Tony Cummings spoke to Irish producer TREVOR MICHAEL about his 21-year involvement in Christian music
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Through his work at Spring Harvest Trevor got to know Helmet Kaufmann, the veteran founder of ICC Studios and long time ICC staffer Peter Martin. A trickle of work emerged for Trevor recording the seminars for various Christian conferences. Remembered Trevor, "I ended up most of that summer actually pretty much living in Paul's flat in Eastbourne and going off doing these conferences for ICC, recording the seminars that they would sell at the conferences. At the end of the summer I had made the decision to move back to Ireland. Then one day Helmet called me to his office and said, 'We need an assistant in the place. A trainee engineer in the studio. The training you will get will be on the job training. There's no course. There's no qualification. It's up to you how fast you learn. When the studios aren't being used get in there and use them. Record your own stuff. Do whatever. Learn how the equipment works. It's up to you how fast you develop.' He just offered me the job then and there. It was quite out of the blue and he said I should think it over. I think I started there in the August of '93."
Trevor continued, "At the beginning my job - I would go in in the morning and there would be pizza leftover from the sessions the night before. That was my breakfast. I would clear away the pizza and get the coffee on. Studio sessions would start at 10 so I would be in from nine. Mainly I was upstairs where there were these two rooms. There was another guy my age called Dave Lynch who had been there for probably a year before me. We were the two boys who worked upstairs. ICC had just bought this amazing new editing system called Sadie which was one of the first digital editing PC systems. Dave was getting into that. Downstairs people would mix their albums on to DAT and then bring them upstairs where we would compile the mixes, putting the songs in order and then they would be sent off for mastering though in those days a lot of Christian albums that were coming out weren't even being mastered. They were being mixed, we'd compile them and off they'd go for manufacture. We had a cassette department where there was a half inch tape machine. People would send me their album masters and I would transfer them to half inch tape. That would go to the duplication plant and they made cassettes at high speed off them."
Trevor spoke about his trainee days with candour. "I'd have eight or 10 hour days sitting in front of nice speakers listening to music. That was basically my job. There were a few things like splicing leader tape and stuff but generally my job was drinking coffee listening to music. We did all the duplication for Word at the time so all of the big American releases all went through that room at ICC for cassette manufacture. One day I would be listening to some big album that had tonnes of money spent on it and the next day I would be listening to some four track thing that someone had done in their house and everything in between. Helmet would bring in tonnes of magazines, trade magazines and recording engineering magazines. When he was finished reading them, his office was next to the room I was working in and he would drop them in to me. I would read these magazines, interviews with great producers and engineers. I was learning all the time."
Gradually opportunities for Trevor to work on some recording sessions himself began to occur. He remembered, "I would engineer downstairs, a few Saturday sessions with a local band. Also, each year ICC would go to the Keswick Convention and record a live worship album. The '94 Keswick album was one of the first live albums that I properly did on my own. I went there and recorded it and then someone mixed it. After that, I did a few Spring Harvest albums with Andy Piercy. Also, the producer/songwriter Paul Field was using the studios a lot and I did a few bits with him. After a while when Paul came down to do albums he started to ask for me so I would be the engineer on a lot of his sessions. From Paul I learnt tonnes because he was a great songwriter so I learnt a lot about songs. But he is also a great engineer so I learnt about delays, reverbs and effects on vocals, tonnes of stuff like that from Paul."
Andy Piercy was also key in Trevor's studio education. "I learnt a lot about running sessions and stuff from Andy who had an incredible way of making everyone in the room feel good, a great atmosphere in the studio. He had a wonderful knack of knowing, when a band was in doing a take, he had a great way of knowing that was the take. Some people would go 'Oh let us have another go at that' and Andy would go 'No, no, that's the take. Let's move on.' He just knew when you could overcook something and lose the vibe but he knew when something wasn't good enough. Andy encouraged me into production. Because I engineered a lot with him and he would say 'You should be producing" and I'd be like "No. I know about sounds and stuff but no." He would then say "You've got the right temperament, the right vibe about you. You should be producing because it's not always the best musicians that make the best producers, although the best producers would call on those musicians because they're needed for their musicianship. Sometimes they don't necessarily know how to conduct a session."
