Promoting The Soundtrack
Janet Angus traces the career of this enterprising sound engineer which ranges from recording Mike Oldfield's 'Tubular Bells' and designing Virgin record stores, to his current pre-occupation with improving the quality of film soundtracks.
Simon Heyworth is a man with more strings to his bow than Menuhin, more hats than Mike Yarwood. In his time he has built studios, recorded such milestones as Tubular Bells and produced film soundtracks as well as artists. Simon's current 'thing' is film, and to this end he has set up a small mixing suite in London's trendy Camden Town called Filmtrax. Janet Angus spoke to him about career developments and this current passion.
Simon Heyworth is making it his mission in life to take under his wing all the poverty stricken musicians who have the capability to write film scores and to help break them into the business. It is not only for the composer's benefit either. Simon blames the film industry's decline on poor quality soundtracks. Film has never been famous for its sound quality and nowadays with the domestic market moving into compact discs and the like, people's expectations are higher than they have ever been, though the film industry has not, as yet, risen to the occasion. Simon is seeking to change all this.
Already the results are beginning to show through the haze of badly recorded and effected soundtracks. The instigation of a new film festival in Ghent (Belgium) dedicated to encouraging film directors to pay attention to their audio content will no doubt prove to play a major role.
"I was flattered to be asked on to the jury," declared Simon. "The whole idea of the festival is to promote the soundtrack: sounds, music, musical documentary. We want to encourage directors to take music seriously and to take more care over the sound element."
The venue in Ghent is designed to give films the best possible showing. The cinemas are small and comfortable and reproduction of both audio and visuals is to the most exacting standards, thus ensuring that every film in the competition is given its optimum showing.
"Over the next few years I want to encourage people to come to this festival; it really is great. Good sound quality is what is going to bring people back into the cinema we at Filmtrax believe, and so we've donated a prize which can be for different things, but all to do with the music."
Heyworth's background is so varied as he dived around the countryside in those mad days of the late sixties/early seventies throwing himself into one daft escapade after another. He actually comes from what is nowadays regarded as the old school ie. he learned his craft the hard (and some would argue the only) way: tape-opping.
Having left LAMDA, realising that the theatre was not quite the right life for him, Heyworth somehow got mixed up with Tom Newman who was pals with a rather strange chap called Richard Branson who, whilst running a student magazine, suddenly came into some money and bought a manor house down in the Oxfordshire countryside.
Simon and Tom, finding themselves at a bit of a loose end, somehow persuaded Branson to let them turn his new house into a studio. This they duly did - well, the squash court anyway - over a period of twelve months whilst they cheerfully and simultaneously involved themselves in various other projects.
"We did all sorts of things," Simon recalled, "designed a couple of Virgin shops: Birmingham and London's Oxford Street; that idea of having headphones and sitting in a circle - that was one of ours! Actually, Virgin didn't exist as a record label then."
Finally, Branson's patience ran out and he sent a band down to The Manor to record: "so we had to finish the studio really! " The band was called the Arthur Lewis Band and one of the musicians was called Mike Oldfield. The biggest stroke of luck for everyone concerned!
It has since been suggested by other recording engineers who were also working at the time that these chaps didn't really know what they were doing and, amazingly enough, Simon volunteered the same information without prompting: "we hadn't a clue what we were doing in the studio, we just had to find a way to make it all work."
Nevertheless, his training was in good hands as he was put through his paces tape-opping at this wonderful country house studio - itself quite a novelty. The days of the residential studio, remember, were only just dawning and, although they had a lot of fun, the work was pretty tough.
"I was very young and I had no idea about sound mixing but it was very good training. At The Manor we worked with everyone - Cat Stevens, Vinegar Joe, all sorts of people. And I was listening to the producers and watching the way records were made. My responsibility as tape-op was the setting up of the equipment and machines; all the drop-ins, all the editing, the setting up of the microphones - I had to do it all. I tell you, I used to think that engineering looked like a real easy job - you just had to sit there and twiddle a few knobs! But it was very valuable experience. I think that's one of the problems these days: there is a whole generation of people who lack experience of tape machines or microphone technique."
"We used to struggle to get sounds. Miking up a Leslie cabinet was bloody difficult! And in stereo - well, it was 'out to lunch' phase-wise, but we still did it. Bands were using organ and acoustic piano a lot in those days too and I worked all day to get the sounds right. But then you wouldn't have to do anything else to it, just have them go out and play because you had the sound."
Then early one morning during those first sessions, Simon descended The Manor staircase to hear music wafting through the open library door. "I looked in and there was Mike Oldfield sitting cross-legged on the floor with an old Beocord quarter-track tape recorder, playing music from Tubular Bells'. Quarter-track machines play two tracks in one direction and two tracks the other, and what Mike Oldfield had done was cover the erase head so that you could play four tracks in one direction, which I thought was pretty clever."
