Tubular Bells, Bayou Moon and other stories | Tom Newman
Apart from his claim to fame as the co-producer of Mike Oldfield's hugely successful 'Tubular Bells' album, engineer/producer Tom Newman has most recently been making his mark in the New Age music field with two beautifully recorded albums. Mark Prendergast reports.
"I'd heard Mike Oldfield's original demos that he had done on a little Bang and Olufsen recorder... I thought they were absolutely priceless and I'd have released them, hiss and all, as they were. But the whole plan was to make them magically better by the use of 16-track two-inch machinery."
Tom Newman first came to prominence for his work on Mike Oldfield's ground-breaking 1973 album Tubular Bells. As producer, engineer and studio builder, Newman was responsible for providing the right conditions for Oldfield to let his imagination run free on an album project that significantly altered people's perceptions of popular music.
A diverse artist, Newman started his career playing in skiffle groups, graduating to rhythm and blues and eventually psychedelia with his 1967 group, July. After a fortuitous meeting with Richard Branson, he became house producer and technician for the embryonic Virgin enterprise and has never looked back since.
Presently, Tom Newman is involved with Coda Records as a recording artist and in-house studio expert. He has recorded two instrumental albums, Aspects and Bayou Moon, which explore the atmospheric effects of combining varied acoustic sounds with modern electronics. He has recently completed work on Michael Chapman's new instrumental album Heartbeat and is in the process of putting down material for his own third solo album, based on the Shelley poem 'Ozymandias'.
Recently, he took time off working in his home studio in Hastings to chat to me about the ever-changing face of modern music, and how a certain Beatles album affected his group's music...
"Sgt Pepper was an amazing breakthrough, musically, because it had the kind of dynamics which had little to do with R'n'B music. It had both quiet bits and loud bits and the Beatles were quite happy to change the arrangement half-way through a song and then meander off into something else. When that record was released our band instantly scrapped everything that we had done and were booked into a studio by our record company to do a Sgt Pepper type album.
The studio had two Studer 4-track tape machines and we track-bounced between them. We used backwards piano chords, phasing, a couple of halfspeed things. It was really crude and a lot of re-patching had to be done. Phasing was done with two tape recorders working unsynchronised. The mixer was a large, crude EMI green thing with big black knobs. We had valve microphones and our outboard equipment was minimal; just a tape echo machine so we could put repeats on things. Because we had no fuzzboxes either, we had to drive one amp into another - an Ecolette valve amp was plugged into the input of a Marshall - to create distortion.
The whole thing was really delicate and we only had three days to do the album in, and a Sgt Pepper type at that! Most of it was electric but there was some acoustic guitar on a couple of numbers. Congas and Latin percussion were added and I even played the sitar!"
July's eponymous debut album faded without trace as a result of record company problems, but nowadays the record has become an artefact and is much sought after by collectors. July disbanded and Tom Newman spent his days recording and playing music at home.
"I had these two tape recorders - a Vortexian and a Ferrograph - and I was track bouncing between them trying to find my own style. I desperately wanted better equipment though, like a Revox, so my girlfriend introduced me to Richard Branson with the idea of getting a studio together.
Richard had this magazine called 'Student' and had just started doing a mail-order record distribution service, so he was quite interested. We got on very well, so for the first six months of 1970 I got more involved in the idea of building a studio with him. We were going to build it in the crypt of a church in Hyde Park! Anyway, I bought some 4-track equipment but, after Richard had talked to George Martin, it had to be upgraded to 8-track. This was my dream come true, so off I went. And one day, I found this copy of 'Country Life' magazine that had a picture of a manor house in Oxford that was for sale. I suggested it to Richard as a possible studio and he went for it, which amazed me. He borrowed the money from his Auntie and we started to build what eventually became The Manor studio."
Q: Was the range of recording equipment changing fast at this stage?
"I find it impossible to sit down in front of a computer screen or a sequencer and tell myself to write music."
"Yes, it was the transitional period between valve and transistor equipment for studios. The change had happened a lot earlier in the domestic market but valve stuff was still very much in use in professional studios. We had a lot of outdated valve equipment lying around to do demos on and stuff like that, but we decided to go 16-track and Richard borrowed more money from the bank to get more equipment."
