New year new logo

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Welcome again to my fabulous lifestyle.

We’re back on air. Seemed as if everything was sorted, but it was soon thwarted. So I am back to give a running commentary on all things heads. If you want a more frequent updates with more bullshit then follow the Tom Ellard blog instead.

That stupidly large logo properly belongs on a new batch of custom manufactured thumb drives coming out in 2016. You liked the Rhine stick so I am going to give you USB drives for everything and up the quality. Looks like no one will ever press vinyl past 1986 so this the hardware for us youth!

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But if you like old and vinyl then why haven’t you bought this yet?CV-MqEyUAAAeMa1.jpg large

I know that you may be distracted with life, surviving and all that, so I excuse you. But best to click here and get this sorted.

OK, back with more news later.

OCR Fun: Melody Maker March 1984

CHAT SHOW by Lynden Barber

THE second time I ever saw the amazing Severed Heads they were playing to the usual half-empty room of dedicated adventurers and deadbeats in their usual venue, the Sydney Trade Club, located in the typical leafy inner city suburb of Surry Hills. The usual pairs of eyes were fixed to the banks of television sets on either side of the stage which were unleashing the usual rapid blitz of Technicolor brain-jolts. The usual pairs of ears were being into the usual state of excitation that occurs whenever the Heads set their bravura modern dance trance from Mars into interstellar overdrive. The usual small gathering of Oz-rockers and surfies were standing at the back trying to figure out how these characters had the nerve to scuttle around on stage adjusting electronic equipment like engineers when they could have been whipping out guitars, tossing groins towards the rafters and boogie-ing like groups are meant to. Hang it, if this modern rubbish wasnt an insult to the intelligence.
One of them approached me.
“D’you actually like this?”
The question had already been answered by my enthusiastically shaking foot before it had even left his mouth.
“But what is it you see in this? Can you explain it?”
Indeed. The Severed Heads, a combo led by a genial and puckish boffin called Tom Ellard, are hardly like any other group you may have experienced before. Besides contributing to the creation of a new musical genre based heavily on the creation of insistent rhythmic pulsations and nagging melodic fragments from cut-ups of everyday sounds, they contain the world’s first ever video synthesizer player.
Their approach to on-stage performance is revolutionary in that they have successfully harnessed the technology of the new video age to posit the idea that conventional notions of stage presence are obsolete. They write tunes that drive me wild with desire, make me
want to dance the night away, and send anybody who is at all attuned to them into an ecstatic trance.
Next?

