Paul Jackson Music

Paul Jackson Music

Thursday, 23 May 2013

#5: Record, Rewind, Remix

A recent Facebook interchange with an old university pal inspired me to write this. We were chatting  about all things ‘synths and samplers’ and I mentioned a remix that he did of one of my tracks back when we were students. This then brought up memories of what drew me to go on the Popular Music and Recording Course in the first place up there in Salford.

By Gavin Rothery.
Taken from a photo of me
at the recording session. 

Towards the end of my fifth year at school, I was lucky enough to be involved in a recording session at the studios at Salford University. The large soul band I was in at the time, run by our music teacher, spent a day there recording several songs. This was the first time I had been inside a recording studio and was my first experience of recording on this sort of scale. We spent most of the day recording various parts of one song – a cover of Joe Cocker’s ‘The Letter’ followed by a live session of various other songs. I chatted with the guy who engineered the session and discovered that he had just graduated from a course at the university where recording such sessions was part of the coursework. He also told me of other parts of the course including recording your own song in a studio, and then doing a 12” remix of it. This sold it for me. A course where one of the requirements was to remix a track sounded not just “up my street” but parked firmly in the drive. I had to apply for this course.

Fast forward five years and following a successful application and many hours dabbling in the studios, performing gigs in the bar and befriending other musicians, the time had finally come to do such a 12” remix.  Not only that, but we also had to remix someone else’s track requiring us to swap 24-track master tapes with other students. A bit like when after a pub quiz you swap the papers with another team to do the marking.

Among several tracks I had put together in the studio, the one I worked on for this particular part of the course was a song called ‘Making Mistakes’. I had originally recorded it as a four track demo with lots of sequencer lines but now in the studio I laid down the individual parts from the synths using SMPTE code to trigger my sequencer from the master tape to keep them synchronised. I added various vocal parts and also brought in Matt Bellingham, a friend on the course, who put down some guitar parts and effects. One effect I wanted was some screaming feedback, which meant cranking up the volume of the speakers so it would pick it up from his guitar. It was quite tricky to cover our ears while either playing or controlling the desk.
Once the track was finished and had been mixed down, I could then go back to the multi-track tape and work on a remix or two. Because I was recording in analogue I couldn’t really rearrange the structure of the track without cutting and splicing the tape – something I didn’t really want to do. So I recorded the mix in two parts and then pressed pause on the cassette I was mixing down to while I rewound the multi-track tape machine to do the next part. As for the mix, I used mute buttons and faders to bring the various parts in and out and did it all live to tape.  These days with all the audio parts on the computer, you can chop up and change around various bits and easily add new ones but this wasn’t so simple with a big reel tape going round. So it meant a lot of planning out on paper and my hands flying over the desk, pressing a few mute buttons at once, throwing up a fader, tweaking an EQ knob here and there to get a filtering effect. It was great, great fun and sadly one I’ve not had opportunity to repeat since.

As for remixing someone else’s track, the one I chose was a song called ‘Kiss Me Kill Me’ that had been written and recorded by Adam Dineen (friend, keyboard player in Production, later flatmate and even later work colleague). This was a different approach where I sequenced a new version of the song, and then using the sampler in the studio took various parts of his multi-track tape including each vocal line and guitar solo and then recorded them together with my parts. I even changed the structure of the song making his bridge section into the chorus.
However, another approach was one by Dave Williams who asked to borrow one of my recordings for his remix submission. He took ‘Making Mistakes’ and proceeded to do something really quite inventive. He sampled lots of various sounds from the track and built up a version using them with new sequencer lines playing those sounds.  So to me all the sounds were familiar including the snatches of vocal and so forth, but it was still something different and fresh and exciting to hear someone else’s take on one of my songs. I recently dug out the tape and gave it an airing for the first time in many many years. 

