The CV of engineer/producer Jerry Boys could double as a timeline of the British studio recording industry, writes David Davies. After formative stints in the late ‘60s with Abbey Road and Olympic, he became part of the small, close-knit team at Sound Techniques – the much-missed Chelsea studio that provided a home-away-from-home for Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and John Martyn. A lifelong passion for the rural life led Boys to Cornwall and Sawmills Studio on the banks of the idyllic River Fowey in the mid ‘70s, but by 1982 he was back in London in the role of chief engineer at Livingston Studios – a facility with which he was to be closely associated for the next 20 years.
A four times Grammy Award recipient, Boys continues to enjoy a buoyant ‘second career’ in world music and now has his own private, SSL-based mixing studio on Bodmin Moor. But PSNE began by whisking him back to 1969 and the first whisperings of the folk-rock boom...
How did you come to work at Sound Techniques?
“I had met one of the co-owners, John Wood, when I was a junior engineer at Olympic and he was working on Fairport Convention’s Unhalfbricking with [producer] Joe Boyd. John said they were looking for a house engineer and, given that I had always felt like a small fish in a big sea at Olympic, I decided to jump ship!
“John engineered a lot of Joe Boyd’s productions, but I worked with Fotheringay on their first album – [singer] Sandy Denny was such an original performer – and Vashti Bunyan on Just Another Diamond Day [interest in which was reignited several years ago when the title track was used for a mobile phone TV advert]. The latter was a nightmare to record as Vashti is the world’s quietest singer and guitar player – it was hard not to have the breathing be louder! – but I really like the songs on an individual basis. Steeleye Span’s Parcel of Rogues and Hocus Pocus by Focus would be other highlights from that period.
“A lot of studios of the time were very dead, but Sound Techniques wasn’t and that made it quite special. The artists were very organic – there was nothing remotely manufactured about any of them – and it had a character that suited their work. A happy period? Yes, very happy, but also extremely hard work! It wasn’t unusual for us to record a jingle between 10am and 1pm, work with a band from 2pm until midnight, another band from 2-6am, and then go home for a few hours’ sleep before starting again at 10am. Crazy!”
You ‘jumped ship’ again in 1975 to become chief engineer at Sawmills, before returning to the capital in 1982 in a similar role at Livingston. What kind of state was the studio in at that point?
“I had been drinking buddies with [Livingston head] Nick Kinsey for many years, and one day I went to visit this studio that he was in the process of developing. It was a great room with a great sound, but it had little gear and no air-conditioning in the control room. Nick was a very clever businessman, but I don’t think he quite understood why you needed the creature comforts! I said that I could sort all these issues if they took me on as chief engineer, and that’s exactly what happened. By 1985, we had a big SSL console in the main room and a new Amek in the smaller studio, along with plenty of extra mics and outboard, and we were doing pretty well.
“Retrospectively, it was a terrible move to become a co-owner in 1989. It was really three years too late and just one year before the studio market crashed. We went bust in 1993, but managed to resurrect ourselves with a new owner and continued to operate in that way until 2002, when it became clear that the studio required more investment. We looked around for a buyer and, eventually, Nick Gold at the World Circuit label – which had been Livingston’s biggest client – was able to put together a deal.”
Talking of World Circuit, your involvement with their 1997 release, Buena Vista Social Club, and many subsequent projects appeared to mark a further shift in your working life in favour of world music...
“Yes – it was almost like a second career starting, really. I had been working with Joe Boyd and an act called Cubanissmo! at EGREM Studios in Havana, and shortly after that Joe introduced me to Nick Gold, who was preparing to go to Cuba with [celebrated American guitarist/composer] Ry Cooder and a group of Cuban and Malian musicians to make the album that became Buena Vista Social Club. I didn’t know Ry, but he knew that I was familiar with EGREM, and so I was invited onto the project.
“It was a fantastic experience and I discovered such a lot working with Ry. I guess I knew it already, but it really reinforced the importance of retaining that first take; you should never assume that it won’t be any good! If you get four takes into something and still aren’t happy, you should go back to the first one and 50% of the time you will find that it is ‘the one’.
“Funnily enough, I’ve just finished work on the album that should have been Buena Vista Social Club – the Malian 56 musicians originally intended to be part of those sessions not having turned up! Well, this time they did, and it’s a really great record.”
Recent projects have also included an album of Scots Gaelic vocal harmony music, but you have taken some time out to construct your own mixing studio at home on Bodmin Moor...
“There were two primary motivations. One was the changing state of the recording industry and the fact that many albums now have tiny budgets, meaning that it isn’t always possible to mix in normal commercial studios. Every year I get asked to do a number of projects that simply aren’t viable because of budgetary factors. The other reason was that I love being in Cornwall, and the idea of being able to go out for a walk if stuck on the details of a mix was very appealing!
“Equipment-wise, I knew that it was going to be an analogue console – I couldn’t have afforded a large digital desk and I don’t like the sound of the smaller ones – and I wanted recall and automation. Someone told me about SSL’s Matrix console, and when I spoke to SSL they suggested that I could combine this with two X-Rack [modular rack systems] – one with EQ, one with compressors. I am recording into Pro Tools; I am used to having an assistant who understands that backwards so I have had to make a few calls to younger people who know these things!
"I have invested in some Quested monitors – Roger [Quested, company founder] was incredibly helpful – and my old friend Peter Martelli from Livingston also got involved. I’ve brought together some great outboard, too, including two Gates Sta-Level valve compressors, a pair of Neve 2262 [compressors] and a Lexicon 224X reverb. It’s a really good set-up."
So no thoughts of retirement, then?
"Absolutely not. I still love making music and have no intention of stopping. The world will give me up before I give it up!"
Jerry Boys can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.