Mike Oldfield on Amarok

March, 1991

H & SR Magazine

There aren't many musicians, however successful, who can show off a Harrison Series X desk and a Sony 3348 48 track digital recorder together with a view of their back garden. Mike Oldfield, however, has had a massively successful series of albums starting with the innovative instrumental 'Tubular Bells' and continuing with the folk-influenced 'Ommadawn', the soundtrack to 'The Killing Fields' and songs such as 'Moonlight Shadow' and those on the recent 'Earth Moving' album to bankroll him. Even so, he'll readily admit that sales have been healthier in Germany than in the UK of late.

But his latest album 'Amarok' may show a different direction for the future. In many ways a spiritual successor to 'Ommadawn' and produced by the original producer of 'Tubular Bells', Tom Newman, 'Amarok' is an amazingly challenging album - an unbroken 52-minute piece constantly leaping from folk to flamenco to ethnic, and many other influences. Bizarrely, you can also hear Janet Brown's impersonation of Margaret Thatcher, Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains, a horde of Zulu percussionists, and the sounds of Oldfield brushing his teeth, stamping around the studio, and playing scores of different acoustic instruments plus "not much synth really".

One of Oldfleld's main intentions on 'Amarok' was to get away from the hi-tech instrumentation of his studio and return more to traditional forms of recording.

"On the last album, 'Earth Moving', I listened to Virgin totally and we had tremendous reactions in Europe, but in the UK it was met with stony silence. As a result of that I got some flak from the record company, so on 'Amarok' I just sat down and let it all come out without any interference - not even with my own interference. I felt I was getting ideas from somewhere inside me, and six months later I had a whole album..."

Oldfield's Series 111 Fairlight and C-Lab sequencing system didn't even get switched on for this album. "It's all hands and feet and teeth, very little synthesiser. I played a real piano (a recently acquired 1908 baby grand), and I've got Hammond, Lowrey and Farfisa organs; all the percussion was made with real instruments, or hitting my hands and thighs to make bass drums and snares. We triggered some of those sounds from an AMS but it wasn't really sampling - so it's a demonstration that you can still make an album without a computer.

"It meant we had real sounds, not a recording of some guy going bonk on a drum in Australia and then triggering it off with a machine. But the technology did help on the mixing side; having more tracks on the 48-track helped, and the Harrison allows you to memorise a whole mix including changing EQs, levels and effects. The reason 'Tubular Bells' took a year to record was that we only had 16 tracks and no automation, so that's where computers can come in to make life easier."

Currently Oldfield has the meter bridge from the Sony mounted over his Harrison desk. "It was the first Harrison in England, so there have been a lot of improvements to it. Now the automation runs on an Apple Macintosh and the thing's much easier and faster to operate; berore, when you were doing a mix, you could wait for up to three minutes for it to merge new information. When I was doing some recording with Simon Philips we used to play dice while we waited for the desk to merge, because there was nothing else to do..."

Although Oldfield's happy to use computers for mix automation, he's less keen nowadays on actually involving them in performance. "What I object to in computer music is actually listening to the computer performing - you've got all these samples of people playing drums and it's like some kind of sophisticated pianola or barrel organ, it's completely soulless. If you took all the samples away from the music you hear on the radio these days, you'd be left with absolute rubbish."

"I think the whole record and music business is a bit diseased at the moment - it's too commercial, and one of the problems is that people are using machines to perform. The music's mainly created by a very small number of programmers who are mostly very nice people, very intelligent and good at working with computers, but they're hired by record companies to do this rubbish and many hate what they're doing. How are young people of seven or eight expected to start listening to music and getting interested in it?"

Oldfield is also not too keen on the New Age music field, despite the fact that it has popularised instrumental music as a whole. "Most of it's very boring and repetitive, like background muzak. 'Amarok' isn't at all like that - it kicks you in the arse occasionally." Certainly he seems to have composed the album so that it's impossible to take any section out of context. When 'Amarok' starts on a passage which might get picked up for a single or TV theme, something tends to happen to smash it up.

"I didn't want anything to go on long enough for some record company person to say, "Oh, that would be a good single". I didn't actually think like that, but things just went along for as long as they seemed to need to, and then I wanted them to change."

How does 'Amarok' compare to 'The Wind Chimes', the long instrumental track on Oldfield's 'Islands' album for which he created a full-length video on his own £2 million video/computer graphic setup?

