Video In The Dark
Article from Electronics & Music Maker, April 1986
After over a decade at the forefront of instrumental music, Mike Oldfield is branching out into video and film. Annabel Scott visits the man's new audiovisual studio, and pops a few pertinent questions.
Mike Oldfield has dominated contemporary instrumental music for ten years. Now he's expanded his home recording studio to incorporate video facilities, and produced the world's first single to have music and video prepared for it at the same time.
A year ago, Mike Oldfield would have been the first to admit he was completely in the dark about video. And that's understandable — because even if you lose track after 'Tubular Bells', you'll know Oldfield has risen to fame primarily as a uniquely talented multi-instrumentalist, a composer and musician who could turn his hand to almost anything and make it work. Since the release of that record-breaking album, Oldfield has developed his musical style enormously, lived in Switzerland as a tax exile, toured Europe and returned to England to re-establish his 24-track studio in an impressive mansion house near London.
But recently, Oldfield has entered a new phase of innovation that's cost him nearly an album's worth of earnings to get off the ground.
'If you want to know how expensive video is', he deadpans, 'just think about sound recording and add a couple of noughts to everything'.
Oldfield's recent burst of interest in video dates from just over a year ago when he was first shown the Fairlight Computer Video Instrument at a convention in Montreux. 'I've been interested in video for about four years', he says, 'though I'd always had an interest in Impressionist art. But in the past I didn't have much control over the content of my videos; I didn't want them to be tacked on as an afterthought to the singles, with all the cuts on the wrong beat.
'When I saw the Fairlight CVI, I realised that this was something I had to get into. I looked around a little to find out exactly what was on the market, and I thought about using high-band U-matic video machines. But in the end we decided that if it was worth doing at all, it ought to be done properly.'
'Doing it properly' involved abandoning the idea of using the half-inch U-matic cassette format, relegating the Fairlight CVI to a neglected corner ('it's a great machine, but the resolution's just too low') and investing in four Sony one-inch open-reel video machines. As for effects, three main units did the trick — the Quantel Mirage, the Aurora, and the Ultimatte. Total cost with installation — almost £2 million.
More details on the video machines later, but first a look at just what it takes to add video facilities to an already impressive — if small — 24-track facility. It's worth bearing in mind that, being built into an upstairs room in his house, Oldfield's setup probably qualifies as the most expensive bedroom studio in the world...
Over the last couple of years, Oldfield's music has been firmly based around the Fairlight CMI. It's most in evidence on 'Discovery' and on the soundtrack for 'The Killing Fields'. He has a second Fairlight for live work, plus a Kurzweil, an Oberheim OBX with DSX sequencer and DMX drum machine, a trusty Roland VP330 Vocoder Plus, an ancient Solina string synth and a couple of other keyboards in the studio.
These form an arc around a rather aged-looking Neve mixing desk (updated with the latest NECAM automation last year), with an Ampex 124 24-track sitting at the back of the studio and Oldfield's guitar collection living in a room next door.
Either side of the desk are racks of effects and switching units — audio on the right, video on the left. The audio effects rack is surprisingly restrained — just AMS and Quantec digital reverbs, and EMT250 plate reverb, Kepex Gain Brain limiters and compressors, a valve limiter used mainly for bass guitars, a vocal stresser, a Korg SDD3000 digital delay and a Bel flanger.
Oldfield has a studio assistant, but self-ops his recording sessions using various footswitch controllers — it's the way he's always worked. Now he can swing, instantly, from the audio desk and its associated synths to the video desk and its effects units. What was previously his piano booth off the studio floor has become a machine room for video tape recorders, with the Kurzweil now filling in for piano parts.
"If you really want to know how expensive video is, just think about sound recording and add a couple of noughts to everything."
The studio floor is used for recording vocals, guitars and drums, but now has to double as a video studio floor, having a large cyclorama (backcloth) at one end and a ceiling-mounted Ikegami 79E camera and monitor in the centre. In the machine room are a Sony 2500 one-inch video machine, one slightly simpler Sony 2002, and two Sony 2000s. The 2000s lack a couple of facilities such as the ability to produce cell animation by recording a series of still frames, but that can be taken care of by the 2500 should Oldfield choose to use it.
He's the first to admit, though, that the transformation from audio to audio-visual wasn't quite as straightforward as had been planned.
'I didn't realise when we were going into video that all sorts of things count that didn't matter before — even the lengths of the cables we used and the type of air conditioning. Sometimes we spent two hours at a time on the phone to Sony when we had colour framing problems — but luckily I knew FWO Bauch from their audio installations and they put all the video equipment in, and both Quantel and Sony were very helpful, too.'
In parallel with the Neve audio desk is a Grass Valley video mixing console, surrounded by monitors, Pro-Bel patch units and the aforementioned video effects units. Chief amongst these is the Quantel Mirage, a sophisticated frame manipulator based on a small mainframe computer located in a storeroom beneath the studio.
Oldfield explains. 'The Mirage is a frame store and manipulation device which is more use to me than something like the Bosch computer which does the Channel 4 logo, the BBC News animation and things like that. The Mirage takes an existing picture from a camera or a video machine and lets you manipulate its shape. I can write a little program, like a starburst or a moving tubular bell into it, and distort any picture into that shape.'
