/ Percussionist Paul Clarvis
/ Tom Briers with Tibetan Horn (Dungchen)
Sounds of the underground Composer and mix engineer ROB KELLY talks us through making The Caves Sessions — three albums recorded in Chislehurst Caves for Audio Network
hislehurst Caves is an amazing place. 14 miles from central London, it’s an underground network of 20 miles of tunnels with a reverb time of approximately 30 seconds. Technically, they’re not caves — they’re entirely man made. The earliest records date back to the 13th century: there is a theory they were dug by the Romans and Saxons (who mined them for chalk and flint), and the Druids who built their tunnels for ‘other purposes’. Possibly worship, rumours even of sacrifices, the Druid area has smoother walls and a more impressive labyrinthine tunnel structure that gets taller as it converges in front of what may have been an altar. There’s no proof of any of this, but we recorded in the Druid area for good measure. It certainly sounds the best.
The temple of boom!
The acoustic is extraordinary. The damp chalk walls absorb almost all HF, but the low end goes on for three weeks. I don’t know what the 38 / Digital • April 2018
RT60 is, around fifteen seconds, but you can certainly hear a LF reverb of thirty seconds. Tubas, kick drums, bass trombones and such-like are monster. Like a cathedral, there is a subtle natural ‘chorus’ effect as the pitch of the reverb decay wobbles slightly, presumably due to changes in air density caused by temperature changes along the tunnels. So your distant mics might be a subtly different pitch to the close ones surrounded by warmer air from all those humans and lamps. This makes for a very rich sound and the tunnels are very resonant. So you can imagine my excitement when Audio Network agreed to my lunatic suggestion of making them some production music down there. I’d actually worked in the caves once before with my friend, film and TV composer Ruth Barrett. I’d suggested it as a possible recording location for her score to Remember Me — a 3-part dramatised ghost story she was scoring for the BBC, featuring Michael Palin. We had an
amazing day down there and she made some very spooky music, so I have Ruth to thank as an inspiration for doing my own project. I mentioned this in passing to Andrew Sunnucks, chairman and founder of Audio Network, for whom I’d previously written some music and worked regularly as a mix engineer. He dragged me down there and immediately booked 2 days ‘cave time’. A logistical scrabble commenced as the only available time was about 2 weeks after we went on our recce.
Musicians and instruments
I was fortunate to record with some amazing musicians. We had percussionist Paul Clarvis on drum kit, waterphone, darabuka, cahon, gongs, ‘Hungarian milk jug’, frame-drums and other percussion. We had the beautiful voice of soprano Grace Davidson and a low brass trio of Tom Briers (tuba, Tibetan Dungchen mountain horn and ancient brass instruments), Katrina Lauder (French horn and trumpet) and Sarah Mann (trombone / bass trombone). I played cello, darabuka and Bütone tank drums, a type of metal tuned percussion instrument from the ‘tongue drum’ family that I co-designed with my friend James Bergersen. Andrew Sunnucks and I also bashed a giant metal water tank with hammers (a remnant from the 2nd World War when the caves were Europe’s largest Air Raid shelter, a nightly home to 15,000 people). We also recorded auto-harp, plastic ‘whirly-tubes’, kalimba, cahon, birdwhistle and had a go at throat singing. We are awful at throat singing. Back in the light, overdubs included Tim Garland on bass clarinet, Ollie Haycock (guitars), Monty Sadler (Theramin), Emily Lim (trumpet) and me on bass and synths. I co-wrote three of the tracks with bagpipe and duduk player Michael J York but Mike wasn’t able to make the dates so I pre-recorded his parts at Strongroom and played them back through a battery powered PA system in the caves whilst I noodled around on percussion.
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