DAW icons on screen. Picture: Paul Grooveside

Digital Audio Workstations

Three DAWS on the author’s PC. Picture: Paul Grooveside

Having grown up in the era of analogue audio and tape recorders, I have been learning about the ways of the studio in the current era. The biggest technological change has been the widespread adoption of Digital Audio Workstations, DAWs, as the centre of studios. They are undeniably powerful, versatile programs, creating working environments that would have been hideously expensive, if not impossible in the last century. They have introduced new ways of working with audio, new tools for editing and processing sounds and music, higher levels of sound quality and innovative ways to collaborate online with other musicians and audio engineers.

The DAW was developed from the 1980s concept of a MIDI sequencer based on home computers, notably the Atari ST. I used an ST in 1987 to run C-Lab Notator software, the forerunner of Apple’s Logic DAW. The programs have developed very much since then. There are many software houses producing DAWs to suit different users and marketplaces.

I have used a number of different DAWs on PC in my home studio and on Mac at the University of Salford on my MSC Audio Production course. Here are some of them.

MAGIX Music Maker

Music Maker 2022. Picture: Magix.com

Magix produces audio software for the professional and home markets. Music Maker 2022 is their DAW for the hobbyist, yet is capable of superb results. I used an earlier version as a low-cost introduction to digital audio. The DAW can serve as a vehicle to assemble its thousands of clips and loops into tracks, it can record whole productions from scratch using audio, VST virtual instruments and MIDI, or any combination thereof.  It was a useful learning experience. Had I not been keen to explore what other DAWs had to offer in professional settings, I could happily have stayed with it. They offer a free version and options for more fully featured editions with lifetime free updates and very good technical support. The full version is incredibly cheap, it offers capabilities that would cost several times its price in other DAWS. I heartily recommend Music Maker for the hobbyist or beginner.

Ableton Live

Ableton Live Lite on the author’s PC. Picture: Paul Grooveside

Ableton Live is a popular DAW with DJs and hobby recordists, also crossing over to the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) professional arena. Its unique selling point on introduction was the use of clips placed in a grid to build up arrangements which could be switched rapidly ‘on the fly’. allowing improvisation within flexible structures in live performance. Personally, I found it rather like making identikit music out of sonic Lego bricks and found its user interface rather simplistic. Maybe the tape-recordist in me likes to see things flow horizontally like a virtual tape recorder, the vertical columns of clips in Ableton didn’t converge with my imagination of how an arrangement should look. I prefer more control in a detailed yet user-friendly GUI. It clearly works well for many users, but it’s not for me.


Reaper on the author’s PC. Picture: Paul Grooveside

Reaper is a flexibly priced DAW whose creators trust their users to pay different prices for the software depending on their use and professional status. It is a fully featured product which is uniquely suited to object-based immersive audio as well as the more usual uses of a DAW. I used it for a project at University. Having already tried several other programs, I found it hard work to learn the program’s features. Each manufacturer has their own set of commands and shortcuts, different commands for the same functions. Users who are accustomed to Reaper and its capabilities will be capable of excellence.

Steinberg Cubase

Cubase on the author’s PC. Picture: Paul Grooveside

Steinberg Cubase has been in production since the 1980s. It is continuously developed and improved, the technical support is superb and in my experience it is a stable and reliable platform. As befits a mature application, the user interface is an excellent balance between clarity and detail, with a logical workflow and menu structure. It suits my way of working. Every function and control seems to be right where I’d expect it to be, even if I haven’t used that function before. I find it intuitive to use and obtain excellent results from it. Steinberg invented the VST specification for virtual instruments and plug-in effects; third party products integrate perfectly with Cubase. For me, Cubase is fast and user-friendly, massively capable and continuously improving. It is the choice of many professionals I respect, such as Tom Holkenborg, Kebu and others. The whole Cubase experience is a joy. My first choice DAW.

Avid Pro Tools

Pro Tools on the author’s PC. Picture: Paul Grooveside

For many, Avid Pro Tools is the ultimate DAW. It comprises of systems ranging from music-making packages, through professional recording and mixing studio systems right up to massively complex hardware and software systems for producing movie and broadcast sound. Avid manufacture a range of audio interfaces, control surfaces and peripherals to suit the range of uses Pro Tools is suited for. Its proprietary AAX plug-in format allows added functionality from a large number of manufacturers. It has been widely adopted as the recording, broadcasting and post-production industry standard. As such, it is almost a pre-requisite for audio engineers to become competent with Pro Tools. Avid runs a training and accreditation scheme to this effect. I find Pro Tools to be very complex, user-unfriendly and difficult to learn, mainly because it has such a wealth of functionality and purposes. To a Cubase user, the user interface of Pro Tools has many hidden drop-down menus and options that are hard to become familar with and not always as obvious as in other DAWs. Its power is undeniable, whether it is the software of choice for each individual is a personal matter.

References: Magix.com (2022) Music Maker 2022 Premium Edition https://www.magix.com/gb/sem/music-maker-premium-edition/

Ableton.com (2021) What’s new in Live 11 https://www.ableton.com/en/live/

Reaper,fm (2021) Reaper Digital Audio Workstation https://www.reaper.fm/

Steinberg.net (2021) Cubase https://www.steinberg.net/cubase/

Holkenborg T (2021) Tom Holkenborg https://tomholkenborg.com/

Teir S (2022) Kebu Official Homepage https://www.kebu.fi/

Avid.com (2021) Pro Tools Music Software https://www.avid.com/pro-tools

Apple.com (2022) Logic Pro https://www.apple.com/uk/logic-pro/

Trask S (1989) C-Lab Creator And Notator http://www.muzines.co.uk/articles/c-lab-creator-and-notator/

Apolloboy (2020) Atari ST (platform) https://www.giantbomb.com/atari-st/3045-13/

Two into One DOES go! Or How I built a Roland D-50 Synthesizer – Part 2

Building my D-50

My earlier post about the Roland D-50 synthesizer looked at the history and impact of this unique synthesizer. I had missed the one I owned and sold in 1994. Market prices for good condition D-50s are high so I had hit on a way to get one: buy two!!! I bought two broken D-50s sold for ‘spares or repair’ for £15 each.

