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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Unforgotten Hero: Peter Bown and Piper at the Gates of Dawn


Peter Bown was queer. Pink Floyd manager Peter Jenner fondly recalled him as 'more bent than a nine-bob note.' He was also one of the finest engineers to work at any London studio in the Sixties. A florid gay man in his forties, with a Beatles fringe and jovial disposition, Bown was known for having some of the finest ears in the business. Bown brought great experience, having begun his tenure at EMI in 1951 as balance engineer on pop music sessions.

Testament to his skill, Bown made the jump to recording classical music, a move as rare now as it was then. Between 1957 and 1965, Bown facilitated some remarkable recordings at Sadler's Wells Opera. With particular skill at microphone placement, a neglected art today, Bown introduced several innovations in the classical world, a stodgy genre notoriously resistant to audio experimentation.

Among his projects at Sadler's Wells, was the first recording to use 'ambiophonic' technology, which allowed much greater widening of reverb for near-holographic clarity. Given limitations of gear, often limited to two or three tracks, in 1964 Bown engineered a sublime Dream of Gerontitts for Sir Barbirolli.

From 1965-71, he continued classical work in league with producer Brian Culverhouse. Much more surprising was Bown's jump back into recording pop music. Going from pop to classical sessions is one thing, recording both is quite another, analogous to Beethoven suddenly decided to strap on a Telecaster and play heavy metal.

As EMI's top 'pop' engineer, Bown recorded hits for the Hollies, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Cilla Black among many others. Beatles producer George Martin called Bown 'an electronics wizard.'

His youthful enthusiasm set him apart from other engineers at the Studio. One co-worker called him 'the world's oldest teenager', which seems apt. Bown refused to wear the standard jacket and tie uniform; his paisley shirts rivalled anything worn by the groups. Because he was so good at what he did, the management let him get away with it. Sadly, Bown's flamboyance meant he was denied promotion to producer.

On 27 March 1967, EMI engineer Bown had just gotten home from a full day's work. One of three pop music engineers at EMI Studios at Abbey Road, Bown engineered a string of hits throughout the decade. With Malcolm Addey and Stuart Eltham, Bown formed EMI's terrifying trio. The competition in New York and Los Angeles would scrutinise their mixes, vainly trying to figure out how they got such remarkable sound from limited four-track equipment.

Glad to be home, Bown sat watching the News at Ten when the telephone rang. Studio manager EH Fowler said, 'Peter, I want you back at Studio 3 at midnight. You will be doing a new group, Underground music. You might find them difficult to get on with, they don't communicate much.' Bown gathered his wits, had a shot of whiskey for British courage, and returned to the studio.

A balance engineer was responsible for recording and mixing, as well as technical decisions. At EMI, Bown oversaw all recording equipment during recording. Whatever sounds or concepts artist or producer wanted, Bown was responsible for realizing the technical side. Bown's creative and aesthetic choices led to the unique sound of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Inside Studio 3, the Pink Floyd were rehearsing improvisational centrepiece 'Interstellar Overdrive'. Bown told Cliff Jones, 'I opened the door, and I nearly shit myself. By Christ, it was loud! I thought, How the fuck are we going to get this on tape? I had certainly never heard anything quite like it and I don't think I ever did again. It was very exciting.'

Smith let the group play at full volume to gauge how to best record them. The Floyd’s extreme stage volume destroyed four heavy-duty condenser and ribbon microphones, testament to destructive wattage. Bown was severely dressed down by EMI staff, who informed him next time he was liable for repairs.

'Bown was one of Piper producer Norman Smith's mentors,' says Kevin Ryan, co-author of the landmark Recording the Beatles. 'A senior engineer, Bown taught Smith the art of engineering when Smith was just starting out. Bown had many years of recording experience on Smith. Though history hasn't quite painted him in this light, Bown was by far the most innovative and experimental engineer at the studio.'

