Colin Fairly and Helioscentric Studios: Producer/Engineer's New Home: Is a Project Room That's Gone Commercial

When Mix first got word that Chris Difford (with Glen Tilbrook, chief songwriter and singer in Squeeze) and Elvis Costello had set up a studio, called
Publish date:
Social count:

When Mix first got word that Chris Difford (with Glen Tilbrook, chief songwriter and singer in Squeeze) and Elvis Costello had set up a studio, called Helioscentric, in the English countryside, that sounded pretty interesting. And that was before we found out that the studio is managed by the fine producer/engineer Colin Fairley.

Fairley is an alumnus of '70s-era Air Studios who went freelance in the early '80s. He's mainly known for his work with some of that decade's coolest pop artists, including the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Echo & The Bunnymen and General Public; these projects began coming his way through the connections of his then-manager, the infamous Jake Riviera. Subsequently, Fairley has worked on numerous international recordings, and for a time he managed The Power Plant and Maison Rouge studios.

For the past year, Fairley has managed Helioscentric, a commercial facility that was first conceived as Difford's writing studio. With a brand-new (not just rebuilt) Helios console and repeat clients such as the Pet Shop Boys and Paul Weller, the studio seems to be one of England's more exciting new music rooms, and Fairley's extensive experience with all kinds of studio work is a huge asset. We got the chance to speak with Fairley in March about his career, and his new job.

How did you first get into professional audio?

I began my career as a professional drummer with several bands in the late '60s and '70s, touring the world and making records. In the end, I started to enjoy the recording process more than the live side of being in a band. My whole outlook changed when we were making an album with producer Andy Johns. We had recorded two takes of this particular song, and Andy preferred the first one, and I said to him, "That's a pity because the drum fill going into the solo section is much more happening on the other take, Andy." To which he replied, "That's okay. I think we can do something about that. Why don't you all go down the pub for half an hour and leave me to it," which we did begrudgingly-not! When we came back and listened to the song, to my astonishment, there was my happening drum fill in the take that Andy preferred. Of course, he had edited the multitrack. I could not get my head around how he had achieved this, not knowing anything about the recording process. I just thought this was sheer magic! From that moment on, I was hooked. I became a real pain, asking him questions at every given moment.

We did some more recording after that with the great Shel Talmy. He was totally inspiring. He had the great gift of bringing the best out of a musician without you even knowing it. I don't mind admitting I have tried to model myself on Shel for years. After working with Shel, I decided this was the career I wanted, to be a record producer.

The inspired advice he gave me when I approached him to fulfill this newfound ambition was to learn about the technology first, i.e., become an engineer. This was 'round about 1974, when studios started to use 24-track and the first Neve computer system was developed, Necam. I also called Ken Scott and Andy Johns, who both gave me the same advice. So now it was down to finding a job in a studio.

Where did you end up working?

The A&R guy at Charisma Records, the label I was signed to, knew the bookings coordinator Patti Nolder at the world-famous Air Studios, gave her a call and within an hour I had an interview. Some guy had not turned up, and I got his slot.

I planned to stay at Air for about three years but ended up being there for eight. It was the luckiest break of my life. The famous Sir George Martin, Geoff Emerick, Bill Price, John Punter...the list of talent is endless. It is a known fact that 90 percent of engineers who were trained at Air during that period have gone on to be highly acclaimed engineers and producers. A fantastic learning experience.

What did you work on while you were at Air?

Geoff Emerick was the guru of engineers at Air, and I was lucky enough to become his assistant for 18 months, working with such diverse artists as Gino Vanelli, Robin Trower, Gallagher and Lyle, Split Enz and many more.

When did you go from being Emerick's assistant to a first engineer?

I became a fully fledged engineer not long after that, cutting my teeth on sophisticated jingles and the like, recording orchestras, brass, everything you can imagine. There were no samples at that time to speak of. It was an excellent way to learn, to achieve the best sound you can possibly get in a very short time. You had to record, overdub and mix, all done in three hours, less sometimes.

Like all house engineers in good studios, you start to develop a reputation and build up relationships with artists and producers. I did a lot of work with producer John Punter, working with artists such as John Mellencamp-Johnny Cougar back then-Judy Tzuke, Japan, Sad Cafe, etc. Also, hit producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who were producing Number One records with Madness, Teardrop Explodes, Dexy's Midnight Runners, etc.

