Making Starship Oak

Paul Clark

Before we get into the recording of Starship Oak, here's a little bit of backstory to set the stage.

First off, all the music that was to become Starship Oak was recorded onto Fostex and Tascam four-track tape recorders. The first was an X-15. It had two inputs plus bass and treble controls.

Before that my first recordings, apart from onto a portable mono cassette recorder my folks owned, were onto a TEAC A-2340 4-Channel 4-Track track in a studio at the Leeds College of Music next door to the Jacob Kramer College of Art where I was studying Advertising Design.

I spent a lot of time in there when nobody was around, and actually recorded an art installation piece titled Surrealist Photography with my fellow student Nick Thyer to accompany our photos for the end of term show. We played it super loud in the school theater while the slideshow presented our photos.

We didn't make it to the optional third year because of that, but we got our diplomas anyway.

A year later I bought a Roland Jupiter 4 that had an arpeggiator built-in and by sticking tape over half of the record and playback heads of an Akai cassette deck was able to record a whole tapes worth of arpeggiation and then by swapping the tape record along to it. That was about all I could do without another tape deck to bounce to.

I ended up selling the Jupiter 4 to help pay for my move to London from my home town of Leeds to work at a music store called Unisound, but within six months I had a Roland Juno 106 and a four-track tape recorder and that was my studio.

I used that to record demos for a band called The Intimates we formed with several friends, and a year or so after that I joined a band called The Bolshoi.

We soon added an Ensoniq Mirage sampler to go with the Juno because it just couldn't create a decent piano sound. I was playing a lot of piano on our studio recordings and needed to play those parts live on stage. We later added a Roland JX-8P and then an Akai S900 sampler and while we weren't touring, practicing or other band related activites I'd spend my spare time recording in the spare room of a flat me and the bass player were sharing.

At this point I had also upgraded the X-15 to an X-18. It had four inputs but could still only record two tracks at a time.

My process was to record a sequence I liked into the Mirage and record that to track one for the entire length of the tape and then record other parts along to it on the other tracks, dropping in when I wanted a change but very rarely bouncing tracks.

After the band split I spent almost all my time in the spare room recording. I never considered joining another band, deciding instead to continue recording with a view towards releasing a solo album. In the meantime I got married and we decided to move to Seattle.

Two years after arriving in Seattle I bought an Emax II sampler that had a digital recorder built in. I had fun figuring it all out and working entirely within the digital domain was stimulating and new, but it was slow going and sterile so I decided to add a Juno 106, to replace the one I sold along with all my other gear before leaving England, and also a Tascam Portastudio 424 MkIII. This beast had it all. Four track simultaneous recording, four EQ's per channel and two recording speeds, which meant higher quality recordings.

I recorded music to five more cassettes Starship Oak spanned twelve cassettes in total and made some music videos then decided to try using a computer to record the music from my cassettes to so I could mix it. After wetting my feet with an Apple Macintosh II, which I mainly used to learn how computers and this weird new thing called The Internet worked, I got a Power Macintosh 7300 and tried to use it to record new music and also digitize and mix all the music on the tapes.

The first app I used was Opcode Studio Vision. It was amazing to realize I could actually record more than four tracks but I just couldn't get it to work properly. Maybe I ended up spending too much time using it to record new music within the computer itself instead of just recording what I already had, or too much time digging into other aspects of what it was capable of, but the fact is I wasn't spending enough time doing any actual recording and never did any mixing on it.

Then I broke my hand and was physically unable to play, or at least like I was used to. I began spending more time on the internet and ended up buying and reviewing software, music and interviewing folks like Bob Moog, Rick Wakeman and Gary Numan, and before long I just wasn't recording music anymore.

Ultimately it took the combination of Mac OS X, Logic Pro, Spectrasonic's Omnisphere and an iMac years later to get me interested in making music again.

The operating system, audio production software and hardware was light years ahead of what I had been using before, and the learning curves were surprisingly shallow.

Within a few months I felt comfortable enough with the new equipment to start making music again, but the original plan of converting those 4-tracks into a record was never far from my mind, and in the Winter of 2011 I unsealed the box of cassettes and began the process of digital conversion.

I had a stereo cassette deck and decided to use it to digitize the four track cassettes. Over the entire five or six year recording period I had used several different machines, some with noise reduction in the form of Dolby B, C or dBx, some recorded double speed and others at real time with no noise reduction.

My cassette deck had Dolby B and C noise reduction but wasn't capable of playing tapes back at double speed. I figured I would get around this problem by using a speed correction tool built into Logic that slowed music down. There was also the issue of only being able to play two tracks at the same time from the stereo cassette deck instead of four tracks from the 4-track, but again there was solution within the audio software. I would simply flip the tape when it got to the end, record tracks three and four into the computer backwards and reverse them digitally.

