From two-tracks to Air Studios in 18 months

The Society of Sound release for February features a work-in-progress insight into the new album by Heaven 17; Not For Public Broadcast. The album as been recorded at Martyn Ware’s own studio The House of Illustrious, but in this blog Ware and Glenn Gregory take us on a journey through the recording history of the band. A journey that begins with a two-track recorder in a derelict factory in Sheffield but quickly saw them progress to the most expensive studio in Britain…

Heaven 17

Martyn Ware – “The only medium we had to record on initially was ¼ inch tape, because we’d read that (Brian) Eno had said all you need is a Re-vox, you don’t need a studio anymore. That was in 1975, probably, and it was a really appealing thought because we were big fans [of his].

You’ve got to remember it was a big economic barrier to poor young bands, if you weren’t a signed band and you didn’t have a big studio to go into then you couldn’t make music of a quality. So, of course, we bought a two-track player, a two-track tape recorder and we didn’t even have a mixing desk. We had a microphone – this was the early Human League – and a Sony ¼ inch tape machine that you could bounce from track to track, sound on sound, and add another instrument or a voice in mono, and that’s how we created our tracks.”

Glenn Gregory – “That was in Devonshire Works, a little place in Sheffield, which in our heads was like the Factory, Andy Warhol in New York. It was an old factory that had been derelict and we rented it and people used to live there. Adi from Clock DVA had his studio and we’d put on parties there, even live bands, and the first Human League studio was in there. But then you moved to the derelict vets…”

heaven17_1

MW – “Oh, yes, that was grim. It was a four-storey building with just one habitable room. The rest of it was literally derelict. In fact there was only electricity in one room. We bought a Studio Craft desk. More of a live desk really but it was quite good quality, but the main thing was that we could afford to buy a 1 inch tape AMPEX 8-track, of which only six tracks worked.”

GG – “It was a fantastic machine though. It was like something from the future; it was like Doctor Who… It had a massive vari-speed on it, but it was like a steering wheel. You had to turn it at the back to vari-speed: such a cool machine.

And that studio was the only asset that the Human League had left after the split and neither of them wanted to give it up so both those two albums Penthouse and Pavement, us, and Dare, the Human League, were both written in that same studio. They would work days 10am to 10pm and then we would work nights from 10pm in the night to 10am in the morning. Both those albums were written in the same place, it’s amazing.”

MW – “And then Virgin had the Townhouse Studios, so we finished the albums off in the Townhouse. Townhouse was fantastic, it has an amazing series of desks and outboard and stuff and we started getting into the technical side of things and Penthouse and Pavement is a great sounding record, the first Heaven 17 album.

The second one Luxury Gap is the most expensive album we ever created and we recorded that at Air Studios in Oxford Street which was the most expensive studio in Britain at that time. The sound of those Neve desks were amazing, weren’t they?”

Heaven 17

GG – “Yeah, and we’d taken quite quickly that leap from a two track with the Human League through to an 8-track, with only six tracks working, and within 18 months we were in Air Studios working on massive Neve desks, outboard gear everywhere. So much outboard gear they had to hire in air conditioning units because it was so hot that they were going to blow the studio.

Having said that still using really old techniques, like we’d use a lot of tape loops, like really long physical tape loops and even though we had the Fairlight by this time we were all over the studio with pens and pencils holding it as these really long loops went round.”

MW – “Here’s my studio, The House of Illustrious as we call it, quite compact but quite gorgeous, and we decided to record an album where we’re actually in the studio at the same time rather than doing things remotely.”

GG – “It would have been easier and quicker were Martyn to send me a couple of backing tracks and then I add a few bits and send it back to him, but we didn’t want to do it, we deliberately said no, we’re only going to do this when the two of us are in the room. This room.”

MW – “We wanted to use the original synth we used on Being Boiled, which is the Roland System 100, still the best sounding synth I’ve ever used…”

GG – “It is amazing. You can spend all day playing and looking for things and in the end sometimes you get a little bit lost and need some inspiration and you plug this in and you go ‘oh my God, that sounds so good’. For me I find it warming and heart-warming. People used to say, back in the early days of synthesisers, that synthesisers weren’t real and had no heart and no soul… I can listen to that thing and there is soul in there: it’s beautiful.”

MW – “So we decided to use that as a palette, a starting point, but we also use the Teenage Engineer in OP1, which looks like a toy but is the equivalent of about five or six analogue synths and about five of digital synths.”

GG – “Between that [OP1] which is really modern and that [Roland System 100] which is really old, that’s what the new Heaven 17 is really, that’s what it is about…”

Society of Sound members download the album here

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