The last year of the course was definitely the best year I had there. I was more acquainted with using the studios, I had expanded Production into a three piece line up for a few gigs and I was writing and performing more as S-cape. Handing in the final coursework of bound essays, manuscripts and recordings was a relief on one hand but also very sad as it meant the journey from first sitting in the studios with the engineer had now come to an end. 
While recording, editing and mixing at a computer is very convenient and can still be fun, a little part of me does miss the days of pressing buttons on various boxes in a studio at breakneck speed while doing a live mix. Maybe one day I’ll do that again.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

#4: Tonic Proud – Current projects

So in and amongst me blogging about past musical memories, I’ll be writing about what I’m up to right now. From 2002 to 2012 I was mainly involved in writing and recording music for dance education which allowed me to experiment with different time signatures, genres, sounds and musical forms. Some were very electronic sounding while others used samples of orchestral and traditional instruments. The electronic/synth/pop/dance styles I worked in for ‘Production’, ‘S-cape’ and other monikers, did creep into a few of the tracks but in the main that style was put to one side. This did leave a few unfinished tracks which I’ve always been keen to finish off, even if only for my own satisfaction and pleasure. Back in 2003, I went to see Karl Bartos perform at London’s ICA and was blown away by the setup of synths, vocoder and pure electronic pop. It was what I had been trying to work towards in the previous twelve years. I started sketching some ideas for tracks and recording bits and pieces with the plan for an album’s worth of new tracks (plus a reworking of an earlier one). Although I put up a couple of unfinished demos onto MySpace, they were never as I fully intended and they were put to one side while I concentrated on other things.

With regards to musical projects, I tend to only follow through and finish a small percentage of the ones I plan to take on, but this group of unfinished tracks has always niggled me and in the last couple of years I’ve started fleshing them out a bit more in my head and more recently started recording and re-recording bits of them. So for me they will be a collection of old tracks really rather than ten brand new ones but no matter. 

I never fully appreciated the relationship one can have with a song/track/musical work until I started writing them for myself. A lot of people can come up with a track and finish it very quickly before moving onto something else. Although I have done that many times, particularly with the dance education  tracks where I had deadlines to work towards, some pieces can grow over time and lay around for years and years in one state before being picked up again. Almost like feeding and watering plants over time and watching them slowly grow and blossom. So because of that, a track will always sound different to me than it would to someone who hears the finished version for the first time.  My main aim is to try and capture the track I hear in my head, which I don’t think is ever possible.  I’ve restarted many tracks that don’t feel to be going in the direction I want them. Earlier this week I tried to steer a track I was getting more confident with only to find a quick left at the lights and it had gone off course.

But the tracks are still germinating and what little bits of time I can grab I will tend to them and hopefully bring them to fruition. This particular project has no deadline really and I don’t mind how long it takes. Some of them are nearly ten years old now so there’s no big hurry. The only thing I have planned for them is that I put them up somewhere on Bandcamp, MySpace, YouTube or whatever is the ‘in’ thing by the time they are done. Having said that I’d quite like to get it finished by the time I’m forty which at the time of writing leaves me just ten months. I’ve various other musical ideas and projects I’m keen to tackle afterwards.
 I’ve chosen to work under the name/title ‘Tonic Proud’, which could mean either the feeling of going back to the ‘home key’ in a musical sense. A returning to a style/sound/musical environment I’ve always enjoyed working in. Or it could mean tonic in the sense of feeling refreshed or invigorated.

I’ve written music for dance festival commissions, short films and CD releases which have all required working to guidelines within a certain time frame. 
As well as being good fun and as well as helping me develop certain compositional and recording techniques, sometimes you have to revisit what you enjoy the most. For me, that is building up an idea slowly and steadily and hearing it transform into a fully developed and finished work purely for the love and passion of doing it.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

#3: Car Journey Soundtracks

This month marks ten years since I passed my driving test. I'm not a huge lover of driving cars or being amongst them in traffic, but one thing I do like is playing music in the car. Obviously you have to compromise on music selection and volume level when you're car sharing but if I have to nip out somewhere on my own, I like to pick a CD from my collection for a soundtrack to the journey ahead. A trip to the recycling tip, supermarket or elsewhere is greatly enhanced when you have one of your favourite albums pouring out of the speakers.

It has also been a good way for me to hear new music when I've been a passenger with a like-minded music fan and there are a few moments I remember fondly. There was the time when  my friend Chris and I drove to the 1998 Reading festival  and stopped off at Oxford for lunch and a trip to HMV where he purchased some new singles including “Honey” by Moby. That became the soundtrack for the rest of the journey and whenever I hear it I still have visions of a sunny drive into  Berkshire.

