In our exhaustive series on Britain's Christian music business, Tony Cummings looks at the part recording studios have played in Britain's music scene.
Say 'recording studio' to the average non-musician and he immediately thinks of gleaming palaces of technology where scientists of sound sit behind banks of flashing lights tending equipment so complicated that even the poor musicians entrusted to their care have few clues of its function. Certainly, there are studios where engineers edit sound with light pens and where 48-track consuls stretch into the distance to evoke more images of Cape Kennedy's control room than places designed to record pop music. But such complexes are unknown and untrod by all but a tiny percentage of megastars and pop princes who would be king. For most musicians on the bottom or the middle of the music world ladder, studios are cramped, airless near-prisons smelly with sweat, fag ends and barely controlled egos where marathons of unspeakable aural monotony are endured for the occasional surge of creative fulfilment. Master studios come in three sizes and price brackets. These are budget line, mid price and state-of-the-art. Only stars or multinational record company protégées get to use the latter. The first two are where you'll find the impoverished British Christian musician. Studios came in all shapes and sizes. One thing is certain however Christian musicians prefer to work in 'Christian recording studios.'
Leaving aside the observation that the phrase 'Christian recording studios' makes about as much theological sense as the term 'Christian washing machines', what are the reasons for Christian musicians invariably opting for Christian operated studios? Recording studio owner Kevin Edwards is convinced the reasons are often confused. "Sometimes it's just naiveté and fear; young inexperienced bands believing that 'secular' studios are largely manned by debauched coke-snorters furiously putting Satanic backward messages on heavy metal albums. But sometimes there are sound spiritual reasons: when all things are equal it makes a lot of sense when recording music which contains a spiritual dynamic to do so in an atmosphere which is sympathetic and supportive and where you can pray with the engineer when things get tough. But what doesn't make any kind of sense is when Christian musicians refuse to trust their ears, taking their custom to some studio which may be cheap but has inferior, ill-maintained equipment and an engineer who has almost zero mixing ability, simply because the studio is manned by believers." The best of the Christian recording studios today are a long way from the studios of old where bungling evangelical incompetents fussed over out-of-alignment Fostex recorders. There still are some distinctly dodgy four, eight and 16 track facilities where the word 'ministry' is bandied about to cover up sound quality which would do a disservice to a comb-and-paper band, but the 'name' Christian studio ICC has refurbished its facility and can more than compete with anything but the top of the mid range price 'secular' studios.
rf Word is the dominant name in Britain's Christian record companies, ICC (or International Christian Communications, to give them their full moniker) have been synonymous with Christian recording ever since the first mop-top evangelists strummed two chord Jesus songs into crystal mikes. ICC's history begins In the mid 60s when, with partner Don Southam, German-born Helmut Kaufman began ECHO - Evangelical Communications Home and Overseas. Helmut had a nagging desire to move into music. "My vision was to create a Christian recording facility. In addition to Christian radio programmes we were handling the recording of events such as the Keswick Convention and Filey. In 1970 we came down to Eastbourne." But all was not well. Conflict with his partner was only finally resolved in 1973 when ECHO was folded and a new registered charity ICC took its place with a studio housed in old stables a bath chair ride away from the beachfront of the sedate and prim Eastbourne. The first album we did was with Meet Jesus Music," Helmut remembers. "The studio was really Heath Robinson, little more than a semi-domestic four-track machine. But there was such commitment, they were very gifted musicians and the album got us going."
The Meet Jesus Music album led John Pac, today head of A&R for Kingsway, to book the studio, asking John Pantry to come and produce some Christian bands. Kaufman reminisced in European Christian Bookseller magazine about the experience: "I remember the first time John Pantry came down he brought some musicians with him who were used to secular studios. They took one look at what we had and then looked at John Pantry as if to say "You must be joking.' The studio was actually more like a living room. We had egg box carton layers for wail insulation. But the sound turned out very good."
ICC had invested in an 8,000 eight-track machine. Gradually as the 70s rolled on ICC became known as the place to record Christian music, in fact often it seemed the only place to record. "In the late 70s we had an explosion. The studio was being booked for an entire year, we were actually turning out 60 albums a year."