So impressed was Simon with this music that for the next few months they dedicated all the 'dead' studio time to committing it to quarter-inch four-track. "We had never done anything like it before - overdubbing one instrument after the other. The track sheet was enormous, it went from one side of the room to the other! I would love to see it now. No-one had ever multitracked like that with one person before - not even Les Paul. It go so complicated and sometimes we consumed so much Guinness that we forgot what we had done!"
The most intriguing thing they got up to was the so-called 'zig-zag edit'. They had got into such a tangle with the tracks that they actually edited each track at different points on the tape and cut a matching jagged edge to join it up again. "We broke all the rules but we were just trying to find a way to do what we needed."
With the recording work finally complete, it was pretty disappointing to discover that nobody was particularly interested in releasing it, and so Richard Branson was shouted at until he finally gave way and started the Virgin label with Tubular Bells as its first release. It was then two years since recording first began on Tubular Bells and they were all actually pretty fed up with it, so when it shot to enormous heights of success, they were all a little bit surprised about it.
Simon's career never looked back from that day on. As the Virgin label went from strength to strength, so Simon's Virgin projects kept him occupied with albums for bands like Gong.
Swept along in the tide of studio work, as so often happens, he suddenly became totally disenchanted and disappeared to a farm in Wiltshire. Tom Newman went off and bought The Barge which he turned into a studio and Simon eventually became involved in a few studio projects, including some of Keith Slaughter's. He also commissioned a symphony - well nobody can accuse this man of not being original!
Over the years, Simon Heyworth became more and more frustrated with the methods and madnesses of the so-called pop music record industry until utter disillusion made him analyse his own work and its slot in musical life. The conclusion was that those projects which had been most successful for him had all been instrumental - right back as far as Tubular Bells.
Discovering the world of film soundtracks (and his own niche in it) has brought an enthusiasm and excitement back into Simon's working life which was rapidly beginning to wane. And now he wants to spread the word!
"There are kids coming out of music college these days who end up going into the pop world simply because they can't get enough work. But they are still struggling. So I decided I would devote the next five years of my time to sorting this out and one way in was via film music."
"It was quite obvious to me that music and pictures was going to be the thing of the eighties. The film industry in general is very archaic, so there is plenty of scope for people with sound knowledge to get on."
"I spent a long time learning about film music - it's like a forgotten art. There are so many writers who should be doing film music, should be using their experience in this way, although soundtrack albums themselves don't make that much money."
Joining forces with the then chairman of Rocket Records, John Hall, and publisher Tim Holyer, Filmtrax plc was formed.
"We decided to publish and put together film scores - the entire thing, right down to taking care of music budgets; we would get our own writers and break everyone we know into films and, I must say: so far so good! Twenty-one year old Matt Clifford has done the underscore for 'Return Of The Living Dead'; and Dennis Haines, Francis Shaw - we've got them all movies."
"Instrumental music will come of age and I don't think it is something we need to worry about. I am sure it will happen. You will start having pieces which last for twenty minutes being played on the radio - they played Tubular Bells on the radio from start to finish; and BBC Radio 3 plays music all day. I know there are problems, like the Musician's Union 'needle time' restrictions - but I am convinced it is going to happen."
"The other thing, of course, is that a lot of these people have got studios at home and there is nothing wrong with working at home on 16-track."
The writers associated with Filmtrax often prepare their music at home and then bring their 16-track machine into the Filmtrax studio and hook up to the desk there.
"Doing films is a very good way of coming up with things that could end up being musical pieces in their own right. The film 'Zena' - all about Trotsky's daughter - was all done at home with a Fostex B16, Kurzweil sampling keyboard and a tiny bit of Yamaha DX7. The Kurzweil is brilliant - a beautiful, wonderful sound. It really is a musician's keyboard; you need to be a musician in order to achieve its full potential. And it was ideal for something like that because we wanted to be experimental but sound orchestral too somehow."
So how does the film music aspect all work? I asked Simon to explain.
"Starting at the very beginning, the first job is 'spotting the film': deciding where the music will go and what type of music is required - underscore, orchestral, source (ie. library) music. Working with the composer and director we will establish the exact role of the music. The composer then goes away and writes it. Having organised an arranger to arrange the music, the studio and players have to be booked."
"Then we go into the studio and record it. If it is a mega picture it will take a week. If it is a three million dollar picture it will take three days to record, one to mix and then it is done. It sounds simple, I know, but the organisation is incredibly complicated."
