Meet Mark Crabtree, Burnley’s double Oscar winner
PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 August 2016
Mark Crabtree talks about his amazing Oscar-winning career, taking things apart and putting them back together and the love he has for his home town. Nicolette Webster reports.
The Hollywood sign on a hillside overlooking Los Angeles is one of the world’s most iconic and instantly recognisable landmarks. But for double Oscar winner Mark Crabtree the most inspiring view is from his office window in Burnley.
It’s the awesome Pendle Hill and today, it is bathed in sunshine. ‘Yes,’ says Mark, ‘It’s a great sight. We are surrounded by amazing countryside. People from outside the area are always surprised about that when they visit.’
Yet Hollywood, not Burnley, could quite easily have become home to Mark and his company, AMS Neve. Many businesses lay claim to being world-class but right here in Lancashire, the business he founded is much more than that. It’s the world leader in the very competitive and glamorous industry of music, film and television.
AMS Neve has been designing and producing the world’s best sound mixing and recording equipment for 40 years. It started with the music industry, helping the greats to create amazing music – David Bowie used it to record Heroes, Sir Paul McCartney snapped up one of his units as soon as he heard it in action and Sir George Martin was a devoted fan.
Then it developed and grew into the movies. From those spell-binding, outer world sounds that are the hallmark of all the Star Wars films to the cinematic epic Titanic, they’ve all used Mark’s revolutionary sound recording devices.
To prove this company dominates the world of sound, consider this: every one of the films nominated in the 2016 Oscars for best picture, best sound mixing and best sound editing were made using AMS Neve’s giant film consoles. And it’s like that most years.
The company has won two Oscars, taking Mark to Hollywood to collect the industry’s highest award from film stars Salma Hayek and Jennifer Garner. Mark has also won a Grammy and an Emmy and freely admits that AMS Neve is probably better known in Hollywood than in Burnley.
It all began in his bedroom. ‘As a child I liked the idea of wires connecting to something and lighting bulbs at the other end. I was forever taking things apart and putting them back together. I was regarded as a bit of a menace, really.
‘What really got me going though was when a relative came across a dump full of ex-RAF electronic equipment, radar and radio sets and lots of valves. I’d pull it all to bits and start making amplifiers and oscilloscopes.’
Music then intervened. Mark made his own guitar from a biscuit tin when he was six but the Beatles inspired him to turn the family’s attic into a rehearsal room for himself and his friend, Stuart Nevison. Stuart played bass with Mark on lead guitar. They’d record their Beatles covers onto a tape machine which, of course, Mark had made.
He breezed through Burnley Grammar school, then went to Cambridge to study engineering, followed by a masters’ degree in digital electronics at Manchester University. His first job was at Lucas Aerospace in Burnley.
‘I landed on my feet because they had an electronics lab with the world’s first microprocessors. I used them to design a new product – automatic test equipment for the Tornado fighter’s engine control system.’
By now, Mark spent his free time designing new products and while still working at Lucas, the two friends set up Advanced Music Systems (AMS). This was much more than a hobby.
The big breakthrough came in 1976. Mark designed and built a box which allowed musicians and producers to create the sort of whooshing effect heard on the Small Faces 1967 hit Itchycoo Park. That process had been time consuming and cumbersome. Now it was created with the turn of a knob – a world first.
‘Somehow we managed to get in to see Paul McCartney at Abbey Road. He put it through its paces, playing his Fender Rhodes electric piano through it and he loved it. He was very encouraging and bought one, becoming one of our first customers. This motivated us to push ahead. We no longer make the unit but 40 years on many are still in daily use’.
By 1979 Mark and Stuart had quit their jobs and opened for production in a former swimming pool, moving from there to bigger premises and recruiting engineers from Lucas.
Music studios quickly caught the AMS bug and word spread to the television industry. Soon the sound on 80% of all British TV soaps was being created on the world’s first audio files, designed and made in Burnley.
