One of the foremost composers of electronic film music, here he talks about his celluloid career and his more recent excursion into the world of popular music producing, and his own Danse Electronique.
Dan Goldstein talks to Dave Hewson, one of Britain's premier electronic composers and producers, about his career and his approach to working in his own studio in South London.
"My first experiments with sound began when I was still at school. I was just trying out things with tape-recorders - splicing, that sort of thing. Looking back on it I suppose it was a bit like musique concrete. All I had then was a Philips 2-track machine, a very, very old one.
The first time I heard a synthesiser was when I heard Walter Carlos' Switched On Bach on the radio in the sixties. At the time it was something completely new and I was just amazed at the sounds the instrument could make. Shortly afterwards I was very lucky because my parents bought me an AKS synth for Christmas one year, and that opened up all sorts of possibilities. I'd only really ever dreamed about owning one prior to that, because whereas today you can buy a good mono synth for very little, in those days an instrument like that cost over £300, which seemed like a lot of money.
The problem was that once I'd got the AKS, I didn't really know how to work it, so I managed to twist the arm of my music teacher at school, and he got me on to a day-release course at the Royal College of Music, where I studied for a year with Tristram Carey in their electronic music studio, learning how to operate synthesisers.
At about the same time, I also got on to a course at Trinity College of Music, where I studied composition under a composer called Richard Arnell. He was very much into the electronic side of things, and had been ever since the early fifties. It was Richard that first got me interested in film work, because he was one of the Directors of the London Film School, and he suggested I look into working on soundtracks. So I suppose between the years 1970 and 1973, I'd written and recorded electronic music for 30 or 40 student films.
I then came to something of a crossroads in that I decided that rather than risk going into music full-time, it would probably be easier to work during the day as a music teacher, so I went to a teacher-training college and got a degree there, and in fact I'm still teaching to this day. However, my own electronic music has taken off to such an extent that I now spend more time in the studio than I do in the classroom.
For one thing, the films that I've worked on recently have become somewhat more prestigious. I've done the music for two ITV documentaries: Cold Chips, which is about computers and their possible effects on society; and The Moray Brothers, which tells the story of the convicted criminals who became painters. Both those soundtracks have relied heavily on electronics.
The other major film work I've done is the music for a movie called Dilemma, which is a computer-animated film. It came about quite a bit before Tron, so I don't know whether or not Disney copied the idea! On that particular project I wrote the music in conventional notation form, and then realised it electronically, using the Emulator for much of the work. Once the music had been recorded, the animators set to work making the film to go with the soundtrack, which is an unusual way of working (things are usually accomplished the other way round) and a very exciting way of working. It meant that the images fit the music very accurately which isn't always the case. The film's gone on general release as support to Return Of The Jedi all over the country, so I imagine it's reached quite a lot of people.
I've also just finished another piece called Doctor In The Sky, with the same group of people, though this time we worked slightly differently in that instead of composing the music from scratch, I worked from a set of rough drawings - impressions of what the animation was going to look like.
In addition to my film work, there's also the work I do here in my own studio primarily as writer and producer. I'm currently working with several artists in that capacity. The first of these is Sharon, who's a solo performer (though we tend to write together as a duo). We started off calling ourselves 'Poeme Electronique', after the piece Varese wrote for the World Fair. Our music could be described as avant-garde pop, in the sense that it's an attempt to make the Depeche Mode and Yazoo sort of music a little bit more sophisticated.
However, we did have quite a few problems at first in that we found it difficult to get record companies to accept our music, because it was a bit off-the-wall in a way. Eventually we managed to get a deal with Carrere Records, who released a single called The Echoes Fade, which was I suppose the most commercial piece we had at the time.
My second project came about as a result of contact with a company called Silvia Music, who wanted me to make an album of instrumental versions of current electronic hits. We ended up calling the album Danse Electronique. There are some vocals on it, but most of them are done via the Emulator, with a lot of vocal sampling, as well as some conventional backing vocals. For that particular project I had to hire a lot of the equipment, because I don't own an Emulator or a Fairlight or a Simmons kit. On the other hand, I still used quite a lot of older equipment, particularly Yamaha CS80. I see the CS80 as being something of a Stradivarius of the synthesiser world because it's such a wonderfully responsive instrument, and I don't think I'd ever part with it, even if I was able to afford something like a Synclavier.
I was a bit lucky to get my CS80. I remember at the time I was in a seven-piece band called Stagestruck, which was a very visual sort of outfit - a bit like the Tubes in a way - and through them I met a man called Barry Dunning, who happened to be manager of Mud, of all people! It turned out they'd bought this instrument from Yamaha as one of the first of the production line, but the problem was that nobody really knew how to use it properly, and they'd been touring America using it as a sort of glorified organ. So what happened was that Barry Dunning was keen to get rid of it, and offered it to me at a very advantageous price. I've had it ever since.
