And Now For Something Completely Different
An interesting interview with Andre Jacquemin who just happens to be the man responsible for the recording of the Monty Python madness that's surfaced on film and vinyl over the last decade or so.
Remember the 'Lumberjack Song' and the 'Albatross' sketch? Ever wondered who actually recorded those moments of Monty Python genius? The answer is Andre Jacquemin, who nowadays devotes most of his erudite skills to the recording of radio commercials in his West End-based Redwood Studios.
This gentleman, hiding beneath a seemingly quiet, almost introverted first impression, is also hiding the fact that he is responsible for the recording of the majority of the Monty Python madness witnessed here over the last decade or so. Not only has he recorded it, he also produced it and contributed a great deal of the music.
No was if this wasn't good enough, Andre wants us to know that it is possible to start life in a greenhouse and end up with a studio in London's West End, just like him. Did he say greenhouse?
"It was honestly and genuinely, my father's greenhouse - I took all the flowers out and built a studio!"
The most remarkable thing is that it was in this greenhouse that he recorded and produced the first Monty Python album Matching Tie And Hankie. Andre had met Python Michael Palin whilst working as an engineer at Studio G, producing commercials and voice-over tapes of various descriptions. Palin invited him to work on their album with them, and in all innocence Andre launched himself into his first ever solo production venture, still not realising what he'd let himself in for!
Michael Palin, on discovering that Andre was keen to get together a studio of his own, offered to come in on the project by putting up some of the readies (£1,000 to be exact). Andre added his twopenn'orth (well £600 actually) and set to work. The lower half of his father's greenhouse was wooden and the rest of it glass. "I bought a product called slagwool. You can't get it any more - but it's a very heavy, dense material for loft insulation and it's got gluey bits in it. It's very thick stuff and it was much better than rockwool. Two inches of that was equivalent to building two brick walls. It was so immensely absorbent - it was brilliant." The glue is probably the clue as to why it is no longer available, it was no doubt very inflammable.
"I battened the walls up so that I could make a frame inside the greenhouse of 2x1"s, and 4x2"s at the top for the ceiling. I put about a foot of slagwool along the bottom, a bit of board to hold that up, then another lot, and I kept building it up until I'd got one wall completed. The ceiling was another problem: I bought some fibreboard which was relatively cheap at the time (it's compressed hardboard) and I laid this on top of the 4x2"s to form a flat ceiling. I took the glass off the greenhouse roof and then dumped the slagwool in from the top - very clever! I thought so at the time! There was a bit of broken glass here and there of course. Then I built a new roof with some more wood on top. It's bloody hard work I tell you, doing that, and you get fibreglass everywhere - in your fingernails, under the arms, in between your toes - awful stuff."
Andre felt that studio acoustics generally at that time were too 'dead' and he tried to create 50:50 live/dead effect by covering the lower half of the walls with perforated hardboard and placing polystyrene tiles on top. Polystyrene is more or less acoustically transparent, and therefore the main effect would have been from the slagwool underneath.
All that was left now was to bring in the equipment. "With that £1,000 of Michael's I bought a Teac 3340 4-track, a Chilton 8/2 mixer, a pair of Tannoy Gold monitors, an echo unit, and with my money I bought the microphones.
"I put up a partitioning wall to make two rooms using the same principle as I had for the outside walls. I did all that, put all the gear in, installed it and set up for business. And it was terrible! I didn't get any work at all."
Having placed his obligatory advertisement in Melody Maker, which brought no response, Andre began to realise that it really isn't necessarily what you know, but who you know.
Nevertheless "During that time I was at home, I managed to produce two Python albums with that set-up, which is quite a feat in itself. I think Matching Tie And Hankie is one of the better albums we've done. It was great being at home because it was a case of improvising all the time. If you wanted a sound effect, everything was there: if you wanted a rain effect you just waited for a rainy day and stuck the mic outside; if you wanted to do a garden gate sound it was there. Everything was at your fingertips which was partly how the album was put together. Things like explosions - most of those were done with Terry Jones sitting with a microphone under a blanket and going 'boom sssss'. All those silly effects on that album are mouth sounds, they're not real at all."
