I'd spent a fascinating afternoon with Jeff and the team at his Borehamwood, Hertfordshire studio and in addition to the following article, gathered enough for a quite separate interview, which appeared in Music Mart and will be reproduced here in due course.
Additionally, I did a long interview with Gary Langan - a noted producer in his own right. This was intended for Audio Pro's 'Behind The Board' series, but following the demise of that title in December 2005, it has become another homeless waif - which is a great shame as Gary has a lot of interesting things to say. I hope to be able to place it somewhere this year and, if I do, it will appear here in due course.
Having recently suffered dismal financial results (mostly attributed to poor sales of its TVs) there is at least one small corner of the Sony empire where smiles are broad, as they watch Jeff Wayne's re-mixed 1978 vinyl epic War Of The Worlds riding high in the charts again. And why should Sony care? Well, aside from the fact that this digitally remixed, surround sound, re-packaged CD version is on the 50 per cent Sony-owned Sony-BMG label, what is probably not so widely known is that the consumer electronics division, still trying to pump life into SACD, had a hand in the project. And in that hand there was money.
If Sony is ever going to get SACD established, the format is going to have to have material people want to hear in all its enhanced glory, and buyers old enough to have loved WOTW first time around now have disposable income, not only sufficient to have 5.1 surround sound systems on which to enjoy the re-mixed version, but deep enough pockets to buy an SACD compatible player as well. Which reasoning, no doubt, lay behind Sony's decision to get involved in bringing the project to life.
Which is all well and good - but just how do you get 5.1, let alone SACD, performance from 27 year old tapes in danger of decomposition? And, even if you can get the damned things to play, how do you overcome the fact that the original work was recorded with a Maglink system forging 48-track capability from two synched 24 track machines and that there are no functioning Maglinks left in captivity?
Knowing what he had in store, once he'd agreed to undertake the project in 2002, Jeff Wayne assembled a two-man team to help him bring WOTW to fruition. It was clear from the start, he says, that this was going to have to be a ProTools project and that he would need a vastly skilled programmer and a damned fine engineer. He found the former in French programmer GaŽtan Schurrer and the latter in Gary Langan (a noted producer in his own right).
Was it true that Sony had stumped up some of the money for this lengthy and expensive project?
'Very much so, Sony hardware have invested into this project - I don't know whether it's 50/50 or what the split is, but without their participation this probably wouldn't have grown to the scale it has,' says Jeff Wayne. 'They've chosen WOTW as one of the lead items where they can promote their hardware, using it as a recording that personifies how 5.1 should sound.'
Could the WOTW crew have undertaken such a project at all without ProTools?
'I think technically without a system that could do what ProTools and Digidesign's equipment does, it would probably have been impossible,' he says. 'If I'd had my Maglink and my 48 tracks to work from... but no, I don't think it could have been done and I don't think it could have been done in a fraction of the time in which we did it. When you look at the collector's edition - six CDs, including two of them being entirely new stereo re-mixes and then surround sound and four further CDs with remixes with club versions, rarities and out-takes, that's a lot of material. In the time that we did it, I don't think we could have achieved it. On some of the more complex recordings we had something like 190 or 200 sounds, so that's pretty formidable.'
Digidesign is credited on the project - had the company been involved as supporters?
'Yes, they were. We were able to make an arrangement where we could give them some credits and they gave us some facilities that we probably wouldn't have been able to afford when we upgraded the studio, so it's been a very good relationship and I'm pleased to have been associated with them.'
In fact Jeff Wayne's studio, part of his impressive Hertfordshire home, is dominated by a supercharged Digidesign system, possibly the largest in Europe at the time. And it needed to be, given the Herculean labours the team had in store.