Q: When 'Tubular Bells' came out in May of 1973 it took the whole world by surprise. How did you get to the point of producing it?
"Well, the first people to use The Manor studio were the Bonzo Dog Band and I suddenly found myself engineering the session without knowing how to do anything! There was this boffin type tape-op called Phil Neal, who had helped me build the studio, and he showed me how to do it. I came out of that session having learned more than most people do in six months. So three or four sessions later it was Tubular Bells.
The problem with Tubular Bells at the time was that I'd heard Mike Oldfield's original demos that he had done on a little Bang and Olufsen recorder which belonged to Kevin Ayers. I thought they were absolutely priceless and I'd have released them, hiss and all, as they were. But the whole plan was to make them magically better by the use of 16-track two-inch machinery.
I imagined that it would automatically be exactly like what I heard on the demos and because I respected Michael so much as an amazing guitar player, I almost didn't say a word about anything once he started.
We got into the studio and locked the door and he was frightened shitless! You see, he was desperately nervous and had this cosmic fear of everything and everybody. He didn't start to unwind until he was half-drunk, and since we were both Guinness drinkers I was one of the few people he could get on with. Recording turned out to be a haven for him, somewhere he could hide away from the world.
Anyway, he started playing this riff that went on and on and on, and I thought, 'OK, let's just record it and see what happens.' I was determined to keep a totally open view but at one point I had to buck against it, since it wasn't what I thought it would be. There were only ever two big arguments - over a piano part and some organ stabs I recall; and I have to say I was wrong in both cases!
I was just finding my feet and Mike had confidence in me and respected me enough as an engineer to choose me as his companion for the project. To say I 'produced' Tubular Bells is a very difficult thing to substantiate because it was a dual thing. I didn't know what 'production' meant at this time, nor did I know what a 'producer' was supposed to do. We went into it as mates trying to get something happening but not very clear where any kind of dividing line came. I learned a hell of a lot from Michael and he learned about sound and stuff from me. The album took about four weeks in all to make."
Q: What was the equipment situation like on 'Tubular Bells'?
"The hit single has become the icon of the age, and what I see New Age music as doing is trying to revive the thoughtful record buyer/listener."
"I was only just starting to feel confident with 16-track and coming to grips with how to work the equaliser. We'd never had an equaliser that was so effective before. I mean, it actually selected frequencies and you could boost and cut them. We didn't have any echo device at all in the studio, so we used tape-loops and I built an echo plate out of a great big sheet of steel with a magnetic pickup on it and a kind of loudspeaker/amplifier system. It worked totally by accident, driven by an old Quad hi-fi amp. It was a real bodge-up."
After pushing the idea of an instrumental rock album through the necessary channels for success, and suffering orchestral versions and quadrophonic versions, Tom Newman and Richard Branson continued their creative collaboration at Shipton Manor, Oxford, all through the early Seventies. Working eighteen hours a day, Tom Newman engineered countless recording sessions for artists as diverse as Cat Stevens, Leo Sayer, Adam Faith, The Scaffold, Gong, Hatfield and the North, Ivor Cutler, Slapp Happy, and Henry Cow. One of his most memorable experiences, however, was John Cale's third album The Academy In Peril.
"This all happened at the time when 'the album' had become the medium and people started to not worry about singles. It ended up as a wild goose chase in a lot of ways, because album budgets soared and they became massive even by today's standards. I remember we had to do John Cale's The Academy In Peril and he had an enormous budget of £75,000!
He had this really incredible background and loads of experience and we were totally in awe of him. I learned an enormous amount from working with him, and the biggest lesson I learned was when to stop! I'm positive that when Cale put down 'King Harry' with only three or four overdubs, that he got it at its peak. Later, he mixed and remixed it so much that it lost all its space and became a great big dirgy jumble - and I didn't realise how easily this could happen in the studio."
By the mid-Seventies Tom Newman was in a position to be able to record his first solo album for Virgin, entitled Fine Old Tom. Described as "an assortment of little sketches that were a very disparate set of musical ideas", it made little impact but laid the foundation for his present work with Coda Records.
Eventually he left Virgin and became a freelance producer. After being involved with the likes of Snowy White and Doll By Doll, Newman felt he was "having fun, but not really doing anything". So he quit London and retired to Stanhope House in Hastings where he started to build his own studio.