Lack of immediate clients wasn't his only problem. The Teac 4-track turned out to have a curse on it. Without fail, virtually every other week it broke down, and for about six months Andre went backwards and forwards to the importer's workshop until in the end they threw it in the dustbin and gave him a new one. "Sometimes you'll get a piece of machinery that'll go wrong and there's nothing you can do about it. It was more trouble than it was worth. I bought an EMI TR52 (a really 50s style 2-track machine) and busked along with that. It was very difficult. I'd have the Teac for a week, do all my 4-track jobs and then it would have to go back for repairs and I'd have to use the 2-track. It was hell, sheer hell doing that, but we survived it."
The greenhouse days came to an end when Red Bus Records invited Andre and his partner Dave Howman to move their studio into its London premises. For the next two years the studio was run from there. "It was almost identical to my home studio. I took all the gear with me, all I bought was an Ampex 440 8-track and an Allen & Heath desk; everything else was the same."
The biggest problem now, of course, was that the overheads had shot up. Charging £8 per hour, Andre was working 12—14 hours a day just trying to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, Monty Python's profits from the Holy Grail were starting to come in, and when Michael Palin once again offered to help him go out on his own, Jacquemin jumped at the chance. That was the beginning of Redwood Studios, where they still are to this day (although at the time of this interview they had just been told that the landlord was putting the rent up - so it looks like they'll be on the move again soon!) "I quadrupled my price, did half the work and half the hours, so I was better off in the long term, and the work built up bit by bit."
The equipment list at Redwood is slightly up-market from the greenhouse days, to say the least, with Studer A80 8-track and 2-track machines; two Revox PR99 recorders "with the monitor amp built in which I find really useful - quick access for effects and drop-ins. They work really well". He has a Technics quartz driven gramophone "very important, for doing sound effects and music dubbing"; a Neal cassette deck and monitoring is again on Tannoys with the Visonik David 9000, "they're tiny speakers but are really good."
The mixing console was custom built by Harry Day. "I wanted a Neve when I first started seven years ago, but they wanted £35,000 for an 8-track desk which was a lot of money at the time," (and still is!). "Cadac wanted £22,000, and they went into liquidation the week I was just about to order. Thank God!" A minute later and all their money would have gone down the drain. "In the end somebody put me in touch with Harry Day and he was great. The desk has got the monitoring section at the end of the desk instead of being in-line. It has 24 inputs, 8 outputs and it has got remix subgroup outputs too — two outputs go to all the machines, they are all lined-in, so I can take straight outputs from the desk. It's very versatile."
What about effects? "I've just bought the new Lexicon PCM60 digital reverb which is a brilliant piece of equipment. It costs about £1400, which I suppose smaller home studios won't be able to afford, but it's worth spending money in these areas if you can because it makes your stuff sound so much better, really." Other effects include the Yamaha R1000 digital reverb, an MXR graphic equaliser, a Moog vocoder and Moog phaser, Audio & Design compressor/limiters as well as noise gates and an AKG BX20 echo chamber. Monitor power amps are Quad in the control room, Crown in the studio and HH for the headphones. Microphones are less varied, being almost exclusively Neumann models, the favourite being the U87, with the U47 and KM84 of secondary preference.
I think it would be fair to say that Andre is quite envious of the amount of information and relatively cheap equipment available to people these days. When he started there was only one way to learn: trial and error. "The problem that I have is that because I'm doing my own work, all I can do is listen to things, work out how they were done, and then try and equal them, if not better them with an 8-track" he laughed. Well he doesn't seem to be doing too badly so far.
Redwood is essentially a radio studio where they prepare a vast quantity of commercials and speech material along with various comedy albums. The music side of things is a more recent development which is making new demands on both engineers and equipment. Voice recording is, however, very much an art in itself. Techniques and methods are totally different to those required for music.
