A Recipe For Success
How can you set up a home studio, write, produce and perform hit singles, and have a good time doing it? David Mellor asks Galaxy's Phil Fearon that very question and more...
Most acts need the ultimate in mega-studios before they can record a note, but Phil Fearon of Galaxy just knocks out songs in his home studio and they sell in their hundreds of thousands. David Mellor discovers his recipe for success.
You want to interview who??? was the Editor's response when I dared to suggest that Sound On Sound readers might be interested in an article about Phil Fearon. I may have got a similar reply if I had suggested Tammy Wynette - after all, what do singers know about studio equipment and techniques? But lurking in the back of my mind was a throwaway remark made by a radio DJ at the time when Dancing Tight by Phil Fearon and Galaxy was riding high in the charts a few years ago - that he recorded it in a shed at the bottom of his garden! I just had to find out the truth of the story...
Truth may or may not be stranger than fiction. In this case, the garden shed was a figment of the disc jockey's fevered imagination, but Phil's story should be interesting to anyone with a home studio of any kind, and to anyone with a bit of musical ambition.
If your memory is as long as mine, you may recall a time when the idea of having your own studio at home was almost completely out of the question. I worked out, back in 1981, how much it would cost me to have a studio similar to the one I was using then. I made it around forty grand minimum - my twenty quid a night gig money was hardly going to stretch to that. What I didn't know was that other people were thinking along the same lines, but weren't put off by the financial difficulties. They found a way around them. Cue Phil.
Phil Fearon and Galaxy is one of those bands that keep on popping into the charts with a catchy little number such as I Can Prove It or What Do I Do? - titles which hardly jog memories but the tunes certainly would if you could hear them now. Most acts need the ultimate in mega-studios before they can record a note, but Phil just knocks out songs in his home studio and they sell in their hundreds of thousands. Let's go back to the early days and see how it came about.
Phil Fearon was born in the West Indies and tells the traditional story of what it's like to be music crazy, one of the commonest symptoms of this being tumbling exam grades at school. Phil's first taste of success was with a seven-piece soul band called Kandidate, who had a couple of hits on Mickie Most's label, RAK Records.
"Before that I was like every other guy who is trying to get into the business, playing with bands, gigs here and there, touring Germany in the back of an old van, breaking down and begging bread. It's the same old story...
"I was playing guitar, a bit of keyboards and backing singing - that was my place in the band - and trying to organise things. Musically, I was average, I just got away with it. I thought I was going to become the next George Benson once - I really got down to the guitar and did some serious work. Then I realised that it wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to write and to make records.
"At the end of '79, I found the band was really going nowhere and I had to go and start doing my own thing - writing and production. In the band, I was not as much in control as I could have been. Mickie (Most) wanted to do all the productions."
Although Mickie Most has been responsible for countless hit records throughout the Sixties and Seventies, he has a certain reputation for doing things his own way.
"Fie knew what he was doing, he's a very clever man, but we weren't controlling our own destiny. Even though he brought us some hits and I got on with the guy quite well, the band were going nowhere. I wanted to learn how to produce records of my own but, obviously, no-one was going to finance me. Even after a few hits with the band, I was pretty broke. I was recording in other studios at midnight when the boss had gone home - slip a fiver to the engineer type of thing. I spent years sitting outside studios in a van full of instruments, waiting for the boss to go home so that I could sneak in and do a session. I figured that was the only way I was going to get my education. After a few months, I'd come out with a finished track and go and look for a deal and get told 'No good - go back and do it again!'.
"From all that I learned something very basic. I was writing all these songs, borrowing money to buy tapes, and begging studio time. At the end of the day, I'd end up with a load of tapes that I couldn't even part-exchange for tuppence. It was costing me a fortune! I made a calculation that, if I could record on my own somehow, it would be very cost-effective. Even if I had to borrow the money, at least the equipment would work."
"I spent years sitting outside studios in a van full of instruments, waiting for the boss to go home so that I could sneak in and do a session."
Back in the late Seventies, Phil's idea of building his own studio was an unusual one. Some people had done it, but usually those who had made their pile already. When you look at how things have developed in just a few years, every other person you meet in the pub these days seems to have a portastudio.
"Musicians I spoke to said, 'No, that's nonsense - you just can't make serious records at home, you can't do it.' I listened to them, but logically I couldn't find any reason why not.