The problems stemmed from the decision to use the, then brand new, Maglink system, which was being imported by the distribution arm of London's Advision studios, where the original recordings took place, mostly fitted around his exhausting schedule of work with David Essex, ad jingles, TV themes and film scores with which he was constantly engaged during the mid-1970s. Arguably, WOTW couldn't have been created on a mere 24-tracks - certainly not with anything like the degree of complexity it reached, but it was a decision that would come to haunt him 25 years later, when early experiments showed that two reels of tape originally synched via the system would no longer play back in step. In the hope of finding a working spare, Mr Wayne even bought a secondhand example, ex-Pink Floyd's The Wall tour, for 50p at an auction - but that hadn't worked, either!
'It was a question of whether it could be put together again, rather than knowing that it could,' he says. 'The first thing was that this was probably the first 48-track production that had been done, certainly in Europe, maybe the world, and the gamble I was taking was that it as going to be a first time with me as the guinea pig. As it turned out, the biggest problem was that Maglink died pretty soon after WOTW finished, nobody really stayed with it, therefore coming back to it after all these years, GaŽtan spent up to about three months, virtually sound by sound, piecing it all together from 75 reels of 2in tape and then transferring it into the digital domain and synchronising it. Even with the multitrack tapes that we had, every track was so filled that it would have four or five different sounds or vocals on it, so that when we mixed it in analogue, we had to mix it in sections. To transfer that and put it all together it really was a puzzle and GaŽtan did quite a unique job on it.'
In the end, though, he was still working with analogue signals, recorded a quarter of a century ago. What sampling rate did he use and does he think the analogue recordings stood up?
'I think so, yes. We've done this at 96k and we can tell the difference. I think it's true to say that the quality of the sound isn't a huge jump and probably wouldn't be a huge jump even if you went to double that. In fact we did some testing of just that, but with WOTW being such a large project, every time you double the bandwidth, you're halving the amount of tracks, so there's a trade-off. At one point we did consider the 192 but in the end, we took the halfway point. We didn't go back to the lowest level, which still is very good, and we wound up on balance with the best.'
You can judge for yourself how well you think it works on the CD. Pretty damned good seems to be most peoples' verdict.
THE VIEW FROM THE CREW- GaŽtan Schurrer and Gary Langan
Programmer GaŽtan Schurrer arrived in the UK from France in 1985, found a job with Argents keyboards in Denmark St and was then snapped-up by ZTT as their Synclavier programmer. After a spell working freelance, he then moved to work with Jeff Wayne on the Spartacus project - a two week gig that lasted for five years. His solo career took off when he started doing DJ Sasha's remixes, worked with M-People (he did One Night in Heaven) and a host others both in the UK and USA, before returning to Jeff Wayne's studio 18 months ago, specifically to work on WOTW.
'The first thing was trying to rebuild a project that was made out of 75 reels of 2in tape, all recorded with Dolby A.' he says. 'Our first step was to get FX Rentals to bake all of them to fix the oxide, because they were so old. They weren't actually too bad, but we got them baked anyway, just in case, and then they transferred them onto firewire drives.
'Originally, we were asked to do it at 192 kHz because Sony was saying that's the closest to the 200k equivalent of SACD. We looked into the logistics of it and it would have been impossible. It would have needed two ProTools rigs - it would have been an absolute nightmare. So we decided to do it at 96k and when Jeff and I went to FX Rentals to listen to the difference between 96 and 192, it wasn't that great - especially coming off 25 year old multitracks.
'We also had to do a major system upgrade in the studio before we started. We had a ProTools system but we didn't have 5.1 capability, we didn't have 96k capability and we didn't have a fast enough computer, so what we did was do a great deal with Digidesign. We put a Digidesign logo on every part of the product and they gave us a really great price on the upgrade and they also provided us with all the plug-ins for the duration of the project.
'The ProControl desk was in already, but we expanded it and basically what we did was throw out the old G4 and bought a new G5 dual 2GB, we replaced two screens, we put in M&K 5.1 speakers and a sub-woofer, we had a major re-wire, we threw out a lot of unnecessary outboard effects and in the end wound-up with the biggest system Digidesign can currently do, which is the TDM HD Accel with a core card and six HD Accel cards - that's the maximum, seven cards: 63 chips of DSP, Accel chips as well, so that's pretty monstrous!'