"There are specific ways of doing dialogue recording. If you've got a sketch, you isolate it down to say two or three really good takes; then you get two machines - put one take on one machine and the same sketch, but different take, on the other machine and A/B them: hear one line, 'how good was that?'; then listen to the other take, 'was that word better than that word, was that inflection... ?' Then you cut that word out, pop it into the other take, and you end up with one composite brilliant take. It takes a lot of work. You wouldn't even entertain the idea of doing that with music; you tend to go all the way through and get at least a pre-rhythm track which you don't alter. Then you just overdub what you don't like on the original.
Commercials are the studio's bread and butter, without them Andre does not really think they would survive. In the space of time that a band could record an album, Redwood could quite possibly produce something like 150 radio commercials. "You can be doing up to 10 commercials a day. The demands are different; you're dealing with lots of effects, lots of music and you've only got 30 seconds to do it in. Sometimes, if the recording is carefully planned, it will work out alright; and sometimes it doesn't - then you have to go back almost to square one and re-jiggle everything. Supposing through one 30 second commercial you have three or four different scenes; you have to record each scene separately as they usually contain different sound effects and music, with different location sounds running behind the dialogue. You have to time each section separately, and once you've laid it all on tracks, completed your cross-fades, you hope it works within the 30 seconds!"
"There's a lot of money involved in commercials. Once you've recorded your voice parts on one track, added sound effects or gone out and specially recorded them, found the necessary library music (the client may come in with a mixed jingle or we may do the whole package for them), we then have to compile the broadcast cartridges (carts). Each radio station demands two cartridges and a reel-to-reel per commercial. This is because cartridges, being a tape-loop system, tend to be unreliable and sometimes jam up. Not only that, there are two types of carts: most stations use the ordinary NAB broadcast carts but certain stations have something called a Tom Cat cartridge machine which uses different cartridges again. We just supply reel-to-reels to these stations and they cart them up themselves. There are about 42 radio stations in Britain, so it can work out to be quite a big job."
"If you're doing a film commercial, for instance, you will have a 30 second commercial with 'Out now', 'Out on Monday', 'At your local cinema' or 'See local press for details'; and out of one 30 second commercial you could end up with seven or eight permutations. If you've got a series of four or five commercials going out to every station, you are talking about something like five or six hundred cartridges to make up. It can actually be quite a complex piece of work, a conventional music studio wouldn't know where to start. All your commercials then go through a trafficking department which organises all the Red Star despatches to all the radio stations, lets them know when they are arriving, and makes sure that you have actually supplied your one reel-to-reel tape and two cartridges for every station. So it works out to be quite lucrative."
This 8-track business can get pretty complicated. Take, for example, the Every Sperm Is Sacred sequence from The Meaning Of Life, which Andre wrote with his then partner Dave Howman, and which led to a nomination for an Academy award. "We used something like 50 tracks on 8-track equipment. I used the same theories I did at home: laying a rhythm track and overlaying and bouncing, always listening for the final mix at the end of the day. It's a bit of a gamble, but by that time I was familiar with the sorts of recording levels that one had to use. If you listen to the construction of that song it is quite complicated in parts - flutes, trumpets, accordions — there's millions of different elements in there which all have their own specific bit. Certain tape tracks contain five or six things, other tracks were composite bounces of 2-track which I ping-ponged across with other things added - it's a bit of a pain! I wouldn't like to do it too often, not with that many overdubs."
"With the Monty Python team, you have to get everyone's approval. They all have something different to say about each sketch and you have to keep updating and changing it - that's quite difficult! You have to catalogue what everything is and if there is an update you would have to go back to the 4-track version, or even the original 2-track and re-dub it. With the Cheese Shop sketch we did - the dancing in particular - I had to dub that several times and the only way of doing it was to have the Bazouki player (which was a piece of library music) and tap dance with the Bazouki. So, I put a piece of hardboard on the floor of the control room and there we were dancing away to this music with John Cleese blaring out in the background!"
"You just dub the effects live a lot of the time rather than have them pre-recorded. The Bruces Song was quite good - we actually played the four track tape, monitored on the headphones and then added the effects live on the mic input channel of the Teac four track - 'Have another Fosters' Psssshhhh' - you just open the can."
