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George 47

Chasing the Dragon

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At the recent Windsor Show, I really enjoyed a presentation by Mike Valentine from Chasing the Dragon audiophile recordings. I was determined to have a quick word with him but he was always busy. However, by sheer chance, I was walking along the corridors of audio and there he was. No escape for him now, I collared him. He was actually very friendly and really wanted to talk about audio. A week or so later we met up in London for a coffee and interview.

 

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Who is Mike Valentine and how did he get into recording music?

Mike was born at an early age (sorry?). Mike’s interest in audio started when he was a Saturday boy at an audio shop. He remembers valves being sold and dispensed from a wall cabinet so it was some time ago. Having worked in audio and studied, he decided to go for a job at the BBC. The interview started with a large ledger being opened and Mike being asked what sort of job he wanted. He said he wanted to be a cameraman. The book starts to close and he is told there are no vacancies. Thinking quickly on his feet he says I am also interested in being a soundman. Book reopens and Mike mentions that he works as a Saturday boy in an audio shop. A few weeks later he is on a training course at the BBC and he then starts his career recording audio for the BBC and after some time gets involved with outside broadcasting. He fondly remembers recording the Proms by carefully lowering a microphone from the roof of the Royal Albert Hall to a position above the orchestra where the glorious sound was captured. 

Many years later and with his audio career established Mike goes on his holidays and starts to record underwater movie clips of the wonderful scenery and creatures found there. He gets some great experience and shows his recordings to others.

And then he was offered the chance to make a big movie, the Cast Away. It was to be filmed in the Seychelles and would star Oliver Reed and Amanda Donahue (who would be naked for a lot of the time). He pondered the offer for all of 3 microseconds. After discussions with the BBC, he resigns and embarks on a new career. And despite his reservations about leaving the BBC this turned out to be a great decision. Roll forward a few years and Mike is making a lot of big, well-known films specialising in underwater scenes.

His successes include Indiana Jones, The Jungle Book, Trainspotting, James Bond films, TV series such as Humans and Dr Who, Star Wars films and pop vids involving bands like Duran Duran.  Overall, Mike has been involved with over 100 films, TV programmes and music vids. And his latest project? Doing the underwater scenes for the latest Terminator film. And the star is Arnie? Yes. And the budget? About $250m. Clearly a true blockbuster. And did you find Arnie was a prima donna? No, he is a consummate professional. And he closely follows instructions and directions from Francoise (Mike’s partner) especially as he is underwater.  

I asked Mike about various lead actors he has worked with and he shows me a small collection of selfies of various artistes such as Clint Eastwood and a range of other major A listers. Nice photo album and certainly Mike enjoys working with these people and making films.

 

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How Did You Get Back into Audio?

The success of the film work gave him the flexibility to start to re-explore audio and how it is recorded. Mike went right back to the beginning of the process and read up and explored all he could about recordings. Mike studied all the different recording techniques, microphones and microphone arrangements. Decca tree, spaced Omnis with Jecklin discs were all tried. Not only that Mike has made recordings of these techniques available to audiophiles.

Whilst on holiday in Venice Mike heard Interpreti Veneziani play and thought I must record them. He approached their manager and asked if he could record them. No sorry, we do not allow people to video us. No, no I want to make a record of your music. Sound? Yes.  There was interest in that. Mike told them that he wanted to record them in a London studio using a direct to disc process. In this process, the music is sent direct from the microphones to a cutting lathe that makes the vinyl master used to generate the discs you buy. There is no tape recorder. The sound is direct and sounds closer to the original music. Unfortunately, any mistakes or bum notes and the master lacquer is ruined and a new recording has to be done. Ambitious eh?

Interpreti Veneziani agrees and says they will do it for free if Mike could arrange a live concert for them in London.

 

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Meanwhile back in London, he looks for a studio that can cut direct discs. There are three and they all begin with the letter A.  Angel studios, Air Studios and Abbey Road. Mike phones Abbey Road and they do not really want to know. Angel Studios no longer had a vinyl set up. But Air Studios are interested. Mike turns on the charm and their engineering team are really interested in direct cutting the music. What no tape recorders, no mistakes, all cut on the second floor? Yep. So not only do you want to do direct cut you will be sending the music up 2 floors? Yes. Mike says their engineers thought he was mad and to some extent he was. This was a big challenge.

So how did it go?

