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Classical Sound Engineering (Part 2)

Careers In The Music Industry

Classical sound engineers talk about their hopes and aspirations at the world's best-known studio, Abbey Road.


In our second visit to Abbey Road studios, Derek Johnson talks to two balance engineers from the studio's classical side.

Simon Rhodes at the SSL console, Studio 3, Abbey Road.


Name: Simon Rhodes
Age: 27
Occupation: Balance Engineer
Qualifications: Music and Physics Degree


Where does your interest in recording originate?

I had a favourite record when I was a kid; it was a classical record, and on the back there was a mystical credit for the job of Recording Engineer, and that got something going in my mind. Up until that point, I'd always wanted to be some sort of pastoral farmer, so had a drastic change of thinking. I decided to become a classical balance engineer.

What qualifications or training did you need to get your job at Abbey Road?

I did a lot of music when I was a kid — I learned violin and piano, up to grade 8 — and for my A-levels I wanted to do physics, maths and music, and I thought if I didn't get to be a recording engineer, physics would be a useful thing to fall back on. I did physics and music at Cardiff University. I liked Cardiff, because it was a very practical course, almost like music college.

How did you get the job?

After university, I wrote to virtually every recording studio in London trying to get a job, and the few that replied weren't interested. Then I started writing to record companies; I wrote to EMI asking for a job in the studio or elsewhere in the company, and they wrote back with a vacancy for a van driver to distribute records around London in the period before Christmas. It was a temporary job, but reading between the lines, it seemed that they just wanted to meet me, and they were offering me work. In the end, I learned all about EMI's label, and met everybody. My department was right next to the personnel department, so I got to know them. The van job is a regular thing that used to happen every year, and they found me another temporary job at Abbey Road as an account clerk. I did that for a month or two, and I got to know some of the people; I started using editing stuff and bits and pieces, and everybody suddenly realised that I didn't want to be an accountant. People were very kind — they encouraged me and gave up their time to help me learn. I eventually became apprenticed to the guy whose name I saw on the back of a record when I was 13 — Chris Parker. At that time, he was transferring all his analogue recordings for CD. I picked up a lot from him, and I got to work with sound rather than making the tea. This was perfect training, and I did it for two years. I tried to very gently move into the world of real-life recording and got my first break as an engineer without going into tape-opping at all. But there was so long between each project that, in order for them to justify me being on the engineering staff rather than the operational staff, I did do quite a lot of tape-opping. Now I've been engineering more or less full time for the last two years — I've done about 120 records in that time.

What do you do in a typical working day?

Eighty percent of my work is recording direct to some form of stereo format. The basic idea is to use as few mics as possible, but it takes a lot of experience to know how to use them well. You can strike lucky some days, and other days it's not too hot. There is no such thing as a typical day. Every day is more or less different. I go away quite a lot, both in other studios and on location. I've been to Vienna, Moscow, Paris and Prague in the last two months.

Do you have to work long or unusual hours?

Classical musicians are quite civilised, but obviously you have to do a fair amount of preparation beforehand. If you're doing a large multitrack session with a hundred pairs of headphones or whatever, you probably need to get ready a day before! But a normal two-track session can be set up in about three or four hours.

What is the best aspect of your job?

It has to be the variety... but it isn't a job really! Not a proper job, anyway.

And the worst?

Not much; little things irritate you. I find myself so busy here that I don't have time to pursue activities outside the job — I used to play a lot before I became an engineer. Classical musicians do work very hard — you often find them doing three sessions a day, rehearsals in the morning, session in the afternoon and a concert in the evening, all in different places. That can be a typical day...

Do you feel you get fair pay?

I feel happy. It's good, because being at Abbey Road is quite a secure place to work. Other studios are diabolically insecure, especially because of the way they're closing down all the time. But you have to work at your security — you can't be idle.

Has your career developed in the way you had envisaged?

It's perfectly on course; from the outset I set my sights on this, although I've made escape routes along the way, just in case. And it's brilliant. When I think about it, I'm just so lucky it's unbelievable. I'm sure there are hundreds of people that didn't get in and to think that you're here is quite a nice feeling.

What is your planned career path?

I'm still very much working at building up what I've started — carrying on recording, and getting better at it, with occasionally the odd glimpse of production. I've done a little bit of production, but I'd like to do more.

Do you have any advice for RM's readers?

A formal music education is invaluable; a lot of people don't have it and they really do regret it. They can't talk the same language as the musicians, and they don't understand the anxieties that they go through. If an engineer can play, I think they can get more out of the job. And basically, it's much easier for someone who's spent years learning to become a musician to come and operate this stuff... it's very easy these days, because everybody's a bit technical. It's a lot harder to do it the other way round. If you're brought up with gear and equipment and then you try to learn about music, I think it's a struggle.

What are your outside interests?

I'm getting married soon... I like a bit of gardening — that's fairly untypical — and I play a bit of piano at home.

David Flower in Studio 3, Abbey Road.


Name: David Flower
Age: 37
Occupation: Balance Engineer
Qualifications: Apprenticeship


Where does your interest in recording originate?