"I also spoke with sound engineers who said, 'Of course you can. If you've got a decent microphone and a decent signal going to a decent tape, you can make a half decent record.'
"At first I was going to buy an 8-track system and try and do my rhythm tracks at home - my dad was going to let me use the bedroom - then take it to another studio to bounce across, until someone told me I could buy a Cadey 24-track machine.
"It was a very basic machine, but I had a choice: either I could sit there saving the money to buy a Studer or I could get the Cadey and get started immediately. They were really, really basic machines - but they worked. And I didn't have the budget to think any bigger than that. The machine was so crude it was ridiculous. If things went wrong you had to hit it with a hammer or something, but it was perfect for us - it really worked well."
Phil admits that he wasn't into finesse in those days. Having decided on the Cadey multitrack, I wondered what mixing desk he had chosen. There's no way you can record without a desk, surely?
"I was prepared to go low. I just had to get started somehow. I said if we can get that machine and that takes up all our money, then we'll buy a load of little 4-channel Eagle microphone amps and link them all together, so at least we can monitor what's coming back.
"What I was interested in was a decent microphone, two decent channels to record on and anything to monitor on - anything. That's how crude it was going to be, and that's how I was prepared to start. Fortunately, I found the Seck 16-8-2 mixer at a price I could afford. For me that was absolutely ideal: it had a fairly basic EQ and it just sounded nice.
"With the Cadey and the Seck, that became the studio. In all, it cost around £5000 for a 24-track set-up. All the rest was home hi-fi - Tangent speakers, Sugden amp - just lashed together in the bedroom. That way I could sit at home while my partner Laurie Jago went out to work, because we were still totally broke. All that equipment was bought on an Access loan and £1000 borrowed from my brother, Paul.
"Now what I had was the Soundcraft machine, the Seck desk, one half-decent microphone and my home hi-fi. That's how I recorded Dancing Tight."
"While they were going to work to keep me fed, I just started making more and more demos. This time I could actually work at my trade properly. Being in a studio 24 hours a day meant I could make my mistakes, take the tape to a record company, and if they didn't like it, do it again. There wasn't the same strain when they said 'I don't like the vocals'. All that problem was gone. Also, even if nothing worked out, I could always flog the gear next year. OK, I'd lose a few thousand pounds but compared to the amount of money I would have spent in studio time, it would have been totally worthwhile. To me, it seemed to make so much sense."
Phil made several recordings using this set-up and put out a record called Eastern Palace, which did fairly well on the club scene.
"One of the demos we did on this very cheap system got some interest from Ensign Records. They said they wanted to work with us, but we would have to record in a 'serious' studio. The first record that came out was recorded in Tapestry, which is a good studio. That track was called Head Over Heels and the band was called Galaxy. I wanted to be anonymous, basically, so it was called Galaxy so that no-one knew who it was. Eventually, of course, it had to come out that a bloke called Phil Fearon was behind it.
"Because I had been successful with this, I brought another track in called Dancing Tight. Ensign said: 'We like this, we think it's going to be a strong single.' By now I'd sussed that to have my own studio was what I should do, so I said to the company: 'Rather than take it to a serious studio why don't you just give me the recording budget? I'll upgrade my studio a little bit so that I can record it at home.'
"They thought, 'Daft idea - you can't make serious records in your bedroom!' So I had to become a temperamental pop artist and throw a tantrum. I really insisted that they were going to have to give me some of the recording budget instead of spending three grand recording it somewhere else - which meant that if the record didn't sell a copy I was going to be three grand in debt! I think they thought, 'Spoilt kid - OK you can have your little...'
"They gave me about £1500 for the budget, which wasn't enough to make any difference at all really, but I went to Don Larking in Luton - an audio dealer of some repute - who had sold me the Seck desk. I hadn't spent a fortune with him so far but for some reason we seemed to hit it off. I said to him, 'I want to sell the Cadey, could I possibly buy a Soundcraft machine?' I would get about £2500 from selling the Cadey and Ensign Records were giving me £1500, but I just hadn't got enough money. Don said 'Fine - take it away!' I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe anyone could be so trusting. Don really saved me there, he said: 'When you get the rest of the money, let me have it.' I couldn't believe it. I don't know if he liked my music, my face or what!"
(I talked to Don Larking about this and although he verified that was the way it happened, he didn't give the impression that it was an everyday occurrence. So, when you try it on with an unsuspecting dealer - don't quote my name or Phil's!)