Until recently I was also working with a band called the Techno Twins. I was at College with both of them, but we'd lost touch until I bumped into them again when Stagestruck were doing a gig at the Rock Garden. They asked me to play keyboards and co-produce a demo for them, which we recorded here and sent to Satril Records. They liked it straight away, so we re-recorded it in a 24-track studio and the single made the fringes of the charts. After that, I helped them make an album called Techno-Nostalgia, which was fifty per cent cover versions, fifty per cent original material, and that was all done with the CS80, MS80 and a hired Linn Mk.1.
I'm no longer associated with the Techno Twins - they seem to be moving more in a jazz-funk direction now, which I'm not so interested in - but I have recently become involved with some other pop artists.
First there's a duo called Exotica Maximus, who produce very interesting electro-percussive pop, and they've currently got a version of the Stones' Paint It Black out on release as a single. That was recorded here, using some very strange percussion sounds, such as steel-drums and bits of wire being tapped - all sorts of interesting sounds. They're signed at the moment to an independent label though I think they're looking for a deal with someone a bit bigger.
Then there's also a singer called Denton Crane. When I'm working with him I tend to use a lot of sampling, which means hiring Emulators and Fairlights. I suppose we're aiming for a sort of Trevor Horn sort of production, but although the music is quite commercial, the concept behind it is a very original one. The idea is that Denton Crane is just a newspaper boy who is also - in his spare-time - a rock singer. So we've put together quite a lot of material which is interesting lyrically. For instance there's one song called The Lost Michaelangelo, which is about the last art treasure on Earth being entrusted to Denton. Unfortunately, he's such a complete idiot that he drops the statue out of the window! But is an interesting concept, and we gave the first performance of Denton's work at the Camden Palace not long ago.
The biggest problem for me at the moment is one of finance. I'm not yet in a position where I can give up my teaching altogether and run the studio full-time, simply because I need the income my regular job gives me. I've done commercial work in order to try to keep the studio's facilities up-to-date. For instance Sharon and I recorded a single called What A Wally, which is easily the most commercial thing we've done. It got us quite a bit of attention - Sharon was on television two or three times - but it didn't really hit the charts in any big way.
Obviously that sort of thing is a compromise, but I see it as a necessary compromise because I have to fund my more serious projects continuously. I'm not really a pop person: I consider myself a serious electronic composer. But at the moment I'm doing a lot of pop work simply because I see it as the means to get into other areas of compositional work.
While I was at Trinity I built up quite a large catalogue of classical work using orchestra and conventional instruments, and what I'd really like to be able to do is use the best of electronics and combine that with live musicians, as well as carrying on with my film work.
I've got two piano concertos that I've never heard, and five string quartets which, likewise, have never been performed, and unless I can find some musical society that's willing to put them on, or find some rich benefactor, I don't suppose I'll ever hear them played. During the classical era, things were a bit easier in that there were rich patrons who considered it fashionable to support serious composers. That situation doesn't really exist today, and most young composers break through by getting coverage on film and television, so that's the channel I'm pursuing at the moment. As far as I can see it's the only way my serious projects are going to be realised.
I don't really want stardom for it's own sake, I simply want the means to be able to pursue other projects, and also to encourage other people... I know that when I bought my AKS, most other synthesisers were extremely expensive and I felt I was in a very privileged position in owning one, and in many ways the same sort of situation exists today: some people have got lots and lots of equipment while others have got access to very little. So what I've done is I've tried to encourage other people to work here and share in the facilities here. I have to charge them a commercial rate - usually £10 per hour - again out of economic necessity, but in addition to the equipment in the studio I can also advise people on their composition and recording, as well as perhaps finding them work in the film area if they're interested.
One source of income that I can rely on to a certain extent is royalties from the BBC and ITV, because about ten years ago I made a library record called Mood And Mode, which was mainly just the AKS and an Electro-Harmonix phaser. I'd studied medieval music at college - and had played in a medieval ensemble - so, influenced by Walter Carlos' work with Bach and Scarlatti, I decided to dig up a few thirteenth and fourteenth century scores and orchestrate them using the AKS. Because at that time I only had a TEAC four-track and nothing to master on, I took the tape to a small studio in Wood Green called BTW, and it was the owner of that who commissioned Mood And Mode for his library label.
Just recently I've started work on another library record, this time for Chappell Music. It'll be a bit like Danse Electronique, except that this time the emphasis is more on the classical side of things, so it might end up in the Vangelis sort of area.
I've really accumulated synths bit by bit over the years. Once I'd got a job I was able to buy more less whatever took my fancy at a particular time, so I bought two Korg MS20s, an Elka Rhapsody, a guitar synth, a Kitten synth... instead of selling instruments in order to pay for new ones, I've tended to keep almost everything, so I've ended up with an enormous mass of different keyboards, though with the exception of the CS80, none of them are particularly sophisticated. I think in a way I prefer to have lots of little synths than one very sophisticated one, because I think it's more interesting to build up sounds using a variety of different instruments. Obviously if I think a piece needs a very difficult sound I'll hire a digital synth of some sort, but at the moment I can't afford to buy any of these.
