Zeus B Held
German producer Zeus B Held - the man behind the name - shares sampling secrets and delaying tactics with Tim Goodyer.
What have John Foxx, Black Uhuru, Fashion and Alphaville got in common? They've all had their work graced by the production of Zeus B Held.
In today's musical climate, you can't get away from the ever-growing part played by production. These days, everything - from pop singles to film soundtracks to TV advertising - receives the attentions of a producer somewhere along the line. More than ever, production is becoming as important as the process of music-making itself, and as a result, some producers are becoming as well-known as the artists themselves.
Alongside the instantly-recognisable Steve Levines and Trevor Horns of this world (producers whose aural trademarks are as distinctive as they are successful) are a number of less-familiar names. Less familiar, that is, to everybody save those who list record-sleeve perusal above sex and alcohol in their everyday schedule. But their work is no less important - just a little lower-key.
German-born Zeus B Held is one such name, with credits ranging from cult-status artists like John Foxx to chart-toppers like Dead Or Alive. His work has obviously been fairly varied, yet despite an unforgettable name and a fair share of commercial success, he's not yet achieved known-by-every-household-in-Europe status. It's even doubtful whether he actually aspires to such infamy, which is why I didn't have to fight through hoardes of media people to catch up with Held at Chaz Jankel's West London studio - where he's currently doing the production honours for This Island Earth.
Held's musical life began with a family that built pianos as well as playing them, and progressed through the study of music theory and a flirtation with sax and trumpet before graduating to playing keyboards professionally, both as session player and with a Berlin band by the name of Birth Control. His first production venture was with a fellow German: performance artist and singer Gina X.
'I did six albums with Birth Control', he recalls. Tours, the whole number - playing Hammond organ, Clavinet, Rhodes and so on before getting into the synthesiser side of things. Then I made three solo albums, and on one of the albums I had Gina singing on one track, so that was how we met.
'Then we did an album on a rather small label and forgot about it; a couple of months later it was very successful in Clubland.'
The year was 1978 and the album was Nice Mover. From it came the 'Nice Mover' and 'No GDM' singles, the latter seeing yet another re-release earlier this year, continuing an unusually long-running success. How did it come about?
'I leased the master for five years to EMI, who released it twice, and then I put it out myself on the Statik label when I got it back - it seems people like it! It's actually a 16-track recording and there are only 14 tracks recorded on it - really what you hear is on the master tape. You push up the faders and it's there, it's not a complicated thing.'
Held's early success with the production of Nice Mover continued with the Gina X albums X-traordinaire and Voyeur. They aroused enough interest to establish Held as a producer of some note, and it wasn't long before he was in demand for other work.
'The Gina X project came about partly because we were living in a house where a studio was being built', he reflects. 'At that time I worked with quite a lot of German new wave bands because I was involved in the studio choosing the keyboards and then standing in for the engineer when he wasn't available. Finally, bands started asking me to do their albums, so I did a lot of recording and co-production.
'But it was because of the Gina X stuff that Fashion, for example, contacted me. They came over to Cologne and we started there with four tracks. Then I went to England and worked a little bit in Birmingham on the arrangements: then it was back to Cologne, then to Paris, then back to England...'
...And the result was Fabrique, a classic fusion of electronics and the elusive element of feel that still has something worthwhile to say for itself three years after its release. It has a timelessness that was to become a Held hallmark as the producer's career unfolded.
Often accused of being the Frankies in everything but face, Trevor Horn defends his position as being both separate from and different to that of the bands he produces. So just what is the job of today's producer? Is it merely to assist the inexperienced recording artist in the transfer of ideas to tape, or does it extend to musical participation in the proceedings? Held finds it difficult to come down on either side.
'A lot depends on the band. If they have a song and a precise idea of what they want to do with it, then you just try to execute that idea as well as possible. But sometimes the song needs a lot of stripping down and building up again, and that's when you become involved with the music and the arrangement. Either way, you really have to sort out what you want with the band before you go into the studio.
'On the arrangement side of things, a producer should be able to tell if there is a note somewhere that is stopping the song sounding as good as it should - is it an F or an F#? - though it's better if you can do that without making a big fuss about music signs and harmony lessons. Sometimes it really doesn't matter if it's not musically correct, though, as long as it sounds good or exciting. You don't have to study piano for ten years to write a good sequence on the Fairlight!'
