A spotlight on Europe's largest mobile studio and its home base in London.
Behind an unassuming smoked glass exterior in Windmill Street, just off Tottenham Court Road in the heart of London, lies Tape One, a centre of activity for the UK record industry and home base for Europe's largest mobile studio. Tape One, like Mobile One and the smaller Mobile Two, is the brainchild of Barry Ainsworth, a recording engineer whose career started as a sound balancer at RYE and who worked his way up via the position of studio manager at De Lane Lea Music. Nowadays he and his partner Bill Foster are kept busy with bookings extending solidly for months.
Tape One is a facility house used by many of the major record companies. There are three cutting rooms for producing master discs, each using a Neumann lathe and Studer A80 tape machines. For the technologically minded there's a Neumann VMS 80 computer-controlled lathe, complete with a TV monitor which reduces the need to use a microscope for groove checking. Alternatively, for the purist, there's a Neumann AM32 lathe which appears fairly similar to the VMS 80 (a good design never needing to be drastically changed) but in fact dates from the 1930's. It's matched with a modified VG1 valve amplifier rack; some record producers insist that only a valve lathe can provide the sound they want, and Tape One is all about providing sounds to order.
Other rooms have facilities for master tape copying, again with Studer A80 tape machines and using Dolby A, stereo synthesisers for use on mono master tapes, and PPM, VU and Phase metering. Often masters will be copied for the foreign subsidiaries of record companies, or short runs of cassettes will be produced as previews of albums in production.
There's no attempt made to compete with the mass duplicating specialists: real time copies only are made, using a stack of AIWA cassette decks roughly corresponding to those at the top of the domestic hi-fi market. These can be fed from tape or disc via Alice mixers built to Tape One's own specifications, which provide EQ or if necessary a little dynamic limiting.
Tape One produces compilation masters for companies like Ronco and K-Tel. Due to recent improvements in cartridge and LP quality it's no longer necessary to cut down the running time of individual tracks to fit onto one side of an LP: it's possible instead to reduce the overall volume as compared to the corresponding single, if necessary. Masters are cut for everybody from symphony orchestras through rock and pop groups to Barry Manilow and Dana. There's a huge library of tapes in constant use for re-issues and compilations, and at least a dozen new masters are turned out each working day bearing the signatures of the three resident cutting engineers, 'Bilbo', 'Jacko' and 'Pounda'. There are plans for expansion, and for an early move into the area of laser disc-cutting when the technology becomes available.
Although Mobile One travels as far as Yugoslavia and Russia, on the occasion of our visit it was parked less than a mile away at the Coliseum, which was playing host to Jonathan Miller's production of the English Opera Company's 'Rigoletto'. Barry Ainsworth's specifications were turned into a 36 foot long, 13 foot high, 9 ton Eastlake-designed mobile recording studio by a chassis and box structure company in Scotland, an acoustic engineering company in Manchester and an electronics engineering company in Reading. The whole assembly is towed by a standard Ford tractor and is insured for £250,000.
Interestingly enough it could all be powered off a 13A plug socket if it weren't for the air conditioning, which makes a 35A supply or a mobile generator necessary.
On this occasion a generator truck supplied both Mobile One and the Television International truck hired by Thames TV to cover the event for Channel 4. The soundproofed cubicle in the rear of the studio had been supplied with a video monitor to synchronise the sound mix to the action on stage. Mikes inside the theatre were a mixture of condenser and dynamic, including a pair suspended from the ceiling, a selection of rifle mikes behind the proscenium arch, and highly selective 'mice' mounted horizontally on the stage which pick up the surprisingly clear vocal sound transmitted through the stage itself. A stage box and multicore feed into the van via external connectors and into the MCI 36 in/36 out mixing console.
The MCI console can be supplemented if necessary by a Triad 16 in/16 out console, and these are connected to one or two MCI 24 track machines. These can provide 46 tracks if locked together by an SMPTE code generator (two tracks being used up in the process), and the system is designed to be both portable and flexible. All the tasks of a static studio can be performed, including overdubbing of vocals or even a full drum kit after a performance using the soundproof booth at the rear of the truck.
As a 46 track Mobile One is the largest in Europe, most of the others being 24 track, and so has been used to cover prestige jobs from the Golden Reel Award-winning recording of Supertramp's 'Paris' album to TV shows and live albums for Sky, Barclay James Harvest, Barry Manilow and James Galway. One recent 'first' was the recording of the Duke Ellington Memorial Concert at the Albert Hall in London, with video pictures being synchronised to a digital recording.
Digital recording (as discussed in E&MM October '82) has the advantages of a total absence of wow and flutter, complete fidelity in copying and millisecond accuracy in editing. Tape One and Mobile One own, or hire if necessary, both Sony's two-track or multi-track digital systems and 3M's multi-track digital system. Unfortunately the Sony and 3M systems aren't compatible, and it's hoped that a leader will emerge in the near future.
Recording is via a pulse code modulation (PCM) device such as the Sony PCM 1660, onto a standard videotape if necessary, in which case the stereo image is preserved by multiplexing the signal. Digital editing can be carried out at Tape One, using a desk which closely resembles a standard video editing unit, or in the case of a classical concert where a 'one-take' stereo recording is often sufficient, no editing would be necessary.
This is where Mobile Two comes in: the stereo Sony digital equipment together with a Neve mixing console can be loaded into an estate car, and classical concerts can be recorded using a selection of condenser mikes. Some rock groups, such as Genesis, also require a 'classical' sound, although hardier dynamic mikes would often have to be substituted. Outside engineers are encouraged to supervise the three resident staff of Mobile One in order to obtain exactly the sound the band requires. Although static studios often have a distinctive sound or 'feel', a mobile should be able to provide sounds to order.
Often the staff will need to be able to read a musical score, particularly during classical pieces, where different sections of the orchestra need to be brought in at different times. For rock and pop, though, it's usually sufficient to have a 'good ear' - or at least a commercial ear.
Future plans include reactivation of the video recording side of the organisation, which has lain dormant since being outstripped by the amount of business done by the audio recording side. This will naturally enough be known as Video One, and to do full justice to the latest technology larger premises are being sought; with business as healthy as it appears to be at the moment, this shouldn't be too much of an obstacle.
In the immediate future Tape One will continue to turn out masters at a rate of knots and Mobile One has engagements for Shakin' Stevens, more classical work for TV, and live work in Paris and Moscow. By this stage the reader should be wondering how much these services will cost, and so an abbreviated list of approximate rates is included below.
|Digital Cutting||£50/hr (minimum £100)|
|Conventional cutting||£90 (average LP)|
|Cassette copying (realtime)||£16/hr|
|Hire||£600/day (reduces for subsequent days)|
|Outside London||£150/day (staff expenses)|
|Digital Equipment||(available as an option)|