"That was all based around Balinese music - I went out to Bali with a video machine and wanted to record some of their culture and give my impressions of it. I like it very much watching the video, but I'm not so sure now how it is just as a piece of music. I'd never dream of making a video for 'Amarok' because it wasn't created with that in mind; I had my eyes closed most of the time. I was just imagining sound, not picture."

Despite his massive investment in video equipment, Oldfield gained very little commercial interest in his video creations. "I'd like to think that in the future they will be thought of as the first of some kind of art form. But as far as the media are concerned, they shy away from things they can't control, they'd much rather have a new Jason or Kylie album than something from some 15-year old boy from down the road who's created something unique."

Clearly Oldfield's equipment setup puts him streets ahead of such youthful hopefuls, but it's by no means over the top considering the length of time he's been at work. The synth rack includes a Super Jupiter module and editor, an E-mu Proteus, two Roland MT-32s and a now practically unused D-110, a D-550 synth, and rackmount guitar effects including the Roland GS-6 and GP-8 and a Bassman. "But I mostly prefer to put the guitars through amps now, not rack effects, and the MT-32s were only for composing while I was on holiday." A D-50 and a Korg M1 lie largely neglected behind the Fairlight - "On the D-50 I used two sounds for 'Amarok', a string sound and a bell-like sound, just played by hand - it's a very good synth. The M1 is too - they've all got their uses if you're doing MIDI music."

Oldfield's more recent version of the "portable studio" he takes on holiday comprises an E-mu Proteus, a Yamaha DX100 synth used only for its keyboard, an Atari STacy micro running C-Lab, and a Walkman with powered speakers. "I do two or three hours a day - I can work in the hotel room or wherever - and in three weeks or so I can compose an album. I wouldn't actually play any of it back from the computer, but I have used the Notator software to print out parts for session musicians."

As for effects, Oldfield is currently using two Yamaha Rev7s, an AMS delay, a quantec reverb, and a Brooke Siren MlDI-controlled noise gate, plus Neve mic amps in preference to the Harrison's own EQ. "There are quite a few passages on 'Amarok' where I'm automatically sweeping the EQ - that's very useful. But I'm not very happy with the microphone amplifiers, so I've got this rack of old Neve mic amps which we used entirely to do 'Amarok', and Bruel Kjaer microphones - that combination just makes 'Amarok' sound much better than anything I've done before.

Making Amarok has allowed Oldfield to use most of his large collection of traditional instruments, although it's sometimes hard to tell from the listing on the album sleeves which are real instruments and which are injokes.

"Well, the sitar guitar is a real thing, and the banjo, bouzouki, mandolin, ukelele, bodhran, a Tubular Bells guitar with a built-in speaker which was a present from Virgin Germany, a Vox electric mandolin which is Tom's and used to belong to Cat Stevens, and even a bit of violin, although I'm a hopeless violinist. The 'Glorfindel guitar' comes from 'Tubular Bells' - David Bedford gave me a little effects box he called a Glorfindel box which was a total mess inside, the engineers were very amused by it. Now I use the Roland GP-8 for the same sort of sounds.

"I used a PRS guitar almost totally on 'Amarok', it's a really nice thing to play, but it would be hopeless for live work because if one string breaks the whole thing goes totally out of tune because of the tremolo system. I've got a PRS bass as well - they're all hand-made by Paul Smith. The acoustic is a Ramirez, and I also have a Ramirez flamenco guitar. Some of the big guitar sounds on the album are three twelve-strings recorded together, and I've also got a very old Telecaster which used to belong to Marc Bolan and was the main guitar on 'Ommadawn'.

"There's a little bit of that guitar on 'Amarok', but I'm really saving it for 'Tubular Bells II'. 1 also used Stratocasters, and there's another type of guitar sound for which I use a Les Paul Junior through a Fender amp - that was the guitar sound on 'Ommadawn', and was used a lot on 'Tubular Bells II', it's a really searing sound."

On the more hi-tech side, Oldfield is considering introducing the Topaz hard disk recording system. "We're just looking at it to see if we want it. . . you should be able to run pieces off the multitrack digitally, retune them, time stretch them without altering the pitch, and put them back. I certainly need something like that to help compile masters, put in the right gaps, decide whether things crossfade and so on."