But too much pre-arrangement and deliberation has been the downfall of many a potentially exciting and lucrative idea before now. How does the producer seek to avoid falling into that trap?
'Sometimes you just have to take risks, and then it's good if you have a performer who is not perfect; that's the idea of pop music. If you take musicians from the music academy you don't get a good pop band. Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, although untrained, use sounds that are almost like Debussy sometimes - and they don't know it!
"As long as you have a good desk, it's better to spend three days in a small studio than it is to spend a day in a big one."
'At the end of the day, music is about feeling. When you sit down and listen to the end result of a piece of music, whatever it is, it transports a feeling. It does something to you.'
Yet anyone who's ever been into a recording studio will know that speed is far from being everything: preparation is of paramount importance as the phrase 'time is money' applies like nowhere else in the world. So how does Held approach the studio?
'The Fashion album was really the ideal situation because there were no time problems. Everybody was fresh and there was good co-ordination between the band, the record company and myself. Also, we chose to work in quite small studios. As long as you have a reasonably good desk, it's better to spend three days in a smaller studio instead of one day in a big studio with all the latest state-of-the-art equipment. That way you have more time for research on your own songs.'
So much for the philosophy. What about the actual mechanics of making a recording?
'I really like to start with the SMPTE code on one track - even though it's really a 23-track recording you're making then - and use the SMPTE Reading Clock to run every rhythm box and every sequencer in time.
'In 99% of all rock music, the time is constant throughout the song, so even if I'm working with a real drummer, I still start with the click-track. In a way it takes responsibility away from the drummer. Because even if he is before or behind the beat, it can still be quite good. The Gina X stuff is all done with real drums - no drum boxes - but it was still done to a click-track.'
Nowadays, the presence of a sync pulse on the master tape - especially one as comprehensive as the SMPTE code - gives engineers and producers freedom to alter the direction of a recording at almost any point. Drum patterns can be substituted, sequencer lines altered, and even the key of a piece is far from sacrosanct. The difficulty is keeping this new-found freedom in check and avoiding wandering off at an unnecessary, self-indulgent tangent. Held is well aware of the problem.
'Sometimes an idea changes in the course of its realisation. You end up with something different, but you have to be able to recognise it on the way. You've got to be a little bit more careful with the end result, see if you like it and then make it perfect.
'That's what happened with Fashion. The first tapes were a lot more jazzy than the finished album. During the recording it took a different direction, but we worked on it until we liked the end result.
'You've got to find the balance between what you want as a producer and what the band themselves want. It is, after all, primarily their music.'
After living in Cologne and Paris for a time, Held made a permanent move to London in 1983. Was this for purely aesthetic reasons, or were there musical motives behind the migration?
'London is much more musically active than the rest of Europe, not only in music itself but also in the activities and industry that surround music. Working here has got more advantages, more possibilities than anywhere in Europe - especially from a producer's point of view. It's better in terms of both the studios and hiring the latest technology into a studio session - it can be difficult, trying to get an AMS or a Fairlight in Paris!'
And so to the ubiquitous Fairlight, seen by differing factions as an unfortunate landmark in the decline of artistic creativity, an incredibly useful production tool or the gateway to contemporary musical freedom. The Held philosophy?
'I think the Fairlight is just one symbol of the new technology, in particular for working with sampled sound. We now have the Fairlight, the AMS, the Emulator, the Greengate and the Mirage.
'I used the Fairlight on a scratch version of The Beatles' 'Drive My Car' with Gina X, which wasn't released for two years. I thought it was really ahead of its time when we did it. Maybe some people didn't get the joke, but I did it when the sampling idea was quite new and the approach was certainly very naive. I had actually done an over-the-top version of 'Drive My Car' on one of my solo albums, using lots of little tape edits and reversed bits. I had all these bloody half-inch edits all over the table - all Paul Hardcastle has to do is push a button!
"All that MIDI offers could have been available much sooner if synth systems had been made more compatible in the first place."
