Makin’ Trax (Guitar 1994)
Guitar, July 1994
Allan Holdsworth may use a 32-track Mitsubishi tape machine, but he records at home for the same reason you probably do: economics. The futuristic fusionist has recorded his eighth album, Hard Hat Area,, on Restless (his second release for them), and though overdubbing and mixing at home is his usual m.o., there are significant differences in his approach here than in previous solo efforts. For one, Allan recorded this record digitally, a choice he has some misgivings about. Another difference is that the album has a more live, less cerebral sound than earlier albums, due primarily to the fact that Allan and his mates had toured extensively, honing and shaping much of the music that appears on Hard Hat Area. But perhaps of greatest interest to guitarists is that the SynthAxe appears on only two of the tracks. In Fact, Allan doesn't even own a SynthAxe anymore; he had to borrow one for the album! "I only played SynthAxe on 'Hard Hat Area' and 'Postlude.' The rest of the album is all guitar, wi th the synth parts handled by the keyboard player," he explains. "Only 'Hard Hat Area' has just me.
And did you record that entirely at home?
For that one, yes.
What percentage of the rest of the album was done that way?
Well, I can do certain pieces - solo things - at home, but generally the whole band recorded at Front Page Studios in Costa Mesa [California]. Then we try to pick the tracks where the rhythm section is the happiest. If somebody wants to fix something, then we'll take care of that at home.
Why do it at home?
It's cheaper. It's very difficult to make the kind of album I want to make with the budgets we get. The basic tracks are done very quickly, usually in three or four days. But the critical thing for me is mixing; that's what's done at home. That takes a while because I go at my own speed and I don't do it all the time. What I try to do these days is get it where I want it and then walk away for a bit...go out on my bike or go for a beer. Then when I come back I can hear it much more clearly. I find when I do it too quickly I focus on the EQ of the guitar or bass, say, and I miss other things. After I come back, I'll be shocked. I'll say, "Jeez, the bass drum is way too loud."
How long have you been using the system where you record at a studio and mix at home?
About five years. I started with a little 12-track Akai. Do you know it?
Sure, the one that takes its own cassettes.
That's the one. And I used to take care of any overdubbing-guitar solos, keyboard solos, bass solos, whatever. Then I would take the tape back to the studio and mix it there. But I sold that unit and bought a board. Secrets  was the first album I recorded entirely at home.
If you mix at home you must have the same format as the studio's. What do you use as your multitrack, a digital machine?
No, I just have my board and rent the machine. Renting the machine is much cheaper than renting studio time. For $3,000 you can rent an MTR-90 for a month. There's no studio I know of where you could rent for a month for that. You see, I don't pay myself either. I do it because it's my album, but I don't get paid for it. I work for free - and it's a lot of work.
When you take the tape home, is it a safety master?
No, what I do is make multiple recordings. I'll use the digital output of, say, the Mitsubishi X-86, and put it into another machine. They're not digital copies.
Do you rent the same machine that the studio uses?
I have to use the same format, obviously, but I don't necessarily rent the same machine. But I had such problems with the digital format, I'll never record that way again.
What was the problem with the digital recording?
Well, I was very happy with the sound but I was really worried with the error-correct scheme. [In digital recording, data is written to several different places on the media simultaneously to insure accurate retrieval. When the head can't read the data in its normal location, it looks for the "backup." The error-correct LED's tell you when this is being done, and to what extent (the more lights, the more searching and interpolating the machine must perform). -ed.] It kept kicking in all over the place. The whole thing is very scary, it's so fragile. So I'm going to go back to analog. When you listen to good analog tapes, like from the Ampex machines, there's no CD on the face of the earth that's ever going to sound like that.
It must have been disconcerting to see all the error-correct lights going on as you're trying to record live.
Well, I couldn't see the machines when I was recording, and every time we listened back it was fine. It was just when we went to mix that suddenly all the lamps started to light. It makes multiple copies of the data, but it still means that at that point it can't find data that was once there.
Have you heard reports of problems?
It depends who you talk to. Biff Vincent, the studio manager, is a great guy, whom I've worked with for years, and he's never had any problems, but he says, "If anybody's going to have a problem, it's you, Allan." I just seem to get myself into trouble.
Technical trouble just seems to plague some people more than others.
I don't know, 'cause that guy can walk into a room where something's not working, and all of a sudden it's fixed. We never could figure out what it is.
Maybe you have the reverse karma.
Yes, that's what it is [laughs]!
Are you still happy with the SynthAxe, if you must use a controller?
If I must use a controller I think the SynthAxe is the only one I ever could use. In the beginning I was trying to play it before I even knew how it worked; I was just so excited to have it. I made lots of mistakes on it. But after a few years, I realized there was nothing else that even came close. I'm not interested in hexaphonic pickups and pitch-to-glitch converters on a regular guitar. I really did want a discrete controller. I didn't want to hear a guitar when I was playing a synthesizer.
What's the best thing about the SynthAxe, design-wise?
The keys. The fact that it has those keys is an absolute stroke of genius. I use those all the time - I never play chords without them.
Those are the black touchpads on the upper bout, the top left of the guitar?
Yes. It'll do things like take the pitch from your left hand but allow you to play the notes and sustain them with the keys. You can then move your left hand while the chords still sound. You get a real smooth, seamless effect that way.
Why haven't controllers caught on with guitarists more?
Guitarists really aren't interested in them. And that's okay. That made it good for me in a way, because I started out not wanting to play the guitar. So this was like the thing I had been waiting all my life for. I was quite prepared to put the guitar on the back burner just to work on the SynthAxe. Which was fine because nobody was playing one. But because nobody was buying them, they never caught on and they didn't last. But you can't think of it in the context of a guitar. You can't compare the SynthAxe to a $500 Strat, in the same way you wouldn't compare a Strat to an Oberheim Xpander. One of them's going to cost $3,000 and other you can get for $500. That's because of what's in it. But they went out of business and that left me with two dinosaurs. I didn't like that idea at all. So I sold them. I actually don't own a SynthAxe. The SynthAxe I used on the album belongs to a friend of mine. But I'll see if I can trade him some guitars for it because I do miss it.
Then why did you get rid of it in the first place?
It was a problem with reliability. When I used it on the road, if it went down, there went half the songs. So I had to work all the songs out on the guitar, and I got tired of
doing that. I decided just to play guitar, and I've been doing that for a couple of years now. But I miss it, and I especially miss it when I record. It's a great tool for those more orchestral things. I won't ever take it on the road, but it's nice to have it.
How was the SynthAxe used on "Postlude"?
I use it for the bassoon sound. Towards the end I also play a solo, after the keyboard solo. Then there's a bass solo and then it ends. Whenever you hear the bassoon sound, that's the SynthAxe.
Musically, what did you try differently on Hard Hat Area than on previous albums?
One of the things I like personally about this album is that this is the only record we've done since the original IOU album  where we played all the music live before we recorded it. Up till now, because of schedules and such, I would write some new music and we'd go and record it. But because the band toured a lot the last year and a half, we played most of the music live before we recorded. Because of that, it has more of a live feel to it than the previous albums. I like that and I must insure that that's the way we do things from now on.
There is a certain well-oiled sound to the groove.
Yes, I think so. You can hear people stretching, working the groove. It just sounds more organic, less sterile somehow than some of the other records.