John & Pauline Allan from Bridgetown, Western Australia
I really wish that I had paid more attention in physics class in the early 70s.
All those letters and equations did my head in. I only took an interest when the experiments came out. Your hair sticking up and zapping your class mates while holding the Van Der Graaf generator was one of my favourites. As was watching your voice make wavy patterns on the cathode ray oscilloscope. That’s as deep as I got into the science of it all.
In the 70s as an aspiring musician, I bought my first recording device. It was a Sony TC-630 reel to reel about the size of a beer crate. Hardly portable but one feature really sold it for me. Sound on Sound. You could play with yourself (in a wholesome musical way) or multi track as it became known. If it worked for Mike Oldfield it could work for me – although I think Mr T. Bells’ setup was probably a tad more sophisticated than mine.
And he had a modicum of talent.
I’d put down the first track (got the lingo already !) with acoustic guitar. Tuned down the bottom strings for the bass or changed the tape speed up and played the low guitar strings twice as fast (trickier). Drums were a series of cardboard boxes covered with towels and a child’s tambourine. An early Casio keyboard provided reedy organ sounds. Vocals on the top and it may have been acceptable but I insisted on adding a large horn section and a choir. With all the inevitable tape hiss it sounded like a sinking transistor radio lost at sea in a hail storm.
I might need some technical help here.
At seventeen I was playing sax in a band with my big brother and a bunch of 20 something year olds. We decided to make a demo tape and booked a 12 hour session in a studio in Kilmarnock (the Abbey Road of it’s day!
The first 6 hours seemed to be taken up tuning and miking up the drum set and another couple of hours getting the bass sound right. The rhythm tracks (all 3 of them) had taken the best part of 10 hours to ‘put down’ leaving just 2 for vocals, sax parts and solos.
Eventually after all that waiting around it was my turn. The sound engineer gave me my cue and I launched into what I felt was a pretty raunchy, straight from the heart tenor sax solo.
“OK great. Shall we go for a take ?” Aaaagh ! I couldn’t replicate the original solo. Each take was decidedly inferior. I think the sound boffins eventually spliced together the best bits of numerous samples which still sounded lame to me.
Any subsequent sessions I was going to be ‘Johnny One Take’.
I did get to partake in more sessions with a lovely chap called Brian in his West End basement with egg cartons stapled to the wall and heavy velvet curtains. That was the first time that I’d come upon a real live synthesizer (ARP Odyssey for the anoraks among you)
I also did some work when the studio moved into the city and finally to an old church next to Kelvingrove Park.
Ca Va studios was a great education in my life and I loved the (albeit limited) experience I had there as did others like Belle and Sebastian, John Martyn, Paolo Nutini, Westlife, Texas, Robbie Williams, Ed Sheeran, Rage Against The Machine, The Proclaimers and many more who (unlike me) recorded albums there.
The bigger studio meant a greater number of sound engineers and technicians. These were usually the swots that paid attention in physics who talk about EQs, compressors and band pass filters.
While the musos are discussing about taking a song from the bridge, they’re asking if you want a gate on it.
Where are we ? Tolkien’s shire, Frodo ? Just make me sound gooder! Honestly, they don’t even understand plain English.
Let them know you’re taking it up a crochet and watch them scurry back to their burrows.
Pauline too, is no stranger to the recording studio.
“How was the red light experience for you Pauline ? And I don’t mean the fishnets and stilettos one either !”
Very funny John…… and when exactly are you planning to get those clothes back to me??
Look, I’m not exactly sure how this whole thing came about but… once upon a time in the 70s, Marion, Gillean and myself were asked to audition as backing vocalists at the BBC in Queen Margaret Drive, Glasgow.
A rather random request you may think but we were music students at the time and could sing a bit.
The Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama had put us through our paces studying classical repertoire but venturing into the world of light entertainment would certainly be a first for us.
A bit like Three Little Maids from (music) School meets The Three Degrees. Or the -3 degrees if you lived in Glasgow.
We arranged the Perry Como classic And I Love You So penned by Don McLean for three voices, practised our individual parts, put it together as a trio and rocked up (well, sidled up… ) to the Beeb for our audition.
It was only then we realised we needed a name. We quickly jumbled up our own names, Papillon emerged and we flew.
We were regularly called upon to add backing vocals to various artists who made live recordings with the BBC Radio Orchestra, among them Mr Vince Hill.
He recorded his first set and we broke for lunch.
As the girls and I headed for the canteen, Vince ( we were on first name terms by now) called us over and insisted we join him for lunch at La Lanterna in Kelvinbridge on Gt Western Rd.
The music producer Phil was also in attendance but had a face like fizz throughout the meal.
We discovered later that the BBC hospitality budget was intended for Vinny and a select few, that didn’t include us.
It was a lovely lunch enjoyed all the more in the knowledge that somebody else was paying for it.
As we finished our recording session Vinky gave us some pointers.
We of course listened to all his valuable Edelweiss.
(ed: Scottish rhyming slang!)
During the next couple of years the opportunity arose for us to record as a trio for the insomniacs favourite, Radio 2’s You And The Night And The Music.
We were given unlimited access to what music was available in the extensive BBC library and we also commissioned arrangements.
What a privilege for us teenagers. To think we worked on assignments like that at college.
Missed a trick there. We should just have submitted our homework!!
With the ink dry on the manuscript, off we went to sing with the boys in the ‘band’.
One was the legendary saxophone player, Frank Pantrini.
He would sit with the Radio Times crossword during his ‘bars rest’, then without missing a beat (pun intended) would pick up the sax, play his solo to perfection then return to his crossword.
On another occasion, he appeared in front of the recording booth doing some interpretive dance as we were singing Autumn Leaves.
Not only a brilliant musician but a real character.
I really admired and respected all the musicians and technicians that effortlessly made the magic happen back in the late 70s and wondered how they fared after the radical BBC cuts of the early 80s, which unfortunately included the disbanding of the SRO.
And then, there was just me, a microphone, and a Steinway grand piano dwarfed in the vast studio space.
At least producer Phil was happy…. he only had one companion at La Lanterna to expense now.
There are always the classic control room tales…. like the engineers puzzled by a constant clicking sound during an orchestral recording. After checking all the connections on the numerous microphones they eventually spied the harpist behind her music stand… knitting!
Then there was the drummer who was catching up with the cricket on his transistor radio.
Every ‘take’ he would pop the ear piece out and it would swing down next to his bass drum mike. The engineers were left scratching their heads. “I swear I can hear John Arlott !”
Of course this was in the halcyon days of analogue, decades before the dumbing down ‘D’ word.
Any spotty faced oik with opposable thumbs can scrape up a ‘doof doof’ cat vomiting beat and a repetitive 5 note anthem on their mobile these days. Add a tik-tok video and a few product endorsements before even leaving the bedroom as well.
I now pity all these down and out former sound engineers living on the street.
“Any old tapes you’d like me to splice, gov ? I can fix cassettes. I’ve got my own pencil !”