So there I am with my 4-track cassettes with four tracks of music, all recorded in the same direction but with some recorded at double speed and some with and without noise reduction. I put them into the stereo cassette player, rewind to the beginning, create two tracks on the computer to record to and press play on the cassette deck. I record around 60 minutes of music (if it's a C60 cassette) then I turn the cassette over, create two more tracks on the computer to record to, press play on the cassette recorder and record tracks three and four into the computer backwards.

After the tape played all the way back to the beginning (end) I have all four tracks recorded into the computer, with tracks one and two playing in the right direction and tracks three and four playing backwards.

All that I needed to do now was digitally reverse tracks three and four so they played in the same direction as tracks one and two and I would be ready to start mixing. To do this I accessed the sample editor which essentially treated each track as one huge sample and reversed it.

After several minutes the processing was completed and now I had four tracks all playing in the same direction. After trimming the front of tracks three and four and lining them up so they started at the same time as tracks one and two I was able to play the four tracks as if I was playing them from the audio cassette on a four track recorder.

At first it sounded great, all four tracks playing in the same direction at the same time, but after only a few minutes tracks three and four started going out of time with tracks one and two. This was casued by the tape tending to speed up ever so slightly as it played from beginning to end, times by two because the reversed tracks three and four would would start off faster and slow down to normal speed while tracks one and two would start off normal and speed up.

By reversing tracks three and four I was essentially doubling this effect.

I tried tempo stretching tracks two and three so they would end up being the same length as tracks one and two, which would theoretically make them play back at exactly the same rate, but still the tracks went out of sync in the middle sections, and the process also generated lots of audio artifacts that dramatically changed the sound.

The only solution was to cut up the audio that was going out of time on tracks three and four and create new tracks where the parts could be copied and moved back into time with the audio on tracks one and two that I left alone.

After a couple of hours carefully cutting the audio up into different pieces I had around thirty tracks of audio. Tracks one and two were the same untouched tracks I had originally recorded into the computer from the cassette, and tracks three through thirty were all the different parts from what was originally track three and four.

All that remained to be done was go through and move each part back into time with the audio on tracks one and two.

Some sections on tracks three and four, such as sequenced parts I had originally recorded from the sequence in the Ensoniq Mirage were too long to simply nudge into place, because after a while they would go out of time. In these situations I ended up digitally stretching the section of audio slightly so it would stay in time with what was playing on tracks one and two, and because these sections were relatively short I didn't notice the kind of noise I heard when I had tried stretching the entire tracks.

Many of the sections were easy to realign with the untouched reference tracks on one and two, but most were almost impossible to align with perfect accuracy primarily because the original music was never recorded using a click track. The only musical elements that were ever in time were percussion loops that only appeared briefly on most of the tracks, and long repeating arpeggiated sequences from the Ensoniq Mirage that were recorded onto a single track for the duration of the entire cassette, so I could play other parts to it as it went along.

This whole process of realigning all the cut up sections was very difficult and I began to despair that I would ever get it to sound the way I had originally recorded it. Some sections were pads that faded in and out with no way to sync them up exactly as they were recorded. A slight nudge of a pad section in the wrong direction would completely alter the feel of the track, essentially destroying it. Finally, after several weeks I had each track sounding as close to how I remembered it as possible.

The next step in the process was to clean up the beginning and end of every cut up section, to minimize the pops and clicks that occur when you slice a sample up into pieces. Some of the sounds faded in from an empty track, and even faded out the same way, so these were easy to fade in and out, but other parts were sliced between different sounds so I had to remove the pops and clicks that were caused by the equipment when a new part was electro-mechanically dropped in and out during the recording process.

After all twelve tapes were recorded into the computer, aligned and cleaned up I started mixing.

Most of the mixing work was panning, so the parts sat correctly within the stereo field, adjusting levels and applying effects to parts that needed it. When I originally recorded the music I had various effects in mind for specific parts that I didn't have access to at the time, so that was gratifying to finally be able to realize those goals.

I was also able to make use of the powerful EQ tools within Logic to get the recorded tracks closer to how I originally imagined them but was unable to apply because of the limitiation of the orginal equipment. Throughout this process I was surprised how easily I was able to hear the original vision in my head and apply it to what I was listening to all these years later.

Finally the songs were ready for mastering, and as much as I would have like to have done this myself I know how important this part of the process really is, and luckily I know an excellent mastering engineer who is also a friend, Steve Turnidge.

Steve has actually written a couple of books about mastering, Desktop Mastering and Beyond Mastering, published by Hal Leonard, and although I have become somewhat enlightened since reading them I still regard mastering as something best left for someone who really knows what they are doing to do.

An hour or two after sending Steve the first mixed .wav file I got an email back telling me it was, for all intents and purposes, unusable.

