Out of the Blue
Blue Weaver, former Bee-Gee and session musician takes Janet Angus round his new studio.
He's an ex-Bee Gee, he owns a 24-track home studio in Chiswick complete with a Fairlight CMI and he's known as Blue Weaver.
Blue Weaver's high flying career extends as far back as the 60s. He played keyboards with Amen Corner, Fair Weather, the Strawbs, Mott the Hoople and the Hunter Ronson Band before settling down with the Bee Gees from 1974 to 1981. He's also a session player of some repute: an occupation which kept him busy throughout his time in the business.
Being a Bee Gee obviously involved living in America: Miami to be precise. Fortunately for Blue it was a very 'in' place at the time, which brought him a great deal of work in the session and production fields.
America is like that you know. Certain areas become 'in' and nobody within them can do any wrong. Then suddenly it all stops and somewhere else is the place to be.
Throughout this period of his life, Blue's family were living in the UK and there was a certain amount of commuting going on, so when Miami's popularity dried up he decided it was time to come back to London and set up a base there.
However, things are never that simple. The Bee whats? Hardly surprisingly the English record companies were not totally convinced about the commercial prospects of an artist coming from such a band. Added to which, Blue had been away for several years and most of his contacts had now moved elsewhere. Many of them, ironically, departed for the American shores.
I tried to convince the record companies that it was my experience that counted more than anything else, but generally it was a pretty difficult time.
Not to be thwarted, he decided to take the matter into his own hands. If the record companies weren't prepared to put him in to a musical environment, he would create his own. The result is a spacious recording facility installed in his Chiswick home where the equipment has been very carefully selected to provide quality rather than excessive quantity.
Housed in a 30 x 16ft extension which used to be a garden room, there's a lot of space for keyboard-based work. The large French windows in front of the console and the resulting abundance of daylight contributes to the very relaxing atmosphere. Even the ceiling is attractively finished in fluted knotted pine with Rockwool behind it, (although this was done more for warmth than sound insulation)! It was almost as if it were waiting to become a recording room; it was even double glazed.
The room acoustic sounds good; I have listened to stuff that has come from here in other studios and it's great.
First attempts at equipping it resulted in some very nice buys and a couple of near mistakes. The main problem was that he bought a Soundcraft 16-track tape recorder not realising that very soon people would be trooping through his doors with their 24-track tapes expecting to be able to continue working on their projects there.
Luckily help was at hand from Soundcraft and Don Larking Audio Sales who contrived to find another customer for the 16-track and install an SCM760 24-track in its stead. All this happened within the space of two months.
Don Larking's team have been marvellous; they supplied and installed all this equipment and have been enormously helpful. I had a lot of teething problems with the Soundcraft initially but I'm happy to say it is behaving itself now. I chose it basically because of the specification and the price. At that time there was no other comparable 24-track around. Everybody works on 24-track nowadays so it was essential that I had this facility. There's a Revox PR99 for mastering, chosen for the same reason, and I've had no problems at all with it. Also amongst the cassette machinery there lurks an old second hand Sony TC152SD which actually outperforms all similar machines I've seen or heard. It's very important to make good quality cassettes. It's absolutely hopeless to send bad cassettes to a record company because in spite of what they say, they listen to what they actually hear and they don't ignore the quality of the cassette.
Surprisingly, a lot of major studios can fall down in this area; they'll sometimes simply forget to line up their cassette machines; they're so preoccupied with lining up the multitracks it's just overlooked. It's important because things get judged by the tapes that come out of them, especially in A&R.
A first timid step into the recording console world brought Blue a custom board from a studio round the corner which had seen a lot of hits from the Bay City Rollers and Elvis Costello. Amazingly enough, the board had a bit of a following of its own and generated a not insignificant amount of interest for Blue.
It was a monster. It took up the whole width of the room and blocked up the window!
The monster was to be superseded in 1985 by the Soundtracs CM4400 which Blue is very taken with; he may be seen posing with it for photographs in all sorts of magazines.
