VANGELIS: Recording At Nemo Studios

Interview | Artist

Published in SOS November 1997
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

A tremendously gifted yet private man, Greek composer Vangelis has contributed greatly to the acceptance of electronic music as an art form of its own with soundtrack works like Chariots Of Fire and Blade Runner. From 1975 to 1987, Vangelis did nearly all his recording at his own Nemo Studios in London, a place hitherto as shrouded in mystery as the man himself. RICHARD CLEWS dons his investigator's mac and turns his attention to Vangelis's Nemo years...

 

The name of Nemo Studios has a special meaning for Vangelis fans; between 1975 and 1987 the Greek composer and multi-instrumentalist recorded a series of groundbreaking records at this, his very own 'synthesizer laboratory'. From 1975's Heaven and Hell through to 1977's Spiral and 1985's Mask, Vangelis showed himself to be at the forefront of electronic-based music, and collaborations with Jon Anderson, Demis Roussos, Irene Papas and the English Chamber Choir, among others, saw him take the synthesizer into uncharted musical territory. The success of this work added to a reputation stretching back to Vangelis' time as keyboard player and songwriter in Aphrodite's Child, a leading Greek rock band which featured Demis Roussos on bass.

Through the '70s and '80s, demand for Vangelis' music in almost every medium grew, and Nemo became the launch pad for a bewildering range of projects. Music critics usually point to Chariots Of Fire as the high point of this period, but it was only one of many acclaimed film scores -- Blade Runner, Antarctica and The Bounty could have enjoyed similar commercial success. Ballet music for Frankenstein and Beauty and the Beast, and themes for many television series and adverts list among Vangelis' other ventures while at Nemo.

The sleevenotes on the Nemo albums reveal a host of engineers who helped Vangelis shape and record this music, among them Raine Shine, John Walker, Alan Lucas, Jess Sutcliffe, Marlis Dunclau and Andy Hendriksen. With respect to the work of these people and of others who remain uncredited, the two people regarded as Vangelis' closest technical collaborators at Nemo are Keith Spencer-Allen and Raphael Preston. Their comments shed light on one of the first studios designed for keyboard-based music, and the work undertaken there.

FIRST APPROACH

Keith Spencer-Allen had served his technical apprenticeship as an engineer in several studios before he met Vangelis in 1975. He spent four years as engineer and studio manager at Nemo, and moved on to a successful career in journalism. Today, as well as being a highly respected figure in the professional audio world, he is a writer, producer and technical consultant.

Keith recalled his first meeting with Vangelis: "I was chief engineer at a small central London studio called Orange that doesn't exist any more. Vangelis suddenly turned up one day asking to look around, and then booked about a month of 12-hour days to produce two albums for artists signed to Phonogram Greece. The month booking ran way over, and I got to know Vangelis quite well on a professional basis. A couple of months later he called me at the studio asking if I knew of any experienced recording engineers who would like to work for him, as the engineer who had just finished the Heaven and Hell album [Alan Lucas] had left. I had been looking for an excuse to leave Orange Studios, but Vangelis didn't know that! I asked him if I could come and look around Nemo, and talk about what he needed, and he agreed.

"During the time we had worked together producing those Greek albums he had made some keyboard overdubs, but I had never heard any of his music. When we talked a few days later, he played me the master of Heaven and Hell, and I thought it was like nothing I had heard before. It seemed fresh and exciting, and he had clearly created it with a passion. The discussion ended with me joining him -- not just to act as his recording engineer, but also to try and knock the studio into some workable shape."

NERVE CENTRE

Vangelis set up his recording studio in 1975, on the top floor of Hampden Gurney Studios, a former school building in Hampden Gurney Street, near Marble Arch. He originally wanted to buy Command Studios in Piccadilly, a former BBC facility where Roxy Music recorded their debut album, but the owners of the building decided it should not continue as a studio, so Vangelis bought some of their equipment instead.

As Keith Spencer-Allen discovered, there was already enough equipment to produce an album. There was also plenty of space -- Nemo's main studio area was 23 x 44 feet, with a ceiling 20 feet high, and the control room was approximately 430 square feet. But the layout left much to be desired. Firstly, the top floor had been used as a film studio, and old lighting tracks and props were left behind; secondly, the acoustics were impaired by the 'creative environment' in which Vangelis liked to work (some idea of this can be obtained from the picture of Vangelis astride a metal-plated horse elsewhere in this article). For example, the control room alone contained a fountain, a bed, a hammock (in which Demis Roussos was often to be found), speakers stacked like tower blocks, mobiles hanging from the ceiling, plants, mirrored statues and a tiger skin on the floor. The latter was placed between the desk and the tape machine, so Keith had to avoid breaking his neck when rushing around.

