Words by Lisa Bella Donna | Intro by David C. Obenour
As you’re about to read, Lisa Bella Donna is a fascinating person. As a multi-instrumentalist, synthesist, representative for EarthQuaker Devices, member of EYE, solo performer having just gotten back from a tour of Japan with Boris, and much more, her passion is only rivaled by her knowledge. Somehow in the midst of that lengthy resume, she’s also just released a trio of albums earlier this year. We asked her to talk about some of the things that she’s passionate about.
What a truly wonderful time to be alive in the world of music, sound, and sound design! In the past few years I feel that our availability of vintage intentioned modern technology has taken an epic flight forward into the future. There are so many amazing new synthesizers, pedals, VST & plug-ins, Eurorack modules, and finally D/A conversion that actually sound good! Also, this garden of delights is within the affordable price range of most musicians and artists wanting to expand their sound shaping arsenal. It’s awe-inspiring…
I remember very clearly how excited I was as a young aspiring musician and composer assembling my first space station. I was 17 and after playing bars and teaching in music store for a few years I wanted a way out of that torrid institution. I was fortunate enough to land a job as a tape editor and session musician for a small jingle studio. It was totally technically intimidating at first and hearing jingle music repeatedly was nauseating and nightmare inducing. However I loved reading technical manuals and found a book that taught how to edit tape. I also began to do all of the MIDI/SMPTE for the sessions which was quickly dominating the sessions.
This was the late 80s and in the studio they had what you’d expect for the era. However, it was the first time I ever played a Fender Rhodes and it was a total revelation. I needed to find a more tactile way to make my own music and find a contrast from the “desk job” of the jingle studio sessions. Once I proved and solidified myself at the studio, they offered me a tiny but cozy room to build my own demo studio in. Complete with a Tascam 388 and a patch-bay that had been installed in there. Probably to keep me and any bulky gear out of the main studio after hours! The studio owners would make jokes and heckle me about my “silly infatuation” with all this old gear, dubbing me “The Mellotron Kid”. However, I pursued with endless questions and inquiries about all the gear they grew up with. How to use it and troubleshoot the many issues that would arise while using it for countless hours. They kindly gifted me a 3 foot stack of magazines from the 70s like Modern Music & Recording, Mix, Studio Owner/Operator etc. It was for me, an earthshaking inspiration to have all of this informational reference at my fingertips at that time! I still have dozens spiral notebooks of notes taken from.
They also assigned me records by Weather Report, Chick Corea, Wendy Carlos, Billy Cobham, Jean Luc Ponty, Gino Vanelli and more, and told me to learn them and understand then, front to back. It opened up parts of my brain and muse I never knew even yet existed…
Over the course of the summer I assembled a rig consisting of a Fender Rhodes, ARP Omni, Jen SX100, and a Moog Prodigy. Besides I couldn’t afford a Roland D50, DX7 or Mirage. For effects I had pair of Small Stone Phase Shifters, a Roland RE-301 and in the small studio were a pair of Delta-lab Effectrons, a Tapco Stereo Spring Reverb, and a couple of DOD compressors, which I rarely used. That autumn through the winter I went to work in every bracket of time I could find when the studio was closed. Usually coming in at 4AM and leaving at noon the next day. Then coming back in around 4PM to work at the jingle studio until midnight. If there was a 24 or 48 hour bracket of time open, I would be in that tiny room working straight through. It was without a doubt an amazing formative experience. The first time hearing 8 Moog lines and an ARP Omni in stereo soaring and roaring through the speakers and resonating my body, I cried.
Maxell 7” reels were $10 then, so every payday I would buy 6 for the next two weeks. 1 for tracking and 2 for mixing. You could get 40/45 minutes with each tape of the 388. Then two tapes for mixdown on a Otari MX5050. One tape for each side. Then eventually a Tascam DAT came. Where you had the luxury of doing alt mixes. I would still use the Otari for intros, interludes or postludes when mixing live to DAT. It was an inspiring time. Also a lot of laboring and remembering where everything goes. Everything was a tactile, performance based process. Even if I wanted a sequence, I had to either play it or loop it then process it.
I began hunting and seeking more to add to my orchestra and by the following winter added a Hammond L100 Organ, an ARP string ensemble & Odyssey. ARP Axxe, a Roland CR-78 and then after many long distance phone call charges and tanks of gas, I sold my Volkswagen and then installed the ARP 2600 synthesizer. Which became and still remains the centerpiece of every studio I’ve ever had since. CV control became an everlasting source of options and inspiration.
