If a career that has run from being Rick Desmond's roadie (Rick Desmond is currently proprietor of the Daily Express newspaper), to roadsweeper, to co-owner of a highly successful recording studio doesn't sound all that unusual for the music industry, consider, if you will, the steps taken in between by this month's FT subject, Ivor Taylor. Involved right at the very beginning with Richard Branson's Manor studios, he went on to be one of the original team at Allen & Heath with Andy Bereza (see last month's FT), then to help A&H absorb UK tape machine manufacturer Brenell, later became one of the founders of the pioneering Turnkey/Bandive company and eventually headed Fostex UK as managing director.
Though his story inevitably overlaps last month's, Ivor Taylor expands on important areas and illuminates not just the companies and people involved, but on both the development of home/project studio recording in the UK and on the industry as a whole. In passing, we get even closer to the ultimate root of the Portastudio. Meanwhile, there's room for the obligatory Richard Desmond story - almost something of a tradition in Family Trees. Better yet, there's a not-so broken Marshall amp, the first debut of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, Hank Marvin's royalties and plenty more. A classic Family Tree from a great raconteur.
Allen & Heath didn't start life as an audio equipment company. A dormant business, owned by Joseph Batiste, it was pulled off the shelf to be used as a convenient vehicle for the fledgling console manufacturing business started by Andy Bereza. 'When I met Andy, he was on his own, running Allen and Heath out of a place called Pembroke House, which was at the bottom of Muswell Hill,' Ivor Taylor recalls. 'The way I got into the business was by getting a job with Marshall amplification as a service engineer, over at Ealing. It was a blagger's paradise. They sent me off to Bletchley for an examination and put this valve amplifier up on a bench, telling me it was faulty. I like valves - with a valve you can see what's wrong, but with a transistor you've got to have a brain. They turned it on, it blew a fuse and they handed me a circuit diagram - I had no idea about circuit diagrams, I was only about 17 years old, but I did have very good eyesight and I saw they'd soldered a wire onto the back of a component. I took the wire off, got it working and they thought I was brilliant.
'Before that, I'd also been a roadie, for a very short period of time, for Rick Desmond's band. Les, who's in the photograph with me back in roadsweeping days, had been the guitarist in the band. Rick, who was the drummer, had tried to buy it - he actually stood there with a cheque saying he wanted to buy the band, but they wouldn't sell, so he left and they carried on without him. Les, the guitarist, and I were road sweepers for a while after that - we needed the money - and then I got the job at Marshall, worked there for a year and then a mate of mine got me a job working for Richard Branson at the Manor, under Tom Newman.
'Jimi Hendrix had died at around that time and the entire industry was trying to find the new Hendrix. You know the story - they found a black guitar player who took drugs copiously, had sex with lots of women, so he was going to be the next Jimi Hendrix. After literally twelve hours of getting f*****g nothing on tape we were all ready to pack up and go to bed when Mike Oldfield, who was the bass player in this guy's band, walked into the control room, very quiet and unassuming, and said he'd done something at home and would we like to listen to it?" You can imagine the reaction he got, but Tom, to give him his credit, said, "of course". So he handed over this ¼ in tape and we were all expecting utter shit. And what we actually got was Tubular Bells with more feeling and creativity than is on the actual album, crammed on this ¼ in tape with tons of distortion - but it was absolutely fantastic.'
Unfortunately, not long after, Mr. Taylor managed to get himself sacked from the Manor. 'I'm one of the few people Tom ever sacked,' he says, with obvious pride.
'I went from there to working for Pepe Rush, who built the mixer for the Palladium and the transistor amplifiers (unheard of at the time) for Tramps. That was a really interesting period as it was the changeover between valves and transistors and Pepe's Palladium mixer was one of the very first modular mixers.' The story of how Mr. Taylor met and teamed-up with Andy Bereza at A&H around 1973 was told last month, but the roles they settled down to within the company wasn't. 'Andy has fantastic creative ability and my role was to build his designs. Andrew Stirling joined six months after me and that was the nucleus. It was also the source of the name we eventually chose when we got back together again - Bandive: Bereza, Andy and Ivor.
'Allen and Heath, though it's not been much sung about, was a truly formative company. For example, Andy was the first person, as far as I know, to suggest the direct connection of the front panel control via the legs on the pots to the printed circuit board. At that time no one made a printed circuit board mounting potentiometer, so Andy used to cut the legs of the pots so they'd form a pin, bend them sideways and then shove the printed circuit board on it. That was absolutely revolutionary. It took six solder joints down to three, it got rid of three wires - it took 12 operations down to one and it was one of the initial changes that started making mixers affordable. It sounds silly, but it was an absolutely crucial development.