As agreed, he arranged for Interpreti Veneziani to play in the church on St Johns Square. The concert was a great success. And then to the recording studios. They rehearsed the music in the morning and then recorded in the afternoon. And it worked. I suspect it was a real emotional roller coaster. But the recording was done, it was a direct cut recording of some great musicians playing with a real edge as not it was not only live but also the musicians knew that no mistakes could be made. 1116653441_CLARETEAL-ATRIBUTETOELLAFITZGERALD7.jpg.4199d60f7e98737a60d9e942c0ee38d2.jpg

Onwards with More Challenges?

 

Next, not wanting to shy away from a really big challenge, Mike wanted to record a full-blown orchestra, the Syd Lawrence Orchestra. Lots of musicians who have to play perfectly and who can generate enormous dynamics. This music is even more difficult to record and if anyone in the whole chain makes a mistake then it is ruined. Oh, what fun. Mike asks them what can they play. They say they have a repertoire of 5,000 tracks, so some selection is needed as all they could accommodate was 4 tracks per side. They agree they would record some Benny Goodman tracks. Did I mention he was ambitious? This time there would be the direct cut album and a high-quality tape recording. So, a Studer tape recorder with 2” tape, recording at 30 ips would record the music and then be mixed down to a 2-track master. Mike then made two vinyl records, one direct cut and the other from the tape recorder. Customers could then compare a direct cut album to a high-quality tape recording and chose which they preferred. I asked Mike which he preferred ‘try them and make up your own mind’. He just wants to make them available.

 

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In order to promote the Syd Lawrence recording, Mike went onto the Clare Teal Radio 2 show and finds she is really interested in what he is doing. So not being backward he suggests they do a direct cut album with Clare Teal singing with an Orchestra. She agrees. In discussions, they agree to celebrate Ella FitzGerald’s centenary by recording eight of her famous tracks. And despite having to mix Clare Teal and the Syd Lawrence Orchestra (in full flow) with the signal being sent up two floors to a Neuman Cutting Lathe with the engineer not able to hear the music before cutting the vinyl disc, it worked and sounded superb. It has now become one of my test vinyl albums for its sheer lifelike dynamics.

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And that is wrap Clare.

 

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Mike also recorded two audiophile albums to illustrate the different types of recordings and recording techniques that can be used. Both are worth listening to as they show how variable a ‘live recording’ can sound with everything having an impact on the recording’s sound quality. On audiophile recordings II he has a simple recording where Mike makes a comparison between the sound from a valve microphone and a transistor microphone. The track starts with Mike talking about the recording process and he says he is using an AKG C12 microphone (60 years old!). Halfway through the track, he switches to a modern high-quality transistor microphone as used by the BBC for recording music (DPA4006). The difference in sound quality is really easy to hear. And my preference is for the valve microphone.  

What are you using to record now?

Most of his recordings are made through a Neve Desk, a ½” Studer A820 tape recorder, a Tascam Double DSD recorder and a Nagra 6 for 24/192 audio. And more recently Mike has started making binaural head recordings for 24/192 and DSD. His Reel 2 Reel recordings sell well, especially in Asia. The R2R are recorded directly from the master tape direct to a second recorder in real time. These recordings can take up to 2 days to set up and record so that makes them expensive but if you love R2R try one. You won’t get better. They sold out in Vietnam in 2 days.

Finally, cassettes. Trendy at the moment but Mike ensures the audio quality is as high as it can be. The cassettes use a special formulation tape, they are recorded on a Nakamichi recorder in real time and do have confusing Dolby sound.

Mike recently had a visit from Roy Gregory who really liked what he was doing and suggested that he should try some audiophile cables. He did and was really impressed with the extra jump factor they added. He now uses Nordost and Zen Sati cables in his recordings and his home system. At home, he has a Prometheus turntable with a 12” Durand arm, My sonic Platinum cartridge, Soluution monoblocks amplifiers feeding Magico M Project speakers. All with Zen Sati cables. Nice…

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And the future?

This year Mike has recorded four albums including Eleanor McEvoy (Roy Gregory helped with introductions) and Audiophile Recordings II with the microphone comparison track.

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Being ambitious his future plans include recording some really big music. How about Schezerade, the Planets Suite or Beethoven’s 9th with full orchestra and choirs?

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I suspect he will succeed with those recordings because they will be a major challenge which I think he really enjoys.

So why not try out some of his recordings and hear what a really good recording sounds like.

And to help things along Mike has very kindly agreed to offer Wammers access to two tracks……I’ll let you know.

 

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Edited by George 47
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