The Sound of Music

Composer Mike O’Donnell speaks to us in a rare interview to discuss how he started in the audio business and how he went from managing Ringo Starr’s Startling Studios at the legendary Tittenhurst Park working with the likes of Whitesnake, Judas Priest and Def Leppard, to working in TV and composing the much loved score for Thomas the Tank Engine.

Mike grew up in Liverpool during the early 60’s and was a huge fan of skiffle music. He would buy Lonnie Donegan’s records and sit for hours learning the chords on his cheap guitar. When the Beatles came along Mike was hooked and started a band called the Minibeats where the average age was 11. “We played all the church halls and youth clubs and while my friends were playing football I was practising my guitar, but I loved it” said O’Donnell. “In the late 60’s if you wanted to crack it you had to be in London so after various different line ups I moved to London with my band and started out on my journey in the music business.”

After moving to London in 1969 with his band White Summer it became apparent the gigging scene in London was very different from that in Liverpool. Through a mutual friend O’Donnell met Barbara Bennett whom he later married. She was working at Apple for the Beatles and got him an interview with Geoff Emerick to train as a tape op at the newly opened Apple Studios at 3 Saville Row.

Barbara was working full time for Ringo and when he bought Tittenhurst Park from John Lennon both Barbara and I moved there. He commissioned Eddie Veale to rebuild the studio and when it was completed Ringo asked me if I would be interested in running it. As I was already living there I didn’t need a lot of time to think about it as the commute to Saville Row every day was a killer and Apple Studios was closing down. It was a very busy time juggling Ringo’s studio and my session work but it was a fantastic period of my life. Ringo was spending more and more time abroad and so it was decided that Startling would become a residential studio. We had some top line artists working there and quickly became one of the top residential studios of the time. Everyone wanted to work where Imagine was recorded so it wasn’t difficult to attract clients ranging from Sham 69 to Judas Priest to Whitesnake.”

In the early 70’s O’Donnell formed a band called Gold with some old friends from Liverpool. “We had record deals but no real success, so we started writing jingles as a sideline which soon became the main income stream for the band. Back then you actually got paid for composing demos and if your idea got the gig it was a trip to London sometimes with other musicians and advertising execs to record the master.”

When Ringo returned to England permanently he actually wanted to live in his own house, what a nerve! The studio was closed down to external clients, and became a private studio again.

Now Ringo was living back at Tittenhurst he was offered the job as narrator on the Thomas the Tank Engine series. “I contacted the producer, Britt Allcroft and asked if they had a composer” added O’Donnell. “They had approached a number of top composers but had not made a decision. I was doing a lot of Jingle work and song production with Junior Campbell so we joined forces and pitched in a few ideas for consideration. That was the beginning of a long running collaboration on what I believe to be one of the most popular children’s shows of the time.

“When Startling Studios closed, Campbell and I bought the gear and set up our own studio, Bluebird, within Shepperton film studios. Primarily this was done as we were working on the next Thomas The Tank Engine series and another show called Tugs, both being made at Shepperton so it made sense to be under one roof. Whilst there, we also scored a film called October the 32nd.

“I was engineering and composing with Campbell and Dolby Surround Sound became the new audio format. Neither of us had delivered in Dolby Surround before so that was a serious learning curve! I will always be proud of my work on Thomas The Tank Engine and I still receive lots of emails from fans who are now in their thirties and forties saying how much the music meant to their childhood – it turned out to be one of those iconic children’s theme tunes and is still loved all over the world.”

Each of O’Donnell’s projects have been different and often throw up many situations but Thomas was a big part of his career, working on it for nearly 20 years with 180 episodes and close to thirty songs spanning a lot of technical changes.

“We composed the music for a film called “That Summer of White Roses” starring Rod Steiger and Tom Conti for Amy International, Susan George and Simon McCorkindale’s company – we had a lot of fun with that, although it was quite a dark war film. I also worked on October the 32nd. That was a strange sci-fi film. I remember we had to work a twenty eight hour day to deliver the last cue in time. That was a bit tiring to say the least. However my favourite is still Thomas.”

With his studio experience starting in the early seventies O’Donnell has seen many industry changes through his work. “I have gone from using analogue tape, through the use of time code and on to digital computer based set ups. In the early days you didn’t have the options available to you as you do now. Now you have multiple options in mixing and recording as everything is retrievable, but I think that can lead to indecision. Back then you had to make decisions about a performance or an edit and stick with them as there was no back up and limited studio time. I spent many hours searching in the bin for a piece of tape after realising I had messed up the edit! Oh happy days, with my chinograph pencil, little brass scissors, editing tape and too much confidence.”

O’Donnell loves creating something from nothing. “When you write a piece of music that works there is no better feeling. The most difficult part is coming up with the idea in the first place, once you get that right the rest follows on, and nowadays you can overdub a whole orchestra in no time so you can hear your idea develop from a simple demo to the finished track very quickly.”

In the studio O’Donnell uses Cubase and all the digital plug-ins and instruments that are now available. “In my opinion it’s the perfect set up for a home project studio user. I know a lot of people use Pro Tools and Macs but Cubase is what I started on and I’m used to it. I use Cubase Pro and Genelec monitors to mix on.”

O’Donnell is excited about the future. He has created a children’s music based show aimed at 4-7 year olds which he is developing with Karrot Entertainment and Blue Zoo animation studios. “It’s called Melody Island and focuses on the relationship between Roy, Samantha and Gramps – their grandfather. I have worked in many areas of the music business from composing, producing and performing and recently I have been involved in some pretty complicated business aspects.” O’Donnell also shares his wealth of experience with up coming composers. “To impart my experiences with the next generation of composers and producers is a great way to give back and support our up coming composers. I like to think I might help someone avoid the odd pitfall. It’s not enough just to write music nowadays you have to manage yourself. You need to understand how music publishing works and network, network, network. No-one is going to call you, you have to get out there and promote yourself, and lastly you need a lot of luck at being there at the right time and the right place.”