'The next thing was how to mount the pot - well you just drill a hole in a piece of aluminium and bolt it on, so all of a sudden you've attached a printed circuit board to the front panel and then you make the front panel in strips and at that stage you've got a modular mixer. Eventually, doing things like this, we'd taken two or three hundred operations and reduced them to about ten and though other people had started to do that, people like Malcolm Toft at Trident, I think Andy was the first person to say: "I can do it for two and sixpence and I can cut all these corners". Fundamentally it pointed the way that all mixers were going to be built. We couldn't make enough - it was complete bedlam, we were selling so many.'
The next landmark was the ground-breaking Mod-8, followed by the MiniMixer, a self-assembly kit, which sold for under £100. Mr. Taylor speaks in great detail of the innovations made by A&H at the time and it is only through lack of space that I don't detail them here. Suffice it to say that the team was continually breaking ground which, today, we take for granted. Similarly, the "bootleg" quadraphonic mixer built as a moonlighting project for Pink Floyd (see FT April), Mr. Taylor feels, sparked of a lot of early more-than-stereo thinking.
'Not too long after, Andy had a showdown with Joe Batiste and discovered that the company he'd been building, and his shares in it, were worthless. Effectively, it was a complete scam, so he left the company for Tascam, leaving Andrew Stirling and myself behind. Incidentally, while he was with Tascam, I would, personally, credit Andy for inventing the name "Portastudio" There is the suggestion that someone at ITA, who were modifying 3340 four track Teac tape machines, may have come up with the term, but Andy is the person that took the idea and made it into a product. But if the absolute roots of the idea of the portable recording studio are what you're looking for, then that probably stems from Martin Parmiter at ITA and he's never had any recognition for it, which he should have done. There have been a lot of claims and counterclaims over this, but I am absolutely 100 per cent positive that the basic idea was at ITA, who had decided to get the Sony Elcassette transport and do an eight track portable studio based around it. Andy's brilliant idea was to put it to the Japanese and take it to four track - nobody had come up with that until Andy suggested it. And that's how the Portastudio was born. Anyone who says anything else is talking bollocks -and I know because I was around at the time and I was aware what was going in. Basically, the idea was between Andy and Martin Parmiter and Andy was the person who put the word 'Portastudio' in the English lexicon.
'After Andy had gone off to Tascam, leaving Andrew and myself as directors at Allen & Heath, we stayed in contact on very good terms, but we weren't really sure where we were going to take the company. At that time, Andrew was selling a lot of eight track mixers and people needed eight track tape machines. The only one that was low cost was the machine made by the British company Brenell, the Mini 8. Brenell Engineering was founded on technology taken out of the second world war - literally, founded by somebody was an RAF officer who, as part of his job, was to go out and get hold of the recording technology.
They had made mechanically operated transports - wonderful bits of mechanical engineering which nobody in the UK can do anymore, but absolutely not what people want nowadays - or even then. By the time we became involved, a small team had formed which was trying to take the company away from the old mechanical stuff towards electronic control of the transport and the Mini 8 and Mark 15 were the first instances of a UK company trying to do that kind of engineering. They had the name, but their mistake was to cross-pollinate the ideas, which were fundamentally different from what Brennel had been. There was a guy called Richardson involved, who was designing multitrack electronics as modifications for Ampex tape machines - solid state electronics - and somehow he got connected with Brenell and the idea formed to make a one inch transport with one inch heads, plug all these boards in and end-up with a one inch eight track machine. But it was so unreliable - such a pile of s***t that you wouldn't believe. However, it was the only game in town. So Allen & Heath bought Brenell on the basis that we had the mixers and they had the tape machines - we're away! We moved Allen & Heath down to Brenell's premises in Liverpool Rd. but well... the tape machines were every bit as bad as I say. If you want to engineer a tape transport, you cast it in aluminium then you put it outside for six months to weather. Then you machine it flat with a mill - you do things properly. These guys were buying quarter inch duraluminium plate then getting it cut to size and having someone hammer it flat - very, very skilled work, but no practical use at all, because it warps and then the tape won't move. Fundamentally it was very flawed thinking, but it was a one inch eight track at low cost.
'At the same time, we had successful and unsuccessful mixers, the most interesting being the REIMS, which stood for River End Impossible Mixer Systems. It was modular, it had a little computer in it, you could mute channels and in some ways it really rocked, but we rushed it into production and it became one of those 'yeuch' ones. We had immense amount of interest in it but, truthfully, our execution of the technology wasn't good enough. Then again, it did sell and there's some poor bastards out there with them, I suppose! Still, it did introduce the idea of locking to timecode and channels muting and unmuting to it, which was revolutionary. There were lots of ideas in that mixer which were cost-reducing to the point of revolutionary but, basically - what can I say? We fucked-up.'
