Procol Harum

the Pale

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Chris 'The Grouts' Michie

Air Studios and the state of the art

When Broken Barricades was started in late 1970, AIR Studios consisted of two studios (Studios One and Two), a mixing room with a small vocal booth (Studio Three) plus a film sound mixing room that was actually once used as a studio by the Third Ear Band, who recorded the soundtrack to Polanski’s MacBeth in it. Broken Barricades was recorded in Studio One, which was a big room suitable for orchestral recording and film scoring (the film side of AIR’s business took years to get going and was a bit of a white elephant). I think Studio One was modeled on Abbey Road’s Studio One. Anyway, it was the first studio finished when AIR opened in summer 1970 and is where the first sessions were held.

I had been hired earlier that summer by studio manager Keith Slaughter, probably because I kept showing up during construction looking for a job – a real life example of the squeaky wheel getting the grease. For a few weeks or months I worked for Dave Harries and two other maintenance engineers called Bill (I think) and Danny, wiring up jackfields and pulling cables through the ducts between studio and control room. Already on staff were engineers Bill Price (from Decca) and Jack Clegg (from film scoring studio CTS). Ex-Decca engineer John Punter and tape-ops Alan Harris (ex-Morgan, I think) and Alex somebody joined soon after. Nigel somebody, Steve Nye and Simaen Skolfeld were all later hired as tape-ops, John Middleton was hired as a film sound engineer (though he also recorded half of Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure before the producer was sacked and Chris Thomas and John Punter took over) and the staff also included various receptionists, an ex-Abbey Road tea lady, and two porters, one of whom was a fantastically cheerful Jamaican, who would move the session players' instruments in and out (bands had roadies for that). I was the first of the original crew to leave, I think, though Simaen Skolfeld may have exited under a cloud after failing to turn up for a weekend Pink Floyd session – I found the band waiting outside the studio doors when I turned up for a session of my own, and as I later found out for myself, Pink Floyd did not suffer indignity in silence.

Multitrack recording has changed quite a bit since the '70s, but it probably changed more between Sgt. Pepper’s ... and Exotic Birds and Fruit than any time since. Procol went through those changes, from 4-track for their first album through 8-track on Home, 16-track up through Grand Hotel and finally 24-track for Exotic ... (I’ve always assumed that the reason there was never a stereo mix of the 1st album is because someone had re-used the 1-inch four-track tape after the original mono mix had been finished – that stuff was expensive. Does anyone know the full story?)(see here and here)

There were many technical advances made during the few years between Broken Barricades and Exotic Birds and Fruit, but the general recording principles remained the same; only the tools changed. For example, though the AKG D12 (a dynamic mic) had been the traditional choice for bass (kick) drum in the 1960s and early 70s, it later became common to use an expensive, large diaphragm condenser microphone like the Neumann U87. Though the U87 had both 10dB pad and bass rolloff switches built into it, the accepted wisdom had been that the high transients and sheer SPL put out by a bass drum would likely tear the diaphragm from its surround, or at least produce a distorted signal. There may have been some truth to this theory, but it has to be remembered that until the 70s most studio engineers came up through a fairly rigid training and apprentice program. In the large company studios (Decca’s West Hampstead, EMI’s Abbey Road, Pye, CBS, etc.) the recording engineers were trained and managed by the maintenance engineers. A young engineer who used the "wrong" mics or abused the equipment in other ways would not do well in a work environment run by men in white coats. I am speculating here, but it seems probable that the habits of economy and "making do" practised in post-war Britain were carried on for some time by an "old guard" of technical engineers long after the fantastic growth of the recording industry had changed the rules. The Beatles had demonstrated that you could spend several months making a record, rather than several hours, and still make a profit, so it became less and less sensible for studio managers to refuse to let visiting engineers and artists do what they wanted – after all, the bills were now going to independent managers and record labels rather than to the studio’s corporate parents.

AIR Studios was an independent studio, but it was run by managers and technical staff who had been poached from Abbey Road and Decca, so tended to have a rather stuffier atmosphere than other independents, like Trident, Island, Morgan and Olympic. There were, of course, occasional fire extinguisher fights and other isolated incidents of mayhem, but engineers and clients generally behaved rather well. During the day, of course, there were various technical and administrative people around, but after 6 pm there was usually only a night watchman and whoever was working in the other studios. But I distinctly remember the day that Todd Rundgren turned up with green streaks in his hair – that wasn’t the sort of thing you saw in the corridors of AIR very often.

Chris Michie posing at one of the famous EMI REDD 37 consoles through which The Beatles recorded Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. After being junked by Abbey Road, two of these consoles wound up on the used equipment market – this one was photographed in the Bay Area home of used equipment broker Dan Alexander.