On the subject of compiling masters, Oldfield explains that 'Amarok' was mixed in about 40 sections, with another 60 or so short pieces in the finale. "They're assembled by mixing straight onto two spare tracks of the multitrack - you can change the crossfade times to decide whether you want a complete change or one bit to flow into the next. It's so easy - but I shouldn't be giving these trade secrets away! The multitrack's better than any mastering machine - I was really worried whether it was the right machine for me, but I have to hand it to Sony, the 3348 is a masterpiece of technology, and coupled with the Harrison automation you couldn't ask for more."

Apart from the automated desk, Oldfield has once again had the assistance of a producer for this album. How does he work with Tom Newman after so many years of working practically alone?

"I used to work almost totally on my own, recording using remote controls and footswitches. Giving up all that responsibility frees me to just worry about the musical side of things, and that's possibly what held me back for a while, feeling I had to do everything. Now I just have to do the performance side of it, and Tom makes sure every musical idea I have gets onto tape sounding as good as it can. He encourages me to give my best, but the way he does it is very subtle - basically by not interfering, sometimes discouraging or encouraging me, but not interfering. If I want to sit in this chair and think for ten minutes, he'll let me."

Oldfield and Newman's typical work schedule on 'Amarok' would be from 10am to 6 or 7pm Monday to Friday. "I don't have to force myself to work that sort of schedule - I look forward tremendously to coming into the studio and working. I often feel like I'm climbing a mountain. every day a little bit higher, and once you've got to the top you have to climb down the other side with all your tidying up. There used to be days when I'd stay up all night and get drunk, and think I'd have to be out of my mind to create properly, but I think those days are gone. Very occasionally you can do that, but on 'Amarok' we were trying to have no alcohol, no drugs or anything when we were working. so it was really natural, just allowing the mind a new creativity to work naturally. Some of the album doesn't sound like that though!"

Oldfield seems to regard Tom Newman, who has many fine instrumental albums of his own on Coda and other labels, extremely highly. "Tom's a real artist - he even helped to design the 'Amarok' sleeve, making the lettering out of brass and hand-carving it. Another friend of mine wrote the story inside, so it's all a very friendly thing, working with people I've known for years and years."

Unfortunately Oldfield doesn't get on so well with record company types, claiming he finds them about as understandable as Martians. "After I've completed one more album for Virgin I may not even have a record label for a while. I can start writing new material though, write for other people or produce songs, so it's a very exciting time really. For half my life I've been contracted to Virgin, it's been a bit of a millstone around my neck, but I've no idea if there's another suitable label for me. I've hardly met anyone from other record companies - I'm a bit suspicious of all the big ones because they all seem to have the same attitude of going for out-and-out commercialism."

Of course, Oldfield's early work proved commercial enough in its day, with 'Tubular Bells' providing enough income to launch the fledgling Virgin Records. Are the plans to record 'Tubular Bells II' concrete?

"I am going to do a 'Tubular Bells II'. 'Amarok' was originally going to be 'Ommadawn II', but it went off a little in its own direction. But " 'Tubular Bells II' will use the same instruments, it'll use the same producer, Tom Newman, and I'm busy going around finding all the old instruments I used to have like the old Farfisa organ and the Vox Continental. No-one makes the proper tubular bells anymore, so we're going to have a set made that sound right, and it's all going to be hand played like the original."

Oldfield's ideas for 'Amarok' were partly inspired by the recording of a Radio 1 session including a short version of 'Tubular Bells' in 1989. "There's a lot of scribbles inside the album from my notebooks and you can see something about the Radio 1 session recorded for Nicky Campbell. I did three songs and a seven-minute version of 'Tubular Bells', and that was a bit of a landmark because I played that all by hand. The BBC engineers were pretty impressed to see someone coming in with all these instruments and playing everything by hand - it only took three hours. So I thought, 'Blimey, why have I been sitting punching buttons on computers all these years? This is really fun!' - and as a result of that I did the whole of 'Amarok' that way.

There is some talk of performing 'Tubular Bells II' live in Spring 1992 with ten to fifteen musicians; "I want to use a delay tower system like they use in musicals. I think there's a lot the rock and roll world can learn from those people. If you've got a good system you can hear all the fine detail of something like 'Tubular Bells' without it being too loud. Most rock concerts are unbearably loud, which is OK if you're Bruce Springsteen or the Stones where you want to whack people over the head; one of the problems is finding an engineer who appreciates that, so I'm hoping Tom will be able to do it."

