Portrait Of A Freelance Engineer
Ted Fletcher documents the rise of a talented studio engineer whose recorded credits already include albums by Gary Moore and China Crisis.
Ted Fletcher documents the rise of a talented young engineer whose recorded credits include work with such notable artists as China Crisis, Gary Moore, Rick Wakeman and Rod Argent.
Owning your own studio generally comes from the need for recording facilities and the belief that you can produce good sounds quicker and more economically than they do in commercial studios. Studio owners generally make good engineers - they live with the equipment and learn to get the best from it; but inevitably, they develop a particular 'style' of recording and may not always be able to adapt to the requirements of the music. This is where the freelance engineer comes in. He is a man of many parts; a salesman able to convince a band or record company that their investment in the recording is safe with him, a politician so often the 'man in the middle' in control room discussions, a musician able to arbitrate and advise (and sometimes play on the session!), a mathematician to handle the wealth of effects and special equipment now available, and most of all an enthusiast with good ears.
Paul Libson is one of these men of many parts. Born in north-west London 28 years ago, he went to a preparatory school in St.John's Wood. When he was seven his father died suddenly and the tragedy had far reaching effects on Paul. His family circumstances made him eligible to attend the Royal Masonic School in Bushey and it was there that he completed his schooldays - at a school that has a high reputation for general academic achievement, but was not particularly helpful to Paul's early musical keenness. He remained conventional and in common with so many in the music business, was pressured by the family to take up a 'proper' profession like medicine or accountancy. He settled for accountancy and worked towards that end in his GCEs.
During time in the fifth and sixth form his interest in music continued with long hours of practice on the guitar and bass guitar - but with no very serious intention of making a career of it.
After taking some A levels and seeming set on the straight and narrow path towards the world of finance and the tax regulations, the album Rufussed by Rufus was released and this production impressed Paul to such an extent that he began to doubt his direction in life; could he become a recording engineer? The idea became an obsession, sparking off hours more practice and scanning of pages of the popular music papers in the quest for more and more knowledge of the studio business. With typical thoroughness he spent weeks compiling lists of studios to make his decision on who to ask for the job that was to start him on the road to real engineering. The task, as everybody knows, is never that easy.
Paul's family took his decision without too much animosity; more a sense of wonder that anyone could be that determined. The search for a job started in earnest with polite requests in writing to the top studios in London - mostly followed by polite denials, but Pye gave him an interview immediately. He was interviewed by Howard Barrow who must have been impressed; Howard said that there were no current vacancies in any capacity but to keep in touch and as soon as a place came up he would be given a chance.
Paul hung around the studios at every opportunity, trying everything and every way he could think of - with zero results. His home phone bill took a beating; no's from Adrian Kerridge, John Mackswith and the big men at Abbey Road. At Maison Rouge, Robin Black suggested that he looked too intelligent to be an engineer! He still smiles at that one. Exactly one year after his first interview at Pye, he was there again, just being around in the hope of seeing someone who may be useful. On the little winding stair at the side of the studios, he bumped into Howard Barrow again. Howard recognised him and called him over. 'Can you start Monday? ' he asked. The quest was over; he was in, but it took twelve long months of trying and shows the persistence and dedication that is necessary to even get one foot on the first rung of the ladder.
In August 1977 Paul Libson started work in the copy rooms at Pye Studios learning the right way to thread tape onto the Studer B62s and A80s, learning (even then) that it is not necessarily the dull side of the tape that goes next to the heads. Learning the relative advantages of the vertical and the 45 degree edit, and how to spool tape onto the floor in such a way that you can pick it up again if that particular piece is needed.
The training was thorough and continuous - a typical grounding in the 'nuts and bolts' of the business; the sort of training that makes a 'flying edit' second nature, and makes British engineers the best in the world. (Note: the 'flying edit' is a technique used by experienced engineers for fast insertion of a new section of recording. The tape is run at normal speed and a Chinagraph pencil mark is spotted onto the tape at the intended edit point... it isn't easy!)