And then you went freelance.

Yes. In 1981 or '82, I was approached by Jake Riviera-a legend in his time-for management, which I gratefully accepted, and I entered the daunting world of the freelance engineer. Within a week of being freelance, I was asked if I would like to go to Austin, Texas, to work on an album with Nick Lowe, who was producing the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Nick and I hit it off straight away and became good friends. That album was one of the best and most enlightening experiences of my recording career so far. T-Bird Rhythm is still one of my favorite albums. Here was a no-nonsense, shit-kicking band. It was "1,2,3, go!" and if you were not in Record, you had missed it. It's an extremely raw-sounding record, all done live except for the odd backing vocal. Tough as old boots.

I gained quite a bit of credibility from T-Bird Rhythm and continued to work with Nick on his own albums. We worked on three altogether. I think Nick is one of the most underrated songwriters of his ilk. Another great chap and a very funny man.

Did you meet Elvis Costello through him?

Yes. Nick and I did the Blood and Chocolate album together, another unique experience. Nick called and informed me that Elvis wanted to record the album with a P.A. in the studio because it felt and sounded so good in rehearsals. I thought, this is a long way from the Air school of recording, but damned exciting!

So there we were in the famous Olympic Studio One with the original hand-built Dick Swettenham Helios console and 3M M79 multitrack. It's one of the greatest-sounding rooms in the world, totally natural-sounding with a short decay time. We set up the band as they would appear in the final stereo image: drums center at the back of the room, bass center at front, keyboards to the left and Elvis' guitar to the right. Each member had two P.A. monitors in front of him, and Pete Thomas, the drummer, had one large drum monitor either side of his kit.

I thought we would have tremendous phase cancellation problems, but we didn't. Everything had so much air around it. It was wonderful. Everything was miked up as per normal, but because of all the spill leaking through the monitors, I ended up using very few mics. I can't say this technique worked for every song, but the tracks that had the space in the arrangement worked like a dream.

The best example is the song "I Want You." The vocal performance sent shivers down my spine. The mix used on the album is the original monitor mix 30 minutes after we cut the track, warts and all. Pure magic. This to me was what recording was all about-the moment! I am convinced this performance from the whole band was achieved because of this unusual studio setup. Elvis is an innovator. Every day in the studio with him is a unique experience, as with all great artists. He never stops working at his craft, and you have to keep up with his pace, which can be daunting, but so creative.

The Blood and Chocolate album generated more work for me personally than any other project I have worked on. It was highly acclaimed by the critics and people throughout the business, and I became known as a guy who could capture on tape the true sound of a band. I started to produce and engineer a lot of young, inexperienced bands, some of which I had success with such as The Bluebells, General Public and Echo & The Bunnymen.

Then we didn't hear from you for a while.

In the late '80s, early '90s, computer-based music became the fashion. It left me cold, I'm afraid. I just couldn't feel it. A producer friend of mine, Robin Millar, called and asked if I would be interested in managing his studios for him, namely Power Plant and Maison Rouge Studios, which I did for three years with a combined staff of 28 people. Unfortunately, they went into liquidation, due to a combination of lack of proper finance and extremely high interest rates. This was also true of several other established studios in London.

I then received several offers to produce artists from other countries, mostly Spain and Japan. I spent most of '97 remixing and remastering three Rory Gallagher albums after his untimely death, searching through hundreds of old multitracks for unreleased "gems."

In '98 I became the manager of Helioscentric Studios, which is now my passion. Here I have recorded a solo drum project called Drumbaba with Gilson Lavis, Jools Holland's drummer; a Spanish artist called Jaime Anglada signed to Virgin Spain; and I'm working on a solo project with Chris Difford. The studio is now busy with outside clients, with artists like Paul Weller becoming regulars.

And now you're also back working with Costello, on the studio. What is his involvement in the facility? Is he just an investor?

No, it is not just a financial thing. He has been extremely busy with the Bacharach collaboration, but he plans to record here in the near future with the Brodsky Quartet and Steve Naive.

Did either owner take part in the design or equipment purchase decisions?

Chris Difford had a lot to do with the interior design of the studio.

Tell me about the new console. I didn't know anyone was building new Helios desks.

