The Woodentops’ remastering quest - Rolo McGinty

Pulling together The Woodentops’ tapes for their new album, sounds like some kind of knightly quest - with tasks ranging from hunting down lost dance mixes by legends such as Arthur Baker, to oven-baking fragile masters. The indie dance rock gurus have launched the 3-CD set ‘Before During After’, on One Little Indian Records, to great reviews, and there’s a new album due in 2014.

The release features much-loved vintage material, greatest hits, remixes and hidden gems, all remastered. We’ve gone behind the scenes with front man Rolo McGinty to find out just what’s gone into the project and why any kind of artist needs to back up their material right now!

Dance floor hits & famous fans

When we meet Rolo he is thrilled to have nearly finished the herculean task of finding, restoring and remastering tracks with the help of Cass Irvine of Wired Masters. They’ve been turning them into an album of pumped-up vintage cuts that rocked dance floors in Ibiza, plus never-before seen remixes by dance legends such as Arthur Baker. There are ten unheard tracks in all, that will appeal to new and diehard fans, and the band has been working on new material too, for a separate release.

The Woodentops’ fans range from DJs Fat Boy Slim, Carl Cox, Danny Rampling and Andrew Weatherall to artists such as Radiohead, Franz Ferdinand and David Bowie. Rolo says the band was always on a mission.

Electronic music using acoustic instruments & Paul Oakenfold’s first remix

We set out to make electronic music using acoustic instruments, and only when we were all really dancing, lost in the rhythm, did we feel we were getting there.

They were ‘behemoths’ in Ibiza dance circles, and Paul Oakenfold’s first ever remix was an underground version of the band’s “Why Why Why”. The Woodentops released three albums, eight singles including chart hit “Good Thing”, and recorded several BBC sessions. They were originally signed to Rough Trade, and are now with One Little Indian, who suggested a compilation of some kind. Rolo says the band decided to do something revealing as well as interesting, involving as much rare stuff as they could find that spanned 1982-1992.

Rolo at One Little Indian

I went through the early demos, but they haven’t made it on to the album - we worked so hard to improve stuff and there is enough finished material that never saw the light of day. There was a whole double album that was never released as Rough Trade went bust. For three years it was illegal to use our name and we could only do secret white labels.

But things were far from simple in gathering the material for the album. In the years since the band split up and then reformed, some things had gone for a walk.

I was given the job of piecing the whole thing together and found that 80% of the master tapes had vanished. I couldn’t sleep for weeks and for a while I thought it was a complete disaster.

To rub salt in his wounds Rolo was astonished on a trip to Istanbul, to find stolen mastertapes from legendary artists on offer for people to do their own remixes. He could have a go at other people’s work, but not his own. It was an insight into the sometimes murky world of masters.

I couldn’t believe the list of mastertapes from rock and soul icons - you make a payment to a website to use them. It would be wonderful to make them available for education or something, but this was a black market.

Rolo went through his personal archives - a lot of which was on cassette and had been ‘played to death’ at the time. The band’s former manager though had a pristine set of normal cassette tapes, which went on to prove invaluable. And it wasn’t the only set of cassettes to feature.

Rare Arthur Baker mixes

Arthur Baker had done some mixes for us in 1985, that were beautiful, so ahead of their time, including one of “Give It Time”. The one I liked most was the dub version, a real club floor version. One of my biggest regrets was not putting it out at the time. He turned the keyboards up and switched the guitars off.

They couldn’t get any master tapes out of CBS, but then Rolo decided there must be a reference cassette somewhere. It turned up as a surprise in a collection of bootleg cassettes of The Woodentops live, that Rolo had been sent.

The mastering engineer Cass Irvine said, ‘we can get results, bring them along’. I was terrified, but vinyl, cassettes and CDs saved my life so many times.

Mastering from cassette with Cass Irvine at Wired Masters

Rolo was astonished at the results from the cassettes, thanks to a special player made by AIWA that was an attempt at getting into the pro market in the 80s. Making it work needed expert knowledge and some lo fi tools.

It’s got a function called the Azimuth. We’d get a screwdriver onto it - as you turn it, it moves the way the head is on the tape - it can be hissing or muffled and you can get the most out of it. I couldn’t believe it - we could use them!

I had some 7” vinyl as a backup but there wasn’t enough brightness. The cassettes wiped the floor with the vinyl. We got Adrian Sherwood and Gordon Logie mixes from the manager’s cassettes.

But there were bigger problems to come. The few master tapes that Rolo had got hold of from archives were ‘rotting’, shedding before his eyes when he tried to play them.

Mastering engineer Cass co-founded Wired Masters who specialise in dance music, and master everything from Ministry of Sound albums to Swedish House Mafia and Tiësto, as well as doing stem mastering and mixdowns. He knew just what the problem was when Rolo saw tapes disintegrating.

A lot of Ampex tapes were made with whale glue, but it stopped being used in 1981. Tapes with whale glue last really well, but after 1981 it all changed. You have to test a tape by putting it onto the machine and running a couple of seconds. You can see it start shedding on the spools, and you don’t want it to go on the heads. The answer is to bake the tapes to use them.

Baking old Ampex tapes

So Cass turned the oven on, and baked the tapes in a special Swallow laboratory machine, at low temperatures for up to a week. Rolo says that the process allows the tapes to be played once, but they need re-baking if you want to play them again.

Cass Irvine’s tape oven

Cass stresses it’s not just a glue problem that musicians should worry about - there is plenty of other material out there that doesn’t keep, and artists should take real care to archive their material and back it up.

In the 90s and up to 2000, masters were put onto U-matic tape and DAT, which don’t seem to keep that well. I’ve had a job with a 15-year-old DAT that had dropout and glitching. We don’t know how long these things will last, and it’s important that tapes are kept carefully and don’t suffer fluctuations in humidity. Ideally all masters should be digitized and put on a hard drive that is then backed up. Everyone needs archives.

Warning other musicians - take care of your music, back it up

Rolo is just as passionate about warning other musicians to take care of their music.

CDs don’t last, hard drives pack up, nothing is trustworthy. If you don’t have things backed up in several places, they’re not backed up.

When it came to mastering The Woodentops, Cass was careful to make a cohesive sound for the album - technology and production techniques have changed since the tracks were recorded, and some of the material was from live recordings. He says he ‘put more bass in and opened up the tops’ of some of the music, to make it more dynamic. In the end Rolo managed to realise his vision for the album.

Everything I wanted to put on the project I could, it’s a 3-CD set. We even bootlegged the bootleggers!

The album, ‘Before, During, After’ - is now out on One Little Indian, and we will be bringing you some exclusive footage of Rolo playing guitar and talking about his style very soon..

The Woodentops have also been working on new material for a further album after reforming and playing Glastonbury, The Royal Festival Hall and European festivals in the past few years. The current line-up features Rolo, Simon Mawby, Aine O’Keeffe, Frank de Freitas and Paul Ashby.