"Film runs at 24 fps (frames per second) while PAL video scans at 25 fps. So if you record the music to fit while watching the video at 25 fps and then transfer back to film, it is then 4% slower at 24 fps. This process is further complicated by the fact that in America they use NTSC which runs at 30 fps."
"We use a locking device such as Q-Lock or BTX, which locks the picture to a 24-track recorder. Through equipment like this, it is possible nowadays to record film music in relatively small studios because they enable us to work with video as opposed to actual film. But there are nevertheless problems associated with speed."
"I have a machine called the Auricle - the film composer's time processor - which is actually computer software and I think I am right in saying that I'm the only person in this country who has got one. It is software for an American computer, the Commodore SX64, which is portable with a disk drive and full colour screen. It saves a lot of time."
"For example: you might have something like 'man enters room at 1 min 20 secs; falls over table and bangs head on dustbin; ambulance arrives'. These are all music cues. So you give the music a tempo - say 120 bpm - which equals a click value in film terms. Say you start the music at 1.20 and at the 2 minute position there is a 'hit point' - a bang on the frame. But a tempo of 120 bpm makes it half a bar late. With the Auricle you can see it all on the screen, enter all the hit points and timings, and it sorts it all out for you. It's great for 'Starsky and Hutch'-type American TV programmes where there are a lot of hit points happening all the time. You can see that it is late, so you say to the computer: re-time bars 1 to 63 to hit the cue, and it will do that and to the human ear there is no difference in tempo."
"The point is that usually the composer has worked the music all out beforehand and often, when it comes to fitting the music to picture, there have been several film changes - small changes, but nevertheless still changes - and the end result is that the music doesn't fit any more. With this Auricle device you can make changes on the spot. It is much easier than having to do it live with the conductor and orchestra speeding up and slowing down music to fit. It can be, and very often is, done that way. Auricle just makes it easier. It saves so much time, and you don't have to sort out the parts for the musicians, it just does it by itself. You can use it at the sound dubbing stage too - a very useful device indeed."
The Filmtrax studio set up by Simon with Nigel Steel-Davies, is a 24-track mixing suite. It enables Simon to spend more time on his work without the enormous monetary pressures involved with using a commercial studio. As he claims: "for film work, it is nice to be able to bring the client here for half the cost of somewhere like Abbey Road Studios."
The room itself is jam-packed with equipment, most of which is a permanent feature. David Hawkins of Eastlake designed the mountings for the Electro-Voice Sentry 100 monitors as well as an enclosed recess between them to house the tape machines, thus obviating the distracting noise they generate.
"The way the monitors are mounted the sound is directed at you - it doesn't tumble out of the speaker and wander off round the room. It is very directional and true."
The tape machines are an Otari 24-track and 2-track with centre-track timecode. "Here we can resolve anything to do with film. We have a quarter/half-inch machine which will also convert into a 4-track. What we sometimes do is cheat slightly: for Dolby stereo soundtracks in the cinema you have four tracks - left, centre, right and surround. We don't always put the surround information down on tape, however, which then frees up the track for the pulse. If it is for a film like Star Wars or something, then we would record it six-track."
"Straight to 35mm MAG perforated film is ideally the way I want to go eventually, then the quality will be fantastic."
At the heart of the studio system is a TAC Matchless in-line console. Outboards include a Yamaha REV-7, Drawmer noise gates and compressors, dbx 160X compressor/limiters, Lexicon PXM79 and Bel BD320 32 second delay line.
"A lot of people who come here have their own outboard gear and I hire in anything else I need," said Simon. "We have a Sony PCM-F1 and U-matic for locking picture to 24-track, a CD player, Dolbys and various cassette machines too."
"As for the TAC console, it is a 26/8/2 - lots of people have this desk now: Midge Ure, Joan Armatrading - it's a smashing desk, dead quiet."
Simon Heyworth's other schemes intended to hurl audio expertise at the film industry include forming a group of people to hire out for feature films to take care of all the stereo effects: "because they have no idea about these things really. And I believe that improving the sound is one way that people are going to be brought back into the cinemas. A lot of the film dubbing engineers need educating about sound: it is always the last thing that is thought about and it is always done in a rush. When people eventually begin to understand and respect the way in which music can be mixed in the picture - with sound effects and dialogue - things will be enormously improved. Sometimes at the moment, you won't meet the effects people until the final mix stage and then you're likely to discover they've been wasting time and money recording effects which you have actually written into the music anyway!"
"I am just beginning now to get back that feeling I used to have in 1974/75: of being very enthusiastic, very positive and really enjoying my work. I had become very jaded and despondent and I will probably do some of my best work now without all that angst." Let's hope he does.