Partridge Family Values

September 2000

Recording at home with XTC

By Alan Di Perna
photos by Simon Camper

"I suppose it's all kind of 'English country gent,'" Colin Moulding muses. "Jolly good thing to jump out of bed and go straight into the studio. And if an overdub is getting you down, you can hang your guitar up and just go for a walk in the garden."

The idyllic spot Moulding is describing is Idea Studios, where he and his longtime musical partner Andy Partridge completed the new XTC album, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume Two). The studio is located in Moulding's backyard, just outside the English town of Swindon, about an hour west of London by train.


Partridge and Moulding grew up in Swindon and have never really abandoned their hometown - not even during XTC's Eighties heyday, when albums such as Black Sea, English Settlement, Skylarking, and Oranges and Lemons cemented the band's reputation as prime British purveyors of literate, challenging, post-punk guitar pop.

Originally a five-piece rock band, XTC exists today as a recording entity composed of Partridge (vocals, guitar) and Moulding (vocals, bass).

Partridge is the author of XTC classics such as "Respectable Street," "Senses Working Overtime," "Dear God," and "The Mayor of Simpleton," while Moulding's portfolio of killer tunes includes "Life Begins at the Hop," "Making Plans for Nigel," and "Generals and Majors." So XTC have never been at a loss for songs to record. The band stopped performing live back in 1982, after Partridge suffered a nervous collapse while on tour. XTC focused their energies entirely on the recording studio and have never looked back since.

"We don't even think of playing live anymore," says Moulding. "We're record makers. That's what we do. We concentrate on chasing the magic of records." The release of Wasp Star and its predecessor, last year's Apple Venus Volume One, marks a triumphant return for XTC. The group spent the better part of the Nineties "on strike" from Virgin records - XTC's label at the time. Longtime lead guitarist Dave Gregory also left XTC, somewhat acrimoniously, during sessions for Apple Venus Volume One, leaving Partridge and Moulding to soldier on as a duo. But with a new record deal on TVT, and their own recording studio, Andy and Colin are back on top of their game.

EQ: The final stages of Apple Venus Volume One were recorded in Colin's living room, due to a lack of funds. Was that the genesis of the idea of building a proper home studio and doing all your records there?

Moulding: I suppose so. We had these two front rooms at my house, which had never been decorated. It was my suggestion to use them for recording, to complete Apple Venus Volume One.

Partridge: We had the mixing desk and a few bits of gear in one room, and a load of cables going across the hall to the other room where we had a mic stand and a mic, and an amp and a cab. That's where we made the noises. And at the end we said, "Hmm this home recording can be really good." And looking at Colin's unused double garage and his adjoining coal store building, it was a case of, "Don't you think we should turn this into a studio? Instead of blowing a £1,000 a day on someone else's studio and owning nothing at the end of it, why don't we throw the money at ourselves and convert this into a sensible, decent studio?"

Moulding: So we bought a modicum of gear: compressors, equalizers - some of the Tube Tech stuff and a 32-channel Mackie 8-bus desk, which was quite affordable. The most important thing, I think, is to make sure you've got decent external EQ if you haven't spent a lot of money on the desk.

Partridge: We wanted a really good quality vocal mic. So we went for the [AKG] C12. And we got a Focusrite Red EQ. Not too many toys. Just enough to get good quality tracks that we could then take somewhere else to mix.

Moulding: Our friend Nick Davis, who engineered Apple Venus One and Two, introduced us to the Otari RADAR hard disc recording system. We rented Nick's to finish Volume One, then we bought a 24-track RADAR system of our own, secondhand, when we built the studio to record Volume Two.

Partridge: The editing freedom is fantastic on a digital hard disk system like that. As for the sound, that's all down to those converters, isn't it? The RADAR sounds just like an Otari tape machine, to me. And then you can go and move stuff around, which you can't do with tape. We did a lot of editing on this album, which we'd never done before. This is the first time we had that luxury.

And what about the space where you installed the gear?

Moulding: It was just a large double garage in my yard. I never kept a car in there. Full of junk, of course, which most garages are. And at one end of it, there was kind of a stable block attached. We thought, "We can have the garage as the main recording room; and we can knock through into the stable block, put a new roof on that and make that the control room The buildings were quite dilapidated really. They leaked water and had a few damp problems.

Are we talking about really old buildings?