Once I had taken them home, I asked myself how I was going to make the repair.
Baron Frankenstein was known for taking parts from the deceased, stitching them together into a new creation and using electricity to bring it to life. Looking at my two dead D-50s, I decided that was my plan for them, too. It’s just as well that I like horror films and mad scientists…

When I was a child, my grandfather had shown me how to repair transistor radios. It was exciting to hear them working again after tracing the problems and replacing faulty parts. That was my apprenticeship in electronic engineering. Beyond that, I was going to learn for myself how to make my ‘Frankenstein D-50’ and bring it to life.

The Plan

Before I began taking the dearly departed synths apart, I needed to diagnose the ‘causes of death.’

The first had sound engine faults. Every sound was glitchy or heavily distorted. The display screen only showed random characters and lines. Some switches below the screen needed to be pressed repeatedly to elicit any response. It had keys that were cracked or chipped but each key did trigger a note when pressed. The aftertouch, where the player pressed down on a key after the original keystrike to introduce vibrato or other performance effects, worked too, as did the ‘bender’, Roland’s performance control to the left side of the keyboard. The top panel was very clean and shiny, suspiciously so when the rest of the instrument was scruffy with some screws missing from the underside. Why had the top been so meticulously cleaned up?

Nonsensical display with missing characters. Picture: Paul Grooveside

The second D-50 made sounds correctly, although the left channel output jack socket was crackly. The headphones output socket had no crackling, it showed the basic sound of the instrument to be detailed and smooth. This indicated good internal circuitry but a problem with the left jack. The screen was bright, all characters displayed correctly. However, nine notes across the keyboard failed to sound, a few keys were chipped on the underside. The ‘bender’ felt worn and its action was loose. The instrument’s case was scuffed on the underside, back panel and one of the plastic end cheeks, the other panels were undamaged.

So this is what I had to deal with:

D-50 AD-50 B
Bad sound engineGood sound engine
Faults in displayDisplay working
Bottom row of switches unreliableAll switches good
Some chipped keysSome chipped keys
Keybed working9 keys not working
Case intact, top panel very cleanCase worn in some panels
Screws missingCrackly left jack output
Bender working wellBender worn
Table of D-50 faults: Paul Grooveside

My plan was therefore to disassemble the instruments, repair or discard the parts with faults and build up a single synthesizer from the working parts or best parts from each. I was aware that upon opening the instruments, I may discover other issues.

How was I to strip down a pair of D-50s and rebuild a new one from them? The internet is our friend! I downloaded the D-50 Service Notes from SynthXL.com and studied the assembly of the D-50.


I cleared a space for each synthesizer in a room where nobody else would go. I wanted everything undisturbed if I had to take breaks or leave the project overnight .

I left plenty of space to lay out parts in order and see where everything was at a glance. I cleaned the entire area so no dust would find its way into the synths.

I gathered the tools I’d need, including screwdrivers, pliers, tweezers, cleaning materials, brushes, contact cleaning sprays, magnifiers, mini vacuum cleaners, air duster sprays, testing meters, soldering iron, sticky tape, cable ties, cutting tools, pen and paper, camera, tea and biscuits.

Strip-down and Rebuild

At every stage of the job, I took photos to reference how to reassemble the instruments. I also wore an anti-static earthing wristband whenever I handled the electronics parts to prevent them from being damaged by static electricity.
I stretched out two long parallel strips of 5cm wide sticky tape on the top of my bureau/workbench with the sticky side upwards.

I cleaned each D-50 and laid them face-down for access on a couple of thick soft towels to prevent scratches. Following the Service Notes, I unscrewed all the screws on the underside of the synths. I placed each screw on the sticky tape in the same layout as on the synthesizers, so I could see where each screw came from.

Disassembly – note screws on tape. Picture: Paul Grooveside

I removed the bottom cover of each synthesizer and identified each part from the service notes. I took pictures and careful notes of the wiring looms and how they were fitted. Both instruments had 32 years worth of dust and dirt inside; I vacuumed them, using a paintbrush to dislodge the dust.

Some of the dust inside D-50. Picture: Paul Grooveside

Several circuit boards and associated wiring were removed to gain access to the keybeds. As with the screws, I set each part aside in the order I removed them.
There was dried-on residue of a brown liquid that had been spilt into the keyboard of D-50 A, ran along the framework and into the innards of the synthesizer. Cleaning it off with damp cotton buds, it smelt of beer. It seems that under previous ownership, a drink had been spilt into the synth and someone had tried to clean it from the outside. I had solved the mystery of why the top panel was clean compared to the rest. Perhaps the missing screws from the back panel were a result of an attempt to clean the insides too. What else had that beer done to the D-50?

Evidence of spilt beer on raised circuit board. Picture: Paul Grooveside

I levered the main synthesizer board up and discovered a track of dried beer and corrosion running along the base of the board, it had flowed between the board and its copper shielding and soaked the pins of several chips on the board.

Dried beer in circuit board. Picture: Paul Grooveside

The beer must have short-circuited the board. The synthesizer control chip and chorus chip were particularly badly damaged. This was the reason why Synthesizer A did not make sounds as it should. There was also dried beer in the switch panel and display boards. It rendered those boards unusable.

Damaged chorus chip: Picture: Paul Grooveside

The keybeds are complex – each key is clipped in place at its hinge and tensioned with a spring. There are several different shapes of key and correspondingly different springs. The keys press through a felt strip onto a set of rubber membranes which have carbon contacts attached to them. Notes are triggered when the carbon is pressed against matching contacts on a circuit board in the keybed housing, read by the dynascan board. Aftertouch is triggered by further key pressure on another sensor contact. The contacts were full of dust and dirt.