It had a lot of features that I couldn't get on the old board and it's also a lot smaller and more compact.
Basically, Blue's studio complements the work he does with his Fairlight. It's an instrument which has played a major role in his life since he acquired it in 1979.
Although the Synclavier had come out by then, I found it was just a glorified synth, so I decided to go for the Fairlight, and I'm glad I did. I'm not a drummer or a guitarist and so until then I'd been restricted in the sounds I could produce, but with the Fairlight I could just sit here and do everything.
The Fairlight has been fitted with MIDI for some time now. I use it as the master. Most of the rhythm tracks are from Page R, although obviously with MIDI you are not purely restricted to the internal sounds. I've got Fairlight 2X at the moment and I'm waiting for the Series 3 update with 16-bit sampling. Sample length is dependent on the amount of waveform RAM you get with the system. I have 14 megabytes which will give at least two minutes of stereo sampling time at 50kHz.
People talk about Fairlight and Synclavier in the same breath, but they are two completely different beasts, even though their capabilities do overlap in some areas. Everything has its time and place; I never dismiss any instrument. Obviously I love the Fairlight because I know the thing inside out but it doesn't mean you should ignore everything else. I used to dismiss the DX7 because everyone had one but recently I bought one and found out that it's great!
A Quark MIDI link system provides all the routing required and the Fairlight is worked in conjunction with a Commodore computer with JMS MIDI interface and 1570 disk drive for storing and editing sounds.
"...I love the Fairlight because I know the thing inside out but it doesn't mean you should ignore everything else."
Other instruments in the keyboard department are the Yamaha DX1 and the new Technics SX-PX1 digital piano.
The Yamaha is the top of their DX range and they're beautifully hand assembled and tested, though I think the price reflects that! The Technics feels very like playing a piano. Of course there is nothing quite like sitting in front of a grand piano and playing, but it's just not feasible for me to have a grand piano in here. In many rock recordings it would be hard for anyone to say if it were real or digital. I feel that Technics are just starting to move into the professional area and if this piano is anything to go by they are going to be incredibly successful.
Monitoring can be on anything from JBL4311s — a taste for which is inherited from his time in the States, although apparently they don't work very well in his room.
You have to drive them quite hard which is good at the end of the day when you're just winding everything up, but I don't like to monitor too loud, so I've got a pair of AR18s which I like. The ARs and JBLs are both driven by Quad 405 amplifiers. I wanted something I could hear the bottom end on. Sometimes when you monitor on small speakers you find that by the time you get to the cutting room there are lots of low frequencies floating around. The JBLs are good for showing that up, but actually the ARs are better in this room.
I also have Visonik David 502s which I've used on everything I have done for years and I have never managed to blow them up (which is amazing considering what I have put through them)! Of course there are the Auratones which are still a good reference although my good mono reference is the speaker in the Sony cassette player. Auratones don't exactly colour the sound so much as change it. If it'll sound toppy and sibilant on them you know it's okay.
Since the object of the exercise was not to compete with commercial studios, Blue's approach to equipment buying was governed more by personal preference than by music business trends: a fact which is reflected by his thoughtfully filled outboard rack.
I started buying outboard gear and it began to get very expensive. With this side of things you could go on buying equipment for ever. I have a few basics and I work in conjunction with the London Sound Centre. If there's anything special I need, I hire it in. I thought reverberation was very important, so I got an AMS RMX16. I had been working at Criteria in Miami a lot and they had everything available in the reverb department. You can never have too much variation in this area because you can use them all; I have always been used to having lots of different kinds. Criteria have live chambers and all sorts, and they were incredible. I think I learned from them the importance of reverb quality. Since then I've acquired a Lexicon PCM70 too which I think is amazing. It's not only an effects processor, but is capable of producing the Lexicon 224 reverberation sounds and you have the facilities to alter a vast number of parameters; you can also control the effects parameters from MIDI which makes it a very powerful performance instrument — I combine it in keyboard performance as part of the sound. Whereas you can put down sounds on tape and add effects afterwards, the Lexicon combines with your instrument to become part of the performance. For example, the amount of chorusing may be controlled just by keyboard pressure and you can assign the amount of delay, for instance, to a modulation wheel.