Some obstacles were removed, but the acoustics needed more improvement; acoustic consultants found that sound was leaking out and that the studio's roof was resonating at certain bass frequencies. The solution was to increase the mass of the ceiling, which required a group of helpers to carry paving slabs up on to the roof.

Another problem was the equipment Vangelis bought from Command. The API desk (which had been heavily customised) and Scully 16-track tape machine produced a sound whose quality was undeniably limited. This was exacerbated by the noisy Binson Echorec units through which Vangelis patched his keyboards. The older equipment was eventually replaced in 1978 by a 36-channel Quad/Eight Pacifica mixer, and Lyrec TR55 24-track and Ampex ATR100 2-track tape machines.

MULTI-TRACK SUGGESTION

With the structural and technical problems solved, Keith and Vangelis could enjoy the benefits of one of the best-equipped studios in the country. The massive main studio and control room (see Keith Spencer-Allen's rough floor plan of the studio in this period) enabled Vangelis to work with whomever he wanted, from choirs and soloists to African drummers, and with all kinds of instruments. In addition to the vast array of keyboards (see the equipment list, right) there was a large variety of percussion, including a drum kit, three tuned timpani, a 3.5-foot symphonic bass drum, a symphonic snare drum, gongs, a thunder sheet, a gamelan, a circular saw blade, two bell trees, a glockenspiel and two sets of tubular bells.

Together, Keith and Vangelis followed a spontaneous method of working, which they tried to preserve through the lengthy, overdub-ridden process of recording. Keith: "Most of Vangelis's music was created through overdubbing; there was no other way. With no MIDI then and only primitive sequencers, every instrument had to be played. Even some of the simpler lines were in fact frequently made up from several unison parts, to create the right tonal colour."

When recording just synths, compression and EQ proved less important than for an acoustic session: "In general, EQ was only used on keyboards to overcome the limitations of the technology. Most of those early machines were noisy or had very strange artefacts. The Elka Rhapsody had a process that was used to 'multiply' the sound to make it seem orchestral. Although it wasn't very noticeable on a single track, string lines would be built up of maybe 10 parts, and then that processing effect would be as noticeable as the music. We developed complex EQ templates to reduce that. Sometimes, on some of the more resonant sounds, if they were being used with a chorus effect and some other modulation, I might have used low-ratio compression or peak limiting, just to catch the odd stray peak. However, Vangelis is very skilled at playing within a limited dynamic range, and he would control his levels for the effect he wanted.

"On some instruments, Vangelis liked to shape the EQ himself, using 27-band graphics. He had very specific ideas about guitars, basses, percussion and, to a lesser extent, his pianos. We didn't always agree; sometimes he had to be restrained from over EQing because of possible technical problems, but in general he was trying to achieve the sound he wanted to hear in the mix at the recording stage, and as he knew what else was going to comprise the finished track, he was usually quite accurate."

Unlike the situation in commercial studios, the work carried out at Nemo was not subject to routine: "There was no such thing as a typical day, really. It depended very much upon what projects were in hand. When working on an album, I would arrive at around midday to set everything up and prepare the studio. The plan was that Vangelis would turn up around two o'clock, aiming to start recording at around three o'clock. At least, that's what he would do when the record company pressure was really on, but otherwise there would often be no sign of him until after seven in the evening, or much later. Once we started recording, we would work through until a convenient time to break which was probably between two and four in the morning. At times when an album was running late, this would go on seven days a week, for as long as three months! When working on non-Vangelis projects, we tried to return working hours to a slightly stricter 10am to 8pm, which was more reasonable."

CURIOUS ELECTRIC

The completion of Nemo Studios coincided with the arrival of the first polyphonic synthesizers, sold through a handful of specialist music shops in London. Although Vangelis was visited by synth company reps, he liked to try the latest gadgets for himself in the shops. At one of his regular haunts, Chase Musicians, he met French keyboard programmer Raphael Preston.

Raphael came to England in October 1975, after studying classical guitar at the Scholla Cantorum in Paris. In London, he followed a course in electronic music at the Cockpit Theatre, and joined Chase Musicians as a demonstrator in 1976. A year later, Raphael was offered work at Nemo, where he immediately began experimenting: "There was a wall full of synthesizers, all on shelves. I had things that could trigger all the different synths together, linking them to sequencers and getting all the gates of the sequencers to work with each other. It ended up like one huge machine that you could control and transpose easily.

