I don’t get out much. But when I do, I like to go large. On Monday 19 September 2016, I met legendary music producer Tony Visconti when I attended the grand opening of the Visconti Studio at Kingston University. Could life get any more exciting? Yep. In 1979 Visconti worked on David Bowie’s album Lodger. I just happened to have a vinyl first pressing of Lodger with me at the launch event, and Tony was kind enough to sign it.
Visconti is an award-winning producer, arranger, musician, mixer and collaborator who’s worked on many of my favourite albums with some of the biggest names in rock and pop, such as David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Morrissey. The new analogue recording studio at Kingston University, named in his honour, is a partnership project between, Visconti, Kingston University, the British Library and the Science Museum.
How the hell did I get an invitation to such an auspicious event? My wife, Jane, works for Kingston University. She contacted Professor Isabella Van Elferen, Director of the Visconti Studio and Director of Research at Kingston University’s School of Performance and Screen Studies and asked if she’d take pity on a middle-aged, analogue-obsessed, guitar-playing vinylhead, and put me on the guest list. She did. Thank you, Isabella. You’ve no idea who I am, but I love you dearly.
The event kicked off with a tour of the studio, which is tape-based, and built around an octagonal-shaped live room. The place is full of vintage instruments and rare recording equipment. The unique collection includes an Eventide Ultra Harmoniser, Roland RE201 Space Echo, Hammond RT3 organ with Leslie cabinet, Steinway grand piano and a Mellotron – famously used by Paul McCartney to produce the flute-like sound in the introduction to the Beatles’ 1967 classic Strawberry Fields Forever. During the tour, I just kept thinking about my friend, Graeme Holdaway, who’s building a studio in his garden. He would have loved the Visconti Studio.
As Jane and I were guided around the studio, Tony Visconti and Isabella Van Elferen drifted in and out, weaving between us, making sure that everything was tickety-boo for the formal proceedings that were to follow the tour.
The Visconti Studio is the focal point of Kingston University’s research and teaching project: The Heritage and Future of Analogue Recording and Production. It will be accessible to undergraduate, postgraduate and research students and will provide an opportunity to work with Tony Visconti and invited guest artists in order to learn how to use and maintain analogue technology in recording and production. The studio will also be used as a live venue to stage concerts – the space has a full range 50k watt PA system, staging and lights.
Following the tour, we sat with a select few in the octagonal-shaped live room to listen to speeches as part of the grand opening and witness the formal ceremony in which Tony Visconti was made an Honorary Doctor of Arts in recognition of his outstanding and world-leading contribution to studio production.
Isabella Van Elferen believes the opening of the new facility could not be better timed. “The world is rediscovering the warm sounds of analogue recording, which have got lost in the age of digital precision,” Van Elferen said. “Analogue is hot right now.”
She explained that a key part of the project would be to “revive” the sound of analogue recording through reverse-engineering famous analogue tracks and creating new compositions using the technology available in the Visconti Studio. “Not many studios can boast a 300 metre square live room which – with its wooden floor, octagonal shape and high ceiling – creates a beautiful, crystal clear sound. There are possibly only two studios world-wide that have such a large live space – Abbey Road in London and Electric Ladyland in New York.”
Visconti, now a visiting professor at the University, said he felt in a unique position to share his wealth of experience and technical skills with the next generation of music producers. “I’m interested in giving the students a flavour of what the real world is like in a recording studio,” Visconti said. “I came from an education where you started as the person who made the tea and worked your way up the ranks and that system doesn’t exist anymore. I’d like to impart that experience while I’m with the students.”
Visconti said he was delighted to be part of this new collaboration to spearhead the return of analogue. “This is a fantastic, unique opportunity for me as I barely made it out of high school and my university education was 50 years in the recording studio. Working here with students at the Visconti Studio – which has the potential to be a first class facility – is going to be a magical time for me. I say to the students here at Kingston University, go out and make analogue recordings. It’s the way music should be heard and it’s a beautiful thing.”
The grand opening and honorary award ceremony were followed by a reception with drinks and refreshments in the studio foyer. As Jane and I stood, drinks in hand, admiring a very large cake, I noticed Tony Visconti hovering beside us. I presumed it was getting close to cake-cutting time. I decided that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and if you don’t ask you don’t get. So I did something uncharacteristic: I took a risk. I introduced myself to the great man. Told him I was a big fan and said I had with me a piece of his work in analogue form. I asked if he wouldn’t mind signing it. “Sure”, he said. “What it was?” I presented a vinyl first pressing of Lodger I’d been carrying around all day. I also handed him a permanent marker I’d bought a few hours earlier. I came prepared in case the opportunity for an autograph arose. He smiled.
We talked briefly about the project to develop the studio and he explained how much he was looking forward to working with the students at Kingston University. I wanted to ask him a few technical questions about some of the analogue gear and how the studio overcame difficulties in sourcing vintage or original spec valves, but my wife had heard he was staying in a local hotel and asked him if he didn’t fancy something a bit more up market. I looked at her with my are-you-kidding-me face. Tony responded and they engaged in conversation about the quality of the local hotel. Then someone came up to Tony and ushered him away – stuff to do. That was it. My opportunity gone. My wife giveth; my wife taketh away.
The event wrapped up with a live performance by British singer songwriter Mary Epworth, who worked with Visconti and students at the studio on inaugural recordings. Unfortunately, I missed the grand finale. I had to dash to a band rehearsal.
Congratulations to everyone involved in the creation of the Visconti Studio. What a wonderful facility. If I ever get the chance to visit again, I’ll leave my wife at home.