"Now what I had was the Soundcraft machine, the Seck desk, one half-decent microphone and my home hi-fi. That's how I recorded Dancing Tight, I just sat there and did it with the Linn Drum and Roland Jupiter 8.
"I wish people would stop believing that it's always a question of how much equipment you have."
"Actually, it wasn't just a half-decent microphone it was a very decent microphone - the AKG C12, the valve one. Because we were limited in lots of areas we went for a decent mic, because we knew we couldn't afford to put any bad sounds down. We recorded Dancing Tight with that very basic studio set-up but we couldn't mix it. We had to go to a studio in Southall to do the mix, but that song was such a big hit that the precedent had been set: we would record at home and not need to go into a big studio."
Phil Fearon and Laurie Jago have come a long way since those days and now, along with Steve Rowe, own a rather more than 'half-decent' studio.
"That's how the whole studio thing got started. For the next record we got the budget, bought some more equipment and built it up to more like a production company. Funnily enough, the biggest hits I've had which I've produced, have been produced on that old set-up. I've been out to bigger studios since but What Do I Do, Dancing Tight, Everybody's Laughing and I Can Prove It were mainly done on that Seck mixing desk. Even though I had better stuff around me, for some reason I just like the sound of it.
Now I've gone upmarket, mainly for extra speed and efficiency. I've got all these gadgets that can't all plug into one small desk, so I need more channels. I'm getting into the gadget game with samplers and different kinds of reverbs on one track because I want to do good mixes at home. Up to now, we've been mixing on a 28-channel Raindirk Concorde 2000 and it's been adequate, but we're always running out of channels.
"I'm still very budget-conscious. I've never really liked the thought of making a £200,000 album and letting everyone know how much it cost. For some of the things I do, if it's a vocal line or synth line, then I would much rather do it at home, so I've upgraded the Seck to a DDA AMR 24 desk. The thing I'm really going for now is speed and efficiency. That's why I've got things like the Publison Infernal Machine, which is a very expensive 22 second sampler. For things like mixes, it makes the work very efficient. I don't know if it makes the work any better but I can turn things around more quickly."
To clarify the picture a little, FJR (Fearon, Jago and Rowe) Studio consists of two 24-track studios built into two pretty ordinary North London houses which have been knocked together. The downstairs studio is for commercial hire and contains the Raindirk desk and Soundcraft 24-track machine. Upstairs is Phil's playground with the DDA desk and a second Soundcraft 24-track. The two control rooms share a single studio area downstairs. Rather better equipped these days, the effects rack offers such goodies as the Drawmer 1960 valve compressor, Aphex Aural Exciter, a couple of BEL sampler/delays - and no Eagle mic amps! Instruments include the Linn 9000, Roland TR707 and TR727, Yamaha DX7 and TX7, Korg DSS-1 sampler, Roland MKS20 (piano in a box) and Alpha Juno 1.
"I wish people would stop believing that it's always a question of how much equipment you have. In the early days, I had so many people telling me you can't build a studio at home and laughing at the idea. While I was building the studio in my bedroom I told nobody, not even my manager - it was too embarrassing. The professionals knew too much. They said that you 'need' this and you 'need' that, you've got to have a 'serious' set up. I worked with my brothers and a few friends, who weren't musicians but just had a lot of energy and were open-minded. Even the guys in Kandidate didn't know about my studio. I kept it a total secret until it was built and I had recorded three or four tracks. And then, one by one, people started to find out - 'Oh, he's doing it at home.' It's not so clever, it's just common sense."
If Phil Fearon wasn't so busy producing records, he would probably be building studios for people. One point which he touched upon was the need for compatibility between the home studio and the professional alternative, if you go for a multitrack that uses 2-inch tape, then you can easily record at home and take the tape to a big studio for mixing, or for any audio 'sweetening' it may need. If you have something like a B16 at home, then not only do you have to lug the thing to the studio, but if you want to add more tracks you have to copy across to the 24-track, losing quality. Even if your 2-inch multitrack can only run to 16-tracks, you can still play it back on a 24-track machine and even squeeze extra tracks into the gaps on the tape.
Phil went on to explain how he and Laurie Jago had put together a studio package for Tambi Fernando, better known as writer and producer for Pepsi and Shirley.
