Coming of Digital Age: Paul Frindle Part I
The year was 1980. A young Paul Frindle is working as a technical engineer at Virgin Records, working on the expansion of the Townhouse and Manor (mobile) studios. Solid State Logic had just completed their first console and delivered one to Virgin. Without a proper room for it, the console was placed in the second studio, still under construction in the Townhouse. “It was totally different,” Paul remembers, “entirely new in concept. It had a computer attached (of all things) and was totally fearsome to any traditionalist around – but deliciously exciting to anyone who was crazy enough to approach it with an open mind. Arguments about it rumbled on for a while and the new studio did not seem to be advancing very quickly.”
Regulated to sitting in an untreated room, the revolution that SSL was trying to mount had seemingly come to a standstill, while Paul continued working on his other responsibilities. “I got back late and knackered from a mobile gig one night,” Paul recalls, “a friend was running about excitedly with a cassette saying that I absolutely had to hear it. It was the first draft of ‘Coming In The Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins,” Hugh Padgham being one of those open minded enough to approach it. “It was absolutely stunning and I realised in a shot that we were hearing the very dawn of a completely new era. Needless to say, SSL consoles and large untreated stone recording spaces became a required order of the day at both Virgin studios immediately thereafter. All resistance was broken down and many accepted precepts of conventional recording were torn up.“
UK born Paul Anthony Frindle began his audio career in the mid 1970’s, working as an audio engineer in Paris, on projects ranging from disco to film scores. “All of these genres required different approaches, disciplines, sensitivities and techniques to extract the nuances of the art. From the popular music perspective the French scene was pretty much based in Disco and Anglo-American pop. As an English engineer, more than once I was asked to magically ‘Anglo-Saxonise’ various productions, as though a sound engineer alone could achieve this.
“With a realisation that ultimately I did not have the patience and temperament to make a great sound engineer, coupled with a small degree of homesickness, I eventually came back to the U.K.” There he took up a job at Trident Studios, this time as a technical engineer, behind the boards of those working behind the boards. “These were interesting times because this facility was in its heyday with many of the most inventive acts of the time working there. The culture (and indeed technology) was completely different from the studios I had worked in Paris and in many ways was more than a little chaotic. But the creative buzz around the place at that time was unparalleled.”
It was in this setting that Paul’s began building upon the years of technical experience garnered while working in electronics before going into music. “One of the technical coups we managed there was to finally rid the Trident console of break though from Radio One on all the busses. A bag of judiciously selected inductors and a Sunday afternoon blitz was all that it needed. For me this was probably the biggest contribution I made there during my short stay.” It’s one of those nuances you don’t read about in the liner notes, that are essential to the shaping of the sound that you hear, a theme that would continue throughout Paul’s career.
It was after Trident that Paul found himself at the eclectic Virgin. “This was yet another culture shock for me as the residential environment required a completely different approach to work. Actually living with the clients 24/7 gave a new aspect to the atmosphere of work, where building successive micro-communities with ever changing clients was key to success.”
One of his chief assignments was on the mobile remote unit. “ We did everything you can imagine, from all the rock acts of the day in concert, to following John Williams up and down Germany, to getting up each week at 5am to do the Capital Radio Classical recordings at the South Bank. I have never worked harder before or since and it’s difficult to imagine a more challenging and varied source of recording experience.” This experience, combined with his previous work as an audio engineer, gave an artistic touch to his technical profession, that he would carry with him to his next employer – Solid State Logic.
“SSL was a different kind of eccentricity to Virgin. People were slaving all hours, falling asleep under consoles, breaking down with strain, and emotions were seriously high. This was not a place where compromise was accepted gladly. The best word, which sums up my impression of SSL in those days, is passion.” The shift was a difficult one for Paul at first. “After quitting once in horror and going back to free-lance work at Virgin, I finally became embroiled once again when Colin Sanders invited me to do research into the viability of digitally assignable consoles.”
At the time, the digital audio signal processing to perform the calculations required for true digital audio simply didn’t exist. The early SSL console was only controlling the analog signal with digital values, and not that efficiently. “[SSL] had been working on this for a couple of years before I arrived, but were not even able to replace the humble fader with a direct digital control. By applying some of my previous RF design skills and a bit of lateral thinking I did manage to fix up their MDAC gain controller after a month or so.” Despite the accomplishment Paul refused to accept praise for this however, because he knew that his solution would still result in noise.
“Nonetheless we did march on with all sorts of novel designs. The numbers on the project eventually swelled from only myself to four of us, and we did ultimately produce a proof of concept channel strip. Although this worked after a fashion and was entirely functional, it was immediately cancelled because of standing noise – just as I had predicted it would 2 years earlier. It was now painfully obvious to everyone that the only way to achieve this was to process the audio digitally, control of it would then happen naturally.”