Not surprisingly, creative standards were usually woeful. "We were using the same four or five musicians on every album. There was nothing new, No adventure. We were throwing mud at the wall to see if any of it stuck. Not much did because the records were bad. ICC began to lose credibility, musicians heard all these pretty terrible albums which were recorded at ICC and suddenly we had lots of Christian artists going to secular studios rather than coming to us."
ICC overcame the crisis. Upgrading the facility once more they brought in an acoustic consultant to sort out the live and control room, installed a 24-track and opened the doors to secular artists. Out of the blue Matthew got a phone call. "It was from Paul McCartney's management. Paul was working on the Tug Of War' album and didn't want to go to London to record. They came down, checked us out and the next thing we knew we had Paul in the studio. At first they brought in their own machine and monitors! But after the first session they trusted our equipment and used ours!"
More secular sessions followed with Aztec Camera, Roger Daftrey and The Ruts and ICC began to claw back its credibility among Christian musos.
In the early 80s another name became increasingly visible in the UK's Christian music scene. Chapel Lane was housed in Hampton Bishop, a village near Hereford. It was founded by a successful electrical contractor Rob Andrews in 1977. Its start was very much in answer to prayer. Remembers Rob: "I found this building, a disused chapel which was absolutely ideal for the studio I believed God was calling me to start. I felt this was the place. But it wasn't available for sale. I stood by the door and prayed 'Lord, if you want me to be in this place do a miracle.' That was at 2.30pm. At 5.00pm a 'For Sale' sign appeared outside the building." Installing a 16-track, Chapel Lane was soon up and running. Secular sessions for Max Boyce and Andy Fairweather-Lowe brought In a few pennies. But it was Christian music that was on Rob's heart. "The first album we did was Thank Offering' by Dave Pope and John Daniels. That did well and others followed. But it was my vision to be a full support service for Christian music ministry. Soon after we went 24-track we launched the Chapel Lane record label and were putting out our first albums."
Sheila Walsh (her debut), Larry Norman, Mark Williamson Band, Liberation Suite, Adrian Wall, Bryn Haworth - Chapel Lane released a stream of superlative rock gospel albums. But the brave pioneering work of Chapel Lane Records was not based on economic reality. "We were giving artists eight to 10 thousand pound budgets which by British Christian standards, where albums were still often being recorded in three or four days, were big budget. The problem was the market for Christian music albums in the UK was still tiny. Then we lost a lot of money on tours. By the mid eighties we'd lost maybe 200 grand. We had to let go of the house. But by the grace of God we managed to hang onto the studio. We didn't do what we were advised to do, go bankrupt."
Looking back to this period Rob Andrews is philosophic. "At the concerts we saw people saved. That is priceless. And our albums helped, I believe, forge better creative standards for Christian music in Britain. I still get people coming up to me and saying how wonderful they think Bryn Haworth's The Gap' is for instance."
Chapel Lane has recovered much of its momentum and earlier this year completely refurbished their studio and now offers a new ODA AMR 24 44-frame desk with the latest Studer A827 24-track recorder plus all the latest DAT to DAT facilities and impressive effects rack that modern record producers demand. Says Rob: "Today we have a facility which, if we were in London, we'd be charging 500 a day for. But being out in the sticks and only being prepared to take bookings from Christian artists we don't charge the big money. And often in recent years we've made albums where the customer is the artist and they don't have any money! If we discern an anointing and a very real ministry we're prepared to talk about doing recordings with an artist."
Since the mid-eighties the Chapel Lane Company has operated both as a for-hire facility and as a custom-cassette house where carefully selected artists who can't land a deal with Word or Kingsway but have a ministry wide ranging enough to sell maybe 1000 cassette albums at their concerts can make a recording.
A similar operation is run by Brook Trickett whose Bolton-based Soundtree Productions has boasted in its adverts about 'producing 150 Christian albums'. Brook is the first to admit that some of them have been of decidedly questionable musical standards.