Making Engineering Funny

 

 

The days when an engineer's life involved hours spent cutting up and
reassembling quarter-inch tapes are, for better at worse, behind us.
Same will look back with fond memories, others will be glad to see the
back of a fiddly and repetitive task, but there's probably only one
person who could turn tape splicing into a comedy routine.
Whether or not the name Graham Fellows is familiar, the chances are
you've encountered same of his alter egos. As Jilted John, he had a top
five hit in 1978 with an eponymous Martin Hannett-produced single while
his middle aged wannabe pop star John Shuttleworth has enjoyed a more
enduring career. A sell out show at 1992's Edinburgh Fringe spawned
numerous radio and TV series, national tours, videos and CDs, and John
has been joined through the years by a growing cast of Fellows voiced
ancillary characters such as manager Ken and wife Mary. But if the
humour in the Shuttleworths arises from the gulf between John's music
business ambitions and his mundane reality, Fellows's more recent
creation will strike SOS readers even closer to home.
Looking At Sound
The character of Brian Appleton is closely based on the numerous sound
engineers that Fellows has encountered ever the years. "He started off
as a rock historian and multimedia lecturer, who's been dumped upon from
a very great height, as he likes to say, by certain people in the rock
industry," explains Fellows. "The first show, Brian Appleton's History
Of Rock & Roll, which was also a series on Radio Four, was really just a
series of shaggy dog stories where Brian crowbars himself into the true
history of rock. I read a lot of rock history - like Howard Jones used
to work in a cling-film factory, and Rod Stewart was a gravedigger -
things like that I found quite amusing. But that, by its very nature was
a limited idea, and there was any really one show's worth there. So for
the second show I did, Let's Look At Sound, I decided to make him
explore sound, doing an extension of his college lecture on recording
technique."
And that, by way of some character research, would eventually lead to
the idea of taking a Revox 877 ("a workhorse of a machine" as Brian
describes it) on stage. "'How to edit audio tape' is a sketch that was
totally inspired by one of the sound engineers that I interviewed," says
Fellows,
"I interviewed about three sound engineers, just to get the way they
talk about sound. Invariably, they'd try to come up with funny
anecdotes, and I didn't really want that, but then this guy called Keith
Brakes said that when he was about 14, he used to go to a Tape Club. I
don't think they exist any more, but he used to go and make sound
effects, and one of the exercises they used to do to improve their
editing skills on splicing tape was to record 'God save the Queen' into
a mic and then edit it as 'Sod the Queen'. As soon as he said that, I
thought 'That's going to work really well on stage.'
"To do in in front of a live audience, and very quickly as well, I
practised until I knew exactly where to cut and didn't have to try too
hard. But for an audience to see me actually record someone's voice, cut
up the tape, stick it together again and then hear the result and they
knew I'd done it because they recognised the voice - was a bit magical.
When it worked..."
The magic of sound is complemented by an obvious delight in technical
jargon, as Brian warns his uncomprehending audience about the perils of
'bass tip-up' and disperses hints on editing technique ("you'll notice
I've got a built-in splicer to cut the tape. You can use a razor blade -
I prefer not to, because I suffer from depression"). "It was a way of
discovering a little bit more about the theory of sound myself. I
started to swot upon the way frequencies behave, and I was able then to
start writing gags about it. The opening gag in the show was about how
sound travels a lot slower than light, and you might therefore think
that sound is inferior to light, but actually it's superior, because the
fact that sound travels slowly allows us to pinpoint the position of
things. If sound travelled at the speed of light, we might as well have
one ear.
"One of the high points was a recording of a nose-blow, which Brian
didn't even know he was recording -. he was just clearing his sinuses in
preparation for a heavy rock vocal - and then accidentally he hits the
half-speed button, and he plays it back and hears his sneeze slowing
down and decides it sounds rather attractive. So he starts slowing it
down and bouncing it backwards and forwards between two Revoxes. Which I
did for real at home."


