A home recordist amongst home recordists traces his own history through tape recorders he has used.
Bill Nelson guides us through his home recording career, pointing to old and trusty tape recorders on the way. Interview recorded (just about) by Tony Bacon; self-portrait snaps by the versatile Mr Nelson.
THE BEST PLACE to record is the outdoors, in the open air. I've read that in loads of books, so it must be true.
Bill and I had just come back from the pub. It was a lovely day, so let's do the interview out in the garden. Good idea. And it's the best place to record, you know. Out comes the trusty Recording Walkman, placed near our two chairs. Simple: press record and play.
Unfortunately the entire woodland population of Yorkshire decided to situate themselves at crucial positions in the Walkman's soundfield. The star of the ensuing tape was a small but powerful bird which screeched its way, unaided by Aural Exciters, over every other sound. The actual interview popped up on tape here and there as an interesting if barely audible backdrop.
The moral? Don't trust tape recorders.
"The first tape recorder I ever got," mumbles Bill amidst the menagerie, "was one of those old Philips things — there was a big stop button in the middle with a 'magic eye' incorporated which looked like a spirit level, it measured the recording level. I had that before I started playing, really. I remember recording 'Poetry In Motion' off the radio."
Bill is a home recordist amongst home recordists. He's always dabbled with reels of tape in the comfort (or otherwise) of his own abode — back in the 1970s when he was fronting Be Bop Deluxe it was the inevitable Teac 4-track reel-to-reel machine; later, as Be Bop split, Red Noise came and went, and Bill became 'Bill Nelson' again, he moved up through 8-track to his current 16-track set-up. Lots of his home-recorded stuff has appeared on record — even the latest LP, "Getting The Holy Ghost Across", the first since he signed to CBS, credits The Echo Observatory, as he calls his set-up, as a major multitrack contributor.
But back with the old Philips recorder in the mists of time, there soon came a second machine, a Grundig with green rexine type stuff round the edges. The young but crafty Bill would record a rhythm guitar on to one machine, and play it back whilst recording on to the other one, singing and playing along.
Then a stroke of luck led Bill, who by this time was writing and playing his own songs, to record an album called "Northern Dream" (released 1971) in a local studio.
"I suppose that was my first experience of a more sophisticated machine, it was on a friend's Ferrograph and Tandberg machines — the Tandberg was a stereo machine on which you could actually bounce from left to right channels, which made it easier to layer things up. To find this guy with equipment that you could sort of multitrack on, and who had longer hair than anyone else, and who'd actually heard of the Jefferson Airplane, was quite a discovery. It was like finding your own little corner of San Francisco in the middle of Wakefield!
"So, using that set-up for the 'Northern Dream' album made me want to put that kind of facility within my own grasp without having to go out of the house. The record got me a deal with EMI; by the time they'd picked up on it and got in touch with me I'd formed the very first Be Bop Deluxe, so they signed the group."
As a result of the record contract Bill got a publishing deal, and with the advance from that bought his Teac reel-to-reel 4-track (which, incidentally, he's recently sold to Vinnie Reilly, aka Durutti Column). He found the wonders of 4-track a bit of a mystery to start with, beginning by recording lots of things out of sync thanks to the lack of instructions geared to the first-time user. Still a problem, this, says Bill: "The technicalities are still not well explained by the makers. For example, I've got a remote for my Fostex 16-track — and I still haven't fathomed it out. Every time I use it I have to refer to the manual, it seems needlessly complicated."
The first things Bill recorded on his new Teac were the demoes for what became Be Bop Deluxe's "Futurama" album (released 1975). "I'd got an old upright piano from the local mission, they were turning it out," he remembers fondly, "and I lived in a terraced house by Wakefield prison. The house was never in darkness because they had the bright prison lights on all night, so I was up all hours bashing the piano and recording on to the Teac." Ah, don't it sound lovely?
