No musician has been more innovative or infuential in the late 20th century I than Mike Oldfield. PowerOn caught up with him in his fantastically equipped studio as he was prepared for a tour to celebrate the Millennium
Fact file Date: 6 June1999
Venue: Roughwood Court Studio, a converted coach house in deepest darkest Berkshire
Interviewee: Mike Oldfield
Other team members: Adrian Thomas Musical Director, keyboards and guitars
Fergus Gerrand: V-Drums and percussion
Vince Barker: tour technical boffin
When did you first become interested in music? What is your first musical recollction?
Oh I was about six or seven. Playing my father's guitar that used to hang on thc wall. He taught me a few chords, and I listened to records, got interested in music the only thing that put me off was school! The music classes there seemed to be pointless.
What is more important to you, the music or the way of Iife?
Oh, the music for sure. It was really a way I could communicate with friends. Whenever I went out with friends, I would be the entertainment - I'd play guitar rather than talk. I was a rather shy withdrawn youngster. I found I got a lot more attention playing for them rather than talking.
All your writing seems to be drawn from your own, sometimes very personal, experiences, Is this the case?
Yeah, when I'm in the mode for gathering new ideas for a project, I will often go travelling. I just turn my mind into that mode and think, 'I'm looking for ideas now'. I've just come back from Peru because I'm working on a project that describes the last 2000 years of human history in music. It takes little snapshots through time. For example, the Nativity, the court of King Arthur, the discovery of America, slavery, the Venetians, the Second World War, slots of time that end at midnight 31st December, 1999 with a giant bell. We're supposed to be playing that in the middle of London on New Years Eve.
So this is going to be the Millennium Bell Project?
Yep, the project will culminate at midnight with the bell followed by a littlee hymn at the end to the next millennium.
You'll have to get your timing just right, won't you?
Oh, don't worry we'll time it OK.
Going back to the beginning, you were in a band Sallyangie with your sister. Technology was very different then, Comparing then to now, what are the major differences?
Oh yes loads of differences. When I made Tubular Bells there were no synthesizers, so we used electric organs. I remember when the first string synthesizer came out it was like a godsend - you could finally have real strings. The Melotron was around, but it was hugely expensive and there were only a few made. I only managed to get one few years ago. If you wanted real strings, you had to get real string players. You had to do everything for real. The Sallyangie album was done on two four-tracks, the old reel to reel model. Then when 16 track came, we had to squeeze everything onto 16 tracks. We had all kinds of strange things like drop in delays. A live gig would never approach the production techniques that you used to get the sound of the album. Whereas now, we can take samples off the original album like the drum sounds, chop them up with software and re-use them by triggering from drum pads, keyboards and samplers. Even my guitar, with the GI-10, gives almost instant midi signals. On Ommadawn there was a Celtic harp, but you can't have a Celtic harp live because it sounds horrible unless you spend hours micing and compressing. So I just take samples of the notes and trigger them from my guitar, which is great. There are millions of things that I have only been able to reproduce in the last few years. That includes all my old albums which I still have on master tapes. I can dump them to digital recorders and use a Mac to mess around with the samples.
Tubular Bells was a seminal album, Not only did it pave your way to fame but it was also hugely significant in the development of Virgin, What equipment was available to you when you started work on the album back In the autumn of 1972?
For recording I had a 20-channel desk, a monitor pane 16-track Amper, and Dolby A units. in terms of instruments I had a Hammond Organ, a Farfisa organ, Martin guitars, and my one electric guitar which is an old Fender Telecaster, and a Bass. I also used bits of percussion like timpani and of course the famous Tubular Bells. We didnt have click tracks then, so we had to record to a metronome in a room. The metronome used to slow down as it went along. The mixer used to click when you switched the EQs in and out, which would end up on the mix tapes so we had to edit out the clicks with sticky tape on an editing block. There's one bit at the beginning of Tubular Bells where it jumps and loses about half a second. That's because there were six clicks on the tape where we had switched six sets of EQ. We edited out each click, but the edits made as much of a click as the original click did. So I thought, blast it lets just chop the whole lot out. So that's why the track jumps. There was no other way to do it in those days. We also had a thing called a motor drive amplifier that was a way of changing tape speed - there was no such thing as pitch-bend then. I wanted to make an organ chord rise in pitch. The only way we could do that was to make a tape loop of the organ chord, put it on a two-track through the voltage controller to make the tape loop change pitch. We had to record that onto the 16-track in real time. We did a lot of that kind of thing.