The shopping list grew apace, but storage issues had to be addressed, too..
'I didn't want to use SCSI any more - it's always been a nightmare - so I thought I should be able to do this with Firewire. Now with ProTools at 96k, Digidesign says you shouldn't do more than 12 tracks per Firewire drive and you can't really chain that many drives on the Firewire chain as it starts freaking-out, and you couldn't chain more than two drives on Firewire 800, so you had to use Firewire 400. In the end, I decided to buy three Lacie 320 Gig drives - almost a terabyte of data - I had the internal drive running all the software and another Maxtor 200GB that I was using for all the bouncing. The way I did it was when I copied all the relevant multitracks to my working drives, I split everything so that I'd never get more than 16 tracks per drive. So when I was copying a master multitrack, the first 16 tracks went to the first drive and the next eight tracks went to the second, and with any slave multitracks, the first eight went to the second and the last 16 went onto the third drive.'
Technical problems with all this hardware? Almost none - which is more than can be said for some of the third party plug-ins, which sometimes turned out to be a lot less compatible with Accel than claimed.
'So I got those eight drives and then with an archivist I started listening to all of the 75 multitracks and began making track sheets because there were none in existence - even the labels on the boxes weren't much help, but that's all there was.' He waves half a ream of paper in the air - the resulting tracksheets of the audio jigsaw puzzle from Hell.
'It took two or three weeks just trying to get these tracksheets done and then we made a shortlist of what we thought were the relevant tapes for the album. But even that wasn't so straightforward. On my shortlist for The Eve Of The War, there were 23 multitracks that had The Eve Of The War on them and I had to find two, a master and a slave, for each of them. That was pretty typical - tracks were often spread across 11 or 12 tapes, so it was a huge puzzle. It was just down to the power of deduction to work out which was the master and slave.'
Students of Kay Scarpetta would be impressed - this was forensic work of a really high order.
'Have I actually got all the tapes?, That was the question that always at the back of my mind. After all, it had been 26 years and 75 tapes - one could easily have gone adrift. So I started putting them together, starting with Eve Of The War, which was my biggest guess. I had so many tapes but as it happened I picked the right one - tape number 3, which was my master and tape 48 was the slave - so you can see the numbers bore no relation to anything. Once I had the master and the slave and I was satisfied they were the tapes, I then had to re-synch the 48 tracks.
'I had a stroke of luck there, because when I started zooming in on the Maglink code in ProTools, the sound of it was just a kind of tone, but the looks of it, fortunately, had a shape a bit like Morse code, so you had this kind of noise bar with little peaks. It was a bit random, but you could actually see a pattern and by comparing the pattern in the slave and master they were identical, which obviously they had to be as that was how you would stripe the machine. You'd stripe the maser and then the slave from that so they'd have identical code.'
By magnifying the tell-tale parts of the code, slowly Mr Schurrer began to be able to piece things together. But how accurate was the synching?
'Invariably, the slave tape was dragging, getting slower than the master, and what I realised was that if I soloed the two codes and played them together when they were perfectly in synch, they're phased. So what I did was go through every multitrack, aligning the two timecodes in the beginning, so that they were perfectly in phase and from that point on when it started to drift out of phase, I could cut into the slave multitrack and shift it back by about 100-150 samples. I did that on every single multitrack - probably 100-150 cuts on each, so in the end I think the tapes are more in synch now than they were 26 years ago.
'Finally, I had 48 tracks back in synch, but then we had to recreate what was actually on the album. The way they did it in those days was mix everything in sections, maybe a minute or two, three at most, then they mixed all of those to quarter inch and then they edited all those quarter inch bits onto a third quarter inch machine and that's how they made the master. The Eve Of The War wasn't so bad, but once I got onto the next track it was a nightmare. There were sections repeated, sometimes the multitrack would have the front then it would cut to somewhere later, then it would go back to where it was, minus a piece that had been edited out. There was so much track sharing - one session ended up with 90 tracks. How they did it was unbelievable - it needed three pairs of hands, all three on the desk, each with a bunch of jobs assigned, just to mix those few minutes in one pass.'
