When 19-year-old Mike Oldfield documented what would become one of the best-selling instrumental albums of all time, he took a do-it-yourself approach by recording first takes and playing all of the 30-odd instruments himself. Tubular Bells (Virgin, 1973) was an incredibly tedious recording session for another reason: No one told Oldfield that he could overdub.
“You have to imagine, it was 1972,” Oldfield recalls from his home in Chalfont Saint Giles, England, near London. “I had been rejected by every record company except Virgin, which was just starting out.” In fact, Tubular Bells was the first release on Richard Branson's Virgin label and the beginning of Branson's enormous empire. “[The label] said they would give me one week at the Manor House in Oxford to record,” Oldfield says. “I worked a marathon and did over 1,800 individual takes, working 20 hours a day. I didn't know anything about studio-engineering production; I didn't know that you could try again. Everything was first take, one attempt after another. As it turned out, it had a good feeling. I still hear bits of it every day on Volkswagen TV ads, et cetera. I think, ‘Boing! There it is.’”
An unlikely worldwide hit that meandered through a serpentine 15/8 time signature and an eerily hypnotic mood, the single “Tubular Bells” found greater acclaim when it became the theme music for William Friedkin's disturbing 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist. Predating the minimalist compositions of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, not to mention the loops of steel yet to come from Detroit, Oldfield created a circular 30-minute epic that flowed through rock, folk, bluegrass, classical, glam and metal themes. Tubular Bells influenced everything from new age dribble to frothy techno, and it sold more than 16 million copies.
A shy bass player who suffered from various phobias and alcoholism, Oldfield retreated from the press but continued to record, following Tubular Bells with Hergest Ridge (Virgin, 1974), QE2 (Plan 9, 1980) and The Millennium Bell (Wea, 1999), to name a few. But he acknowledges Tubular Bells as his signature work, which included a bevy of original instruments.
“I wanted an organ to zoom up,” Oldfield says. “So I made a tape loop of the organ and adjusted the voltage of the power supply with a knob that ran the motors of the tape machines. [Manor House recording staff] called it the ‘taped-motor-drive organ chord.’ Now, you do it on a pitch bend. The guitars were going through strange boxes that two technicians came up with. I said that I wanted the guitar to go wha wha wha. They came up with the chorus box that I used on the end of ‘Part One.’ And I played the initial melody on a grand piano, a glockenspiel and two different types of organ: a stringy Farfisa-sounding one and a more flutey-sounding one set one octave below. The combination of those instruments is the Tubular Bells sound. Most synths have a Tubular Bells preset now. For the rerecording, I did it all again.”
That's right: After 30 years, Oldfield has recorded a second version of his masterwork, called Tubular Bells 2003 (Rhino). But this time, he did it right.
“I spent nine months completely rerecording everything,“ Oldfield says. “I transferred the original 16-track tape to hard disk so I could instantly open it up and check exactly what the guitar, bass and organ parts sounded like. Even the tempos and the moods were reproduced as perfectly as possible. I improved some of the keyboard sounds. There weren't any synthesizers then; I was using organs like the Vox Continental and the Farfisa. I couldn't replace the Hammond B-3 organ, so I got a real one, but I replayed all the guitars and did it all in 5.1.”
Oldfield used an AMS Neve Capricorn digital mixing console interfaced with a Mac G4 running Emagic Logic Audio (occasionally using an Emagic ES1 software synth and Digidesign Pro Tools hardware) into a Fairlight Merlin disk-based multitrack recorder/editor. Other gear included Coastal Acoustics Boxer T3 monitors, plug-ins such as Line 6 Amp Farm and Antares Auto-Tune (for guitars), and Akai S6000 samplers. But Oldfield is not much for rabid gear reflection — or even music, for that matter. He never listens anymore, preferring motorcycles and model helicopters to music.
“I am winding down my studio productions at the moment,” he says. “I am getting into music VR, a combination of music and virtual reality. You can check out my games, The Tube World and Tres Lunas, at www.mikeoldfield.com.”