By 1985, the company was so successful it floated on the London Stock Exchange. Engineering giant Siemens bought AMS in 1990, merging it with Neve, a Cambridge-based industry-respected audio company.
Mark did not enjoy corporate life and in 1996 bought back AMS Neve, taking it into his private ownership where it remains. Everything was moved to Burnley and the glory days soon followed.
‘In 1996 we really caught the eye of the film people. At a trade show we sat cross-legged on the floor with 11 Oscar-winning film mixers to talk about making the world’s first digital film console. Eventually, Warner Brothers took six of them – now they’ve got 13. This was a big deal because they were the thick end of $1million each. This was new ground.’
The list of music producers, recording artists, film and television studios whose work has been shaped by AMS Neve is a roll-call of the greats and it keeps on growing – most recently, US rapper Snoop Dogg installed one of their consoles.
So why hasn’t Mark moved the business to California, closer to major clients? ‘It never occurred to us to move. Why should we when 85% of our production is for export to 95 countries? The lovely thing is you can think here.’
Mark and his team of 65 highly skilled staff, are focused firmly on the future, helping to develop young engineering talent by recently establishing partnerships with leading universities and performing arts centres.
‘In the 70s and 80s, Burnley was a dynamic town with a deep pool of engineering talent. You couldn’t throw a spanner in a pub without hitting an engineer,’ he says.
The first floor of AMS Neve’s headquarters, an iconic mirror-clad former concrete works, now houses an exhibition and demonstration area called The Art of Sound featuring historic kit and images of the music icons of the last 50 years, all of them clients.
Over 3,000 students on music production and audio engineering courses are getting masterclasses from AMS Neve’s top designers plus factory tours, exclusive offers and gifts of equipment.
He was inspired by Sir Paul McCartney’s vision of creating a performing arts centre. ‘There’s a very real problem with engineering degrees because by the time you’ve written a course it’s no longer current.
‘Universities don’t have access to really high-end equipment. The impact of this initiative has been far greater than I expected. Students get to play with the big stuff, world-class kit built in a world-class town. They’re so enthusiastic, they tweet about it and I love that. It’s contagious’.
The secret to the company’s continuing success is constant innovation. ‘It’s like a Jacob’s Ladder of sparking conversations with our user base. We come up with an idea, they add to it. If you’re a pop star generally you’re only as good as your last record. The same for film producers. Anything that gives them an edge is something they really want. We became known as the people who could give them that edge’.
As for the future, Mark, 64, is emphatic – he has absolutely no plans to retire or sell up. He and wife, Ann, are busy refurbishing a property in the Lake District or, as he puts it, ‘house-bashing’. He has previous – he first rewired a house when he was 11.
Mark’s team is so effective he is able to devote time to chairing the Burnley Bondholders, the group of 175 private businesses working alongside the council to change perceptions of the town.
In 2013 Burnley was named ‘Most Enterprising Area in the UK’. A ‘game-changer’ says Mark. ‘Burnley had got used to running itself down before anybody else did. The businesses were connected to the world but not to Burnley. They had to be introduced to one another.
‘To me, it was just like that bedroom floor covered in bits of old radar sets, things you can connect together and make something really good. It’s an engineering kind of thing.’
Making things is clearly in Mark’s DNA. Recently, he helped lead ‘Making It In Burnley’, promoting the town as a leader in advanced manufacturing. He personally financed ‘Primary Engineer’, a pioneering project introduced into all the town’s primary schools where pupils as young as five get hands-on making things.
Mark is rightly proud of his OBE for services to the creative industries and advanced manufacturing. ‘The investiture by Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace was a proper family day out. We all got dolled-up and it was fabulous.
‘We’d had a lot of awards from America but the OBE was totally unexpected. It’s someone that says “there you are, what you’ve done is really worthwhile”. It’s such a lovely feeling. I’ve always been proud to be British’.