TOM GIRLING & JASON COX: Damon Albarn’s 13 Studio
Having decided to construct a studio for their own use, Damon Albarn of Blur and his collaborators Tom Girling and Jason Cox chose to create an environment as unlike a typical commercial studio as possible. And then, as Sam Inglis discovers, they filled it with perhaps the most bizarre assortment of equipment ever collected together…
“In our opinion, gear is built to be abused,” remarks Tom Girling, surveying a stack of battered 1970s string machines piled in one corner. “Whenever any piece of equipment says ‘It’s for this’, we don’t use it for that,” agrees Jason Cox. Both are long-standing friends and collaborators of Damon Albarn and his band Blur, with whom they have been working respectively five and 10 years – Tom as a programmer and engineer, and Jason as roadie, live sound person, guitar technician and engineer – and both clearly share Albarn’s taste for sonic experimentation. For the last three years, the three of them have been setting up and developing the studio in which we’re standing, 13, a process which seems to entail buying anything and everything which could possibly be used as a sound source or processor, and leaving it in a heap somewhere.
The studio has been employed both in recent Blur recordings (most notably their latest album, which shares the same name) and in other projects such as Albarn’s collaboration with celebrated minimalist composer Michael Nyman on the soundtrack to the film Ravenous (see box). “‘Killer For Your Love’ off the Blur album was the first thing done here – to see if everything worked, basically,” Jason explains. “The record company loved it, so it went on the album. And then we did ‘Trailerpark’, that was the next thing, and then we started doing the stuff for the 13 album.”
Blur’s 13 was, in a break from their long-standing association with Stephen Street, produced by William Orbit (see ‘Stellar Orbit’ box), working with Jason and engineer John Smith. Meanwhile, Tom was working with Damon Albarn on his contributions to the Ravenous soundtrack: “The pre-production for 13 was done here,” he explains, “and then the sessions moved to another studio, while me and Damon were doing Ravenous here at the same time – so he was doing Ravenous in the morning and the album in the afternoon. It was a bit hectic!”
Home From Home
Because they were putting together the 13 studio mainly for their own use, Damon, Tom and Jason were able to tailor it to their own needs and wants, as Tom explains. “It’s such a great thing to have all this stuff lying around – if you’re bored for five minutes you can just pick something up and play with it.”
“It’s a good writing environment for Damon, as well,” adds Jason.
“The way that everything’s wired has all been done so that everything’s as easy to use as possible,” continues Tom. “So, for instance, all the keyboards come straight up on the desk with no patching, and he’s got a MIDI controller keyboard on his side of the room and I’ve got the computer on my side, so that if he just wants to start playing stuff on a keyboard, I can start recording, and then if we want to do the drums they’re ready to go as well. So it’s not like ‘Oh, hang on, we need to change this lead, we need to do that, we need to do this.’ It’s all ready to go.”
Convenience is clearly a priority, not only because they frequently have to work very quickly, but because of the way in which Tom, Jason and Damon tend to interact. “Damon basically does the writing, and though he understands kind of what’s going on in here, he doesn’t want to have to think about it at all,” explains Tom. “Which is where we come in. Basically, we remove all the technology side of it from him, so all he’s got to do is play keyboards, or come up with an idea – he’s focused on composing, and we’re focused on equipment, and neither of us really cross over. We are starting to cross over a little bit now, ’cause now we’re both getting more familiar with each other’s territory. The Ravenous thing was just me and Damon – while Jason was doing the album stuff, we weren’t actually working together, so now the three of us are trying to work out exactly who does what role.
“Damon still uses an old cassette 4-track, which travels with him where ever he goes, and an 8-track reel-to-reel with a little desk at home. The 4-track is what he mostly uses – it’s got a mic built in which makes it ultra-easy to use, so for example if he’s away somewhere he can just sing and strum a guitar straight into it, no leads required. So if he gets an idea at any stage he can bash it out on there for future reference. He also uses the 4-track for working out bits and bobs at home, like if we’ve tried to do something new in the studio and its potential hasn’t been fully realised – then he’ll use the 4-track at home to work on it a bit more.