Q: What do you feel are the most significant changes in studio equipment since the Sixties and Seventies?
"It's like heaven now in comparison. In the mid-Seventies I designed a mixer that had noise gates and compressors built into the input channel, but everybody said it didn't make sense. Now you have Solid State Logic desks with all that! I also designed a 16-track recording system for live use that could fit into a suitcase, but nobody was interested. I hadn't seen the idea of this kind of 'portable studio' thing spreading so quickly into the domestic market.
During the late Seventies and early Eighties, all this very cheap and wonderful multitrack gear became available. When the Fostex B16 came out, I bought it straight away. It's considered domestic equipment but I've had mine for nearly four years without any problems and I've managed to make a dozen or so albums for CD on it. As well as the B16, my studio in Hastings is equipped with a Seck mixer which has been expanded to 32 into 16. I also have quite a good rack of effects equipment - digital reverbs, digital delays and things like that."
"As far as composers are concerned, I've been deeply affected by the work of Debussy, Stravinsky and Erik Satie."
Q: Do you find the modern equipment situation a little bit overwhelming?
"I find it dangerous, because of the whole possibility of working for the equipment instead of letting the equipment work for you. I'm kind of cautious about how far into equipment buying I go, particularly sequencers and computers. Even though I have a little MIDI keyboard, I'm frightened about getting too involved because I tend to get musical ideas walking along the beach or when I'm on the train. I find it impossible to sit down in front of a computer screen or a sequencer and tell myself to write music. I'm not a child of the computer generation and it takes a lot of concentration to make these pieces of equipment talk to each other. Wherever I am, I've got to be able to pick up a tape recorder and vocalise my musical ideas into it. That's why I always carry around my Sony Professional Walkman."
Whatever his approach, Tom Newman has succeeded in producing two very accomplished albums of modern instrumental music over the past two years. His first, Aspects, was meditative even ambient in places, whereas his second, Bayou Moon, evocatively combined the folk music of North and South America with an atmospheric serenity. Both records have been classified as New Age music, a term which is looked on by a lot of critics as meaning empty or undistinguished in character. Tom Newman strongly refutes this and views the whole New Age phenomenon as having an important effect on the music scene.
"I don't think New Age music means the same thing to me as it does to the public. I don't think it started now, I feel it began with Tubular Bells really. I think that particular record brought together an entire record-buying fraternity who were interested in listening to an entire album without having to chatter or watch the telly. People then had very strong powers of concentration and groups like Pink Floyd were able to cater for them. When the punks came in, they destroyed all that and listeners became oriented to the fast, heavy-duty sell type stuff that only lasts three minutes. The hit single has become the icon of the age, and what I see New Age music as doing is trying to revive the thoughtful record buyer/listener. It's a bit of an uphill struggle when the so-called enlightened media are doing a great job of knocking it. When Tubular Bells came out they said it was 'wallpaper music', but it's sold 16 million copies over the last seven or eight years - so who's right and who's wrong?"
Q: How did your first New Age album 'Aspects' come about?
"Well I'd had an idea for a very long time to do a piece of music that would take up a whole album about a painting, specifically Turner's 'The Fighting Temeraire'. It had really moved me as a child, so I set to work with some musical ideas in my studio in Hastings. I recorded a five minute piece as a demo and also did a demo for the video side of it by getting a print of the painting and just running a video camera over it in macro (close-up), so it gave an impression. Nick Austin of Coda Records eventually saw it and wanted me to do a series of short music/video pieces collectively called 'Aspects Of Great Artists'. It's a long-term project which will develop over the next five years, since I want to tour it using film and a band so that people can get closer to the work of the Great Masters through an audio-visual experience. It's kind of treading new ground and I hope it will redeem the New Age thing from becoming supermarket music."
Q: Your second album 'Bayou Moon' really struck me as being an original musical concept. I'd never quite heard the combination of acoustic instruments that occurs on the track 'Fur Traders Descending The Missouri'. Is this something separate from the 'Aspects' project?
