A Winter's Tale by Wilki Amieva
Winter has just started, so I'd like to tell a tale about an extraordinary place every Queen fan should visit at least once in a lifetime. It's a place of music and memories. A place that can easily play with your emotions.
Queen: The Studio Experience is a permanent exhibition about the history and the works of rock icons Queen. As such, there aren't many places where it could have been set up, or are they? Either way, Montreux is an obvious choice, as the last place where all members of Queen created together, while looking for -and finding, at last- some peace of mind. And of all places in Montreux, the former location of Queen's Mountain Studios should be the ideal venue, right?
If you've never been to Montreux, then be warned: You will be shocked as soon as you step in the shores of Lake Geneva. It's like living inside the cover of the Made In Heaven album or, more precisely, inside the dream-world depicted in its song A Winter's Tale, the last song penned by Freddie Mercury. What a truly magnificent view of the mountains zoomin' higher against the landscape painting in the sky, quiet and peaceful, the sea-gulls flyin' over and the swans floatin' by, tranquil and blissful - well, you get the picture. At this time of year... it couldn't get much prettier, with smoking chimney-tops, some snow and the Noël market. Of course, there's the Freddie statue, looking over the lake, a fist to the sky. 'Lover of life, singer of songs' it reads on its plaque, a fitting phrase courtesy of fellow band member Brian May. And not far away from it, you have the famous casino, and THE studio door. For years, that mysterious door has fed with fantasies the hearts of hordes of Queen fans that searched for it just to touch it, to grasp it, to ask unanswered questions to the silver knob and to resign themselves to the odd photo for everyone to see ...and also to write in the wall some words of appreciation for Queen, Freddie and their music.
About three weeks ago, fate brought my fiancée and me to Montreux again, and I cannot be more thankful.
The Studio Experience opened on December 2nd, 2013 with a reception attended by people from all around the globe. Celebrities, music business executives, journalists, photographers, etc. gathered that night in one of the casino halls. Brian May and Roger Taylor from Queen gave heartfelt speeches, as well as Max Hole, Chairman and Chief Executive of Universal Music Group International, and Dominique Desseigne, President of the Lucien Barrière Group (owner of the casino). Both Brian and Roger praised Montreux and its people, and they specially expressed gratitude to the 'family' working with them there all those years, specifically David Richards, and also Justin Shirley-Smith. A thunderstorm of applause followed. Then I realised David was on the hall.
After the official opening, we were divided into groups to visit the actual exhibition. I have to say the exhibition is VERY well crafted, very informative, and the stuff in display is nothing short of stunning! The cabinets are fabulous, filled with records and memorabilia from all the corners of the world, all taken from Brian May's personal archive. Rare LP sleeves, promo CDs, press photographs, ads - you name it. That Brian dude surely has a neat collection! Some of the items were already seen in the Stormtroopers In Stilettos exhibition in London a couple of years ago, but some are shown here for the first time. There are some screens with promo videos and live performances, and even a small cinema screening some interviews and clips from the Days Of Our Lives documentary. There is also a display of a typical studio set-up, with drums, a MusicMan bass, a Yamaha DX7 keyboard, and a Red Special replica by Guild with a Vox AC-30, complete with a Scrabble board! Besides all that, there are several costumes worn by Freddie and Brian, and original handwritten lyrics from all the members of Queen - some of them quite revealing!
But the main attraction must be the restored control room of the legendary Mountain Studios. I can hardly wait to enter the room. Queen's version of Made In Heaven is playing in the exhibition hall. I walk through the narrow corridor... And finally, here I am!!! The door knob had answers after all! The impressive surround sound system delights us with the same song, but... wait, it's not the same version, or is it? Somebody is at the mixing desk (a replica of the original Neve 8048 with 10 working faders in the place where the group faders used to be) playing with the mix. Freddie's last recording, Mother Love, follows. There is audio gear all around: multitrack recorders (including the original Studer A80 Queen used in their analogue days), de-essers, equalizers, compressors and other effect processing modules, etc. Now, bear in mind that I am a real sound geek. We even have our own recording studio at home. I have bothered mostly every person that has ever worked for Queen with questions about alternative mixes and findings of mastering differences. So, while waiting for my turn at the desk, I really don't know where to look. My world is spinnin’ and spinnin’ and spinnin’. Then I notice the golden plaque on the floor, marking the exact spot where Freddie stood to record his last vocals, which are coming through the speakers at that very moment, and I just have to close my eyes...