Moulding: No. They were probably only put up 30 years ago - cheaply. So we had to put a new roof on. And added an extra inner wall for isolation. Then we wooded it out with a wood floor. There's a wood ceiling as well, and plaster walls. Wood's very good for acoustics - not too pingy and kind to the sound. And then we carpeted the control room.

A guy named John Hillier built it?

Partridge: Yeah. He's just a local builder. We had to persuade him to do certain things, like, "Can we make the ceiling slope in the control room?" And he'd say [English country accent] "Oh aye...if you think that'll make it better. But that looks weird to me. Looks wrong." You know what local builders are like. But he was really helpful and he didn't charge too much. He's not a studio builder or anything. But, freakily enough, the room sounds really good - just by accident. Chuck Sabo, the drummer who played on a lot of the album, said it was the nicest, most flattering room that he'd ever drummed in, for the sound of his drums.

Moulding: It's not a tremendous room, of course. Maybe about 22 by 25 feet with a pitched ceiling that goes up to maybe 18 feet. You can put mikes up in the pinnacle. It's nice to have a bit of height for the drums and stuff. There's some curtains that can be drawn right across the center of the room, for damping down. We had some screens [gobos] made up. We've got a few quilts and sleeping bags...that sort of thing.

Following in the wake of the mainly acoustic-driven Apple Venus Volume One, Wasp Star marks XTC's return to full-on electric guitar. What was your approach to recording guitars in your studio?

Partridge: Our secret weapon on this was the Line 6 Pod. Not just for guitars, but for bass, vocals, drums, percussion, keyboards...everything. For electric guitar we'd usually combine that with a mic right on the guitar itself, which was usually Colin's Fender Squier Telecaster. Whether it was Colin or me playing the part, we'd put maybe a Gefell or an AKG right up against the strings, so you could hear the unamplified sound of the guitar itself - the very thin, super highs that will never go down the pickups. Then you take a DI from that and treat it through the Pod in the control room. So the sound is split across the stereo perspective. You have this extremely bright, obscenely personal sound on one side, and whatever fuzzy, gooped-up sound you've got from the Pod on the other side. And it's a sound that you can put your head inside - because it's stereo content.

Did you go direct to tape from the Pod, or did the Pod go through an amp?

Partridge: We went direct a lot. But sometimes the Pod would go through either my little Sessionette 70 amplifier or Colin's Gallien-Krueger bass setup. The Sessionette 70 is just some crappy little amp I bought years ago. I think it was the cheapest in the shop. It's MOSFET technology - kind of a cream-colored bumpy looking thing with two 12-inch speakers. It's horrible. But it does add a little low-end punch to the sound if you need that. Like in the song "Playground," which is a mixture of Pod and Pod sent out through the Sessionette.

The other thing about our guitar sounds is that we use quite a lot of compression on record. Even before we had the Pod, we used to compress the guitar signal before it went to the amplifier. Because that makes the amplifier work smoother. The amplifier tends not to punch itself out at higher volumes. Miking the strings of an electric guitar is actually an old trick. Shel Talmy did it on early singles by the Who and Kinks in the mid-Sixties.

Moulding: Oh really. I'm a very big Kinks fan. It's funny you should say that, 'cause that's the bloody sound I was after, really, on "In Another Life." I tried acoustic guitar on it, and that didn't work. I wanted something more electric. Sort of a very steely acoustic/electric sound like Ray Davies sometimes had. So maybe we were following in Shel's footsteps. We've been into miking the strings for a while now. We even did it on the bass on Apple Venus Volume One.

Partridge: Most of the guitars on English Settlement have that treatment as well.

What did you use to generate the guitar tremolo on "Wounded Horse" [from Wasp Star]?

Partridge: That's the Pod as well. There are a couple of guitars there. Two of them have different speeds of tremolo, so they collide. You get little blank spots and little crowded spots. I think it has slapback on it as well. And the treatment in the mix is constantly changing. Different echoes and reverbs are being buttoned in and out - to sound sort of disorientating and rather drunken.

"My Brown Guitar" is full of nice, chiming guitar embellishments.

Partridge: Well, there's kind of a sad story there. That song was actually completed during the sessions for Apple Venus One, at Chipping Norton Studios, with Dave Gregory on guitar, before he left the group.

Moulding: He kind of left under a cloud, really. Which was unfortunate. He's a very bitter chap, Dave. Lots of jealousy there.

