Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

For the past 17 years it has been my privilege and pleasure to record the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

This is a big job, with very tight deadlines, and as we’ve gained more experience and show has become ever more complex, we’ve continually honed and refined our technique.

The Tattoo runs for three weeks during August, and each year 250,000 enthusiastic audience members brave the somewhat unpredictable Edinburgh elements to enjoy a lavish spectacle music, lights, military displays and fireworks. It is a proud boast of the Tattoo that in over 60 years no show has ever been cancelled because of the weather.

The CD we produce is a popular memento of the show, and sells well around the world. But by far the majority of sales come during the three-week run, and therefore it is vitally important we get it finished quickly. We have a team of three – Mike Cox as engineer, myself as producer, and usually a student from the Tonmeister course. We use Floating Earth's recording truck, equipped with a Lawo desk, remote mic amps connected by fibre-optic cable, and a large Pyramix system.

The show opens on the first Friday evening in August, and by time we come to record it we have been in Edinburgh for six days – three days rigging (there are miles of cable involved as distances are vast), and three days recording rehearsals. Typically we put out ten ambient mics around the arena, and then take an additional 128 split feeds from the live sound crew – lots of radio mics, commentator mic, sound effects playback, and the house band (which lives on a platform that rises up out of the castle moat!)

In many ways the recording process is like that at a rock festival, except that instead of having maybe 20 minutes between acts, when everything needs to be reset, we get about 3 seconds! And the artists just won't keep still - they keep on marching around! Given the deadlines involved, there’s no time for us to spend days remixing everything, so our aim is to get it right on the night – straight to stereo. We do record a Pyramix multitrack backup, and use this after the rehearsals to set up snapshots on the Lawo desk that can be recalled during the show, but it can get a little hair-raising, which adds enormously to the fun.

Edinburgh weather being what it is, we have to take serious steps keep our microphones dry. Ordinary Rycote fluffies on their own just don’t do the job so we have extra layer upon layer of windshields inside the Rycotes. When the wind is howling and the rain is horizontal, these survive for just about one evening, after which everything goes into a tumble-dryer for the next day!

By the end of the opening show on the Friday night, our recording process is complete. For the next two days, whilst my colleague Mike Cox and our student get on with the de-rig, I’m shut in the truck editing it all together – usually from the two rehearsals on Thursday and the opening night on Friday. The edit is done in Pyramix, and much use is also made of Algorithmix reNOVAtor – with a cast nearly a thousand, an audience of nine thousand, and an awful lot of bagpipes, guns, flags, and assorted other props being dropped and crashing into things, there are always plenty of noises that warrant removal.

The complete show is exactly 90 minutes long (with military precision!) but we need to cut it down to a CD-friendly 75 minutes or thereabouts, so there’s a lot of chopping to tighten up whilst keeping as much of the musical material as possible. If we do find we need to remix anything, we can do it, and as the show has got ever more complex this has been needed more often. We usually finish the production of the CD master in the wee hours of Monday morning, and celebrate with a not-so-wee dram. The master is uploaded to the factory in Stevenage, and by 9am the discs are being burnt, ready to be couriered back to the Tattoo shop for sale first thing Tuesday morning. Just before we leave Edinburgh on Tuesday to drive the truck back to London we pick up a shrinkwrapped copy of the finished disc from the shop. How’s that for an impressive turnaround?

When I first started recording the Tattoo I knew next to nothing about military and marching band music, but as the years have gone by, and through the wonderful training given to me for years by our much missed military producer Jim Schroder, my admiration and respect for everyone involved has kept on growing. The military, especially here in the UK, provide a fantastic training for musicians, for which we should proud. And the result is truly thrilling; the moment towards the end of the show when, accompanied by a key change in the music, the full arena lights blaze on and reveal that the 300-strong massed bands have been joined by another 200 pipers and drummers – oh, it sends shivers down my spine every time!