Andre was most emphatic that you should not let your relatively small home studio set-up limit your creative horizons. "If you've got a string section to record, it's always worth phoning round a few studios and seeing if they've got a 4-track or whatever and actually record at their premises. I did that on Monty Python's Contractual album, I booked Abbey Road" - well there's nothing like aiming for the top. "I got them to put an 8-track machine in their classical studio for me and I recorded the orchestra on two tracks of the 8-track. I brought the tapes back here to Redwood and dubbed all the other sounds on top of it and so consequently the whole thing sounds massive when it wasn't really."
Redwood's work load is beginning to include more and more music, and even the great Jacquemin is beginning to be lured by the siren-like wail of the great 24 track in the sky. "Sometimes I even have to transfer the 8-track on to 24 because I've got so much stuff grouped on to 8 tracks, it is very difficult to mix. You could be using a dozen different echoes and effects: two different ones for the snare, one for the bass drum to get a room sound, several echo plates or digital reverb for vocals. You can imagine trying to get all that wired in to do an 8-track mix when you've already got 50 things recorded on the tracks - it gets quite difficult really, quite a mess!"
"The latest band I recorded was Classix Nouveaux who were stunned to hear how 8 tracks could sound like 24. The only complication arises when you've got five or six sounds on one track: you might have a vocal, say, and you need to put a solo in somewhere because that's the only space where the singing isn't happening. You have to get a different sound on that solo, and then re-routing can be a bit of a problem. But, with three or four hands on the mixer you're alright."
"In the last year technology has changed and advanced so much with sequencers and synths, where people also want a particular echo on their snare drum etc, and you have to isolate those things - you can't do composite mixes these days."
One of Andre's latest tricks has been toying with timecodes and MIDI codes. "If you have a Linn drum machine, for instance, you can just put a guide drum track down using the Linn on one channel, put the timecode down on another track to synchronise to, and then, if you've got the mixing space, you can eventually bounce on to your guide Linn track (erasing it in the process), but keeping the timecode. When you come to mix the track you use the timecode to re-trigger the new drum part on the Linn and record it 'live' onto the 2-track master for maximum sound quality."
"I've been doing a lot of music lately and all I use the 8-track for is to put vocals down and any acoustic instruments - all the rest are triggered off keyboards recorded live onto the master tape. Nothing actually goes down on tape anymore, and it's all triggered by timecodes and MIDI codes and things like that."
What all this is leading to is that Redwood Studios will be adding a 24 track facility to their present set-up when they do eventually have to move premises. Sadly, it is not really because they cannot cope on the 8-track, although nobody would be stupid enough to deny that 24 tracks would be nice! It is more the result of pressure being brought to bear by the record industry, which not only virtually demands that you have 24 track facilities, but that your studio should own a Solid State Logic computerised mixing desk, would you believe.
"Yes, it's a bit of a long way from a greenhouse!" Andre said. "But these days a lot of people do phone up (especially from record companies) and say 'Have you got an SSL desk?' and if you haven't they put the phone down before you can even say but..."
Andre, nevertheless, is very approving of the SSL concept. "It seems to me that almost every major studio in England will have an SSL room somewhere along the line, and I think it's a good thing. Purely in terms of compatibility, and the way it evens out the balance of mixing work. You can dump all your recording settings down on to a computer disk and then if you can't get back into the same studio you can just go somewhere else. It's all down to getting on with the people you're actually working with then, rather than the actual organisation, because all the gear will be roughly the same. Ten years ago you would go to the place where you got on best with the people and the specific facilities that they had. If most places in the future are the same, then it's back down to the people again, who have tended to get a bit lost recently in the technology. You may think it's an odd way of looking at it, but if you get silly people phoning up asking about SSL like that all the time, you eventually have to supply to demand, otherwise you. lose the work; unfortunately, you've got to stay in the running and move with the times. You're being dictated to now by the industry trends, and there's almost nothing you can do about it."
Interview by Janet Angus
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