Alias Synth and Jones
Synthing with Mr Jones.
"So there's this bloke with blond hair at the front and he just hangs about on stage plus some other geezer with a set of bog chains round his neck and funny white make up."
This your idea of Howard Jones? Think again, pal. Shortly before the release of H.J.'s new album 'Human's Lib', Tony Bacon went to find out about the new songs, the new sounds.
What was your first synth?
"A Moog Prodigy, only about four years ago — before that I'd played piano since I was about seven, and I had a Fender Rhodes. I used to play organ in a band at one time as well, a Lowrey Heritage. I'd never had experience with synths before, and I got this Prodigy. Rod Argent's sent me another one by mistake — there was something wrong with mine, I sent it back, they gave me a new one to use, and then they sent me the other one repaired. So I had two Prodigys. I put one on bass and one on, you know... lead. Someone lent me a Bentley drum machine, so I was away. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, to extend this to a sophisticated sound set-up."
What was the next extension?
"Well, then I got a Roland CR78, but I quickly realised that the 808 was better, and got one. I never use the 808 on its memory function, stringing the programs together, I used to set up a repeating pattern. Mike, the guy on the mixer, used to virtually play the drums, taking the hi-hats and the congas at certain parts of the song. It sounded like there was a great program written in."
So you would just add and subtract things as the pattern went around?
"Right, and the great thing about that was that it was totally flexible. If I wanted to stay for longer on a chorus or do a solo I could, and Mike would follow me. It's an interesting way of doing it, which we still use now to some extent."
What do you think of the sounds in the 808?
"I think the snare and the bass sound are absolutely horrific, we used to have to eq them to death to get anything. The rest of the sounds I love, you can't get them anywhere else — it's just that bass and snare that are bad. Now when I use the 808 I don't use its bass and snare, I get them to trigger the Drumulator's bass and snare, a hybrid of the Drumulator and the 808. The 808's hi-hats are great, and the congas — they don't sound anything like congas, but they have such a character to them."
So when Mike was playing the 808, what were you using on stage?
"I still had the two Prodigys, and the Moog Opus 3 — like an organ with a filter section. I still use a Prodigy, I love the sounds you can get out of them. The pitch-bend and modulation wheels are so expressive, I suppose I've just got used to them. For this tour I'm getting a battery-pack and a radio link so it's free of wires — I do use it around my neck with the mains lead trailing behind me at present! Incredibly dangerous. So now I should be able to go anywhere with it.
"I got a Pro-One next, which I triggered from the 808 on its short sequences, little repeating sequences. Now I've got a Jupiter-8 on top — I only use the Prodigy to move about with. I've got a Juno-60 which I love for its stringy sounds, and also the fact that I can trigger it on arpeggiator. Maybe even just arpeggiating on one note, as in 'New Song'. The T8 I use playing the DX7 via MIDI, purely for bass, such a raunchy touch sensitive bass sound — that's the bass of the DX7 plus a bit of the piano setting of the T8. You can actually play the DX7 better with the T8 than on its own, the T8 keyboard's so responsive, just like playing a piano."
There's still relatively few touch sensitive keyboards around.
"It's got to be the way it's going to go, it brings in a whole dimension. On the album we've used the T8/DX7 combination a hell of a lot to get all kinds of sounds — I used the Jupiter-8 a bit, but not as much."
So you got the T8 just for its keyboard?
"Primarily because of the touch sensitivity, yeah. It's like playing a piano, a piano-weighted keyboard. And it's MIDIable, so in the studio we've actually been linking it to two DX7s, giving a complex sound of combined voices."
What do you use for actual piano sounds?
"I have a Yamaha CP80, I've had that about a year. I like it a lot, but it's so heavy to cart around. I don't have to cart things around any more, luckily! It's a beast. And it needs to be tuned every time. I think the sound is adequate — it's great in stereo through the PA. I think this new keyboard called the Kurzweil could do away with it, pretty much perfect sampling of a Steinway piano with all the harmonics, and touch sensitivity. It's the hardest thing to do, isn't it, sample a piano accurately?"
You've tried the Emulator?
"(Laughs) I didn't go into it very much, but they sound so dull, only sampling at 9k or whatever. I just didn't go any further with it."
What about drums beyond the 808?
"I've got a Simmons SDS6 polysequencer which plays the modules. It's like having an 808 but it's all displayed, each line, you can see all your lines at the same time. It's the 808 principle, but magnified. It's a good instrument, I like it, especially when they decide to bring out the digital modules, recordings of real drums. I'm sure they must be working on that (see report on SDS8 in this issue — Ed).
"So I use the SDS6 on some, Drumulator on others, 808 on others — just depending on what the song is like. History has a lot to do with it too, when I actually got the machines. I'm quite a fan of the Drumulator. Some people say it's hard to program, but I find it really easy. The only thing is that it's easy to wipe out large areas of what you've programmed into songs. If someone comes along who's a bit careless — which happened to me on the last tour — you can have a whole section wiped before you know it. You program the Drumulator in segments, load the buttons up to the sound you want, assign each. I always do it in real time, bang away and it remembers it — and there's the correction device to line you up."
How does everything trigger up live?
"I'm surprised no-one's ever asked me before. It's not really that complicated. A lot of the songs are based on the Drumulator, the program is written into that. It will go pretty much to plan until the end, then it's flexible, running over to a pre-arranged sequence where I can let it run as long or as short as I like.
