In an age dominated by software and samples, Jerry Boys has found the perfect niche for his old–school engineering skills: as the first–call specialist in recording world music.
It’s hard to find engineers of Jerry Boys’ pedigree these days. As the diminishing number of large studios pushes many of the most experienced into retirement (or worse, into office jobs), there are only a handful of people left in the studio community who have CVs as colourful as his.
Starting out in the music business in 1965 as an engineer at Abbey Road, Jerry went on to work at London’s Olympic and Sound Techniques studios, as well as Sawmills in Cornwall. But since his return to London in early 1982 he’s been based in the same place: Livingston Studios in Wood Green. A substantial number of folk and rock projects with the likes of Richard Thompson, Steeleye Span and REM followed this move, and Jerry became widely known and respected for his attitude towards recording, which, to this day, centres round a distinctly natural approach. “I like a group of people playing in the studio, as close to complete as possible. At one point in the late ’80s, when MIDI started to be a big thing, I actually retired, just to run the studio. This lasted for about a week until somebody rang me up with an interesting project. It was Everything But The Girl, and I said ‘Oh, all right then’, and we ended up making five records together.
“But then Ben [Watt, from Everything But The Girl] suddenly went from being a man interested in studio stuff, to a programmer. I don’t know why, but someone introduced him to a programmer and they did a couple of tracks on what was supposed to be a completely acoustic record. The brief to me was ‘We’re all going to sit out in the studio and play, you’re not allowed to EQ anything, you’ve got to do it all with microphones, and it’s gotta be all organic’, which was quite good fun; I liked that sort of challenge, and it taught me a few things. But in the middle of it, they went off and did two or three tracks, one of which was ‘Missing’, then they came back and did a few bits to them to make them fit into the rest of the record.
“Ben had realised that there was this whole creative world out there, and he built himself a pretty nice home studio off the back of the money he made. At that stage, I’d decided that if people weren’t going to play, I wasn’t going to make their records. And it’s worked out fine!”
It was Jerry’s natural approach that attracted acclaimed producer Joe Boyd. The pair did a few projects together, which led to a meeting with World Circuit Records producer and founder Nick Gold. “Nick asked Joe ‘Who do you use as an engineer? I can’t find anyone I can get on with.’ And Joe said ‘Well, try Jerry Boys.’ So myself and Nick went off and did a record with Malian singer Oumou Sangare, and we just hit it off; we got on really well.” Soon after this, Jerry was asked to make the trip to EGREM studios in Havana. “Nick said ‘By the way, I’m going out to Cuba to do a record with Ry Cooder, would you be interested in engineering it?’ I said ‘Of course I will.’ So we went and did this trip, and recorded Afro Cuban All Stars, the first Rueben Gonzalez album and the Buena Vista Social Club album, all in two weeks. Of which two days was spent fixing the tape machine!”
A few years later, Nick and World Circuit Records bought Livingston Studios, and since then, studio and engineer have specialised in recording music from Africa, Asia and Latin America. In that context, Jerry Boys began to accept that there was a place for digital recording in his work. “You can’t deny that there are lots of things that you can do in Pro Tools that you can’t do easily on analogue. And once you’ve been made aware of all these things, and started to use them, it’s very hard not being able to do them. Also, if you’re travelling, you can’t really cart an Otari MTR90 around with you!”
He’s not ready to chuck out the MTR90 altogether, though. “We did some tracking on to Pro Tools HD running at 24bit/96kHz, in a studio in Senegal. We were fairly happy with the results; we weren’t aware of anything going terribly wrong, so we added a few extra guitar parts, and some drums and percussion.
“Then we started to do the mixing back in the studio at Livingston, and Nick was worried about the hi–hat, which is a big feature in every song, since there’s not much in the way of regular drums; it just sounded a bit too ‘spiky’. So we listened to the hi–hat that we recorded to tape using the analogue gear here, and it was much softer. I suggested that we transfer all the percussive stuff on to analogue and then back into Pro Tools, to see what happens.