The noise from the cassette tapes was apparently so bad that something would have to be done to the raw tracks before mastering could take place, and at this point I was introduced to iZotope RX.

For those of you unfamiliar with this amazing software it basically allows you to see the music as if through x-ray glasses, and with photoshop style tools lets you erase parts of the wavefile such as clicks, thumps, crackles and hums in much the same was a graphic artist would process the photo of a model for a magazine cover.

It also has a feature that removes background noise produced by the tape medium itself by taking a sample of the tape noise before the audio kicks in and going through and removing that noise sample from the entire track.

After spending a week or so removing noise and other artifacts it was back to Steve for another shot at mastering.

This time I got an email telling me something weird was going on with the sound. After looking at the music through his x-ray glasses he noticed I’d gone in and removed all the noise above a certain frequency on every track using the eraser tool I really liked. This bull in a china shop approach to noise reduction turned all the sine waves into square waves and caused all kinds of terrible issues that made the intitial noise issues pale in comparison.

It was at this point it was decided that we would need a 4-track recorder to play all four tracks at the same time into the computer. The process of reversing and slowing down tracks digitally to line everything up may have made sense at one point, but it was becoming clear it was destined to fail for one very simple reason.

As soon as one track went even fractionally out of time with an adjoining track there was a small but noticable amount of audio bleed from the adjoining track not going out of time that caused strange artifacts that ended up as the kind of noise that proved impossible to remove.

The only solution was to play back all four tracks at the same time, in the same direction, into the computer so that all four tracks were exactly in time as the rest.

This is where Mike Perez and his PortaStudio came to the rescue.

It turns out Mike's four-track not only played back all four tracks at once but it also had a Dolby B and C noise reduction setting that came in very useful because a couple of the tapes used one of these two noise reduction settings during recording. It was also capable of running at twice the normal speed which meant that we didn't have to do any digital processing to the audio files from the cassettes recorded at double speed.

Steve had also recently added a new digital audio interface to his system so we were also able to record the audio at a higher bit rate than was possible before. This meant that the cassette tapes, even though recorded digitally, would sound as authentic as the original analog tapes.

The stage was set to finally turn the analog signals recorded onto iron oxide covered tape over two decades previously into a digital format ready for mixing and mastering.

After each tape were played from beginning to end, and the four separate audio tracks were recorded to four digital tracks on the computer, Steve would then copy them to my removable flash drive and off I'd go back to my studio to import them into Logic Pro X.

I repeated the same process I outlined before, cutting the tracks up into individual sections and moving the parts to new tracks, but this time I didn't move anything out of sync with the rest, instead I was doing it because I'd learned from the first run through that it was not only easier to mix if all the parts were on separate tracks but also easier to apply fades to get rid of the unwanted pops and clicks caused by the original recording process, although I did leave several that I liked.

I ended up moving similar types of sounds to the same track, so all the percussion parts, strings and other pads, lead sounds and sound effects would be grouped together on their own tracks.

Within a couple hours of sending the first mix over to Steve I got the mastered version back and was very happy with the result. The original vibrancy was still there but without all the noise and other artifacts.

The project was finally drawing to a conclusion, and within a couple of weeks I had all the tracks mixed, mastered and ready for release.

The process of marketing the music is a whole other story.

In a nutshell, there's another Paul Clark. I know I know, I own right, so I'm the only one. Wrong, and what's more the other one is a Christian slash Folk musicician who has been around since the 60's and has a huge following so I was getting lumped in with him every time I uploaded music to the online music services.

His music would show up on my listener demographics and I'm presuming me on his.

I decided the best course of action would be to release the album under a pseudonym and so Verdant Set was born. I was also re-reading Micheal Moorcocks Runestaff books at the time and thought the music fit well with the look and feel of his alternate universe, and was available, so that became the album title.

I made the website, had cassettes duplicated, set up an online store and uploaded it to the online retailers only to become heavily involved in my new album, Merciana.

For a year it all just sat there without any real promotion while I focussed on the new album and on the eve of its release realized that it should have been Starship Oak under my own name all along.

The problems I had encountered when registering it with the online databases seemed to have been fixed by using a system of unique ID's attached to recorded works as opposed to the artists name, and besides, the concept of a Starship Oak fit perfectly with the story that accompanies Merciana. Even the original song titles worked better than the ones we came up with while tracking the album.

I pulled the songs from the online stores and made Starhip Oak available as a CD with a bonus cassette version, seeing as the music was recorded to that format originally, as opposed to cassette only with a audio download code.

And that, as they say, is that. Needless to say it has all been lots of fun, and very educational, but at the end of the day any musician wants their music to be listened to, and appreciated, so help make it all worth it by buying a CD at The Shop.