Producer & Composer | David Mitcham
Janet Angus talks to Dave about making the change between audio and video recording and the issues and problems involved.
David Mitcham's career in sound has taken him out of the normal sound studio environment, veering off at a tangent into the world of the visual media where his unique combination of engineering and musical talents are realised to their fullest potential.
As the sound producer for London multi-media production house The Visual Connection, David Mitcham writes and records music for tape slide presentations, video, film and anything else that large companies such as British Airways and Marks & Spencer may require.
The Visual Connection was founded in 1973 and is well established with its prestigious clients. The company has executed productions for top businesses such as Texaco, International Computers Ltd, the GLC and British Telecom, and a great deal of the work is with multi-slide projection. This is a medium which David finds stimulating both in the freedom it allows the composer and also the quality of audio reproduction which becomes available once you depart from the normal 'video' (ie. on the television) concept. The writing and recording of the music are inextricably bound together as the 'effects' created are contributed in both processes.
'With video the sound is never played back on good systems, but with slide you can play back on whatever hi-fi system you like and therefore it's more important and more interesting. You can get maximum impact from the sound. It's much cheaper too, yet you will floor people with the sound for slide shows and they'll say 'isn't that amazing?'
This is why David has become engrossed in a side of the sound business which, on first impressions, may not seem that exciting compared with his initial forays into the studio world.
'I was born with an inclination for leaning over a piano with a blank piece of manuscript paper from the age of three.' More seriously: 'I used to write music for fun, now I do it for money.'
David took the University of Surrey Tonmeister degree because, although it is music based, it provided the technical know-how that his inquisitive brain was looking for. Never having recorded anything in his life, he was interested in the physics of sound as well as actually producing it. The standard of musicianship at the University is very high and in a small department, even the Tonmeisters got their full share of instrumental playing. It also meant that there were always good musicians on hand to be recorded.
His industrial year saw him for six months at Emison; a studio specialising in the production of A/V soundtracks.
'Emison was in the throes of a great reduction in staff down to one. I was the last one in the building and had three offices and a studio to myself! Before the plug was finally pulled it was actually quite interesting; I learnt that there is other recording life than just making records. Being a musician, I thought I would feel a bit weird not recording music, but it was quite good fun and certainly improved my manual dexterity when it comes to editing.'
When the studio closed David was lucky enough to land a job at the historic Abbey Road Studios, where studio manager Ken Townsend is very interested in training and keen to preserve the role of the industry in safeguarding its own future by training engineers thoroughly. He was very supportive to all the tape ops employed there.
'Abbey Road was a great experience. We recorded everything. Punk was quite big around that time - they were good fun to record because you got plenty of overtime waiting for the guitarist to sober up! Apart from punk we also did reggae, light music (Manuel and the Music of the Mountains) and quite a lot of classical music. I also went all over the country with the EMI mobile.
'I wasn't nervous going to work there because the course had given me the confidence to do it. I don't think I was cocky about it, just confident.'
On graduation David's first job was with Electrosonic A/V company running their 8-track sound studio and slide programming suite using computerised slide projection equipment for up to 56 projectors. This was followed by three years at the English Tourist Board producing programmes and writing music. 'It was nice! You didn't have to clock watch because you didn't have to budget for your own time. If you were working on something you were interested in you could spend time on it, unlike in the commercial world.'
Nevertheless, he has given it all up to dive headlong into the very commercial world of the Visual Connection where time is most certainly money.
'Basically I do the sound production for anything that goes out of the door, because I am the only person here that does it.' This will encompass any stage of the production from throwing ideas around with the visual and executive producers, presentation of the idea to the client, and making sure that everything is right in the finished product. That also happens to include writing the music. A company wishing to incorporate specially composed music in their A/V presentations has got to have a very good reason for doing so because it is an extremely expensive exercise - much more so than using library music.
'Specially composed music also enables you to write illustrative music: if there's a bubbly bit in the picture you can type music instead of just overdubbing the sound of bubbles onto library music.'
It is in fact 100 times more expensive than library music which costs around £9 for 30 seconds when it's for non-broadcast, non-fee paying use. So for a 12-15 minute programme it's not exactly going to cost an arm and a leg. For composed music, however, not only do you have to pay for the music but there are also the studio costs and musicians' fees as well.'
"It seems such an obvious job for a musician with a Tonmeister background..."
