The birth of Virgin Records, the recording of Mike Oldfield’s landmark Tubular Bells, and a whole new approach to granting recording artists time out of the city to compose with creative freedom are all special ingredients which contributed to entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s initial musical successes. The Manor Studio, one of the first recording studios to be housed in a residential setting, was owned by Branson and beginning in 1971 was the site of recordings by artists from Oldfield to Leo Sayer’s Silverbird and Cat Stevens’ Catch Bull at Four. Who was one of the innovative recording engineers and producers who blended this heady mixture into such global fame for the artists involved? His name is Tom Newman.
Thomas Newman helped to found The Manor Studio, worked on the original 1973 recording of Tubular Bells, and has released more than a dozen solo albums. He remains active with projects including a 2020 production of Mike Oldfield’s classic album by Tubular World (on Tigermoth Records). Tom mixed the album, which is the accompanying soundtrack to From the Manor Born, a documentary about the making of the original Tubular Bells and the early days of Virgin.
He reveals more about his favorite experiences at the iconic Manor Studio, his personal preferences for vintage gear and more.
Russ Welton: What are some of your favorite personal experiences from your time mixing in The Manor Studio?
Tom Newman: The whole period was quite magical, Russell. Though at the time, I suppose I was too close to all of it to be able to fully appreciate what was happening. I’d come from the band July [psych-rock aficionados among us may remember their debut single, “My Clown,” and their eponymous album – Ed.] and the break-up of band life, into this bizarre situation with Richard and The Manor, that I was “in charge of” yet I was busking desperately to learn how to do it all! Finding myself behind the faders of a professional mixing console, without any substantial training – I can now see being thrown into things as a crucial element in how my ‘sound’ developed!
Had I been trained BBC-style with its rigid protocols, I think I may have never been able to see the freedom possible by ignoring the rules. The poetry that developed between Michael Oldfield and I while mixing Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge and so on I failed to enjoy fully at the time, due to the steepness of the learning curve Phil Newell – the only “real” engineer present – was imposing on us all!
Here’s a video of Tom talking about the recording of Tubular Bells:
Right from the start at The Manor, every session was golden! The Bonzo Dog Band (covered in Copper Issue 98) were the best imaginable band for me to “practice” on; Neil Innes was kind and full of helpful good humour. Vivian Stanshall was outrageous, unpredictable and exciting. Holy Roller, led by Paul Kennerley, were serious “Confederate rockers.” Henry Cow – superlative musicianship and dedicated anarchy! Adam Faith and Leo Sayer – my privilege to be part of working with enduring hit-making talent. There was a band called The Scaffold, with Tim Rice as executive producer! I had the opportunity to work with Cat Stevens! I was the luckiest person alive at the time – and too self-obsessed to realize it.
RW: How did you develop such an insightful and critical ear?
TN: All of the above conspired to deny me the need to construct a mix to any kind of convention. What is most important for me is emphasizing the emotional content of a piece of music. I try to find the “engine” of the music, whatever it may be, and focus on drawing the ear to that.
RW: For you, what makes for an excellent recording?
TN: Mmmm…well there’s technical excellence – i.e., good frequency response, low noise and so on. All that is very low on my list of priorities though. Does it move me spiritually and emotionally? That’s very high on the list! So many (poor-quality) recordings have been made on early, technically “sub-standard” gear, but have never been equalled in performance!
RW: Tell us about your new Tubular World double-CD project, which you mixed and performed on, and also how your approach to mixing has developed over time.
TN: The digital age was a double-edged sword for me. It took a long time for me to fully recognize its advantages. The Tubular World Tubular Bells project wasn’t mine at all. Paul Harris and Rob Reed started it as a “lockdown” project. I had been working with Rob Reed on his Sanctuary series of albums, when I heard of the Tubular World thing, and I wangled my way into it out of devilment!
RW: What techniques do you use to alter the emotions within a piece of music via your mixing?
TN: It’s kind of what I mentioned before, but also careful and empathetic exploration of each part in solo mode [listening to or “soloing” each track in the mix by itself – Ed.], to uncover the true “pecking order” of the piece – then careful placing of each individual track within the overall “landscape.”
RW: What is your favorite medium to listen to music via and why?
TN: Sadly, I only have a few minutes a year to spare to do listening! I have always preferred vinyl – almost as an act of rebellion, as I loathe the tiny cheap deal of the CD concept, and am rejoicing in the revival of proper records, with sleeve art and writing big enough to see.
RW: Could you tell us about some of your favorite hi-fi gear over the years?
TN: I’ve always been a Quad person amp-wise, and dearly wish I’d never sold my old Quad 22 preamp-based setup way back in ’72, as I now can’t afford to replace it! The best speakers are Tannoy speakers with 15-inch woofers, the Red or Gold [models], in corner cabs or Lockwoods. I also love Quad (electrostatic) loudspeakers for quiet classics.
RW: What hi-fi system do you like to use these days?
TN: I only have a very simple cheap set-up now, mainly to check mixes on: 30-year-old Richer Sounds Eltax column speakers – excellent! Driven by an old Denon amp plus a Revox A77 tape deck, and a record player. I’ve no idea what make…works great in our front room!
RW: How does your approach to listening to music differ between near-field monitoring in the studio and your home hi-fi set up?
TN: I work with both to achieve a compromise that retains the emotionally crucial mix elements, with as much dynamic range as is needed.
RW: What advice would you give to today’s aspiring sound recording and mixing engineers?
TN: Stop seeing the bass drum as the flag you wave to other “engineers” to prove you have a big willy! Listen to the song, don’t follow the charts, or listen to Simon Cowell!
RW: Who would you love to mix an album for whom you, as yet, haven’t had the opportunity?
TN: Kate Bush – The world’s best songwriter.
RW: What music excites you that you love listening to today?
TN: The same old stuff I listened to as an eight-year-old, 15-year-old, 29-year-old . . .
RW: What question do you wish you had been asked about your career or something else, which has never been put to you?
TN: Ha ha . . . “Tom – what’s your favorite color?”
Tom’s new album, A Faerie Symphony II is now available by clicking on this link.
A selected Tom Newman Discography
Fine Old Tom (1975)
Live at the Argonaut (1975) – Never released by Virgin, except for test pressings. It was released by Voiceprint Records in 1995.
Faerie Symphony (1977)
Bayou Moon (1986)
Hotel Splendide [Live] (1997)
Snow Blind (1997)
Faerie Symphony and Other Stories (1999)
Tall Scary Things (1999)
The Hound Of Ulster (1999)
The Secret Life of Angels (2014)
The Calling (2015)
A Faerie Symphony II (2021)
As producer and/or engineer (selected discography):
Tubular Bells – Mike Oldfield (1973)
Froggy Went A-Courting – Mike Oldfield (1974)
Hatfield and the North – Hatfield and the North (1973)
Hergest Ridge – Mike Oldfield (1974)
Platinum – Mike Oldfield (1979)
All Right Now (unreleased single) – Mike Oldfield (1980)
Celebration – Sally Oldfield (1980)
101 Live Letters (1981)
Doll By Doll – Doll By Doll (1981)
Grand Passion – Doll By Doll (1982) Co-producer with Jackie Leven
Five Miles Out – Mike Oldfield (1982) Co-producer
Captured – Natasha (1982)
Islands – Mike Oldfield (1987)
Amarok – Mike Oldfield (1990)
Heaven’s Open – Mike Oldfield (1991)
Tubular Bells II – Mike Oldfield (1992)
Six Elementary Songs – Clodagh Simonds (1996)
Neon Emptiness EP – Cyan2 (1999)