...I Nearly Joined The Foreign Legion! (Part 2)
Last month we followed the career of Dave Meegan as he progressed from studio tape-op to full-time engineer at Trevor Horn's Sarm West Studios. This time Chris Allison discovers Dave's feelings about studio life in the fast lane.
The concluding part of Chris Allison's interview with Dave Meegan who is currently carving out a fine reputation for himself as a house engineer at Trevor Horn's Sarm Studios in London.
"My official title now is 'house engineer' which is what I've worked to become for the last two years. But it's like starting all over again. Now I've got to make a name for myself as an engineer and make sure that people ask for me for their sessions. It's very difficult at the moment because I'm competing against a lot of freelance engineers, especially the American guys who're coming to London to do 12" re-mixes. What I'm trying to do now is build up my reputation so that when a record company books one of its artists into Sarm for a session, they request me to engineer it."
Looking at Dave's situation as an outsider, I would have thought he'd be in constant demand as a house engineer as it's less costly for a record company to use a house engineer rather than pay freelance rates. Was this the case?
"No. You see, record companies never ever gamble, they always play it safe. That's why they try to get successful record producers like Trevor because they think it guarantees them a hit. It's the same with engineers to a point. They think that if some guy mixed such and such a record and it was Number One, it'll automatically be the same for their artists. Whereas, they probably won't have heard a house engineer's name before. It's a Catch 22 situation: you make a name for yourself by doing the work, but you can't get the work until you've made a name for yourself."
"Most freelance engineers have their own particular way of working, whereas a house engineer is trying out lots of new things and can often bring a fresh approach to a session."
"Even though I'm a house engineer, I have done quite a bit of freelance work myself. The money comes in handy."
The reference to 'money' seemed an opportune moment to enquire about studio rates of pay for sessions.
"As a house engineer at Sarm I get a basic wage of £4 per hour with overtime paying between £5 and £6 per hour. If I do freelance work, because the person who manages Sarm (Jill Sinclair) acts as my manager, she gets me a much higher wage." "When I was tape-opping, I did some freelance engineering and earned nearly £1000 in a week - but that was hard work, almost twenty-four hours a day."
So what does a top class 'name' engineer earn then?
"Well I can't mention names obviously! Top engineers can earn between £750 and £1000 a day, though that varies considerably depending on whether they get 'points' (royalties), whether they're mixing and whether they've been booked for several weeks' or months' work."
"Engineers only earn points if they're part of a producer/engineer team. See, if you work nearly all the time for one producer, he may eventually sign you as his personal engineer. When things progress to that stage, the deal you strike will most likely be a certain amount of money per day, or per project, plus maybe a couple of points on the sales of the album."
"That seems to be the popular approach at the moment - having a producer/engineer team. The producer might even stretch that team to include a keyboard player and drummer who he uses most of the time, because they know his methods and can get the sounds and feel he wants quickly. That's the approach Trevor (Horn) adopts really, using Steve Lipson (engineer), Andy Richards (keyboards) and Louis Jardin (percussion)."
Dave's tasks as a house engineer these days seem to revolve primarily around the mixing stage, the current trend being for bands to record backing tracks in cheaper studios, then bring the multitrack tapes for mixing to a studio like Sarm or Air, where a computer-controlled desk relieves the burden of the mixdown process allowing both engineer and producer to concentrate on the artistic elements of the music.
Dave's regular work places, Sarm West and Sarm East, are renowned for their hi-tech associations, both in terms of the pioneering use they make of technology as well as the studio design. (You've only got to look at the accompanying control room photos to see what I mean.) Between the time of our first interview with Dave and this one, his views on the use of sampling devices like Synclaviers and Fairlights in the studio have altered considerably.
"Tracks done with Synclaviers and stuff are great. But where they tend to go wrong is when they try to be the 'real thing'. It's very difficult for any band to sound like a Synclavier set-up where everything's perfectly in time and in tune. Likewise, the other way round. It's hard to create a natural feel in a track that's produced by a Synclavier."
"My personal belief is that recording technology has advanced but music has gone back! No one using sampling methods has approached it in the right way yet and I'm not trying to say that I know better... I don't. I still prefer working with real bands because it's a lot more fun. You don't sit for hours in the control room programming stuff beat by beat. When the band are the other side of the glass, all miked up with the tape ready to roll, you've got that feeling of tension and energy that gives the recording something special. You simply cannot reproduce that using pure technology."
"But if you're making records purely for the dance floor, that way of doing things is great - you can't beat it."
"Too much emphasis is placed on new technology being used in music I feel. It's insane to try and play drums on a keyboard. The action is in the sticks, arms and legs - not in five fingers of your hand hitting a plastic keyboard!"
