This year’s Mercury Music Prize was won by PJ Harvey for her album Stories From the City Stories From The Sea. The majority of the recording for this project was done at Great Linford Manor Recording Studios. JIM EVANS checked into the residential facility.
Located some 50 miles north of London, Great Linford Manor is home to what is probably the largest vintage Neve console in the world.
Despite being situated close to the sprawling modern metropolis of Milton Keynes, Great Linford Manor looks just as its name suggests it should. Sitting proudly in landscaped park land, it is approached through wrought iron gates and down a sweeping gravel drive. Archaeological excavations suggest that the village of Great Linford originated in the 10th or 11th century, while the present manor house was built in 1688 as a country retreat by Sir William Pritchard, MP and Lord Mayor of London. When he died in 1705 the house passed to relatives, the Uthwatts, a Scottish family who held it until the early 1970s. By then it had become almost derelict and substantial renovation work was necessary to save it. Milton Keynes development Corporation took it over and designated Great Linford as the arts area for the new city.
One time manager of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and man-about-the-music-business Harry Maloney arrived on the scene in the mid-Eighties and was responsible for Great Linford joining the then growing number of residential recording studios in the UK. Present owner, Pete Winkelman takes up the story: “Harry saw that the place had great potential as a studio and set about converting it. Of course, studios were operating on a different cost base in those days. You could get £1650 a day for a residential facility. Many studio owners including myself wistfully remember those times.”
Times have changed and the last 12 months in particular have not been easy for the residential studios – or indeed for commercial facilities in general. Pete Winkelman, however, remains positive. “Whilst overall business has been flat and the lack of performance artists in the charts has certainly had its effects on the residential studio business in general, we have been particularly lucky to have recorded a number of highlight albums in the last year or so. Particularly, PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From The Sea, the Gold Feeder album Echo Park, together with debut albums from My Vitriol and The Cooper Temple Clause and visits from old friends including Ace from Skunk Anansie mixing his solo album and new clients including leading folk artist June Tabor.
“While the majority of our business remains UK based, leading French artists, Matmatah made their latest platinum album with producer Daniel Presley using a combination of state-of-the-art digital technology together with a selection of vintage EQs, mics, and compressors for which we’ve become renowned. We also had the great pleasure of hosting the preproduction rehearsals for the first European tour by American R&B singer, the wonderful Anastacia.
“The studio is primarily used for recording album projects, but we have had our fair share of mix work recently. During down-time we have utilised the studio to support regular producer clients with their development projects and to support the local music scene. Last year’s Band Blitz winners, Bosomunkee, used their winning prize of studio time here to secure London-based management and have recently returned with producer John Leckie.
Winkelman, who in a long career in the record and recording industries, has worked for just about any major record label you care to mention, and for entrepreneurs such as Gerry Bron of Bronze fame and Don Arden of Jet, retains a bubbling enthusiasm for his studio.
And when he gets to talking about vintage Neve consoles and his love for these desks from the mid-Seventies, there’s no stopping him. A pause, though, to detail Great Linford’s facilities.
The Ballroom Studio is situated – not surprisingly – in the ballroom wing of the manor with the main recording area in the original ballroom – a very large open room (72 sq metre) overlooking the private rear gardens with oak floors and a ten-metre high original moulded plaster ceiling offering natural acoustics. In the cellar beneath is a stone drum room and there are two additional overdub booths.
The control room is in the original panelled music room. “Following the installation of our four-way Quested monitoring system together with the VR Legend 60, we have been using the monitor section of our vintage Neve Abbey Road console as a 24-channel sidecar, complete with flying faders,” says Winkelman. “Known as ‘babbey Abbey Road’, the vintage Neve mic, pres, and EQs have been used by many of our visiting producers and indeed Head, Co-producer of the PJ Harvey album, used the vintage Neve exclusively direct to tape and the VRL as a monitor board.”
On the residential side, accommodation is provided for up to seven people in the main house with use of all the Manor facilities. Recreation rooms provide cable TV, video, table football, and snooker, while the extensive lawns provide the setting for golf, football, and other field games. There’s excellent fishing close by and visiting bands have been known to partake of the occasional pint in either The Nag’s Head or the recently refurbished Proud Perch, both of which are within a stone’s throw of the studio. While on the subject of hostelries, the Manor itself housed a pub known as The Pub in the Park in the early Seventies.
