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From The Twenty First
By Richard Wileman [aka Karda Estra]
Recording sessions @ Chez Twenty-First
Karda Estra in 2000
When JMP asked if I would be interested in writing about setting up a home studio, I initially wondered how would I go about it? I'm used to reading hi-tech magazisnes like Sound On Sound or Future Music and I suppose I'm spoilt with hearing expert advice, particularly when it comes to buying gear. I certainly am no 'expert' - my knowledge of equipment is based on what I've either bought or come acrosss by accident. I've either been persuaded by reviews or if it sounded/felt good in the shop. But then I thought, well surely this is how most musicians have to work - particularly with a home studio. Once I clicked into the thought of writing it simply frosm my own perspective, I really liked the idea. This article therefore isn't an authoritative guide, just a part of my own musical journey...
Compared to most of my musical friends, I came pretty late to home recording. I'd never been interested in cassette multi-trackers, even for demos. With my old band LIVES AND TIMES, I always recorded sketches live into a ghetto blaster or similar and saved the performance and experimentation for recording in a commercial studio (usually the excellent Music Workshop, run by Pete Lamb). When I was recording the final L&T album HOARSE, a few friends had invested in Roland VS880 hard disc recorders, but I was still unsure about getting quality results at home.
I underwent the 'change' when L&T folded (for the third and final time!). There were a lot of internal problems and disagreements and I thought 'never again'! I really wanted to stretch out and experiment. For this, I couldn't afford that amount of exploratory studio time nor was I prepared to be limited by petty squabbling any more. Time to go it alone. Kind Of...
So at the end of 1997 I bought my trusty VS880 - eight tracks / sixty four virtual tracks of hard disc recording in a very reliable and compact unit and 'The Twenty First' studio was born (named after my house number!). I decided to shy away from a computer based system for several reasons - their noise (no good for recording quiet acoustic instruments if you only have the one room like me), tendency to crash and my own dislike of staring at a screen for too long. I use my PC for only very, very few musical applications - I prefer to be out of 'virtual' land as much as possible with the style of music I'm evolving.
I started by experimenting with a few songs in the Lives And Times mould, using drum and synth loops from sample CD's and overlaying live percussion - I'd bought a snare, plus an old beat up hi-hat and ride. I'm certainly no drummer but they work great if you loop them and you get that lovely live feel. More and more bits of percussion were bought/added and Ileesha (L&T vocalist) stayed on board to sing. I was able to mix the whole lot with guitars, effects and synths driven by my trusty Roland MC-50 sequencer that I already had and the results were pretty good for a first time effort at home recording. The greatest factor of course is having the time to rework and change things that are not quiet right. Not having to work against the clock is the most creative thing in the world! As this dawned, I realised I could do something more complex and adventurous...
I started a new set of recordings as an experiment at the start of 1998 inspired by my love of progressive, classical and soundtrack music. Even though the VS880 only has eight tracks, the sixty four virtual tracks allow a great deal of scope. You just have to be positive and objective when it comes to making 'sub-mixes' to overdub to later. It's very inspiring to hear some of the ingenious and complex recordings George Martin and Brian Wilson made in the sixties on only four tracks even though their bounces degraded. With hard disc, there is no quality loss - well to my ears anyway! The first track I wrote was '...From A Deep Sleep' which begins with a guitar loop made from scraping a violin bow across my Fender Statocaster strings, closely followed by some stacked harmony wordless vocals from Ileesha - all now relatively straightforward to do! I was very encouraged by excellent reviews in magazines like Guitarist and The Mix to my initial demo and I carried on recording and before I knew it, Karda Estra became a living, breathing entity, all full of gothic soundscapes and experiments. I also integrated live viola, flute and clarinet for the first album 'A Winter In Summertime'. This wasn't a first for me as early incarnations of Lives And Times included violin, flute and sax and I have always used a lot of my own classical guitar. It's just that you either get lazy or your ear attunes to synth 'orchestral' sounds and you start to rely on them.
