Nemo Studio (Part 1)
This one would have been called Vangelis Odyssey Papathanassiou and Keith Spencer-Allen talk to Ralph Antidisestablishmentarianism Denyer, but there wasn't room.
Vangelis Odyssey Papathanassiou and Keith Spencer-Allen talk with Ralph (Shortsurname) Denyer
Greek keyboard/percussion virtuoso Vangelis has a certain flamboyant flair which is evident in his music, his lifestyle and his private recording studio. His ability on drums and classical percussion puts him one up on the other keyboard giants, allowing him to multi-track all the instruments on his albums. He may at times add what he refers to as salt'n'pepper: a choir, string section or perhaps a guest vocal from Jon Anderson.
In the Sixties Vangelis enjoyed huge popularity in Europe with the group Aphrodite's Child who received so many gold discs that they could afford to use them as frisbees. The group split as a direct result of the musical direction of their last album called 666. It was an uncommercially conceived set with all music composed by, to give him his complete name, Vangelis Odyssey Papathanassiou. As to whether or not Vangelis told bass guitarist/vocalist Demis Roussos, 'This group ain't big enough for both of us,' in so many words is not clear, However it is clear that by 1968 Vangelis had had a belly full of making formularised pop records.
'The 666 album was the group's musical peak. We should have started like that but we couldn't. I'm talking about business problems. When you start a group it is very rarely that you can start off doing exactly what you wish. I don't say 666 was exactly the kind of album I wanted to make, there was some compromise. Because up to then Aphrodite's Child had been a very MOR commercial band, okay? We sold millions of records (Tears And Rain etc) but it never was a sophisticated or really musical group. It's really a choice, you ask yourself: How am I going to start? Because nobody wants you, nobody trusts you, nobody gives you money to start doing things. So I had to create confidence in the group, that's why for three years we tried to be success makers. We achieved that and I said: That's finished, that's over. Because I just couldn't stand any more. So we recorded 666 which was more complicated than the earlier records... and of course as you know in one way and another that album brought about the end of the group.'
The story was that one of the senior executives at Philips (now part of Phonogram) held up the release of the double album.
'Oh yes, it was forbidden for one year, they asked me to cut out five minutes and I refused. Irene Papas the Greek actress did some vocal variations on a theme. You know 666 is The Apocalypse Of St John in the New Testament, and the Christ said: I was, I am to come. She improvised the theme, repeating the phrase over and over with different tonal colours.'
I find the track of percussion and voice very effective. Miss Papas repeats the phrase 'I was, I am to come' faster and faster, breathing very heavily and at times reaching primal scream levels. One could say that she exercises full poetic licence with the biblical quotation.
'So the British record company said: This is not good. It's pornographic, it's terrible and we're not going to release it. They delayed the record for one year which helped split up the group. Another factor was differing musical directions. Demis and I... well you can see quite clearly now the different directions we've taken.'
So the members of Aphrodite's Child parted. Demis embarked on his infamous 'solo career' talking carefully down the gold-paved 'middle of the road' while Vangelis took the sometimes treacherously dangerous path of musical exploration.
In 1973 he wrote and recorded the music for a French TV series, L'Apocalypse Des Animaux (released in Britain in 1976 by Polydor), a successful venture artistically and commercially. A row of gold discs on the studio wall confirm the latter. However after several albums for different companies on limited budgets he realised something had to be changed. The sounds he envisaged in his mind bore little resemblance to the results he was achieving. There was only one answer, to have his own recording studio equipped the way he wanted it to provide unlimited time for musical experimentation.
In 1973 Rick Wakeman left Yes and Vangelis, a longtime friend of Jon Anderson, came to London at the invitation of the band to try out the keyboard player's chair. As far as everyone was concerned he was in Yes. Then came the announcement that the union had been unsuccessful. In retrospect that doesn't surprise me. Vangelis is just not the kind of person who is comfortable scaling his creativity down as one fifth of a musical unit. But the trip to London wasn't entirely a wasted one. RCA suggested that they give Vangelis lots of money and that he should give them four solo albums. The affable Greek agreed and used the RCA advance to finance his longtime dream, the recording studio.
Vangelis is not what you might call a 'country person' and likes to be in the middle of things. He found Hamden Gurney Studios, just a platinum disc's throw from London's Marble Arch. He bought an Automated Process desk and Scully 16-track tape machine from Command Studios and the Nemo Studio was in business. If you haven't heard of Nemo don't worry, the reason is simple. You cannot book time there as Vangelis uses the studio almost exclusively for his own production and solo albums. The ban is only lifted for close personal friends or for engineer Keith Spencer-Allen to work on his own projects. When Vangelis is out of the country, after a close vetting by Keith you might just get in.
