Technology has taken Phil on a diverse and exciting journey and has now given him a new perspective, focusing on the enormous commercial potential of the small unmanned aircraft most of us know as drones.
He continues to use his impressive expertise as a freelance sound engineer but his ‘day job’ sees him flying a drone to carry out essential surveys which can be achieved much more efficiently from the air.
His Lewes-based Coast SUA aerial photography company is already proving a boon to local businesses such as Richard Soan Roofing, which take advantage of the cost-effective service Phil provides that would be difficult and enormously expensive to do from the ground.
It’s a career path Phil could never have imagined following when as a teenager in London, he first fell in love with the music industry.
“When I was 19, I happened to visit a friend who was working at the Decca recording studio,” he recalls. “I’d been doing a temporary job at the Royal Free Hospital and had thought about doing an economics degree at university, but I was at a loss over what I wanted.
“That day at the studio, I met Status Quo and talked to Francis Rossi. I decided to hang out there for a bit and found myself thinking ‘this is what I want to do’.
“It was towards the end of the 1970s, and I managed to get a job as a tea boy in a recording studio. It was like an apprenticeship, you helped the sound engineers, learning by example and working your way up.
“After about three years, I became a freelance recording engineer and did quite well, working on a lot of hit records. That took me out to Europe and the United States, and throughout the 1980s, I was working with many famous rock stars. In the 1990s I also started working with a very old friend on film scores, and in fact, I still do that.”
By the mid-90s the music industry was going through challenging times, and after a while, Phil was no longer finding the work available to him as personally satisfying or financially rewarding.
“Digital technology was coming in, so we were starting to use digital recording techniques that transformed the way we made records. It was fantastic in many ways, but then the internet was coming in, and people had PCs at home and were able to copy music for free instead of buying CDs. That had a terrible impact on the music business because it was the revenue from CD sales that funded production.
“It meant there was less workaround and it was not so well-paid. By that time, I had two kids, a big house in Brighton and a big mortgage. Because the kids were in their early teens and I was still travelling to London for work, I realised I wasn’t spending enough time with them, so I decided to work from home and set up a small studio in the house, becoming mainly a mixing engineer.
“I then had a little studio in the Metway, The Levellers’ base in Brighton, but as I was now based in Brighton rather than in London, I was no longer being asked to work for the bigger record labels. The money wasn’t so good for someone with a big mortgage, so I took a part-time teaching job at City College on the foundation degree for music production.”
That situation continued until well into the 21st century, but then fate took a hand and Phil made his first switch to a new career.
“It was quite by chance. I’d just been to the gym at Falmer to play racquetball and met up with a friend, Andrew, who had started a business at the beginning of the Noughties, removing graffiti from trains. It had proved very successful and ended up with significant contracts with the rail companies.
“I had been feeling frustrated for years, struggling with the mortgage and doing work which wasn’t the kind of quality I’d been used to, and I told Andrew I was starting to look for something else to do.
“At the time high-reach technology for window cleaning was coming in so Andrew suggested we should form a company. To start with, it was just a mate and me in a van with a pole and water container, cleaning windows and gutters, mainly on commercial premises.
“I enjoyed being out and about doing that – it was a complete change after years of sitting in front of a console, and it was refreshing to use completely different skills. But my job was to build the company, survey buildings, plan marketing and bring in more work.
“That was when I got the idea of using drones. I got an email about drone training, and that showed me how they could be used to survey more prominent buildings.
“I decided to set up my own business and bought a drone, but it took quite a while before I could get started. You have to write a 50-page operations manual before you can get your drone pilot’s licence and it was only two years ago that I launched my Coast SUA business. In the meantime, I was still keeping on with some sound recording work, doing podcasts and occasional work on big film sets such as Aladdin.”
Since the launch of his drone business, Phil has seen it go from strength to strength as more people become aware of the benefits in using drone technology.
Coast SUA provides a wide range of photographic services including terrain mapping and orthomosaics, 3D modelling, aerial surveying, 4K video and architectural photography.
“It’s still very much a growth area, its potential hasn’t been realised yet,” Phil says. “The aerial perspective it offers is unique. It’s interesting in itself – as a human being, with a drone, you can see things that otherwise only a bird sees, that you can never see from the ground.
“One of the primary jobs I use it for is surveying roofs. You can see every nook and cranny and identify where a problem lies. I’ve just used it to find a leak in the roof of a house in Haywards Heath and have done several jobs like that. With health and safety regulations nowadays, it’s a big job to put someone up to check a roof and to use a drone is a much simpler and cheaper alternative.
“A friend of mine has a big house in Hove, three storeys with a very complicated roof system. To get someone to go up, there would have been a big deal because access would have been challenging. I flew a drone up and could immediately see where the problem was.
“We have just completed survey works for Lewes-based Richard Soan Roofing. They had installed a barrel vault roof to a school in Crawley and needed aerial views of the installation and surrounding areas.
“This was a sensitive area, being close to Gatwick Airport, and we had to obtain special permission from Air Traffic Control at Gatwick. When the school was closed, we visited the site and using both my M210 and Mavic 2 Pro drones; we took stills and some surround video.
“We also recently completed a survey of Crawley Town Hall for Kier Construction, delivering hi-res video and stills. Before demolition and rebuild, the building had to be documented. This was again a sensitive project, being within the Gatwick Airport No Fly Zone, so we needed special permission from Air Traffic Control.
“Drones are also beneficial for above land surveys as from the air you can pick out things like ancient earthworks. My drones have fantastic quality cameras, and with the new laser photography technology you can even see through vegetation to what lies underneath – it’s even discovered ancient villages that from the ground you’d never have known were there.”
Phil has high hopes that his business will take off even further in the years ahead and he is also finding Lewes is the ideal base for his work.
“After living in Brighton for many years, I felt it would be good to have a fresh perspective, so I moved to Glynde for a couple of years. It’s a beautiful place, but I felt slightly cut off so a year ago I saw a house I loved in Lewes and bought it.
“Lewes has everything you need – the railway station, a good cinema, good shops, a friendly community. I’m delighted I moved here.” •