Dirt in keybed. Picture: Paul Grooveside

I disassembled keybed A, the working one, and thoroughly cleaned it as I went. I removed each key and spring, cleaning the springs and laying them down on the sticky tape in the correct order. I stripped off the rubber membranes and cleaned the carbon contacts with contact cleaner. To ensure the circuit boards worked well, I cleaned them and re-coated the contact pads with a very soft pencil, the graphite lubricates and improves the connectivity of the pads. I made a complete set of unchipped keys using the best keys from both keybeds, washed them all with detergent and warm water, rinsed and dried them. I reassembled one clean, reconditioned keybed.

Reconditioned keybed. Picture: Paul Grooveside

I removed from each synthesizer the parts that I knew were healthy: the keybed, jack board, bender assembly and dynascan board from A, the main board, power supply, display, switches and other parts from synth B. I cleaned everything using electrical cleaner and contact cleaning spray. The main board has a CR2032 battery to preserve the sounds and programs in memory. I replaced the battery in the board I was using. I used a multi-meter to test and identify the best wiring loom parts from each unit. I laid them all out like a kit. I chose the body panels in best condition from the pair and carefully built up a complete D-50 from the set of parts.

Restored boards in place. Picture: Paul Grooveside

At every stage of assembly, I checked the build against my photos twice to ensure I was following the sequence. When I had finished, I double-checked again, before securing the looms with cable-ties and screwing the bottom panel in place to complete my D-50.

Closing up. Picture: Paul Grooveside
D-50 rebuilt. Picture: Paul Grooveside

I switched it on. The display lit up. I plugged in a memory card and loaded in the bank of sound programs, all looked well. I played a key and heard pure, clean musical notes, free of crackle and noise. Every key worked, the aftertouch, bender and performance controls all responded. Every switch and function was perfect. I felt like Baron Frankenstein exulting “It lives!!” when his creation awoke. I was delighted. I had built a new D-50 from the remains of two broken ones, for £30.

Fully functional display. Picture: Paul Grooveside

The best way to celebrate was to record a track using my new D-50 for all instrument sounds except the drums. Here, with permission, is my instrumental cover of a classic D-50 song: Technotronic’s ‘Pump Up The Jam’.

References: Roland.com (2017) Roland D-50 30th Anniversary https://www.roland.com/uk/promos/d-50_30th_anniversary/ ,

Synthxl.com (2018) Roland D 50 Linear Synthesizer https://www.synthxl.com/roland-d-50/

Two into one DOES go! Or How I built myself a Roland D-50 Synthesizer

Part 1: The Roland D-50

Roland D-50. Picture: Roland US

Certain instruments can be claimed to have defined an era in music. In the 1980s, the Japanese synthesizer manufacturer, Roland created a unique-sounding digital synthesizer that was destined to appear on countless hit records, soundtracks and genres. Musically and sonically, it became synonymous with its era. I’ll describe the impact and widespread success of the instrument, in a later post, I will describe how I built one for myself.

The Roland D-50 arrived on the market in 1987 and sounded unlike any instrument that had preceded it. Using an ingenious combination of sampled PCM waveforms and digitally synthesized subtractive synthesis, the programming interface was far more user-friendly than expected for such a complex sound engine, made easier still by an optional ‘hands-on’ programming unit, the PG-1000, that provided individual switches and sliders for every parameter.

Roland PG-1000 D-50 programmer. Photo: AudioFanzine.com

The digital synthesis calculation mathematics caused unexpected overtones and frequencies in the ‘partial’ constituents of the sounds. Roland’s engineers tried to remove the overtones until the sound designers realised that the harmonic structures of the overtones gave the D-50 its individual character, lending a unique warmth and ambience to the sounds.

It was the first synthesizer to feature on-board reverb, effects and other signal processing, giving it a quality and depth that other instruments could not produce without expensive outboard equipment. Enhancing the synth engine’s overtones, the reverb and effects made the D-50 sound neither ‘digital’ nor ‘analogue’, but ‘alive’ in ways that no other synthesizer was. It sounded ‘breathy’ and ‘organic’, synthesizing sounds that could be ethereal and hauntingly natural, yet utterly other-worldly. It could also sound funky and spectacularly dramatic, brassy and powerful. Part of its appeal was that its individual character could also blend perfectly with other instruments in a mix and sound integral to the arrangement, rather than a synthetic addition. It brought new flavours to every genre and musical style.

The D-50 was hugely successful; it defined the sounds of rock, pop, dance and ambient music of the late 1980s and 1990s. Its users included Jean-Michel Jarre, whose 1988 album ‘Revolutions’ was notable in its near-exclusive use of the D-50 in its instrumentation.

Jean-Michel Jarre – Industrial Revolution Overture. Video: Jean-Michel Jarre / YouTube

The most successful pop music producers of the 80s, Stock, Aitken, Waterman used the D-50 extensively in their hit singles for Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley and Bananarama – the brass riffs and stabs in ‘Love In The First Degree’ were played on a D-50.

Bananarama: Video: London Records/YouTube

The D-50 was also adopted by film and TV music composers. The soundtrack of the TV series ‘Star Trek – The Next Generation’ featured chords played on the D-50 behind the orchestra to portray the mystery of outer space introducing Patrick Stewart’s iconic ‘Space: The Final Frontier…’ speech;

Star Trek TNG; Video: Paramount / Youtube

The sound of the Starship Enterprise’s beam transporter was made by a D-50.

Star Trek Transporter: Video: Sounds FX / YouTube

Enya’s characteristic music was based on sounds of the D-50 accompanying multitracked arrangements of her vocals. It made her the richest British female performer in the music industry for many years.