"Because all the equipment was then voltage-controlled, I would experiment by wiring a 9V battery to a jack lead, connecting that to a volume pedal and sending different voltages to the synths' oscillators. So the volume pedal could transpose everything by nine octaves. That's how we could get outrageous modulation on synths where it wasn't even built in. A good example of that is in 'Chung Kuo', the first track on China, where the pedal was connected to a Korg PS3300 for the white noise sounds. It's not that we didn't respect the synths, but we didn't feel that we were bound by what they were supposed to do or not supposed to do. We didn't read the manuals!"

Among the synths in Nemo at this time were an Oberheim 4-Voice, a Roland SH3A and Vangelis' favourite, the Yamaha CS80, to which he had been introduced at a trade fair in 1977. He was excited by the possibilities it offered, but arranged to have one on loan for a few weeks before deciding whether to spend the necessary £4850 (the CS80's asking price at the time)! During this period, Vangelis recorded the Spiral album (released 1977), which featured the CS80 on every track. Shortly after, he imported a CS80 from Japan in order to bypass the six-month UK waiting list, and the synth arrived in London after a mammoth train journey through Russia. With help from Yamaha-Kemble's Dusty Miller, Vangelis eventually went on to buy another seven CS80s, some of which were for concerts, while others were just for spare parts.

Analogue sequencers were another important element in the sound Vangelis achieved on Spiral. They proved inspiring for composition, but rather unpredictable. Keith Spencer-Allen: "The first sequencers we used were those from the Roland 100 series modular; we had two. They were rather limited and difficult to set up; all the pitch settings were manual adjustments, and sometimes very critical. They would also tend to drift in pitch over time. Vangelis used them predominantly to produce tuned rhythm-type effects which he could play over -- an extension of the drum boxes he had always used."

The Roland System 100 sequencers, used to great effect on Spiral's title track, were later joined by Roland System 700 and ARP sequencers, and an ARP 2600 modular synth was used as an interface to link them together. The sequencers took on a still more substantial role when Raphael found a way of controlling them: "We were the first people to find a way of sync'ing sequencers to tape. At the time, there was no way of putting a code on tape, so you had to stop and re-record everything from the top if you wanted to change anything. I knew a sequencer's gate gave out a voltage, not a sound, but I thought if I plugged the output of a sequencer's CV gate into a mixer channel and heard a sound, I should be able to record that onto tape, and with luck play it back into the gate and step the sequencer that way. I took the output from the gate into a mixer channel and promptly blew it up! When I reduced the volume, though, recorded it, and played it back, it did step the sequencer. That was great, because we could then change or overdub sequences, and use the pulse on the tape to run drum machines. It was a great breakthrough for us. You can hear the polyphonic sequencing from [1979's] China onwards."

The finishing touch to Vangelis' compositions was a generous portion of reverb. There was not enough room at Nemo for a reverb plate, so AKG and MasterRoom spring reverbs were used instead, until 1980, when a Lexicon 224 digital reverb took over as the main effects unit. According to Raphael, Vangelis had serial number 0002 -- the first one was Lexicon's own. Other effects included the Roland RE201, which provided the echoes on Keith's narration on 1976's Albedo 0.39, while a Boss Chorus Ensemble pedal warped Vangelis' vocal chords on 'Ballad' from Spiral.

KINEMATIC

Vangelis has described his approach to film score composition as 'spontaneous', rarely going into detail about the specific stages of the process. Keith Spencer-Allen observed Vangelis' technique when he recorded soundtracks for wildlife film-maker Frederic Rossif: "Vangelis would watch the parts of the film that had been earmarked for music. After two or three passes of the film he had the core of an idea and we would then start recording. Often it only took a couple of attempts to create the complete musical section. While the very simple synth lines often worked brilliantly against the visuals, when it came to creating the soundtrack album we frequently added a sprinkling of overdubs to make it stand up better by itself."

If soundtrack work had some limitations, Vangelis enjoyed total freedom on his solo projects. Keith: "The recording of the albums was different. The standard procedure was that all the keyboards were connected up to the desk going out to the multitrack, so that as he worked through a theme he could play any keyboards he chose to without stopping. Sometimes we would record for days like this, filling reels and reels of tape. If an idea took off, we might work on it there and then, but frequently he would come to the studio and sort through days of earlier recordings.

