Is it a sobering thought that, by 1980, Tubular Bells had managed to sell more than 10,000,000 copies worldwide. This, added to his subsequent recording success is a remarkable tribute to an artist who was originally turned down by all the major record companies. Mike Oldfield took a short break from his busy recording and touring schedule recently, finding time to have a chat with Tim Oakes.
'Discovery and The Lake' is Oldfield's latest album. It's a combination of the latest and most sophisticated recording and production techniques with an ethnic feel that has been a characteristic of all his recordings.
"I think it will always be there, the folk thing. I have drawn on the drone idea a lot; 'Incantations' and the tour which followed it were all part of that, using the orchestra as an instrument and adding all the other instruments modally over the top. I have tried to play Northumbrian pipes, because I love the sound; but they really are very difficult to play. It's a bit easier with a Fairlight..." The folk influence has been there since the early days, when he played on his sister's first album 'Sallyangie'.
"I basically joined Sally so that I could leave school. I was 15, and wanted to be involved in the music scene - but not 'looking for an image' or anything." Mike joined Kevin Ayers' Whole World Band as bassist, where he met up with David Bedford, later to be a major collaborator in the orchestrated versions of 'Tubular Bells' and many other projects. Following his departure from the band, Mike Oldfield trailed a set of tapes of a solo effort around to the major record companies. Tentatively called Opus One, none of them found it of commercial interest; except one, that is. Richard Branson was intending to start a record company, and told Oldfield to come back to him if all else failed. It did, and so these tapes became Virgin Records first album release, entitled 'Tubular Bells'.
Twelve albums later, we arrive at 'Discovery', recorded within sight of Lake Geneva, 2000 metres up in the Swiss Alps.
"We started in January and finished recording in June; it was a fairly smooth operation all round, I think. I produced and engineered the album with Simon Phillips, and we worked sensible hours, usually about 10:30 to around 7pm each day.
"We developed a system using the Fairlight CMI, putting down the backing tracks, together with drums, and laying everything else on top of that. We used the Fairlight sequencer a lot, to provide a solid basis to build upon. The Fairlight is great, although I haven't really sampled much on it yet, just some pan pipes and bagpipes and things. I haven't sampled the guitar onto it because of the problems with vibrato. It could be done, but I don't think it would sound real!
"I took quite a few guitars with me, but the one I used most on backing tracks was the Ovation Adamas. I used it to do the solo on To France as well. It's OK in the studio, but it has a strange action, so I use it with a capo most of the time. We miked it up in a small room or corridor; we actually recorded three tracks of the twelve string and then mixed them together through a limiter.
"Quite a lot of the lead breaks were done on a Roland Guitar Synth which I had fitted to an old Les Paul Junior - it got called the Gibsynth after that. I used a Roland Bass synth on the new album, and I've also got a fabulous 1961 Strat, a red one, and a 1957 Gibson TV which I had modified so that it has a two octave fretboard. That is fitted with really light strings, starting with an eight thou at the top, so that I can still bend it up to the G above - giving effectively another three frets! That's a good range, and it lets me use a really high range for solos without running out of neck."
Mike has an impressive collection of guitars, which began with an old Telecaster; that was soon augmented with various acoustic and electric instruments to suit his playing styles. He is also a particular fan of Manson acoustics, of which he has several.
As far as amps are concerned, he tours with a large flightcase containing a Mesa Boogie, his constant companion, and a Fender Princeton. In the studio the Princeton is replaced by a Twin Reverb.
How does he arrive at that characteristic lead sound?
"I started off using the input of a tape recorder, and overloaded it as far as it could go. Nowadays I tend to overload the Mesa Boogie with a pre-amp - really overload it, and then that sound is again overloaded at the mixing desk. From there it goes through a Vocal Stresser type of unit, then the parametric EQ, then a noise gate and then a limiter. Once that has been gated, it goes back into the desk and onto the tape."
This recording system is coupled with a unique playing technique; we wondered how it developed?
"It's a very natural way of playing. Both the hands are using all the fingers - even the little finger. That was you can get a sort of five fingered clawhammer technique, which is combined with hammering on and pulling off all over the whole spread of a chord.
"You also need the right strings to do it; I use sets of .08 to .38 on the Strats and the TV, and the Gibsynth of course. The red Strat is fitted with slightly heavier guage strings to get a clangier tone out of it. On the Adamas, as on most acoustics, I tend to use Guild Light guage, which are very bright - especially on a twelve string. Those sets give an easy action that means you can pull off with out too much trouble and still keep a good tone on the instrument. Bass tone is different again. I usually use Rotosound Swing Bass for their tone.
"All the lead breaks are done fingerstyle, but when I do need a plectrum I use a Herco grey for the guitars; they're pretty hard, and the gold ones for the bass. They give a good hard click, which I need on an acoustic bass."
Mike has been writing prolifically of late, and "Discovery" is soon to be followed by the soundtrack to the new David Puttnam film "The Killing Fields."
"It's the true story of two journalists involved in the Cambodian War. We've just finished the soundtrack which is very atmospheric. We used the Fairlight, revolving around ethnic Tai music. That's added to some orchestral material and some choral music.Itâ€™s quite avant-garde really and I did enjoy doing it. We used a video synchroniser for it, linking the video system up to the multitrack so that everything was spot on."
Everything is usually spot on where Mike Oldfield is concerned. Still regarded as a bit of a recluse, his work remains a powerful influence all over the world. Currently on tour in Europe, he hopes to be visiting the UK next spring to do some dates. With live shows which are always very well produced and engineered and excellent sound reproduction, the success of the album and the concerts is virtually guaranteed.
Submitted by Christian Maguhn
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net