Enya – Only Time. Video: EnyaTV / YouTube

The D-50 was the source of the sounds of early Techno music as exemplified by the artists Inner City and Technotronic.

Technotronic – Pump Up The Jam. Video: Technotronic VEVO / YouTube

The D-50’s influence on many forms of music was so great that it was honoured with a TEC award for Outstanding Technical Achievement in Musical Instrument Technology in 1988. D-50 users included Prince, Madonna, Sting, Michael Jackson, Gary Numan and many others, including me.

I bought a D-50 in 1987 and enjoyed playing and programming sounds for it. My D-50 was inspiring and always encouraged me to create new sounds and new music, to lose myself in another universe of sounds and bring something new and unique to every piece of music I was using it on. When I sold my recording studio in 1994, it was one of the assets that went with the studio. I missed it, and dreamed of having one again.

Roland followed up the D-50 with instruments that featured differently designed sound engines, but none of them had the unique character that marked the D-50 out as special. D-50s in good condition nowadays command high prices on the market, often in excess of £1000. When I sought to replace the D-50 I had sold years ago, I found a much cheaper and enjoyable way to do so.

Searching online marketplaces for the cheapest priced D-50, I discovered two examples that were offered for sale as ‘spares or repair’. One made a very glitchy distorted sound output and had a display that showed random characters and symbols. It had some damaged keys but looked otherwise physically intact. The other D-50 was advertised as sounding okay but many of the keys failed to play notes. Each of them was offered for sale by people who claimed not to know much about them, each was offered for sale for £15.

I am not an electronics engineer but for £30 the pair, I thought it was worth attempting to strip them down and see if I could make a single working D-50 from the best parts of the two. I contacted the sellers and the deals were done.

The author’s two broken D-50s resting atop a Rhodes Chroma synthesizer. Photo: Paul Grooveside

In Part 2 of this post, I will show you how my attempt at building a working D-50 for £30 went…

References: Roland.com (2017) D-50 30th Anniversary https://www.roland.com/uk/promos/d-50_30th_anniversary/

Jarre JM (2022) Jean-Michel Jarre https://jeanmicheljarre.com/

IMDB.com (2022) Star Trek – The Next Generation https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092455/

NAMM Foundation (2013) TEC Awards https://web.archive.org/web/20131204003235/https://www.tecawards.org/about.html

Back to the Studio, 27 Years Later…

Audient studio. Photo: Paul Grooveside

I ran a recording studio in the 1980s. The studio was known for getting great performances and sounds from the musicians we recorded. I stepped away from it in 1994 to raise my children. Now, on my MSc Audio Production course, I stepped back into a recording environment to carry out our assignment as a group of five students to record an EP for a band, and as individuals to mix and master one track each. We chose to record the Manchester-based reggae band: E&I Collective. This Soundcloud example is a track they recorded before we met them. It helped us choose to work with them.

This blog reflects upon some things that came to light in the recording process of our sessions with them.

A studio, at its most simplistic, is a few rooms with some audio equipment in them. The nature of studio equipment has changed somewhat over the decades since I was last in one. Analogue recording has given way to digital audio. Tape recorders have become anachronistic museum-pieces, superseded by powerful computers running Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software. The ‘technical’ part of the challenge for me, is to make the transition myself from analogue to digital, to go from tape-world to computer-world, from beforeman to DAWman; to learn how a modern recording studio works on a technological level.

Much has changed. I always thought of myself as being technically capable and a good learner of systems, reading manuals on how to operate them to obtain great recordings. I’ve been working on that, and doing well. But the real learning in this assignment came from a different, less expected direction.

A studio can do nothing by itself. It can only record audio when people get involved. The magic only happens when a team with the right combination of skills and abilities works well together with the artist to ‘capture lightning in a bottle’. The team of five students in my assignment began working together with a certain amount of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. We discovered that between us we had the right combination of skills and personalities to make sessions work successfully. Although we all contributed to every aspect of the recording, each of us gravitated towards specific roles in the sessions.

Jordan is a ‘natural’ at the mixing desk. The Audient ASP 8024 and the Solid State Logic AWS 948 Delta desks both require a deft touch, scientific knowledge of audio engineering and understanding of the signal routing required for multi-microphone recording setups. Jordan took to both mixers and managed the signals capably. He provided the artists with individual headphones mixes, set the studio control room monitoring mix and ensured all signals were balanced, dynamically controlled and routed correctly.

Carl’s experience of Avid Pro-Tools recording software meant he ran the sessions’ recording and playback, setting tempo, levels, and recording parameters. He assigned each input to its own channels and busses and managed the quality of what was recorded.

Jordan (left) and Carl (right) at the console. Picture: Paul Grooveside

Argi, Matt and I set up the microphones for each instrument in the session – the drum kit was mic’ed in several ways simultaneously. Jordan wanted to try the traditional Glyn Johns three – mic set up, whilst others wished to use close mics on every instrument in the kit, and to experiment with room mics and floor-positioned boundary microphones. We set up all of those microphone techniques to provide flexibility and a range of options when it comes to mixing. The three of us positioning the mics ensured that each mic or combination was set by measurement and by ear to capture the sound of the drums accurately.

Drumkit mics: Picture: Paul Grooveside

For the guitar and bass amplifiers, sax and vocals, we chose the microphones by setting up a selection of mics, experimenting with positioning and auditioning them, choosing the mic that gave the best sound for each application. It was fun!

Testing vocal mics: Picture: Paul Grooveside

When the session was actually running, Jordan and Carl managed and captured the audio, Argi and Matt made adjustments in the live rooms and instrument booths. I took the session notes and listened to the monitor mix.

