Hifi Pig’s Janine Elliot is invited along to world famous AIR Studios where BBC Radio 2s Clare Teal joins the Syd Lawrence Orchestra for a direct to disc recording session. Read on, it’s fascinating!
I wrote about Syd Lawrence ‘Big Band Spectacular’ album produced by the flamboyant Mike Valentine earlier this year. The album had two heavyweight vinyl discs; one devolved from the master reel-to-reel tape and the other a direct cut disc from the master vinyl, so you could compare the two for quality. The direct cut disc (which omits the master “tape” stage) was for me and everyone else who listened by far the better quality.
Now Mike has done it again. This time the Syd Lawrence Orchestra is joined by Clare Teal, BBC Radio 2 presenter and an excellent jazz singer. The new album is to celebrate the 100th anniversary next April of the greatest jazz singer of all, Ella Fitzgerald. And yours truly from Hifi Pig was invited along to see it all happen. On a typically rainy British Summer’s day the orchestra assembled itself at Air Studios, Hampstead, London, to record the album, spending the morning to set up to get the best sound, rehearsing and then recording the two sides of 4 tracks each. The first side was to be recorded before lunch and the second in the afternoon.
As an ex BBC sound engineer I was on home territory here, with a Calrec analogue desk in Studio 1 similar to the (later) Neve 66 desks festooned in the basement of “old” Broadcasting House back in the 90’s that I used on a daily basis. This vintage desk is one of three unique boards designed solely for AIR Studios. The first of the consoles was designed in 1977 and destined for AIR’s new facility on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. The legendary Beatles producer and founder of Air Studios, George Martin (1926-2016) was heavily involved with Rupert Neve in the design process of what was a radical new desk at the time. For the technical amongst you this 56 channel, 24 track desk has toroidal wound transformers, instead of the standard audio Neve transformers, just as toroidal transformers are favoured by many audiophiles, especially me. Sound quality was the key aim here, as it always should be.
The origins of this album came after Mike Valentine appeared with Chris Dean, Leader of the Syd Lawrence Orchestra, on Clare Teal’s Radio 2 Big Band Show, with Clare suggesting they perhaps do an album together. With Clare’s great singing voice, as Mike said later, it was like a “dream come true”. Having set the date and the studio for recording the orchestra and Clare, the next decision was to decide what to perform, and with Ella’s centenary in 2017 and Clare’s voice so suitable for this repertoire, that was an easy choice to make. Selecting the best 8 songs was perhaps not quite so easy.
Being a Direct Cut Disc this meant that performing would need to be done all in one go without any post-editing. In my career I have often found that musicians, narrators and actors perform better knowing that it is “as live”; often the ‘security’ of having the facility to edit any mistakes at a later date prompts hap-hazard performances. The vinyl masters are not cheap at £50 a throw, so it was vital that musicians performed to their best and without error. Indeed, during recording I was probably as nervous as Mike, Clare and the musicians! Similarly, the recording needed to be done as accurately as perhaps Sinatra or even Ella herself would themselves have done it, so a dated, though iconic, valve condenser Neumann U47 microphone for Clare, a product manufactured between 1949 and 1965 was chosen for its vocal warmth. Very few microphones could sound as good as this, even 50 years later. Interestingly a U47 was the chosen microphone of George Martin for his recordings of the Beatles, reputedly his favourite microphone. For Mike the choice was obvious;
“If you look at photographs of many of the old sessions recorded in the era, you will see a big fat sexy valve powered microphone, the ubiquitous Neumann U47. I have used this beautiful old mic on many sessions and even though its design is over fifty years old, I have really found nothing to touch its quality in the modern world.”
Mike also decided to use an aged EMT plate reverb unit, rather than more modern AMS, Lexicon 224 or Yamaha SPX digital units, which don’t give that same analogue warmth that was particularly audible in 60’s-70’s recordings. I remember in my early BBC days at Bush House that if you wanted to add reverb you “buzzed” the control room and got them to connect the source to a loudspeaker in a room with a microphone placed many feet away creating the reverb which was then fed back to your studio. David Gilmour’s famous 4 notes in Pink Floyd “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” from the album ‘Wish You Were Here’ were recorded at a different studio to the rest of the album with a microphone placed meters away from a guitar amp to create that warm ‘live’ reverberant sound. Continuing the theme of originality, Mike placed Clare in the studio with the orchestra, and not in a separate cubicle. All that was between her and the orchestra was a glass screen and a single-ear Beyer DT102 headphone. Being a live recording, with no stops between the tracks, any rustling of pages or noises from trumpet and trombone mutes being picked up for quieter sections, or even vocal injections from the leader, Chris Dean, only add to the “liveliness” of the album. Mike likes them as well;
“I loved the shuffling sound of the band turning the pages of the score, and if you listen carefully you can almost hear Chris as the leader counting everyone in”
Indeed, right back to my early days of recording live concerts from Radio 3 onto cassette tape in my bedroom, I always think there is a charm and naturalness from live recordings, often lost in multitrack studio editing. Hearing the orchestra turning the pages between each track made the recording that more human. Clare stood in front of the microphone singing her heart out often with a drink in her left hand though, being the professional that she is, it wasn’t ever picked up by the microphone. For this recording the 2-channel output from Rupert Coulson was sent along wires up two floors to the cutting room where John Webber ensured that the mix was cut into the vinyl master using the Neumann VMS 80 cutting lathe. When the needle started to cut into the acetate, a red light went on and Chris Dean started to conduct the orchestra. There was no stopping now. And, at the end, all was quiet until that red light turned off.