One problem I have had is getting good vocal sounds from keyboards. I don't use vocoders on speech synthesis because I think it's just become too gimmicky now, but I do like the choral sound from the Roland Vocoder Plus. I can't think why they ever stopped producing it, because nothing's come on the market to replace it, and the people who have got them are making a fortune now by hiring them out. I've tried various other newer keyboards to see if they can match it, but I haven't found none of them as satisfactory overall. The PPG does a reasonable approximation, but the Emulator sounds a bit weak unless you do a lot of sampling.
At one point my manager and I were thinking of buying a Fairlight. I've used it here on hire a couple of times - with an operator because I don't know the first thing about computer programming - and I went along to Syco to see a demonstration of it. Obviously it's an impressive keyboard, but what really surprised me was how slow it was. It takes ages to create even the most basic sounds on it, which is OK if you like a lot of fiddling about, but not so good if you're just interested in the music. So I decided there and then that the Fairlight wasn't for me. I've not had a chance to work with the Synclavier so I don't know whether things are any easier on that.
It seems to me that things are developing at such a rate anyway that it won't be long before you'll be able to perform a lot of the Fairlight's functions just with a home computer, so I'm not too worried about not being in the mega-synth league at the moment. In a sense it's the way things have got cheaper that's led to the big increase in the amount of electronic music being produced. Not so long ago something like the development of the Polymoog was seen as incredible, but nowadays that instrument is something of an antique, because it's now possible to buy a vastly better polysynth for about a quarter of the sum it originally cost.
A little while ago I decided that it would make sense if I had a proper studio of my own in which to work, and rather than get an eight-track I decided to go straight up to sixteen. For reasons of economy I chose the Tascam 1" system, and I must say that the results with dbx noise reduction have been very impressive. However I did have a problem in that I didn't really have anywhere to house the equipment, so I decided to build an extension on to the side of my house, and that took me about nine months to complete. Although there's very little in the way of conventional acoustic isolation, the separation between the control room and the main studio area is excellent, due mainly to the fact that I made the wall between them two feet thick!
What I've got now is a control room full of keyboards - when I'm on my own I prefer to work there anyway - and a main studio area that's got very little in it. I'm thinking of swopping the two around, so that I've got a bigger area for the control room, but as yet I haven't got round to it.
I haven't had any formal training in recording, so everything I've learnt has come through experience. In a way I think it's a nice way to work - it makes a change from music in my case - and anyway I think something like that is very difficult to teach someone: there are so many different sorts of equipment available, and they all work in different ways.
I haven't got all that much in the way of outboard gear: I've got a Roland digital delay and some compressors and noise gates, but the more sophisticated products like Quantec Room Simulators are just out of my price range. If I've needed them for a particular project I've simply hired them.
I tend to overdub a lot when I'm working on projects for records. What I have done for a couple of film soundtracks is taken my keyboards into a larger studio and improvised to screen, which is quite an interesting way of working. I did Cold Chips that way, for example, I've never used sequencers or something like an MC4 here. I prefer to play everything live, which is probably due to my training as a recital pianist. I think in many cases where there's a difficult sequence of notes, people just use electronics to play them for them, but I'm in a position where I can play almost everything myself. In fact, I sometimes play Drumulator and LinnDrum live: tapping the buttons rather than programming patterns. On Danse Electronique there are some echoed Linn sounds that were played live, and I did that mainly because I prefer to do things by feel than through programming.
On the other hand, I'm not actively against the idea of using sequencers. I'm getting more interested in computers - I've just bought a Spectrum - and I can foresee lots of instances where that sort of thing might be useful to take some of the tedium out of playing. For instance, if there's a repeated quaver pattern that I could program into a computer via the MIDI interface, that would make things a lot easier, though at the moment my knowledge of computers is very limited, so I might start off from an analogue viewpoint (with something like an MC4) and proceed into computers from there.
On the keyboard front, I'll soon be getting a Roland Jupiter 8, which should augment the CS80 quite nicely. The thing that attracted me to it was the sheer clarity of the sound: it's capable of producing some very pure effects, which is in direct contrast to the CS80 really because that can sound very rough. Of course, the Yamaha's such a powerful instrument that I've often felt when I've recorded it that it's overshadowing all the other instruments, so I have to be very careful when I'm using it.
When I'm recording polysynths - particularly where string sounds are concerned, I might record the synth seven or eight times in stereo, de-tuning all the parameter very slightly each time to build up a big chorus effect. For me that's the best way to get close to a real-life string sound, because when you hear a string ensemble playing together, what makes the sound big is the fact that they're all playing slightly differently.
I almost always record keyboards with any outboard effects already on them, partly for economy of tracks and partly because I think it's better to make decisions based on the sonic evidence: I prefer to take an hour or so working on a sound so that I can get that absolutely right before I got on to any of the other instruments. I suppose it's a bit like the way an artist mixes his colours to get a final tint that is just right for the picture."
Interview by Dan Goldstein
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!