The Record Smith
Muff Murfin talks to Paul White about his career to date and proffers some useful advice for people trying to break into the jingle market. He also explains why with studios in the Midlands, London and Ibiza, he needs to expand.
Studio owner and jingle writer Muff Murfin met Paul White at The Old Smithy Studio to chat about his career and future plans.
I started off in the Rock 'n' Roll days with a group called Unit Five and several members of that band later went on to do better things. Polly Palmer, who was the drummer, joined Family and John Smith, the guitarist, is still playing professionally. After that, we realised that we were on the road working for about one pound a night while spending two pounds, so the organist and I joined up with a young drummer, and decided to do the working men's clubs, where the audience were easy to entertain providing you didn't mind what you played - and the money was very good.
Later discos started to emerge but there were no discos around in this area so I started one off at a local night club called the Bankhouse - and so I really was one of the first DJs, at least in this neck of the woods.
How did you get into the recording side?
Well basically what happened was that I became friendly with the manager of a group called the Early Birds. They won a competition with the Evening News and the prize was a recording in London. We went down and I ended up singing on the record and that's where I first met a guy called Peter Lee Stirling, later to become Daniel Boone. He then invited me to come back with him and do a few records with my trio and we released those locally and sold them at gigs - and did very well.
Daniel was at that time singing cover versions, and when he started to become famous, I was invited to take his place doing the covers. We used to get paid £10.00 a track. Well during this time I was also studying at college and that was a lot of money you know in those days.
Anyway, I was standing in Pye studios and I thought 'Oh I'd really love one of these one day', and then the opportunity came and I built a very small studio which was basically a 4-track set up underneath a music shop that I was involved with at the time. It started to do quite well and like most studios it became an addiction. You start with four tracks and then you go to eight, then 16 and then before you know it you've ended up with 24.
We started doing a few singles down in the old studio but we were mainly recording groups, and we had a few hits. 'I Revived the Twist', by John Asher, 'Let's Twist Again' and had a hit with the 'Latin Hussle.' I had a lot of hits during the Northern Soul era.
Every penny we earnt in those days we used to spend on building the studio'.
'So when you moved the studio from the shop to Kempsey, how many tracks did you have?'
It was still 16-track and when we came here it remained 16-track for a while and then went 24-track. I bought a 24-track machine and a Tweed desk, though it looks like a Neve as it's built by ex-Neve engineers.
'Is there any of your outboard equipment you particularly like?'
Well I really like our AMS reverb, it gets used on nearly everything. I also love the new KT reverb, well I've always been a great Klark-Technik fan anyway, both because they're local and because their stuff has always been so clean, but their new reverb unit is superb.
How do you see the producers role?
Well I suppose it can be considered in two ways. You can have a very dominant producer who says it'll be done this way or that way or you can just gently guide the session along as efficiently as possible providing that the band know what they are doing. Unfortunately I've never been paid a lot of money to produce. I've done one or two productions where you never have the time to actually prepare fully. I found you didn't have very much time to listen to the tracks or else you've probably only heard a demo about 24 hours before you actually go into the studio. This doesn't give you a lot of opportunity to stamp your mark on it or do what you want to do with it so I suppose I've always produced with the group rather than for them. If I felt I wanted something, I'd push just a little bit and try to persuade as opposed to dictating because I always find that when you start laying down the law to talented musicians, they've usually got a very big pride or ego and you get conflict. After all, if anybody's going to survive in this business, they need a big ego. If you guide gently and coach and be persuasive, you know you'll get the best out of them and it's better that way. Normally, because we're on budgets, I haven't got time for a blow up or tantrums. Studio time is expensive and I get very frustrated with people who have got huge budgets and waste their time.
'Are you referring to these bands who go into studios just to write songs?'
I find that incredible. It would be nice I suppose, but I've never been in that lucky situation so I've had to get everything done in the fastest time possible. We even get companies that come here and do an album in 2 days.