Bown's wide-ranging ear and inventive stance meant he was open to the Pink Floyd's experiments and sympathetic to what the group was trying to create. 'Bown has not received the credit and acknowledgement he deserves,' says Ryan. 'More than any other engineer at EMI, he experimented endlessly. Bown was gear-obsessed. He was always trying new equipment and looking for unconventional ways of combining pieces to make new sounds. Bown was the best engineer for Floyd. They deserved each other.'

The third member of the team, tape operator Jeff Jarratt, switched tape spools, filled in session sheets, filed tapes in the tape library, wired up electronic gear and made tea. Jarratt ensured tape rolled when needed, rewound for overdubs, and each track on each take was noted. All punch-in edits were done by Jarratt, a tricky manoeuvre where Smith said 'Now!' and Jarratt dropped in an overdub.

The trio was a triple threat of experience, originality and willingness to throw away the rulebook when need be. They were also ready to use unorthodox microphone arrangements, taking care to ensure the best sound. When the Pink Floyd sought unusual sounds, Smith and Bown conferred, sometimes buzzing staff technicians through the intercom. They arrived, clad in white coats like laboratory assistants, puzzled out what was needed and brought in various filters and EQs to create the sound the engineer requested. The group could not have chosen a better place to record.


Piper’s sound has several vital ingredients. All recording took place through EMI’s custom-built REDD mixing consoles. Hefty grey REDD.51 consoles used in Studios 2 and 3 were exceedingly rare: three were ever constructed. Spartan controls disguised sensitive valves inside the desk. Preamplifiers were the EMI-designed REDD.47, imparting punchy mid-range character to sound.

Each channel had boost and cut controls for treble and bass, though no mid frequency controls, and no sweepable parametric. Engineers literally plugged small equalisation units into the console to change the desk’s capabilities. Plug-ins came in two flavours - ‘Classic’ and ‘Pop’. Changing the plug-in changed curves of desk EQ, for the ‘Classic’ EQ plug-in, bass and treble were shelving EQs at 100 Hz and 10 kHz. ‘Pop’ EQ plug-in had bass control identical with ‘Classic’, though treble control centred at 10 kHz when cutting, and 5 kHz when boosting.



The Fairchild 660 limiter was another weapon in EMI engineers’ arsenal. Delivering warmth and clarity in mixes, Fairchild boosted midrange without compromising treble and bass. Limiters prevented audio levels from going higher than a specified point. Fairchild was excellent for electric guitars, vocals, and drum sounds.

Though engineers at EMI paired Fairchild with a modified Altec compressor, the RS124, Bown marched to his own drum. A compressor cut dynamic range on audio signal. Bown's masterful mix of compression and limiting made for a range of sounds rife with atmospheric tension typified by British rock. A paradoxical space and tension British engineers boosted further with echo chambers and reverb.

From the start, engineers at EMI were pioneers, with microphones placed extremely close to drums, direct injecting guitars into the mixing board, making acoustic guitars sound like thunderous electrics, wiring effects together from spare parts. EMI engineers developed atmospherics that gave recordings unique spaciousness.

In research for Recording The Beatles, Kevin Ryan and co-author Brian Kehew discovered Bown recorded Floyd’s first album with an experimental EMI prototype Zener limiter. Bown combined valve-powered Fairchild and solid-state Zener for precise warm sound.

Ryan notes ‘Bown was using Zener limiters on sessions since early 1966. Other engineers did not; any Floyd sessions recorded by other engineers used the standard Altec and Fairchild blend. Bown’s preference for the prototype limiter was prescient, as Zener became a prime component in EMI’s next generation ‘TG’ consoles – used to record Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and much sought after for unique sound.’

The Zener prototype had faster attack time than Altec, though Bown saw their potential. Zener limiters hard limiting and smooth distortion was critical in shaping Piper.

Bown and studio manager David Harris positioned microphones an hour before the session began. Testament to the Pink Floyd's efficiency, they plugged in and played with little ado. Volume used by the Floyd saturated small Studio 3 with sound. The room had peculiar acoustics, which EMI staff tamed through extensive screens and baffles. Most engineers at the studio tried to minimize bleed by isolating amps and speakers with screens. Not so on the Pink Floyd sessions. They faced one another, with few audio screens between - a practice Peter Bown and Norman Smith established earlier with the Beatles. Ryan notes the only two engineers that did not regularly use screens on sources were Bown and Smith.

