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Frank Barretta Interview: The early days at Angel Recording Studios

Frank Barretta has been an integral part of Angel Studios’ history. Starting out as a tea boy, then tape op for de Wolf Music in Soho. Frank joined the team at Angel as it opened in the early 80s and occupied different roles over the years.

In part one of our interview with Frank, we find out about the studio first opening, the unique personality of the Speechly Pipe Organ and some of the earliest recordings at Angel.

Hi Frank! Firstly, how did you get started working for De Wolfe Publishing and at Angel Studios?

It starts from the beginning of my working career, at the age of 18. In January 1979, I started working at de Wolfe Music as a tea boy. We were based in Wardour Street at that time, that’s where the HQ was. At that point in time, Angel was being built. De Wolfe had purchased the old United Reform Church, Islington in the late seventies and started to convert it into a studio complex. 

I worked in their sound transfer bay learning the ropes for around 18 months or so working my way up into a tape op position in the in-house 16 track ‘Red Light’ studios in Wardour Street. 

Angel Studios opened in 1981 and within a few months I went up there as a tape op to work alongside Manager and Senior Engineer John Timperley (who has now sadly passed), and other Senior Engineer Gary Thomas, who had been working for de Wolfe for a number of years. At that time the complex consisted of Studio One where the Speechly Pipe Organ is situated and Studio Two, which was just primarily a mix room and a carbon copy of the Control Room in Studio One, with the addition of a small vocal room. 

There was no Studio Three at that point. The area that would eventually become Studio Three, was the vast LP storage and distribution area for de Wolfe Music which was situated directly beneath Studio One. Angel Studios was only originally designed and built for de Wolfe to do their own in-house recordings, but word of mouth quickly spread around the industry through musicians and producers and the facility become commercially available. Soon de Wolfe music couldn’t actually get time in their own studio! On the back of that success, they decided in the early 80s to convert the downstairs LP storage area into a third studio.

That must have been a huge project to convert the space?

From memory, there were 16 supporting pillars in the lower level storage area supporting Studio One. Over a long weekend, they had to jack up and support the ceiling which was taking the weight of the entire floor upstairs, cut all the pillars out and swing in to place huge RSJ beams spanning the entire side of the building from the Gaskin St wall, right the way through to the back of the workshop.

When we came back to work on Monday morning, the jacks had been lowered and the supports were taken away and the vast area for Studio Three had been created. The RSJ beams were now taking the weight of Studio One above. When we went upstairs to Studio One, we had trouble opening some of the doors, which seemed very strange. They had been wedged in position. Then we realised that when they jacked up the floor below, it had not been lowered enough by probably a few millimetres causing some doors to become stuck. So they had to be re-framed and re-hung. That’s quite a fun memory now, but not so much at the time!

Another quirky thing from when Studio Three was being built was the introduction of a red light hanging from the middle of the main construction area. When we were going to record a take upstairs in Studio One, I remember pressing a rigged up light switch and the red light would come on below, all the workmen would stop drilling, hammering etc. We would do the take, and then the workmen would carry on again when the red light went off (if I remembered to do it!). We managed that way for a year or so.

Did Angel Studios take off quite quickly when it opened up for client bookings?

For the first year, we were just doing in-house de Wolfe projects and that was a really good testbed. We were finding out all the little idiosyncrasies of the rooms and the gear was settling in. However, with the investment that de Wolfe had put in to build quality of the complex and with brand new Neve 8078 desks in both Studio One and Two, along with quality microphones and recording equipment, our reputation grew.

the Speechly Organ in studio one is a beautiful feature from the original church. Does it Still work?

Yes, it can but it needs a lot of TLC. There is an electric-powered air pump that you can switch on. If you’re facing the keyboard, on the right-hand side there’s a false panel, you wouldn’t know it’s there as it has been set into the wooden surrounding facia. But once opened there are two switches, and once switched on the fan blows air through the pipes and it comes to life.

Studio designer Tom Hidley designed both Studio One and Two and was constantly backwards and forwards, tweaking bits and pieces in the plans.

On one occasion when Studio One was under construction, John Timperley, the chief engineer and manager came in to see how things were going. He was horrified to find that they were actually bricking up a wall in front of the Organ. It transpired that on one of the sets of plans the Organ was never going to be viable, just hidden behind a wall, but he (John) was determined that it should stay there. 

So Tom Hidley redrew the plans, keeping the Speechly Organ in situ and trying to devise some acoustic soundproofing around it to allow the sound to dissipate up and away from the main room. They did have some issues with the sound resonating in the pipes of the organ but that was soon resolved.

Unfortunately, more recently the tuning has slipped somewhat. One of the main reasons is that the air conditioning in that studio has dried out the pipes and the reeds terribly. And it takes two men about four hours to put it in tune.

Wow. OK.

And it stays in tune for about ten minutes.

That sounds very temperamental!

Yes, it probably needs overhauling again.

Back in the late 70s as Studio One was being built, they managed to find the original makers of the Organ who still had the schematics from the early 1900s. The company is called Mander Organ Builders and at the time it was the grandson of the family who took all the workings away, restoring it to its former glory, so when the Studio opened it had been completely refurbished. 

But that’s over 40 years ago and since then the Speechly Organ has been used on a variety of projects including Jaws 3. On the famous arco bass that you recognise ‘ duu-du’ ‘duu-du’. The bass pedals on the organ were used in the mix to supplement the sound.

So that’s probably its biggest claim to fame.

When was the last time The Speechly Organ was used?

The last time I remember it being used was March 2018. Composer Chris Roe who was recording the original soundtrack to feature documentary ‘Spitfire’ in Studio One, asked me if the Organ was working and I said let’s fire it up and see. Overall it was badly out of tune but they managed to record 2 or 3 pedals that were in tune and I believe they mixed it into the title music.

The choir stalls have been used on many occasions and of course, it’s a fantastic backdrop for videos.

Who were some of Angel’s earliest clients?

Within the first year of it becoming a commercial venture we had interest from many different areas of the business.

Producer Tony Clarke mixed the album ‘Legend’ in Studio Two for Clannad. He loved the studios and got many of his contemporaries down to have a look. One of the first groups to record in Studio One was an American band called Queensryche. They came in with engineer/ producer James Guthrie, who had just finished working with Pink Floyd.

This was quickly followed by producer Mike Hedges who came in with Siouxsie and the Banshees working on the Hyaena album. That is when I got to meet Robert Smith from The Cure for the first time, he was playing on the album. He liked the studio so much that under two years later he brought The Cure in to record their Head On The Door album. From there we worked on albums for Slade, Courtney Pine as well as a huge amount of TV work. We were quickly becoming established as a versatile studio and now started to pick up feature films scores including the James Bond – Goldeneye, Jaws 3 and Leon.

So it really just took off from there.

Curious to know more about Angel Studios and its history?

We’ll be sharing more from our interview with Frank over the coming weeks. Find out about our move to Angel Studios in our earlier blog post. And find out more about the history of the building itself here.