Lo-Fi Symphony for BLANK Studio 5

 Friday 23 September 2016
Studio 5, BLANK Studios & Gallery, 108 North St, Portslade-by-Sea, BN41 1DG

To create a sound piece, within 1 day, in response and homage to the environs of BLANK Studio 5. All sounds to be conjured via a limited array of low-fidelity sound-producing and recording equipment, plus any found sounds and field recordings captured on location, on the day.

EQUIPMENT (all vintage and/or 2nd-hand unless otherwise stated)
Recording: Fostex X-26 4-track cassette recorder (channel 1 input not working); selection of 3 microphones of various vintages; Behringer 4-channel mixer; circa 1960s Park amplifier (low wattage); Headphones; Zoom H1 Handy Recorder (my one concession to modern technology)
Instruments/Sound-producers: Human voice; Human body; Yamaha SU-10 sampler; metronome; Early Learning Centre plastic drum (purchased previously for £1.99 at local charity shop).

In the process of winding down my practice in BLANK studio 5, and packing up my works and materials, I have found the grain of a song idea returning to mind again and again – A Nietzschean slogan that appears on one of my current works in progress: “Everything you need is right here”. Over time it became almost a mantra, a nagging earworm, sound-tracking the hours spent clearing out my paraphernalia. Now and again harmonic counter melodies would suggest themselves, hinting at a choral composition of some kind. And so I vowed to return to the vacant space to compose and record a farewell sound-piece – a Lo-Fi Symphony in 1 day.

I arrive, from Worthing, by bike and set-up my arsenal of lo-fidelity audio equipment. First task is to wipe a cassette on high-speed record.

11:15 – I have had my suspicions about the metronome I have brought with me – it seems to be a bit lazy on every 2nd click. But I need a click-track to help me keep time, so I cheat and hook up my phone to the internet. A little trial and error and I settle on 69bpm.

I record a base vocal take – the repeated phrase “Everything you need is right here” holding a close microphone (AKG) with an auxiliary directed mic’ (SM-58) at approximately 1.5 metres distance. Vocal 2 adds a basic harmony repeating the same phrase, mixed down with Vocal 1, with some high and low EQ tweaked.

Following Vocal 3, I realise everything, bar the click track, has been recorded too quietly. If I try and increase the volume, it merely amplifies the hiss – there is “lo-fi” and there is “unlistenable”, so I cut my losses and start from scratch with the click track.

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14.30 – Much better! A cleaner, louder Vocal 1 and 2 are re-recorded (same mic’s and positions) and mixed down to 1 channel. Vocal 3 is added and we’ve clawed back some time. On this 2nd attempt I make the decision to set a structure for the composition: 10 repeats of the full phrase (10 being a multiple of 5. As in studio 5).

Each of the following Vocal takes requires careful consideration to slot in with the existing ones and to add a new colour or tone to the whole. And as each part is added it must be mixed down to the 1 spare channel I have at my disposal. So with every new addition, an individual part is lost (and another bridge is burned). It is a tricky, but liberating route to feel your way through.

Occasionally, one of my additions doesn’t quite mesh with the others – it is discarded and I try something else. Slowly, with each new part and mix, the piece builds to a rather comforting sounding multi-vocal composition. (I have notes for 6 vocal takes, but there may be 1 or 2 more).

I try adding an over-driven a capella bass part – abandoned in favour of a falsetto counter harmony. I then have an idea to introduce a crashing bass-drum sound during the final 2 phrase repeats. First I try various implements (heavy pliers, bits of wood, a fist, a microphone) out on the toy drum I have hanging around from my previous Lo-Fi Symphony – too feeble! Instead I mic’ up the floor and thud my knee twice on the floorboards in sync with my trusty click-track. This is sampled and hooked up to the 1960s Park amplifier. Once recorded, it doesn’t quite have the desired effect, so I mix it across with some extreme (for this 4-track) EQ. Still no good, and it’s getting late.

I draw a line, and listen back to adjust the levels of the amassed vocal jigsaw I have gradually constructed throughout the afternoon: Vocal 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 on one channel, with added Vocal 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 adding extra presence on the 2nd channel.

19.30 – I record a master mix direct to my Zoom H1 recorder; then a second ‘ambient’ version by routing the 4-track to the Park amp, with the Zoom H1 approximately 2.5 metres distance from the sound source. Then I hastily pack away my gear and load up my bike for a hairy ride along the dark coastal cycle way back home to Worthing.

Notes from the recording process:

Post-production: the final Dry mix + Ambient mix were transferred to Logic audio software; the two mixes were then combined and volume levels tweaked for an overall “wet + dry mix”.

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