"Sometimes, we would compile a basic track from improvised sections. Albedo was typical of this -- the number of two-inch multitrack edits was in three figures. What was remarkable was the way Vangelis could hold days of seemingly improvised tracks in his head, and assemble them mentally. It was very rare for them not to work when we eventually made the edit."

Naturally, Vangelis then worked without timecode, which could make things difficult when music had to be changed, but suited his approach to composing. Raphael: "When I was engineering Chariots Of Fire, there was no sync between the video and the tape machine, so we used visual cues. The opening scene of Chariots Of Fire, the running sequence on the beach, was filmed with a piece called 'L'Enfant' [from Opera Sauvage] being played through speakers. So the actors were already running to music by Vangelis. It was a great thing to do; it set a pace, and created an attitude. Afterwards, we used the tempo of 'L'Enfant' for the opening theme."

Nobody guessed during the making of Chariots Of Fire that the film would become a landmark in the marriage of sound and picture. While many composers have been asked to deliver music in the Chariots style, none of the resulting soundtracks have had the same impact. Raphael: "Chariots Of Fire was the first synthesizer score to win an Oscar. That showed that Hollywood had recognised synthesizer music as something of real artistic value; it paved the way for a whole generation of composers, and established a new approach to film music."

BON VOYAGE

Working at Nemo was a rewarding experience for everyone involved, but inevitably people moved on. Keith's departure coincided with Vangelis's switch of record label, from RCA to Polydor: "We had just completed a large number of album projects, both for him and other people, and we were in the middle of the first Jon and Vangelis album. I was tired and wanted a change from 18-hour days and seven-day weeks for four months at a time. By then, Raphael could engineer, and was backed up by Andy Hendriksen. However, I did continue looking after the technical aspects of the studio for several months after that."

Into the '80s, Nemo's recording setup remained the same, but each Vangelis album had its own character. Raphael credits this to the atmosphere: "The reason why the albums from that time are so exciting, and sound different from each other, despite the use of the same equipment, is because there was an atmosphere of creative enjoyment, and a search for different approaches. One thing I have learned from this is that the way not to repeat your compositions is not to repeat your approach.

"Nemo Studios was really like a huge home studio, and this was unusual, because very few people owned their own studios at the time."

Nemo is now fondly remembered as a kind of electronic 'alma mater' by its former personnel. Sadly, anybody who wants to visit Hampden Gurney Studios now will find a block of flats in its place -- the old building was demolished after Vangelis left England in 1987. Nevertheless, the spirit of Nemo has been preserved on Vangelis' pioneering records, which have shaped people's attitudes toward synthesizers and the way they can be used.

 

A WAY WITH DECOR

The above picture shows Vangelis taking a break from the Demis Roussos sessions, late 1976. This shot was taken from approximately the same position as the first picture in this article, but further back from the mixing desk. Vangelis's Elka Rhapsody can be seen leaning against the window leading through to the recording area. Above the window can be seen strips of what look like heiroglyphics -- according to Keith Spencer-Allen, these were the closest Nemo came to mixer snapshot automation in those pre-digital days; they were simple strips covered in notes of settings that lined up with the various channels when placed on the mixer, so that tracks could still be mixed properly at any time after the recording, even if the desk had been used to record other tracks in the meantime and the settings changed. This picture also affords a glimpse of Nemo's crazy decor. Apparently, Vangelis liked a cosy atmosphere to work in, and filled the studio with all manner of ornaments, statues, busts and models. The horses that flank the mixer here came from the window display of a department store located near the studio, which was delighted to sell them off when the display was dismantled. Matt Bell

 

NEMO STUDIOS -- SELECTED EQUIPMENT 1975-87

1975-77

KEYBOARDS/SYNTHS
• ARP Pro Soloist
• Bösendorfer Imperial Grand Piano
• Dubrecq Stylophone 350S
• Elka Rhapsody 610
• Farfisa Syntorchestra
• Fender Rhodes Stage 88 electric piano
• Hammond B3 organ
• Hohner Clavinet (customised, with built-in stereo EQ section)
• Korg 800DV
• Korg Mini 700
• Korg Poly Ensemble
• Roland SH3A
• Roland SH1000
• Roland System 100
• Steinway Grand Piano
• Selmer Clavioline
• Tornado keyboard

RECORDING
• API mixer (customised)
• Scully 16-track recorder
• dbx noise reduction
• Klark-Teknik graphic EQs
• Roland RE201 Space Echos
• Binson Echorecs
• Urei LA2A compressors

 