Nothing could have prepared me to what I see when I open them. Producer extraordinaire David Richards is entering the room. By his side, there’s no other than Justin Shirley-Smith. I really cannot process what I'm seeing. The enigmatic Track 13 is playing. Am I dreaming... David says the smell in the room is the same as it used to be, then he jokes with Justin about the new, plotted desk being easier to clean than the old one. We all laugh. And then he sits at the desk, and asks Justin to turn up the main volume. Justin obliges, 'just for him'. We are about to witness a live mix of Made In Heaven, by David Richards, the producer, the engineer, the artist, the genius, the man, himself. Glowing eyes and a big smile on his face, David does his thing, both hands on the faders. There's a kind of magic in the air. No words can describe what I am feeling. Then, the mixing of Mother Love offers a very moving moment for all of us there. It's unbelievable. Am I dreaming...?
Before they left, I had the opportunity to talk briefly with David and Justin, and thank them both. I think I have never been so nervous in my whole life.
The following morning, the exhibition opened to the public, so I went back quite early with some friends. After all that had happened the night before, I HAD to return to the control room as soon as possible, mainly to check that desk again and to have my way through several mixes of both Made In Heaven and Mother Love. Each time I sit there, I feel that I have the dreams of the world not in the palm of my hand, but in the tip of my fingers. My favourite is Mother Love. Every subtlety of the recording can be heard, even the most hidden one; the reversed cymbals, the low piano chords, the bass arrangement, the keyboard sequence, the guitar solo in the bridge, that lonely synth string note that gets detuned after the main solo, the effects... and of course, Freddie's voice fills the room with such a clarity! When I finish my first mix, I notice there are people all around, some standing beside me and some seated behind on the room floor ...and not a single eye is dry. Another Queen moment to cherish forever. Sometime later, Brian May himself enters the control room...
Now I know why they call it The Studio Experience! Indeed.
The hours fly in there... We mixed ourselves and listened to other fans' mixes. We laughed with Roger's and Brian's contradictory advices before the tracks. We checked the 5.1 mixes of Bicycle Race and The Invisible Man (including a nice surprise for the die-hard fans). We inspected each of the pretty cabinets again (but found no Moët & Chandon). We bought some official merchandise. We tried to absorb everything that incredible place has to offer, and then we left.
But before we left, we did something very important. We donated to The Mercury Phoenix Trust, fighting AIDS worldwide. In front of the collecting wall, we asked ourselves this very question: What on Earth would you had given for a chance to enter the control room of Mountain Studios - not to mention getting your own hands on its mixing desk? Remember that one as you open the wallet, and your generosity will flow. Entrance to the exhibition is free - the experience is priceless.
Reluctantly, we exited the exhibition through THE door, we left Switzerland and after a long, long trip we returned to our home and a very hot Summer. But a piece of my heart will always remain there, at that control room. A couple of days ago, we learned the sad news that David Richards had passed away after a long illness. I feel very honoured to have met him, and I am grateful to have witnessed that special moment in that magic place. All artists he worked with acclaim his huge talent, his multiple skills and his influence. And we music fans will always have his excellent works to go back to and remember him. And we’ll have beautiful Montreux too.
There's no need to say that Queen: The Studio Experience is an ambitious project, and I hope it will prevail and grow even further in the years to come. We Queen fans, and music fans alike, NEED this place. I really hope to visit it again sometime in the future!
Oooh - it's bliss.
QueenOnLine / FreddieMercury.com