A Musical History
(or how I ended up having a home studio)

I was at school during a golden period for pop music, the Beatles were at the height of their song-writing powers and every new single was to be bought, analyzed and learned by heart. One year, two friends and I entered the school science competition trying to create “Electronic Music” This consisted of recording tones from an oscillator onto reel-to-reel tape then chopping the tape up to make a tune. It wasn’t a great success. I used to get records from the local library: John Cage and other weird stuff as well as Indian classical music. A friend (bass player Paul Carmichael) who came from a musical family played guitar, and I first played the drums on his brother’s kit in their bedroom. Later, when the school mounted a memorable production of “West Side Story” I was tape operator for the show. Every body sang during warm ups and rehearsals; I found I could carry a tune, and that my peer group now included very cool kids one and two years above me at school. We had such a great time doing that show that I switched over to performing, and by the time I left school I had won the drama prize, mainly for writing the play performed in our last year. (The cast included award-winning actor Alex Jennings.)

After three years working for the National Health Service as a Lab Technician, I gave up my “science career” and went back to college to do a Drama B.Ed. I fell in with a bad crowd and we formed an acoustic/comedy band that worked nearly every Friday night for three years and ended supporting Suzi Quatro, Supergrass (the first one) and other visiting bands. As well as singing, I taught myself to play the congas, at which point I started to accompany contemporary dance classes. I also did my first lighting work for a local college-based touring dance company. My course work included sound and lighting skills and one of the first sound editing jobs I did was to create an “Exorcist” style speech for the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. I stayed up all night in the little sound booth with my splicing block and a Vortexion one-track tape machine. I also found that rummaging through a bin of discarded tape looking for the piece you’ve junked by accident is a mistake that you only want to make once.

When I left college I worked as a drama tech in another college, then moved to Lancashire to work for the M6 theatre company to get my Equity card. The company had actor/musicians and I had the drummer’s chair. I used to practise on their kit in my lunch hour. My next job was at South Hill Park Arts Centre in Bracknell where my theatre team of local kids worked as staff on the various music festivals. The headline at the Jazz Festival that year was Gil Evans, and to meet the man who was Miles Davis’ arranger was a huge thrill. I also met Sound Engineer Paul Sparrow, with whom I still work and John Cumming, who now runs the Serious Agency in London. As a staff member at Bracknell, entrance to events was free, so I was going to hear live jazz two nights a week and expanding my musical education.

I then had a succession of jobs as a touring theatre tech responsible for lighting and sound, and I gradually started to have more input into the soundtracks, whether playing percussion at studio sessions with Jim Dvorjak and James Mackie for The Kosh or editing Civil War artillery barrages for one of Anne Jellicoe’s big community plays. (I wrote to John Fowles, who was script editor on the show and stupidly asked him what civil war cannons would have sounded like. He replied that he wasn’t that old and perhaps I should ask the curator of the Tower of London.)

Through the Dance Tales company I met American percussionist John Kehlior whose astonishing one-man-band material again opened up new vistas of percussive madness. I was now playing in a local Latin band, which included bassist David Goodier and tenor player Charlie Hearnshaw. The various dance companies used to love having a tech who could play for daily dance class and eventually I was persuaded to make a tape, which I did at Primrose Studios in Lancaster, run by guitarist Dave Harry. I made three recordings there, all of which continue to sell well to schools through an educational publisher: Primrose Educational Resources. Dave died tragically young, but I am fortunate to have inherited some of his microphone stock (SM 57, Senn. 421, Senn. 441, PZM’s etc), all of which I still use. When I finally moved back to London, James Mackie got me work as a pit drummer on a couple of theatre shows and then I finally got round to taking proper conga classes with Hamish Orr and then with Neville Murray to undo some of the bad habits I had taught myself.