1977-83

KEYBOARDS/SYNTHS
• ARP 2600 modular
• Korg PSS3300
• Moog Minimoog
• Moog Satellite
• Oberheim 4-Voice
• Oberheim 8-Voice
• Roland Jupiter 4
• Roland VP330 Vocoder Plus
• Sequential Circuits Prophet 5
• Sequential Circuits Prophet 10
• Yamaha CP80 electric grand
• Yamaha CS80
• Yamaha CS40M
• Yamaha GS1 FM synth

 

RECORDING (FROM 1978)
• Quad/Eight Pacifica mixer
• Lyrec TR55 24-track tape machine
• Ampex ATR100 2-track tape machine
• dbx noise reduction
• Lexicon 224 reverb (from 1980)
• AKG BX25 spring reverb
• MasterRoom spring reverb (with 7-second decay)
• Tannoy Dreadnought monitors

DRUM MACHINE/ELECTRONIC DRUMS
• Linn drum machine
• Simmons SDS5 electronic drum kit

SEQUENCERS
• ARP sequencer
• Roland CSQ100 sequencer
• Roland System 700 sequencer

SAMPLER
• Emu Emulator

 

1983-87

KEYBOARDS/SYNTHS
• Korg Poly 800
• Roland D50
• Roland Juno 106
• Roland Jupiter 6
• Roland MKB1000 mother keyboard
• Roland MKS20 piano module
• Roland MKS70
• Roland MKS80 Super Jupiter (with MPG80 programmer)
• Sequential Prophet VS module
• Yamaha DX7
• Yamaha DX7II FD

DRUM MACHINES
• Emu SP12
• Roland TR626

SEQUENCERS
• Roland CSQ sequencer

SAMPLERS
• Akai S900
• Emu Emulator II
• Roland S50

(Note: Vangelis had more than one model of some of the keyboards in this list, to help cut down on overdubs, and to take advantage of the fact that different models of the same synth could have a different character.)

 

VANGELIS -- SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

Heaven and Hell (RCA, 1975)

Albedo 0.39 (RCA, 1976)

La Fête Sauvage (Polygram, 1976)

Spiral (RCA, 1977)

Odes (Polygram, 1978)

China (Polydor, 1979)

Opera Sauvage (Polydor, 1979)

Short Stories (Polydor, 1980)

See You Later (Polydor, 1980)

Chariots of Fire (Polydor, 1981)

The Friends of Mr Cairo (Polydor, 1981)

Antarctica (Polydor, 1983)

Soil Festivities (Polydor, 1984)

Mask (Polydor, 1985)

Rhapsodies (Polygram, 1986)

Blade Runner (EastWest, 1994)

 

BLADE RUNNER BLUES: RECORDING THE FUTURE

Chariots Of Fire is often referred to as the major landmark in Vangelis's career, but his work on Blade Runner has attained cult status. The music from this 1982 film remained unreleased for 12 years, only becoming commercially available after expensive bootlegs had appeared. Even now, many pieces from the soundtrack are still in the archives, alongside other work that has yet to see the light.

Blade Runner was a departure from normal electronic sci-fi scores. Vangelis concentrated on atmosphere and emotion, avoiding the burbles and wails that cinema audiences had often had to endure. The music was also a technological tour-de-force, drawing on the combined might of the masses of synths and sequencers built up at Nemo Studios. Instruments which stand out include Fender Rhodes piano and the ubiquitous Yamaha CS80, which provided the eerie synth solo heard over the opening titles. A Roland VP330 Vocoder was used for choir and strings, while a Prophet 10 bass sequence underlined the end titles. The very rare Yamaha GS1, an early FM keyboard resembling a miniature Grand piano, contributed tuned percussion sounds, and the music was mixed in quadraphonic for a special presentation of the film at the Leicester Square Odeon.

One of the best scenes in the film occurs early on, when Deckard (Harrison Ford) has an awkward meeting with Rachael (Sean Young). The music heard in this scene fits it perfectly, yet was taken from an earlier Vangelis album. The piece, 'Memories Of Green', is distinctive for its melancholy, 'drunk' piano sound. Raphael Preston: "We used an Electroharmonix Electric Mistress flanger pedal on 'Memories Of Green', putting a Steinway Grand through it. The electronic noises on there came from one of the first hand-held electronic games, a Japanese thing called the Bambino UFO Master Blaster Station! I had to play it for the length of the piece without losing the game, because when you lost, it made the most horrible noise."

Many thanks to Keith Spencer-Allen, Raphael Preston and John Martin for their help in the writing of this article.

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