I pretty much deplored all of the synths, samplers, and popular music happening throughout the 90s. So I continued session work both live and studio. By then, I moved my studio into a tiny 4 room shotgun shack in West Virginia. I would disappear for days on end utilizing this setup for the next decade. Composing and recording full albums for no other reason but for the process and the artistic experience. Mixing them down to reel & cassette. Storing them away and starting on another. Besides, there were no way to release your music in the 90s other than cassette. It cost like $75 to have ONE CD pressed from your DAT or reel back then until the Marantz 1630 came out in ‘96 costing almost $2K.
However throughout the 90s and first decade of the 2000s there was such a total dead zone of MUSICAL sounding synthesizers, affordable digital recording, stomp boxes, outboard gear etc. It was a bleak time, unless you enjoyed scrolling through menus and dealing with MIDI mappers. I weathered enough of that while working on sessions in other studios. When it came time for me to have the opportunity to record my own music, I wanted to have touch response and immediate expression through every part of the process. To feel connected to what it was that I wanted to hear and conceptually see projected from my muse.
Of course I’ve always been in love with the Mellotron, however in the Midwest in the 90s, they were very rare gem to find one. Especially one that worked. There was a gentleman that I found in the back of Keyboards magazine called Synthlocater. It was through him that I had the fortune of purchasing many of my ARP synthesizers from. He had an amazing place in the middle of Ohio, filled floor to ceiling with almost every vintage synthesizer you could imagine.
He also owned 2 mostly working M400 Mellotrons. I came up with my Dokoder 4 track and recorded every note it’s full length of their duration. I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to orchestrate with then my favorite sound. Back then I was working on a composition entitled “Snowpine Mountain”. No I didn’t load the original tapes that I recorded into a sampler. I didn’t own a sampler. Nor did I like the fuzzy translucent gloss that they put over every sound that you would record with it. I would put a time code on one track of my Tascam 388. Put the arrangement chart in front of me, then I would spool up the Dokoder and find every individual note, record it on its own channel one at a time until I would have a chord or a single note passage. I would do this for countless hours until I would have a full section prepared. Then I would mix each chord over to my Otari MX 5050, infusing clear leader for rests and silences, long angled splices for left to right panning of one chord to the next. Single lines of the Mellotron could be edited in pure stereo which I rarely ever heard on any other record up to that time, maybe 93 or 94?
Once I would have each section of a piece edited on the Otari, I would run the 2 track back into the 388 for a final mix bed. Adding stereo spring reverb from either the Tapco or ARP 2600 through the mixing desk. Then I would repeat this process several times until a full piece was completed. It was utterly labor intensive, but I had a Mellotron orchestra! It was an amazing experience to realize and listen back to…
Now, in the last decade, especially in the last 5 years synthesizers and pedals have been so inspiring. So many companies big and small have answered prayers I’ve been sending out to the celestial cosmos for the past two decades. It’s amazing!
Affordable digital recording sounds good now, not great – but good. It will probably never be as musically transmissible as analog. However, it’s amazing the flexibility, security, and time management it provides. Being able to collaborate full projects all over the planet in real time is an immense gift. Having YouTube and Wikipedia to obtain any arcane knowledge can be resolved in minutes. It’s truly beautiful time to be alive, creative and to have the freedom and tools to find your own way.
Along with having every possibility at your disposal, I also feel it’s equally important, vital even to have times when you limit yourself to just a few select instruments, tools, and not to feel you’ll clean everything up in the box later. Sometimes the magic is what you discover through the process of evoking more from your available limitations. It pulls up something from the deep of your own creative spectrum. Something I feel is very unique and personal in every single creative person. No matter what kind of music or sound design you’re doing.
Immersions through strategy also give your music and art a heat, a fire that just simply can’t come from drag and drop recording. When you pull from every resource, your attentive listeners will feel it, almost see it. It creates a personal curve, an arc. It entices a musical conversation. It projects a sonic image with a thread of a personal picture.
There are no rules. No right or wrong ways with music and sound. Thankfully there’s no politics to the process in the art of music and sound. It simply comes down to you and your intentions. There’s just observations, impressions, and reflections. Hopefully those that will be left lasting for lifetimes.
Never a day goes by that I’m not inspired, hopeful, or grateful to find another way to resonate in the process of music and sound. Onward and upward!