Alice In Switzerland
Two men, a girl and an electrical appliance meet under strange circumstances in the Swiss Alps. Ted Fletcher reports.
Storyline: Two men, a girl and an electrical appliance meet for the very first time under strange circumstances.
Location: A small village in the Swiss Alps.
Props: Georgian reproduction furniture from Harrods and an Audi 200 Turbo.
Music: Courtesy of Glenn Miller.
Director/Cameraman/Scriptwriter: Ted Fletcher.
The image of the Swiss to the average Brit is one of leather trousers, snow on impossibly high mountains, cows with bells on, cuckoo clocks and ski holidays - they hardly rate as master producers and innovators in the hyped-up world of the music business. But Switzerland is a prosperous country bordering on Germany, France and Italy - at the heart of Europe; but maintaining an independence outside the Economic Community. It is in a unique position to serve industries in its neighbour countries including the music business.
Glenn Mueller (anglicised to Glenn Miller - and he's heard all the jokes) is fortunate enough to be based in a classic picture postcard village about 15 miles from Basle up in the mountains. Nunningen has a population of about 2000 with five 'Gasthaus' restaurants (excellent pubs to you and me) and very little else.
At 32, he has been in the music business for more years than he cares to remember, first as a musician playing bass and keyboards, then as a producer under short term contract to the major record companies in France and Germany. In 1983 he decided to take the big jump and instead of commuting with his production projects to the big commercial studios of Paris, London and Munich, he decided to modify the design of his yet unfinished house in Nunningen to accommodate a recording studio in the basement (not too difficult if the house is on the side of a mountain!).
His experience and expertise leaned heavily (!) towards electronic creation of sounds both by using synthesizers and by modifying real sounds of instruments - when I first heard his work, the phrase 'heavy plastic rock' came to mind, but I was doing him an injustice; many of his sounds are quite beautiful.
Glenn's first set-up consisted of a standard Soundcraft 32 channel console linked to an Otari 24-track tape machine, all crammed into a tiny control room with synthesizers and outboard gear occupying about half of the available space; the other half filled with overstuffed furniture - Glenn likes to be comfortable in the long session hours and believes in his friends and customers being comfortable too.
The studio area was large enough for the largest of drum kits provided everybody else kept close to the walls and sat still. Three walls were acoustically treated with studding and rockwool infill and surfaced with proprietary acoustic panels. The floor was carpeted but the largest single wall was left as it was - and hardly surprising, as it is a patio window double glazed with armoured glass and looking out over a Swiss valley with a small country church in the distance and a skyline of incredibly beautiful mountains.
Outside the window, the patio joins an immaculate lawn where tired musicians can lay in the sun on hot summer afternoons (yes, it does get hot in Switzerland). The studio is a little technical oasis in the Swiss countryside - with neighbours far enough away and well mannered enough not to complain about the constant repetition of a difficult riff in the small hours of the morning.
Glenn admits that it was always in his mind to use the lower areas of the house for experimental professional work but with a sudden but steady increase in production work, a fully working studio became a necessity.
The original equipment was more than adequate for his first 'solo' assignments, but success with the record companies meant that the technical demands increased and the desk was not up to the performance that Glenn required for the production of commercial masters needing multiple desk passes and highly complex mixing techniques. (Absolutely no offence to Soundcraft whose desks are excellent for performance and value.) He had read about work going on in Windsor on digital control of analogue sound consoles by Alice and decided to visit our factory to talk to the engineers.
A demonstration of the Silk series console at Silk Sound in Berwick Street, London, convinced him of the performance potential of digital control, and within a week, work was starting on a new Silk destined for Greenwood Studios, Nunningen.
In the centre of the city of Basle almost next door to the International Hotel is another studio owned by Helmut Edinger, again a musician whose career took him towards commercial production and jingle writing. Helmi and his studio are as different from Glenn and his, as chalk and cheese; Helmi works to deadlines, he makes good commercials and deals with companies and businessmen of the city and adjoining countries. Glenn makes rock and roll records, he works all hours of the day and night and doesn't care how long it takes as long as it's right. The two are great friends; and for their sectors of the market their approaches are both right!
Helmi's studio is large and opulent, designed to give the correct impression to the customer from the front door, along the panelled hallways to the studio itself.
A large anteroom to the studio control room is luxuriously fitted with Georgian reproduction furniture from Harrods; huge settees and armchairs around tasteful low tables scattered with up-to-date magazines from the surrounding European countries.
The control room is very large by commercial production standards, with spacious areas of purpose-built woodwork filled with grams, cartridge machines and acres of bolt-on digital delays, noise reduction systems, compressors and limiters and all the other necessities of life.
The centrepiece of the control room, however, is the new Alice Silk DCA console with the room lighting tastefully arranged to show off the massive array of channel control switching indicators, the light column meters and the central VDU display.
The studio area at Blackwood is divided into two: an acoustically treated area close to the observation window is used for commentary and dialogue recording with TV monitors for film and TV work, and a slightly larger area to the rear, acoustically treated in a slightly more 'live' manner, is suitable for music recording. The studio is truly multi-purpose with a highly adaptable microphone patching system on wall boxes, and enough acoustic screens to make anything possible.
The two Alice DCA desks were manufactured together, with Glenn's being delivered first. It was trucked across Europe by Glenn himself, eager to use the advantages of digital control on an urgent series of album tracks. The installation was supervised by Alice's Steve Dove - one of the Silk designers - and the first session was under way within three days of the console being manoeuvred into position in the tiny control room.
