Slab Horror and the President of SONY.

Given all that technical guff in the last post you would expect that I would be doing similar things for the re-pressing of City Slab Horror, also happening this year. But I’m not touching it. It doesn’t need it.

At least do no harm.

CSH was the first album we mixed to digital, up the end of 1984. This master tape still existed in the age of DAT recorders, which I used as a big interface to transfer the sound by optical cable to a hard drive. The album-to-be is will be cut from a second generation digital source – the first time the vinyl has been cut from a clean master.

The story of how we had a digital tape recorder in 1984 is a good one. Told vaguely; a big wig from SONY, let’s say it was the president, was coming down to Australia to make sure the local SONY retailers were up to scratch. He may not have known that in the hold of the aircraft was a few of everything SONY made at the time, delivered to select shops just in time to be seen in the inspection.

One of the shops was Bernie’s Radio and Electrical, a place where my old man bought a lot of ‘hi fi’ and where therefore I was tolerated. I went in there one day, and the owner offered me a left over something he didn’t know what do with.pcm-501es

This PCM-501 was mine for $800 plus the Betamax video deck. It takes sound and breaks it up into digital dots which then get recorded to videotape. Pretty cool. (By the way Bernie’s Radio and Electrical later became B.R.E. Audio Visual, a significant dealer in such things).

So CSH was recorded to a very high grade Betamax tape. As we mixed down we would pause the Betamax between tracks and let it roll just before the multitrack. That’s one reason why the songs have gaps unlike Since The Accident. But also no tape hiss, and 16 bit recording compared to the relatively low quality of open reel*. It sounded great, but just in case there was a problem we hired a Revox A77 and dubbed to spools of tape.

There was a problem. They didn’t have digital in the cutting room in London and so the UK album was cut from the dubs. Other copies including CDs were cut from copies of the tapes. Ouch. If you ever wondered why I was happy to start selling CDs myself, it was partly to make the music available as it was originally recorded!

But the actual digital mixdowns sound just fine for the period. We had a short discussion about re-mastering, but really anything that was on the multitrack is there.

PCM has two problems. The first is that the stereo tracks are recorded sequentially, flipping left and right every digital frame. That means there’s a phase between them, a phase that’s a really high frequency that means dogs would be upset, if it was still audible on the vinyl. The other is ‘sirens’ – a high pitched wail that can be heard very faintly in silence. It would be a problem if the high pitched squeal of our micro-composer’s synch pulse wasn’t 100x louder.

Actually the only bummer is that the SONY PCM-601 has digital out, which means I could have copied direct digital. But really from PCM D/A out to DAT A/D in was still beyond anything else affordable in the era 84-94 and it’s why we still have all our old recordings. And I still have the PCM-501.

* Yes you heard me. Open reel tape machines are at best equivalent to old samplers. This guy is annoying but he’s dead right.
@ 11m20s in – the very best open reel quality is 13bit. A Revox A77 is more like 12 bit quality! Seeing as the vinyl can only be inferior to the media from which it is copied… well.

The Ballad of 80’s Cheesecake.

I’m surprised that cassettes are still ‘a thing’. The meaning they had back when there were few alternatives is different to the meaning they have now, where they are used to refute alternative delivery formats. We just used to see them as ‘making do’. What hasn’t changed is that cassettes are, if not disposable, a place for sketches and ideas that can always be erased if they don’t work out.Terse 17 Eighties Cheesecake

The longevity of Eighties Cheesecake is a bit of an issue. First released in 1982, it was one of two cassettes that had a large overlap of material expressed differently. Snappy Carrion was the more pop of the two. Both had long stretches of minimal sounds and a clutch of drum machine driven tunes. Around 1984-5 some of the pop tunes were put on the B-sides of vinyl. The expected life cycle of the music was a couple of years maximum.snappy carrion

The vinyl sparked interest in the tapes, which started to appear on eBay in 200x for too much money. I was able to make CDs that cost far less and make sure the music stayed cheap. Good in some ways, bad in others. A CD had to lose most of the sound experiments – fair seeing as they were ‘cassette ideals’. Also it required some hard work on improving the sound so that the hiss wasn’t the main feature.

And now in 2014, vinyl. It seems the fates didn’t like our ‘cassette ideals’.

After a bit of listening and soul searching the process is now under way. You may already know that we have a remarkable digital library of nearly all our recordings due to a SONY boss man visit in 1985 (an anecdote I’ll tell again later). So I have various transfers of the tracks off open reel and cassette made back at the time. When making the CD I used a little noise reduction and a little EQ and that was it, CD is quite forgiving.

Vinyl brings more concerns: about 22 minutes a side, so the running order has to be fussed. Poor stereo at the bass end, distortion at the treble, a cloudiness which people think is ‘warmth’.

If you’re going to remove tracks then it’s worth sacking every one of them and making them reapply for their jobs. That’s happening. It’s worth asking if the 3 minutes of dogs barking could be expressed more succinctly. That’s happening. It’s worth checking if there was anything that really ought be there for the first time and yes, we have some candidates.

Working with old tape sound.

First step is to load the track into the editor and find any damage. If it’s a digital drop out then it’s usually easy to find a few milliseconds from some other part of the recording and paste it into the spot. Tape drop outs are harder, it could be that you leave them alone as a artefact of life, but in a few places they can hand painted to e.g. raise the level a bit.