'The great thing about the Fairlight for me is Page R, but both the Fairlight and Synclavier open up new possibilities for song arrangement. Using the SRC, you can play live and correct things later: develop a good arrangement simply out of improvisation.
'But I feel these things are only just starting. In three or four years, there will be equipment that will do all of this - but much more cheaply. In Germany now, there are a lot of people building their own sampling keyboards and sequencers using computers. Once you've sussed out what you want, it's just a matter of taking the time to develop the software.'
The only operational question that needs answering is just whose responsibility the operation and application of the new machines should be. Currently, there are few people lucky enough (or wealthy enough) to have had the opportunity to become familiar with them. Will this open up a market for people who specialise in music programming to the exclusion of all else?
'Well, I see it as part of the role of the producer to know about these things, and be able to use them just as he should be able to record and mix things on his own. But in some situations, I do prefer to have a programmer in because guys that work with these things every day are a lot faster at sampling and treating sounds than I am.'
MIDI is another revolution - albeit a quieter, more surreptitious one - that's had an incalculable impact on both live and recorded aspects of modern keyboard music. Some musicians welcome its arrival, complete with shortcomings, but others resent it, if only for effectively outdating their favourite polysynth. How useful has it proved in the production camp?
'All that MIDI offers could have happened much sooner if synth systems had been made more compatible in the first place. In the early days, there were even problems connecting a MiniMoog to an ARP sequencer, so MIDI is great - not least because of the possibilities it affords to change and build up sounds after recording. It should also help people to realise things that were created in the studio in a live situation - without the use of tapes.
'I recently heard a rumour that there is soon to be a MIDI pickup for the grand piano. For me, there's simply no comparison to sitting down and playing a grand piano, so that would be perfect. There must be some way of recording the note information of a performance on a piano and then going back over that performance, correcting and altering things and substituting different sounds in places.
There really are a lot of eventualities that can be covered with technology to help free the musician. And if it's all done properly, it does help people make good music.'
But back to the question of the producer's role and how far it should intrude on a musician's work. If there's one medium that potentially allows the recording people to go one-up on their musician colleagues, it's surely the 12" single, the most successful of this decade's record industry marketing phenomena. Is there really any more to them than the continued prosperity of the record companies and the satiation of the producer's itchy fingers, or do they have a musical and technical validity? Held explains.
'The original idea of the 12" was to give a better sound - by virtue of the groove spacing and playing speed - and you can hear a big difference, especially on a big sound system. There's less hiss, more bottom and more top - even towards the centre of the disc where the quality deteriorates.
'Musically the 12" allows you to have different constellations of sound, to change your perspective - not only melodically but rhythmically too. There just isn't enough space to do that in the three-minutes, thirty-seconds 7" single formula.'
And the format has become even more popular among producers as new technology has added breadth to the creative possibilities it affords, as Held enthusiastically confesses.
'Sometimes you can just go to Page R on the Fairlight, stick a cello in the bass sequence, and you have a good, funky rhythm with the funky bass played by a cello! It takes a little time, but if you can afford it, the AMS and the Fairlight are great for doing that.
'You can do tremendous dub versions of songs like that. There are two black guys that work at Shakedown Studios in New York with Arthur Baker. They're only 19 or 20 and they do nothing but edit 12" mixes. It's great that there are people now who specialise in editing. Listening to those records shows you how it's possible to re-introduce excitement and risk just by editing tape. With a couple of ruthless edits, you can completely change the atmosphere of a piece. Instead of the usual middle eight, which was an extra part in the old pop song that would appear only once, it's now possible to use a dub section instead. That's something that actually changes the traditional methods of composition.'
With electronic innovation outdating equipment more quickly than ever before, and the recording studio being as much on the front line of technology as the environs of the keyboard player, what may we expect to provide our aural entertainment in the future?
'I'm looking forward to digital recording and editing. In video and film work there is no physical editing at all - everything's done by giving commands. The edits themselves are so smooth. And anything you do is easily reversible - so you can change your mind if you want - and you can copy without losing any quality.'
Quality is one thing Zeus B Held himself doesn't seem to be short of. Just ask John Foxx, Black Uhuru, Fashion, Alphaville or - in a month - This Island Earth.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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