“So we did exactly this, with the level at +7dB instead of +4dB, because I really wanted to steam the level and get some tape compression. Once the transfer had taken place, we played it back and switched between tape and Pro Tools. Sure enough, it had done exactly what we’d expected it to do; the tape had blurred the edges and made it nicely compressed. We were really pleased with ourselves. Then we wondered what was going to happen when we put it back into Pro Tools, so we did the reverse thing and laid it back onto hard disk. And bugger me, it had regressed back to being ‘digital’. Not completely, but it had gone back maybe 25 percent.
“I’ve always had this thing about digital, in that it has this really hard sound; it never seems to go together. Everything sounds good individually, but it doesn’t blend, whereas analogue blurs things a bit. And I don’t pummel the level on analogue normally, I try and keep it cleanish. I use Dolby [SR noise reduction] and I run at 15ips.
“When recording to digital, I do see the point of using high sample rates. I know that my MTR90, when it was new, would only be 3dB down at 27kHz, and it still had stuff going on up into the 40s. When using a 48kHz sample rate, you get a brick–wall filter at 24kHz, and although we can’t hear a tone that high, you are aware of the harmonic information, which is what I call ‘air’. This is why I record at 96kHz. Now if you’re working on a sampled record, or a loud electric guitar record, then maybe it doesn’t matter. But for anything with any sort of top end in it — all the records I generally do — I think a higher sample rate is really important.
“After the tests we did on the Senegal material, recording to digital really concerns me now, because it’s actually changing the sound. As a result, we’ve decided now that we’re going to record to analogue, then transfer to Pro Tools when we’ve gone as far as we can go. Needless to say, I’m afraid I’m still an analogue man.”
World music all too rarely achieves mainstream visibility in the UK, but that changed with the success of Buena Vista Social Club. It’s the best–selling album of world music ever, and has shifted almost eight million copies, a result that vindicated Jerry Boys’ ethos of “a group of people playing in the studio”.
“The recording of Buena Vista Social Club itself took about eight days. It’s all live, apart from Ry’s electric stuff, which is overdubbed. Vocals, the lot, were done live in the studio. It was the only way, as the artists on the record aren’t the sort of people that are used to studio recording: half of them had probably never worn headphones before!
“Before we did Buena Vista Social Club, we did Afro Cuban All Stars, which was recorded in much more normal sort of way — rhythm sections first, then overdubbed horns and voices and so on — and that’s really hard work. It was a great record, but it was absolutely knackering. We worked from 10.30 in the morning ‘til about 2.30 at night, every day for about six days.”
But it wasn’t as simple as setting up kit and recording; Jerry and the team had to learn many of the intricacies of Latin music on the spot. “Cuban music isn’t so different in terms of instrumentation: a trumpet is a trumpet, and you don’t meet many unusual instruments. But the rhythm is very different. Although it might not seem so on the face of it, it’s all based around what’s called clave. I’m not very good at it myself, but clave goes in two and then three, or three and then two, or any combination of the two, and there are lots of them. And that’s how they hear music, they don’t hear it like we do. Often what we hear as a one–bar sequence repeated, is in fact a two–bar sequence repeated, because the clave goes across two bars.
“So on the Cuban sessions, we did cuts, and we thought we’d done a great edit, and they’d go ‘No, no, you can’t do it like that, because you’ve ruined the clave.’ We had great arguments in the studio about this, and even the Cubans would argue amongst themselves abvout the clave sometimes. So that was the mystery. Once you understand where the clave is, all the funny timing and stabs they do on the horns make more sense. I didn’t know any of this when I went over to do the first Cuba sessions.”
It wasn’t just a different understanding of musical arrangement that Jerry encountered in Cuba. “They have learned how to play loud. On American records, you hear those laser–like trumpets and you think ‘How the fuck do they do that?’ You wonder what microphone they use and so on, but when I walked in the room on the first rehearsal in Cuba, and the trumpets all lit up, I thought ‘Fuck, there’s that sound!’ It’s all in the playing, it’s just the loudest thing ever! They just make this really hard, edgy sound.
“When it comes to miking up trumpets, I tend to use one microphone in front of the three of them, back a while. But because EGREM is such a great room, I’d usually have a pair of ambient mics up all the time. The trouble with these is that it makes dropping in difficult. It depends on who you work with; some people will want one microphone on each trumpet separately. It doesn’t sound as good, but it does mean that you can drop in on trumpet parts. With one mic on all three, you get a much more integrated, very exciting sound, but it doesn’t have much to do with the engineer.”