At least using the wonder of ProTools, each sound now has its own track. But who'd like the job of counting them? And how long did it take? A whole four months, just to get to the point where they could say they had new masters of WOTW ready to be mixed. And that doesn't include compiling the rarities and out-takes that appear on the Collector's edition boxed set.
Finally, however, the WOTW project was ready to mix.
Noted producer, Art of Noise founder, sometime studio boss and plenty more besides, Gary Langan was Jeff Wayne's choice for engineer on the WOTW project. How had he become involved?
'I'd met Jeff many years ago, in the days of early SARM, doing eight track jingles and I cut my teeth doing some of Jeff's lesser important jingles for his company, Jeff Wayne Music. Later, I worked on a live version of All The Fun of the Fair with David Essex, on which I was the assistant.' Finding themselves working together on a project a few years ago, Gary Langan was recruited to work on WOTW. 'When Jeff originally did it in '76, I was at SARM, but everyone in the business knew about it, because it was really blazing a trail technically and was much talked about.
'As to what I did on WOTW, I've sort of described myself as handling sound restoration and mixing and I gave GaŽtan the title of 'the curator', which he hates - but without him, mixing this album would have been impossible.'
As to who did what, it seems that Messrs Langan and Schurrer did most of the mixing for the stereo version, calling Jeff Wayne in as a judge and referee and that the latter took the lead role when it came to creating the surround sound mix. 'The stereo mix was intended to be just an updated version of the original, but the 5.1 was intended to be something new, so the 5.1 mix was really more Jeff's mix,' Mr Langan says.
'It was important to do the stereo mix first, and it is very close to the original,' he says. 'I listened to it a lot beforehand and I limited myself just to two echo plates, because that's what they would have had - two EMT plates, one valve, one transistor, a couple of compressors and EQs, a harmoniser and tape delays and an Eventide Clockworks phasers - so that's how we did it too, sticking as close as we could get. Sonically it sounds better, but it's really very similar in terms of panning, balance and so on.'
What about the decision to use 96k as the sampling rate? Hadn't Sony originally wanted it at 192k?
'They did want it at 192, but we said, how well do you want to sample tape noise? And also the plug-in support at 192k is not there yet - it's just about there at 96k - so GaŽtan spent three months extracting that information: a monumental task - he deserves enormous credit for the technical achievement. it was a jigsaw puzzle without the final picture.
'I think there are very few albums from the old days that work in 5.1. because there isn't the right information in terms of weight, to support the speaker combination that you're now putting it through, but something like WOTW does because its production and orchestration lends itself to a surround sound environment.'
But despite all enthusiasm for 5.1, from an audiophile point of view isn't it true that only the listener who grabs the sweet spot gets the benefit of WOTW in 5.1?
'No! Not if you do it right and not with the way I've mixed this album,' he asserts. 'You can sit more or less anywhere and you have a great time. You're not going to same mix as if you sit in another part of the room, it's true, but it will be a full supported mix and that's what you have in stereo - it goes back to the core of your record, the bass, drums and vocals. When I'm working in 5.1 they sit in the middle of the quad axis because I'm not a lover of the centre speaker - he's dangerous - he's very dangerous, because he's not designed for records, he's designed for film work, for dialogue. I hardly ever use that speaker for that reason.'
What about the ProTools aspect? Were there any downsides to that choice?
'There's no way I could have mixed the stereo version and the 5.1 to the standard, without this sort of technology. Originally, it was thought we might do it analogue, just use ProTools as a storage medium and go somewhere that had a lovely console and work it that way. But the more I thought about it - not least the amount of outboard gear I'd have to have - the more it seemed impossible. Some of these tracks bust out into 96 tracks - Jeff managed to get 96 bits of information on Forever Autumn and The Thunderchild and in terms of analogue equipment it would have been a logistical nightmare. You could have done it - but it would have been an awful lot of hard work.'
There was more we wanted to ask Gary Langan - a lot more. So we did. Watch this space for an in-depth profile.