'Do you think that bands who do waste time in the studio like that are responsible for the record business being in its current financial state?'
Yes partly, I think they're fools to be quite honest because they don't seem to realise that when they sign a deal with a company and they spend, you know, £40,000 or £50,000 on a record - they're spending the band's own money. I get bands that come here who say 'Oh don't worry XYZ are paying the bill' or 'EMI are paying the bill'. Well, they're kidding themselves, because at the end of the day, if they get record success, EMI or whoever are going to take their money back first. It stands to reason that the band who don't waste studio time are going to make more money at the end of the day. And the snag is that with a lot of these big names, they've spent a fortunes in the studio, and then all of a sudden they've had a hit record and have made nothing. The record company have got their lot back and they've turned over records and made profits on actually selling and pressing records, but the artist because of his own stupidity, wonders why he's got no money.
'So basically all the profit pays back his advance.'
'Let's move on to jingles. When did you get into that market?'
Well, I suppose I've always been keen on writing and I wish I had started writing jingles rather earlier in life. I suppose I went into jingles out of necessity really. Trade was slack and one or two artists couldn't afford to pay their bills and so when local radio stations came into being, we started doing jingles.
'How did you first get into that? Did you just go along to various companies?'
Well, an agency phoned us up and I think the first one we ever did for radio was 'Blue Bird Toffees.' We wrote it and produced in about four hours and sent off the bill for £186.00. The agency sold it for £800.00. They justified this price by saying that no one would take a jingle seriously if it was only costing them a couple of hundred pounds. Afterwards, when we were forming Radio Wyvern, I met a guy, who was the managing director of Stanley Broadcast who has big investments in 14 radio stations, a guy called Bob Kennedy who now runs Spring Sport. He came to see my studio, because I'd told him about this studio I'd had built at the back of my house, and when he saw it he was amazed. I'd talked about my studio in my garden but I hadn't told him my garden was 2½ acres; he imagined a little 4-track down by the stream, and of course when he saw what I'd got, he was absolutely flabbergasted. I played him a jingle patch we had done for a little BBC radio station and he said how much, and I said well, I'd charge £250.00 for that. He said he would estimate something in the order of £2500.00 and said that's why I wasn't getting enough work. What I did then was to increase my price by a factor of ten and we then started getting the work.
'What's your involvement with Radio Wyvern?'
I started off as founder member, and then became a director, after which I became a consultant and now all we really do is the commercial production which is absolutely nothing to do with the actual running of Radio Wyvern.
'Are you still a director?'
No, I couldn't be because I produce music and I'm a publisher which means that it would be rather unethical. We also do commercial production for Severn Sound. We did all the productions for Gwent until they went off the air, and we do a lot of agency stuff now.
'So most of your jingle work goes out through agents rather than clients who phone up and ask if you can do a tape?'
That's right, except of course we now do radio commercials for stations right across the country.
From talking to the actual radio stations, it seemed everybody had a problem. When you're advertising, you need to spend a lot of money on air time, so if you've only got a budget of a couple of thousand pounds, you can't afford to spend a thousand pounds on air time, and another thousand pounds on a jingle, because if you have a great jingle and you don't put it on the radio regularly, it just dies and doesn't really work. We worked out a system of mass producing jingles and now produce something between four and ten a week. We've got three in-house producers and, because it's linked directly with the stations, there's no middle man at all. Providing they use us, we do the demos free of charge, and then we stay with the client until we've got it right.
'So that by-passes the agency and deals with the Radio stations directly.'
Yes that's right, because the biggest problem with radio at the moment is that agencies work on a percentage basis and radio advertising is peanuts compared to TV work and so it doesn't get the attention it deserves. However, a lot of the big companies like TDK have had a huge success with radio advertising so we know radio works. However, the agencies tend to go for television because its so profitable and they don't bother with Radio because they can't make as much out of it.
'So when you're writing a jingle, how does the approach differ from song writing?'