My father was a professional musician, who also worked for EMI. My mother was a ballet dancer, so I come from a musical background. I never really showed any interest in playing and I was never forced to learn an instrument; maybe I've missed out a bit, but I was never terribly interested. When I was about 13 or 14, I saw a program featuring the Beatles on TV — I've never been a great Beatles fan, but there was this guy sitting there fiddling with all the level controls, which really impressed me. I had a bit of fun with the hi-fi at home, and taking radios apart, and wiring up three or four speakers around my bed. It was wonderful, and I thought that would be nice to do.

What qualifications or training did you need to get your job at Abbey Road?

When I was about 17, I was going to go on to do A-levels and university. EMI still ran apprenticeships at that time, but they were only taking on children of employees, so I applied for a technical apprenticeship.

I was fascinated with it all... as soon as I joined the course, I - like everybody - wanted to record. We were told that nobody goes to the studios, to absolutely forget about it, and that we'd end up doing anything but recording. I spent two years as an apprentice.

How did you get the job?

Through my father again, I applied to work in a small EMI facility. Part of the job was that you looked after the hi-fi systems around the building; you'd be recording and you'd be told that the managing director's pickup arm had dropped off, and you'd have to put a new one on. Eventually, I was doing more recording and less hi-fi repair. I started coming up to Abbey Road, helping out at weekends and evenings. I also worked on transfer for a couple of years, doing a big series of video opera productions.

What do you do in a typical working day?

There's no such thing as a typical day... It's the closest thing to being freelance in a corporate regime. I won't say you're autonomous, because you get allotted a project, but you basically get into it and follow it through up to the point where the producer goes off and edits it. And even then you might get dragged in for post-production work. A typical day here is either doing some prep work for projects coming up or sitting around watching TV if there's nothing to do. It's either a feast or a famine... when you're flat out, it's in at 7am, set up at 10am, then work in three-hour segments up to 6pm or 10pm.

Do you have to work long or unusual hours?

They're not long or unusual, because you get used to them. If you do seven or eight days on the trot, and then you have an opera project 10 days solid, then that would be a hard push, but you get fun out of it. It's actually more wearing and more boring sitting around doing nothing, so usually most of us are mooching around trying to find something to do, clear mic stores, call up a client, do expenses and so on.

What is the best aspect of your job?

For me, it's the informality; in some ways it's very formal, but in others it's informal. I like coming to work in jeans, I like coming to work in a suit, but it's my choice. I like that freedom — it's back to being almost freelance. You have this autonomy within the security of a company. It is a creative process, and you're allowed to try and create. It's a bit like being an artistic plumber... you have various bits that you can plug in, and what you select and how you choose to plug them in can make the difference between having something that starts within 10-15 minutes of the orchestra sitting down and warming up, or something that might take half an hour or three quarters of an hour to get what they want. You're an artisan.

And the worst?

The only thing that's a bit difficult is the social side. It's not a job: you've taken on a vocation, it is your life. You can't say you'll only work five days a week or you want every Sunday off. You could get a call and have to get on a plane the next day because a colleague has fallen ill — you pick up a ticket at the airport. It can be quite difficult for partners. Our technical mobile engineers are on the road nine months a year. If you need a regimented life, don't even consider coming into this industry.

Do you feel you get fair pay?

Considering this is the audio side of recording, rather than TV, I think we're well-paid. I think we're worth a lot more money, but everybody says that. You're under a lot of duress; if you screw up, expensive projects can be dead. They're either not released, or the studio loses kudos.

Has your career developed in the way you had envisaged?

I've been very lucky in that I've changed direction several times, but I kind of keep moving the goal posts. I've had a progressive career — it's been fluid, which for me is interesting. I hate it if it becomes routine; this is dangerous, because then you start to feel you know it all. As soon as I feel that one of my recordings is the best I can do, then I'm going to give it up, because it means the interest is gone.

What is your planned career path?

I'm always looking for things, I have no definite plans. I'm basically here, and I'm kind of established. I'll just become more established. I work at the high end of the classical market, and there's not really much further to go after that, unless you want to go into production, administration or get out of the business. I've had 20-odd years in the business, and I've enjoyed all of it. The way the technology's changing is interesting; there's always new technology to learn about.

Do you have any advice for RM's readers?

Basically, don't... Because you're taking on a lifestyle. If you like the idea of it, you've got to consider that it will become your life. If you're more into playing than recording, then get a job or a profession that can fund you doing it on your own. You can have a room in your house, and make money as a dentist so you can have your holidays and lifestyle, and still record and play and have a good time.

What are your outside interests?

Loads; you tend to find your friends get used to your erratic schedule, and you find solo stuff to do, like fishing on your own, cycling on your own, or playing squash with whoever's available. I enjoy films, theatre, travel, swimming, sailing... eating!


Series - "Inside Abbey Road"

This is the last part in this series. The first article in this series is:


All parts in this series:

Part 1 | Part 2 (Viewing)


More on: Abbey Road Studios


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Previous Article in this issue

Recording Electric Guitar

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Recording Musician


Recording Musician - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Recording Musician - Nov 1992

Donated by: Mike Gorman, Colin Potter

Scanned by: Mike Gorman

Topic:

Recording Studios


Series:

Inside Abbey Road

Part 1 | Part 2 (Viewing)


Feature by Derek Johnson

Previous article in this issue:

> Recording Electric Guitar

Next article in this issue:

> Recording Musician


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