Monday, August 19, 2013

Kiwi recording flashback

Frank Douglas, 1965

The Golden Years of HMV: An interview with Frank Douglas

By Nick Bollinger, originally published in Music in New Zealand, Autumn 1992; editor - William Dart. [Posted here with kind permission of the author.]

Looking back the 'sixties seem like a golden age in New Zealand recording. There were a number of local record labels releasing a steady stream of singles, plus the occasional album. These received generous radio and television exposure, sold in impressive numbers and had a high profile on the pop charts. During this period there were very few recording studios operating in the country and the majority of homegrown hits came out of the HMV Studios in Wellington. (The studio and its associated record label had been owned by the English EMI company since 1964. In the early 'seventies both changed their name to EMI).

Frank Douglas worked at the studio as a recording engineer from its inception to the day it closed in 1987. In conversation Douglas always stresses the team spirit that made the studio tick. But his former colleagues are quick to credit him with a vital role in its success. As one of them said: 'Frank was HMV'. Frank Douglas is now a freelance engineer based in Wellington. The following conversation with Nick Bollinger was conducted at Douglas 's home in December 1991.

Nick Bollinger: How did you become a recording engineer?

Frank Douglas: I started off as a radio serviceman apprentice and served my five year apprenticeship and came out registered. I spent one year servicing at Columbus Radio Centre in Wellington, and Columbus had a studio called Tanza which they needed an engineer for. I was offered the position and transferred there.

I more or less learned my craft from a fellow named Terry Patterson, who was the manager at that stage. We had a record label (Tanza Records) that had been going since the late 'forties. It was all 78s in those days. There wasn't much local recording going on in Wellington at that stage. 80 per cent of our work was radio commercials, which were directly cut on to acetate discs which the radio stations used to play.

N.B: In those days what did recording engineering involve?

F.D: It was simple. It was all valve. Basically all you had was a microphone channel .We had 8, and you connected 8 microphones to these. You had bass and treble controls and you had to mix each channel while you recorded. You either had to get it right the first time or do it again, so it was pretty hard really, compared to nowadays. You just recorded everything at once and hoped to heaven it turned out right. You had to trust your ears.

There were usually one or two people who had a say in the balance, but once we got the balance right we just went and recorded straight through. If there was a mistake then we had to go over it again; sometimes you did the same thing maybe 50 times.

N.B.:Was this on to magnetic tape?

F.D.: It was magnetic tape in 59; before that you would do it straight on to disc.

Maria Dallas listens to the playback of ‘Tumblin Down’, 1966

N B : How did you come to work for EMl?

F.D.: I left Tanza in 1960 and Terry Patterson and I started another studio, called Lotus Studios , which was owned by Tasman Vaccine Laboratories. Lotus lasted two years then Fred Green bought the studios off TVL, and in 1964 EMI bought the studios off Fred Green. EMI originated in Britain but had branches throughout the world - there were probably up to 50 or 60 EMI outlets worldwide.

N.B: What spurred them to take over a studio in Wellington?
F.D: Basically to see if there was a profit in local productions, which there was.

N.B: Did you find you needed to develop new techniques to record the pop groups and singers?

F D: I used to do a lot of disc cutting as well so of course you would hear everything that came from overseas. You'd hear certain things and think, 'Now how have they done that?' and try to work it out and maybe try and use it on a session, see how it worked.

We developed our own little techniques of echo and repeated echo and those things that were popular back then. In the early days we didn't have what was called an echo plate which was probably worth about seven or eight thousand dollars, which in those days was a hell of a lot of money. So we made our own, which probably cost us about $100 and worked very well.

N.B: Who designed and built it?

F.D: There was a chap named Brian McIllwaine who worked with me in those days, and he and I built it together. It consisted of a huge steel pipe bent around a frame, and a sheet of steel anchored to it, with a loudspeaker driving this sheet of steel with a crystal pickup on top to pick up vibrations - and it really worked well. We used it one lot of stuff. The early Maria Dallas recordings. From early '64 to probably '68, it was used.

N.B: Once EMI entered the picture did the nature of your work change much?

F.D: Yes, with Lotus we were basically doing radio commercials and radio programme production. When EMI bought into it there was a chap called Alec Mowat who was more or less in charge of local repertoire. He was really keen on local artists and basically if anyone came in who he thought might have a reasonable chance, we went ahead and did an audition tape. If it turned out right we went ahead and made a recording. Usually it was a 7 inch single, double-sided, and if the single took off we did an LP.

N.B: And EMI provided the budget?