“When he brings it into the studio, we either use it as a reference or actually sample bits of it. If it’s sampled (well, recorded on disk in Logic) it will either be replaced, or on rare occasions will actually be used in the final project. The quality of these demos often leaves a bit to be desired, but at the same time they definitely have their own unique character, which is something special.”
The studio was originally furnished with two Tascam DA88 digital 8-track recorders, but in line with the emphasis on convenience, these have now been largely superseded by a Pro Tools system in a portable rack. “We’ve got 64 tracks of Pro Tools,” explains Tom, “but only 16 in and out. We’ve got two removable 9Gb drives in there for the audio – you can have up to eight in there, so if you want more space you can just phone up a hire company and say ‘Right, give us another drive’. No hassle at all.”
Tom and Jason have also recently acquired portable Apple Mac Powerbook computers, running Emagic’s Logic sequencer. Logic is also their software of choice for recording with Pro Tools, and the computers are set up in such a way as to make transferring projects as easy as possible. “The Powerbooks are linked up using an Ethernet connection, which will eventually also communicate with the Pro Tools system, and via SCSI to the samplers. For us, it’s much better to be able to keep our own material and everything together, so we can just start records at home and then bring them in,” explains Tom.
The two G3 Powerbooks are also loaded up with a comprehensive selection of software synths and samplers, including Koblo’s Vibra 1000 and Vibra 9000, Bitheadz’s Retro AS1 and Unity DS1 (“Although I haven’t managed to get it to work properly yet,” admits Tom), Steinberg/Propellerheads’ Rebirth, and Arboretum’s Metasynth. “All these aren’t used very often,” says Tom, “But I’m sure as we get more familiar (when we don’t have to concentrate so much on what we’re doing) with the whole system it will become second nature. These soft synths are all driven by OMS, which I think I have finally sussed out completely.
“In addition to the synths, we are using things like Recycle, Peak, Mesa, Toast Audio Extractor and a nice little piece of software called Convert Machine. These are all to deal with samples – Convert Machine does a good job at converting any useless audio file formats, like WAV, into useable ones, like AIFF – this tends to be used mainly for downloaded samples from the net.”
Much thought has gone into configuring the software for maximum convenience. “I managed to create a JV1080 Mixer/Editor in Logic’s Environment,” Tom continues. “It took me around six hours to do, but the amount of time that it will save in the long term is amazing. The reason why the JV Environment is quite complex is because of the fact that it uses both SysEx and controllers – sometimes both to perform one function. But the end result gives me control over level, pan, effects sends, effects type, filters, outputs and a load of other bits and bobs. This is a dream for film work as it means that when I load a piece of music, all the settings are automatically recalled for me – I just sit back and press play – no fumbling for sounds (which can look very unprofessional in front of a director). I’ll also add other Environment bits later for things like the Novation BassStation, and then a bit further down the line there will be Environments on the G3s to control the outboard effects units.”
Neither Tom nor Jason has any regrets about abandoning their ageing Atari ST, which now gathers dust next to a pile of 1950s valve reel-to-reel tape recorders. “Now, looking back, everyone we were working with had Mac systems, and they were saying ‘How? How are you doing it on that?’ And now I think, Christ, how did I do it?” wonders Tom. Of the Logic/Pro Tools combination, he says “It’s like almost learning what’s possible in a recording studio all over again. It’s a whole other world that’s opened up. It’s amazing how much you can do, and how easy it is to do as well! Before, we were basically doing stuff with pedals, we’d spend an hour trying to get the right sound out of the pedals in different combinations – but now you can do it with plug-ins, bosh!”
Plugging The Gaps
Given Tom and Jason’s interest in sonic experimentation, it’s no surprise to find them enthusing about Pro Tools plug-ins. However, while they clearly find Pro Tools invaluable for editing, and for quickly and flexibly processing recorded sounds, it’s obvious that for real experimentation they prefer to mess about with analogue kit at the recording stage, where time allows. “We’ve used Pro Tools and Logic as a way of demoing stuff, to start off with – using it as a piece of tape, and then just taking bits and chopping them up and using them as samples. The way we come to it now, we’ve got Pro Tools and the analogue stuff, it’s a good combination of the old and the new. If you’ve got both, you can discard the bad bits of each system.”
