T.R.A.S.E AKA Tape Recorder and Synthesizer Ensemble were not a collection of science teacher-esque ‘Radiophonics Workshop’-like musicians and engineers, pooling their combined experience to progress the use of electronics within music, but one 16 year old boy (with a bit of help from his brother), in his bedroom in the early 80s with a few homemade pieces of equipment. Andy Popplewell’s music has finally seen the light of day after being excavated by fellow Andy, Mr Votel, on his Finders keepers label after the best part of 30 years sitting on a tape cassette, collecting dust. It’s a great LP, we at R$N are very glad it’s bin unearthed – we caught up with Andy P to discuss the project…

Hi Andy, the T.R.A.S.E release on Finders Keepers is great – how did you initially hook up with Andy Votel?

It was a chance meeting with Andy. He booked a suite where I work to transfer some 1/4 tapes and we were talking about music, life etc and he asked whether I’d made any music.

A couple of weeks before I’d transferred my old archive off cassette and open reel. They were starting to degrade so it seemed wise to digitize them before any more loss of quality.

I played a few tracks off the 1982 cassette and he was amazed. I gave him all the tracks from the 80’s and some pictures of the equipment used. A week or two later, Andy and Doug returned and in the meantime I’d scanned all the documentation related to the T.R.A.S.E. Project. They offered to release the tracks. I was stunned……….and then accepted the offer.

The tracks were made largely with a synth you made yourself, is that right? Were the reasons you used a home made synth rather than a pre-made synth purely financial or more rooted in a desire to understand how these things worked?  

The home-made Chorosynth was the primary instrument, there was also a Roland RS-09 string synth, borrowed from a school mate, and the later sketches included a Casio CT 202. The professional synths were beyond my price range so building one seemed the only option. It was a steep learning curve having to build the equipment, but helped me achieve the desired result. 

In 1983, I booked a 2 day session at U-Turn Studios in Ashton-U-Lyne. They had a Roland TR808 drum machine, Hammond organ and Leslie, plus a new Sequential Circuits Pro one. They were included in the later recordings.

I’ve always had an enquiring mind, and still do. How does that work? is usually the first question.

What was the full set up for the recordings on the LP? 

As above, plus a Practical Electronics 6 channel mixer, a phaser, fuzz unit (all home made) and a Clef Master Rhythm drum machine. The Clef came as a self assembly kit. 

I’d also built some syn-drums, Syn-Wave and Syn-Tom, using sweet tins and a metal frame constructed at school. They were not used on the recordings.

3 reel to reel tape machines were used. An old Ferrograph mono valve deck, a Sony TC 377, loaned by a teacher from school, and a Tandberg 3041X . The last two were three speed track stereo domestic machines.

Everything was recorded onto a Sony TC-FX 2 cassette deck. It was the only recording item that was brand new.

Electric and acoustic guitars were also used on a few tracks. They were my brothers’ if memory serves me right. It was a long time ago.

Voices and Twilight were recorded in the late 80’s in a 16 track studio using a Fostex B16 and an Allen and Heath CMC24 desk. The instruments were an Akai S 900 sampler plus a some other gear. Can’t remember what though.

Before these recordings were made, what was your musical experience?

As a young kid, I was bashing out tunes on the piano in the living room and later had some piano lessons plus violin for a while. Lost interest once in secondary school. I always enjoyed listening to the radio and records back then. There was a ton of great music at the time, especially of the electronic type.

The influence of Gary Numan and John Carpenter is alive in the recordings, who else were you inspired by at the time?

It was quite a wide variety. John Foxx and Ultravox were two. But also Moroder, Vangelis, The Human League, Cerrone and Kraftwerk spring to mind. I wasn’t limited to just one genre though. I liked Motorhead, Led Zepplin, Kate Bush, classical, The Sex Pistols, The Jam, anything that made me go Wow. It’s difficult to quantify why, but I’ve always liked a good song/tune, so that has allowed me to listen to many different genres/artists/musicians.

Youve since gone on to work for the BBC in sound effects and youre also a respected name in Tape restoration – are you still making your own music and, if so, what is your studio setup like these days?

Actually, I trained and qualified as a BBC radio engineer at Bush House in London. Didn’t do sound effects or work for the Radiophonic Workshop, although that would have been a bonus!

I’m not making any music at the moment. Had a home studio up until a few years ago, not any more though. It was based around Cubase  with an analogue mixer with some hardware outboard. Maybe one day I’ll get round to making more tunes……….it’s a wait and see situation.

What are your views on the way music technologys developed in the last 30 years or so – I suppose Im referring to the ease of use and accessibility of music software in particular. Do you think its a good thing that anyone with a laptop and a passing interest can now make music?

All this modern technology has certainly dropped the cost of making music at home or in a studio. I’ve witnessed it evolve from the days before MIDI and computers up to the latest gear. Music is about ideas and all the software available allows more choices. When the T.R.A.S.E. project was recorded, my options were limited by the kit available. Maybe limitations help in the creative process. Necessity being the mother of all invention…..perhaps?

At the end of the day, all the equipment etc. are just tools, it’s up to the user to decide how to use them in any way they wish.

The LP has been well received in various quarters of the music world – how has it felt to have the music you made 30 odd years ago become public now? Do you feel disconnected from it?

I’ve mixed feelings about all this. It’s brought back some memories I’d laid to rest a long time ago. Back then life was difficult for me at times. I was a teenage boy expressing how he felt at the time through music using his favorite bands as inspiration.

Now 30+ years later, I’m amazed that Andy and Doug have released this music. I was quite emotional when the the CD and records were issued. It’s something I never expected. I’ve been a service engineer and tape restorer in the audio/music industry, on and off, for many years. It’s been a wonderful surprise and I’m grateful for all the support and positive reviews. At the moment, I’m a happy man. All I can say is thank you.

Have you got a personal favourite track off of the LP?

Harmonium is one. Mostly improvised, quite eerie and haunting.

War machine was the most difficult to record and probably the most complex production.

But, my favorite is Unrequited Love. I had loads more ideas but never finished it. As a song I thought it had the most potential.

In fact, they were all work in progress and I intended to re-record them all again. Alas, I never got round to it………maybe one day…..?

Finally, if you could go back in time to 1983, would you change anything about the recordings, or would you do it all exactly the same way?

I wouldn’t change a thing. It stands as a moment in time. That goes for all my life. Wouldn’t change a thing. Sure, there are things we do in life which, maybe, if you had the chance to go back and rectify mistakes, or errors of judgment, would things have turned out differently or better? Perhaps, but learning from mistakes is the best way to grow as a human being, even if a high price is paid for it personally.

Check out the Finders keepers site over here.

Buy the T.R.A.S.E LP here.