A test disc was initially cut to ensure that the loudest sounds didn’t get cut too “deep” so that they joined to the next groove, or inversely that the music wasn’t recorded too quiet. Playing back that recording would mean that the disc could never be used again because the soft acetate disc is immediately ruined as soon as you first play it, bearing in mind a needle is used for both “etching” and playback. So, after the original test acetate was cut and played to check all was OK, the next discs would only be used to make the master discs from which the 180g vinyl would be created. Each groove is separated by a demarcated distance, rather than varying that distance depending on whether the music is loud or soft, common in most record production. If the grooves are not etched with enough depth/detail, then the music would be too quiet. This process is therefore as much an art as the sound engineering itself in the studio, and John Webber is amongst only a small number of engineers able to do this well.
Whilst in the 1980’s the thought of vinyl even lasting as far as the 21st century was anathema, it is estimated that there are now 20-30% more cutting lathes in UK in operation than there were at the launch of the CD. The renaissance of vinyl is one of the biggest talking points in the hifi industry. With perhaps 50 cutting lathes still in the UK, most are from the Berlin based company Neumann. They include the VMS80, 82, 70 and 66, and even a few earlier ones including two AM32s and one AM31 – the original model from 1931. Their SX84 was the last cutting lathe they made, though the VMS80, as used for this recording, is regarded as the best.
Having arrived at 9am to set up the studio with microphones for the instrumentalists and soloist, a rehearsal of the music began. Once Mike and engineer Rupert were happy with the overall sound and confident when to bring up levels of soloist trombones on the right or saxophones on the left, the first four tracks “I’ve Got You under my Skin”, “Begin the Beguine”, “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” were set to disc. Mike also used an American Ampex ATR 102 ½ inch reel-to-reel recorder at 30ips as a back-up and Nagra VI digital recorder running at 24/192. Interestingly, the latter wasn’t used in the end as Mike preferred the sound from the reel-to-reel source being transferred to 24/192. This is not a surprise to me; digital recordings can sound so harsh but improve if they have started life as analogue reel-to-reel. And the good news is that with the rise of reel-to-reel playback amongst audiophiles (see this month’s RetroByte), 15ips tape copies of this album will also be available if there is a demand for them. Count me in!
The first four tracks were recorded, though I personally felt track 2 was a little staid in performance. Luckily for me it was decided to re-record these four tracks, though it was because the first take over-modulated when the orchestra got loud. In the second take the performance was much more animated, though levels were kept more under control, and even better singing if that was at all possible. Using compressors and limiters make engineers lazy and spoil the urgency and feel of the music. As Mike told me; “Compression Leads To Depression!!”
After lunch and a short rehearsal, the B-side acetate disc was made. This included some of my favourites, “Night and Day”, “Anything Goes”, “That Old Black Magic” and finally “Too Darn Hot”. Two takes were made for this acetate as well; levels for trombone solos in “Anything Goes” could perhaps have been more prominent. As a result a second recording was made. This B-side was particularly well performed the second time, with much foot tapping from me, sitting in the second best seat in the house behind the sound engineer. The best seat was of course in the studio itself, where the power and detail of sound, particularly from the brass section, and warmth and passion from the saxophonists was better than any hifi could ever be, if a bit too loud for comfort. The speakers in the control room are bespoke, and didn’t do justice to what was the other side of the glass, but even in the control room the music overflowed with energy, gusto, and passion. We all smiled. Luckily your vinyl-based hifi should bring back that foot tapping experience in your living room, and whether or not you like Ella Fitzgerald, you will enjoy this album. Ella might have died in 1996 but her music certainly lives on.
It didn’t matter that the weather wasn’t good that day, because for me spending a day in a studio again brought back many wonderful memories and it showed me just how hard work it is to set up, rehearse, record and produce a complete album in just one day. You can relive my experience in studio 1 in two weeks’ time with a CD version of the album and then the vinyl a few weeks later. At the Whittlebury Show in September Mike Valentine will demo the vinyl direct-cut-disc alongside the reel-to-reel tape. If past experience is anything to go on, this will be a room you most certainly need to visit.
Vinyl cost is £36 including VAT + P&P, and CD is £18 including VAT + P&P from Chasing The Dragon.