The Cuban musicians may have been unfamiliar with studio conventions, but they were orthodox compared with the late Ali Farka Touré, who Jerry worked with extensively over the years. “He had this strange guitar, I don’t know what it’s called, but it was Japanese, and it had a built–in speaker. I remember seeing them in the early ’70s; it looked a bit like a Gibson SG. You’d have to plug it into the right amp, a Roland JC120, but that’s all there was to it. I’d often go and twiddle the amplifier, because I always found that he either had it too loud or not loud enough. Also, he didn’t understand the implications of having the volume on the guitar right up, so you got a lot of noise. Before he arrived on a session, we used to tune the guitar for him using a tuner, so it was at the ‘correct’ pitch. But then he’d get it and make all kinds of crazy noises, and fuck knows what he did. But it worked for him.
Musicians such as Ali Farka Touré don’t give bad performances, but it’s still up to Jerry to capture them at their best. To do so, he employs a fairly robust selection of tools. “When setting up mics, I have favourites for different things, but I guess a [Neumann] U87 would be my first choice. If I only had one mic in the world, it would be that one. I use AKG 414s for various things, and Neumann KM84s and TLM170s quite a lot. I use them as ambient mics, but I also use them on trumpets, because they’re just a little less hard in the middle than an 87 is. After that, there are the specialist ones; I usually use an AKG D112 on the bass drum, a U47 FET on string bass.
“Although I’ve got one, I’m not a big lover of U47 valves, but I quite like U49s. But with these, you’ve got to find the right one and the right thing to use it on. AKG C12s are quite nice sometimes; I use the odd dynamic, an SM57 or an MD421, for example, on toms, and then there are a few things that get used here at Livingston. We’ve got a Calrec 1050, which is not made any more, but they were really cheap, and really good on acoustic guitars or as overheads. I’m not saying there aren’t other great microphones in the world, but I like the ones I know.
“I do try others occasionally, but they’re never as good as the real thing. I was in a studio in Senegal, and I tried an SE mic. I asked the local engineer what he used it for, and he said ‘electric guitars’, for which I would normally use a U87, so I stuck it up and compared it. The 87 sounded better. The SE wasn’t unusable, but it sounded different. It didn’t sound shit, but I didn’t really think ‘I’ll remember this.’ I just thought it sounded like a cross between a 414 and an 87, but not as good as either of them.
“You need a pair of ears when you make microphones. You may be able to make very clever technology, but that doesn’t always mean you’re good at making things sound nice. The Chinese and Japanese are normally OK at making things like effects processors, because that involves digital technology and computer skills, and gear that works can be made cheaply. On the other hand, the British were good at making products that sounded good, but they weren’t so good at the other parts.” But Jerry’s the first to admit that even his favourite manufacturers can slip up. “Neumann don’t make 84s any more, they make 184s, and they don’t sound anywhere near as good as an 84. I’ll use 184s occasionally — particularly on hi–hat if I want a tight sound — but I’d never use one by choice; only if I’d run out of 84s. Even Neumann don’t always make good microphones.”
It may come as no surprise that Jerry uses a formidable set of outboard equipment at the other end of the mic cable. The gear at Livingston Studios has been accumulated over some time, and includes items from as far back as the ’50s, such as the Gates Sta–Level, a variable–mu compressor that has a reputation for working wonders on bass. Studio One’s racks reflect its main use as a venue for tracking and recording. Bespoke preamps and outboard processors sit alongside a ‘black knob’ SSL 4000E (see the ‘Unsung Heroes’ box) and, with behind–the–desk lines of sight to the main live room and all the annexed amp rooms, it’s an engineer’s dream. Studio Two is preferred for mixing, as its control room is smaller and cosier. Jerry spends a lot of time in this room, and he runs a tight ship: “I’m the only person allowed to put tea on the mixing desk. I can tell myself off then!”
After 40 years in the business, Jerry Boys is in a strong position to impart useful advice to budding engineers. He’s a believer in the traditional career path, along with old–fashioned persistence and patience. “I think that watching and listening are the main things that a developing engineer should concentrate on, and I still feel that, if you want to be a recording engineer, you need to get a job in a real studio and watch other people doing what they do. The only way to do that is to be a tea boy, then a tape–op, and I think you really need to be a tape–op for at least three years if you want to be any good. However, the future is in the computer, the Pro Tools world; and you can learn quite a lot of that stuff by going to college.