The people who were doing the engineering concentrated on the technical aspects of the sound, whereas I was picking up aspects of the music and the performances that needed guidance and coaching to bring out the best in the musicians. For example, the lead singer was singing phrases that sounded disjointed, because he was recording them separately, instead of as continuous takes in the manner he would sing live. I suggested he sang as he would when gigging and the ‘feel’ of the performance improved. The rhythm guitarist was also singing. I noticed that when he sang, his guitar was less rhythmic, detracting from the ‘groove’ of the reggae tracks. I suggested he concentrated on the rhythms of his guitar and did the vocals as an overdub. This brought out a much better performance on his guitar. The reggae toaster was not hitting the rhythm as well as I felt he could, giving a subdued performance. Whilst coaching him, I realised that his headphones mix was quiet, he was concentrating on listening for cues instead of being carried on the beat. The lighting in the vocal booth was also stark and bright, making the toaster feel self-conscious. I turned the lights down and created a different ‘club’ ambience for him to relax and get into the groove better. A change to his headphones mix inspired him to perform much more confidently and rhythmically.

Abdul the Toaster, before the lights were dimmed: Picture: Paul Grooveside

The other members of the team commented that I was hearing things they hadn’t heard, and making the performances much better by the way I was analysing and coaching the artists throughout the session. They said I was getting better performances by getting the artists to ‘own’ my suggestions for their performances, evolving better ways to play or sing without my ever taking over or criticising.

I learned from this experience that my own strengths in the studio are to achieve the technical set-up, then to put technical considerations aside and focus on the musical performance, on the way the musicians felt, and to listen to the recordings critically and musically in ways that complement the engineering skills of others in the team. This is what makes me the Music Producer I am. 27 years later, I discovered that my forte still is to work with musicians and engineers inclusively and coach people to bring out the best in us all. I felt proud to discover that I still have that ability.

It takes a team working technically, scientifically and artistically to capture the magic of music. The team has to work at a personal level in comfort and creativity. These sessions reminded me that each team member has a role and that everyone’s ideas and contributions are what makes the magic happen. They reminded me of what my strengths are, and how I can use them to make great recordings.

Reference: Stinson J (2021) The Glyn Johns Three Mic Drum Recording Setup http://jonstinson.com/the-glynn-johns-three-mic-drum-recording-setup/ , Jamaicansmusic.com (2021) Origins of Toasting https://jamaicansmusic.com/learn/origins/toasting

Five Albums that have stayed with me for Decades

I posted recently about Adele having taken a stand against the use of shuffling to protect the integrity and sequence of tracks on her albums so her listeners would hear her albums the way she intended. That caused me to think about the album as an art form, rather than just being a carrier bag of songs, and of albums that have remained with me as favourites for various reasons.

I have an extensive record collection, vinyl, CDs and cassettes some of which I have owned since my childhood. I have always been meticulous to care for my records, they are all still in excellent condition.

I play most of my records occasionally, some frequently, some are favourites at a particular time and are replaced in the repertoire by others as times change or to stop the record from becoming too familiar, I enjoy them all. Yet over and above these, there are some albums which have become so firmly entrenched in my life and my psyche that they are fundamental to who I am culturally and as a music lover. All are from the 1970s, my formative teenage years, all made lasting impressions on me.

Why should these be so important to me?

Some started as music discovered through the artists being support acts at concerts I’d been to, some were albums I’d bought after hearing tracks on the radio or after liking a song released as a single. One was an album from which I had heard thirty seconds of excerpts in a radio advertisement, the unique sounds intrigued me enough to buy the album. Each of them in some way came to mean a lot to me because of the appeal the music has to me, because they represent some times in my life that were special, and because they have become ‘old friends’ themselves, music that is familiar, much-loved and always inspiring.

Kraftwerk: Autobahn

I first heard of ‘Autobahn by hearing the 3-minute single edit on the radio in 1974 when I was twelve years old. I bought the single, as did my friend. In the days of guitar-based pop and Glam Rock, we both thought ‘Autobahn’ sounded like nothing else we had ever heard. It was the beginning of a transformation in the technology of making music, and for two 12-year-old boys, it was weird, cool and appealingly new.

Patrick Moraz: The Story of I

This was the 1976 debut solo album by Patrick Moraz, the Brazilian keyboard player who was a long-time member of prog-rock bands Yes and The Moody Blues. It is a unique combination of Brazilian traditional music, Jazz, Progressive rock and Electronic music. A concept album that plays as one continuous piece , albeit with the unavoidable break between sides of a vinyl LP or cassette, it tells a story of two lovers in a mysterious hotel where people are challenged to live the realisation of their most impossible dreams. I heard a 30-second radio advertisement for the album, its dramatic synthesizer opening and snippets of the cheerful Brazilian dance enticed me to buy it on cassette. The album has such depth, imagination, musical variety and cohesion, together with a sensitive and enthralling story, that it captivated me; 45 years later, it still does.

Illusion: Out Of The Mist

I saw Illusion playing as support to Bryan Ferry at Newcastle City Hall in 1977 and actually preferred their live performance to his. Illusion was a breakaway group with members of the Yardbirds and the original line-up of Renaissance. Their sound was a very English pastoral progressive rock, delicate, haunting and melodic, based around the beautiful voice of Jane Relf, framed in the technical piano playing of John Hawken and guitars of John Knightsbridge and Jim McCarty. Coming at a time when Punk Rock was to hit the musical landscape like an earthquake, the gentle Illusion were somewhat at odds with the times. They only made this one album, it is such a unique and lovely album that it is hard indeed to imagine how they could have followed it.

Camel: Nude

At the age of 18, I had left home, somewhat lost. I was finding my way in the world, commuting and working in a lowly job in Cardiff. I found this new album in Woolworths by a band I had liked; I bought it because of the cover and my liking for the band’s previous recordings. A concept album telling the story of the World War 2 Japanese soldier who became stranded on a desert island and lived alone for thirty years, not knowing that the war was long-over, Nude’s opening song contains the lines: “Oh, the city life, what have I come to?” Those words resonated with me at that time in my life. Most of the album is instrumental. In the central character Nude’s adventure, his solitude, and his finding of peace and fulfilment, I found comfort too. Camel’s music has been a constant companion to me.

