This really has been a week of mixed emotions as my past, present and possibly my future all collided.
On Monday I travelled 200 miles up the M4 to London, and 50 years back in time.
Earlier this year I got in touch with Rocket Records to let them know this October was the Golden Jubilee of me signing for them when I was 13 years old. It was a simple question; would they mind if I had my recordings and copyrights back.
I have to say that it is highly unusual for recording and publishing companies to give anything away or give anything back. Even if my catalogue wasn’t earning anyone a fortune you never know if out of the blue an old song or recording might suddenly become valuable.
It only took a day or so for the email reply saying that Elton was more than happy to give me back everything and he wished me the very best with the material.
That was back in March. As you’ve probably noticed Elton and his team have been a little busy lately but this week the papers were all duly signed. I was then given the address of the secret location where everything has been stored since 1973. On Monday morning I arrived at the big gates and pressed the buzzer. Before I could say my name the gates opened, and I was in. I was greeted by Joe. It was Joe’s dad who worked for Elton as a production manager in the early 70’s who had set up the storage facility many stores for many years. When he retired Joe took over.
Having collected the tapes my next stop was the ‘Copyroom’. Recording has continually evolved over the last half century. When I started making records in 1973 the tape machines used 2 inch tape to record 16 tracks at a time. Over the years the machines have changed to 24 track using any number of special systems like Dolby to help improve sound quality. Then came Digital and 32 track and then came obsolescence with the arrival of recording on computers.
Very emotional listening to these for the first time in 50 years . The sound is so warm and round... pic.twitter.com/fL0YIFEU4C— Mal Pope (@malpope) July 31, 2023
The reason I took all of my tapes to the ‘Copyroom’ was that for many years they have been one of the longest established rental companies in the music business. They had supplied tape recorders for decades and kept them in good working order. They still have just about every conceivable tape machine and format available to play the tapes and transfer that information to computer.
One of the big worries with old tapes is their condition after so much time. I knew they would have been stored carefully but old tapes are known to shed their magnetic oxide coating which actually contains the sound. Dave Corbett who runs the ‘Copyroom’ started opening the boxes. One by one he announced which ones would work straight away as opposed to the ones that would need to be baked (yes, in an oven) to ensure the oxide didn’t fall off the tape.
Remembering the days we all played in the same room together – Wal Coughlan, Tony Kiley and Mal Pope (Malvin Bishop’s Originals)
How did he know? He explained he could smell if the tapes were good. Back in the day recording tape was made using Whale oil. As we became more aware of the damage we were doing to wildlife manufacturers made the switch to synthetic oil which wasn’t as good keeping the oxide on the plastic backing. If it was good old tape it smelt like an old garage… or possibly a whale!!!
The thing that really took the time was setting up the machines to work at their best depending on the exact settings, every tape seeming to be slightly different. The first thing I noticed was how good the sound coming from the tape actually was compared to a lot of modern recordings. Talk to old sound buffs and they will always go on about how things sounded better in the old analogue days and to be honest as they years have passed I’ve started to think its just old guys talk. In that first 5 minutes I found out that like a lot of things those old guys say it was absolutely true.
The other thing that I realised was that I could still remember being in the room when we recorded the songs. I can remember the smell of the studio (cigarettes and hamburgers) and the excitement of being in a room with great musicians. I could also hear my voice getting tired as we went for take after take. I’m always surprised when I think back to how I could fall asleep when Gus Dudgeon mixed the Elton John and Lennon sessions form Madison Square Gardens. Simples…I was ‘cream crackered’!!!
There was an issue when making records with Gus Dudgeon that it might be difficult to do promotion if I had school commitments. I still remember Gus saying we could make one of those films they sometimes showed on Top of The Pops. Always ahead of the game Gus was talking about making a promotional ‘video’ years before MTV.
Yesterday saw the release of ‘For This Reason’, an anthem I have produced to mark the Centenary of the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon. This record was made in a very different way to my 1970’s records. For a start everyone was recorded separately. Some in their own homes, others on location with the strings being recorded in Prague via a live internet link.
Recording Dr Rowan Williams on Location with Andrew Griffiths
When it came to the promotional video there was no massive team of technicians and a camera crew. Essentially I would turn up with my Phone and get people to sing along to the backing track, A school in Knighton recorded themselves as did most of the soloists who got family or friends involved or managed to balance their phones in such a way that they could sing against a plain background making it easier for me to add them all into the final video.
That was the past and the present, now for the future. Although I don’t broadcast in a regular slot I do often get asked to sit in for broadcasters taking their summer holidays. This week I was asked to present a programme on a new station to me using ‘Voice Tracking’. After a half an hour crash course last Friday I set to work. Basically all of the elements of the show is chosen by a producer or maybe by a computer and every so often there is a slot for the presenter to add some speech. The programme is so clever it will tell you if the show is too long or too short so you can either talk more or less. It will also tell the person in charge back at base if you haven’t added enough content.
The idea I think is to make recording radio shows faster because you don’t have to listen to all of the music and speech content you’re not involved in. Now I expect if you do this regularly it probably does speed things up because you might have only 10 minutes of speech to record per hour…but I was new to the system and I kept making mistakes.
My first 4 hour show took the best part of a whole day and the second show wasn’t much quicker. Oh well, you can’t fight progress but sometimes I do miss the days when we all worked together in real time.