"The funny thing is that you make mistakes when you are recording but when you do a live TV show or a live gig, you do it straight off practically perfectly."
"We told him about the ACES 24-track recorder. It was in the Cadey league but a little bit better. We said, 'You can buy the machine, people may mock it - but just for starters. People say you've got to buy a Studer - well, they're great machines but not everyone can afford one. Maybe you won't get all the finesse you want but you'll get your drums down, you'll get your bass down and you'll get your vocals down. Even if you have to go to a big studio and redo some of the finer things'.
"They bought that and the same Seck desk we had, but the bigger 24-track version. Away they went making records. They did the whole thing for around £11,000 - really cheap - but they were making records in their own studio. That got them started, you don't need multi-millions. If you're not going to happen as an artist or producer or whatever, you can learn without having to sell your house to find out. If you get £12,000, you can put together a very good studio. You can't mix properly, and you can't record grand piano or violins, but you can lay down your basic tracks. People recording on Fostex B16s - they lay down the basic track and go to a big studio to do the clever mixing and stuff. There is still a lot of rubbish talked about studios and what you need to record. It's a lot more within reach than people think it is."
I was curious to know more about Phil's working methods in his private control room. Does he, for instance, have an engineer hanging around while he's waiting for inspiration to strike?
"No, I always work by myself. If I worked with an engineer I would bore the pants off him because I twiddle around with so many odds and sods. I just bash away on keyboards until something sounds half nice, then continue with it. When I eventually come up with something, I sequence it into the Linn 9000, then Laurie (Jago) comes up and gets the sounds on the desk, and I hit the start button. After that, I do all the parts that need to be recorded 'live', then the vocals."
Recording your own vocals is a time-consuming business, as Phil agreed.
"If I'm doing vocals here on my own it takes me forever, it's drop-ins everywhere! I get so critical. If I'm doing them with someone else conducting affairs then it's much quicker. I'll probably do three or four takes then we'll pick the bits we like and make one track out of that, then go back and drop in. The funny thing is that you make mistakes when you are recording but when you do a live TV show or a live gig, you do it straight off practically perfectly. You wonder why you go through all that hassle in the studio. Maybe you analyse things differently. In the studio, I sometimes spend hours and hours driving myself crazy trying to get a vocal line right... sometimes it makes very little difference in the end."
If there is a moral to the Phil Fearon story, it is that you don't get anywhere by sitting about and thinking that you can't do it. You find a way to make it work, then go for it. If you can't afford the best equipment, then go for second best, or whatever you can afford - and get the best out of it that it is capable of. There must be dozens of studios that don't use their equipment to a tenth of its potential.
"People get hung up on having the latest and the most expensive equipment but they don't think 'What does it sound like. Is it musical?' If we want a piece of equipment, we spend a lot of time making sure the thing actually sounds musical. It doesn't have to be the cleanest or the slickest. It's got to sound pleasant to the ears. Many salesman have tried to sell us things that just don't sound right. Also, you can lose a sense of discipline when you have 32 or 48 tracks. Everything's got to be in stereo. It starts getting silly. A lot of times, with a bit of thought, you can do it in a good 16-track studio and make a very, very good sounding record. The more tracks you get, the more you think you want.
"When people come to me with their demos and say they recorded it in a 24-track, I say to them, 'For the same money you spent on that studio plus what you would spend on your next ten demos, I suggest you give me a budget and I'll give you a list of what to buy.' Invariably, they come back and think that it makes a lot of sense. Think of what a 24-track studio costs, and all you come out with is a tape that may or may not do anything. If you do it the way I have and it all fails, at least you've got the studio on call every day for the next year. Or you could flog it and get some of your money back. My way, you can make an album that would have cost £70,000 and it's cost you just the electricity."
The other ingredient in Phil Fearon's success, besides being a talented writer/producer/performer and an astute businessman, is teamwork. FJR is in many ways like a cottage industry where everyone does their bit. Phil is better known than the other members of the team, but he would be the first to say that having good people working with you pays rich dividends.
"It's a sort of home-grown product. There's Dorothy Galdes and Julie Jago who come up and sing backing vocals for Galaxy, then go back downstairs to look after the business; Laurie and Raj Malkani, who does a lot of the brainwork. A good team is like gold. With bands, everyone wants to be the best player or the best singer. But when you've got a team, no-one has to be the best at everything."
Interview by David Mellor
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