When I was eighteen I attended an outdoor Jazz festival headlined by Courtney Pine in the outskirts of Huddersfield. After failing to get a taxi from a desolate spot in Grange Moor well after midnight, I decided to start walking in the direction of Huddersfield town centre and for the first and, so far, only time in my life I stuck out my thumb and hitched a lift. The driver was interested to hear of the gig I'd been to and we chatted about music. Michael Jackson's “Dangerous” album had recently been released and he was keen to play me his favourite tracks from it on cassette.

However, the most notable occasion was when I spent my 27th birthday in Scotland with my cousin, Colin. He was working and living in Inverurie and we were to travel by car to Inverness for a night out and a stay-over. Because of the sudden heavy snowfall by the time we reached there, it was decided we would drive around Loch Ness and then back out of Inverness again without stopping and onto Elgin which became our destination for a great birthday trip. But prior to all that, we had a lengthy journey up and across the country and on setting off Colin announced we would need a suitable soundtrack. Now I was never a massive fan of heavy rock music so much. There were a few records I liked but generally I could take or leave it. 

But something about it being cranked up in the car while travelling through a deserted wintry landscape was just perfect and sounded great. We pulled up outside a record shop in Aberdeen. Colin jumped out and said “I'll be back in a minute”. He very soon emerged from the shop with a pile of CDs. The first four albums by AC/DC and the debut album by Van Halen. They were fed into the car stereo, the volume was turned up, the handbrake was released and we were off. 

Twelve years on and I haven't heard the albums since, but they still all sound great in my head. I have doubts as to whether the Young brothers or Eddie had images of the Scottish Highlands covered in snow when they first started writing and recording but the music and imagery fused together very well for me and remains a great memory.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

#2: Multi-track recording - The early days

During the past few weeks I've been writing and recording music again following a lengthy gap. Partly for my own pleasure and partly as a quest to finish off a bunch of tracks that have been left 'parked' for a number of years. While I've been knee-deep in synth waves, samples and multi-tracks on my trusty Cubase sequencer program, I couldn't help thinking back to my early recording set-ups in comparison.

When I was eighteen I would regularly borrow the school's four-track portastudio and drum machine for the holidays, and set them up with my synthesizer at home.

My first proper programmable synth was the Korg Poly 800ii which had (and still has) an onboard step-time sequencer. I would program the bassline patterns and structure the song around the limited number of notes it could hold. I would create drum patterns onto the Yamaha RX21 drum machine and arrange them into the song structure I had previously worked out on paper. Whereas today I'll spend time going through countless kick or snare drum sounds and then edit them with filters, pitch, envelope controls and multi-layering, the RX21 offered only nine sounds so when it came to using a kick drum sound, I had only one choice.

The Yamaha would trigger the Korg sequencer via a connecting midi cable and I'd record them together onto the Fostex X-15 multitrack tape deck. The remaining tracks would be used for hand-played synth parts and a vocal. 'Bouncing' two tracks to one would free up space for more recording parts though it would compromise the sound quality a little. I would then feed the stereo output of the Fostex into the hifi and mix it all down to stereo. It was very rough and ready but it did the job and was immense fun. The Fostex did have a constant low hum which sits in the background of all my early recordings. I didn't have the insight to set all my songs in a key that could incorporate the hum as a pedal note, but you live and learn. 

Very soon I grew impatient of waiting for the school holidays to come round so I would quite often set up in the music department after school and work into the evenings. Once the school had an Atari computer running the Steinberg Pro24 sequencer program, the possibilities quickly expanded. I'd sequence all the instrument parts onto the Atari using multi-timbral keyboards such as the Roland D10 and record everything in stereo onto two tracks of the Fostex X-15. The remaining two tracks would then be used for vocals. I filled up many a cassette this way of demo recordings and it gave me a good grounding for the move to Salford University.

Nowadays with using a sequencer program like Cubase, any limitations are outweighed by the sheer number of audio recording and sequencer tracks available as well as a wealth of sounds and tools. One can almost be spoilt for choice and overwhelmed by the endless options available to work with. But twenty years ago there was some excitement when working with limited resources and it would result in a more prolific output of finished (though raw sounding) recordings. Although recording today is still immense fun, I can quite often spend as much time creating a kick drum track as I would have recording an entire song a couple of decades ago. However, the emphasis today is more on quality than quantity.