All this is a very long-winded way of explaining that as the years went by engineers developed more radical methods of recording. There were few, if any books on recording technique, so most engineers learned by watching others. On entering another engineer’s session one would immediately listen for a moment and then say something like "nice drum sound." If it really was a nice drum sound, then a smart visiting engineer would figure out what the resident engineer was doing, and copy it. I still remember the drum-miking set up that I learned from an engineer who had copied it from Glyn Johns (long associated with Olympic). Since it’s the mic setup that was (probably) used on Beggars’ Banquet and Led Zeppelin (the first album), I’ll describe here what was described to me. Snare and kick mic as usual, and I don’t know which mics Johns favored. But instead of individual tom-tom mics, set close and pointing down into the drum shell, plus a stereo overhead pair, Johns set up only two kit mics, both Neumann U87s (or the previous model, the U67). One was positioned above the two rack toms at about the height of the drummer’s forehead, the other at the (drummer’s) right rear corner of the kit next to the floor tom and facing across it toward the snare. Between them, these two mics picked up the entire kit and panning the two mics left and right gave a good stereo spread. It’s hard to convey this now, but at the time I heard about this technique (and heard it demonstrated) I was very impressed. I had learned to engineer by watching engineers close-mic virtually everything (e.g. to mic a harp, you wrapped the mic in a sock or foam, and inserted it into the instrument from the pedal end), and the idea of an overall drum mix from two mics, supplemented by kick and snare "spot" mics struck me as radical. Of course, in the 40s and 50s engineers were careful not to put mics too near to percussion instruments, for fear that the transients would distort or blow out the diaphragms, so I was really only rediscovering an old technique. As the 70s progressed, drum sounds moved away from Ringo’s muffled toms and the techniques of super separation (listen to Ken Scott’s early recordings of Billy Cobham). Partly because of Led Zeppelin’s success, but also because their records were superbly produced, the open, crashing sound of John Bonham soon became more fashionable than the dry, padded drum sound typical of early 70s rock albums. Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks has, I think, the most extraordinarily enormous yet somehow realistic drum sound ever recorded, and it launched a complete re-evaluation of the way that drums should sound on record, leading to a decade of ambience mics and PAs in the studio.

So, as I was saying, fashions in mics came and went. Bill Price and John Punter had trained at Decca Records’ West Hampstead studios, so tended to follow the techniques they’d developed there. AIR was well-equipped with Neumann and AKG condenser mics and when Geoff Emerick came over from Apple he used the Coles 4038 ribbon mics he’d been using on Beatles records. (They were actually called something else then, I can’t remember what, but Coles makes them now.) American producers would show up and be stunned at the number of Neumann U87s we had in stock, but they’d also ask for things we didn’t have and be surprised we didn’t all use Shure SM57s on snare. There was an AKG dynamic mic called (I think) the D212 that some people used on toms and bass and brass instruments, and an AKG 224 dynamic pencil mic that Tony Ashton insisted on as a vocal mic for a particularly disastrous (for me) Ashton, Gardner & Dyke session that I engineered for Gus Dudgeon.

My guess is that Broken Barricades was recorded with the then-fairly-new Dolby A "signal stretcher" devices. These were big suckers, and 16 channels took up two full racks, each about four feet high. Eventually, the switching was automated, but for a significant period you had to manually switch each channel back and forth between record and play modes. This was, of course, a job for the tape op, and a damn tedious one it was. I distinctly remember that the remix session for The Paul Winter Consort’s Icarus album was a nightmare. George Martin had produced this in America around the same time as the second Capitol Seatrain album, but Paul Winter had done a bunch of recording himself and wanted various tracks to be compiled from different performances – recorded at different studios with different musicians and different track layouts. Once the multi-track tapes were assembled, as each edit passed the playback head the bass would suddenly switch from track 1 to track 11 and the whole tape would go from Dolby to non-Dolby. Bill Price did the mix, sometimes a few bars at a time, exactly the kind of mind-boggling technical problem-solving that he could do in his sleep, while I tried manfully to keep up with the Dolby switching. I wasn’t very good at it, but Bill seemed to think I showed promise and the other available tape ops weren’t much better, so I stayed with the project.

If you want to hear how a Dolby encoded track sounds like when it hasn’t been decoded, listen to Eno’s first album. It was mixed by Chris Thomas and there’s a track where they just left the Dolbys off when making the production master – it sounds all grainy and trashy and squished, which is presumably exactly what they were after.

Though AIR was at the technical forefront in 1972 with 16-track recording (Pink Floyd came to AIR to finish the Meddle album on 16-track because Abbey Road was still only 8-track), 24-track soon became the next big thing. Studer had by this time figured out how to make a 2-inch machine (the A80?) and during the time I was away from AIR (February 1972 to September 1973) they must have switched the whole studio to that format. So Exotic Birds and Fruit was recorded 24-track.

Dolby’s original eight- or ten-rackspace Signal Stretchers had shrunk down to a single rack space per channel and eventually wound up as cards, so 24 channels of Dolby A plus various channels for stereo and mixdown could easily be accommodated in a couple of equipment racks. Wherever a signal was going to tape, you patched it through Dolbys, and I remember John Punter using Dolby on the send and return signals to tape delay – before sending a signal to an echo chamber or EMT reverberation plate, it was common to delay the signal a few milliseconds by passing it through a tape delay machine. In true Abbey Road style, this setup had the acronym STEED for stereo echo, echo delay (or something similar). Similarly, ADT was for years the accepted shorthand for artificial (or automatic) double tracking.

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