Well, I always speak to the client if I can, or the audiences in some cases and try and get a catch phrase from them, preferably a catch phrase they use already. Most important is that they present the same image, whether it be on radio or in print, so if they can't think of a catch phrase, then it's up to me to come up with some ideas and suggest one or two to them - and then I try and find out what style of music they like. If they have any preferences we try to work round that and of course we find out what age range they're aiming for and then always to try and think of a nice catchy little hook. When it's played on air, say, a few dozen times, people are hopefully going to sing it.
If you think of all the TV commercials, it's the ones that've got that nice hook that you remember, like Johnathon Hodge. Remember that 'Mars a day helps you work rest and play', or that Cadbury's flake thing.'
'When you're actually putting the ideas together, do you write the lyrics first and then fit the music to it afterwards?'
I tend to get most of the lyrics written before I think about the tune.
'How do you get the length right? Do people come to you and actually specify that they want, say, a 20 or 30 second jingle?'
Well, we use the Linndrum a lot which is great for accurate timing, not to mention convenience. Most jingles are normally 30 seconds but we very often do spin outs for television where we may call in the studio engineers for editing so that we can chop it about and make it any length we want.
'Do you do that using mainly the Linn, synths, and vocals for expediency?'
Yes, and the odd guitar of course. We're a very fortunate studio here. We've got the whole of the Roland Mother keyboard set up which is fabulous, a Yamaha DX7 and other Roland equipment like the JX3P which I think is still a very useful tool. We also have a Greengate.
'That's the little sound sampling package for the Apple isn't it?'
Yes, in fact we've just done something for Central Television with that. They wanted a seal to sing, so they brought a seal along and Colin the engineer put the sound of the seal barking into the sampler and then played it back from the keyboard. It's great doing things like that. We've done things with dogs where you actually make dogs sing and so forth. It's good for adverts because it doesn't matter if it's a bit cliched. In fact it adds to the impact because the general public go for that kind of gimmick.'
'If somebody wanted to get into doing commercial jingles, how would you advise them to start? Who would they approach if they think they've got any talent in that direction?'
Well, let's go through my problems of trying to get into the jingle market.
'I've been knocking on doors to try and sell jingles, to get into the big market for four years and it's like knocking on doors that don't really want to open. The top jingle writers want to keep it in their field and the agencies obviously have got a reputation to keep up, therefore they tend to go back to the people who give them success and they don't want to risk changing. Our biggest difficulty until recently, of course was the fact that we're outside London. We have another studio in London now though; The Basement on Wardour street.
'Is it the same story as the record business then - civilization ceases to exist north of Watford?'
That's right. A lot of people don't want to move away from London, and yet I know that the studio sounds right and we've had a lot of success - we've got accommodation, but people are still worried about recording outside London. Even with the local bands from the Midlands that suddenly become big, they're drawn to London because everybody wants to go there to record.
'But if anyone wants to get started in jingle work, its a matter of being persistent, like everything else in this business.'
Sure, that's right. I remember once when I recorded my first hit record, a guy said to me, you'll walk round London with your tape and you'll think you've got the next number one in your hand. He said when you've knocked on the 20th door and they've said no, he said you'll come back and you'll want to get hold of that tape and throw it at the wall and say what a load of rubbish it is. That's the time to turn round and come out fighting again. That's what you've got to do, he said, and just really believe in what you can do and just keep plugging away.
'You were saying you want to move into television commercials...'
Yes, basically because it's applying the same sort of reasoning; producing them at a better and cheaper rate and still keeping the quality up so that people can still spend more on viewing time.
'So will you be buying your own video facility or working through someone else?'
No, I'm going to find people and hire them because I find that new developments in video occur much faster than in audio, and you get all these incredible effects that cost a fortune and may only be in fashion for a short time. You lose a lot of money, because in six months time they've brought out something else that does it even better. I'll always hire and use other people, but before I go anywhere, I'll make sure I know everything I'm going to do, that everything I want to do is written down and that it's all done to the music. So I walk in there, I mix it, I do it and I'm out again.
