In 1968, a tumultuous year by any standards, acoustics and electronics wizard Eddie Veale struck a very satisfactory deal with the London studio that had employed him for four years: he could go freelance, yet continue to work with the studio as it led the upgrade path that was transforming British recording techniques at a breathtaking pace. The best of both worlds, thought Veale, and Eddie Veale Associates was born. The timing was perfect. It was the beginning of a cultural revolution; the beginning of creative multi-tracking; and the beginning of self-start professionalism in pro audio and recording as various pioneers followed George Martin out of institutionalised entertainment and into the fresh air. Fifty years on, and Veale can look back with pride on a career that has spanned an extraordinary range of studio applications from arguably the first home studio – for an unknown chancer from Liverpool – to the cream of music recording and broadcast and, latterly, a particularly revealing diversion into educational facilities.
Not that Advision Studios, whose MD Kevin Hibbert had agreed to Veale’s new lease of life, was institutionalised in any way. In fact, it was one of the most progressive studios in London, if not Europe, as Veale recalls. “At that point,” he begins, “I was in the latter stages of transferring the business from New Bond Street to Gosfield Street and the work they were doing was attracting a lot of interest. Kevin wanted to keep me ‘on side’, as it were, and allowed me to take two days a week to pursue personal interests while retaining my services for the remainder.”
Ideal: a base to work from, in the thick of the London music scene; and the opportunity to take his skills to a wider base of studios and locations. Yes, this did include the studio at John Lennon’s Georgian home near Ascot that was used to record the album Imagine, but in due course there was much more besides: consider, for starters, Sarm West, Lansdowne, Hook End Manor and Britannia Row among many others.
Prior to Advision, Veale had worked in the aircraft industry on noise control. “I’d studied acoustics with the aim of working in one of the major architectural practices,” he reveals. “There weren’t that many around at the time, and I didn’t get any replies to my enquiries. So my first job was at De Havilland Aircraft in Hatfield, where I was eventually promoted on to an acoustic project to improve passenger comfort on the Trident Airliner. Then De Havilland was bought by Hawker Siddeley, and wanted to move our department to Leavesden. I didn’t want to make that move so I took a big leap into something new.”
What a leap. Veale describes the characters at Advision as “very relaxed” by comparison with De Havilland Aircraft personnel, although they probably shared a common if different understanding of being high. The counter-culture was not something that Veale admired unequivocally, in fact, but this is a quality that only increased his demand: as with so many others, the sober ministrations of his professional skills were precisely what the industry needed at a time when unleashed imaginations ran riot.
“At De Havilland we were working to within 0.1dB of accuracy,” Veale explains. “In my second week at Advision I was told with some confidence that ±2dB was good enough – while calibrating an Ampex 4-track recorder.”
He arrived at Advision via a suggestion by an acquaintance on the inside: Terry Brown, an engineer at Olympic while the studio was still near Marble Arch. Brown knew that Advision was looking for a project engineer, and the connection was made. One of the first projects turned out to be the small matter of converting Advision from 4-track into one of the first 8-tracks studios in Europe.
“One of our engineers, Dag Fjellner, had visited Scully Recording Instruments in the States, which built the first 8-track machines,” says Veale. “I think Kevin wanted me to drive that change forward, so I worked closely with the studio manager at that time, Roger Cameron, to achieve this upgrade to the music studio. There was a film dubbing studio, too, mostly for TV ads, which also needed improving: in fact, we created the first ‘rock- and-roll’ dubbing theatre in which you could reverse the projector to cue up drop-ins.”
Many techniques soon to be taken for granted were developed by Veale and the team during this time, without off-the-shelf components and without any previous design models. The sense of innovation was almost daily, and provided the grounding for the freelance work that Veale aspired to. This he combined with further work at Advision, including the upgrades to 16- and 24-track, improvements to the monitoring especially at higher levels and a mix suite with an early iteration of automated faders on the console.
“In retrospect,” says Veale, “Kevin was very clever at cornering the market and making Advision indispensable: soon after going 8-track, for example, Ray Dolby came in with his noise reduction system, which we installed. This meant that once the tapes had been encoded with Dolby at Advision, he had a captive audience. Of course others followed suit, but these were the ways he made sure that the studio was always in demand.”
Veale was soon approached by other facilities in the community to share the technology, his association with Advision acting as a compelling calling card. Advision itself benefitted from the general expansion of the recording industry, even setting up Felden Audio to sell Scully recorders into the UK, and Veale became a fountain of knowledge for all those anxious to keep up.