Trevor finally took Andy's advice and produced a studio album with Geoff Baker, a stalwart who had once been part of the Saltmine set up and was regularly leading worship at Keswick. Trevor had married in 1998 and returning from his honeymoon began working on the album 'The Songs Of Geoff Baker'. Commented Trevor, "I produced the four new songs on the album. Geoff wasn't singing on them for some reason. I remember Rob Craner, who at the time was a drummer in Split Level, sang at least one of the songs and drummed on it as well. I've also got a feeling that Phil Loose [today the Director at ICC/Elevation] played keyboard on the album.
"By that time I was studio manager at ICC and from time to time I would be producing records. I did a lot of stuff back then with Matt Redman so there was a lot of the earlier Soul Survivor albums that he and I produced together and the New Wine albums. We would choose the songs, mix them and stuff like that. Two early albums we did were called 'The People's Album' and 'The People's Album 2' on which there were lots of songs by unknown songwriters. The interesting thing about that was I was working with a guy this year called Pete James, who has just done an album for Elevation and who led worship at Spring Harvest. He had a song on 'The People's Album'."
The mixing session for 'The People's Album' sticks clearly in Trevor's mind. "Matt and I were left to create. It was before the days of Protools. There were odd things going on in the mix, things panned weirdly that you didn't do on a worship album. We kind of went for it and Les Moir, the A&R guy for Kingsway, gave us free reign to just go for it. The drummer Martin Neil had such a good time doing the drums that he came back when we were mixing just to hang out. The desk was automated to a certain extent so it could store the levels of the faders. But anything like pans and EQs or the telephone voices coming in and out, all of that you had to do when the mix was going down. So it was very creative."
Another project Trevor remembers was Matt Redman's 'Intimacy' album, produced by Andy Piercy and released in 1998. Remembered Trevor, "The last track on that is a song called 'The Prayers Of The Saints' and the Psalm Drummers guy Terl Bryant brought a lot of percussionists down. We'd been tracking the band all week so all the band stuff was set up so we kind of moved them down to one end of the studio. At the other end of the studio we just put a couple of mics up and these percussion guys stood around them. I remember hitting record and Matt started into this song on the acoustic and the band kind of started filling in the percussion stuff and it just ended up being about 20 minutes long. The song finished and the percussion just started up and it broke into this worship time. I can't even remember if at the end Matt was singing out over it or whether it was just music. It was probably one of the most incredible worship times in the studio I've even known. I remember it finishing and just looking at Andy, we were in the control room together and we were both just sitting there with tears in our eyes. It was an amazing moment. I guess I wish that's the kind of thing we get more of on some of the things we do. In fact on the album the track was shortened but later on Kingsway re-released 'Intimacy' with one of his other albums as a digipack thing. The full version is on the re-release so that's something worth looking out for."
In 2001 there came a pivotal moment in the recording engineer and occasional producer's career. Recounted Trevor, "I had done some live dates with Jennifer Knapp when she had come to the UK and I had really got on well with some of the guys in the band and I really enjoyed doing those dates. Then they phoned me up and asked me to do a two month tour of the US and that for me was something. To tour America on a tour bus was always something I would have loved to have done. But I was committed to ICC where I was quite safe with a steady income and a paid holiday, which I don't get anymore. There were a couple of other projects that I got asked to do but I couldn't get time off to do them. It was interesting because ICC had started these appraisals where each staff member would go in to see Helmet. I had never had one because every year they would come around, I would be in session. After two or three years I had my first appraisal and I remember thinking that 'I've got to tell Helmet today.' So I remember sitting in his office and he said 'Oh, we've never had one of these before. How are things going?' It was real moment because Helmet had been incredible giving me the opportunity to do something that I had always dreamt of and to leave that was quite emotional."
So in 2001 Trevor became a self-employed freelance recording engineer, producer and occasional live sound man. He remembered, "My first project was at Andy Harsant's studio in Hereford engineering the band Kindle for what was Authentic Media at the time. We spent three weeks in the studio and then two weeks at ICC mixing it."
