Archiving the Muse
on the Roland VS-880 Workstation

copyright 1997 by Monte Nordstrom
from issue # 39 - Cosmic Debris Musicians Magazine - Apr '97

A person can become disoriented when exposed to the myriad of recording technology that is available today. Wandering through this maze, one learns by chance & discovery; lost in a labyrinthe, like some forlorn Minotaur, yowling its own peculiar dirge.

Twenty five years ago I chanced upon the gate to the magical sanctuary of the recording studio & I have been happily lost there ever since. In this column I share my experiences that I am now reliving as I transfer analog masters to digital format; as I remix, edit & archive "the Muse" using the Roland VS-880 Workstation. The VS-880 is the basis of my recording service which is called "Helicon Productions" *.

My first studio experience was in '72 with the 16-Track analog recording of the "Ptarmigan" album, produced by Paul Horn at Canbase (Mushroom) Studio in Vancouver. Keith Stein was the engineer. Glen Dias & myself were set up in the main room where we performed our material as a duo "live-off the floor". The rhythm section was overdubbed to our vocals, guitar & wind instrument parts. That was a challenging duty, especially for drummer Kat Hendrickse, since there was no click track and we used multiple time signatures. I'm looking forward to re-mastering the analog inch master to digital with Mark at Media Magic in preparation for the album's re-release to CD.

A couple of years later I recorded an collection of material at Ed deBree's "Little Fosch" studio in Duncan. It was a 4-Track Sony set-up. In addition to the main & control rooms, Ed had built an iso-booth for vocals and had a drum room; all with visual contact through windows. It was a nice environment and he had a great sounding "Sam Philips" style tape-loop echo. This was my first experience as a producer and I learned alot about stacking tracks and track-sharing from Ed.

There were ten musicians on this ten-song project and some of the arrangements were quite involved. The 4-track setup is challenging and you have to be quite creative to overcome its limitations. Transferring the 4-track analog master from the original recording deck to the Hard-drive of the VS-880 for a digital re-mix is going to be a very interesting part of my on-going archiving project. It will be great to see Ed again and to re-open the vault!

In the early 80's I was involved in a couple of CKRA-FM radio broadcasts produced on an 8 Track Studer by Pat Stradeski. The first was basically myself on guitar & vocals with Mike Harney on drums. I overdubbed the bass & lead guitar with Mike adding some percussion tracks. We also added some background harmonies with the help of Joanne Martineau and mixed the so-called "Live" program for later broadcast. Archiving this album will be a challenge since the only Master of this session is the studio cassette dub.

The second CKRA "R-A Alive" programme was more involved, with a five-piece studio band and a back-up singer. Pat produced this one as well. I did the lead vocals & guitar; Mike was on drums; Torben Pedersen played a B3 & the studio's baby grand, with Steve Dubin on bass and Gord Nicholson on alto sax & flute. I had supplied the band with a guitar/vocal 4 Tk demos & chord charts, but we grabbed our basic arrangements on the fly.

We recorded the band off-the-floor and re-dubbed the lead vocal, adding Peggy McLarty's backup vocals last. We managed to complete 10 songs in a marathon 12-hour session, mixing the next day.

I plan to transfer the 8-Track analog master to a DA-88 digital format with the help of Jeremy Sagar, at Access Network in Edmonton. They have an old 8-track Studer in their production room. Using an "Optical Link" I will then transfer the 8 tracks to the VS-880 for digital editing, re-mixing & re-mastering. Just can't leave that old back-catalogue alone.

My next recording started as a series of demos engineered by Jim Kent on a 16-Track Fostex system at his "Lisen Communications" studio in Duncan. I produced these sessions using the talents of my band, "the Beaumonts". We did our pre-production on my Fostex 4 Track and by playing the songs live at our gigs. There is alot to be said for getting the songs worked on-stage before getting the clock running in the studio. Working out solos & arrangements on a multi-track recorder can $ave hours as well.

Eventually I had six multi-tracked songs in the can and wanted to have a tape album for the 1993 Musicwest Showcase deadline. $olution: record the additional songs live to DAT. We recorded several takes of the six targeted tunes on a three-day "Beaumonts" gig at the Brigantine and selected the best, albeit rough, takes for the cassette album, "Nothing More Better" (and got the showcase by the way!).

One problem with taping a "live gig" is that there is a lack of control over the recording enviroment. Crowd noise is a problem and getting multiple takes is difficult. You can't very well do several re-takes in a row if you're supposed to entertaining a busy bar.