But the core expertise in acoustics brought clients from further afield, not least Independent Television (ITV) near Advision, which had sound quality issues in the gallery control room. By 1975 Veale had added commercial radio to his portfolio courtesy of Beacon Radio in the West Midlands, the final ILR station to be licensed at the time.
“The MD was an American called Jay Oliver who wanted to change the face of broadcasting in the UK,” remembers Veale. “The first ILR stations had been designed in accordance with BBC practices, very formal and structured, and Jay wanted radio to become more personal and relaxed. For the flexibility to be able to respond to events, listeners, anything going on, and to produce genre-free programmes, the presenter had to be at the forefront. To do that, we had to change the workflow of the studio and the environment between the presenter and listener.
“I came to the conclusion that we had to generate a synergy between them, so that the presenter gained intimacy with the listeners, and to do that I felt there had to be a closer link. The old squawk box was inadequate because the quality of the voice didn’t engage the listener, so I redesigned the radio studio for the benefit of the presenter’s mic technique, and the acoustics, to bring him closer and really into the homes of the audience. I also created space for guests and removed any distractions that might affect on-mic axis. That’s pretty much the format we have everywhere today.”
Naturally other stations followed suit – apart from the BBC. “I had an opportunity to do some work at Maida Vale,” Veale reflects, “but there was a clause in the contract that said they could make changes and that I would be responsible for those changes. I declined.”
The one obvious change in the nature of recorded sound since 1968 is the evolution from analogue to digital media – although it’s happened so quickly that the word ‘evolution’ is scarcely adequate. Veale is understandably sceptical.
“The development of digital audio has gone at a tremendous pace, and it’s drawn attention away from something fundamental: the way our ears work,” he says. “During the period just before digital started to become popular there was a huge appetite for high-quality audio, which waned with the advent of the CD. The quality didn’t support what was expected.
I remember [Cadac co-founder] Clive Green being on a mission to get 40kHz phase coherence, and you can’t do that in the digital world. It’s a benchmark that it can’t meet. Some recognition of this is returning, because the analogue disc is coming back into vogue.
“Digital is such an ambiguous technology; it’s very hard to tie anything down. With analogue, if there are issues it’s very easy to progress, stage by stage, measuring the frequency response of a system. I don’t know anybody who can do that in the digital domain: it either works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, you have plenty of people scratching their heads until someone finds there’s a digit wrong somewhere. While latency has improved with the speed of machines, it won’t go away, simply because you are processing digits and that is a sequential operation – unlike analogue which is multi, simultaneous band.”
As the push-button techniques of digital audio have created a kind of binary traffic jam, the quality of studio construction has come under frequent scrutiny. This may or may not be a coincidence.
Latterly several leading studio insiders have publicly expressed their dissatisfaction with the very studios used in audio education, and Veale shares their concerns – or did, before he himself began to get opportunities to do something about it.
“It’s only quite recently that we as Veale Associates made any inroads into the education sector,” he points out, “and I think that came about because of students paying the fees and demanding better facilities. From our point of view, it began to change with Falmouth University’s new music block – for which we were recommended.
“In the process we had to challenge the acoustic consultants, because we felt they had made mistakes. It worked, some very nice studios were created, and the hierarchy of the University sector began to take notice: 18 months later we were approached by Middlesex University, which was doing something similar. I think it proved that good studios provide the wow factor to prospective students, which raises intake and, therefore, funding. I’m sure that will make the difference – it’s not as though University bosses appreciate good acoustics!”
It seems to be working: the University of West London and the University of Winchester are both subsequent clients, and Veale senses that in this regard the education sector may have turned a corner.
“I may have made myself a bit of a nuisance here and there,” he smiles, “but I do believe that the experience of these students – their experience of the right environment – is essential for their future fulfilment. We now insist on validating the courses to ensure that we’re designing a facility that’s fit-for-purpose, and I think we’re beginning to get through.”
A common thread emerges through the whole of Eddie Veale’s career since that fateful step beyond Advision. Whether a quixotic rock star, a commercial radio station or a University, Veale’s clients are listened to with the same attention to detail that might get you accurate to within plus or minus 0.1dB.
In fact, passengers in a Veale Associates sonic fuselage are in for a very comfortable ride, not least because if necessary a completely new concept will be built around you as the true nature of your destination is meticulously defined.
“I’ve always tried to be the sounding board,” he confirms without a hint of irony, “and tease out of the clients what their real aspirations are. There’s always so much more than just the business case.”
And who needs John Lennon? The order book is full, from 3D games developers to anechoic chambers, and all of that ‘imagining’ was a very long time ago. “While it’s fun socially to tell those stories,” rues Veale, “for business development it doesn’t really offer any help at all. With the speed of change in a digital world, we need to be thinking about tomorrow – not yesteryear.”