"I program the triggers into it as well which go to the Pro-One. Because the Pro-One only holds a small amount of notes I write small, compact sequences, sometimes 'bass lines', sometimes like guitar parts almost, and that limitation I find good, cos it means you have to come up with something that'll fit a lot of pieces!
"There's two sides to the Pro-One sequencer. One and Two. So I have something in One which I have to load in before the number — it's become a joke at the gigs now cos I say, 'Do you recognise this sequence?' as I bang them in. I put something into Two as well, then at a point in the song I can manually switch to the other one. Pretty crude.
"The Juno-60 receives the pulse from the Drumulator, which can be programmed in and out too. When I want that to arpeggiate I just manually bang the arpeggiate buttons, setting it off and changing the note if I want to.
"The rest of it I just play. There's not a great deal of automation — it always sounds like there's a lot more, but that's it. I didn't want it ever to be like press a button, twiddle your thumbs. That would be so uninspiring. I've always been a keyboard player, and I like to make each performance different and have something different to play.
"What I've been experimenting with lately is that new JSQ60 sequencer, which will only sync with my 808 at the moment. I'm not quite sure how I'm going to use it yet, but it's like an extra pair of hands. I can only use it on one number cos it's only got one 'track' of memories. So maybe I'll use it for one song that I have trouble filling out."
Do you have any problem with tuning, with all those keyboards?
"That's been one of my big problems, especially with the Prodigy which will wander in the heat. The Pro-One was a bit dodgy too. So I've had tuners put inline with the Pro-One and Prodigy, and if it sounds bad I can tune it to a meter."
Do you use tapes at all live?
"People think I use loads of tapes cos they can't work out how it's being done. I used to use a few tapes earlier on — on the last tour I used one tape of a sequenced bass line and drums on the last song, 'Human's Lib', and about a year ago I did two or three numbers with tapes. On this tour there won't be any tapes at all. I find tape restrictive live: the tape starts and finishes and everything is set within that time, you can't do anything else with it. With my set-up I can do anything I want, having it running live you can do a lot. I don't really see that it matters anyway. For me it's a purely personal thing that I have more fun doing it without tapes, the psychological thing of knowing that you're doing it there at the time.
"When people go to a gig the majority of them don't care how the sound's being made, they don't care whether you're using a T8 or a Casio. They just want to get off on it. When I was younger I used to get bothered by a very small minority of people who know the difference between a snare drum and a guitar, who can actually distinguish between those two sounds. To most people it's just music — 'Oh, sound's great!' or 'I don't like it'. There are so many musicians in bands who will spend all this time worrying about these tiny details that most people don't know about and don't care about. They just want to see you and enjoy the music."
But there's the self-satisfaction — surely you want to make it as good as you possibly can?
"Yes, that's right. But that kind of thing is mainly for yourself. What I think often happens is that in the pursuit of this fine detail which only a tiny majority will appreciate, all the other great enjoyable bits are lost to the audience. The audience will look up and see these guys worrying intensely about what they're doing, when what they would much rather see is them enjoying themselves and doing it."
Traditionally, that's been the keyboard player's fault, hasn't it?
"Well, the keyboard's a sort of non-sexual instrument. I always wanted to get around this keyboard stigma of being stuck there like a dummy. I wanted to go rushing around the stage, I wanted these freedoms. And I worked out a method of doing it. It's taken me a long time to get it right, assuming I've got it right now. When I started all this off I was sitting down — sitting down! Nobody could see me. A non-event, and pretty dire. I had the desire to make it better and to get around the problems."
Do you see your studio work as entirely separate from live performance?
"Yeah, definitely, a totally different thing."
For the recent tracks with Rupert Hine, what was the scheme in the studio?
"We put down the basis of all the tracks first, and gradually built them up one by one, coming back to them. In the first week we finished 'What Is Love' — because it needed to be out! It was in the shops something like eight or nine days after we'd started working on it. So exciting! So while we were working there, at Farmyard, that single was climbing up the charts."
How did "What Is Love" work out?
"I'd done three demos of it before, all to quite a high standard. One of them was done at home, and two in small studios, nearly to master standard. At home I go straight into a Revox in stereo — I don't multitrack. I have the live set-up and bung it straight down. I do all the preparation before and Mike comes in and mixes. I find that method gives me the best demos. I prefer that at home to multitracking — I find that once you've worked on a song in a multitrack situation in fine detail, once you've finished it, that's really that song done. So I don't like doing that until it comes time to do it properly.
"We consulted the demos of 'What Is Love' to pick out all the best bits, the little ideas that had gone into them. We also added a third verse because it needed one, I wrote the words in the studio. We changed some of the bass drum pattern, cos Rupert's very good at making that pattern vital. And there's two bass lines actually, a low one and one slightly higher.
"Once the drums were on we substituted real drum sounds, sampled, and triggered by the Drumulator — which we didn't really like on its own. You lose the Drumulator snare, so we put the real sound in. We wanted a snare with a bit of character (laughs).
"The middle section solo was done on the Prodigy. That instrument's so expressive, and I haven't found anything to replace it. Also, we did 17 tracks of vocals for the chorus, did that on a dub reel and then spooled it in. Rupert was in there singing as well, a heavenly choir.
"The track ended up drastically different from the demo... well, all the ideas are the same, they're just so much better executed. There were no new lines — we shortened the instrumental section cos it was too long on the demo, you lost the song. We halved it, and put the extra verse on. The sounds were chosen very carefully.
"I can virtually reproduce the track live, apart from the harmony vocals of course. For something like that, it's not bad. Not literally everything, but it sounds pretty much like the single."
Interview by Tony Bacon
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