Ryan notes, 'Contrast Revolver, recorded by Geoff Emerick with screens, and much of it in Studio 3, with Piper. You sense the difference this isolation makes. The lack of screens on Norman's Beatles sessions he learnt from Peter Bown during his training.' Each engineer had different preferences, though on almost all his sessions Smith used Bown's setup.

However, they did always use screens around the bass amp. Waters' Selmer bass amp and Goliath cabinet was placed behind a small screen in the corner of the room. An AKG D19C microphone was placed inches from the amp's grille. The bass was also simultaneously direct injected into the desk in the control room.
Bown did often use a vocal isolation booth on Floyd sessions. Setting Syd alone with headphones in the booth allowed him to make the best use of his quiet voice without straining.

Jeff Touzeau, writer for EQ and author of Home Recording Essentials, notes Bown placed Mason's drums in the south-west corner of the studio, with tall baffles to the rear and sides of the kit. Bown defied standard pop practice at the studio by putting five microphones on Mason's kit. Bown miked bass drums, cymbal and snare. He also suspended an overhead microphone above drums to capture snare and a general image of the kit below. Bown stood in front of Mason's kit as he played, and listened. Back in the control room, he reproduced Mason's drum sound with added boost from Fairchild limiters.

Wright's organ was placed in the open, with Bown miking the Farfisa Combo-Compact Organ's built-in speaker. Sometimes Wright played the studio Hammond RT-3 organ, useful for church and classical touches. Bown put a microphone a foot away from the organ's rotating Leslie speaker for oscillation effect. With acoustic upright and grand pianos when needed, Wright was meticulous. The staff indulged him on time-consuming overdubs to ensure he got the sound he wanted.

Syd was placed behind baffles in a v-formation, with his amp miked with one U67 microphone, as at Sound Techniques. Bown told Cliff Jones, 'Syd's guitar was always a problem because he would not keep still and was always fiddling with his sound. He used to go and kick his echo box every now and then, just because he liked the sound it made.'

As Ryan explains, 'Bown's microphone choices differed from the standard setup Norman Smith used with the Beatles and other artists. Norman had not used DI on bass or D19c on bass or bass drum. He never used KM56 on drums, or the Sony C38, or the U67 on electric guitar. The one similarity between Bown's setup and Smith's was a Neumann U48 for vocals, though every engineer used the U48 for vocals. The division of labour at EMI ensured the selection of recording equipment was the domain of the balance engineer, not the producer.'

'When Norman moved into a producer capacity, he became an 'ideas' man and left technical concerns to the engineer. Smith acknowledged he was not a technical person. If there was a technical problem during a Floyd session, he might have helped address it if he could, though he was a music person and glad to focus on the music rather than the technical side. Smith joined EMI with the hope of being a producer. He never wanted to be an engineer.'

Touzeau states Altec 605A monitor speakers inside the control room gave a crude hearing of what was recorded onto tape. Over the years, Smith and Bown learnt through trial and error how to compensate for limited frequency range. During the final mixing stage, Bown used the studio's latest innovations to embellish and polish songs. Frequently used during mixing of Piper was the newly invented ADT, or Artificial Double-Tracking. Developed at the request of John Lennon, tired of manually double tracking vocals, ADT created a double-tracked vocal from one vocal track. Taping the recorded vocal off the Studer sync-head and feeding it to another tape recorder, then replayed the copy vocal slightly out of time with the original vocal. Properly adjusted, the effect could be remarkably convincing.