"I haven't been able to find all the original keyboards from 'Tubular Bell'; I found a Farfisa Professional organ in a workshop for disabled children somewhere in Surrey and swapped it for a DX7, and that gives the right keyboard sound along with a Vox Continental I found in an old shop somewhere. Then there's a Roland VP330 Plus Vocoder which I also used on 'Amarok' for some robot voices."

Surrounded by his keyboards ancient and modern, recording equipment and acoustic instruments, Oldfield'sworking environment is certainly close to ideal. Some way removed from the hustle and bustle of London, he can record with the windows open if he wants to, and in any case doesn't see the necessity for a lot of the usual acoustic treatment. "I used to like recording at The Manor which was very informal, but then they spoiled it by turning it into one of these Eastlake monstrosities. You don't need all this soundproofing and acoustic treatment - if I get a noise coming in from outside I just start again."

Oldfield also insists that he doesn't work at high volumes in the studio. "It depends what I'm playing - if I'm overdubbing bass or guitar I have to play it fairly loud to get into it, but if you work too loud all the time your ears begin to get saturated and you can't hear all the parts, you can't even hear the tunings. We mixed a lot of 'Amarok' on headphones in fact, so we could really get the imaging correct, and where all the echoes are happening in stereo."

Despite the fact that he's pleased with 'Amarok', with no singles and no live work to support the album, the promotional effort has been limited to Capital Radio ads and a few interviews. "I don't want to do the old treadmill 'pop star promoting his new album' any more, going out doing photo sessions - I don't mind having an honest talk with someone about my real views, because I've become a little more eloquent recently."

"In the past I didn't realise I had any views, but I care very much about the quality of music and I don't like to see a few people getting mega rich out of exploiting the teenagers or even pre-teenagers. I think that stinks - it annoys me that there haven't appeared in the last ten years any brilliant instrumentalists, except maybe Nigel Kennedy - but he's in the classical world and has to dress up and behave like a punk to get anyone to listen to him."

Oldfield has broken new ground by spending his own money on a direct mailing list of people who have bought rock concert tickets by Visa and mailing information on 'Amarok'. together with a competition with a £1,000 prize, direct to them. Whether this will make up for the lack of airplay and other promotion for his type of music remains to be seen.

Certainly he's despondent about the chances of new artists working in the field; "I'd like to see some fantastic new young guitarists and keyboard players or instrumental composers - it seems a bit weird to me that I'm the only instrumental writer apart from Jean-Michel Jarre and Vangelis. I'd like to see some young people getting into it - you don't have to get a certain hairdo and clothes, make a video and get the computer ticking away - that's so pathetic, it's no wonder people aren't buying records any more."

Oldfield himself rarely buys albums these days, and although not a jazz fan has been spared constant and unsatisfactory flipping back and forth between Radio 1 and Capital while driving by the advent of Jazz FM. He is keen on Steve Winwood and Peter Gabriel, and thinks Phil Collins is a great drummer who's turning out material which is now much too commercial.

"The last album I really liked was Robbie Robertson's - he's got a very gritty down-to-earth croaky voice and very good production. People like him aren't aiming at anything except performing just because they love to perform.

As for listening to other guitarists. . . "Who? You've got Eric Clapton - he's Eric Clapton isn't he, he's got his style but he's by no means a good guitar player. Just look at some of your Spanish flamenco guitarists, they're great players. Some of the heavy metal players can play very fast scales, but they've just become parodies of themselves - though I'd rather listen to them than Eric Clapton to be honest. He just plays the same blues stuff up and down the scale - it's not very innovative, but neither is the heavy metal stuff. I'd like to see somebody come and play differently from everybody else, not using the Blues scale, not turning into jazz, but making something new out of nothing. I'd like to see more variety, honesty, creativity, uniqueness, not everybody just following each other like sheep."

Although depressed by the current pop-dominated musicscene, Oldfield retains a ray of hope for the future. "l think a whole generation of music has been hidden by everything that's happening now, so perhaps we should just look forward to the next generation, try to encourage radio stations to play a wider variety of music. Why should it all be pop and fashion? Why can't they play some folk, some ethnic music from Ethiopia, some Aboriginal or Eskimo music? The reason is that the moguls who are in control want to make money out of it. The people who have the biggest success in the future will be the ones who stick their necks out and do something different with a radio station."

"Everyone laughed at the idea of Jazz FM, but they're now very well established - I take my hat off to them, but it's a shame it has to be just jazz. An instrumental music station or record company would be useful, but I don't know if anyone will ever do it. Maybe it's up to me to do it..."

Mike Oldfield Tubular.net
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net