We have a totally new 32-channel Helios console with separate 48-track monitoring designed and built by Courthouse Facilities and Cyril Jones, formerly of Raindirk Audio, with Dick Swettenham as a consultant. He's the original Helios inventor. It's got all discrete electronics made to military spec, with the original 3-band EQ.

The console came about when Chris [Difford] wanted to have a home studio and he had the chance to purchase the original Helios modules from the old Island Studio desk, plus some more modules from a 12-channel Helios desk specially built for Alvin Lee. The two were put together to make one desk, but the engineer who installed it had got the power supplies all wrong and cut some very important corners. I was asked to come down and try the desk out and found all sorts of distortion and mismatches going on and, because I am not a very technical engineer, I suggested they call in an expert, namely Tony Arnold of Courthouse Facilities who deals in restoring Ampex tape machines and vintage desks. He corrected the mismatches and got it all working to a point but suggested we start again, installing oxygen-free cable and the like to cut down the noise, etc. Then we started to have problems with all of the old modules, and it came to a point where the desk was unreliable.

Tony suggested, "If you like the sound of the Helios module so much, I can build you a desk using Dick Swettenham's original drawings." That is precisely what we did, along with Cyril Jones of Raindirk Audio.

I love the sound. It is warm, punchy and extremely defined, very natural-sounding. I like to use as little EQ as possible when recording. I tend to change the mic to suit the sound, not the other way round. Musicians come into the control room and tell me it sounds exactly like it does in the room, which to me is a compliment. It is old-school, yes, but all the current bands' musical references in this country are from the old school. An acoustic guitar sounds like a Martin or a Gibson. Drums sound like drums, with all the air and transients retained.

What other equipment is in there?

The main monitors are Genelec 1038As. Multitrack machines are Ampex 1200s, 16- and 24-track. There's an Otari RADAR 24-track hard disk system, a good selection of vintage valve mics, Vac Rac, valve mic preamps, Massenburg EQ, vintage Audio and Design parametric EQ, UREI black 1176 compressors, TL Audio valve stereo compressors, dbx compressors, vintage BX20 spring reverb, and a Roland Space Echo. The equipment has all been designed and purchased with one word in mind: Definition.

And the studio itself?

The studio is housed in a converted barn, down a private English country lane on Chris Difford's property. We have two rooms. The main room is about 1,000 feet square with a high, wood-paneled ceiling and wooden floor with a concrete square in the center, which makes for a solid drum sound. There's lots of natural daylight and a soundproof booth with a fabulous mural painted on the back wall. An American engineer working here told me the room was just like one of the rooms at Bearsville Studios, where I have never worked, but I have enjoyed some of the sounds recorded there.

The pink room is basically a programming room with a 32-channel Mackie desk. The Otari RADAR 24-track hard disk system, I must say, sounds extremely good, considering! We have Pro Tools and all sorts of synthesizer goodies. The Pet Shop Boys are regulars in this room.

Do you do a lot of the engineering on projects, or are you strictly a studio manager?

I am still available for projects, though clients do bring in their own engineers and it works quite well. I also have a staff engineer here named Patrick Moore.

Any other special services the studio offers?

We have an extremely amicable arrangement for accommodation with a local hotel. It has eight rooms, three of which are circular-even the beds and the duvets are. It has a bar and restaurant, with an atmosphere you just can't buy. The two brothers who run the hotel are music buffs and men of the world and not afraid to partake in the late-night jollification. It's an extremely friendly and relaxing place to retire after a hard day's work, and it is a five-minute drive from the studio. We are very close to the sea, too, and can arrange diving excursions, windsurfing, boat trips, fishing, etc.

I would also like people to know that at Helioscentric, musicians will be taken care of by musicians who know the rigors of making an album.

Olympic Studios added a mix suite this year for engineer/producer Mark "Spike" Stent. Stent, who has been based at Olympic for a decade, has worked with U2, Spice Girls, Mansun, Hole, Bjork and more. The new suite is equipped with a 72-channel SSL 4000 G console (transferred from Studio 3 when that room was upgraded to an 80-channel G+), Genelec monitoring and Studer A820 multitracks. Also included are 48 tracks of Pro Tools with Pro Control and Stent's own outboard collection. The suite was designed by Sam Toyoshima and will be available to outside clients when Stent is not using it.