The studio was previously used for advertising film work and is the largest private recording set-up that I've seen. The control room is at least half as large again as in any commercial studio, approximately 430 square feet, with giant floor cushions, comfortable chairs and various mirrored and gold-lacquered decorative objects about the place. The studio proper is approximately 23ft x 44ft and has a high ceiling. At the opposite end from the control room is a movable stage which is currently furnished with deep pile carpet, white armchairs and a 4ft high gold-lacquered display model of a head. The area can be cleared to simulate a live gig, but is more often used as a discussion area or for recording when particular acoustics are required. A lot of spotlights and lighting tracks remain from the film studio days adding to the glamorous yet relaxed atmosphere. Vangelis has a huge collection of instruments of which a complete set of classical percussion and a regular drum kit are left set up most of the time. At the moment two gold-lacquered hobby horses and a couple of building columns which look as if they've been rescued from a Roman film set are in the main studio keeping the percussion company. Synthesisers and all types of instruments abound everywhere. Engineer Keith explained Vangelis' attitude to the recording environment.
'We spend so much time in here together that we can't afford to have any tension developing between us. We are set up to create music in a totally relaxed atmosphere, taking as much time as is necessary to get things right.'
On the technical side they are currently up-grading the studio from 16-track to a system with a potential for 40-track recording, at a cost of around £100000.
Keith Spencer-Allen came to Vangelis with some seven years experience in record production and engineering. In the past he's worked with artists as diverse as Jack Warner and Stevie Wonder! He also co-produced some John Miles records and most of his experience has been as a freelance. He joined Vangelis late in 1975. Vangelis had just completed his first album under the RCA contract, Heaven And Hell, with Alan Lucas engineering. To describe Keith purely as Nemo's engineer would be grossly unfair. He really doubles as studio manager, attending to day-to-day studio routine and somehow managing to keep everyone happy with subtle diplomacy. When I spoke to him and Vangelis they were busily interfacing the new equipment. I asked Keith about their brand new pride and joy, a Quad-Eight Pacifica desk.
It's the first in the country of this design, a production line model which I think we're going to see a lot more of in this country. It is a fairly straightforward 36-channel in-line desk, very compact and very different from the old API which it replaces here. The old desk only had a 24-channel capability whereas this Quad is 36-channel with four more channels used for echo send or return. Those channels can be turned over to make it a 40-channel desk if necessary. Apart from that it is an exceptionally quiet but fairly standard desk.'
More of a quality product than one with extra facilities?
Yes, which is what we require, a lot of work being done with synthesisers. Time is not a problem as such for us and we prefer to get the sound right before recording, before the sound even gets to the desk rather than trying to correct everything by eq. Mind you, when it is needed the Quad eq is very comprehensive, 3-channel with 33 frequencies for turnover ±12dB. The other interesting thing is that the frequencies overlap. So the lowest frequency control has a highest turnover frequency of 500Hz. The mid-frequency starts at 300Hz. Then they overlap to peak or shelving. It's a very gentle musical sounding eq. Some desks sound very coarse... something that's hard to describe but easy to hear, obviously something to do with the curve of the eq. That is probably the major factor concerning the actual sound of the desk.
'Apart from that it is fairly straightforward. It's been rationalised and does not have a lot of automation as regards logic. I found it difficult at first because this is the first truly in-line desk I've worked on. This is in-line as opposed to having separate mix-down groups and a separate monitor mixer. The Quad desk is about the same size as the old API but has almost double the amount of channels.'
I was also struck by the pleasing aesthetic appearance of the Pacifica. The low gentle lines and light coloured control panel allow the unit to look totally at home at Nemo. The only Quad-Eight desk to be installed in this country before was at Advision and was a custom model. The suppliers, Audio Kinetics (UK) Ltd, have carried out some internal alterations to Nemo's desk, which is a production model, to make it meet their exact requirement. There are no built-in small monitors on the desk, another point with which Keith is happy. In that situation in the past he's found that the desk itself tends to act as a large reflex cabinet and the object of the exercise is defeated.
'Anyway we always mix at a high volume using the Tannoys as monitors, referring to small speakers as a check afterwards. This is because the kind of thing we're doing won't reach a radio audience that much and the kind of people that buy Vangelis' records generally play them on sophisticated systems. There are so many things like that which we are lucky about, not having to consider problems which face many people. We'll probably go for Auratone or Little David speakers, but that is not a major factor for us.
