Toby Alington: Debut API column

When API asked me to consider a monthly contribution in 2012, I thought it might be best to give you a bit of background on my thirty years in the industry in the hope that you’ll then forgive my ensuing ramblings on various topics over the next twelve months.

I learned piano and violin from age four, encouraged by my mother who was a concert violinist and peripatetic teacher. My technical interest in audio and broadcast started in Gloucestershire’s local radio station, Severn Sound, while I was still at school in 1978. Beginning as a volunteer in the newsroom, I was bitten by the radio bug long before my A-levels finished. So much so that I applied for the BBC’s Studio Manager training rather than pursuing an expected music degree course.

This excellent BBC training course held a lot more interest for me than the ensuing “trailing” of news, current affairs and radio dramas around Bush House and Broadcasting House. The occasional visit to Maida Vale, assisting on inspiring sessions with engineers Mike Robinson and Ted De Bono, led me to become a little too relaxed about the other non-music duties expected of me, and quite quickly the Beeb decided I wasn’t very suitable for Auntie. We parted company in 1981, and a number of kind-hearted souls (including Mike and Ted, and also George Chkiantz who I’d met through a neighbour in West Kensington) suggested I apply to the larger London recording studios, with Olympic very much at the top of the list.

Keith Grant, Chief Engineer at Olympic from the days of the Roman Empire until 1987, interviewed me three times over the next year – presumably agreeing with the BBC that I was largely unemployable – but he was eventually persuaded to take a chance, employing me as an assistant engineer in 1982. With an eclectic mix of albums of all genres, TV scores, adverts and film scores galore, Olympic was simply a heavenly place to be. Keith’s wise words and sense of humour are always at the back of my mind these days when a live broadcast is trying to fall apart – “the show must go on” was a mantra of Keith’s Olympic, which has shaped many an engineer’s way of thinking.

Keith let me loose on increasingly rewarding sessions, from orchestral to rock. I’m still startled when I stumble across an album or film-score credit, which I’ve long-forgotten. And there was a lot to learn, not just from Keith but from many visiting engineers, all bringing their individual styles and techniques to Olympic.

Virgin Studios, later to become part of the EMI studio group, took over Olympic in 1987, and with very few exceptions we all scattered to the four winds. Initially, my freelance work was mostly TV adverts and scores, recording in all the major studios around London. A big turning-point for me arrived with a handful of live location recordings in the early 1990’s, mainly recorded with the old Fleetwood mobile. I was immediately smitten with the genre of recording live music to picture on location, an exciting mixture of my backgrounds in music performance, live radio, music-to-picture studio recording, and a love of confronting and preventing the effects of Sod’s Law.

By 1994, I had worked with television producer Andy Ward on various live events around the world, and had met Derrick Zieba on some of these shows. Derrick and I have continued to work on countless scarily challenging projects around the world, and it’s a huge relief to work with a live sound designer who acknowledges the requirements of broadcast within their own remit to give the venue audience a good time. From the MTV EMA’s to the FIFA Kick Off Concert in Soweto, Derrick and I have happily donated much blood, sweat and tears to hundreds of artists worldwide.

I started my original audio production company, Audio Logistics, in 1994. The following year, Andy Ward – then working for Initial Film & TV – invited me to look after the soundtrack for the annual Brit Awards, a show, which had suffered its fair share of presentation and technical problems over the preceding years. 2012 will be my eighteenth consecutive year on this show, so I must be heading towards my 200th artist performance on this show alone. The Brits is one of my favourite challenges, now live-to-air and live-to-iTunes. Having spent many an early year in studios trying to chase the number-one chart spot, Adele kindly gave me my first UK Chart No.1 with her 2011 Brit’s performance of ‘Someone Like You’, staying there for no less than ten weeks.

Back to 1998, and I was having a very frustrating time trying to find a 5.1 suite in London, which was suitable for music work at any kind of sensible price, and a purpose-built suite simply became the most logical option. So we moved Audio Logistics to offices in St Margarets, building a 5.1 dubbing/mastering suite in the same building. Three years later in 2001, we moved to Richmond combining four media ventures of audio, video, web and DVD authoring into the new company, Richmond Studios. DVD became a huge part of Richmond Studios over the next few years, but it was also ultimately our downfall. We didn’t move quickly enough in 2007/2008 around the downscaling of the authoring industry, and, like some of our competitors, we were forced to fold the company due to the losses we’d accumulated on DVD, and to rebuild and focus on the things we knew were less of a risk.

The new company, now in its third year, is based in Twickenham. We have a lovely 5.1 suite, in which I do all my music mixing and final post-production. We’re concentrating on music and production, with the last year providing a great mixture of projects. Soundtracks included Aha!, Adele, Blackmore’s Night, Children in Need Rocks, Edward Sharpe, Gianna Nannini, Kylie, Simply Red, Take That and Westlife, along with the three big annual shows of The Brit Awards, The Classic Brits and the MTV EMA’s. I also recorded cast albums of London Road and Lend me a Tenor. On the production side of things, we shot and post-produced a number of exciting projects from music to corporate. Never a dull month – apart from July and August, during which I swear someone pressed a big pause button.

I’m just back from Christmas excesses finishing the soundtrack for an Alfie Boe DVD in Twickenham, which we recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in December, and as January creaks into action I wish you all the very best for 2012 – whatever the Olympics Year brings for you.