In Spring 1996 I had been working with britpop band My Life Story producing B-Sides for them at RAK Studios. I had hoped to be in the frame for producing their album, but when Gary Langan came to see them at the studio I assumed that he would get the job, being far more famous and established than me.
My manager at the time, Gerry Bron soon called asking me to engineer sessions with Sally Oldfield (Mike’s sister) for sessions on her new album for a few weeks at Mike’s studio in Chalfont at his home, Roughwood Croft. One reason I was in the frame for this was that Mike had a revolutionary Neve Capricorn digital mixing console. These were notoriously complex, but I had spent some time using one in a studio in Belgium recently, and had the necessary expertise. Assuming that My Life Story wasn’t going to continue I committed to several weeks’ work with Sally. Of course I then had another call asking me to produce My Life Story!! As I’d committed to Sally’s album, Langan therefore produced most of their album, although they had me squeeze in a few sessions and I got a few cuts on their album.
Mike had lent Sally his studio in order for her to make her album – he was mainly away in Ibiza when we started. We worked there for about 6 weeks during the summer. The producer I engineered for was Henry Jackman. He was an inexperienced producer but his father was a famous arranger and his uncle a notable recording engineer, and he’d somehow got involved with Sally, perhaps recommended through a family connection, I can’t quite remember. At the time, Henry had been studying musicology at Oxford University, but he dropped out of his degree course in order to produce this album.
Henry wheeled in all his keyboard and programming gear: Roland samplers, Atari ST MIDI sequencer and Korg Wavestation sound module amongst others. The studio was similar in setup and decor to The Manor in Oxfordshire where Mike had recorded Tubular Bells. (My ex-wife had latterly been the chef there, cooking for the likes of Paul Weller, Radiohead and Cast). The control room and recording area had a lovely ‘woody’ feel to them, and a number of Mike’s guitars hung on the walls. There were some nice keyboards too, and he had one of the first CD Recorders. Alongside the studio was a swimming pool – as sessions progressed we were allowed use of it – and right outside a beautiful landscaped garden.
The Neve Capricorn
The Capricorn console was computer-driven and notoriously unreliable, with regular crashes and software problems, but it allowed every knob to be automated and programmed. We also had the luxury of both 48 and 24 track Sony digital DASH tape machines which could be synchronised to allow for 72 tracks – a huge number compared to the regularly used 24 track analogue machines, but we managed to fill up the tracks fairly easily!
Sally was absolutely charming, had incredible creativity, even if she was slightly “blessed”! I believe she had taken copious quantities of psychedelic drugs some years previously, and they had left her with a slightly dream-like wonderment of the world! Henry was a very clever programmer, musician and producer, and we had tremendous fun trying to satisfy Sally’s whims with the technology. Many tracks of vocals were recorded, and other musicians were brought in occasionally. For example, Frank Ricotti (percussion), Mitch Dalton (guitar) and Peter Beckman (Pro Tools editing – in the days when Pro Tools only allowed for about four tracks!) Henry, Peter and I were a bit naughty and ‘borrowed’ some of Mike’s instruments for a post-session jam one evening!
On some days, Henry wouldn’t need me for long periods, as he was busy programming complex MIDI parts. I remember once or twice getting on the tube at Chalfont and going in to the west end to watch a movie!
Henry and I stayed locally around Beaconsfield etc. in a variety of hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs, enjoying meals out, often sitting outside local pubs! I bought an old board game called ‘Sorry!’ at a street market for 20p and we played that quite a lot!
Hear Sally’s album below – I reckon Henry and I did a pretty good job…!
At some point during the proceedings, Mike turned up. Sally introduced us – “Michael – George, George – Michael… George Michael!!” He was remarkably shy, with a tendency to mutter jokes and then laugh loudly at them! A number of his children were there at one point, and his new young partner, a fitness instructor. Sally, Henry, Mike and I went out for a Chinese meal I recall. Mike heard the work we were doing and a few days later asked if we might like to remix a track of his – Women Of Ireland. I think Henry was enamoured with Robert Miles’ Children at the time, so this kind of approach was pitched, and indeed executed.
Michael turned up to check on progress after a day or two and I remember he jumped into the chair at the desk (I think he sat cross-legged) and as the track ran through, he started playing the desk like a musical instrument. He was quite animated, and bounced a stereo rough mix to two tracks on the multitrack, every now and then rewinding a few bars and punching-in. He made no use of the desk automation, twiddling the knobs and faders in real time, dancing around the desk with his arms. Mike worked very fast. At the end, he jumped up, and indicated as if to say, ‘There, that’s roughly how it should sound!’ And left us to perfect it.
Silicon Graphics and Parking Meters
Other rooms in the studio part of the house were set up with very expensive mainframe computers. Developers beavered away here, working on cutting edge technology for animation and games. In an office sat Mike’s personal manager, the pony-tailed Jeremy Parker. He was effectively “Mum”, helping Mike with day-to-day arrangements and so on. One day, Mike drove into Soho for a haircut and struggling to park his Merc, phoned Jeremy for advice… “Look for a yellow sign… NCP!”, suggested Jeremy!
Ibiza and France
Henry continued to work with Mike after the sessions, helping him out at his new studio in Ibiza. I brought Henry in to program on a project I was producing in France a year or two later, but then lost touch with him. I know he did some work with Art Of Noise on their album The Seduction Of Claude Debussy. (Ironically, this album doesn’t include Art Of Noise member Gary Langan!) Then on taking my young family to the movies, I noticed his credit at the end of Monsters vs Aliens in 2009 and realised he’d hit the big time!
In early 2007 I visited Mike at his new home/studio – a former theme park near the Severn Bridge – to interview him for Resolution Magazine. https://resolutionmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Mike-Oldfield.pdf He fondly remembered the session we’d done, and was at that time working on a classical composition using Logic and the new Euphonix console and fader controllers he’d acquired. He’d written a book about his depression (which I’ve still not read!) and I had discussions with Resolution Magazine about writing a book review, but that sadly never materialised.