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THE NEW MUSIK STORY
BY SIMON CROFT
BY SIMON CROFT
During the life of New Musik, both the electronic instruments they played and the equipment in the recording studio, changed quite rapidly. This had a major impact on their sound.
Most bands sound more sophisticated over time because they get bigger recording budgets and, as well as spending more time in the studio, they become more experienced in the studio environment. That wasn't really the case with New Musik. Tony Mansfield had a lot of studio experience and could afford to spend a long time working at TMC [studios], thanks to the deal he had struck with Bernie.
Also, everyone in New Musik was a strong musician. All of them had exceptional timing, which is one of the reasons they were able to get this very precise feel, long before computer-based recording made it easy.
Phil Towner's drumming was so consistent, he was sometimes employed to replace the bass-drum work of other drummers, just to make the feel more contemporary. (However, this piece is about New Musik, so I'm not 'naming names'.) These days, the producer would probably use a drum machine, as did New Musik sometimes on later tracks, but that's a separate issue.
The two Tony's - Mansfield and Hibbert - tended to put down quite a 'black' groove, especially if they were jamming around. But Tony M had a strong sense of what was and was not 'New Musik', so there were sides to their playing that were always there but only came out later, when they perhaps felt a bit more relaxed about their status in the pop world.
Clive's greatest strength was his incredible musical ear. He could listen to a piece of music and call out the chords, even if he was nowhere near a piano. He also had the ability to grab a new synthesiser technology, read the manual, and program any sound you could ever want. But let's go back in time a bit, to the bands that went before New Musik...
Clive Gates and I went to school together. While we were still at school, Clive was introduced to Tony Mansfield, and Tony soon financed a demo recording. I don't remember who their drummer was but the session also involved another school friend called Ollie, who played the clarinet. You could say it was a fairly experimental line-up! That said, Tony was already writing pretty good pop songs, although not even close to the standards he would later achieve. Tony had a book, packed with songs he had written, some of them when he was only eight-years old.
Soon after, Clive, Tony and I got together and played round at Clive's house. It was just a bit of fun. Then Tony, who was a year older than us, managed to land us a gig at the North East London Polytechnic.
In an interview on your site, Clive suggests this was in 1973. I think it may have been even earlier. Whatever, it was massively over-ambitious and the whole evening was a disaster, especially as our drummer quit the day before we played.
You might be interested to know that the line-up of that Worst Gig was: Tony Mansfield on guitar/vocals, Clive Gates on piano and Simon Croft on bass guitar. We were only 15 or 16 and should never have been headlining at a polytechnic - especially as our drummer quit the day before!
We later recorded a demo together, again financed by Tony and engineered by a very young Laurie Lee. The studio in London's Fulham was very basic. If you wanted to add more instruments, they put the first tape recorder into play and the second recorder into record, while you played the new parts! Unlike today's technologies, this sort of set-up was not part of the creative process, it was literally a way of recording what you had already decided to perform.
On this demo, Clive played synthesiser, which was extremely innovative, especially for a bunch of unknown kids. To be honest, it sounded more like a dying pig than a musical instrument but that was hardly our fault.
Tony was deeply interested in the whole recording process and could be very specific about the parts he wanted you to play, even back then. The parts he mapped out for this session were in retrospect very good. But we should have rehearsed a bit more.
The last track we recorded that day was a basic 12-bar jam, which we played mainly to use up the remaining time. (There was nothing to mix because the transfer onto the second recorder was what we got. End of story.) I didn't bother to put on the headphones for this , so repeatedly missed the cue to end the song and was later dubbed by Tony "The Bass Player Who Wouldn't Die"!
Nonetheless, there were some important Mansfield trademarks starting to emerge. All his recordings made extensive use of 12-string guitar. (At this time, it was a fairly cheap Eko, which he later sold to me. It wasn't a great guitar, so we eventually cut the neck off to build Tony's first double-neck, another Mansfield trademark.)
Clive and I were still at school at the time and I think we drifted away from Tony for a while musically, playing exceptionally pretentious jazz-rock in very difficult time signatures. I should mention Andy Mills as the guitarist prepared to attempt playing one time signature over another. Oddly enough, although Clive was quite influenced by King Crimson and Yes, I was more taken with Khan, yet another band Tony had pretty much discovered.