How does it feel to have been involved with the setting up of The Manor recording studios?
Well it was a very exciting time of my life. I was living with my mother in Harold Wood at the time in a small suburban house. Then suddenly I got the opportunity of living in this huge mansion. It was full of nice looking women, Irish wolfhounds, musicians and engineers. They gave me a week to work on the start of Tubular Bells, and I just loved it there so much I refused to leave. I hid up in the attic saying, 'I'm not going away from here'.
You have written several film scores in your musical career, including the The Killing Fields. How long did that take?
Well, that is another story. I agreed to do the Killing Fields, but I had a tour coming up, and I only had six months to do it in. So I worked the six months and wrote what I thought the music should be. Then after the tour, they came back to me and said, 'No it's not right, you've got to do some more'. So I said if I have to do it again, can I have an orchestra, a choir, in fact can I have anything I want? They said yes. So I started again, and did another three months so I worked nine months on that piece altogether. It was hard work because I normally make music purely to please myself, but with the film I had to please the director and the producer and the editor. I just wasn't used to it.
What gear did you use to write with?
Fairlight. I had one of the first Fairlights in the country. It was the first real sample unit. I'd get gongs and de-tune them to get them very low, so they gurgled away for the battle scenes. A lot of the electronic stuff was Fairlight. And of course we had the real orchestra.
How much have computers played a part in the development of your music?
Well the CD Rom stuff I did was an experiment with virtual reality. We had a very powerful machine called a Silicon Graphics Onyx. I was working on an on-going idea, whereby you find yourself in a VR world. The music gives you clues to beckon you to different locations, for example, a lake, going to a cave and into a tunnel - it's all pretty surreal. We wrote our own software to allow us to do this. One of the early stages of this was the CD ROM information on The Songs Of Distant Earth. That's a whole new world of creativity but at the moment I don't think the time is right. We will have to wait until everyone has a PC or equivalent. When I presented it to the record companies, they all thought it was great, but about 10 years ahead of its time.
How are you able to get your distinctive guitar sound?
I use a Roland GP-8. I've been using that for the last ten years. I haven't been able to find anything that can emulate it. There are two sounds that I use - one is a clean sound and the other is the main lead sound. I plug it straight into the desk.
This may sound like a silly question, but what equipment did you use on your Guitars album?
The main things I used as well as guitars were the VG-8 and GI-1O. With the GI-10 l would play into the Mac and send MIDI to all the different synths. If I wanted a big string pad, I would use the guitar with the G1-10 to play strings on a synth. It was important that everything originated on a guitar.
How does the VG-8 compare to real guitar sounds?
I think it does a great job. In your mind you have to remember that it's a virtual guitar system.
What about the new Millennium Bell Album?
It's nearly finished. I'm in a bit of a rush because I finished Guitars and then went straight on tour. I have to get it ready for New Years Eve. I am putting together the live concert version at the same time. I think there will be about 50 or 60 people on stage.
You have a hell of a lot of Roland gear here in the studio. I take it you like the Roland sounds?
Well the first ever Roland kit I got was a Roland CR-78. Phil Collins used one on In The Air Tonight. In fact, just before he recorded that he came and recorded on an album of mine QE2 and the CR-78 had just come out. He was messing about with it then. the next thing I got was a D-50. That was the beginning of this amazing synth sound stuff. I loved that synth, it was extraordinary. Before that, everyone was using the DX-7. I don't know if this is true, but I always thought the first sound on the D-50 (Fantasia) was based on my Tubular Bells sound. If you play Tubular Bells on the D-50 it sounds exactly like it.
I have a vivid memory as a child watching the episode of Blue Peter where you recorded the new theme music for the programme. It seemed you 'lifted the lid' on the secret world of recording techniques. Was that the case?
Well, there was an attitude at the time that it was a very complicated procedure to work a recording studio. It's not. I have come across plenty of people who try to make the whole industry more complicated that it is to safeguard their livelihood. In reality, there's nothing the average person can't understand. What's great now is the accessibility of music through PCs. Now anyone can make music - even without being a musician. There was a culture of 'We are the elite, we're the producers and engineers - you are just the artist'. I'm so glad that has now changed.
Did you ever think that your work on Tubular Bells and Blue Peter would ever influence so many people?
No way. Although I did believe that Tubular Bells would be a success, even after I was kicked out of every record company in the business, because the music had no vocals and no drums. I just wanted to do something that hadn't been done. I knew it would work given time.
Finally, if Blue Peter asked you to write the music again, would you do it?
Blue Peter! Of course I would.
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net