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2023 marks 50 years since the release of Mike Oldfield’s iconic Tubular Bells album. Instantly acclaimed from its launch in 1973, the album gained worldwide attention after being used as the soundtrack for the film The Exorcist.
Can you tell us how the project came about?
Today Tubular Bells continues to sell over 100,000 albums per year. Ahead of the 50th Anniversary in 2023, Kaleidoscope have commissioned several live performances, a documentary feature narrated by Bill Nighy and a new studio recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s this new studio album that I was asked to work on, which is especially significant as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra released The Orchestral Tubular Bells in 1975.
Although the 1975 recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is highly revered, it didn’t include the famous ‘Master of Ceremonies’ and vocal sections heard on the original. This newly commissioned work features the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, some of the greatest contemporary session musicians in the UK, a full choir and Brian Blessed as Master of Ceremonies and the formidable Caveman in part 2.
Utilising modern recording techniques, it has been put together to celebrate these remarkable original works.
Tubular Bells was completely ground-breaking. How does recording this album in 2022 look and what shape will it take compared to the original?
The original was released in 1973 when there was no computer technology and everything was recorded on 24 track, with Mike Oldfield playing all the instruments.
Besides the composition itself and the instrumental nature of the work, the fact Mike Oldfield recorded the original at the age of 19 and played the majority of the instruments himself via 274 overdubs was equally ground-breaking.
This new work is aimed to celebrate this incredible composition using modern recording techniques. We have tried to capture the essence of the original while breathing modern sonic capabilities into the mix. I hope any music lover or audiophile will enjoy something fresh while still retaining the nostalgia. Although we have the wonders of modern technology, I can assure you the work put into this project is unlike anything I’ve done before.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced on this project?
Due to the nature of these compositions which encompass unique instrumentations and a mix of styles, bringing all these elements together as a concise picture has been my focus throughout. Perhaps less exciting, but even more critical for my role in this project however, has been good organisation.
We captured this double album at a high sample rate (high quality) and have consistently focused on the quality of every capture. As any engineer will tell you, that leads to careful planning of parts through to data management and utilising processing power. We are spoilt with the processing power available today, but I wanted to bring out the best possible result without cutting any corners.
When it came to the mixing process, as most engineers do, I begin the tonal and balancing process on studio monitors. However, when making decisions about stereo placement, I often like to check this on headphones. I’ve used a new prototype earphone by Flare Audio on this project, which has blown me away. Apart from hearing some phenomenal results over the years from their speakers (which are also installed at Olympic where this album premiered) their new IEM design completely recalibrates our understanding of a natural response.
For me, the E-Prototypes excel in replicating the stereo image, and were critical in aiding the choices I made. This is particularly notable for this project as the imaging is both governed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra layout, as well as creative choices that span back to those of Mike Oldfield. Furthermore, with complex harmonic structure and instrumentation spread across the stereo field, the final balance was certainly the most challenging aspect of mixing this wonderful album. I will be forever grateful to have had the E-Prototypes to hand throughout this special and unique opportunity. I only hope the results speak for themselves, bringing both an immersive and detailed soundscape to this classic.
Also, with a project as extensive as this, which unsurprisingly uses a significant channel count, the editing process required countless hours of concentration. To be able to make critical editing decisions on such detailed in-ear headphones such as the E-Prototypes, allowed me to work more freely, away from the studio environment and manage my time more flexibly.
You’ve got some huge names playing on this album – could you tell us a little bit more about them and what you think they bring to the project?
Obviously, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra need no introduction. However, having worked with many recognised orchestras and session orchestras before, I can’t stress enough how good they were on these sessions. Not only were they highly professional as you would expect, but the musicality and detail in their playing, even on initial takes, was often beyond expectations. Arranger Simon Dobson who also conducted the orchestra and choir, has been vital to this project. We very quickly found a natural rhythm and established a strong professional relationship. I believe he is one of the special ones - and wherever you see his name in future it’ll be a project worth checking out.
Name-check wise, Brian Blessed has been an obvious choice for this project, fulfilling Master of Ceremonies and Caveman duties. There probably aren’t many better fits for this role and we’re incredibly lucky to have captured him on these recordings.
There are many highly talented musicians on this project, but the key contemporary parts have been recorded by some of the UK’s greatest talents today. All guitar and mandolin duties have been carried out by Pete Callard (Lionel Richie, Queen, Annie Lennox, The Bee Gees...), the famous bass lines are re-played by Andy Pask (Madonna, Pet Shop Boys, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones...) and on keys and piano we have the incredible Jeff Leach (Strictly Come Dancing, X-Factor, Brian May, Royal Variety...) The percussion parts, which are far greater than you might first imagine as well as the “Tubular Bells” of course, were played by Kevin Earley (Lord Of The Rings, Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Live Earth...) and Tom Edwards (Royal Academy Of Music, Royal Ballet Sinfonia, LSO...).
Tubular Bells has a timelessness to it and it is incredible to think it was released in 1973 – is that something you are aware of when you are in the studio working on it?
Absolutely. I still remember my father having the original vinyl with its unique cover art when I was younger. He would play it on Sunday afternoons as my Mum cooked the Sunday roast. Every time I opened the project to work on it, whether it be recording a new part or to simply carry out some editing, I have been quickly reminded of the awesomeness before me. Interestingly, my mother and father have very different musical backgrounds and rarely are they both interested in the same projects that I’m working on. With this however, they’ve both been enthralled, which to me demonstrates the reach of this amazing material.
What do you think will be the highlights of this epic project?
Hopefully it’s the joy of listening back to such an exceptional piece of music that’s still unlike almost anything else. I hope it will appeal to those that love the original as much as it will anyone coming to it for the first time. With the pieces being quite long, I hope it breaks the modern cycle of skipping through a playlist and giving the listener some escapism from day-to-day life. I’ve certainly been lost in it all for a while, which has been an honour and a joy.
To find out more about Simon visit his Facebook page:
To see the 50th Anniversary of Tubular Bells Live at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra head this way -->Tubular Bells Live.
This new release is being produced by the production company IBB Media Ltd and distributed by Cleopatra Records.
Above: Brian Blessed (AKA The Caveman and Master of Ceremonies) with Martin Gernon (top right) and Flare CEO Davies Roberts (bottom right) at the Tubular Bells launch event at Olympic Cinema.