It is a measure of Tony's tolerance and dedication to archiving that he was the one who still had the tapes of Clive, Andy and my efforts years later, even though he wasn't directly involved.
Tony continued to hone his craft as a songwriter and became more and more familiar with the recording environment. At the same time, he and Clive also got together in a pretty good band that played all sorts of paying venues. Although they were mostly playing covers, they were clearly well above the standard you would expect to find. For instance, they did a convincing cover of 10CC's 'I'm Not in Love', ambitious by any standards.
That band was still called Reeman Zeegus, although it did briefly become The Spirals. (Apart from that small added detail from me, the interview you already have with Clive Gates is probably a better guide to dates, names and personnel.)
Whatever Tony did, it was really always 'his' band, although he certainly played his fair share of sessions in order to sustain a living as a full-time musician.
The first time I knew that Tony was really getting his act together was when a friend played me a very good, reggae-tinged demo tape. It was only when Tony's distinctive voice came in that I realised who it was - and frankly, I was shocked how far he had come. The band was called 'The End of the World', I believe.
Although each track on the tape was good in its own right, they didn't conform to any particular style overall. This meant that record labels weren't sure how they would promote the act, so they were never signed.
I think Tony Mansfield learned important lessons at this point. Certainly New Musik had a much more focused image and musical agenda than anything he had done before. Tony was even careful to ensure that the titles of songs were interesting. Just like the 'hooks' in the songs themselves, everything he did was now designed to gain the reader's or listener's interest.
I should perhaps explain more about the effort Tony put into becoming a professional musician and how we was able to sustain it. Although he would take jobs as a dispatch driver on a motorbike, or play any paying engagement, Tony was frequently next to broke.
Before he was signed to CBS, Tony used to fish discarded tape out of the bin at TMC Studios and take it home to reuse, rather as broke painters would use both sides of a canvas. (Incidentally, Tony worked as a commercial artist when he left school and has a strong visual creative ability.)
He also made sure his finger was absolutely on the pulse of the latest musical trends. I can't begin to tell you how many now established artists I first heard because Tony discovered them. But I distinctly remember the night he persuaded a local DJ to play a track from the then unknown Roxy Music. I'm not sure that anyone apart from Tony appreciated what we were listening to! That was years before New Musik but it's a good illustration of how he would try to judge and get ahead of what was 'happening' at the time.
Any account of Tony's career should also acknowledge the support of his wife Maria. Without her continued belief in his creative abilities and willingness to go out to work while he got wrapped up in what looked very much like "messing about with tape recorders", I'm not sure how he would have survived the early years. But, as we all know, things eventually started to come right.
It was because of Tony's growing success as a session player that the initial line-up of New Musik was essentially the same as the Nick Straker Band. In a way, it was a house band, a bit like Booker T and the MGs was based on the Motown Group that backed so many soul hits.
When Nick and Tony both charted, it was time for them to get their own bands together. Tony astutely hung on to bassist Tony Hibbert and drummer Phil Towner.
Clive was then first call as keyboard player. By then, Clive had a pretty good day job but immediately quit, just like a scene out of the Blues Brothers. (Except I don't think his wife starting singing "Respect" in an Aretha Franklin style. I think Sharon Gates was singing "Are you mad?" but that's another story.)
As I said earler, if you want to understand how New Musik's sound changed from album to album, it's important to understand how the equipment became more powerful. As Clive has already noted, they first worked with monophonic synthesisers that could only create a chord if you rewound the tape and added new notes one-by-one. Where a lot of bands accepted the limitations of the equipment, New Musik fought against them.
TMC, at the time of the early New Musik recordings, was not the most sophisticated studio in the world. To be honest, one of its biggest assets was its proximity the guys in the band. Its other big asset, in my opinion, was Pete Hammond. Pete is a world-class recording and mix engineer, who later went on to mix many, many hits for the SAW (Stock Aitkin Waterman) empire in the eighties.