One of the good bits of Pro Tools, for Tom and Jason, is its flexibility. Although their ideal working method, where no deadlines apply, tends to favour using analogue processors at the recording stage, this is frequently impractical on real projects. “Because of the way we work in here, which is very fast, things are liable to change a hell of a lot from when you start off,” says Tom. “So it’s not necessarily a good idea to start recording stuff really distorted or compressed or whatever, because five minutes later you might decide you have to have it really clean and pretty. So when we’re recording it’s left pretty clean, and we wait and see where the tune’s going.”
Where they do use plug-ins, it’s also unsurprising to find them ignoring the intended use for a particular plug-in. “We’re probably going to get Amp Farm,” promises Tom. “But it won’t just be for guitars, it’ll be for anything – drums, whatever.” Particular favourites include MDT, a multi-band dynamics plug-in that allows you to draw compression curves (“It’s also got five bands of EQ,” explains Tom. “You can compress all the five bands separately – you can take the bass drum and the snare drum in a loop and treat them differently.”) and Antares’ Auto-Tune. “We did a manual filter thing on the Korg MS10, with the filter self-oscillating and making a note like a theremin,” Jason explains. “Obviously it’s hard to tune it to a precise pitch with a knob, so we put it through Auto-Tune. And we’ve used it as a vocoder-type effect.”
Another plug-in that sees a lot of use at 13 is Ionizer, the 512-band EQ audio restoration tool – which, ironically, is mainly employed in cleaning up the sounds that they coax from their heterogenous collection of ancient analogue kit!
For, despite the presence of their Pro Tools rack and several computers, one glance is enough to make clear the fundamental obsession that lies behind the setting up of 13: experimenting with hardware, the older and more obscure, the better. Every corner, every shelf, and every cupboard is piled high with equipment ranging from classic vintage synths to childrens’ toys – if something makes a sound, it seems, it has a place in the studio.
“This is one of the refreshing things about working with Damon – we keep getting pieces of equipment we use once. You never know what he’s going to turn up with when he comes in,” remarks Tom. “More often than not, every week, he’ll bring one or two new things in that he’s found.”
It is, explains Jason, the unpredictable nature of analogue equipment that really gives it potential for experimentation: “The controls on digital gear are really specific, so that if you say ‘Right, I want more distortion on its own,’ you just get more distortion. If you use analogue stuff, though, it starts doing things itself. Sometimes you want the equipment to do a bit of abstract creating itself, and that’s where analogue pedals come in. You start getting noises out of them you wouldn’t even think you could get, just because a pedal can’t handle whatever’s going into it.”
Although 13 appears to be full to the brim with old analogue keyboards, it’s perhaps surprising to see that there are few obvious ‘classics’. The keyboards in the control room, which are the most often used, include a Roland SH101 and JX3P, various Moog monosynths, and a Korg Polysix. Elsewhere, an SCI Prophet V lies buried among a heap of plastic toys in the live room, but there’s no Minimoog or ARP, no Fender Rhodes, no Jupiters or Junos – and while there are a couple of battered Hammond organs, they’re both very much of the cheesy ’70s home-keyboard flavour. There are also some modern workhorses, including a Yamaha P100 Clavinova – Damon’s master keyboard – the inevitable Roland JV1080, fully expanded, and a Novation BassStation Rack.
It seems that both Tom and Jason often prefer to work by layering sounds from their different monosynths, rather than using polyphonic machines. “We’ve got all the monosynths we really need,” explains Jason. “The Moog Prodigy and the Rogue are superb. We’re one-fingered keyboard players, really.”