Next to the Mirage terminal and the CMX340 Editor is the Aurora, an animated graphics generator that can create moving coloured lines, snowstorms, multiplied graphic characters and so on. It's often used to create a background for a piece of Mirage animation. The machine which allows this to happen is Ultimatte, the infamous 'bluescreen' machine which removes any blue from a picture and superimposes what's left over a background of your choice. Which is why at one end of the studio floor, you'll find — you've guessed it — a large blue screen.
Apart from the main studio camera, Oldfield uses a portable one-inch Nagra/Ampex VPR5 system to collect video images from the outside world. As we'll see later, he put this system to good use for his video to 'Pictures in the Dark', his last single, which included images of his house, the moon, fireworks and rock pools.
"The Quantel Mirage takes an existing picture and lets you manipulate its shape... so I can write a program, like a moving tubular bell, and distort any picture into that shape."
'Working on the song and the pictures at the same time gives the piece a lot more artistic strength', claims Oldfield. 'On 'Pictures' I already had a lot of the elements of the video — like the spinning jug and the guitar — but I couldn't think of a way to combine them until I decided to write a song about dreams. That let us use almost any images we liked, so then Peter Claridge storyboarded the video.
'Pictures' combines the best of all three video effects units, placing Oldfield and singers Aled Jones and Anita Hegerland against a variety of animated backgrounds, combining them with computer animation, multiplying simple figures across the screen, and stacking video images in a breathtakingly impressive manner. Since only one or two video effects can be added at a time, creating this sort of video is a matter of repeatedly bouncing from one video machine to another, rather like recording multitrack music with just two cassette decks. Theoretically, this can be done about a dozen times before there's any noticeable loss of quality — the most complex section of the video is 15 layers deep.
Oldfield has access to one more video unit, the Bosch image generator, an immensely powerful and expensive unit which creates lifelike three-dimensional computer images from scratch. It's been used on everything from the Channel 4 logo to recent Dire Straits videos, and Oldfield (with the help of Peter Claridge from CAT Video Graphics) used it to create three-dimensional rooms, mazes and other figures for the 'Pictures In The Dark' promo.
'I'd been collecting some shots, like the moon and fireworks and the house, fora few months, and then we started by spinning the guitars and things on wires and modelling them into the Quantel.
'In the past I've always loved working in the country with the windows open, and of course this is a lovely working environment. But we were doing 16 hours a day on the video, and it doesn't make much difference where you are if you're working in a studio for 16 hours a day!'
As a song 'Pictures in the Dark' is fairly typical of recent Oldfield singles and a reasonable introduction to the man's work, even if the recent 'Essential' collection on Virgin shows how his style has developed up to this point. The long, complex pieces — 'Tubular Bells', 'Hergest Ridge', 'Ommadawn' and 'Incantations' — contrast markedly with the later, less symphonic albums such as 'Five Miles Out', 'QE2' and 'Discovery'. More recently, Oldfield has developed a popular singles style on tracks such as 'Moonlight Shadow', 'Family Man' and now 'Pictures in the Dark'.
Does he feel the new digital music technology has changed the way he works?
'Not really. For instance, I'm still using a lot of guitar, and all the singles have a guitar solo. And I'm still recording and engineering myself, even though I do have some help on the video side of things.'
"I sampled Paddy Moloney's Irish pipes after one session, but I wouldn't use that sample to replace him as a player: I'd use it for a pipe-like backing chord, perhaps."
Whatever his musical and visual arrangements, Oldfield is glad to be back working at home. After all, the last couple of albums had been recorded in commercial studios in a variety of different countries...
'Well, I do take a lot of my own samples and usually make some at the end of a session from whatever instruments we've been using. For instance, I sampled Paddy Moloney's Irish pipes after one session, but I wouldn't use that sample to replace him as a player. I'd use it for a pipe-like backing chord, perhaps. I've also sampled a church organ we were using, but usually I like to set aside a special session if we're going to do any sampling.'
What about the predominance of sampling instruments like the Fairlight and Kurzweil? Have they changed Oldfield's approach to music? And have they presented him, a more than able musician, with any moral dilemmas?
'That was purely because I had to stay out of England for a while for tax purposes, which is why I didn't play here on the last tour. I lived in Switzerland for a year, but in the past I've always worked at home, originally at Througham. I had to move closer to London for business reasons, though, so now we have an office in the house for Oldfield Music and for Field Services, which hires out our live PA when we're not using it. It's a pretty large system — we have about 28 Eastlake studio monitors and we use Neumann studio mics on stage.'
Presumably, Oldfield is pleased with his current equipment roster. But does he feel he made any compromises on his first do-it-yourself video ?
'No, we managed to realise everything I wanted to do. It's been very hard work, but I didn't want to compromise at all.
'There's nothing on the video side we have to change, though the Ultimatte means you have to plan mattes in advance and use up two machines. So we may get a high-band U-matic, because the quality of the colour information isn't important when you're creating matte shapes.
'On the audio side we've been linking everything up very successfully so far — except the Fairlight, which we have to use a timecode for. Before long I'll have a Series III Fairlight with SMPTE, and we'll link that to the Linn 9000 through MIDI to run all the other synthesisers.'
And future plans?
'I'd like to do more video work with Pete, and I've got a single planned with Jon Anderson. I think Pete's more or less taught me how to use the video equipment myself now, and of course I'd like to think about a whole album recorded simultaneously with a video. But that would take a long time — maybe a couple of years. If I'm lucky.
Interview by Mark Jenkins writing as Annabel Scott
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