Playing With Time
He may be mocking the engineering geek inside all of us, but Brian
Appleton is also an extension of his creator's own love of recording and
sonic experimentation. 'When I was a kid I used to have a little
Telefunken recorder, and I used to do an impression of a baby by going
'wah wah' and speeding it up. What interests me about sound is the
romance of it. I just love that control you have, where you're stopping
time and you're starting to play around with it."
Not only does Fellows do all the voices for radio series like The
Shuttleworths, but he has also recorded all of them himself. "If I get a
good line that I really like then I'll write that down, but I try not to
use a script. This is why I started doing The Shuttleworths, years ago -
I used to listen to radio plays and think how false they sounded. You
could tell the people standing around the microphone with the scripts.
And then I heard a Mike Leigh radio play, and it just blew me away. I
thought 'This is incredible,' because you were just drawn in. You could
see everything so much more clearly. There were no scripts, they'd
devised it in the same way he does his stage and TV plays and films, and
they were actually moving around in a real environment. They recorded it
wherein happened. There was a scene in a Chinese restaurant and they
stuck the mics on the table -. none of these spot-effects people
rustling knives and forks. And at times you couldn't quite hear what was
going on, and that actually drew you in even more. Which went against
the received wisdom of radio recording, as I understand it, where
everything should be crystal clear. I think that's patronising to an
audience. Sometimes it's quite nice not to quite know what's happening.
"That's partly why I wanted to find a new way of recording, and I must
have just stumbled on this multitrack thing with my Portastudio. I try
to build it up like real conversation, which is totally organic.
Basically you've got two people, one of them's talking and the other
one's listening, and then at some point will either take over or
interject, end then the other person has to listen. And when you're
talking, you don't know what you're going to say. So as far as possible,
I try to replicate that. I go to track one and I'll be John, and I'll
say 'Ah, morning Ken. How are you today? Oof! You've get a bit of egg on
your jumper.' Then I'll go on to Ken's track and I'll listen back to
that, and when he says 'You've got a bit of egg on yourjumper,' Ken
might say 'No it isn't,' and that might collide with John's next bit.
And if it collides in an attractive way I'll keep it and move on. If
think 'Oh no, it didn't sound right,' or you can't hear what either of
them is saying, I might slip John's line forwards or backwards, or redo
the whole thing. The way I get the women's voices is that I slow the voice
down a bit, and just get a little bit of sibilance. I slow it down about
10 or 15 percent, and then when you play it back, hopefully it sounds
like a woman."

Tricking The BBC

These days, series like The Shuttleworths are created on a Roland VSI
680 digital multitracker, but it wasn't always so hi-tech. The first
series of The Shuttleworths, which some say is still the best one, was
recorded on a Portastudio. I did the pilot on a Portastudio, and then I
got the series, and they said 'That was fine for the pilot, but you must
have better quality.' So 1 bought an ADAT, but was struggling to get the
spontaneity. The varispeed took about a minute to increment, and I
needed instant varispeed - which I've got now, with my Roland VSI 680,
you just press a button and it's there, you've preset it. To have to
wait 30 seconds to slow it down when I want to do Mary's voice is no
good , because you've just killed the creative moment.
So I played a trick on the BBC. I mastered up a bit of four-track
recording made on my Portastudio on cassette, and also mastered it up on
a quarter inch Revox at 15 ips. Then I put both of them on quarter-inch.
They had both basically come from the four track cassette, but pretended
that one of them was done on the ADAT and one on the Portastudio. A top
engineer at the BBC auditioned my tapes. So played the Portastudio one
first, and he said 'Oh yes, it's a bit hissy.' I said it was the best I
could do,' and played him the other one, said 'This was done on the
ADAT,' and he said 'Oh yes, that's much better, can you hear the
difference? That's fine!' So I went back and used the four track. But
then I got a bit greedy and wanted more tracks, because I had to do a
bit of bouncing, and because of the inability to cut and paste with a
linear analogue system - it's like mobile phones, how did we live
without them? I couldn't possibly be creative without cut and paste,
which I've got now. For me, there was a steep learning curve on this,
and it still does far more than I need it to, so I'm sticking with it.'


In Wardrobe
Graham now has his own studio room, in a converted vet's surgery -
'Acoustically, it's pretty dead, because the brick wall's got
badpointing on it," he laughs - but he's put together previous radio
series in a variety of unlikely locations. "I used to record The
Shuttleworths in a shed when I lived in London, and the last series was
done in a cupboard in a hotel off the A1. The reason for that is that I
was acting in a kids TV series in Elstree, and I had a deadline for the
radio show, so I had to do the radio recording in the evenings when I
wasn't filming. I was originally going to have a room in the studios,
but this room they put me in had a massive double wardrobe, and I
realised that if I put a duvet on the door, and sheets and duvets and
blankets up the side, it created quite a nice dead atmosphere, and I
just recorded away. I did about four of the six episodes like that. " I
tend to just stick a mic in the back of the VS and away I go. My bit of
luxury is an AKG C414, which I got partly because I was doing a BBC
series called Radio Shuttleworth. It involved recording in the studio,
interviewing studio guests, but then I had to pretend they were in my
house, which involved adding new lines here - so I got one of these
because it's what the BBC had. For ages I used to use an SM58, or the
one that was sold to me on the strength of it being Elkie Brooks's
preferred live mic, the AKG C535. I've got a few SM58s, and I've got an
SM57 for if I'm doing drums or anything. I've got quite a nice stereo
mic that I use for recording sound effects."

The Very Best

As well as perfecting his tape splicing, Graham Fellows has also been
experimenting with video editing, and is now putting the finishing
touches to a forthcoming John Shuttleworth film, a collaboration with
photographer Martin Parr. Meanwhile, Brian Appleton is heading out on
the road again in May, in a new show entitled The Very Best Of The Doors
- In My Home. Cunningly disguised as a tribute to Jim Morrison and his
cohorts, the title actually refers to a new series of sonic experiments,
based on recordings of the interior doors of Brian's house. It's
certainly a unique basis for a comedy show - so what can we expect? "I
haven't really started writing it yet," admits Fellows. "I just like the
title."

 

-Sam Inglis, photos Richard Ecclestone