F.D: Yes, EMI had a budget for these things. 'Local productions' they called it. We were probably doing 80 per cent of the local production at that stage. They all recorded at EMI, but not necessarily for EMI's HMV label. John Hore recorded for Joe Brown Records, Maria Dallas and Dinah Lee for Viking. There were all these different labels.

We also started doing work for television when it started. Pete Sinclair did a programme once a week (Let's Go) and we used to record all the backings three days before it was due to air. They would go out live, with the backings performed. We used to record 8 or 10 backings a week but that was only a day to a day-and-a-half's work.

Frank Douglas and EMI's cutting lathe

N B : When did the studio progress from the mono recorder with the eight channel desk?

F.D.: In about 1966 we got the first Ampex stereo machine. When we went to stereo we had to build a new mixer for a start. We actually had two stereo machines come to think of it. We used to dub from one machine to the other and each time we dubbed we would add an extra section in, either a vocal or an instrument or whatever. Some of the early recordings had six or eight dubs on them, from tape to tape to tape to tape to tape.

N.B.: Didn't you lose a lot of quality in that process?

F.D.: Surprisingly enough I don't think we did, listening to those old recordings now. The evidence is still around, what we achieved with it. All those early ones like the Maria Dallas/Dinah Lee material, all of that was dub to dub to dub. There's an album we did with the Chicks too, I think. All of that early stuff was usually four or five dubs before we got a master.

NB: Did you go to any lengths to try and get separation within the instruments, as they do these days?

F.D. Yes, we used to screen things off. But we didn't worry too much abut it. There wasn't really much point in it: all it did was clean the sound up slightly. But what we used to aim for was an overall sound - not individual sounds - a pleasant group backing sound.

We'd try and balance the thing within itself in the studio half the time. You'd stand in front of the instrument or amplifier and listen, and if it sounded all right you place microphones in front and it usually came out much the same in the control room.

N.B: Were you far behind the overseas studios in terms of technology?

F.D: Probably, at that stage, five or six years really. But it's amazing when you talked to people from overseas you'd find that really you're not behind. They would do things the same way.

We used to get various people coming over from Britain to discuss recording sessions and how they did it, and you would pick up an awful lot of knowledge that way. They'd just drop the odd little hint about something and you'd try it. There were no books on the subject, hardly any information at all. It was just a matter of perseverance half the time. There was the enthusiasm in those days and it just all happened..

N.B: Were you working alone at this point?

F.D: Peter Hitchcock did a number of artists also. In those days we shared the recording of local artists. We worked together occasionally. We had to have two engineers on the job to get certain effects. We worked very closely together and we learned by doing - that's inevitable. Peter was a brilliant engineer and was very good at building up equipment. Anything new that came out we'd try and copy it and install it in the studios - some new gimmick to help with production, odd bits and pieces the company wouldn't allow us to spend money on.

N.B.:What sort of things?

F.D.: There were all sorts of equalizers built into the desk which weren't on the market in those days. The main aim was to produce certain effects on voices and instruments.

NB: An effect that seemed to be used on a lot of HMV/EMI recordings around 67-68 is that swishing sound known as 'phasing'. I think of Simple Image's 'Spinning Spinning Spinning” and Shane's 'St Paul'. How was that achieved?

FD: This is when you have to have two engineers. You had two tape recorders and we used to vary the speed of one very slowly to put it slightly out of phase with the other one, which gave you that swishing effect. And you had to have someone slowing down the other recorder to make it happen. To get it to happen in the right place was very hit and miss.

N.B.: How long did 'Spinning Spinning spinning' take to perfect?

FD.: Well we spent one afternoon - it could have been up to five hours. Peter was on the desk and I was on the tape recorder trying to slow it down in the right place to make it go out of phase. Anyway, we got it in the finish after many attempts, many attempts.

N.B: On a number of HMV/EMI recordings from that period, such as Allison Durbin's "I Have Loved Me a Man' and some of the Avengers' tracks, there seems to be a harpsichord. Did you have one in the studio?

F.D: No it was a piano, We'd slow the tape down and record the piano normally, then speed it up to normal and of course the pitch went up and it sounds a bit like a harpsichord. It was just a gimmick; we used it a lot on different things. With half-speed recording when you speed it up the pitch goes up double so it's still in tune.

N.B: How long did it take to make a single in those days? "I Have loved Me a Man' for instance?

F.D: About four or five hours work, that's all. The Blerta single, 'Dance Around the World' was one evening, maybe four or five hours too. And they were top sellers. It was just something that happened in the studio: you could tell immediately. You had a feeling it was going to be a great hit and it usually was. It was the atmosphere during the actual creation of the things.

Mark Williams at the Neve mixing desk (now at York St Studio), note cigarette!

N.B: Until the late sixties, production credits were rarely given on records. Who actually produced records up to this time?