Partridge: We'd asked his permission to use his playing on "My Brown Guitar." And he sent us a really nasty fax one day, claiming we were ripping him off for money and blah, blah, blah - which we aren't. We were very upset by this. And I said, "That's it. Just wipe his playing off. I'm gonna redo everything." So yeah, the guitars on there are kind of an attempt to orchestrate with different tones - muddy tones, bright tones, sinuous tones. But I have to say it's probably just as much a showcase for the Pod as anything else. This album couldn't have been made without that device. You put drums through it and it gives them great bite. Or you put keyboards through it and it gives them a real nice, fuzzy flaring edge.

The album is rich in little percussive sounds. Non-drum-kit sounds. Lots of little clicks and pops. Was the Pod used for any of those?

Partridge: A lot of them. On "Wounded Horse" there's a tottering kind of sound - like a bag of nails being rattled. It's actually just a whole drum kit being played on a counter rhythm and then Pod-ded up. So it fits between the clip-clop of the basic, cleaner beat. And there's a similar kind of thing on "You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful." There's a snare drum playing a simple back-beat, which is placed against a more ornate, Arabic kind of beat. And that snare drum is going through one of the amp settings on the Pod. You can find specific, narrow bands of distortion. Which means you can sit sounds on very specific rungs of the sonic ladder.

Moulding: We used it to process the bass drum on "In Another Life." There's no bass guitar, just this huge bass drum. It seemed to suit the song.

Partridge: It makes you realize that your favorite records from less technically adept times probably had lots of different varieties of distortion on different instruments, which gave them that life, that animation. Your favorite Tamla records have got distorted drums, fuzzy bass, vocals which kick into the red and break up, distorted reverbs, shattering tambourines. But all the distortions go to make excitement and a beautiful, primitive kind of varnish that swills everything together. Nowadays, you can record everything scientifically clean. But you find that you have to put the distortion back in - mix the varnish back in. So the Pod was a Godsend - a Pod-send!

How do you work out those great XTC vocal arrangements - the contrapuntal stuff and all?

Partridge: There are several good rules for harmonies. We tend to place vocal harmonies lower in the register than the lead line, because your ears are always drawn to the high line. And if you place harmonies higher than that, your ear will be drawn to those. So we tend to place them lower. It's a bit of an old Beatles trick, that. More of a George Martin trick, actually.

Colin sings the high parts and Andy does the lower bits?

Moulding: Yes. Always have. I do the very high ones and falsettos most of the time. Andy tends to do the very low ones. On a lot of records we've also done what we call "the homogeneous XTC voice." If one of us is singing, we'll get the other one to sing the same line and mix the two together. So you don't double track yourself. The other one double tracks for you. And you get this homogeneous XTC voice, 'cause our voices can be very similar. If you come from the same place and have the same accent, something must grow out of it.

Partridge: In harmony vocals and contrapuntal vocals, be very aware of taking away all the frequencies you don't need. Otherwise they'll crowd in on the other instruments. You don't need lows on vocals. They just really ruin the tom toms, the bass drum, the deep end of the piano, etc. It's the same thing with acoustic guitars - all the lows gotta go. The common mistake is to say, "Oh let's make the acoustic guitar rich and boomy." And boomy just ends up being unworkable. So get rid of all those lows. You don't need them. Go for that narrow bandwidth, so you can slot each sound in, like a videocassette going into that little slot.

Now that Wasp Star is completed, have we reached the end of the stockpile of songs you amassed during the strike from Virgin?

Partridge: Well, there are more, but I don't think we're going to record them. I think we've used the cream of those songs. So I just wanna clear the decks. Now that the whole project is finished, I have this glorious blank page in front of me.

Moulding: It's a relief that we got to realize everything we hoped we would two years ago. I honestly don't know what we're going to do in the next few years. Which is exciting, but also kind of frightening.

Has owning your own recording studio given you more leverage from a business standpoint - the workers owning the means of production?

Partridge: It certainly saved us a hell of a lot of money. Reasonable studios in England work out to £1,000 pounds a day, with tape fees and stuff. So if you spend three months in a studio ...well, you can do the math. We built and equipped our studio for about £60,000. Which is the cost of like two months in a [commercial] studio. And at the end of that, you don't own that studio. So is it an advisable move to build your own studio? I think so.

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