Engineer Andy Popplewell talks T.R.A.S.E, an LP he made as a teenager which still sounds like the future 30 years later...

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 13 Nov 2013
  • min read
Andy Votel’s Finders Keepers label has a reputation as one of the UK’s best musical preservation societies.

This collection of crate diggers go deeper than anyone else when it comes to unearthing nuggets of the musically weird and wonderful.

So we have to the dedication of these aural archaeologists that T.R.A.S.E has appeared. T.R.A.S.E, or the Tape Recorder And Synthesiser Ensemble to give its full name, is the teenage work of one Andy Popplewell. As a youth, obsessed by circuit boards and sci-fi movie soundtracks, he recorded this collection of electronic rock with homemade instruments and DIY equipment.

Funded by paper rounds, odd jobs and visits to Maplins, it’s an astonishing find with the younger Andy tapping into a futuristic sound which lies somewhere between John Carpenter and Gary Numan. The project never saw the light of day until a chance meeting between the two Andys.

Since he wrote and recorded T.R.A.S.E, Andy has become one of the most revered tape engineers and sound editors in the business. M quizzed the engineer and songwriter about his youth and how this project came about…

How did the T.R.A.S.E. project happen?

I was interested in electronic music in the late seventies, artists like The Human League, Gary Numan/Tubeway Army, Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis, Joy Division, John Foxx plus loads of others. Over the years this list has expanded to other genres but electronic music was my first real love.

T.R.A.S.E. evolved from bashing out my own ideas on a piano in the living room. I started reading electronics magazines which showed you how to build cheap music equipment like mixers, synths, electronic drums and audio processing equipment. Elektor, Practical Electronics and Electronics And Music Maker were the main mags then. I even had a t-shirt from the latter!

How did you record T.R.A.S.E.? What kit did you use?

At school I had access to a physics lab and an engineering workshop. I was also doing sound and lighting for school productions and the staff panto. I copied the magazine instructions and learned how to make circuit boards at home using handmade templates to etch copper-clad board into circuit boards. I bought the electronics via mail order, Maplins and ElectroValue (a local electronic components shop).

Over about 18 months I constructed various pieces of musical equipment, doing all the metalwork and woodwork in the school workshop and assembling the parts at home. They were tested in the physics lab. I had a lot of help from my older brother who was more experienced. It was a steep learning curve alongside my studies.

Eventually I had a six channel mixer, an Elekto Chorosynth (the circuit boards were purchased for this project), a phaser and a distortion pedal. The Chorosynth was modified from its original design to fit it the custom case I'd built. The drum machine came as a kit so I had to assemble it first, a Clef Master Rhythm.

Who was involved in T.R.A.S.E?

Basically, T.R.A.S.E. was just myself. I had a school friend Martin who played on one track in '82. My younger brother played guitar on War Machine but he'd only been playing for a few months, bless him!

For the recording I needed some tape machines and anything else I could acquire. All this was funded by paper rounds and odd jobs. I bought a secondhand Tandberg reel-to-reel and a new cassette deck plus tapes and started recording rough ideas in late 1981.

I had to wait until summer 1982 to do my first "proper" recordings. I managed to borrow a Sony TC 377 reel-to-reel tape deck off a teacher at school and a Roland RS-09 string and organ polyphonic synth from a school friend. In three weeks I had recorded eight tracks.

I had to play it all live as there was no computer sequencing or even MIDI. The drums were recorded on track one while another part was played on track two of one tape machine then played back through the mixer and another sound was added live while being recorded onto the second tape machine. There was no multi-tracking involved.

I had to mix, play and sometimes sing all at once. Any mistakes and it was back to the beginning and having to do it all again from the start so it was a very painstaking process.

Where did you make the record?

Apart from War Machine which was recorded in the living room, all the original songs from the 1982 cassettes were recorded in my bedroom and mixed on headphones only. The 1983 tracks were recorded in U-Turn studios in Ashton-under-Lyne.

Voices and Twilight were recorded in Wasp Studios in Offerton using semi-professional 16 track tape and samplers. Voices was my first attempt using an Akai S900.

I didn't have any agenda as such. It was mostly trial and error and a lot of the music just evolved from that.

Why did the album lie dormant for so long?

Life got in the way I suppose. My career has taken up a lot of time plus my recent research project has taken the rest. I was never really happy with some of the music. It was always considered a work in progress.

How did the relationship with Finders Keepers come about?

Andy Votel was a client I transferred some tapes for. We were talking and he asked me if I'd made any music. I'd copied my entire musical archive from analogue tape to digital format just a couple of weeks previously so I played him some of the early recordings. I told him the story about the home made kit and gave Andy copies of the music and digitized documentation and photos.

A week or so later I showed Andy and Doug everything related to the T.R.A.S.E. project and they offered to release the music.

Visit www.finderskeepersrecords.com to find out more on the project and how to get a copy of the release.