In engineering and production - as in musicianship - flexibility and adaptability are precious qualities. Martin Rex has covered artists as varied as Neneh Cherry, Fela Kuti and Michael Nyman - Ollie Crooke listens.
A lot of attention has recently been directed towards the role of the producer in modern music, but what of the engineer - having worked with artists as diverse as Fela Kuti and Neneh Cherry, Martin Rex has some of the answers.
OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS, MARTIN REX has been busy building a reputation. As an engineer and co-producer his work has included "traditional" acoustic recordings as well as technology-based dance work, ethnic music, and just about everything in between. Recent projects have included the Beatmasters' Anywayawanna, forthcoming Alison Moyet LP, Neneh Cherry's Raw Like Sushi and the current Curiosity single. Add other, less commercial but equally weighty credits like Fela Kuti (live and studio), Michael Nyman's score for The Draughtsman's Contract, Dagmar Krause's Tank Battles and a long history of reggae work with Dennis Bovell and Linton Kwesi Johnson, and you have a Reputation.
Rex's involvement with music started at age 15 with an acoustic guitar and "a few blues tunes". After leaving school he played in pubs and clubs in Germany, the Midlands and London. Arriving in London, he combined his band activities with a Computing and Electronics degree at Central London Polytechnic.
"We used to play pubs four or five nights a week at one point", he recalls. "We knew the security men at the old Court Line air terminal in Finchley Road, so we rehearsed there and we set it up for recording our own demos using a 12:2 mixer a school friend had built for us. We just set up, miked everything up and went straight onto a Sony two-track machine - no vocals, just the backing track - and then we dubbed from the Sony. I think we just went from one two-track machine to another machine doing the vocals at the same time."
A year's research into electronic control of room acoustics at the College of Furniture followed: "I built this box and a bunch of electronics to go with it which would absorb energy from a room. The idea was to be able to tune into the frequency you wanted to remove. At the end of the year, I applied for a job with 3M as a field service engineer fixing their multitrack tape recorders. It was a perfect way for me to get around and see major studios and see what was going on in them. The worst thing was that the only time you went into a studio was when there was a crisis."
In 1981, during his year-and-a-half stint with 3M, Rex went to Minnesota to be trained on their first digital 32-track machine.
"I learned how that worked and commissioned the first one in this country and, I think, in Europe, at the Roundhouse Studios and a further one, a four-track version, at the Townhouse cutting room. Obviously you still went analogue from the machine and analogue back to the machine. The worst thing was that the way the electronics were lined up was totally different from an analogue tape machine. You had to line up 64 converters (two per track) with a spectrum analyser. When the machine first went in they would drift from day to day. The first month in the Roundhouse I was there every day. I think 'Mirror in the Bathroom' by The Beat was the first thing that was cut from that."
Having decided to switch from service engineer to recording engineer, Rex was ideally placed to land a job with studios whose owners were keen to have someone who could keep their multitracks running well. While visiting Chiswick's Riverside Studio Rex learnt that there was a vacancy - could he suggest anyone to fill it? He certainly could... And a free weekend saw him producing demos for a band called The Fixx.
After about six months at Riverside Rex found himself a more challenging job at Dennis Bovell's then flourishing Studio 80. Although he was still given the job with an eye to his maintenance skills, it was a much looser working environment.
"The studio was run on a shoestring - I actually had to rebuild it twice. We had a flood in the basement. All the equipment had to be taken out and 'hair dryed'! I spent three or four years at Dennis' studio and I guess that's where I learned most. I knew very little about reggae before I went there, but it grew on me rapidly. It was a real eye opener."
Although the output of the studio was predominantly reggae, there was an interesting variety of music coming out of Studio 80 at that time. Other projects included Fela Kuti's controversially mixed Army Arrangement LP, and Michael Nyman's soundtrack for The Draughtsman's Contract. This was in addition to the prolific output of Studio 80's house band, The Dub Band, and their collaborations with Linton Kwesi Johnson and dub poet Michael Smith. Rex also became Dennis Bovell's live engineer, doing live dub mixes all over Europe and the US. One European tour was particularly demanding in that he was mixing for both Fela Kuti and The Dub Band who were first on the bill. The project involved mixing a couple of hours of live dub followed by a three-hour set played by a band of more than 20 musicians.