“The real gist of it is that you just have to keep trying, although the majority of jobs involve a fair amount of luck. You might meet someone in the pub, or something fortunate will happen. Whatever your situation, you have to be prepared to give up a lot. You have to have no concept of regular hobbies.
“I guarantee that if one of the Livingston engineers came in and said ‘I’ve been offered a job at Olympic, I’m leaving in a month,’ we’d get out the file of applicants, and start at the front, where all the most recent CVs are. Maybe you have 30 applications, so you phone them all up, and interview them. Obviously, applicants need something that says that they can do the job, but if you happen to turn up on the day with a letter and a CV, that’s the first one you’re going to look at.”
It’s Jerry’s positive attitude that has allowed him to retain at the top of the list of veteran engineers, and it doesn’t look as though he’s going to pack it up any time soon. The current project with World Circuit is an album with Orchestra Baobab, a Senegalese outfit whose Afro–Cuban style has been popular in the West African country since the ’70s, and outside of the World Circuit projects, Jerry has also been in the studio with Columbian temptress Shakira, working on tracks for the forthcoming film Madagascar II. Needless to say, Jerry is still very much in demand.
Peer behind the racks or in the machine room at Livingston, and you’ll come across Pete Martelli, chief maintenance engineer. Pete’s been working at the Wood Green studio since 1980, at the time that Nick Kinsey, son of then–owner Ray Kinsey, began to transform a dilapidated chapel into what is now Livingston Studios. “Nick was a genius,” says Pete. “He managed to build a really professional–sounding studio for next to no money. That’s why there is fencing on the ceiling of Studio One’s live room, and the walls are covered in bathroom tiles! The room hasn’t changed since he made it, although we’ve had new flooring put in recently”.
The mainstay of Studio One is a custom–made SSL 4000E. “The desk has been here for 20–odd years now, it was brand new when we got it. Jerry specified that channels 1–24 should be in the middle of the console, because those generally contain the tracks that you’re going to record on most. He always though that to have these in the centre of the stereo image was a good idea. Most SSLs you see will be numbered 1–48 in sequence across the console.
“It’s also got Black Knob EQ, which Jerry and Nick also specified. When they decided that they were going to have an SSL, they got an E–series EQ module from SSL, and set up an oscillator and an audio level meter, and plotted the EQ curve. Then they decided that they’d like half a decibel at 3kHz, or whatever, and asked SSL whether they could modify the EQ to their parameters, and they did, and assigned it a black knob. In fact, SSL used that design on a lot of their subsequent models.
Both Studio One and Two feature custom–made soffit–mounted main monitors, plus a selection of nearfields. “The soffits consist of a pair of JBL 2235, and a TAD driver, driven through Whyte crossovers. But we also have a selection of NS10s, Auratones and Genelec speakers.”
But at Livingston, the humble NS10 isn’t just used for monitoring purposes. “There are NS10 drivers in the ceiling for talkback, and we use a couple as microphones, on kick drums and so on.”
Successfully transporting a recording rig from London to Senegal or Cuba involves a crash course in global logistics. By now, Jerry and the World Circuit team are experts, as maintenance engineer Pete Martelli explains. “Modern recording gear travels well, but there are certain things to be cautious about. I try not to take old valve stuff; I take tried–and–tested modern things, and they all seem to make it to the other side in one piece. We’ve travelled with a hired Pro Tools rig a few times now, and we’ve had no problems.
“I don’t take ribbon mics; I think they’re too fragile to be bumped around the world, and too expensive to replace! We’ve learned that if you send your equipment as air freight, it generally gets treated better than it does if you check it in as hold luggage. If you’ve ever looked out the window when they’re loading baggage, it’s horrendous. I’ve seen someone drop a guitar from the top of the baggage trolley.
“But for our next trip to Senegal, we’re just going to take six microphones and one API 3124 mic amp. We’ll use their Pro Tools rig the way it is. I’ll just take one of our hard drives, which so far have never let us down. Maybe I’ll take two, I’ll talk to the boss!”