Simon Heyworth – master of sound

Karen Chapman
Karen Chapman


Simon Heyworth secured his reputation in sound recording at Richard Branson’s Virgin music studio The Manor, most notably as co-producer of Mike Oldfield’s ground-breaking Tubular Bells album.

The list of albums Simon has worked on is extensive and his client list stellar: King Crimson, Gong and Steve Hillage; Robert Wyatt, Peter Sarstedt and Simple Minds; Seth and Sean Lakeman, Goldfrapp and Alison Moyet; Imogen Heap and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. There are numerous South West names, including
The Levellers, Nicky Swann, Land of The Giants, Jackie Oates and Fitkin Wall. Not limited by genre, he has worked with diverse acts: Marillion, Nick Drake, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Phil Thornton and Gary Numan.

Simon inherited his father’s passion for music: “We had a really good hi-fi system at home, mono of course, and a transmission line corner reflex cabinet, which sounded fantastic. As a young boy I was fascinated by how The Beatles sounded and I was just amazed: I used to sit with my head near the speaker to try and work out how they balanced stuff against how it was recorded. I was fascinated by the space and energy that came off some of the early recordings: The Stones, Sinatra, lots from the big band era…the soundtrack to South Pacific, major orchestral works.

“What really fascinated me was how the microphone was capable of recording so much information and in those days you didn’t have twenty microphones, you had probably four and you were able to capture this phenomenal energy from bands and performers. I was really interested in how it was all balanced up together to become this entity to which you went ‘Wow, that sounds fantastic’ or ‘There’s something else going on here, it’s not just about the technical aspects, this is about capturing the moment, this is about a performance’. The trick, being a recording engineer, used to be about the moment, that thing where it just all happens. What fascinated me more than anything was how do you get to this point?”

Simon “read and listened to a lot of stuff and then at prep school I was in a band with Mike Rutherford, who went on to form Genesis.” He later studied at college in Pasadena in the States, “during all the peak West Coast stuff”, staying at the home of his English professor and going to see bands like The Eagles, The Who, Blind Faith and Buffalo Springfield, and spending a lot of time in San Francisco with friends. “I saw Janice Joplin and the Grateful Dead. It was extraordinary.”

“My parents dragged me back to England and I went to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art to get ‘proper’ qualifications. I met an American journalist who was helping Richard Branson out with his ‘Student’ magazine and they had a little record distribution business, Caroline Records.” Whilst there, Simon was asked to transfer a big pile of bootleg tapes to vinyl. After meeting Tom Newman they did it together, not appreciating it was “highly illegal”. Things moved apace and Simon was involved with the opening of the first Virgin store in London, which innovatively introduced a central console to listen to music as well as the old booths.

During this time Richard acquired a country house in Shipton-on-Cherwell and Tom wanted Simon to visit it with him: “I knew why – he was determined to get Richard’s girlfriend, who was very beautiful and always wore black velvet mini skirts! The Manor had a squash court and I thought this would make a fantastic recording studio.” They built one there and became the first English country recording studio. “The other place of course was Rockfield in Wales, which was already going and it’s still going today – it’s legendary.”

The Manor attracted a lot of bands, “who’d stay a month and record, from Cat Stevens to Buddy Miles. A year or two on, the whole Mike Oldfield thing happened. Richard had two wolfhounds and I used to get up early to walk them. I came downstairs one morning and Mike was playing. He was at The Manor to record a demo with the Arthur Louis band and there he is, sitting on the floor at 6 o’clock in the morning with the sun streaming through the window and he’s got this little tape recorder and he’d managed to switch the wires round to turn it into a four-track recorder. He was over-dubbing to himself the Tubular Bells piece of music and I thought it was wonderful. From that morning on I knew this was really, really special. It was always a hit for me from that morning for ever; I walked around for years with this thing in my head.”

Tubular Bells ultimately became the first album to be released by Virgin, alongside Gong’s ‘Flying Teapot’, 45 years ago this month. “By that time we’d all been working very hard. The Manor was a 24/7 operation but it was my apprenticeship and I learnt how to make records.” He produced three albums for Gong and is about to remaster these: “Angel’s Egg was lovely – some of them were brilliant musicians. Pierre Moerlen was an incredible drummer who went to Strasbourg Conservatoire and Steve Hillage was one of the guitarists, Mike Howlet on bass. “We had mobile recording studios, Manor Mobiles, and I’d been recording in the south of France with a band called Magma and then at Ely Cathedral where I helped with Mahler’s second symphony, with Leonard Bernstein conducting – a huge project. But I was tired, I just needed a break.” Richard wanted him to stay but Simon needed to carve his own path. “I wanted to get out and have my own life because they were very intense times”. After spending the summer on a Gloucestershire farm with friends, including Sarah Ponsonby, he went to Germany to record punk and rock bands and “ran around being a recording engineer and having fun.” Simon’s wife Nicky maintains: “He was paid in Dresden china and grand pianos!” His next move was Sweden, to help design a recording studio in Stockholm.