"We used to have really good sessions at Studio 80 when the band could all actually make it down there at the same time... The Fela sessions were very memorable. His wives used to come down to cook the band meals - they burned the kitchen cooking fish, totally wrecked it.
"The album was quite poorly recorded, I'm afraid - we had to work at 15ips because the songs were so long. If you work at 30ips you only get 16 minutes. On top of that, the budget didn't allow for any noise reduction."
And The Draughtsman's Contract?
"We used quite a lot of tape loops on that; David Cunningham, who was producing, was into putting long lengths of tape around mic stands and adding obscure signal processing.
Making History with Linton Kwesi Johnson and The Dub Band was a great session. I suppose looking back at all the sessions I've done, it's the live sessions where there's been a band playing that I've enjoyed most of all."
Rex found this again recently when working with Yazz where he was dealing with a bass player, guitarist, Wurlitzer pianist, percussionist, three backing vocalists and Yazz playing live in the studio to a break beat looped on an S950.
At the end of Kuti's 1984 tour Rex left Studio 80 to help two friends of his, musicians Tony McGrail and Charlie Barrett, to build Terminal's recording studio. They needed an engineer to help design and wire up the studio, to choose equipment within their budget and to act as house engineer.
"I think it was a new challenge. I wanted to get out on my own and try to start something else up. It was very different from the reggae thing, there were a lot of different sessions, and to start with I was doing them all. One of my sessions was with a band called Ujaama from Senegal where all the backing tracks went down in one night - the session didn't start 'til nine in the evening. We had drums, percussion, bass, guitars, horns, vocals, keyboards - the whole lot going down live. Another album we recorded there was Bill Bruford's Earthworks for the EG label. It was done very quickly with Dave Stewart, the keyboard player, producing. That was really good because he's such a good musician and very interested in technology as well. After that EG approached me because they wanted someone to work with Killing Joke (for the album The Gate). I started in February in a studio that EG had, called The White House in Chelsea. We worked a 10am-6pm day because the studio wasn't soundproofed properly and the neighbours would complain if they heard a noise after six. We couldn't work at weekends. It made a change to work regular working hours!
"They were interested in exploring different areas of music. Killing Joke were doing it from a different angle, using a Hebrew Gammetria. It's a book of numbers where all these numbers have meanings. They were using that book to decide on tempos for songs. When it came to mixing the album I'd just spent nine months far too close to it, so the recording company got in Glen Skinner. He made a very good job of it."
AFTER THIS LENGTHY PROJECT REX decided to get himself a manager - consequently the last two years or so have seen a spectacular variety of work, especially in the dance field.
"They got me this job through the Chocolate Factory - a Rhythm King session for Jay Strongman. It was a remix of his 'East West' track. That led onto a lot more work with Rhythm King, including the Beatmasters' album, tracks for MC Merlin and Tim Simenon. There's a track which I co-produced, which should be on his next album, called 'Pressure Point'. I think the stuff he's doing now is quite a lot harder, particularly on the rhythm front. There's a track called 'Escape Attack' which he's done as a video with Godley and Creme. That's great, lots of fresh ideas.
"Then there was the Eddie Grant remix that we did. We had the original multitrack, 'Walking On Sunshine', in fact which went back to 1982 or something, and it was all played and it wasn't in time so we decided to rebuild the track by sampling two-or four-bar sections at a time of a particular instrument on the track and then playing that back onto a new 24-track tape and building up the track that way. We were taking the stuff that we wanted from the original, sampling it into the Prophet 2000 and then playing it back using the UMI."
Rex is, as you may have gathered, a happy user of the UMI sequencer - although lately he has been showing a marked interest in the prices of a portable PC or two.
"My sequencing setup is a UMI 4M based around a BBC master computer. It only gives me 16 tracks but I haven't run out yet. I find it very simple to use and very fast - it's good for getting ideas together quickly. I also like it because I can get onto the phone to Linton - who writes the software - if I need anything changing or updating. That's a great benefit. I've actually had a live track added to the software so now I'm able to have a live track running parallel with the song to record everything I do. I can jam along with the song, I can save that performance, edit it, or edit parts of it, so for me it covers everything.
"It's very reliable too; if you do get a crash it's usually down to external weirdness, power glitches, or strange MIDI messages coming in.
"I use the UMI with a Prophet 2000 sampler which I have a large library for and I've had for a long time. I hire S1000s and have a Roland Super Jupiter and a Yamaha TX81Z which I sometimes use."
