was fitted with a foam 'sock', but we didn't use a pop shield. Toyah doesn't have an immensely powerful voice and there are problems live in getting her above the guitars, partly because her vocal range is slap in the middle of the guitar's frequency range. We did have to EQ out a little top end while recording because Toyah has quite a bright voice, but the result was a very warm, transparent, open sound. We had one or two problems with pops which we had to drop in and patch up, but nothing serious.

"For the first week of recording, we stuck Toyah in the stable but we had to move out of there because she discovered that she suffered from hay fever!

"We finished off the vocals using a room in the house and set up the mic right in the centre of the room to keep it away from any wall reflections. One of the nice things about using the Beyer MC740 is that it gave a very honest, apparently uncoloured sound. No compression was used during the recording as Toyah has very good vocal control, though we added a little compression during the mix using a Drawmer LX20. We hired in some additional compressors and gates for the recording, but as it turns out, we didn't use any of them. Little or no EQ was used for most things; we were very careful with input levels and microphone position."

Guitar Sounds

Chris: "We tried to treat the whole thing as much like a live recording as possible. This did create a few problems with the guitarists, because it was more difficult for them to play without much in the way of effects, so we compromised a little bit, hence the loudspeakers in different parts of the house. The recording was conventional, with a dynamic mic placed up against the speaker grille. We had to persuade them both to record using less distortion than they were used to so that we could have more control when it came to mixing. We also had to work around the fact that the frequency range of the guitar can conflict with the female voice quite a lot, but Joe was really very good about it and adapted his playing to suit.

Toyah: "I'd say the whole band came out of this album a different band; the gigs we did after the album were just stunning. I'd already demo'd everything with well‑established musicians in London, but the band had to take those songs and give them a band identity, which took a lot of rehearsal and a lot of thought. They're a very young band with an average age of about 19, and though they'd done demo recording before, this was their first serious project."

Where did you mix the album?

Toyah: "The same place. We took a break and then re‑set up for mixing with just the four of us; the band had gone off by then. Because I wanted the vocals to sound live, there were a few things that I was prepared to live with for the sake of not sterilising the feel. What I loathe about some commercial recordings is that they even edit out the breaths; we've kept all the breathing so the recording has quite a raw edge to it.

"There were no keyboards used on the album, just two guitars, bass and drums; the guitar sounds were processed at the mixing stage using Robert's Korg A1 and A2 amongst other things. We borrowed Robert's ROM pack and just had a field day."

The Fripp Influence

Did Robert know about this?

Toyah: "Oh yeah. He's a great fan of Paul Luthor who does all the lead guitar — he keeps saying he's going to be the star of tomorrow. He let us use all his settings, and his Eventide H3000 which he wanted me to use on my vocal. We wiped a few of his programs — more chuckles — but he had backups."

What sort of treatments were those?

Toyah: "Special echos, special reverbs. We used the Eventide for loops, and though there are no keyboards on the album, the uninitiated listener would probably assume that we were using them. There's the Harmonizer being triggered by the guitars or vocals, and all sorts of other sound effects and noises. There are quite a lot of sound effects including stones being thrown into a river, processed through the Harmonizer.

"Because the tracking facilities weren't huge — I only had about three vocal tracks per song — we ADT'd the backing vocals quite a lot. We did a re‑recording of 'I Want to be Free', and I wanted the backing vocals to sound like the whole of New York, so we used all those effects quite a lot.

"What I like about working with a guitar band is the way that the guitars move slightly in and out of pitch depending on how hard you hit the strings. That isolates the vocal in a big way so we were trying lots of ways of merging the voice in with the guitars. In the end, I decided to live with the isolation; I think that many singers introduce keyboards to merge in the harmonics, but we're all pleased with the results we achieved.

"One thing we discovered is that the A1 wasn't really right for the guitar sounds we wanted. The A2 was far better. The A1 suffers from extremes — you can get some beautiful, ethereal effects or you can get heavily overdriven sounds, but there seems to be very little in between. I used the A1 in Germany to process my voice; for that I use my voice almost like a keyboard where I punch in effects and then sing the note. It's perfect for that, but it didn't feel right on the guitar at all. But then, on the A2, we were using Robert's perfected programs which he'd spent a long time working on."

Use Of Effects

When it comes to mixing, do you have a favourite reverb you like to work with?

Paul: "On this album we used the Eventide H3000 on the vocals and also a Yamaha SPX900, mainly for the backing vocals. We also used an ART Alpha which turned out to be a great machine for the money."

Chris: "The desk was Paul's live Soundtracs Solo and the monitors were the Primary Acoustics LMA nearfields which my company makes. We were also careful to check the recordings on a number of different systems and we'd regularly take tapes home or check them out in the car. We also set up a separate listening room during the recording where the band could come and check what they'd done using a pair of Professional Monitor Company AB1s.