Situated off Fulham Road, the Visual Connection offices incorporate every aspect of the production including producers and their assistants, marketing, camera, graphic designers and the 8-track sound studio. There are also presentation suites (preview theatres). 'They're like 'What the Butler Saw' only much bigger', and a suitably hi-tech meeting room where ideas are discussed with and presented to our clients.
The only facilities we have here are soundtrack laying and mixing. All you need for that is 8-track, 4-tracks and 2-tracks. We do all the other work outside at other studios and I produce it. For voice recording we'll go somewhere like Angel Sound in Covent Garden, and for music, Snake Ranch or Solid Bond. If we're dealing with very simple music, then we'll hire synths in and do it here.'
The studio is housed in a room which is not much more than 9ft square and, in spite of the fact that the sound track is given a great deal of importance, this facility was, as usual, an afterthought, but better late than never. This accounts for its very small size which is however, perfectly adequate.
'When they built this building they had a box left over and, all things considered, I think we have used the space fairly well because the equipment does actually fit in there, and if you work it out on paper it doesn't!'
The largest space consumer is the Soundcraft 400B mixer and this is paired with a Soundcraft 8-track recorder.
'We have a Teac 32-2B 2-track which is very easy to work and line-up so long as you are prepared to saw the bottom off. No, seriously, it's very good and you can actually line it up as well if you can find where to do it. If you saw the bottom off there's all these switches behind it.
The Teac 44 4-track is a bit disappointing and there are various other ageing Teacs because the Teac 4-track is the A/V industry standard. The reason for this is that you have your stereo soundtrack, clock track and a data track. The data track tells the projectors what to do. The clock track is slowly being replaced by SMPTE as people become more aware and start trusting it, but it takes a long time for these things to establish themselves in this industry.'
Other equipment includes a Drawmer dual gate and Drawmer compressor/limiter and Yamaha R1000 digital reverb. Monitoring is on Tannoy Little Reds driven by Quad 303 and there's also a Technics turntable with a Stanton cartridge.
'We don't really keep microphones here, because anything to do with a microphone we usually go out for anyway. We'll only really use them for sound effects. The reason why we haven't got all that much equipment here is that with any facility that exists to make money, you either have to have everything or not very much. We could splash out and get a Q.Lock, but as there's only one person here, a lot of the time the Q.Lock would just be sitting there with no one using it, so what's the point? It's easier just to go to a Q.Lock studio when required.'
So what does the work actually involve: how are the soundtracks built up? A recent production was a tape slide programme for House and Garden magazine which the company was to use to tempt prospective advertisers. (Well they must have a great deal more money than H&SR, that's all!) Anyway, David describes the project as relatively small, consisting of three slide projectors and a stereo soundtrack which was made up of various interviews with leading interior design experts talking about architecture and design, and with specially composed music.
David's first involvement was the writing of the 'treatment' with the scriptwriter. This is the creative part of the production procedure, similar to the outline of an article or the storyline of a series, and it sets out the structure of the programme as well as the structure of the soundtrack and visual elements. The actual length of the programme is usually decided by the production team rather than the client since from their experience they are equipped to know how long you can expect to retain the attention of non-interested parties. 'You can only go on for so long about how wonderful a company is before it gets thoroughly boring. It's not like broadcasting television, you just can't hold a person's interest for that long.'
The launch of Budweiser draught beer was a great contrast, calling as it did for the Visual Connection to put on an 'event' entitled 'Style on Tap;' a very fast, hard hitting, short and snappy show designed to introduce the product to buyers and the sales force of Watney Man and Truman Brewers who have licensed the American Budweiser brand in this country. The show consisted of a 1¼ hour entertainment extravaganza which they staged at the Mayfair Theatre in London.
'We had 25 slide projectors (six providing scenery on moveable projector screens which screened the graphics projected from the back) and had a GE Light Valve high power video projector and a laser. Combining one of these, with a profusion of mirrors, you can create wonderful patterns: tubes, shafts, cones, and so forth, all from this one 70 amps per phase 3-phase supply and seven gallons per minute of water to keep it cool.
The programme opened with dancers portraying cool style dancing to cool, stylish music. Then it moved on to the tape slide show involving a strange soundtrack on ten channels.
"You can only go on for so long about how wonderful a company is before it gets thoroughly boring. It's not like broadcasting television, you just can't hold a person's interest for that long."