About two or three months ago, in a project he brought into my studio, Rex managed to rescue an incredibly dodgy, ancient old sync track which had somehow managed to travel from Canada to Shoreditch. It had been recorded on an old UMI 2 sequencer so we hired one in for the job. A lot of programming needed to be redone, and it eventually transpired that the only way we could lock things together was by using two UMIs (Rex uses the new one) and a C-Lab Creator/Unitor. Then we discovered that the original sync track didn't work. No problem: Rex compressed and EQ'd it, and we were in business. And it was his abilities in just this direction that were especially useful during the recording and mixing of the Beatmasters album.
"Each one of them has their own sequencing setup", he explains (see MT interview, July '89). "Paul has an SP1200 Emulator drum machine. Manda uses an Ensoniq EPS and Richard uses the Studio 440, an S900 and a couple of keyboards. They all program up on different machines so I had to make them all talk to each other. I tend to use a Roland SBX80 sync box out of preference. If you can wade your way through the manual - which I think is the worst I've ever seen - it's one of the most solid boxes to use. It also provides the old Roland DIN sync as well as MIDI. The particular EPS we were using didn't follow MIDI Song Pointer, nor would the SP1200, so we were basically locking the machines up and getting the sounds on tape.
"When it came to mixing I had my UMI system in, which I had for every mix. There are a couple of songs where some sounds of mine are thrown in, for instance in 'Ska Train' there's a big marching bass drum. On that track they had the horns on an S900 but I wanted to put them to tape in stereo, so we used a slightly different offset for the horns, tuned them slightly differently and laid them down twice to give them a good stereo mix."
Neneh Cherry's Raw Like Sushi required two very different skills; the first in recording excellence and the second involving a particularly open mind to experimentation. A couple of examples, Martin?
"With 'Manchild' I recorded a 20-piece string section at Abbey Road", says Rex, "which I chose to record with Dolby SR noise reduction. I recorded them on four tracks of the multitrack: two stereo pairs. One pair was close miked and the other was an ambient pair so that in the mix there was an option of bringing in extra ambience from the room rather than creating it digitally. I chose the SR just to keep it as clean as I could. When it got to the mix they wanted the string sound brighter and the easiest way to do that was to bypass the Dolby in playback and they come out sounding brighter and probably a little compressed as well.
"On 'Kisses on the Wind' I wanted a different sound on the drums in the middle section so I routed and mixed all the drums and sent them out to a speaker stack which was aimed at a corridor, miked it up with an AKG414 and put the mix right back on to tape. They were messed up really!"
Apart from the Neneh Cherry and Beatmasters projects of last year, Rex has been working with, amongst others, two female singers who could hardly be more different - Alison Moyet and Dagmar Krause. Again, the approach to both the pre-production and the music was significantly different.
"For Alison Moyet I spent two-and-a-half weeks at the producer Pete Glenister's house just programming with the UMI. Then we went to the Skylight suite and put the programmed stuff on tape. There were also two live tracks that we recorded at Townhouse 3. We had the rhythm section from The Pretenders, with guitar and keyboards. Blair Cunningham on drums, John Mackenzie on bass, Pete Glenister on guitar and Bob Andrews on keyboards.
"Tank Battles was interesting because we recorded it in German and in English and mixed both versions. We also used some great musicians - Hans Eissler is a German composer who had to leave Germany when the war started. He went to America but I think he was thrown out. It's mainly his music, although some of it is Brecht. And Greg Cohen, who is the bass player in Tom Waits' band did the arrangements."
Since Christmas the work has been rolling in. There have been lengthy vocal sessions with Curiosity Killed the Cat, which sound as if they were an adventure in themselves, more work with the Beatmasters producing Betty Boop's new single 'Doin' The Do', more work with a re-formed Killing Joke and, most recently, some work at Livingston Studios with Yazz and her producer Youth (the ex-Killing Joker).
The reputation that Rex has established has been partly the result of his talents as an engineer and producer, but the hard work he has invested in his career has been equally important. It's much the same story as that of session musicians: work brings more work; drop out for a while and someone else will step in. But while Rex shows no sign of letting up at present, his attitude to his work and music can be treated as an object lesson for anyone looking to break into music as a sound engineer.
Interview by Ollie Crooke
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