'Used all over Piper,' says Ryan, 'ADT may well be on every song in some capacity. Oftentimes, you hear what sounds like a double-tracked vocal, with one voice in the left speaker and one in the right. In actuality, this is usually a single-tracked vocal, though Bown used ADT to conjure up a convincing double of the vocal in the opposite channel. ADT was useful for adding depth to a stereo mix when mixing from only four tracks. The engineer had a fifth source to play with, and it could be applied to any or all four tracks. ADT was great on instruments as well, not just vocals. ADT was equally useful in mono mixes for creating odd sounding vocals and phasing sounds. ADT added unique depth to mixes.'

The entire mix was swamped in echo, product of the studio's excellent echo chambers. Bown was fond of the studio's underused EMT plate reverbs, embracing their sound long before most of other engineers came around to them. EMT reverb formed a key ingredient in Piper's sound. Forty-plus years on the recordings sound superb. Echo contrasted with severe limiting accented Barrett's dramatic style. The result, taut and sprawling, heightened the mix. The result, a masterpiece of audio engineering given the limitations of recording equipment then. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn stands the test of time.

Bown went on to work as engineer on Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother and Meddle. He also did brilliant work on UFO psychedelic group Tomorrow's sole album in 1967. He further engineered a few sessions for Peter Jenner's ill-fated 1968 production stint with Syd Barrett. Bown returned to work extensively with David Gilmour on Syd's The Madcap Laughs and Barrett.

Bown continued peerless classical work on beloved operas, including Muti's Aida and La Traviata. A mentor to a young Alan Parsons, Bown spent his final years at EMI carefully transferring 78-rpm masterpieces to compact disc. Bown eventually retired in 1991, going on to build his own home studio, where he recorded dozens of bands, with his telltale mixing touch throughout.

Peter Bown died in 1997, aged 71.

An unforgotten hero, the limitless bounds of interstellar sound on Piper, intimate warmth of 'The Scarecrow' or celestial coda on 'Chapter 24', are testament to Peter Bown's subtle brilliance. On 'Feel' or 'Wined and Dined', the feeling you are feet away from Syd strumming acoustic or unamplified Telecaster – is proof of Peter Bown's artful craft.

Home Studio Essentials
by Jeff Touzeau

An insightful book filled with tips for your home studio. Touzeau has the rare gift to make the technical accessible to the rest of us. Jeff also wrote a brilliant article, well worth seeking out, on the making of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in the December 2007 issue of American audio magazine EQ.

Recording the Beatles by Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew

A 540-page masterwork. The finest book ever written on EMI Studios or Beatles sessions.

Many thanks also to David Parker, whose brilliant Random Precision contains the most comprehensive interview with Peter Bown regarding his work with the Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett.

'Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Lost in the Woods'
Julian Palacios

Out 29 September 2009






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2 Comments:

Anonymous Baz said...

A superb posting on the much overlooked talents of Peter Bown. It has to be said that Abbey Road producers, engineers and technicians were superb all round, yet Bown had a highly individual touch. I'm a big fan of The Hollies whom he engineered... they always sounded superb.

It was Hollies drummer Bobby Elliott who grumbled to Bown in the pub before one 1963 session that he never liked the sound of the bass drum on records. Bown listened and that very session, miked up the bass drum, a practice virtually unheard of at Abbey Road at that time. That session produced the hit "Stay" and the thing that hits you is that bass drum sound...

"Piper" must had been like a playground for Bown giving him the opportunity to throw in all the ideas and techniques he had developed. And by God, even in the eccentric stereo mix, there is no denying it sounds wonderful.

So, I'm most thankful to see Bown receive the credit and respect he always deserved. "Piper" would not had been quite the same without his involvement.

December 3, 2009 at 6:07 PM  
Anonymous nblakey23 said...

Thank you so much for this. I've been a huge fan of Bown's for years (as well as Smith's and Jarratt's). Bown's original, epic 10 minute mix of "Revolution I" by The Beatles (known as "Take 20" and found on the boot TAKE YOUR KNICKERS OFF) is simply mindblowing. His speaking voice was quite charming and his engineering skills astounding.

There's an early photo of him in RECORDING THE BEATLES with a tie and buzz cut. That all would change, of course...

November 12, 2010 at 5:55 AM  

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