For the next season in Trevor's career there was a wide range of projects. The briefest of snapshots reveals that in 2000 he produced and engineered Eoghan Heaslip's 'Deeper Still' and engineered and mixed Paul Oakley's 'Kiss The River'; in 2003 he engineered and mixed Esther Alexander's 'Rhyme Or Reason', Nicki Rogers' 'Feeder Lane' album and produced Trent's 'Hold On' album; in 2005 he produced and engineered Neil Bennetts' 'All We're Living For' and Supervision's 'Day Of Small Beginnings'; in 2006 he produced and engineered Electrolyte's 'Breakout' album'; in 2007 he engineered on Paul Baloche's 'Our God Saves' and produced and engineered [crave]'s 'Waiting Games' album; in 2010 he produced and engineered David Hadden's 'Give Me More', Mark Tedder's 'Restore' and Winchester Vineyard's 'Raise Up An Army'; and in 2011 he engineered on Phatfish's 'Higher' album, and produced and engineered Elim Sound's 'Fresh Mercy' and Vineyards 'My Soul Yearns' albums.
Two or three of the projects really stand out for Trevor. "I've done a few albums with Trent Vineyard. The first one I did with those guys I really loved. Then there was a thing with Mark Tedder in China which was a stand out for me. We went to Beijing to record a live worship DVD. Mark travels with this band called the Worship Planet Band. They come from all over the world. Mark had been leading worship for a couple of years at the International Church in Beijing where you had to have a foreign passport to be able to attend. At the end of his time there he wanted to record a DVD in the church but he didn't want it to just be a western album so he brought in some Chinese musicians. It was a big deal as they had to apply to authorities and all kinds of stuff like that. They were allowed to come in and play. So on the rehearsal day, these strange instruments came in that I had never seen before and can't pronounce which sounded beautiful and incredible but I had to decide how I mic-ed them. Where do I put the microphones on that? They would be playing and I would be moving my head around trying to figure out the best place to put the microphone. But I think we captured it. Again, there is a moment on that DVD where Mark just has to stop singing because he is so overcome and whenever I watch it it's still a real moment. We overdubbed a vocal for that because I said to Mark. 'There's this thing when you do worship music where you're capturing something in one hand but there's also worship songs where you are trying to resource the Church so if you want a church to use the songs then the lyrics have got to be clear so people can pick up and use the songs.' So I said, 'Should we do a version of this song because you stop singing there for a couple of lines when you're crying?' But we decided against it. We said 'No, that's what happened. Let's leave it alone.' That was kind of his decision and it was the right decision."
For five years Trevor would take time off from his studio duties to tour with Delirious? But when Christendom's hugely popular rockers announced their retirement Trevor saw an opportunity looming. He explained, "I started thinking that about 50 per cent of my work was coming to an end. I needed to start putting things in place so I ended up building a studio in my back garden which is like a log cabin and there's a little room where we can record and there's a control room. Ian Yates first album was scheduled for June just after my studio was going to be completed so that first album on Kingsway ended up being the first thing that was recorded in my studio which was just finished."
Now a new season has opened for Ian. 7Core Music is off and running and as he prepared to leave after his marathon two hour interview to make the four hour journey back to Eastbourne, he commented that he was enjoying working with The Remission Flow. At the door of Cross Rhythms I suddenly had a thought, that I had not asked the studio maestro about his own surprise turntable hit of 1997. In that year Spring Harvest released the album 'Quatamala' in its Praise Mix series which endeavoured to bring a more youthful cutting edge to the popular worship songs of the day. It was actually produced and mixed by Dave Lynch and it was Dave's inventive electro rhythms which gave the musical underpinning to Brian Doerksen's "More". What made the rendition of the worship anthem so arresting was that those powerful lyrics ("More than oxygen I need your love/More than the life-giving food the hungry dream of/More than an eloquent word depends on the tongue/More than a passionate song needs to be sung") weren't sung but were spoken by Trevor in his appealing Ulsterman tones. The Praise Mix version of "More" proved very popular with Cross Rhythms radio listeners. Who knows? One day 7Core Music may release a followup!The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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