FD: Well, quite often someone from the record company, usually a salesman or somebody, would come down with the group, but it was generally left up to the engineer. This went on for quite a few years, until EMI started taking on producers. Howard Gable was one of the first - he produced 'I Have Loved Me a Man'.

After Howard left two years later, Peter Dawkins arrived and Alan Galbraith came in on the scene later. They had their own style and a certain sound they wanted. So the whole thing sort of went away from the engineer being a producer to having a producer there telling the engineer what he wanted.

There's a certain producer I won't name who used to arrive at the studio, we'd get things going he'd take a few puffs of something, disappear under the desk and go to sleep. He'd wake up when we'd finished and say, 'How was it?' We'd play it to him, he'd say 'That's all right', take a few more puffs and go out again. There were a few interesting things like that that happened, but of course the engineers in those days were all innocent - we didn't realise what was going on around us half the time.

N.B.: There are credits given for various different roles on recordings later in the 'sixties, such as A&R manager, musical director, arranger, producer etc...

F.D: A&R was artists and repertoire manager, and he was the person who selected the material to be recorded. It was generally a cover version, as there wasn't much original material done in those days. In fact, I think some of the record companies used to hold back releases from overseas and get the local artists to record them. After the local artist had done it they released the overseas one. And half the time they didn't release the original version - to promote sales of local artists.

The musical director was the person who arranged for the musicians to collect at the studio to perform; he often conducted as well. There were several - Don Richardson, Garth Young, Brian Hands. Probably Brian Hands and Don Richardson had the most to do with the arrangements on later LPs.

N.B.: In the late seventies EMI shifted their studios to Lower Hutt. How did this change things?

FD: It was a drastic change really. It did a lot of damage to the studios. We had beautiful new studios out there but lost 80 per cent of our clients in the shift. The management of EMI in England said it would make no difference. We had fought against it, tried to get studios built in the Wellington area.

EMI at that stage owned the land in the Hutt where the studio was to be built and they weren't prepared to buy another property and build in Wellington. EMI at the Hutt became basically a manufacturing unit. We did cassette mastering, disc cutting and the odd recording.

N.B: Was it a superior studio to the old Wakefield Street one?

F.D: It's very hard to say. Some studios give a certain sound. I thought it was superior, but I don't know. The Wakefield Street studio was just a box-shaped room with a very high ceiling. We had curtains all around the walls, pinex and stuff, probably 25 metres by 50. So it wasn't big at all, but it had a certain sound. I think a lot of the recordings we did at that old EMI studio turned out fairly well, sound-wise.

The Hutt studio was very large - too large I felt for some of the things we did out there. It was all right for orchestral things, with say 20 or 30 players, but for smaller groups it was too big, with too much space between everything. You had to separate everyone to isolate instruments and it led to a feeling of estrangement between players, I think. Whereas at the old studio they were all crammed in together and they had that feeling of being one.

N.B.: It seems as though there were few rules in the early days of recording, whereas today there's more of a set method.

FD: Yes, well I think there is now and this is possibly why a lot of today's recordings sound very similar. There's no personal preferences that go into it now. It's all set out and you do it that way.

At EMI we had all had a go at everything. We tried to give ourselves an interest in everything. If one person wasn't there to do something, someone else could do it. We were all fairly versatile so we could swap over and do each other's job if we had to. It made life fairly easy really, because you could always rely on someone helping you out.

[The B&W photos are by Frank Douglas. Colour photos EMI. Sourced from Chris Bourke's blog]

ADDED 20 Sept 2013: Chris Parkinson commented on this interview after it was posted on the 'NZ music scene, bands and niteclubs' Facebook page, writing "Frank Douglas has his dates wrong in that interview. I worked at HMV Studios starting late 1962. I was there in March 1963 when my son was born and left in late 1963 or early 1964.

"So Lotus became HMV before I started - probably late 1961. Frank is also mistaken over the construction of the echo plate too. I mostly built it with Frank assisting. His description is correct however. Brian McIlwain was involved mostly in record [disk] production working in both studio and pressing plant.

"Other personnel who worked there at the time I was there were Roy Singleton, who did all the mastering on the Neumann disk cutter [the one Frank is shown at looking into the microscope] and Brian Pitts an excellent engineer who had returned from London after working at Landsdown Studios. Brian is retired now and living in Tauranga ... We worked together later at TVNZ when he took over on-air promotions when John McCready appointed him."

Updated : Frank Douglas passed away on 19 February 2015. 

READ: Audioculture article on Truth and legend – The HMV and EMI recording studios and pressing plant

1 comment:

Dave G said...

RIP Frank, thanks. (Frank died on 19/02/2015).