"No, funnily enough 'Fur Traders' is the one bit of Bayou Moon that is connected with Aspects. In fact, the track is meant to go with an American painting of the same name by a famous American artist of the turn of the century. When Nick (Austin) heard that piece of music, it struck him that it was quite different from the rest of the pieces on Aspects, so we got the idea to do another album. I had seen the film 'Deliverance' and was affected by its portrayal of the swamplands of the Bayou and Mississippi deltas. The impression I got from it was that this region was essentially dark and brooding, very primordial, lethal and wild. Bayou Moon is supposed to convey that overall feeling."
Q: How did you get down to the nitty-gritty of recording both 'Aspects' and 'Bayou Moon'?
"When the Fostex B16 came out, I bought it straight away. It's considered domestic equipment but I've had mine for nearly four years without any problems and I've managed to make a dozen or so albums for CD on it."
"Well, they were all done in my little basement in Hastings. Each piece of music starts very differently - sometimes as a melodic idea, sometimes with a rhythmic idea, or it can be a simple little phrase which I just elaborate on. I always find the sound or chord that I like, or that seems to fit the mood, and I build up from there. I kind of understand written music but I don't write it myself. I'm starting to relate note names to the piano but I usually compose on guitar and then translate it to a keyboard. For Aspects, I set up a 35mm projector in the studio so that each painting I was composing around was in front of me. That way everything I composed would be engulfed by the presence of the idea."
Q: I was particularly struck by your use of pan-flute on 'Bayou Moon', do you play a lot of exotic instruments?
"Well I started off using the panflute sound from a DX7 that I borrowed, but I really didn't like the sound of it, so I went off and got some pan-pipes and learned to blow them. I also like the sound of Japanese instruments and play a shakahachi. I want to learn a stringed instrument called the shamisen. I like these kind of instruments because it's up to the player to make it work. You don't have to be a virtuoso on them in order to get a mood over. I also love the sitar and bodhran."
Q: Both your albums were digitally mastered at Abbey Road Studios, did this affect the quality of the work?
"Yes, because the greatest drop in recorded quality occurs when you transfer the music from the two-inch multitrack machine to quarter-inch tape on the final stereo master. When you playback the tape on the mastering machine it's never as good as on the multitrack, because it has gone a whole generation. When I do my mixdown from the multitrack, it goes through a Sony PCM-F1 convertor which transforms the analogue sounds into digital dots and dashes that are stored on a Betamax digital master tape. This retains the quality of the multitrack sound without incurring the degradation associated with another analogue copy, which means you don't get all the tape hiss and stuff. For the final cutting process it has to be transferred onto professional U-matic tape through another convertor, which is very expensive, so that's why it has to be done at somewhere like Abbey Road."
Recently Tom Newman completed building the new Coda Landscape studio at Crowhurst in Sussex. After working in such hi-tech conditions as those demanded by Mike Oldfield for his Platinum album, Newman surprisingly built the Coda studio as a simple 24-track without the benefit of Fairlights and other highly technical equipment. His first production and engineering job at the Coda studio was the Heartbeat album by English guitarist Michael Chapman, which contains six percussive acoustic, electric and jazz guitar pieces played in a cycle of 108 beats per minute.
Whatever his situation, Tom Newman has continuously expanded his creative talent to accommodate a diverse range of interests. His current obsession is an album of music played on an entire spectrum of acoustic instruments, titled Ozymandias in tribute to the epic poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Q: As a composer and musician, who do you consider yourself closest to and who are your favourite artists in music?
"Emotionally I'm very close to the modal Irish tradition but intellectually I'm closer to the work of Brian Eno, John Cage and the entire American West Coast tradition. You see, what really tears my heart out about the English music tradition is that music is treated linearly, and not laterally. John Cage is priceless purely because he has the kind of attitude towards music that I feel a very close affinity to. I love the new American West Coast music because there is so much that has been done there over the last twenty years that is still untouched here. I mean, there are people in this country making statements about New Age music that have never heard of Terry Riley - and that makes me laugh!
I still have more respect for Mike Oldfield, as a musician, than anybody else I know.
As far as composers are concerned, I've been deeply affected by the work of Debussy, Stravinsky and Erik Satie. You see, Satie is the archetypal minimalist and Debussy did some arrangements of Satie's Gymnopedies No.1 and No.2 which are the best pieces of arrangement I've ever heard. If I could compose something that had the power of Stravinsky and the mystic quality of a Debussy arrangement, I could die a happy man."
Interview by Mark Prendergast
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