Revolutions Per Minute

Sound Pilot: Interview with Acoustic Design Consultant Philip Newell

Philip Newell has been professionally involved in audio since 1966. He has done it all, from an apprenticeship in audio electronics while studying radio and television servicing, to doing live sound for internationally renowned musicians, from working in recording studios (and at Pye Records) to becoming the Technical Director of Virgin Records. He has designed and built world-class studios, mobile recording trucks, cinemas and dubbing theatres. Newell has published research papers, presented in conferences and has sponsored academic research. And if that wasn’t enough, he’s a licensed pilot and has flown airplanes and seaplanes, having owned a fleet of seaplanes, and acted as a flight instructor and examiner.

Philip Newell. All photos in this article courtesy of Philip Newell.

Throughout his career, Philip Newell has worked on a large number of recordings by world famous artists including Queen, The Who, Hawkwind, Patti Smith, The Band, Gong, Can, Tangerine Dream and Mike Oldfield, all the way to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, The Duke Ellington Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie and others.

Philip has worked in over 30 different countries. He is a fellow of the Institute of Acoustics in the UK and is a member of the Audio Engineering Society, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) and the Seaplane Pilots Association.

He has written eight books published by Focal Press, including Loudspeakers, Studio Monitoring Design and Recording Studio Design, all of which I would highly recommend to anyone wishing to dive deeper into these subjects.

In this two-part interview Philip shares his perspective into the past and present of the music industry, as well as thoughts about the laws of aerodynamics and acoustics.

J.I. Agnew:

You have been professionally involved in the world of music since 1966. What drew you to this sector, of all the options open to a 17-year-old in 1960s Britain?

Philip Newell:

The music of the late 1950s and the 1960s completely captivated me. My nickname at school was “Prof” (or “The Professor”) and it was assumed that I would go to university and study the sciences. However, when I was in my penultimate year of school, primarily studying “double mathematics” and physics, I saw an apprenticeship job advertised, which was in music-related electronics, so I shocked the school-teachers by announcing my departure and “getting a job.”

They were sure that I had made a huge mistake, but the job was like a magnet for me. Very soon after, I was offered a job in live sound, working closely with musicians, and as I had been formally educated in piano playing I could easily converse with them. We got along very well, and I soon got asked to work at larger venues, which took me to London.

JIA: How did your friends and family react to your decision to get a job instead of continuing on to university education at the time?

PN: I think my parents could see how much I wanted the job, and they knew that music, electronics and loudspeakers had already been my main hobbies for several years. The job also involved spending one day each week at Blackburn Technical College, to study electronics, so at least they could see some further education for me. Most of my friends had already left school a year earlier, after our O Level examinations, so they were not surprised that I should also leave school. In fact, continuing to A Levels and universities was not usual in those days, and I had already done one year of the A Level course.

JIA: How did the shift happen from you working at live music events to working in recording studios?

PN: Once I was at the Orchid Ballroom, in Purley, I found myself working with some of the top British session musicians. They played in the resident bands of the ballroom about three nights a week (Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays), but spent much of their weekdays in the London recording studios, playing on many of the famous records for the top artistes. One of the musicians eventually invited me to help to supervise the building of his new recording studio, in Clapham (South London).

The control room of the Pink Museum (now the Motor Museum) in Liverpool, England in 1988.

Incidentally, in the Orchid Ballroom on Sunday and Monday there would be visiting bands, which were often world-famous groups or singers, such as Stax, Atlantic and Motown artistes. Having the chance to work on the sound for such people was enormously educating.

By 1970, I went to work for Pye Recording Studios, which was one of London’s “big three” studios [along] with Abbey Road and Decca, but I very much enjoyed working with their mobile-recording team, which often recorded live events, as well as doing other location recordings. Originally, we carried “loose” recording equipment, such as a Neve mixing console [that was transported] in three sections, but I later helped to install the equipment in their mobile recording truck – designed by Ray Prickett and overseen by Peter Duncan. I enjoyed the challenges of live recording. Every day was different.

The control room of The Town House in Shepherd’s Bush, London in 1978, with a 32-track Telefunken M15A tape machine.

JIA: There was a certain situation in the UK around the 1960s which led to the advent of several radio stations on boats and abandoned military platforms (in what was still international waters), broadcasting the kind of music you most likely were captivated by. Were you ever involved with this scene?