Now you might try reduce the noise level, but it’s very likely going to screw with the overall sound, making it more metallic and expanded. You can make things better if you gently repeat a little treatment, carefully judging the result each time. For the vinyl I’m banking that surface noise is going to be worse anyway, and I’m leaving the background noise alone. Removing rumble below about 30Hz makes sense as the tape never had signal there anyway, and surprisingly make the bass seem deeper.

Unless there’s a strikingly obvious EQ problem (like Dolby B), the next step is multi-band compression, particularly at the bass. The kick drum has a kick and a boom. The boom makes the drum sound flabby when it’s slurred by the tape recording. Compressing at the frequency of the kick with an attack keeps the impact, tightens the boom and makes the bass melody distinct. Same goes for the synthetic snares which I used to make way too loud in 1982. Compression makes them seem just as loud but everything else is heard clearly as well.

Up top you might need to raise the volume of the high hats which have been lost in analogue dubbing. But then again compression to avoid the vinyl splattering the tail end of the sounds. The playback should seem ‘fresher’ and ‘less woofy’ at this stage, and other problems should be revealed that need a little detailing.

In some cases you’re still hearing mud between the kick and the bass melody. That’s very likely solved by reducing the stereo separation below a frequency where the kick crosses with the bass. Make the kick mono, let the upper end of the bass be a bit wider than that, let the mids be wide.

Next big step is exciting! With an exciter! What this does is synthesise extra harmonics from the existing material, quite a different result to EQ which raises a band of frequencies. It may seem artificial but it’s what tube amplifiers do – the tubes bring back harmonics lost in dubbing and mixing. The exciter is pretty much that, but with adjustments for the specific frequencies that you’re trying to address. For example a voice that’s muffled can be brought out by some attention at 1-2kHz.

Old Tracks for New.

So how is that some tracks may end up on the vinyl* that have never been heard before? Throughout the archive are abandoned recordings. Some have bad drop outs, really bad mixes, didn’t get finished, or had some really bad idea permanently burned in. The latter is the problem here – in 1982 I started a couple of interesting recordings and then added a really bad element that ruined them.

Fixing this is hard and it wasn’t possible up to this point. You have to cut out the bad bits, remake the ‘bed’ from the good bits, rediscover the parts then were ‘under’ the bad bit and re-layer them while cross checking the match with the original. For 80s Cheesecake I had to go through all the cassettes from which I had taken samples, locate the right phrase, place it again. I could only do that after digitising all the cassettes I had in 1982 – which I did a few years ago.

The tracks are entirely made up of the original sounds, which is good because they’re based on equipment and ideas that are no longer available to me. One potential track called Kai Kai is based on Juno 6 synthesizer being controlled by a micro-composer, both long gone. It sounds just the same – with out the horrible vocal backing I’d added at the last moment!

Eighties Cheesecake is to be re-issued on vinyl in 2014. Stay tuned.

* Currently the track listing has not been finalised.

So, then. What’s going on?

Quite a lot actually, although most of it doesn’t relate to ye olde band.

Severed Heads (being Stewart, myself and Ant taking care of things) played live at the Adelaide Festival in March. The good thing was it was all recorded by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. The bad thing was I was sick as a dog and fell all over the place. We were all a bit frazzled with workloads and it was sloppy. Wish they’d taped the Adelaide show in 2011, but bless them anyway.

More important was delivering the long promised computer game HH, which had taken most of 2012 to create. ABC hosted that for a good while as well.

And then mid year the Australian Sound Archive backed up everything – all the albums, the sevcom.com site and video show. So that pretty much sealed up our coffin nice and tight. I went on to do all kinds of fun things as ‘me’, but you can see that over at tomellard.com

Ant then had to run off and tour as part of DefFX, so he’s probably been the busiest in the second half of the year.

Here at the end of 2013, we’re back underground, noodling around and no great urgency to achieve anything. Apart from Stewart’s krautrock nightclub (hurry that up).

I’ve started to re-collect some of the equipment I used to own when the band was growing up – the old KAWAI 100F synthesiser, some tape recorders, the old AKAI S612 sampler that was on Big Bigot and numerous other doodads. Stewart and I now sport matching KORG Radias racks (pretty cool).

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Yes, recording is going on. No, it doesn’t mean anything is being groomed for release. Sometimes it’s the making that matters more than the selling.

But we DO HAVE RE-RELEASES coming in 2014, courtesy of some labels. And I am hearing from Garry Bradbury that he’s got something nice coming up. I’ll let the labels make their announcements at a time that suits them, and then make sure to give all the details here.

Sevcom site reboot.

How long has this thing been running? Forever and a day? SIXTEEN YEARS?

I used to put together static pages with notepad. I had all the time and none of the tools. But there is no time now for me or for anyone to read long slabs of anything and if something is to live, it must change. This is change.

  • It needs to be viewed on phones.
  • It needs to be updated by a very busy person, to be seen by very busy people.
  • It needs to have all the media goobity-doobity that the corporations can wield, as bespoke is out of style.

It tried to die, but it is not allowed to die. It is punished as a vampire.