Because the theatre was small and the audience comes right up to the edges of the stage, we wanted to be able to move the sound around; Quad and Ambisonics would not have done it very well, and because it was a one off show it wasn't really viable to design something specially. We overcame the problem by using a computer-controlled sound switcher which could achieve sound coming out all over the place from speakers located round the theatre. We had to take one of the speakers out because it was under somebody's chair who didn't know it was there, and during rehearsal he nearly had a heart attack!
On a Teac 16-track tape recorder we had a soundtrack created from library music with effects bolted on top. It's not composed by me but it uses all my ideas, it's debatable who actually wrote it. The main monitors were tri-amped Tannoys consisting of four Lynx, two Puma and two Leopard. They were very good. The Lynxes were powered by a Yamaha amp and the others by Tannoy amps. Round the theatre were eight Philips MFB 75W speakers.
Like all these things, the object of the exercise is to reveal something. Hidden at the back of the stage was an 11ft inflatable cowl.'
It seems a cowl, in this context, means the lump of plastic which sits on a pub bar over the beer pump. You learn something every day.
'So, accompanied by music, bits of scenery slowly moved away to reveal this cowl while the audience was blinded with lasers and bombarded with sound. It was all very exciting.
The main soundtrack was done on 8-track here from existing sources of music and effects on tapes and disc. This was mixed on to two tracks of the 16-track and all the spacial effects were added.'
The Visual Connection has a regular client in British Telecom.
'I wrote some music for BT the other week, but the budget was roughly the size of a mole's armpit. We had to make a series of five programmes for the sales team to use and they incorporated computer graphics, showing all the connections in the telephone system and how they all link up together, so there are lots of bleeps and tunes. It was good fun, but because the budget was a little tight (because it was not built into our original quote for the job), we hired synths and did half the music here. We did it all in bits, that is the background mix of sounds with highlights on a separate tape, mixed separately but so that they would work together. Then, armed with all these reels of tape we went to a Q.Lock studio to put it together.
It's good doing it like that because that way we can work here at our leisure with no time pressure from studio costs, and then the time spent in an expensive Q.Lock studio is kept to a minimum.'
In contrast, a project for Aquarium Entertainments at Brighton's Dolphinarium occupied a frantic 36 hours from conception to finished product. 'It is a ten minute through-composed story-like piece about some kids in a wooden submarine, called Pirates Deep. It was done in a very short time.
I worked very closely with the programmer. He would finish a section, and then I ran up the corridor, wrote the music, mixed it, ran back to see if it worked, if it didn't I ran back and did it again, and then back to see if it worked now, and the whole thing was finished in 36 hours.
For that we hired everything; Emulator, Prophet, DX7, LinnDrum and Fostex B16. It felt very claustrophobic in the studio with all that lot in there! It was all resting on two ironing boards. Honestly, they're the best thing for resting a synthesiser on; they're just the right size, infinitely adjustable and they fold away out of sight when you're not using them.
Anyway, that show is currently frightening little children in Brighton.'
This type of visual presentation works in precisely the opposite way to film. In film the sound is applied to the picture, with slides the pictures are applied to the sound, which has priority. It's much more fun because you are not constricted by the way the picture has been cut - if you want a bit more time you can have it (within reason of course). The quality of the visual is better because you are using 35mm slides, and you also have wonderful sound quality. With video you are confined usually to presenting your audio on television speakers; with slide presentations you can use professional quality audio reproduction.'
Clearly a very specialised area of the audio industry, David's sound production role is certainly challenging and fulfilling. His ambition to rise to the top of the tree as an independent composer in the field is hampered by the fact that he enjoys his job to such an extent that all hopes of attempting freelance jobs are dashed by sheer exhaustion by the time he makes it home.
'I thought you weren't supposed to enjoy your job,' he puzzled. If only everyone could be that lucky.
It seems such an obvious job for a musician with a Tonmeister background and it is interesting that David has found his niche in an area which was not really covered by the course during his time there. I gather, however, that the current head of the Surrey Tonmeister course, David Fisher, is incorporating much more of the audio for video aspects of sound training into the curriculum. This can only be a good move since the medium is growing in strength and importance as technology thunders on, to make it a leader in the commercial world, as well as industry and the home.
Interview by Janet Angus
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