Nigel Mazlyn Jones: Sentinel

Another support act at Newcastle City Hall in the 1970s: As the audience took their seats for a Camel concert, talking amongst themselves, a rather drunk roadie announced “Here’s somone called Nigel”. A long-haired bearded man quietly took the stage carrying an acoustic guitar. He started to play. Within moments, the audience was spellbound. Nigel Mazlyn Jones is a songwriter and guitarist like none other. His ambient folk songs of man’s place in nature, our effect on the world and the lure of the sea, with his swirling soundscapes and virtuosity mesmerised the audience. I bought both his self-produced albums at the merchandise stand. The message behind his music is as relevant today as it was then; the music itself just as unique and magical.

Hoelderlin: Live Traumstadt

In 1977, I visited the German city of Wuppertal as part of a schools exchange visit. The city’s biggest musical stars were a rock band called Hoelderlin. I was given a gift of the live album they recorded in Wuppertal the year I was there. Long compositions, meandering, melodic and rocking, Hoelderlin captured the magic and discovery of my first trip to Europe.

Conversations with a Dummy Head

Image: Canva / Des Hulley

A recent assignment for my MSc Audio Production course was to produce a podcast as part of a group, on an audio – related topic of our choice. I was fortunate to work with Des, Oliver and Khalid. We shared an interest in spatial audio, particularly in the form of binaural audio. Des had built herself a binaural dummy head, the ‘birth’ of Dumbert was a deciding factor – we just had to use him in a podcast about Binaural Audio!

The format of a podcast was ideal for us to discuss and demonstrate what binaural audio is: our audience would be able to experience binaural recordings and the sounds of the microphones and software plug-ins we used to record and mix them, whilst we discussed, explained and explored the subject in entertaining ways.

We chose to present our work as a “radio-style” podcast, with a group discussion interspersed by a number of short features – a history of binaural audio, a game of identifying where a binaural recording was made, information on uses of binaural in Autonomous-Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) and in medical education. The use of music, sound effects and a number of spoof ‘Dummy Head’ adverts keeping the tone lighthearted and humorous to keep our audience engaged and entertained.

Each of us researched the topic. We requisitioned the necessary equipment and we set up a podcasting studio in Des’s house.

Microphone setup. Photo: Paul Grooveside

We intended to demonstrate a range of options for binaural recording, so used the following microphones and techniques:

Each of us had a Rode NT2-A mono microphone, for individual point-source recording which we could then use for mixing and panning as desired. The NT2-As were powered and converted to digital audio by a Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 audio interface, feeding a laptop running Avid Pro-Tools, the software we used to record, edit and mix the podcast.

We wanted to demonstrate how an ambisonic microphone could be used in binaural recording so used a Soundfield ST450 microphone recorded by a Zoom H6 recorder. Its recording was converted to binaural using the Soundfield by Rode plug-in.

Soundfield ST450, Photo: Des Hulley

The star of the show, of course, was the home-made dummy head. Dumbert contains a pair of Lavaliere microphones, and was recorded by a Zoom H1N recorder. This recorded the discussion as if the listener was sitting in the room with us, in Dumbert’s place. At certain points in the podcast, the audience can hear just what Dumbert heard.

Dumbert, our home-made Binaural Dummy Head. Photo: Paul Grooveside

Some preparation was done identifying library music and preparing the sound effects ‘stingers’ and recording templates for the spoof adverts, The first day was spent usefully rehearsing and recording sections of the podcast. Having built a running order for the podcast with narrative and pace, we shaped the structure and scripting to ensure the podcast was a piece of infotainment. We scripted the ‘info-‘ and our conversations and other elements provided the ‘-tainment’.

The scripted recording was captured on our second day. It was an enjoyable time, we hope the fun we had carried over into the recordings we made and the resulting podcast is fun to hear. The podcast was edited and mixed by the team on Pro-Tools, using a number of plugins, including Waves Vocal Rider to even out the volume of each person’s voice as the energy levels raised and fell during the performance. The mono recordings from the Rode microphones were panned and positioned in 3-dimensional audio space using the DearReality DearVR Pro plug-in.

Mixing the podcast. Photo: Paul Grooveside

The podcast is available to listen to on Soundcloud. Here it is embedded in my blog. Please wear headphones to listen, this is necessary to experience the binaural audio effect. We hope you enjoy our Conversations with a Dummy Head!

Reference: Dear-Reality.com (2022) Dear VR Pro https://www.dear-reality.com/products/dearvr-pro

A quick link to my Immersive Audio Assignment

In my Immersive Audio assignment for my MSc Audio Production course at the University of Salford, I used DearVR Micro to create a binaural mix of an excerpt from a track I am working on: Noah’s Castle Rebuilt – Paul Grooveside – Binaural Headphones Mix for MSc.

In the mix I placed a mixture of acoustic and synthesised percussion instruments around the listener and at varying heights, the claves and cymbals were panned high, congas and toms lower. Some guitars were panned behind the listener, synthesizers ‘wrapped’ around the sound field, bells placed around the listener and distanced using reverb effects panned through DearVR Micro. I initially found the mix to be complex to set up, so concentrated on making the mix clear and accessible to the listener.

(See also main post about 360 Degree and Binaural audio)

Reference: University of Salford (2021) MSC/PGDIP Audio Production https://www.salford.ac.uk/courses/postgraduate/audio-production

360 Degree and Binaural Audio Technology

A Dolby Atmos cinema. Picture: Trusted Reviews https://www.trustedreviews.com/opinion/dolby-atmos-2942509

Binaural and immersive audio technology currently in use includes methods to record sound binaurally using microphones and ‘dummy head’ arrays designed for the purpose, and software plug-ins to enable audio mixing in binaural and 360 degree formats, such as DearVR and Facebook Audio Spatial Workstation. Replay of the formats is achieved using headphones for binaural recordings and arrays of loudspeakers for 360 degree audio such as those specified in the Dolby Atmos specification.