“On one of the remixes that we did, we had five synths all playing the same line – the SH101, Rogue, Prodigy, Source, BassStation – and that was fat!” Tom continues. “I’ve never been that impressed with Junos, really. Obviously, all of these are CV and gate synths, so we’ve got a Kenton Pro 2 MIDI-to-CV converter, and the SH101 is controlled by the BassStation. The Polysix has been retrofitted with MIDI and eight CV and gate outputs.”
“It’s basically another Pro 2 in the Polysix,” continues Jason. “But it’s very temperamental, it’s a pain in the arse. The trouble with the Polysix is, it just sounds like Duran Duran – it’s got that bloody mid ’80s chorused string sound.”
Toys For The Boys
Although 13 is by no means a large space, there’s no such thing as a quick tour, simply because of the sheer quantity of equipment in it. Pride of place, at the moment, goes to a severely tacky-looking brown plastic organ with an odd selection of buttons. “Have you ever heard of an Optigan?” enquires Jason. Pressing a key elicits a sound like a cross between a harmonium and a dying seal, which seems like the sound any beaten-up toy organ might produce until Jason fishes an odd-looking LP-sized clear plastic disc from its electronic intestines. “It’s an optical record,” he explains. “The waves are actually drawn on a see-through record, and the machine has an eye which actually reads the waves, and that’s how it creates the sound. If I hold it up to the light, you can actually see the sounds!”
While the Optigan’s keyboard produces wheezing organ tones – each track on the disc has the same organ tone at a different pitch – the buttons to the left of it are used to play the backing tracks which make up the rest of the record. “Every track is the same loop in a different key,” explains Jason. “It was originally made as a kid’s toy, to learn music on, and this German band went in to a studio and recorded 150 tunes in every key – not just once, but in every single key, so you’ve got that one loop in every key. Imagine, a German band just sitting there for ages doing the same loop in every single key. You’ve got your drums and your keys, and then you’ve got an organ to play over the top. And it was all made as a toy!”
“There are also different percussion loops you can turn on and off,” adds Tom.
“You can imagine the cult following behind all of this,” continues Jason. “There’s a massive Internet site for it [www.optigan.com, home of (amongst much else) the downloadable ‘virtual optigan’, a Java-based simulation of the instrument], and someone’s found the original multitracks that all the records were made out of, in Germany, and they’re just trying to find a company to actually start making them again.”
“Apparently it’s quite rare these days to have one with this number of records,” explains Tom, swapping Pop Piano Plus Guitar for the marvellous Big Top Marching Band with its snare-drum rolls, oompah brass, piccolo trills and recorded applause.
“As soon as you hear that, you think ‘God, we don’t even need to do anything else – let’s just release that!'” exclaims Jason. And release it they have; the Optigan surfaces on both Albarn’s Ravenous soundtrack and Blur’s 13 album (on the track ‘Optigan 1’, naturally).
The Optigan is by no means the only ‘toy’ that sees use in 13. Also knocking around in the control room is a flat, rectangular plastic instrument, spray-painted metallic green, with three large metal balls resting on top. “Remember the old Speak & Spell?” enquires Jason. “This is one we got from a mad guy in America. These balls are old tank ball-bearings that sit between the wheel and the track. He’s added ring modulators and stuff, and a theremin sort of thing for pitch. He actually said you can learn to play it, but… The first thing you’ve got to do is just set it up so you’re getting a constant tone out of it, and then you play it like a theremin – but so far we’ve failed to even do that!”
“And these switches make it loop around specific bits of speech, but garble it at the same time,” continues Tom. “As far as I can make out, he just like buys loads of old kiddies’ toys in bulk, whenever he sees the end of a job lot, he buys them all and then just butchers them.” The results, as the tank bearings roll around on the pressure-sensitive surface and the speech is garbled by the additional circuitry, sound like a very sick R2-D2 from Star Wars.
“He made this other thing, too,” says Jason, fishing a smaller spray-painted box out of a cupboard. “It’s called the photon clarinet. It’s like a theremin, but it works with light again – the brighter the light, the higher the pitch. It’s got two little eyes in there. It just creates a tone, basically, so when you’re on stage and the lights are going mad, if you just stick that on stage, plugged up, it’ll do mad things for you. It’s the abstract thing we’re after.”