Gradually, the transition took place from the edit room to the studio proper, first as a simple tape op putting the tapes on machines and making sure that when the engineer pressed the record button, the machine would actually go into record mode and not just sulk in the corner (fairly important on a big session), and then to actually touching the main console at the instruction of the engineer to adjust a foldback level or even an equaliser. At this point, another world opened up; the use of special equipment around the main console - the ADT, the flangers and phasers, the limiters and compressors - Paul was determined to master the whole range. Determined, (but without knowing it) he was set on the course to becoming a successful engineer. The process continued until after a year, Paul took his first session as a real (probationary) engineer.
For the next four years he worked his way up the chain of command and seniority, working regularly with such diverse artists as Max Bygraves and Johnny Rotten and all the time trying to create his own interpretations and sounds for the artists that used the studio. The work was demanding, poorly paid, but enormously valuable for experience. But after five years of it, with no great future ahead in the large Company and in the depths of the recession in 1982, Paul decided he had had enough of that life and tried to take up the numerous offers that had been made to him to become a freelance engineer. Immediately another lesson was learned; promises, promises - no one wanted to know him outside the glamour of Pye Studios. But the lessons were well learnt and the real talent was there ready. Richard Dodd came to the rescue and spread the word about this young adventurous engineer with a flair for heavy noises - and Paul Libson has never looked back!
The only client that Paul retained from his days at Pye was Guy Fletcher (see 'Guy Fletcher - European Man' SOS December 1985) a producer and artist who was holding large sessions at Pye but at the same time developing the techniques of making big sounds in his own out-of-town studio. Work on Guy's European Suite started in 1983 and relied heavily on Paul's expertise in machine synchronising (running a Studer 16-track and an Ampex ATR100 in perfect sync without the wonders of timecode) as well as his experience in the unusual techniques required by the semi-classical piece.
At the same time Paul was in increasing demand at other studios; engineering Not Quite Jerusalem at Abbey Road, the Midway album with Paul Brooks at the Chocolate Factory, Gary Byrd and BA Robertson at The Garage, O'Chi Brown at Eden Studios as well as Gary Moore and China Crisis at The Barge.
Big studios, small studios, those days at Pye paid off; the sounds came good and heavy, good enough for both Rick Wakeman and Les Read to invite him to engineer two film scores for Continental release.
At Rod Argent's home studio he became involved with the BBC TV series 'Soldiers' while at the same time, he worked on the production and recorded sound of the vocal group Cantabile.
In his first three years as a freelance engineer, the work has been hectic, varied and intensely interesting. The majority of the acts Paul has recorded were new and unknown at the time, but the word is spreading and the diary is full to overflowing.
When asked about his job, Paul says; "Freelance engineers are expected to be able to handle any situation, both technical and political. We have to leap in on strange equipment and make it sound right - quickly. We are expected to be familiar with all the new gadgets as they appear on the market, and be able to work very long hours - the customer wants value for money!"
And what about your own music?
"I still play quite a bit. As an engineer, it sometimes happens that I can achieve the exact result from an instrument that the producer wants, if I play it myself! I really like playing; it's relaxation."
What's special about your engineering techniques?
"I think the main point is that any engineer has to work carefully and thoroughly. Richard Dodd told me once that 'good enough isn't good enough' and I always remember that and try to reject any work that is only 'good enough'. As far as equipment is concerned, everyone has favourites. I like elderly Neve desks and certain American compressors and limiters, they are easier and quicker to use than most of the modern UK equipment. Compressors are an important part of the equipment and are usually over used."
"The other thing is microphones and equalisers - there's nothing really special about it, only the best sounds are the real sounds from the studio. You've got to mike your instruments right and use as little EQ as possible - it's the way to get good fat sounds."
What are your plans for the future? "I've no idea - that's the exciting thing! The book's filling up and I don't think I'll have to worry too much about being out of work. As long as I can play now and again and do some interesting sessions, I shall be happy."
At the end of the photo session in the penthouse studio at Abbey Road, Paul dashed off to do more mixing work on his latest film venture.
'Good enough isn't good enough' - it says it all.
Interview by Ted Fletcher
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!