'So you'll be using a sub-contract camera crew as well?'
That's right. It'll work so they come on the set and I'll know exactly what I want them to do - bang straight into it and then away again. We can't afford to go for the big awards. All I want to do is make the clients happy so that they will stay with me, grow with me and hopefully use me for ever and a day. I've never been a fast buck merchant: it doesn't pay in the long run and I like to sleep easy at night.
'All right, you've expanded into other studios, you've mentioned the place in London and I believe you have one in Spain. How did that all come about?'
Well the London studio was for sale. Stanley Broadcast couldn't sell it and so I took a look. I was looking for 4-track equipment and they had a 4-track studio and an 8-track studio below it. I went to see it and the stuff was so cheap that I thought I'd buy it all and ship it up to Worcester. I had to take on the lease of the 8-track machine and the Trident Series 80 desk, but there were only 14 more payments to make. I went to look at the equipment and when I walked in, the studio was in use and there was this engineer working there and so I said 'What are you doing?' and he looked at me and said I'm doing a session you idiot, what do you think I'm doing?' So I said 'But don't you know I've just bought the place. I'll come back at the end of the session.'
I came back and said 'listen I've just bought all the equipment, I've come here to get it organised to ship it all up to Worcester,' and he said 'What am I going to tell my clients?' I said that according to me the studio was shut down.' He said 'I've got clients booked in'.
So what had happened, the MD didn't know but the secretary was letting this engineer book the studio out. He was paying her for the studio time and docking his money out. It was all above board but it hadn't got as far as the MD, so he thought the place was empty. I said to him - Roland Laxton his name was and still is - 'I'll tell you what: do you think we could make a go of the place?' There were only about 500 hours on the studio so it had hardly been used at all so I said 'How long do you think you would need to build it up into a working, paying concern?' He told me six months. I said 'I'll give you nine'. I went back to Stanley Broadcast who were trying to sell the lease and couldn't sell it either and I said I'd take over the property.
We did a deal with them and got it going, and then Roland came to me and said 'Listen, a couple of clients want to know if we can go 24-track: we'd do all the masters as well as all the demos.' I decided to take a gamble on it and as he works on a percentage of profits, it's in his interest to work hard and what he spends he knows comes out of his budget. We took the gamble and went 24-track.
'So Roland's now engineer and Manager?'
That's right - and we've never looked back since. We do all the McDonald's stuff, all the adverts for Camble music such as commercial breaks for big award winning companies.
'How about the overseas concern?'
That's Mediterranean Sound in Ibiza which I think is the most beautiful studio in the world. I got to know about it through the drummer of Judas Priest who looked me up one day: he'd been up here doing quite a bit of work as well, and said he wanted me to come and look at a studio in Ibiza and advise him. I went over to see it with him for a weeks' holiday and it was nice because it was pouring down with rain in England at easter when we went over there. He took me to see the studio and it's the most beautiful studio you could ever wish to see. I thought, I'd got to have a bit of this, so we then came back and tried to raise the money to buy the place outright, but of course the banks over here wouldn't loan us the money because as soon as you said that it was in Spain they panicked. I then sort of hocked everything I'd got which was another gamble, and decided to buy a chunk of it. We virtually own half of it at the moment. But the biggest problem was that it had been opened up before and got a dreadful reputation. The previous owner spent all the profits up his nose, in his arm or down his throat and it was quite incredible. It's now on mains electricity, but it was then on a generator and he'd run out of gas and have to go into the band like the Boomtown Rats or Judas Priest - big name bands at the time, and ask them to lend him some money to buy gas for the generator. The generator had gone out, the fridge had stopped and so all the food went off and it was a real disaster. He'd go to town and get gas and then spend most of the money on booze and drugs again.