“WE did a show at the Trade Union Club once which was no music, we just played TV sets.” Tom Ellard has just sauntered through the front door as if, wandering past entrance to someone else’s dream, he has decided to pop in to make some suggestions.
Dream on, Tom . ..
“We did a similar show at the Graphic Arts Club which was really ‘good’ because people actually got incredibly aggressive – ‘TURN THAT FUCKING TELEVlSlON OFF YER CUNT.’ And when you didn’t turn that fucking television off yer cunt they would come up and turn it off for you. It even got to the stage where somebody built a bonfire under the video recorder when we weren’t looking and set fire to it. One other woman came up and started physically pulling bits off the television. That really distressed me. . . I had to shut down the whole thing and get out of there before they ruined the equipment.’
Tom shakes his head ruefully. Only slightly ruefully, mind. He has a sense of humour. “All in all the shows are real desperate. They’re the sort of thing where if we didn’t have to do them then we wouldn’t do them. They’re some tortuous ritual that has to be borne – which is really pathetic. Because if I’m not doing a live show I sometimes get the illusion that people actually like us, and then when you get up on stage all the illusions disappear.”
Poor old Tom. He has a great talent for coming out with sentences like “music at the moment is like when you see dogs sniffing each others arseholes and l feel we’re a very small dachshund,” but behind the humour there lies a genuine sense of disappointment and a truly pessimistic outlook that is based on four rotten years of experience of the Sydney music scene. Whatever, the Heads fortunes are soon likely to change due to the imminent release of their LP, “Since The Accident”, on Dave Kitson’s new Ink label in England. It’s the first time any of their music has ever found its way onto record – previous LPs have been in cassette form. “Since The Accident” was recorded
nearly two years ago and has already been issued in Australia as tape containing some additional, more esoteric, experimental tracks.
When it came to promoting themselves abroad Ellard obviously saw the more left-field stuff as expendable, what’s left finds echoes in
Kraftwerk, Chrome and the prettier side of Throbbing Gristle, as well as the cut-ups of Holger Hiller and Trevor Horns Art Of Noise. “We are children of our time,” says Ellard seriously, before turning to an exaggeratedly mischievous mode of speech: “We’ve also Dave Kitson to think about, he would dearly love to make lots of money, so l’m quite prepared to churn out 10,000 copies of “Dead Eyes Opened”(the new 12-inch single), I’ll do it for him because he’s Big Bwana.
“But no, seriously, there is nothing more turgid than experimental music that just sort of dribbles on. I have a partner and his name is Paul Deering, and Paul and I have certain things we believe in and one of them is that it’s gotta kick arse. At the moment this is the sort of language people are talking”
What, bad language (ha ha)?
“Well, who listens to difficult music except difficult people? I can only talk for myself, l do not like Collapsing New Underpants, Paul likes them a lot, and thats his business.
“I think you might find the music’s becoming more ‘Wagnerian’. it’s to do with Paul’s behaviour patterns, which tend towards Beethoven. He likes stirring music. It’s also technology based, in that we have this thing called a Choir Control, which is turning up on a lot of our songs.”
THE Severed Heads have a whole pile of gadgets to play around with. One of the most endearing aspects of their exploration is that they use the most primitive techniques to obtain quite startling results, delving into music shops to lift ancient early model synthesizers off of the scrap heap, and achieving much of their hypnotic power from the simple manipulation of cassette tapes. A true boffin, is Tom. The first time I met him, some nine months ago, he talked non-stop about equipment, as if practicing an interview for One. . . Two . . . Testing, and generally displayed an intense, nervous demeanour. In the meantime he appears to have undergone a personality transplant. His speech patterns follow the contours of a non-stop rant, like some Oz equivalent of Magnus Pike. Often it’s difficult to tell just how many of his statements are the result of his amiable eccentricity – the Wizard Of Oz touch – or the side of him that enjoys playing the comedian. For instance. hen he describes the Severed Heads as “sleeve-note music”.
“It’s the sort of record you buy not for the music but just to turn it over and see ‘Oh yes, they ran a cat vomiting backwards through a fuzz box’.”
Tom points out a section of their next album – unfinished tracks are playing in the background – that features a Liberace glissando played straight, reversed and repeated. “Each album we put out from now on will have a technical manual you can write off for, so you really do get told everything. lt’s just a lot more interesting than actually listening to the record, although I feel we’ve actually achieved a fairly entertaining complex of noise.”
Entertaining indeed. Doesn’t he worry that this kind of talk will give them an image of being excessively egg-headed?
“I’d say people who use big expensive units to do normal noises are the egg~headed people. The way these sounds come along is anything but egg-headed. You just stumble across things and they suggest things to you. It’s the old Buddhist idea of letting go of yourself and the world will drive you.
“Certain sounds are Adolf Hitlers, the moment you heard this Liberace record you knew Liberace was boss and you were the slave. Liberace wins out – what he does is so profound, so wonderful, you have to obey what the sound says to you. When he runs his fingers down the piano I just think ‘Yes Master, I obey’ get down on the floor, cow-tow three times. And then get up and get the record and spin backwards and forwards and fill up a cassette with it. About the only creative thing about the whole thing is when you come to see how you’re going to assemble these 100 cassettes of funny noises into a record, which is quite difficult sometimes.’
THE Severed Heads’ much vaunted video synth is, far from being some cheap gimmick, an extremely sophisticated item of technology. Its operative, Steve Jones, is an engineer working for the Fairlight company, manufacturers of the world’s most advanced computer-linked synthesizers who are based in Sydney. Don’t ask me how the machine works and don’t expect me to explain everything it does. What I can say is that when it reaches the marketplace* – which is rumoured to happen in about a years time – it will revolutionise on-stage performance and the manufacture of videos.
Watching Severed Heads I found the screens completely hypnotic. Colours can be mixed in the same manner that sound can be mixed at a mixing desk, images can be self-generated or derived from the conventional use of a video camera. They have the ability to make eyeballs stand out on springs like old Tom and Jerry cartoons (I speak metaphorically) and are the microchips answer to LSD.
Hold on to your braincells!
“Having a video synth player is one of the few steps forward we might have achieved,” muses Ellard, “That’s all Stephen does, and he does it with all the sort of care that we put into our music. As far as I know he’s the only on-stage video synthesizer player in the world. He makes sure I keep mentioning this because he’s quite proud of himself. I mean fuck films!
Will the world ever catch up with Tom Ellard?
“No. Of course not. My prediction for 1984 is a little pipsqueak noise behind the couch which is the release of one or two albums and then
that’ll be the end of it, and then I’ll go to a job shovelling shit or behind a desk at a bank. There’s just no hope, there really isn’t. What’ll happen with us is that we’ll put out our thing and Collapsing New Underpants will put out their thing and they’ll all fold and someone who’s been around for aeons will pick up the bits and pieces, put ’em all together and make a lot of money out of it.’ Tom Ellard has a persecution complex — if you think of Woody Allen’s self-satirising monologues you’ll be getting close – but then he is a psychology graduate, And how would you feel if you’d been ignored by so many for so long?
Little surprise that when Tom Ellard is asked if he thinks that in five years time people will be digging the Heads records from junk stores and telling their friends they were into them all along, he murmurs: “I think people are more likely to dig a grave four feet deep and dump us in with all our records and then seal it up and put concrete all over it.”
Ellard wanders out to his station wagon to drive back to where his father – a prominent psychiatrist – and mother live on Sydney’s
Salubrious Northern Shore. Sydney is a very nature- conscious city and the Severed Heads somehow don’t seem to fit into it. But then Tom doesn’t really fit in anywhere. Most places are just too conventional and slow-witted to worry about having to deal with such a playful brain.
Toms final request: he would like former member Garry Bradbury to be included in their group shot because it would be nice to acknowledge his contribution.
Long live the Heads and all who sail in them.

* As noted before, a common confusion between the Fairlight CVI and Stephen’s own DVS. The DVS did not go to market.

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.