Pete also had a background in electronics and had persuaded TMC's owner Bernie that he had to get the studio to a certain standard in order to attract serious recording artists. Nonetheless, it was pretty basic when the first New Musik session took place, which may have been one of the reasons why Tony Mansfield swung a 'points' deal, rather than having to pay cash.
In essence, if Tony's records sold, Bernie made money on a percentage. If they didn't, Bernie made a loss, because he wasn't charging him for the studio time. Although Bernie was not massively attuned to the music of the day, I think he knew that Tony was made of the right stuff. This gave New Musik a certain freedom, although there was a payoff.
One of the main limitations to TMC in the early days was its mixing desk. This was an ageing unit that had been bought from a central London facility that had decided to upgrade. The mixing desk is the heart of any studio and it was the 'EQ' (equalisation, or tone controls) of that desk that contributed to the early New Musik sound.
Tony was looking for a very individual, bright sound. One of the ways of doing that is to turn up the high frequency EQ control(s) on each channel of the mixing desk. Unfortunately, the old desk at TMC had only one high frequency EQ control on every channel - and they were all fixed at an identical frequency.
Despite Pete and Tony's resourceful techniques, the early tracks, such as Straight Lines, have a slightly repetitive edge to the sound of each instrument. That's partly because of the EQ on the TMC desk.
I should say that today, Tony is very hands-on in his use of a recording studio. In fact, he has high-grade recording equipment of his own. Most of the time with New Musik, however, he left the engineering aspects to Pete Hammond. Tony would explain what he wanted to hear and Pete would use his technical skills to hone in on a specific sound. These was in the days before most artists owned sophisticated recording equipment, and this remains a perfectly acceptable division of duties in the recording studio today.
(Perhaps I should explain that by the time New Musik was formed, I was in the business of selling sound recording equipment. Apologies if the information is more technical than you need. Although it was always a privilege to be among the first to hear what New Musik were creating, it was also a great pleasure to watch and learn from Pete Hammond, whose engineering skills I still very much admire.)
I wasn't actually in the studio during the period that Straight Lines was recorded but I did talk to Pete and Tony in detail about their working methods soon after. Because TMC Studios was only a few minutes down the road from where I lived at the time, I frequently popped in. Certainly by the time Living By Numbers was recorded, I was there quite regularly.
What I can say definitely is that Tony's search for signature sounds involved techniques that can be heard very clearly on Straight Lines and other tracks during this period. Two studio devices that were used extensively were the 'compressor' and the 'noise gate'. I don't want to turn this into information for sound engineers only, so I'll explain these units as simply as I can. If you listen to Straight Lines, you can hear the effects quite clearly.
'Compression' is a kind of automatic level control. It was originally devised so that sounds that reached unexpected peaks would not overload tape recorders, record players or radio/TV station transmitters. That said, by the early 70s, compressors were powerful creative tools in their own right.
Tony Mansfield used compression when he recorded - and often compressed the track again when mixing. The effect was to make what would have been relatively insignificant breath noises very prominent in the vocals. Likewise, the percussive element of fingers or a pick hitting guitar strings was brought to the fore. This and the high frequency boosts applied, often made vocals in particular very 'sibilant', to the extent that another processor called a 'de-esser' was required to stop a word like 'song' sounding like 'thhhhhrong'.
(Should anyone be interested, TMC had a rack of then trendy 'Scamp' processors on view but Pete Hammond later told me that two ageing Alice broadcast compressors hidden in the amp rack were the only ones that could supply the amount of compression Tony required without the sound breaking up. I think this was probably 'between Pete and me' at the time. Here in the 21st Century, vintage sound processors are acknowledged for their great sound and can change hands for thousands of pounds.)
A 'Noise Gate' is pretty much the opposite of a compressor. It was originally designed to switch off the sound completely if there was no meaningful signal. On a multitrack recording, this would mean that the tracks that did not contain an instrument or voice at that point would go completely silent, rather than adding yet another track of hiss to the overall mix. In these days of digital recording, this function is less important but it was vital function at the time New Musik were recording.