Neumann KU-100 Dummy Head https://en-de.neumann.com/ku-100

Binaural recording is performed on location or in studios with the use of pairs of microphones spaced to simulate human ears, either as part of a dummy head or on spacer mounts, with replica ear pinnae to facilitate accurate recordings of sound as a person would actually perceive it. The Neumann KU-100 dummy head and the 3Dio FS Pro 2 are current examples.

3DIO FS Pro 2 https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/introduction-binaural-recording

The 2-channel recording is replayed on headphones to delver the sound directly to the listener’s eardrums to maintain fidelity and permit the listener to experience the immersive qualities of Binaural audio.

Multiple mono or stereo sources can be combined in studios to create binaural or surround sound mixes. These require software plug-ins that can simulate panning in three dimensions: left-right, front-back and up-down. By panning and with judicious use of reverberation and other effects, the immersive audio experience can be constructed.
Two examples of these plug-ins are DearVR and Facebook Audio Workstation.

Facebook Audio 360 Spatialiser https://facebook360.fb.com/spatial-workstation/
DearVR Micro plug-in https://www.dear-reality.com/products/dearvr-micro

In my Immersive Audio assignment for my MSc Audio Production course at the University of Salford, I used DearVR Micro to create a binaural mix of an excerpt from a track I am working on: Noah’s Castle Rebuilt – Paul Grooveside – Binaural Headphones Mix for MSC.

Noah’s Castle Rebuilt – Paul Grooveside – Binaural Headphones Mix for MSC

In the mix I placed a mixture of acoustic and synthesised percussion instruments around the listener and at varying heights, the claves and cymbals were panned high, congas and toms lower. Some guitars were panned behind the listener, synthesizers ‘wrapped’ around the sound field, bells placed around the listener and distanced using reverb effects panned through DearVR Micro. I initially found the mix to be complex to set up, so simplified it to make it clearer and more accessible to the listener.

Dolby Atmos home cinema https://www.whathifi.com/advice/dolby-atmos-what-it-how-can-you-get-it

Dolby Atmos is a development of previous surround-sound replay systems which adds height to the placement of objects in the sound stage by mounting loudspeakers above the listener as well as around them on the same level. Sounds are treated as ‘objects’ instead of conventional panned channels. Digital processing of the objects renders the sounds in the context of the known configuration of loudspeakers in each theatre, thus enabling precise and accurate sound placement for each environment. By digital panning, sounds can thus be given the illusion of coming from any location in the sound stage around the listener. Dolby Atmos cinema systems are closely specified and must be calibrated accurately to be certified as meeting Dolby standards. The technology is becoming available for home cinema systems, although it is still expensive.

Korff, C. (2021). An Introduction To Binaural Recording: Use Your Head. Soundonsound.com. https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/introduction-binaural-recording
Neumann Berlin. (2021). Dummy Head KU-100. Neumann.com. https://en-de.neumann.com/ku-100

Rode Microphones. (2021). NT-SF1 Soundfield by Rode. Rode.com. https://en.rode.com/ntsf1

Dear VR. (2021). Dear VR Micro. Dear-Reality.com. https://www.dear-reality.com/products/dearvr-micro

Facebook 360. (2021). Spatial Workstation – Facebook 360 Video. Facebook 360fb.com. https://facebook360.fb.com/spatial-workstation/

Adele – saviour of the album as an art form?

An Audience With Adele: Photo: ITV https://www.itv.com/hub/an-audience-with/L0055a0007

Artists and record producers invest a great deal of creativity, thought and work into the creation of their albums. The order of songs or instrumentals on an album is an important element of the flow and progression of the musical and narrative themes the artist is communicating. In many ways, an album tells a story through musical themes and their development, as well as in the lyrics. Progressive Rock artists took this literally with the ‘concept album’, in doing so they created some of the greatest examples of the album as coherent pieces of art.

Albums like Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, which tells a harrowing tale of a rock star’s descent into madness and self-isolation, Patrick Moraz’s ‘The Story of I’, a fantasy tale of two people who fall in love whilst facing ever-increasing challenges in a mythical hotel offering the ultimate in adventure and pleasure, Donna Summer’s ‘Once Upon A Time’ tells the story of a lonely young woman’s quest for love. Vangelis’s ‘Rosetta’ and ‘Juno To Jupiter’ are musical representations of NASA space probes to a comet and to Jupiter. Jeff Wayne’s ‘Musical Version of the War of the Worlds’, and Camel’s sublime ‘The Snow Goose’ are musical interpretations of works of literature. These are all examples of albums which tell stories.

Even when the stories told by albums are less explicit, pop, rock, jazz and other genres still have structures to the ordering of tracks within albums that build moods and feelings, reach climaxes and dynamic peaks, vary the feelings conveyed and take the listeners on musical journeys.

Structuring and sequencing the tracks are thus fundamental elements of an album as a cohesive and eloquent work of art. Where, then, lies the justification for a mechanism which intentionally disassembles the coherence of an album and presents its tracks out of the artist’s intended order?

I’ve always disagreed with the ‘shuffle’ or ‘random play’ function of music players, iPods and streaming services. They are perhaps intended to offer some form of variety and spontaneity to the listener; to me, they are pointless devices that disrupt the musical and narrative flow of an album.

Why is it that a music album is regarded as fair game for this disrespectful rearrangement? Would a book publisher randomly reorder the chapters of novels so the plots would be lost? Would Netflix or the BBC make audiences watch the episodes of TV series in nonsensical order where the end comes before the beginning and intervening episodes are sprinkled around in meaningless disorder? No. So why would the randomisation of a musical work be in any way acceptable?