Truth is, there is no substitute for the real thing. Don't get me wrong, synths are great at doing their own thing and I don't think I could imagine them not being in my set up. Used orchestrally, however, they suck! I'm constantly amazed by people (some who should know better!) who try and tell me otherwise. I'm always open to new stuff of course - I've recently been investigating a new orchestral module (which shall remain nameless) that has been getting good reviews and promises expert multi-sampling from a top orchestra. I downloaded the demos in hope that at last something good had come out - and it was really awful! There are a lot of clever ways using eq and effects that you can merge synth sounds with live ones and get some good results - and I often do that. I'm not saying I've perfected things - I've a long way to go - but the synth sounds I use are usually tweaked by me so as they are individual. With live instruments however, it really is worth taking the extra time and money (the players usually want paying!). Sure, you can get the tune over with a synth, but it's a real violin or oboe that will make the tears well up in your eyes. I often fatten the sound out with real orchestral samples here and there and this works a treat. I feel I've had a real adventure over three albums with various orchestral players. Not only do they add that extra dimension, but it's nice to interact a little when you're cocooned in your studio prison! Same with vocal sounds - synth 'choirs' are really cheesy - if you know a good singer, build up some real choral chords. The difference is vast.
For my next album, I hope to make some of my own brass samples and record some grand piano too. So far, Ileesha's Audio Technica MB2000L microphone has done an amazing job recording all this stuff with only 60 - 15,000hz range and I can heartily recommend it. Yet, for the new recordings, I want to invest in a better mic, so I'm currently doing a bit of research.
I'm still primarily a guitarist and recording at home gives me a lot of chances to really warp the sound. As KE is not a live project, I don't worry if a performance can be played live, or even repeated. That way, I like making the electric guitar sound as unworldly and far away from conventional rock as I can. I particularly like dragging a triangle beater across the strings to get a theremin sound and using a volume pedal to cut off the attack of the note to get a bowing effect. Octave dividing or distorting my bass guitar is also a lot of fun. I still favour recording from miked amps to DI, although my friend Chris Brown has been getting some excellent DI results from his Pod guitar effect. On the other hand, I record my classical guitar straight with a mike and tend to add very few effects as I love the sound of this instrument so much anyway.
The last thing I bought was a TC Electronic Finalizer Express and it has it's first public airing on my new 'Eve' album. Mastering is a process that comes after recording as it essentially enhances the music. It does this by increasing volume and punch without distorting and adds an overall quality professional eq 'sheen'. My two Lives And Times albums for the SI label were mastered in Holland and they really kick out in comparison to what I've done before and since. With my KE 'Thirteen From The Twenty First' album, I did send it away to be mastered, but didn't like the results. So, I re-recorded two sets of stereo masters back into my VS-880. On playback, I kept one set the same, and adjusted the second at any peaks, usually dipping the volume level at that point or slightly compressing it. This worked much better and 'Thirteen' is pretty pokey. However, there's no substitute for proper mastering, plus I was listening to headphones so much for peaks, I had to get my right ear syringed -not recommended! So, I bought the Finalizer Express and very good it is too. During the year, I really got some songs I was toying with blasting out.
Ironically with 'Eve' however, I had to take a different, quieter route. My new album is the most 'classical' sounding with a lot of dynamics. Extreme compression when mastering increases level and punch but destroys all the sensitivity and averages everything out. Instead, I used it subtly and boosted the level only slightly. My main improvement was to give the eq a warmer sound. I'm very pleased with the way it came out. I've been cruel to myself and compared it with some recent classical and soundtrack albums for level and warmth and I'm very pleased considering the high quality of recording and mastering that went into them.
I probably missed lots out, but that's pretty much to where I am at the moment. To sum up, the great thing about writing, playing and recording in your own studio is FREEDOM. Its can be a pain at times of course, but I love it and can't wait for the next instalment. I know I'm not doing this 'properly', you should have different engineers, producer, mastering engineer etc. I don't see this as a problem though. I'm on my own little odyssey and each new discovery and experiment is a great leap. Someone else telling me what to do would take all the fun out of it!