Written by: Simon Eadon
It was in the summer of 1970 in my Duplicating Room that I first met Christopher Raeburn. Before I became a fully fledged recording engineer, the art of tape duplicating, editing and cutting an LP formed part of my apprenticeship behind the scenes in Decca¹s Broadhurst Gardens studios. Room 15 was only two doors away from the Producers’ office. Christopher bustled in one day with an ageing Grundig tape deck which was giving him playback problems. Could I help? We plugged it in and switched it on. Within a very few seconds a nasty smell of burning insulation was accompanied by billowing black smoke. We both dived for the mains plug, yanked it out of the socket and then degenerated into hysterical laughter for several minutes. The Grundig had ‘ceased to be’ but a new friendship had begun that would last 39 years.
However, I did not get to know Christopher properly until I joined the Recording Department in 1973 as a tape operator. Here was a man who actively seemed to cultivate the look of an avuncular professor. Cavalry twill trousers, a well-worn shirt and tie and goatee beard comprised the uniform. He was mildly eccentric in the most endearing and positive way. Artists loved him. He had that rare gift of making an individual feel that he or she was the only person who mattered; and this was always so on all his recording sessions. Christopher lived on tension and this Spannung coursed its way through his recordings with high voltage. He would chew his thumbnail.
The amazing sound, akin to a hinge that had not seen a drop of oil for over a century, heightened this atmosphere of tension. Christopher was not interested in just getting the right notes he wanted the artist to explore every interpretative avenue possible. Very rarely was anyone allowed into the control room who was not a Decca employee. The mere act of audibly writing down the take number on a sheet of paper could elicit a rebuking ‘shh!’. Even in his later years his ears were acutely sensitive. He would sometimes hear things before I had a chance of identifying the cause.
In spite of his using the same studio talkback system for year after year, there was always the same ritual when he entered the control room: with an explosive stress on the ‘b’, he would ask ‘Now, which button do I push?’ Then there were the coloured pencils: Christopher was unique at Decca in that he had a system of using a different colour for each take. He would have an arsenal of pencils which encompassed more colours than the rainbow. Red was usually the first take. Missing or lost coloured pencils would be the source of major trauma. His score markings were easy to understand. For instance, during recordings and playbacks he would write ‘comp’ in the relevant colour over the passage in the score – meaning compare. ‘Poss’ meant good and therefore a strong contender for use in the editing sequence.
Christopher was most at home recording opera. He had a keen sense of theatre. The whole recording atmosphere fed and enhanced his sense of drama. We were recording the soundtrack for a television series of well-known operas condensed into one-hour programmes. This involved a mobile van from Pye Studios being parked outside Kingsway Hall and linked with the permanent Decca control room inside the building. Christopher would announce ‘Stand by’ over the studio talkback and the engineers in the van would start their tape machines. During one of these operas, things were getting especially tense. Session time was running out. Overtime was going to be costly. Christopher shouted out over the talk back: ‘Stand by’ and, after the briefest pause, ‘for ANYTHING!’. It became a standard Decca saying after that.
With the advent of digital recording, Decca developed its own system based on one-inch reel-to-reel video tape. There was nothing else commercially available. The whole system required frequent adjustments with the aid of an oscilloscope. LEDs would light up on the processors to indicate that the system was locked and working correctly. Christopher was trying to play back a tape in the listening room. In an incident that reminded me of our first encounter, he stomped up the corridor and came into the next door room, where I was working. ‘I can’t get any sound and there are just lots of lights going winky-winky.’ Christopher and digits were not natural bedfellows.
Away from sessions, he was still the most stimulating company. Topics for discussion were as diverse as you could imagine. I envied him his gift of conversation. He had an earnest and inquisitive personality. He could talk to a brain surgeon or a bricklayer or even a recording engineer with equal ease and at length. He was in every sense a gentleman. It was difficult to deny him a request as it would be couched so diplomatically. I witnessed him losing his temper on only one or two occasions. I could not possibly reprint what was said. Yet diplomacy would be quickly restored. It was when Christopher went quiet that you knew things were seriously wrong.
Christopher was one of the true recording pioneers. The rest of us can follow only at a distance. It was his generation that set the recording styles and customs that are now so well established. We are fortunate to have the legacy of his recordings. They will be a lasting testament and bench-mark for generations to come.
Christopher Raeburn was born on July 31st, 1928. He died on February 18th, 2009.
- This article was written for International Record Review and published in the April 2009 issue
- It is reproduced on The Classical Source with permission
- International Record Review