February 08, 2010

Peter Mew, Abbey Road sound engineer, recalls TEB in the studio...

As every TEB fan knows, Peter Mew has been the recording engineer produced TEB albums in Abbey Road (now he's a remastering engineer).
Waiting for his answers to some questions I've sent him some weeks ago, these are his memories about his involvement with Harvest Records, with a short funny anecdote on Glen Sweeney...

"I started at Abbey Road on July 26th 1965. It was mandatory in those days:  you began in the tape library. It was great training, it showed you where all the rooms were and you could get to know all the people. 
I did about 18 months in the library. At the end of '66 I moved up and became a tape-op for allocated sessions with producers like John Burgess, George Martin, Ron Richards, Norman Newell and Wally Ridley. Mostly EMI producers and acts because  there were hardly any third party acts coming (or allowed) in. I would also do classical sessions and playbacks for classical producers because they couldn't work the machines on their own. I had no formal music training but I played bass in a band.
"The system that applied at the studio was that after tape-op you went on to cutting lacquers and masters and then when someone died at the top everyone moved up one. At the beginning of 1967 there was a change in management and several of the engineers left and it was recommended that I became and engineer and become the first person to miss out the cutting stage - which happened. The first album I worked on was "S.F. Sorrow" by the Pretty Things. I worked with Norman Smith on The Pink Floyd sessions and I engineered continually until 1987.

"Harvest was part of a very experimental era, this followed the whole Mersey scene and The Hollies etc., who up until this time had basically been singles based. It really started with the Floyd (apart from who-know-who) - EMI letting the bands into the studio to see what happened which is why you got so much diversity - The Third Ear Band with a free form  thing which could last twenty minutes. As an engineer I got worried that the tape would run out before they finished the number! I remember Glen Sweeney, who for the first two albums, I believe, was the percussionist, with his talking drums, finger-cymbals and other esoteric instruments. At some point along the way, someone suggested that he should have a drum kit, so they bought  him a big shiny one and they went into one of their elongated numbers, and about fifteen minutes down the line it all stopped and fell apart, and you could hear from the studio: "Oh, my leg's gone, my leg's gone, I can't play anymore". After that he was always known at the studio as Glen 'The Leg' Sweeney.
Paper cut with (L-R) Peter Mew, David Gilmour and Roger Waters at the desk.
"I recorded The Edgar Broughton Band, Kevin Ayers, Roy Harper, Pink Floyd and Formerly Fat Harry. I did the studio part of "Ummagumma" where they each decide to do a quarter each.
I started on 8 track for Harvest and then I went 16 and then 24 quickly after. The great thing about working at that time was how the record company allowed quite a large budget for this experimental kind of music. It gave young engineers like me a lot of time to experiment with our craft. We got time to tinker  around with various mike positions, etc, and could spend half a day on one instrument while the band decided what they were actually going to play... it was a fantastic grounding. Someone had discovered that if you hit a gong and immersed it in a bath of water that the pitch changed as you immersed it. So one of the things I wanted to know was what does it sound like underwater. So we got a mike and wrapped it in a polythene bag and recorded underwater. It sounded great for about fifteen seconds, until the water seeped into the bag and shorted the mike out!
Another good trick was the method of getting the right level for a bass drum.You would hold a lighter in front of the speaker and wait until it blew the flame out.

"(...) You mixed the albums you recorded and it was pretty quick especially with 8 track. There were a few effects boxes but most of the albums' relied on the music not the effects. 

(...) Cannabis had a big bearing on things. Many's the time  I've sat at the desk at three o'clock in the morning watching someone stoned out of their mind, they're thinking they're playing the most amazing guitar solo in their life, and I knew that it was absolute crap and that they were going to do it all again the next day: they always did it again. Not mind expanding - mind contracting. Sessions could last from 12.00am until 2, 3 or 4 in the morning. I was working in studios 2 and 3 with strings recorded in 2, but not with hit acts - it was more "Who's that?", than "Who's who"."

(from "Harvest Festival" 5CDs booklet, Harvest Records UK 521 1982, 1999)
©1999 Peter Mew-Harvest Records

no©2010 Luca Ferrari

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