We are at the mixing desk of EMC Studios, a tiny operation in the upper curve of a railway arch, overlooking the the TV-am building in Camden Town, north London. Mander has run EMC for two years, but what started as a hobby has become much more than that: he is on a mission to keep alive the sound of the valve recording equipment that has been gradually edged out, first by solid state technology (transistors), then by the digital age. 'There's a small ring of people who know about this technology and who've been buying it up over the last 10 years for hiring out to bands who are sick of the flat sound of digital. This Helius desk was custom built for 10cc. We got a call from some bloke who'd bought it and kept it in his barn in Yorkshire. He ran off with another woman, and his wife was threatening to take an axe to it if it wasn't gone in a week. I just said yes without even seeing it.'
There's a surprising amount of it about, if you know where to look. A lot of the old valve equipment in the USA, for example at Sun Studios where Elvis made his best recordings, subsequently ended up in the UK. 'Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd's got a lot of it too. But then the Americans got wise and now the bastards have cleaned out Eastern Europe,' he says, admiringly. 'They sell them a load of stuff with little lights that slide up and down by themselves and buy up cheap all the old broadcast- quality gear that would cost the earth to manufacture now.'
Valves are prized by those in the know because, quite simply, the distortions they introduce are more pleasing to the ear than those introduced by transistors. The great advantage of transistors is their size, and the chips used in digital equipment are essentially just tiny transistors. A valve- driven CD player would be about the size of two large fridges. Stray too far down this road and you end up in the realm of the hi-fi buff, where playback is all important and the talk is of second-order harmonic distortions, clipping, and wave-forms. What many buffs and engineers agree upon, however, is that the less time spent in the digital domain the better.
Gretschen Hofner, a self-styled 'pervabilly' band, wander about checking their hairstyles and tripping over one another between takes. They are in the studios to lay down tracks of their Fifties-tinged rock'n'roll. Frontman Paul Hofner, who sports a tattoo of the Fifties bondage model Betty Page, says 'We aim to combine the early Elvis recording techniques with the intimacy of a Velvet Underground session.' As the band's violinist, Justine, dressed in a leopard-skin catsuit, tries to tune up without hitting her bow against the corrugated iron ceiling, he continues: 'I love the Fifties sound you can get in here. Even though this is just a tiny place, it comes out warm and textured, with a live feel and just the right type of reverb on the vocals, like you've recorded in a large dance hall.'
Gretschen Hofner are the latest in a crop of bands who take elements from Fifties rock and make them into something new - at the darker Cramps / Nick Cave end of the spectrum, rather than the Stray Cats / Showaddywaddy end. Gallon Drunk are one of the better-known acts, their 1990 album You, The Night and The Music (Clawfist) going some way to crystallising the scene around them. But lead singer James Johnson protests against an automatic association between long sideburns and old technology. 'I like the nice twangy sound you get from a Fender Twin amp. But things like slapback echo are so corny now, it just sounds like Shakin' Stevens. That old equipment is more awkward and keeps breaking down. I prefer modern stuff if it does the job. The great Bo Diddley and Howling Wolf recordings on Chess, and Dean Martin, Gene Vincent and Frank Sinatra at Capitol were state of the art at the time, and experimental. Look at the Sun Sessions - simple, beautiful, but futuristic too, getting Elvis to sing in the toilet.'
EMC is a private studio, and Mander only works with bands he likes, for pounds 150 a day. Across London however, the fittingly named Toe Rag studio in Shoreditch ( pounds 10 per hour) caters for many more enthusiasts of the old analogue technology. It looks like the set of the Banana Splits - old clothes, dolls and kitsch paintings cover the walls, and various quiffy types sit around on skip furniture. Joint owners Liam Watson and Josh Collins have gone to great trouble to customise what is, after all, another dead industrial space. 'We picked up the mixing desk from someone who got it at the Abbey Road Sale of the Century about 10 years ago,' says Watson, immaculate among the old curtains, egg-boxes and masking tape in a sharp grey suit, red shirt and bootlace tie.
Benji Lefevre, sound man to the Rolling Stones, Robert Plant and now to Keith Richards, is a big fan of their facilities, while several bands on the seven-inch vinyl-only label Camden Town Records record there, among them Thee Headcoates, The Johnson Family and The Earls of Suave. 'We get mod bands like The Clique looking for the original Small Faces sound, and indie bands pissed off with modern engineers,' says Watson. 'The Phantom Chords (led by Dave Vanian of Seventies punk band the Damned) cancelled a modern studio booking after doing their single here, because we get such a warm, valvey sound, and they get the rush of performing live. We spend a lot of time miking things up properly.'
A 'ball and biscuit' microphone (it looks like a tennis ball with a Rich Tea biscuit stuck to the bottom) hangs over the drum-kit to soak up the ambient sound. 'Too many people stick a mike next to each cymbal and drum, so you have the kit sound all artificially divided into sections. But the sum of the parts is less than the whole.'
Suddenly, it all begins to sound a lot like rock'n'roll, doesn't it?
The Earls of Suave, The Slingbacks, The Clique, Jake Vegas, The Western Star Dominoes, The Ho-Dads and The Surfing Lungs play the Fratshack Club at Euston Rails, NW1 on Sat 19 Dec (call Toe Rag on 071-613 2478).
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