In addition to all that, there's a Yamaha R1000 which I bought for its clean sounding digital reverb at a very competitive price.
I have a Bel BD-80 8-second digital delay line which comes in handy sometimes for samples which are too long to go into the Fairlight. Then there is an MXR Delay System 2, an MXR Pitch Transposer, DBX165 compressors and Drawmer gates, and a Sony Walkman CD player.
With the Soundtracs CM4400, the Fairlight and the fact that work to date has included some A/V tracks, it would seem logical that going digital might be a next step. One look at the capital investment required, however, and you realise that it is not for the home studio set-up.
Digital would be good for me, because the Soundtracs board is very quiet. There are so many snobs in this business who might tell you otherwise but in my view it doesn't matter how a sound was achieved as long as the end result is pleasing. Having said that, I have worked with digital machines in studios and have found that the Sony and Mitsubishis are great simply because the sound doesn't deteriorate as you move it around and there's no tape hiss apart from the noise recorded when it was put down.
I'd like to see Fairlight come up with direct digital to digital recording so that when you're transferring to digital tape you don't have to go through D/A and A/D circuits. I know that this is something Synclavier are working on.
Not many people would set out to do a film soundtrack without any form of synchronising machinery, but Blue did. A 30-minute documentary for TSW called 'Dorset Idyll' was presented to him with the producer's brief.
I just timed the bits that needed music, wrote it and then hit the cue on the Fairlight. I was really pleased because I didn't have a Q-Lock or anything like that but when they went to dub to film, everything worked out fine. There was one section in which they weren't sure whether they wanted music. It was a series of scene changes inside an old mill with the sound of the mill wheel going in the background. When I looked at it I found that the scene changes actually fitted rhythmically with the sound of the wheel and so I wrote some music to go with it and I thought this was all a wonderful coincidence. When I went to the film editor it turned out that they always cut in rhythms, although it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the soundtrack, they do keep a rhythm going with the actual cuts. I was very impressed with all that. Now that I've got the Soundtracs, of course, any A/V work I get in the future will have the facility to lock up via the CM4400.
People come here to use the Fairlight and everything. At first they were just friends but then independents started sending people here because, of course I have the benefit of 24-track as well as the Fairlight, and they acted as stepping stones for getting the major labels interested.
It started with new acts the companies were trying to break like The Pet Shop Boys who I still work with in the studio. We started off doing a lot of basic programming stuff here on some of their singles and in fact one of the tracks we did here ended up on the album.
But I'm mainly a Fairlight programmer and I enjoy it. Although I'm not actually a producer as such, every part of the recording counts towards the overall production of the record. From the production work I have done I feel that a lot of the art of good production is to do with guidance of the artist and giving them what they want whilst making the whole thing saleable.
Not a lot of material is mastered here, although I did do some tracks for EMI with Spelt Like This. Six of the tracks on their album were mixed at Sarm and two of them here. If you know what you are doing, who's to know in the end where it was done?
Looking for examples of the sort of thing he is up to nowadays Blue dipped into this month's diary: Billy Ocean at Battery Studios, Fruits of Passion, Kino, Miguel Bose, Madness, Smiley Culture...
The music business has always been my life and I consider myself very fortunate still to be in it.
It's a singular peculiarity of this glamour industry that a person who is to all intents and purposes a relatively young man can be made to feel over the hill. It's just as well that some of them manage to stay around to pass on their skills. Fresh creativity is all very well, but it needs the discipline of experience to shape and guide it.
Blue can be contacted through Programming People on (Contact Details).
Interview by Janet Angus
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