I intend to re-record "side 2" of "Nothing More Better" with some additional material in a "live" private location. Using the VS-880, I'll digitally edit the expanded album before re-mastering & releasing it on CD.

In 1993 while enjoying a trip to SxSW in Austin with side trips to San Antonio, New Orleans & Nashville, I booked a couple of hours of recording time at the legendary "Sun Studio" in Memphis. There I recorded a series of instrumentals on my Spanish guitar and three song demos to push around Music Row in Nashville. Although the original "Sun" analog gear is there and functioning, I recorded live-to-DAT. I could do further work on that DAT master on the VS-880 for inclusion on a future project. Needless to say, the experience of recording at "Sun" was exciting.

Travel and budget permitting, one could conceivably capture the "vibe" of other famous studios by recording live-to-DAT, with voice on one channel and guitar on the other, transferring to a VS-880 for overdubs & post-production. Electric Ladyland here I come.

The next recording project was my self-titled CD that started out on a rented Tascam DA-88 / Mackie set-up assembled by Rick Salt, for engineer/drummer Damien Graham's "Bagel Boy" studio.

This was another recording featuring the "Beaumonts" & special guests. It was also the first release on my "Groovedigger Records" label. The basic tracks were captured in a crude basement location in Nanaimo with the post-production work & mixing done at "Desolation Sound" in Vancouver.

I wanted to warm up the sound with the extensive selection of tube pre-amps at "Desolation". We tranferred the project from the DA88 to the ADAT format that engineer, Craig Arnatt was using and mixed to DAT on the studio's warm sounding system. Another example of a hybrid project using a combination of studios and various digital formats.

My most recent release is entitled "Northstream - Songs & Stories of People & Places". The co-operative production was accomplished with my nephew Kelly Nordstrom and the project was the first example of a CD project based entirely on the VS-880 with the 1 gigabyte JAZ drive.

The "drum beds" were recorded with Donny McGillivray in my living room and me set up in the dining room with visual contact through a glass door. Three drum tracks were captured live at a gig, then stripped down & embellished with overdubs. The dubs were recorded in a wide variety of locations including a few hotel rooms!

Kelly & I mixed the tracks in my home studio and mastering was done with Mark Franklin at Media Magic. I'm in pre-production for two new VS-880 projects at the moment, in addition to the aforementioned archiving plans.

One of the great features of the VS-880 is its portability. Another is the array of 200 digital effects with the optional VS8F-1 expansion board. Onboard digital editing and the secret "V" weapon round out the features to make it a truly awesome workstation. There are 8 virtual tracks per track (from which you can easily construct a compilation track). This feature makes it a virtual 64-track enviroment. There are certain limitations to the system but with imagination and creativity these can be easily overcome.

Recording is a matter of personal philosophy and preference. How one goes about the procedure depends on your needs. There are certain schools of thought regarding the function of music. Is it following a commercial trend - the "Corporate" idea of what music should be at the moment? One must remember that fads tend to change quickly and commercial sounds can become rapidly dated or stylistically mundane. Or they stick...

Is the music stating a point of view or a slice of attitude? Punk music & subsequently Grunge, have an edge that in the early stages was rough & nasty. As grunge is now "mainstream", the acceptance of previously unheard-of techniques is becoming standard. Running vocals through overdrive pedals or a drum mix through a Sans-amp to achieve a "cruddy" sound are routinely done and a few years ago would have been practically illegal. Breaking rules is what Rock & Roll is, after all.

As a producer I try to capture the sounds that I hear in my head. Sharing aural visions.

"Communication - send & receive, dedication/ determination - do what you believe". Sometimes it's a gift and sometimes it's a hardsell, but as much as you suffer to get there, it should also be fun.

Taking a song from its basic structure, creating an arrangement and capturing that idea on a recording is what its all about for me. With the VS-880 & "Helicon Productions" I can share my experience with other artists wanting to capture their own "Muse".

* In Greek mythology "Helicon" is the sacred mountain of Apollo & the Muses, where they dance together with Artemis, the Charites & the Horae.
Here also are the springs, Hippocrene & Termessus, where the Muses bathe. The poet Hesiod used to pasture his sheep on the slopes of Helicon & one day the Muses came to him there giving him an olive bough, and with it, the gift of song.

Note: Monte Nordstrom has produced over 75 demos and has recorded 8 albums to date (Nov '99). He performs regularly at numerous venues on Canada's West Coast.
Email Monte at:

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