More novelty instruments await in the live room. “That’s a bass stylophone,” says Tom of an overgrown version of the classic toy keyboard. “I didn’t know they existed either, until it arrived! It’s got a light-controllable wah-wah on it.”
“Again, you can just stick it on the stage and let the lights do things with it,” continues Tom. “You get two sticks to play it with – solo and bass!”
Above the drumkit in the live room hangs another bizarre toy – a pair of blue plastic horns, connected by a long spring. Gently tapping the spring produces a powerful ‘zap’ noise from the horns, one of which is miked up. “That’s a sort of sci-fi gadget,” explains Jason. “You know when you use to get two tin cans and stick a bit of string between them? It’s one of those, so you shout down it, and at the other end it sounds like you’re millions of miles away.”
“We use it for drums and stuff,” continues Tom. “You get a really nice snare sound with a mic in either end, a really bright ‘ping!’ spring sound.”
“We used it for the drums on ‘Trailerpark’,” Jason recalls.
Other toy instruments at 13 include a Wurlitzer Music Learning Machine, a Kalimba (an African instrument consisting of pitched metal tines attached to a resonating wooden body), and a small plastic speech-training toy. “We did a Massive Attack remix a few months ago and that was the main sound source,” says Tom gleefully. “It’s just a little kiddies’ speech toy, and obviously it’ll never be used again, but… basically, anything goes in this place.”
“Some things have found their way in here because they’re too flakey to tour any more. Like that keyboard over there, that was the original ‘Lot 105’,” says Jason, indicating the dilapidated Hammond organ which Albarn bought in an auction (hence the title) and used to record the final track on Blur’s Parklife album.
“It’s been used on loads of stuff,” explains Tom. “I think it was used on the end track on Trainspotting that Damon did, while the credits are on. It’s a great sound that comes out of it, because it’s got a drum machine built in, plus it’s got all this extra stuff built in as well, like brassy sounds and synth sounds and all sorts. Then you’ve also got reverb and stuff on it, and it’s got one rotary speaker and one normal – you can route whatever you want through the spinning one and the normal speaker, so you can just have the reverb going through the Leslie, and all your other stuff going through the normal speaker.”
Not everything in 13 is a toy. There is also a fair amount of serious studio gear – but Tom and Jason seem to take much the same attitude to both. “This is a harmoniser with keys, so you can harmonise your own vocals as you’re singing,” says Jason of an ageing Deltalab DL5 ‘Harmonicomputer’. “It’s really old, probably 15 years old or so. It just harmonises. It’s good because it’s weird. I think it’s very early digital, it’s very temperamental – it’s working, but I think it’s that just the design of it is not quite there.”
Favourites among the control-room outboard gear include two Tubetech PE1A valve mic preamps, and a pair of vintage Altec 436B compressors. “These were made in the 1950s,” explains Tom. “They’ve been reconditioned. Very basic controls – we’ve had release time put in as a mod.”
“Dial it in, tell it how much compression you want, and it does what you tell it to do,” continues Jason.
“In reality it just tends to squash everything to f**k,” admits Tom. “Which is nice.”
Not every piece of vintage gear has proved a success, though: “We’ve got an old Roland vocoder over there, and we’ve never really seemed to get anything decent out of it,” says Tom. “So we thought we’d try out this Korg DVP1, and if it’s any good maybe swap it and exchange money if necessary.”
Having filled their studio full of desirable vintage gear, state-of-the-art studio equipment and novelty toys, Tom and Jason are clearly in their element. Their unusual collection of kit has, however, posed one or two problems. “We had to write out the insurance lists,” recalls Jason. “It took ages. We were turning every bit of equipment upside down, getting it out of racks, saying ‘Right, serial number for this bit is… How much is this worth? Tom, pick a figure. I think that’s worth five hundred quid. Do you think we could get one for five hundred quid? No, OK, it’s a thousand…'”
“We’ve never, ever sold anything or thrown anything away,” he continues. “You can imagine what our store is like!”
I’m not sure I can, actually…