"Having said that, I do feel there is a definite place for something like the Synclavier in recording. It gives people a choice, but it's not the way I would do it. It throws too much emphasis on the producer and the engineer, and the bands are getting away with murder! Instead of having to work hard to develop their skills like they did years ago, everybody seems to be making it easy for them with all these machines."
"Just talking to friends in the industry, there's a definite rift beginning to appear between those who like programmed music and those who prefer the real stuff. I can see the public turning around soon and saying 'we've had enough of this synthesized stuff' if we're not careful, unless those people who treat such devices as the Synclavier as 'the easy way out' begin to make better use of them."
"Just because we've got computers in TVs, hi-fi and microwave ovens, we think we must have computers in music. It's silly. The Arts don't always mix with computers."
"I think people should take a lesson from Sting. What he did on his Blue Turtles solo album was great. When a song needed musicians, he used musicians; when it didn't he used machines. A song like 'Russians', which is 99% Synclavier, relies on that programmed feel to support the mood of the song's lyrics. The two approaches should be able to exist side by side."
In his short time as an engineer since graduating from his position as tape-op, and in particular, working with Trevor Horn for two weeks on a single for the new ZTT signing, Instinct, Dave has quickly learned what the word 'responsibility' really means.
"If you've been out drinking the night before and you've got a hang over, it's certainly the wrong way to go into a session. You have to be on top of things because there has got to be somebody there in every session holding things together; and quite often that job comes down to the engineer. You have to think ahead and have things planned out so that you can work quickly. If the guitarist comes up with a really excellent solo, the odds are that he won't remember how to play it again. So, one of my rules is to tape everything - just in case!"
"As an engineer, you're not responsible just for what goes down on tape, you're responsible for the attitude in the studio as well. You have to be strong-willed and capable of handling the pressure - which can be considerable at times."
"I believe all experience is good experience, so I try and grab any session that's going. They're all so different that you can't fail to learn something new from any session you do. I've still got the same approach to engineering now that I had as a tape-op - I'm eager to learn. I know where I want to be and in order to get there, I know I have to work really hard."
That hard work may pay off for Dave Meegan whose name may one day be heard in the same breath as that of his predecessors - Gary Langan, Julian Mendelsohn and Steve Lipson. What, I asked, were his feelings about working at Sarm and following in their footsteps?
"It's quite difficult because they were brilliant. When you have to follow in their shadow, it sets a very high standard which you've got to try and reach. People come to Sarm now and they expect an engineer to provide the quality of expertise that they would get from those people. It's always good I feel to have someone like that ahead of you; someone that you can learn from. It pushes you to achieve better things."
"One of the most important points I've learned here at Sarm, is that you should record in such a way that the track mixes itself. Then when you do come to mix down, you don't need weeks of work trying to decide when to push a particular button. I learned that from Julian (Mendelsohn) and Gary (Langan). I used to be constantly amazed watching them work. You'd look at the SSL desk and all the faders would be in a straight line, but all the instrument sounds fitted together perfectly. Doing it that way means you do have to record things at the right level. It might look too low or too high on tape but at the end of the day, it sounds right and suits the song. I hope I'll never put rules on the way I record."
Not unnaturally, engineer Dave Meegan has a tremendous respect for the work of his boss. After all, the possibility of working with the maestro producer was a major reason for his applying for a post at Sarm West Studios in the first place.
"What Trevor's great at doing is changing the whole dynamics of a track, like from verse to chorus, where he'll use a sampled Linn kick drum, say, on the verse but a real one on the chorus. His greatest skill is his understanding of perspective. He's very aware of the artificiality of stereo and knows, better than anyone in my opinion, how to create that illusion of a third dimension to the sound through the use of reverbs and room ambience. Working alongside him, I've come to appreciate the importance of 'space' in a track. Trevor likes using short echo settings on the Lexicon 224 to put a feeling of air around instruments. Good use of echo and reverb can dramatically change the whole feel of a track. If used properly, it's possible to have far fewer sounds on a track but make them appear a lot more tasteful and dynamic so that you hear everything that's going on."
And anyone who's ever tried to record for themselves will know that you only achieve that through a great deal of skill and experience. Trevor Horn wasn't voted the world's top record producer for nothing you know!
Predictably, Dave has his sights set firmly on a move into the field of production sometime in the future, though he appreciates that he still has a lot to learn. When queried on what he thought life as a top class record producer would be like, he boldly replied: "I'll tell you when I get there!".
Well, one thing is for certain; working at Sarm Studios under the watchful eye of Trevor Horn, he couldn't have asked for a better start - or a better teacher!
Part 1 | Part 2 (Viewing)
Interview by Chris Allison
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!