'Our monitors are Tannoy HPDs in Lockwood cabinets and we use four, largely to get the power for this rather large control room with its fairly heavy carpet. The room is fairly flat in terms of response but does suck up a lot of volume. We doubled up so as not to drive them too hard.'
Keith has not been impressed by the time that British equipment manufacturers are taking to deliver their goods. The equipment ordered from America and Europe arrived weeks earlier, notably the Lyrec tape machine from Denmark. Keith continued: 'Very nice. A main consideration was that at certain stages we may want to take the equipment out of the control room. If Vangelis wants to record in his flat, which I might add is only fractionally smaller than this control room, we would actually be able to do it given a day or two. The Lyrec is very small with a comprehensive control unit. It handles very well and I don't think you can ask much more of a tape machine. If anything goes wrong it's easy to fix, not being very electronic — it's more mechanical and faults are more obvious. Pricewise I could have gone for anything. I needed a machine that had good control on the frequency response.'
Nemo have had dbx noise reduction for a couple of years and decided to continue using it.
'Dolby is level sensitive. For correct decoding of Dolby the level on and off tape must be correct. However it doesn't seem to be very sensitive to changes in frequency response. Now dbx is the total opposite and doesn't give a damn about the level coming back off tape, but it is sensitive to differences in frequency response, particularly in the bass frequencies. So I wanted a machine with which I could have real control of frequency response, in particular in the sync mode. The Scully which we had before had no control over the sync mode which led to difficulties with the dbx. That wasn't the dbx being problematic, the problem was in the interfacing of the two pieces of equipment. So those were the priorities in choosing a tape machine. It also has some handy things like varispeed, autolocate, 16-channel memory remembering 16 positions on tape as well as two working positions. I'm happy.'
Vangelis' desire to have fairly portable equipment dates back to when some workmen were in the studio and the noise made recording impossible. They took a Revox tape machine and a couple of mics round to Vangelis' flat, who went on to recall the experiment with environmental acoustics.
'That was fantastic, you can achieve totally different feelings. You see we're talking and you're recording on your cassette. If we do exactly the same thing tomorrow in a different place it will sound different. That difference can be very important in a piece of music. So now I record some things at home with just the Revox and two mics. As you can see I've moved the piano into the control room now. From a technical point of view maybe Keith can explain to you why it is maybe not ideal to record with the piano and monitors so close. We try to catch the magic moment but we never know when this bloody moment is going to come!'
Though Keith's training involved a formal approach, always recording for top quality sound, he is in agreement with Vangelis in that musical quality comes first. It could well be that Keith's greatest strength is that his sympathy towards musicians has led him to develop recording techniques which don't intrude on the music, yet keep recording quality high. Back over to Vangelis.
'Of course you don't have to destroy the quality or clarity but the recording equipment is here to serve the music and not vice versa. But we do have to achieve a certain quality of sound. Especially with all these synthesisers. If you lose quality on them the sound is nothing.
'It's a funny thing, with all this sophisticated equipment we are surrounded by in here we are still governed by the same old basic laws of nature. If we take a single note from one instrument it is not just a single sound, it is as many sounds together. I'm not talking about melody or rhythm. A single note is like the light in this studio. We see it as white light but in fact it is made up of different colours. You can change a single note by altering the balance of the harmonics. In this way I like to create different sounds which have differing effects on the listener.
'When you speak to me I analyse your voice automatically. I've done this since an early age and developed my ability to listen as time has gone by. I've seen many professional people in music make mistakes by not analysing sounds. This is very important, understanding the proportions of the frequencies that go to make up what sounds like a single note to the average listener.'
With the equipment up-dating almost complete, Keith is looking forward to getting on with the next Vangelis album, as he explained.
'In theory there could be as many different kinds of recording studios as there are personalities. For some time now we've had a nice studio from the musicians' point of view and now it's going to be a nice studio from my point of view. Prior to now a lot of my time has been spent holding things together. I haven't been able to concentrate as much as I wanted to because a great deal of my energies have gone on maintenance, wondering if the power supply is going to hold out. Now it's a pure joy to record and I'm looking forward to getting stuck into it. We still haven't got all our equipment and we're thinking about a few other machines. We haven't got heavily into ADT, digital delay or flanging units in the past because many of Vangelis' synthesisers have those kind of facilities. That also takes us back to the point that we like to get the actual instrument sounding right to begin with and not doctor the sound at a later stage.'
This is the only part of this series active so far.
Interview by Ralph Denyer
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