The first week was a chaos of sessions during the day; laying down tracks, with reduction sessions in the evenings, interspersed with training sessions and attention to the desk by Steve owing to the time scale being too short to complete debugging before delivery. The desk settled down as Glenn grew in confidence and in a very short time the twin automation computers were being fully used for the purpose for which they were designed.
The time scale on Helmi's mixer was much less stringent. Final testing and de-bugging was stretched over a period of three weeks giving ample time for many interested parties in the recording business to visit Windsor to be impressed by the unsung advanced computer technology - as a company Alice are not big on shouting about their achievements.
As a special treat(!), my co-directors allowed me to deliver the console myself- another truck across Europe. With a trailer behind a trusty Audi 200 Turbo, the trip from Windsor via Dover, Calais, Belgium, Luxembourg and up the Rhine valley to Basle took 18 hours non-stop except for petrol and driver changes.
After that long on the road, trying to stay awake, it was disappointing to say the least to find that the doorways were too narrow to get the console into the control room! The console was stripped down into about six bits and an enormous team of giant Swiss removal men gently manoeuvred the various assemblies (connected together by looms of spaghetti) into their final positions. A couple of hours with soldering iron and prayers and the power was turned on; the lights came up and the computers indicated a 'ready' state - we had got away with it.
Even after the protracted test period at the factory, debugging was a formidable task. After the strip-down, every signal path had to be checked again in case of damage and in case the 18 hour battering had produced another batch of faults. In reality there were few; an odd dry joint came to light and a microphone transformer developed a short from one winding to the case. A broken wire under the main mother board took five hours to find (the effect was a digital malfunction - only sometimes!), fixing it took another couple of hours, and then many more hours to check that the repair had not caused more problems. But this sort of thing is par for the course on a console as complex as a Silk.
The console was pronounced fit to run and Helmi was let loose on it to experiment for a week. A short return flight to Switzerland after the burn-in period allowed me to fix a few odd digital funnies on both desks and that was that; Glenn and Helmi could get on with the serious task of earning an honest crust and making the Silk mixing consoles pay for themselves.
Glenn Mueller of Greenwood Studios is a widely travelled engineer with experience of the best studios in the world, particularly those in London. His generalised method of recording with a conventional band (if there is such a thing) is, first, to listen to the sounds that the band create with their own instrumentation. This process can take days, with discussions and trial recordings in the quest for the 'magic' that will set the band apart from the average.
Basic recording is conventional with drums being laid down on several tracks with spares left for overdubs. Tracks are layered onto the 24-track with either track 1 or track 24 set aside for SMPTE timecode for the automation system. The adjacent tape track is used for one of the bass guitar tracks - this is done essentially to avoid any 'spill' from the SMPTE code affecting the remix - the crosstalk is in the tape machine not the mixer. As far as possible, the instruments and vocals are recorded 'flat' with no attempt at enhancement of any kind; trying to equalise and process a signal that has been treated in any way is a sure step towards disaster.
Glenn makes great use of MIDI control, not only for the operation of synthesizers, but also by recording cue information onto a spare track and using it as an additional automation aid; in some cases controlling sequencing synthesis to achieve first generation quality within the remix.
Mixing is where the art really comes in. When all the musicians are safely tucked up in the local 'Gasthaus', the tracks are individually studied for the additions and effects that have to be made to them, and the final mixing planned. The Alice console is fitted with a system of 16 total switching combinations which can be pre-programmed and accessed at any time with the pressing of a single row of buttons. This allows major desk reconfiguration to be carried out even during mixing. The solid state memory fader automation allows the engineer to forget about tricky fades and cuts and the central VDU gives him information about desk and fader status all the time.
Equalisation is again kept to a minimum. As Glenn so rightly says, "the best sounds are the sounds that are made in the studio. Equalisation can be used to make a sound more convincing, but no equaliser will make a bad sound good".
Trial mixes are done to set up the correct MIDI drive information and synth programming, further mixes are then tried to correct fader automation timings and when all are done, mixes are made simultaneously onto a Sony digital F1 onto cassette as well as onto 1/4 inch tape - the sound is only ever right if it sounds right on all mediums and in a variety of environments.
The Alice DCA desk has a signal path that is completely analogue - nothing new in that, however, the whole path is balanced, giving extremely low noise and high overload margins. This is particularly useful to Glenn who makes great use of dynamics and sudden instants of silence in his work; noise gates are not the only answer!
The monitoring system at Greenwood is both conventional and powerful. The loudspeakers are Tannoy HPDs, a tried and tested driver, fitted into purpose-designed enclosures suspended above the glass that separates the control room from the studio. They are driven with 4000 watts of 'Acuphase' amplifiers via some impressive 60 amp cooker cable! The argument is that one can always turn them down; but the transient power is there when needed. My best description of the sound is 'like fine cut glass'. Further banks of heavyweight amplifiers drive the studio foldback systems and a small quality monitoring system in the next room.
As a true professional, Glenn insists on supervising the cutting of his own masters, and whenever possible, comes to London to 'Tape One' studios where he can judge the suggestions of the cutting engineer on a known monitor system.
At Blackwood Studios in downtown Basle, Helmi Edinger has installed a similar monitoring arrangement. Although it is by no means necessary for the general run of speech recording, the power reserve is a killer for impressing the clients (as well as being essential for some of his more unusual music sessions).
Commercial spot recording is one of the most difficult fields of the recording business to be in by virtue of its sheer variety. One day Helmi could be doing simple voice-overs for the Co-op (one of his long running contracts), the next could be a village brass band or some motorcycle effect (or both). In very many ways his work is a direct parallel to that of Robbie Weston at Silk Sound in Berwick Street, London, the place that gave its name to the Alice Silk DCA concept, and where this avenue of digital control first started.
Feature by Ted Fletcher
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