Consequently, when we first opened, I didn't know about the bad reputation it had, so of course when we first started telling everybody about the studio, everybody went 'Oh God the mad German!' Since then we've started to get people like Nina Hargon doing an album there and Judas Priest have done an album there. Frankie Goes to Hollywood went and spent a couple of weeks there and are due back again soon. Everybody that's been there since we took over has wanted to go back, but at the moment we get a lot of Spanish bands and I really need more British and American bands to go and see it. It really has got everything, if you want peace and tranquility which groups always claim they want, it's there. For a week or a fortnight its great, but then most groups want the nightlife as well and of course in Ibiza, you've got the peace and tranquility in the studio or you've got a fantastic holiday nightlife in the town. There's everything there in Ibiza.
It's no good if you're on a diet really because the chef there is ace... Every time I go over there, he makes these big gateaux in the shape of drums or guitars with the groups name on them, and they fix up barbecues and parties by the swimming pool. It's good because you can actually get a lot of work done and still enjoy life at the same time.
'That's great. How's it equipped? What have you got in it?'
It's all MCI. I would like to change some of it of course, but it's 48-track and has very good stuff... but the snag at the moment is that there's 45 or 50% import duty on everything you take into Spain, so if I want to buy a Solid State Logic desk, it's going to cost 50% more in this country, and that's an awful lot of money to lay out at this stage.
'Do you feel then that with only one band in the studio at a time, a total recall desk is not essential... it's more useful if you're chopping and changing between bands all the time.'
Right, you just leave it set up, it's never been a problem yet. The studio's got some interesting acoustic rooms. Dave Holland just leaves one of his drum kits permanently set up there. The stone rooms for drums are the most incredible but it's quite by accident, not by design. There's these three huge rooms where you just open the doors between them and it goes rom, rom, rom, and then there's this huge, long concrete tunnel which is 40 metres long and is great for reverb. Because it's a very old building, the woman who owned the place originally had this tunnel built under the road so her dogs wouldn't get run over, even though there's only about one delivery truck which ever comes past. All the other rooms are stone, but there are these beautiful suites so that the rooms are like luxury apartments. It really is an incredible place, we just didn't realise it had such a bad reputation.
'Do you have any new plans, apart from moving into television advertising as well or have you got enough on your plate already?'
We're trying to buy a house near to the Old Smithy studio because we've got plans to build another office and two more studios. It'll be better buying the place that's just across the way here, which gives more accommodation for the studio and I'll also be able to fit in offices and a reception area.
'You've already got the world's smallest 24-track under-the-stairs studio in addition to the main studio. How many studios do you want on the premises?'
Have you seen that? It's great. We do a lot of our jingles there when the studio's booked and with direct injection of course, we still get the results.'
'What have you got there in the way of equipment?'
The multitrack machine's a 3Ms; the same as the other one I've got, which is useful if one breaks down. This is plumbed into an old Soundcraft desk and we have a two track mastering machine of course and the odd rack of toys. I'd probably like a few more toys though.
'You were talking about getting another studio. Why do you need more?'
Well, I could do with another 24-track mixing studio which I'd like to keep for my own productions, but you see, we do a lot of ads every week, which when you think about it, is quite incredible. There's no one in Europe doing what we're doing at the moment. I've really got to get hold of bigger cats because... we've already written a jingle package for Clyde, Radio City, Down Town and Belfast, Wyvern, West, BS and so on. We've got seven jingle packages running on the continent, so there's no-one who's currently doing as many jingle packages as us. We've never got out and banged the drums which is what we've really got to do. We're already in the big league without being recognised for what we are.
'I suppose your future plans are to push until you are recognised.'
I think so, because you've got to if you're going to make any impression. It's difficult though: I need organising. I like singing and writing things and I forget to invoice people, and I get moaned at because we haven't invoiced everybody, so hopefully now with Colin Derry coming to take over commercial production and Sue my PA organising me, I think we should actually start to operate more efficiently.
Interview by Paul White
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