"We mixed down onto a Sony DATMan. They're useful because you can take them anywhere to record sound effects. Robert is planning to officially master the album at Tony Arnold's local facility where the tracks will be compiled, compressed and EQ'd as required. We might also process the entire album via the SPL Vitalizer, which sounds really great."

Do you have a title and release date for the album yet?

Toyah: "The album is called Leap, but the exact release date for this country isn't fixed yet. In the rest of the world, the album will be out by Christmas. It has a very contemporary rock/dance feel. We've taken the punk numbers, which I've always loved, and given them the kind of Red Hot Chilli Peppers treatment, and in a way, they work better than ever before. And for the sake of making the salesmen happy, the hit singles are on there and they've been given the same kind of treatment.

"We were going into colleges gigging, and the kids, who I think were barely old enough to remember me, were getting off on it in a very big way. I didn't want to be playing the stodgy old rock rhythms, so we've just spiced everything up. And then we've added six new, very contemporary tracks to open the album with."

It seems brave to be attempting contemporary dance without using a drum machine.

Toyah: "Well, Paul Beavis has a reputation for being as accurate as a drum machine, though we did use an underlying drum machine beat on the first track."

Chris: "I don't think the drum machine really gives anyone any motivation to get up and dance in the same way that a good drummer does. For me, a good live drummer gives a piece of music so much more power."

In retrospect, did you find 16 tracks enough for the album?

Toyah: "Vocally it was a bit limiting, but I think I'd do the next album the same way. There were occasions where a few more tracks would be nice, but we were working to a set budget and a set time period which imposed its own limitations.

"With ADAT we could have done a rough mix to a new tape and then filled the rest of that tape up with new vocal takes. That allows you to work, in effect, with more tape tracks than you have machines; you only need to hire in an extra machine for the day of the mix. We didn't do that, and if we had, we might well have started running out of mixer channels because of the number of effects returns and stereo sound effects we were flying in."

The Result

The result sounds as though it has benefited from being fun to make rather than being too formal.

Toyah: "It was fun, but there were formalities too. The band were pretty pissed off with me by the end of the week because to a make them record 14 backing tracks in seven days took its toll — in the hottest part of the year as well. So there was a formality in that I was driving them to do three tracks a day, and even more. We did a few acoustic tracks around the swimming pool and video'd those at the same time. It was a very hectic week, but at the same time very productive. Yes, I'm pretty happy with it!"

Recording With ADAT

Why did you opt to record the album on a pair of ADATs?

Toyah: "We decided to use ADATs because Robert has two, and I'd also just completed a jazz rock album in Germany using ADAT. The sound quality is bright and staggeringly accurate, and I understand it — it's just like using a VCR. The punch in and out is also completely gapless, and though most of the vocals on this album were done in one take, there were times when we had to drop in the odd word to get rid of popping. I've been doing more complex songs of late with fewer spaces between the words, and it is impressive the way you can just drop in without any problem. It was also a very cheap way to work and the results were excellent."

Chris: "What appealed to me was having the dynamic range available to record direct onto the machine without having to compress the signal or mess about with it. It's also nice not having to align the machine everyday and not having to clean or degauss the heads before each session. Without getting into the analogue/digital debate, and bearing in mind that most serious listening is done on CD, you may as well record digitally and make the most of it."

Paul: "The recording was done using two new machines hired in from Studio Hire and there wasn't a single problem. We took a break to do some live gigs and then set about mixing using Robert's ADATs which he'd bought in America. But one of the machines was playing up and wouldn't read one of our tapes reliably so we hired in another machine and that gave us problems too. We ended up calling Alesis USA, who were very helpful and arranged to provide a couple of loan machines through Sound Technology so that we could finish mixing. We had quite a long chat with Alesis, and we could hear them in the background saying 'When are King Crimson going to get back together?' and 'Is Toyah still singing with Robert Fripp?' They seemed quite surprised when I told them they were married!"

Chris: "Here's another minor saga which ADAT users should be aware of. We needed some ADAT tapes to back up the original work, but our supplier was out of stock of Ampex and suggested we use the Sony equivalent. We bought a dozen 120s, and then we had more ADAT problems because they wouldn't run beyond 28 minutes. It turned out they were NTSC, not PAL tapes which are a different length because of the different speeds of the two formats. Aside from being too short, they worked perfectly, but it was all very confusing."

Are you comfortable with the speed at which the ADATs lock up to each other?

Toyah: "They can be rather slow. It's a bore when you're singing, but you get used to it."

Chris: "It's not really a problem, and in terms of the performance and sound quality, the results are excellent."

I notice you have a BRC remote control hooked up to the ADATs; what do you like most about working with the BRC?

Paul: "The flexibility and precision of the autolocation. Everything was recorded live so we didn't use any of the MIDI or timecode facilities on this project. But one thing we did find interesting was the ability to delay individual tracks to create an ADT, stereo kind of effect. The ability to copy and paste from one machine to another using offsets is also very useful for flying in backing vocals or choruses, though Toyah did the majority of the vocals live. The precision of dropping in and out also gives you a lot of confidence."