Not long after the REIMS system, around 1980, Mr. Taylor left the company, pleading 'personal problems'. 'Andy Bereza and I had done the Pink Floyd mixer together, while Andrew Stirling and Andy had done some install stuff together, which they'd put under the name Turnkey. I'd left, Andy had left, Andrew was sitting there on his own, we'd all been in contact and so Andy and I decided to do Turnkey, Andrew came in with us and the company was formed as Bandive. I was in charge of manufacturing, Andrew was in charge of retail and Andy was in charge of marketing.
'What then happened was that manufacturing didn't really take off - not immediately. The retail side, for the first six months to a year, wasn't really working either and then Andy came up with the idea of a mail order catalogue for Pro Audio. That was an unbelievable concept for the time - completely unheard of. But he had an electronic typewriter on which he typed up all the pages, there was an offset-litho Gestetner out the back and so we just covered ourselves in ink, made the first 500 catalogues and waited to see what happened. It was the first every Pro Audio catalogue and it just exploded. The amount of business we got out of it was amazing. There were all these people out there who wanted to buy this stuff and yet there was almost no one selling it. But what really made the difference was Andy's tone - which was superb. Andy had a way of writing that was so good and so in touch that people were using it as reference material.
'That then started to generate a lot of interest, the retail side began to take off and Andrew began selling some very big consoles and tape machines. We were all in it together but Andrew was making tremendous progress. He was the first person to sell a 24 track two inch professional tape recorder, a Studer, on a retail basis to an end-user who was, I think, Hank Marvin. That had been unheard of before then. Andrew also had a very good relationship with Soundcraft and started putting together packages with 4, 8 and 16 track packages and it really rocked - that's the only way you could describe it. In the end it got to the point where we were selling more Studers than FWO Bauch, up the road in Borehamwood, who were the official Studer distributors, which was amazing.
'Not long after that, Otari came on the scene with the MTR90 and Andrew started selling those - and all of a sudden we're selling three or four of these things a month and making 30 per cent on them - huge business for us and the whole thing was starting to explode. At that point we formed Turnkey 2, which was Andy Munro doing acoustics and if you look at the people in the UK doing acoustic design today, there are four of them - and two of those came out of Turnkey 2.
'Everybody was on an absolute high - everything was going so well. And somewhere around this time Abe, Mickey Matsumoto and Yuki Ikeda had got so pissed-off with Tascam that they left and went to the Foster Corporation to form Fostex, with their idea to do a quarter inch eight track, which everybody had deemed to be impossible. They were the people that Andy knew from his time at Tascam and had maintained a relationship with, so when the product was ready we had the choice, and we got, distribution for the UK for the Fostex brand. I had the privilege of being the person to go round the UK trying to sell Fostex to the dealers and, believe me, it was thin on the ground at that point.
'Before long, though, we were doing a wonderful job and Tascam started getting very concerned that we were going to stitch them up, buying Fostex at distributor prices and setting up in competition. Dealers were concerned too, saying that because we had a retail outlet we'd undersell them, but we made a point of not allowing the Turnkey side to sell at a favourable price, so you knew that though you'd get a good price on Fostex from Turnkey, you'd also be able to get that price elsewhere.
'What that allowed was for the whole thing to grow until Fostex had the same sort of market penetration as Tascam. We then moved down near Brent Cross, we got Synclavier as a brand, which Andrew Stirling brought into the company, and found ourselves having a broad range of products catering for everyone from the guy who was doing a paper round to buy a four track, to people who had just got their PRS cheques and were looking to build whole studios.'
This latter was a huge turning point in the development of the Pro Audio business in the UK, as Ivor Taylor points out. 'The whole structure of the way musicians were getting their money was changing. The apocryphal story about Hank Marvin illustrates this. When we first got in contact with him, he had an eight track Tascam and a tiny studio in his house. He was put in touch with us by Tascam and about the time that Andrew Stirling began talking with him the 20 Golden Hits album was released and suddenly everything changed. Apparently, they had bought themselves out of their contract with EMI, who regarded them as total has-beens, but they made more money out of that one album, than they had in their entire previous careers, because they now had a sensible publishing deal. All of a sudden, Hank Marvin went from having an eight track in the loft, to a 24 track Studer or Otari and a Harrison mixer. The money came from PRS and it was happening across the industry. When Turnkey came out with its mail order catalogue the timing couldn't have been better. You can't get seed to grow in the desert. When the time is right, if you push on the door, there will be gold behind it and that's what happened. You'd gone from a time when nobody had been spending money like that, to a time when suddenly a lot of people were.