One of the biggest selling albums recorded at Great Linford is Jamiroquai’s Travelling Without Moving which has notched up 13 million sales worldwide to date. “They were most impressive,” says Winkelman who reckons to know a good act when he spots one. “When you live with artists for some time you can start to see what makes them successful. Jay actually wrote one of the album’s biggest hits, Virtual Insanity, here and subsequent to working here bought Chillington Manor down the road and set up his own studio.”
Jamiroquai were in the studio for around five months, although shorter stays are more common. “We’ve had our share of one-offs such as Babylon Zoo’s Spaceman,” says Winkelman. “And we get artists from across the musical spectrum ranging from Supergrass and Cast to Nigel Kennedy. Polly [PJ Harvey] was here for around six or seven weeks. I think she was recommended to us by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke who also features on the album. Their playing seemed very spontaneous and natural and made full use of the ballroom’s acoustics. You somehow knew they were on to something really good. People such as Polly come here and can focus on what they’re doing. They don’t expect the record to make itself. They push themselves to get that little bit extra. It’s all about performance. The equipment can help you get more out of somebody, but at the end of the day it can’t replace performance.”
Winkelman cites two key reasons (aside from the possibility of meeting the ghost of the Rev Sandy Napier who is rumoured to play a mean guitar lick or two in the wee small hours) for artists opting to work at Great Linford. “The ballroom is simply a fantastic recording space. And the house has a creative feel to it. People feel comfortable here. You’re away from it all, but still only an hour or so from central London. Location is one of the keys, but additionally, we’ve always tried to deliver a different product. To this end, vintage equipment plays a big part in what we do. In fact, it’s probably going to become increasingly relevant as we go on. With so much digital equipment on the market now, one way of making your music sound that little bit different is by using some of those key analogue components.”
As mentioned earlier, Great Linford’s control room currently centres on a Neve VR legend with the Abbey Road sidecar. By Christmas time that will all change. In an outbuilding at the bottom of the Great Linford garden, technician Blake Devitt, with amazing attention to detail and not a little tender loving care, is restoring what should turn out to be the largest vintage Neve in the world. It comprises the original Abbey Road and Pathe Marconi main-frames that have been combined to give a desk boasting 72 channels, 96 inputs to four-track and 154 VU meters.
“We tracked both these desks down in the US and shipped them over here in a giant container,” says Winkelman. “We’ve been working on the project for four years now and it’s very near to completion and we plan to have it up and running in the studio by the end of the year. I really do believe that it’s the idiosyncratic nature of these consoles that made them sound so good. This desk is going to blow a few minds.”
The Mercury Music Prize has made a name for rewarding originality and talent, whatever the commercial success of the artist. Past Mercury winners have included Pulp, Portishead, Gomez, and Badly Drawn Boy.
This year’s result was announced at a prize dinner in London on September 11. Following events earlier in the day, the ceremony was understandably muted and several tables had empty seats. “At times like these, music is more important than ever,” said Chairman Simon Frith.
Harvey was not present to receive the £20,000 award for Stories From The City, Stories From the Sea as she was in Washington where she was due to give a concert. Her filmed response was muted and she spoke of her shock at events in the US. “This whole city is shocked,” she told guests at the ceremony. “Myself and my band are partly involved in all that. We can see the Pentagon from our window. It’s just been a very surreal day.”
The album was produced by PJ, Rob Ellis, and Mick Harvey and recorded by Head at UK residential studios, Great Linford Manor last year, with additional four-track recording by PJ in New York and Dorset. It was mixed by Victor Van Vugt at The Fallout Shelter and mastered by Howie Weinberg at Masterdisk Studios, New York.
Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea beat a shortlist that included Radiohead, Zero 7, Basement Jaxx, and Super Furry Animals among the favourites. Harvey, who wrote much of the album in New York, said she was not concerned with trying to top an award-winning album with her next release. “I don’t tend to worry about things like that. I don’t stick on some kind of competition within myself. All my albums feel like one body of work to me.”
Looking to the future, Winkelman is confident the big desk will give his business a boost, but he also points out that the music business is changing all the time. “You have to be able to adapt to these changes and at the same time make the most of those things that are unique to our facility – the desk, the ballroom, the stone drum rooms. You have to cater for all requirements. An area we’ve been looking at seriously is webcasting. I’m sure there’s potential there. We can deliver more added value to the record companies. It’s important we keep talking to them during the difficult times and don’t just criticise them for dropping the rates. If they’re selling less records, everything ultimately will have a kick-down effect. We must work together constructively.”