The Grand Union Orchestra
By now I had started working as lighting designer and production manager with Tony Haynes’ Grand Union Orchestra (Paul Sparrow is the main sound engineer) and, over the years, I have been fortunate enough to be paid to sit and listen to music, sometimes at rehearsals while I take notes and do lighting design in my head, or at gigs, when the show is the only time I sit down during a very long day. Creating the visual imagery that accompanies such glorious and diverse music is artistically fulfilling, my only complaint being that we don’t have our own lighting and that I don’t often get enough big boy’s toys to play with. When I do (a week at Sadlers Wells, for example) I worry that I will be found out as a fraud who hasn’t trained in the proper fashion. The Grand Union has had many wonderful musicians in it through the years and I have nicked rhythms and ideas from drummers Dave Adams, Dave Barry and Brian Abrahams as well as percussionist/singers Josefina Cupido, Sarah Laryea, Yousuf Ali Khan, Emmanuel Tagoe and Carlos Fuentes.

The London School of Samba
In 1984, Carlos Fuentes and his late brother Pato were two of the founders of the first British Samba School: The London School of Samba (G.R.E.S. Unidos de Londres). When I gave up full-time work to become a child-minding househusband in 1990, I started going to their open workshops and became hooked. I have been in the band ever since, first under Dave Willetts, who is still the most charismatic teacher and band leader I have ever met, and since 2000, Mestre Mags, current M.D. of the band. Over the years, in addition to playing in the bateria, I have been a trustee of the board of directors, the paid Administrator, Production Manager for Notting Hill Carnival (5 years running) and, since 1997, I have been recording the Samba de Enredos (carnival songs) first on an 8-track Tascam, then on a Yamaha MD8 mini-disk recorder and now on a Carrilon AC1 music PC.

I record the songs which are then burnt on to CDs and distributed to sambistas all over Europe who are coming to play with the LSS at Notting Hill. The songs are also posted on the band’s website as MP3 files for downloading. I no longer play on the parade at Notting Hill, but the sound of a hundred-strong bateria warming up under the Westway is the most spine-tingling sound to be heard this side of the Sambadromo in Rio. Fortunately for me, I don’t have the job of providing the live sound at Carnival, that falls to Ian Grove of Rigby P.A. Hire who does a great job of amplifying singer Xavier Osmir and Cavaquinho players Paul Rumbold and John Harbourne on a truck, while being accompanied by a marching bateria a hundred strong. Waiting to go on stage at a Samba gig recently I heard an Enredo being played on a big sound system by D.J. Marcus through my ear plugs (it’s very loud in the bateria) and it took me a few seconds to realise that it was the Enredo that I’d recorded the year before. I was shouting at the other drummers: “I recorded this!” but of course, they all had earplugs in as well.

The Studio
The studio project began when I moved to this house and bought a concrete shed for the bottom of the garden. With the help of my father-in-law, who was an architect, we double-lined it with a wood frame and filled the gap with fibreglass insulation. The result is a carpeted cube, just big enough to fit my drum kit, so I can practise. At first, recordings were all made in this box, with me, an 8-track Tascam, two percussionists and a singer all in there at once. Now I have a pair of balanced mike cables to the desk in the house and a stereo return to a headphone amp. A few years ago, we had the loft of our house converted into a multipurpose room; part office, part reference library (my wife is a publisher and we have lots of books) and part studio room. The room acoustics are reasonably dead, and the Carillon AC1 that I now record on is silent, so there is the option of recording in here as well as the shed.

I frequently refer to articles on technique in “Sound on Sound” particularly those concerning room acoustics and microphone placement. S.O.S reviews are also useful for deciding on hardware and software. However, the most useful articles are those by engineers and producers who talk about their interactions with musicians in the studio. It is these interactions and how they are affected by the recording space that interest me, as they hold the key to recording good music. In 2004, I signed up for a part-time course “Music for Media” at Hackney Community College, which taught the basics of composing jingles, news flash & station ident tracks, adverts and theme tunes. This was great fun and I received a high grade and much praise from tutor, Chris Wilson. It only took thirty-six years from those early experiments at school, but I finally feel that I am a musician working in the electronic medium.