As you may have guessed, what was supposed to be a utility soon became part of the New Musik sound. Noise gates were designed with controls you could set to preserve the delicate notes of the instrument or voice you were 'gating' until they faded out. Tony turned the controls the other way, so that bass guitars that once went 'boooingg!' now went 'bog'.
Gating could also be used to spectacular effect on percussion. Adding large amounts of reverb to the snare drum, then cutting it dead with a noise gate, produces a massive but controllable sound that was very popular in the 80s. By then, it was an easy effect to obtain. I would hesitate to say that New Musik did it first but they were certainly well ahead of the curve.
(A note here to New Musik vinyl record collectors. The combination of extreme amount of high frequency boost and sharp 'transients' made many New Musik tracks difficult for mastering houses to transfer to the relatively limited medium of the good-old-record. Put simply, there was just too much going on for record needles to cope with. Disc cutting engineers know how to make certain compromises, so that the needle on your deck can cope without there being too much loss to the original sound. It pains me to admit this but American versions of New Musik records often sound better. This may also be true of Japanese versions, as the Japanese try very hard to get the best fidelity onto their records. Are British cutting engineers second rate? Absolutely not, but they were frequently working with too little time for too little money. The other factor was (and remains) the quality of the vinyl itself, which for pop releases in the UK was frequently recycled. When Led Zeppelin manager Bernie Grant discovered this, he insisted they have the same virgin vinyl used for classical music. Very few bands had this luxury.)
One of the reasons that these effects became easier later on is that digital reverb units became available. Now that almost all sound equipment is digital, it's easy to forget that all the early New Musik records were totally analogue. That included what is known as the 'reverb plate'.
Where a modern digital reverb can simulate almost any acoustic space from the inside of a wardrobe to stadium and beyond, the 'reverb plate' does something a bit more basic. It is essentially a sheet of steel on a sealed box. Sound is fed to its top edge and picked up at the bottom.
TMC had an AKG reverb plate, which was not a bad one in its day. The resourceful Pete Hammond had managed to convert it from mono to stereo. It actually sounded very good, but listen to New Musik recordings from the start and I'm sure you'll hear the difference between the Straight Lines generation of recordings and later on.
Going back to percussion, this was another New Musik signature. As I believe Clive Gates has explained, some of these were generated by an monophonic Korg synthesiser. What I am sure he failed to emphasise was the near impossibility of getting any kind of decent sound out the instrument!
Today's electronic keyboard instruments have banks and banks of great sounds available at the touch of a button. Not that Korg. Every sound had to be obtained by adjusting a bewildering array of sliders, switches and knobs. And if you ever wanted that sound again, you had to remember all those settings, because there was no computer memory on the instrument.
It's been some time since I last listened to Straight Lines but my memory is, listen to it in headphones and you'll become acutely aware of this "tick-tick, tick" sound in your right ear. That's the Korg 700S(?).
Another very New Musik thing was the use of a 'break down' section. Instead of introducing conventional elements like a guitar solo, Tony would strip down the mix to reveal perhaps percussion instruments you had not been fully aware of until then. Privately, Tony was scathing about musicians who spent vast amounts of time practicing tricky instrumental parts but almost no time thinking about the arrangement of the song they were about to record.
If anyone's interested in specific models of musical instruments, around Straight Lines, Tony played an Ibanez thru' neck electric most of the time. I don't remember the exact model but it had maple stripes where the neck went through the body and brown-cased pickups. It played really well but I don't think Tony was ultimately that impressed with the tone.
He also had a distinctive 12-string acoustic. The upper half of the body was rounded almost like a lute. The lower half was cut away to give access to the upper part of the neck. Like so many things about New Musik, this would have been very unusual at the time. I think it was made by Alvarez.
Tony Hibbert generally preferred a Fender Precision bass at this time but the selection of instruments used was soon to change quite a lot. Before I discuss that change and later tracks, I need to do some serious listening. Let's call that Part II.
Before then, here's a point of reference for you. Tony Mansfield's Reeman Zeegus would often play 'Then I Kissed Her' by the Beach Boys at club gigs. Listen again and you might find that this song and Straight Lines have an almost subliminal motif in common.
Copyright (c) 2003-07-12 Simon Croft.
No portion of this text may be published in any form.
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