He then went off to a commune, with a share in Surrendell, a big old farmhouse in Wiltshire, spending the summer of ‘76 there. “I was on the periphery really but made some lovely friends.” It’s “at the back of Badminton”. Simon helped Roddy Llewellyn with his pigs and the garden “and we restored it, it was a nice thing to do. And then Roddy was with Princess Margaret and I was on the edge of that …but we became very good friends – all that lot, they were lovely people. Princess Margaret was amazing, she was wonderful – great fun, very bright and intelligent.”

After his stint at Virgin, Simon met Harry Williamson, son of Tarka the Otter author Henry Williamson. Harry and Anthony Phillips had composed a “fabulous piece of music” based on the book and Simon fell in love with it, “just like I fell in love with Tubular Bells”. It was eventually released in 1988. Simon shared exclusive news with The Moorlander of a project he has been working on that will be released later this year, 90 years since the book was published. He has revisited the music, introducing some exciting extra ideas, including photography by James Forshal and a supplementary CD of recordings he is making of the Taw and Torridge rivers.

Post Virgin, Simon and his friend Nick Bradford also built what became Matrix Studios: “a real hub. Marianne Faithful recorded her albums there, and Peter Green. It was amazing.” His next move was working on soundtracks for films.

“I got fed up with recording and being in dark rooms. I did a few movies for Merchant Ivory and big orchestral scores -A Room With A View, The Bostonians – and worked with Jerry Goldsmith on the American version of Legend. I did all sorts of odd art films as well – Zina, and Shostakovich with Tony Palmer; it got me out and about and I enjoyed that, it was really interesting working with visuals. I was a music producer for films for about seven years, then set up my own company, Motion Picture Music.”

A natural teacher who loves sharing ideas, Simon for many years in London took on one or two bright students for their industry placement for the University of Surrey’s Tonmeister course. In 1990 he joined the new business of some friends and “built up the audio restoration and digital remastering side, taking old analogue recording stereo tapes and digitising them for CD and also the high-resolution digital audio world, which was about to come. The company was very successful and we sold the business in 1999 and I carried on with the new owners, Sanctuary. Nomis Studios in London became our new base.

“In addition I started working with 5.1 surround sound. I was one of the very few initial people to do this and to this day I do work in this medium. King Crimson, Nick Cave etc all have 5.1 mixes – not done by me but mastered by me – and that work has led to actually creating 5.1 surround mixes from stereo audio using very sophisticated software. It’s not just pressing a button; one has to be quite sensitive to the picture. This work includes a few film soundtracks, most notably one for the newly restored ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’, a silent movie from 1928. Will Gregory (Goldfrapp) and Adrian Utley (Portishead) provided a new score, which is really fab and was recorded at Shakespeare’s Globe and Wells Cathedral.”

Simon and Nicky acquired their home on Dartmoor in 1999 and set about extensive renovations. The roundhouse, in which Simon later set up his mastering studio in 2002, contained several feet of dung, which had to be dug out before work could commence. “I decided to jump ship and go back to being a mastering engineer full-time with my own place, instead of managing people half the time. I realised I could do it here in the roundhouse and had tons of work to make it viable.” After making the move to working in the country, Simon found the change “extraordinarily strange”, however his new lifestyle is clearly serving him well.

Life was full on for them both after that, with Nicky running her art business and then they opened an art gallery in their corn barn. Nicky shared: “2008 was the crash and then our daughter was married here in 2010 and then three months later, Si fell off a ladder and busted his neck”. Not knowing if he’d walk again, Simon felt a need to plug himself more into the great outdoors of Dartmoor, and made a full recovery.

“Mastering is the final polishing of an album which has been mixed; it‘s made ready for release by doing some tweaks, sometimes more, to the stereo, to make it right for radio and albums and these days downloads too. It’s a bit of a dark art but what we do is make it better and iron out any sound issues, then provide masters for CD pressing and download. The work I do now is really all on new albums, the remastering thing having mostly been finished.

“There’s been a bit of a return to mixing with my great friend and colleague Andy Miles, who I trained here. He worked with me for 7 years doing mastering. Anthony Phillips has an extensive back catalogue and wanted to remix some albums in surround sound so we had a go and it’s worked out well – great reviews! But it’s a more specialist area and not many people can do it or even attempt it. It’s a niche area but there are plenty of aficionados and anoraks out there.”

Simon concludes: “The new stereo albums work is the main event”. With the Tarka project due out at the end of the year, it will be intriguing to see what new audio territory this master of sound will enter into next.