...I Nearly Joined The Foreign Legion! (Part 1)
Engineer Dave Meegan recalls how depression helped land him a plum position at Trevor Horn's Sarm West Studios. Chris Allison listened with great interest.
Dave Meegan is an unfamiliar name to most of you but was once typical of many young hopefuls desperate to find a way in to the recording industry. He is currently carving out a fine reputation for himself as a house engineer at Trevor Horn's famous Sarm West Studios in London. In the first part of our interview, conducted almost a year ago, Dave describes how his interest in a studio career began and how he managed to obtain such a coveted position with one of the world's top recording studios.
When I was fifteen at school in Ireland, I got together my own radio station with some equipment my uncle gave me and ran it off a car battery! That's when I first got really interested in sound. I carried on at school and passed my exams, the Irish equivalent to 'A' levels, then decided to go into computer programming and ended up on a college course. My heart was still in music though, and I flunked out at the end of the first year."
"I always knew I wanted to work in a professional studio but it was just so difficult to get into one. I recognised that fact and was prepared to do something else for the meanwhile. So, I got a job in a nightclub and a day job in a brake shoe factory; the significance of the brake shoe factory being that it was built next door to the place I really wanted to work - a studio!"
As it happened, in the nightclub there was a four-track recording studio which was owned by Eammon Andrews nonetheless. So, when an engineering job came up there Dave quickly applied and got it.
"At that time, the studio dealt mainly with the recording of commercials but I soon enticed local bands to start making demos there. I then went to the local bank and secured a loan of £2000 which gave me the opportunity of setting up my own studio at home. At this stage I was earning more than I am now, but I still wasn't happy and kept pushing people for a job at either of the two main studios in Dublin: Windmill and Lombard."
"Eventually, Lombard gave me a go at engineering and, fortunately for me, I was asked back again and again. But I still wanted to get into Windmill Studios. I decided to go to France for a while with an ex-girlfriend (I mean she was my girlfriend when I left, but by the time I got back, she was an ex-girlfriend!). I was so depressed, I nearly joined the Foreign Legion!"
"That little incident gave me the incentive I needed really to make the move to London because I was still eager to get into a top-class studio. When I arrived there, I bought a directory from Foyle's bookshop in Charing Cross Road called The London Guide To Studios. Then I traipsed around every single studio it listed, looking for a job."
As a result, Dave was given several job interviews but it was Sarm Studios in Basing Street who called him back for a second one which he undoubtedly reckons to be the toughest he's ever experienced.
"I was interviewed by the Board of Directors which included... (pause for a sharp intake of breath)... Trevor Horn, Gary Langan, Julian Mendelsohn and Jill Sinclair to name but a few! It lasted for what felt like three years at the time but was only really about half an hour long. Needless to say, I was extremely happy when they took me on as a tape operator."
Faced with a golden opportunity to discover what this group of dignitaries (all renowned for the high work standards they personally set themselves) look for in a prospective employee, I enquired about the topics they discussed.
"They wanted to know exactly what I thought a job at Sarm would entail; what I knew about microphones; what I knew about lining up the tape machines; who I had worked with previously and whether I played an instrument. They then asked me what I really wanted to do, what I expected from the Company and what I thought the Company expected from me."
The first six months of Dave's time at Sarm West was spent helping to build up the interior of the, then new, studio - working extremely hard. On one session alone he worked for 40 hours non-stop to show his dedication and to help complete the project. An act which partly resulted in him being taken extremely ill.
Dave amusingly likens his first months as a tape operator to being down the pit and never seeing the light of day, but carefully stressed that it's most definitely not a cushy or glamorous number. So what type of thing did he get up to?
"Well, you could just operate tape machines and make coffee all day, but it really depends upon what you get yourself involved with."
"I tended to concern myself with helping set up the guitars and keyboards. In the studio, your approach to help must be a subtle one. You certainly don't dive in feet first. If you don't take the initiative, however, it is more than likely that no-one will ask you. Engineers and producers never like 'pushy' people. So, if you don't think you can help constructively then don't bother, as it will only slow down the session. If, somehow, you can help speed up the recording process because you're familiar, say, with a particular piece of equipment, then a producer, obviously, will be more than pleased, as they are often very time-conscious people."
Sarm Studios are acclaimed for being at the forefront of recording technology, so I was keen to uncover Dave's thoughts on the subject. Did he think the technology of the studio environment rather overwhelming for someone who may well have just left school and is starting out as a tape-op?
"As far as the technology is concerned, I don't think even an SSL computerised mixing desk is too complicated for someone of that age, as they are likely to be well into computers anyway."
"My firm belief, though, is that nobody of that age should be allowed to work in a pro studio unless they've worked for at least a year beforehand. Simply because it sets them up with the right sort of attitude to deal with the kind of problems they're likely to face all the time in a studio."
At the end of the day though. Dave reckons you have simply got to be prepared to be walked all over for your first year and a half as a tape-op, "until you earn yourself some respect. If you're not prepared to accept that fact, then you may as well forget being a tape-op."
Having graduated from such a position himself, I was interested to learn what Dave deemed to be the important factors that make a good tape operator? Technical ability? Artistic ability? Getting on with everyone? What did he feel would impress a studio manager?
"Someone with the initiative to work things out without being told and who sees things to be done in the studio and does them. For instance, if there are dishes in the sink - wash them up!"
"You should definitely know about the equipment and the technical side before you actually enter the studio, as everyone will expect you to start working straight away."
An ability to get on with people is essential too. The studio is a confined area with no room for prima donnas - unless you're the artist that is. But in Dave Meegan's opinion, the most important quality required of any studio personnel is undoubtedly "the ability to remain calm when everyone else around you is going crazy!"
Since the above interview took place, Dave Meegan has worked alongside such notable record producers as Peter Collins and Trevor Horn on sessions by artists such as Yes, Nik Kershaw, Killing Joke, Stevie Wonder, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. He has also earned himself enough respect as to be asked to play the Fairlight CMI on several sessions.
In Part Two, Dave brings us up to date on his situation and tells us whether the initial ideals he held on entering the studio business have been fully realised.
Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2
Interview by Chris Allison
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