Mike Oldfield – Why technology can’t replace the human touch

With Richard Branson’s recent statement on the importance of ‘Tubular Bells’ to the growth of Virgin in mind, along with my own thoughts on the importance of a traditional recording team, let us return to 1972 and look at the case of Mike Oldfield and what it took to make Tubular Bells happen.

Mike had made a demo recording of a fledgling Tubular Bells on his own two-track equipment at home. He played it to the principal record companies of the day, but without much sign of interest. However, along came Tom Newman and gave him some encouragement. He promised him a deal with Virgin Records and the recording facilities of their country studio. Once Mike was at The Manor, he could get out of bed and go down to the kitchen, where whatever he wanted for breakfast would be cooked for him. After a walk in the grounds he could decide when he was ready to record, and the engineer and his assistant would be ready to begin. Coffee and sandwiches would be brought into the studio at any time that he wished, and should anything go wrong technically, a resident maintenance engineer (often me) was always close at hand, and would also be there to assemble any necessary technical gadgetry.

If inspiration was failing, or ideas needed to be discussed, the Jolly Boatman pub was a four-minute drive away (or a twenty-minute walk if some fresh air was required). Back at The Manor, a full dinner would be prepared by the experienced resident chef, then it would be back into the studio until the work no longer became productive.

With this sort of support, an album was recorded that became a classic, going on to sell tens of millions of copies. Without that support it may well not have done so, but this begs the question as to what would have happened if the same budding musician had arrived with his demos today. If musicians have to do all the recordings themselves, or if a single engineer is operating a computer-based recording system and having to deal with software problems or shuffle through menus before each take, it can become very de-motivating. However, people are introduced to recording this was nowadays, they rarely get the chance to experience the old methods.

In 1972, everything was done so that Mike could concentrate on his music in an atmosphere of calm and competence. There were diversions when necessary, but there was also professionalism, and it can be a morale boost when you have supportive people around you. This is important because it is rarely possible for musicians to hit the emotional heights with the music if they are feeling down.

One thing that stays in my mind about working with Mike Oldfield is just how many seemingly priceless takes he made me erase. Even if we had spare tracks, working with limited facilities had taught him the value of decision making. He didn’t want to distract himself from the main course of the work by giving himself too many options. It was very frustrating for me at the time to see such great solos erased, but later I saw the reason behind it. I was once working with producer Bill Halverson at The Manor, on a Jack Bruce recording, and I was shocked by how ruthless he was about not having anything at all doubtful on the multi-tracks. He would force the musicians to decide if a take was good enough or not. If they were not sure, he would say ‘then obviously it is not good enough, so do it again’. These sorts of hard-nosed decisions are becoming ever-more rare as people have the almost infinite capacity to store every attempt. However, they are also becoming rare because of the lack of willingness from record companies to pay for experienced producers to guide the sessions.

Nevertheless, when I have been defending these old ways in recent years, I have frequently been accused of elitism. I am told that modern recording systems have enabled a huge amount of people to record their music who would otherwise not have been able to do so. Well; maybe my attitudes are seen to be elitist in these modern times, but Wimbledon is elitist; the Premier League is elitist; the Olympic Games are elitist, and great music can also be elitist. There is nothing wrong with that! Buying a tennis racquet, a pair of football boots or some running shoes, are not enough to give automatic rights of entry into the top level sports competitions. Nor does buying some recording equipment mean that the owner can necessarily make great music.

The problem now is that the professionals are being undervalued by the business people, who see computers as being cheaper replacements for talented humans, which they are not!

Just as there are pre-qualifying requirements for the Olympic Games, there use to be pre-recording requirements of good musicianship or great ideas before entering studios. In the main, it is great music that people want to hear. If it is well-recorded it is the icing on the cake. Conversely, a ‘prefect’ recording of less good musicians and music will not have the same emotional effect on them. The modern ways are aimed more at doing high-quality recording inexpensively, rather than inspiring the musicians, but it is important to remember that perfection can be the enemy of good! The fizz can go flat.

Going back to the subject of the situation that Mike Oldfield found at The Manor, the studio created a stage to perform on, and the environment provided, if not an audience, at least a sense of worth. It was all about uplifting musicians and supporting their morale up in a way that would bring out their creativity. The ‘luxury’ could fire their energy; whether they were aware of it or not. Most modern-day record companies seem to have lost sight of this, as they are often led by administrators who think that musicians are robots who can function on demand and operate their own equipment.

We badly need to have smaller record companies again, that have some feeling for the music and who see themselves as farmers, planting seeds and helping them to grow. Musicians still need that type of support, and it is exciting and involving for the whole staff of a record company when success arrives. The enthusiasm is infectious. We used to try, as the prime goal, to make great music, and hope that money would follow, but we did not make the music simply in order to make money. It was the difference between being professional and being mercenary.

We were proud of what we did. The problem now is that the professionals are being undervalued by the business people, who see computers as being cheaper replacements for talented humans, which they are not! Mercenary attitudes and art do not mix well, and yet great art can be highly valuable. As for Mike Oldfield, yes, he did later have infinite-possibility recording systems, but he also still retained the discipline from years of learning how to do without it, and the training gained by working with the professional recording staff of The Manor. Somewhat similarly, lots of the best Formula One drivers started by driving go-karts! Knowing how to do it with less is almost essential if you are going to get the best out of doing it with more. But after honing your skills, you need somebody to give you the means to develop the talent to its limits. In the world of music, that used to be the job of the record companies, but how many new, talented artistes, these days, get the sort of support that, in turn, supported the rise of the Virgin empire? Technology hasn’t changed the fact that we are still human, and we still need it.


[Editor Notes] So, why is Tubular Bells by all means a 70’s avant garde wall of sound so relevant to Dance Music today? Well, it was part of a small yet growing movement of music that was pushing boundaries in sampling, synthesisers and electronic music, it was a catalyst for new wave music in the 80’s that spawned electronic music as we know it today. If you haven’t heard it, then find it below, you will recognize many samples and producing techniques still used today in modern dance music


About the Author

Loves long walks along the beach, holding hands and romantic 80's power ballads, partial to electronic music and likes to make the odd mix or two.