As I've said, a lot of stuff Bill did on the Teac has ended up on record; for example, the first soundtrack he did for the Yorkshire Actors Company, "Dr Caligari" (put out on his own label, Cocteau, in 1981), was done entirely on the Teac with very little in the way of outboard gear. It displays an imaginative use of tape and tape effects, using mainly acoustic sources: running things backwards, recording at half speed then bringing them back up to speed on the mix (or vice versa), editing sections by cutting the tape about, and generally using unusual and sometimes quite shocking textures and dynamics.
For Bill, the step up to 8-track came after he'd completed the "Dr Caligari" soundtrack; the Yorkshire Company got an Arts Council grant to do their next production, 'Beauty And The Beast', and gave Bill some of the money from the grant to update the recording facility. So he put it towards a Fostex A8. "At the time that machine really was a revolution," he says. "I couldn't afford anything else, and I needed more than four tracks, I was always bouncing down. I'd found with the 4-track that at times I was having to concentrate more on the recording process than on the music — with more tracks I figured I'd have to worry less about the bouncing, be able to think about the music, and only really have to make technical decisions at the end.
"When you go from four to eight tracks you're not just concerned with the extra tracks but the amount of technical quality, you start to look to make clean recordings without distortion and with punch and dynamics. It becomes more of a substitute for going to a studio — 4-track you tend to bung it down, you gloss over a lot of things."
Sixteen tracks came along a couple of years ago for Bill in the shape of the B16, and it hasn't been without problems. "Yes, it's been back and forwards so many times," complains Bill. "The first one I had ended up being almost rebuilt — it went back several times, it was breaking tapes. It would go away, be repaired, come back, and within two days it'd do the same thing again. They eventually sent their engineers up here, repaired it again, put it on soak and I sat around for a day while it ran; two days later off it went again. So they ended up taking the innards out and using the case as a display unit in a window somewhere! I've got the demonstration unit now: I've had problems with that too. The microprocessor in the machine and the microprocessor in the remote wouldn't agree at first."
Mmm, does sound a bit dodgy. "They were very good about it," stresses Bill in a moment of compassion, "all the people I had to deal with at HHB where I got it from were very concerned. And in fact from what I can gather there's been very few problems with the range. A few machines have been temperamental, and it's been in that same area, the tape transport."
His current 16-tracking problem arises from sheer wear — he uses the machine each and every day. During the Trouble, someone even suggested to Bill that the B16 wasn't designed for this kind of continual use. Makes you wonder what it is designed for. Now, though, the heads need to be relapped. What's that all about?
"Relapping is where they grind down the head so it's a straight surface again — I believe that the point which is the most worn becomes the level to which it is ground. I think a new head is about £500, whereas relapping is about £80. So it's worth it for the time being."
Despite all these headaches, Bill praises the quality of the B16 — 'remarkable' is his precise description. An example? When he came to transfer his 16-track work to the big studio's 24-track machine.
"I thought ah, this is where it's really going to show," says Bill, "the quality of the 24-track is really going to stand our clear, sparkling and transparent. And in fact the difference wasn't that great. It was the poke of the 16-track that was surprising in comparison, I suppose, it had a lot of oomph. I'd heard stories about the transfer — I think it was Graham, used to be in 10cc, had bought a B16, done a basic single, and found immense difficulties transferring to 24. Apparently he ended up linking the B16 to an SSL desk and a pile of outboard gear and did the whole thing 16-track. So I did worry about it, but it worked out fine. I found in fact that there was more work to be done on the 24-track overdubs than on the 16-track stuff."
Which more or less brings us up to date in the tape recording history of Mr Bill Nelson. Anything else? A vulture screams into the Making Music Walkman. A herd of Yorkshire wildebeest hurtle noisily across the stereo picture.
"I enjoyed the Phil Manzanera interview," says Bill somewhere in the distance, referring to issue three. "I found some of his asides about the way the Roxy Music compilation had been assembled quite pertinent, it gave away a certain amount. I met this engineer once who told me that Bryan Ferry used to..
Damn! The tape recorder's jammed.
Interview by Tony Bacon
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