'I suppose the turnaround began with the Beatles and Apple, which was a lot more than a store that folded. It was a publishing company that enabled them to assert their rights to get fair money out of their songs. From there, other musicians followed and suddenly, in the early '80s, there were musicians around with reborn careers. That was the money pump that drove REW, HHB, Turnkey, Don Larkin, Music Laboratories and the rest.'
Of course the market, as markets do, turned. 'We were doing so well.' he reflects. 'We were manufacturing, distributing Synclavier throughout Europe, both professional and retail sales, we had the second shop, in Percy St - a mainstream London shop. We'd been growing at a phenomenal rate - reached £6 million turnover in 1986 and suddenly realised we couldn't go any further. Anyone who's been in a business that has grown rapidly knows this. As you come off the top, the cash-flow reverses. We'd started this when we were all very young and naive and suddenly there wasn't the money to pay all the bills, there wasn't the growth, we all had fast cars and... well, it went tits-up. It all ended in a huge legal case which I can't talk about. In effect a group of three that had all worked very well together on the up, hadn't been able to handle it so well once we plateaued, or were on the way down.
'We knew that things were getting tough at that point, so we brought in a new finance director, a guy called Peter Williams who is now the Chief Executive Officer of Selfridges, and as he was coming in we were looking at buying-in Bob Wilson's company, Atlantex. We bought his company, he got a ten per cent share of Bandive, but what happened was that the numbers weren't what we thought they were and that, plus our problems, avalanched into a whole pile of shit. Bob's company, Sound Technology, bounced out and carried on doing what it does so well, but it was chaos - total madness and I'll confess to having been young and stupid at the time. And anybody who says they weren't, hasn't got a very good recollection of what was going on.
'About that time, Andy Bereza and Andrew Stirling clashed and I sided with Andy Bereza, which resulted in that court case. Andrew went off to form Stirling Audio Services, we carried on with Turnkey and it was very tight - all the shit was washing through to us. Fostex was selling very well, we were doing great things with it and I have to say we had some great people with us, so many people who went through Bandive and who have gone on to do great things in the business, which makes you very proud. People who deserved to do well, did very well - people like Tony Gravel at Tascam, who started with me as a sales rep - they've done well because they deserved to.
'In the end, we were approached by a photographic company which wanted to buy us and at the same time, by Harman. We had the two offers in and we took the Harman penny, which was extremely painful at times. They put us with Harman UK, Fostex got very uppity (hardly surprisingly because we were the UK's Tascam distributors) but we managed to ride that one for three years. Meanwhile, we'd come out with SECK mixers. When Harman bought us, SECK was selling extremely well. We had this secret mixer that was just about to come out (REIMS) and they had been trying to buy Soundcraft. What happened, in effect, was that Harman were saying to Soundcraft that either they sold-out to Harman, or Harman was going to buy SECK and REIMs and give them real problems.
'So, after Harman had bought Bandive, six months or so later they bought Soundcraft. In effect what happened was that SECK became the lead-in to Spirit. Look at the physical design of Spirit at then at SECK, they are very similar. Look at Mackie, for that matter - it's now become a very accepted way of doing it and that's down to Martin Appleby's design.'
While all this was happening (you thought it was enough?) Turnkey's Percy St lease came up for renewal, but at exactly the same time as REW's. Tunrkey took over what had been REW's site but the party was over at Harman and Messrs Bereza and Taylor decided to work out their contracts with the US giant.
'Not long after, probably around '89, Fostex UK offered me the MD's job. When I got there I found they'd bought a 15,000 sq ft warehouse in Slough, brand new, which gave them very big operating costs. We were profitable for the first 18 months and then the Yen collapsed and we had a business model that no longer worked. I recommended to the Japanese that they shut it down. Twice, I made proposals to do this because there was no way they were going to make money with the Yen at the rate it was against the pound - it was a very difficult time. Finally, I was called back from holiday and told that they were shutting it down and, I must say, I think they behaved in a very improper way, because they gave some very hard-working members of staff four weeks pay - minimum statutory. I thought the way they handled that was quite disgraceful So that was the end of that.
'A long time ago, meanwhile, I'd sold Synclaviers to a company called Tape Gallery, to whose managing director, Carol Humphrey, I'd said that if she ever wanted to build a studio to give me a call and that's what we did - we built a studio. It's Grand Central Studios in Soho, with four studios, doing top commercials, blue chip stuff. I suppose I'm poacher turned gamekeeper. Yes, so far, touch wood, life's been pretty good to me,' he laughs.