Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo


For the past 7 years it has been my privilege and pleasure to record the 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 about 250,000 enthusiastic audience members brave the somewhat unpredictable Edinburgh elements to enjoy a lavish spectacle of 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 that we get it finished quickly.

We have a team of three – two sound engineers and one military producer. In recent years we have used Floating Earth’s recording truck, equipped with an SSL C200 digital desk, remote mic amps connected by fibre-optic cable, and a large Pyramix system.

Tattoo Complete Cast

The show opens on the first Friday evening in August, and by the time we come to record it we have been in Edinburgh for five days – three days rigging (there are miles of cable involved as distances are vast), and two days recording rehearsals. Typically we put out ten ambient mics around the arena, and then take an additional 48 split feeds from the live sound crew – various radio mics, commentator mic, sound effects playback, mic’d up drum kits, keyboards, guitar amps etc.

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 SSL desk that can be recalled during the show, but the shows can get a little hair-raising, which adds enormously to the fun.

Edinburgh weather being what it is, we have to take serious steps to 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 gets 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. I use RML Labs Software Audio Workshop (SAW) for this job – it’s ideal given the complexity of the edit, and has now been used in its various incarnations on the Tattoo CD for over 15 years – long before I got involved. Much use is also made of Algorithmix reNOVAtor – with a cast of nearly a thousand, an audience of eight 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 things up whilst keeping as much of the musical material as possible. If we do find we need to remix anything, we can do it, but it’s rare and this year there was no need at all.

We usually finish the production of the CD master in the wee small hours of Monday morning, and celebrate with a not-so-wee dram. This year, we got back to the hotel at 4am, the master was picked up from hotel reception at 6am, by 11am it was at the CD factory in Stevenage, by 1pm the first CDs were rolling off the production line, and by 4pm the first batch was on its way back to Edinburgh. By the time we left Edinburgh first thing Tuesday morning, we were able to pick up a copy of the finished shrink-wrapped CD from the Tattoo 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 on 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 all be 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!

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