This week, one of the world’s most popular singers has mounted a successful opposition to the randomisation of ‘shuffling’ her albums.

Adele has spoken out against the use of ‘shuffling’ and has influenced the streamer Spotify to hide the ‘shuffle’ button from its album pages. “We don’t create albums with so much care and thought into our track listing for no reason,” Adele said. “Our art tells a story and our stories should be listened to as we intended.”

In the commercial world, artists are under pressure to begin their albums with their strongest hit songs, to encourage listeners to continue to stream beyond the 30 seconds that triggers a royalty payment for the artist, publisher and record company. This is often at odds with the artists’ wishes for the order of tracks, just as is the implementation of the ‘shuffle’ feature to randomise an artists work and scramble its emotional and lyrical meaning.

By asking that her music be heard in the order in which she wishes her songs to be presented, Adele is heroically standing up for countless musical artists as a champion of the album as a means of expression of the artist, and of the very notion of the album itself as a form of art.

Reference: Adele (2021) Adele https://www.adele.com/

Revelations in Audio: Stereo Sound on Loudspeakers and in Headphones vs Binaural Audio

Image: https://www.synthtopia.com/content/2020/12/08/jean-michel-jarre-announces-free-new-years-eve-concert-welcome-to-the-other-side/

I’ve always preferred to listen to recorded music on speakers. I’ve had high quality hi-fi systems since I was 15, including a superb pair of loudspeakers I built myself from a Wilmslow Audio kit design.

For me, music reproduced through a quality system via loudspeakers, positioned carefully in a dedicated listening room, sounds natural and more the way I believe the artists and producers intended – very few albums are recorded and mixed to be heard primarily on headphones.

The soundstaging – the way a hi-fi system presents the music in stereo, with depth and stereo imagery – can be impressive. The first time I heard a high-end hi-fi system in the early 1980s was a revelation; the classic Linn Sondek LP12 turntable with its Ittok tonearm and Asak cartridge and Naim Audio 32/SNAPS Pre-amplifier, tri-amped Naim 250 power amplifiers and Linn Isobarik speakers, presented the music with tonal accuracy, dynamics and with such a focused soundstage that I could hear Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel standing in precise locations in the room, singing and playing guitars whilst their band was behind them and around them. The system reproduced the soundstage with depth and width of field, enhancing the mere left-right sound reproduced by less capable systems. The experience inspired me to use the stereo soundstage effectively in my own recordings, and to aspire to owning a ‘high-end’ hi-fi system.

By comparison, a stereo recording played through headphones is a more internal listening experience. The artists and instruments are heard as if they are somewhere inside the listener’s head, placed left-to-right, but without the presence and depth that a good set of speakers can project. Many people who may not have access to high-quality hi-fi systems like to listen on headphones as they allow listeners to hear details which are often lost by poor quality systems and speakers, or listening rooms that are less than optimal. For them, headphones can provide a more realistic listening experience. For audiophiles such as me, quality hi-fi replay through loudspeakers are the preferred way to listen to music.

Cinemas have for some time used surround-sound effects, to place sounds around the audience, including Dolby Atmos, which includes speakers above the audience to give impressions of height and depth to cinematic sound. Although home-cinema audio can use surround systems such as 5.1 and 7.1, these formats are a rarity for recorded music. The standard for domestic high-fidelity music reproduction remains as two-channels: stereo.

Binaural recording is distinct from stereo, it is a method of recording using a “dummy head” with microphones inside the dummy’s ears, to capture exactly the sound as it would be heard by a listener in the location the recording was made, or mixed using software to simulate the three-dimensional hearing of our ears. Binaural audio is intended to be reproduced using headphones to deliver the sound at the eardrums as recorded; it does not function effectively over stereo loudspeakers because of the positioning of the sound sources relative to the eardrums.

I recently had an audio revelation akin to the first time I heard the Linn/Naim system I mention above. On New Year’s Eve 2020, Jean-Michel Jarre broadcast online a live performance in which he was playing at his Paris studio, filmed in 3-D motion-capture which placed his avatar in a Virtual Reality recreation of the Notre Dame Cathedral. The performance was viewed live online by 75 million people, one of whom was me. The concert was recorded, and has been released commercially on several formats. As part of researching immersive audio for my MSc, I compared the stereo mix of the concert with the binaural mix originally intended to complement the 3D VR visuals, using Beyer Dynamic’s excellent DT990 Pro studio quality headphones.

The stereo mix was as expected: clear, focused, powerful, and internal to my head.

Jean-Michel Jarre live in VR – Stereo audio mix – Spotify.com

The binaural mix literally added extra dimensions to the listening experience.

Jean-Michel Jarre live in VR – Binaural headphone mix – Spotify.com

The music surrounded me in every direction – to my left and right, in front of me, behind me, above and below me, sounds were rendered in the distance and nearby, sometimes moving around me in any direction within the 3D soundfield, sometimes in point-source locations, sometimes enveloping me and swirling around me. Jarre used reverberation effects in mono, stereo and surround positioning to emphasise and animate the placement of instruments and effects. The difference between stereo and binaural listening was stark, akin to the Linn/Naim system’s superiority over basic stereo systems. Whereas the Linn/Naim system brought stereo listening to life, the binaural recording rendered music in a realistic three-dimensional world of sound, effective even with synthesised electronic music.

The luddite in me still prefers to listen to music in stereo on loudspeakers; they form a sonic “stage” on which recorded musicians can perform, it is a format I enjoy on a system I’ve built and nurtured over decades. And yet… I cannot deny that binaural listening is more akin to the way we hear in reality, and that in this age when many millions of people listen to music streamed online to earbuds linked to their phones, binaural audio can offer a new experience for them, as well as for audiophiles like me.

Reference: Korff c (2021) An Introduction To Binaural Recording – Use Your Head https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/introduction-binaural-recording