PN: I was not involved personally, but David Hawkins (a friend who had also worked at Pye, and who now owns Eastlake Audio) was on (I think it was) Radio London. However, these stations radically changed the 1960s music scene in the UK, and in a very positive way. I spent a great deal of time listening to Radio Caroline North, and it was probably the biggest single influence on me feeling that I had to work in music. In fact, I would probably not have left school if there had been no Radio Caroline North. It was such a major source for hearing what I thought was great music. No other radio stations in the north of England were playing this music.

JIA: Early on, you started being involved in designing and constructing recording studios, mobile recording trucks and monitor loudspeakers. What was the inspiration that made you go from using studios and loudspeakers that others had designed, to designing your own?

 The two Manor Mobile recording trucks in 1980.

PN: As my work was quite “mobile,” involving listening in many studios and recording in many locations, it was very obvious to me and to many others that there was very poor compatibility between their monitoring conditions, yet the very term “monitoring” suggested working to some sort of reference standard. However, to a large degree, studio acoustics was considered to be a black art, involving some sort of sorcery, and the “broadcast standards” that frequently were applied (which were originally intended for radio and TV studios) seemed to me to be largely misplaced. It was like trying to judge an orange by a standard set for apples. Yes; they are both fruit, but they are also very different, with different characteristics. I was absolutely certain that there were better ways of doing things regarding the control rooms and the loudspeaker systems, because at that time, what was being done just didn’t make sense to me.

The mobile control room in one of the Manor Mobile remote recording trucks during the 1970s.

JIA: Has the industry changed much since the 1960s?

PN: I would say that in the 1960s there was much more emphasis placed on finding a great song to record. Probably the majority of the songs recorded by the great artistes were the products of specialized songwriters, so it was then the job of the artistes to interpret the songs and make them “their own.” Even groups such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Animals did this, as did the greats such as Elvis Presley, Joe Cocker, Tom Jones and Tina Turner, for example. None of these singers wrote many songs themselves, and not all great songwriters are great singers, either. The musical arrangements were also largely prepared before they went into a studio, so the principal job of any studio was to make the best recording of an already selected song. There is no doubt that this concept of specialized singers, songwriters and arrangers produced some real classics.

JIA: Your transition from a very successful career in the music industry to becoming a professional seaplane pilot and instructor hardly seems like a natural career progression; what prompted such a radical change?

PN: In 1978, Richard Branson [founder of Virgin Records, later the Virgin Group] bought Necker Island, in the British Virgin Islands. The original intention was to build a recording studio on the island, as a tax-haven for the big-earning artistes. When I first went there it was a totally deserted island, and seaplanes were a common form of transport in the Virgin Islands. I had already learned to fly landplanes at Kidlington (now Oxford) Airport, which was only about 2 kilometres from The Manor Studio [where I had been working], so I studied to add the “seaplanes and amphibians” rating to my licence, to facilitate my access to the island during the intended construction of the studio.

The Manor Studio during the late 1970s.

When the idea to build the studio was abandoned, due to a huge fall in the maximum tax rates in the UK after the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, I was already hooked on the seaplanes.

JIA: Is there any common ground between the skills required of an audio/music professional and a pilot?

PN: Although the discipline of the flying world was in huge contrast to the music industry, I realised that the laws of aerodynamics were unbendable. If you disregarded them, they could kill you, but if you respected them, they could also save you. Almost by chance, after taking part in an air display on Southampton Water, I found myself in contact with the aerodynamics people at the University of Southampton, which was coincidentally in the same building as the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research (ISVR). I soon realised that the laws of acoustics were just as dependable as the laws of aerodynamics if you obeyed the rules, so this led me into looking at control rooms and monitor systems from a different perspective. As with aerodynamics, if you obey the rules, the outcome is repeatable and guaranteed. No sorcery is involved!

One of the Lake Buccaneer seaplanes owned by Philip, on River Thames.

JIA: Were you involved further with Necker Island after the studio idea was abandoned?

PN: No; I never went back there. However, one day, who knows? I am sure it is not out of the question.

Necker Island, in the British Virgin Islands, owned by Richard Branson, when Philip first flew there.


In Part Two Philip will talk about fitting huge fuel tanks to the Manor Mobile recording truck during the 1973 oil crisis, life at Virgin Records, advice for people breaking into the record business and more.