BIMM Brighton was pleased to host a recent masterclass with audio technology guru Roger Mayer, who regaled students and host Paul Williams with stories of his work alongside legendary artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
In his youth, during the cold war, Mayer served in the British Admiralty, working on the development of various technologies such as underwater weapons’ acoustics and developing technology to dampen the noise of British Navy ships.
Roger’s interest in audio innovation led to the creation of ground-breaking guitar effects, which launched his career as a Sound Engineer in the sixties. When he was just 21 years old, Mayer first came to work with Jimi Hendrix, meeting him in London at the end of one of his shows and telling him of his passion for sound and new innovation.
One week later, at the end of another gig, the two met again and Hendrix tried Roger’s Octavia pedal in his dressing room on a small amp. Hendrix loved it so much that he used it to overdub two guitar solos on his new record. Roger described this as a monumental moment in his life. The record ‘Purple Haze’ was released a few weeks later and the rest was history.
Roger went on to explain that in spite of his larger than life stage persona, Jimi was an introverted shy man at heart. Most musicians will be familiar with Hendrix’s instantly recognisable guitar wizardry, but it’s a little known fact that he never had much confidence as a lead vocalist. Roger helped to coach him along in this regard.
He advised our students that the main thing in order to work successfully with such an artist (and to bring the best out of them) is to make the environment around them the best possible.
“One has to continuously work forwards by sorting out technical difficulties and making sure they eat and are happy.”
In spite of his reputation for genius sonic effects, Mayer believes that before the experimentation begins, the song arrangement should be solid.
“The song has got to be good at its core.” he said. “Turd polishing is a waste of time. It still has got to stick. One can’t get away from it”.
He described his work process with legendary soul artist Stevie Wonder as an example. According to Mayer, Stevie would work on four songs in a session to make sure he didn’t bore himself or anyone else by working more than an hour and a half on a song. He would bring an arrangement to a certain level and then he would judge the song before it was finished to work on fast rejection. After all, an 8 to 12 song cut had to be made for an album.
Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck
Roger continued to name-drop some of his other famous contemporaries, included anecdotes on his time spent hanging out with legendary guitarists Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. He spoke of how they would regularly listen to records together and guess from which studio they came from by sound alone! They made it their business to find out what studios were behind which track, as each premesis had their own distinctive sound at the time.
“Back then it was essential for a record label and for studios to have a distinctive sound. It was part of their brand.” said Mayer.
He puts this sonic identity of a particular studio down to two sources: the control room and the electronics within it. He explained how there was a big emphasis on which tape you had and what electronics you were using.
“In those days, you couldn’t rock up and buy a recording console. They did not exist and no companies were selling them”. Instead, Roger explained how EMI built mixing desks for Abbey Road, Decca built their own, etc. He spoke of the beauty of custom desks and electronics. “If the technology wasn’t available, you just had to make it yourself”.
Before the masterclass came to a close, host Paul Williams opened up the floor to questions for Roger from the students, which helped stimulate some sage advice from the industry veteran. Here are a few of his golden tips for artists looking to further their craft.
What did the students think?
“I thought it was very insightful and interesting. I learned a lot from it and hopefully I can use it and apply it in my life and my career.” – Oscar, Guitar
“I just loved it! Lovely man, top stuff, really good session.” – Markus, Guitar
“It was really interesting to hear from Roger. Obviously the appeal of the session is to have seen on the event poster that he’s worked with some of the biggest legends of the 60s/70s. But actually, coming along, it was great as he didn’t stop talking and had so much wisdom to share. – Rhiannon, Vocals