Paul was then recruited into SSL’s “digital dining club” to look into the “damnable black art” of digital conversion, as the head of the team referred to it. “I had crossed the cultural divide into digital land. It’s fair to say that there was a good degree of scepticism surrounding things digital within the analogue culture we lived in back then. People didn’t realise that the true holy grail of digital processing was nothing less than a release from the constraints of the laws of physics. They had dogged us since forever and would always dog analogue by it’s very nature. However insurmountable the problems associated with going digital seemed back then, the prize at the end warranted all efforts. It simply had to happen, ignoring it would have been a crime against humanity.”
Of course SSL wasn’t the only company in the console market. Pressure from competitors was demanding results. “There was a continuous threat from Neve, as SSL had not really broken into the much more conservative U.S. market. Also there was an acute awareness of other companies such as Euphonix, who were reportedly going ahead with analogue assignability. However much we believed it was technically inferior, it still raised the spectre of someone attaining the dream before us, at least in print if not in substance. Money and resources were piled into the digital project and was used up apace. Eventually, Colin in a characteristic bout of passion threw a large box on the floor of the digital labs and declared that he wanted a product that would fit in that box within a year.
“This work eventually culminated in the 01 editing console system; it was a tad larger than Colin’s box. I did the conversions and the clock recovery phase locked loops with the best technology and novel arrangements I had from my research at that point. They achieved around 80dB dynamic range, and were completely free of quantisation distortion. Although this still wasn’t great, it was workable for many tasks and very significantly better than anything else around at the time.“
After over two years of following a technological lead, it would be the market that dictated the next steps for Paul at SSL. “The continued pressure from Neve was relentless in the U.S. and there was evidence that the fashionable sound of the SSL console was coming to the end of its tenure. Quite simply, fashions were changing. So I was seconded back into analogue land for a while to develop the G series, which was to address this, extending the consoles appeal and perhaps enable a breakthrough in the U.S. market.
“This initially started life as retrofit cards and control kits to fit the existing channel strip metalwork. Of course this was a great limitation to design freedom, as I had to reuse existing buttons for new purposes. For instance taking off the bell/shelf function to make way for the times 3 frequency switches was a great loss to some users.” Working diligently within these constraints produced some legendary results, complete with the Frindle creative touch. “The G series channel provided a significant improvement in noise, distortion, durability and stability by virtue of the redesigned front end. The EQ provided a much more progressive dependency between gain and Q in the band pass sections and the highly stylised shelving sections were deliberately designed to address the fashions of the time.”
Having left his mark at SSL, Paul then went on to co-found a small start up company – Oxford Digital Ltd. . Their first contract – develop the application design for Sony’s flagship digital mixing console system. “The Oxford Digital initiative was inspired by a single-minded and burning desire to realise the truly ground breaking advantages of digital processing. As the cultural divide between the analogue and digital fraternities continued to grow unbearably, it seemed that realising this goal required a completely different environment and mindset. So representing nothing more than a collection of 5 ‘disciples’ we marched on with our new vision.”
Perhaps because of the small size of the group, Oxford was able to maintain it’s focus, delving deeper into the digital audio realm than had previously been achieved. The primary goal of Oxford was to create hardware systems and software tools which could be used by audio designers to create console systems and high quality processing audio applications. Critical in this though was the sense of bridging the past decades of audio knowledge and experience with what they foresaw as the future digital platform.
“In order to make this a reality the whole system had to be designed almost from scratch. A complete custom processor was built in a very large-scale array to handle the number crunching. All the major peripherals were built to support it. A massive software project was launched to provide the required graphical interface and automatic code generation that would allow engineers to design the systems and products. A console application was also made as a proof of concept for the development system and for this we launched straight into developing the assignability ideas that were researched during my time on the analogue assignable console project.”
The real heart of the project however lay in the conversion process. “It was well understood at this time that any fully digital system would need impeccable audio quality to have any chance of being accepted. At the A/D and D/A conversions the signal was acquired from and rejoined the real world, this is where the dream could really break down, and so these were absolutely crucial to the success of the concept. Every last aspect of the conversion design was subject to constant (and often very gruelling) listening evaluations to assess what could be heard (and what could not), how the artefacts manifested themselves and what might be done to avoid them. The goal of course was to achieve absolute audible transparency because any digital project worth its salt would have to cast aside unavoidable colourations in the sound, which may go out of fashion at a stroke! A mountain of knowledge was acquired about what we could and couldn’t hear and many of these findings were astonishing, particularly in revealing just how sensitive the ear/brain system really is, often well beyond even my wildest expectations. All this valuable information was put to full use in the design of the conversion and later in the processing of the console itself.“ The result of all of this work was the Sony OXF-R3. Perhaps the greatest testament to the digital quality of the OXF-R3 is that it has become a standard not just for music but also in the film world.