Asia's illustrious keyboard player | Geoff Downes
In a rare interview, Asia's illustrious keyboard player talks synths, samplers and Mellotrons with David Etheridge.
Mention Geoff Downes to most serious keyboard players and the reaction you are likely to get is one of respectful awe: this is the man who uses thirty (yes, 30) keyboards on stage without becoming hopelessly lost or entangled in bits of machinery and, before you ask, yes, he has heard of MIDI. The flying fingers and sonic creativity of the man have always been well to the fore with his work in Asia, and his past career (alongside Trevor Horn in Buggles and Yes) has earned him accolades from fellow musicians and fans alike. Indeed, Yes bassist Chris Squire has gone on record as describing Geoff as "the best keyboard player Yes has ever had". With the excellent new Asia album 'Astra' hot off the presses, the time to talk to this most creative of keyboards-men is long overdue.
The press release for the new Asia album lists the number of keyboards used as twenty-five, but Geoff put me right by explaining that it is now thirty. Why so many?
"They run the gamut from the Novatron (Mellotron) to the Synclavier, and they're all still functional in terms of the sounds they give me. It's an interesting set-up actually, a combination of both old and new technology. With careful manipulation you can use the latest technology to drive the old stuff anyway; for instance, I use a Fairlight CMI to drive the Minimoog, because I still don't think there's been a better lead synthesizer than the Minimoog in terms of actual solo synth playing. I've also got an OSCar which is basically styled on the Minimoog, but it's not quite the same being digital. When the Polymoog came out it was pretty revolutionary in terms of what had gone before, but now it is one of my least used instruments. I've still got a Yamaha CS80, and it's quite a long process to get a sound out of it that's good. There are too many variable parameters on it to make it an easy process. For storing sounds on these types of instruments, I basically write out a chart of the controls, which is a pretty old-fashioned way of doing it, I know. Even with the Polymoog, some of the sounds are very useful, particularly in combination with other synthesizers. The beauty, I think, comes from combining old analogue sounds with the new digital synthesizers - that way you can achieve some very good things."
Do you use DX7s?
"I don't, actually. Not that I find them difficult to programme, but I just don't particularly like the sound of them. By the time you begin to layer a few of the DX sounds together they just start to sound the same. The tymps start to sound like the bells, and the strings start to sound like the brass... it seems to utilise a different kind of bandwidth, and you seem to get quite a nasal kind of quality with it, which is something I don't like. You hear the DX presets used on all sorts of records, but from my point of view, I find synthesizers much more exciting than just using the presets."
So you're a compulsive knob twiddler?
"Yes. I just like to hunt for different sounds. When I get to, say, a section in one of our pieces of music, I think about a suitable sound, get one of the synths out, and try and make it work. And that's where the MIDI system helps in that you can combine digital sounds with analogue sounds, so that you do get that perceptible thickening effect. I link up my MIDI keyboards with one of those Quark MIDILink boxes, which has got nine outputs and a selector, so I can select which synthesizer I want to use, and generally connect them all up."
"For sequencing, I use Page R on the Fairlight. In fact, on the instrumental breaks where I'm playing piano over a synthesizer backwash, that's all done using a Page R file on the Fairlight when playing live, the typical example being the playout on 'Cutting It Fine' from the first album. Obviously, I can't play all that stuff alone. Basically, I take some of the vital ingredients from that section - trumpet, snare drum, tymps - and store them on Page R as a preset sequence, then play some sort of supporting keyboard part to it."
Do you have any problems linking up pre-programmed keyboard sequences to the tempo of Carl Palmer's drums on stage?
"No. In fact, that's the only reason why it works because it becomes a solo piece, with all the snare drum accents being samples played on the Fairlight. Carl is a very theatrical drummer anyway, and I think that it would be a great encumberance for him to have to work with headphones on listening to a tempo click-track going 'tok, tok, tok' all the way through the live set! So we restrict the use of sequences to my solo spot."
On stage, do you have programmers to switch everything in for you?
"Yes - I've got an excellent guy who's been with me for five years called Peter Robbin, and another guy who goes out front and mixes the sound, who has also worked with Tears For Fears, called Spencer Allen, and they basically look after all the equipment."
Having explored the layering possibilities of MIDI, can you also adjust the voicing of your synths in arrangements to fill out the sound?
"Sure. Quite often what I do is play around with the octaves, which won't give you a different inversion of chords, but it will give you a wider span of sound. With all the connected keyboards in a higher register, you can build up a whole keyboard bank of eight octaves, or whatever, or use them to double sounds. Sometimes I like to play two keyboards at the same time, from that point of view and for that very reason. One of my favourite layering instruments is the Sequential Prophet 10 because it's instant in that you can put one sound on one side, or the same sound on each of its two keyboards and then play it like a two manual instrument."
"I've had nearly all of my analogue synthesizers modified for MIDI including the Minimoog and the Elka Synthex; though modifying a synthesizer that was built ten years ago isn't exactly easy..."
Do you find your Memorymoog difficult to handle, particularly with its reputation as being unstable?
"It's only unstable for tuning - it's very poor in that respect, always has been. I've had it modified with new chips that are supposed to have converted the tuning function, but it's still a bit 'iffy'. I don't want to have to stop using it though because it's got a really nice sound. I really like the sound of basic, good old-fashioned oscillators.
I wouldn't like to spend my life searching for a sound by sitting at a typewriter for a day, or drawing waveforms, because I think that the great thing about an analogue synthesizer is that it's sensitive to you, the player - you can get a sound out of it and then you can modify it, whereas with a digital synthesizer you really require an enormous amount of programming just to get a simple thing like a cut-off. With analogue synths you just use a filter, but with digital ones it's murder if you have to type it in and sample it, and so on."
Talking of sampling, do you use much of it in your own set-up?
"I do, yes, but I tend to use it in conjunction with other things - such as the Mellotron. I've got a choir tape for the Mellotron, which is a very bizarre sound, you'd never get that on anything else! I've got Leslie'd Hammond and strings, in total about four lots of the tapes with three sounds each. For all the farts and squeaks that you get with Mellotrons, you know, they still sound great when you put them through a PA system, and in a large arena, well... I've cheated a bit with them actually, because I sampled the Mellotron sounds onto a Fairlight and I use them together in a bizarre combination of the new and the old with one sitting on top of the other in the stage set-up. So I just use the Fairlight samples to back up the Mellotron sound when the tapes run out."
We then moved toward the subject of Asia's working methods on their material, and here Geoff floored me by saying that he didn't have a multitrack studio at home; thus rendering null and void that old line 'Doesn't everyone?'. Nevertheless, he must be unique in that respect for a man in his position - compositional partner with John Wetton, Asia's vocalist/bassist. Actually, Geoff spends the majority of his time in the studio anyway.
"At home I just work on new material at the piano - I don't have any other keyboards filling up the place! I think it's a question of not wanting to take my work home with me. I write a lot of stuff at home and either record it on a Sony Walkman or put it on manuscript, but in the studio I use the Synclavier, which gives you like instant storage."
"John and I both accumulate a kind of 'magic' cassette that's got all the ideas on it that you treasure, and we get together with Sony Walkmans at the ready at his house or mine, and sit at the piano and work round it. John writes music and lyrics and so do I, so it's a fairly even input and we can modify each other's basic ideas. In fact, it's often just a question of putting our two ideas together - most of the Asia songs are written like that."
"The material for the first album had much more of a group spirit, and the fact that John had already written some stuff with Steve Howe before I joined, resulted in a lot of the material coming out of rehearsals, rather than if John or I had pre-written it, as usually happens now. And yet, the songs that came last were successful ones like 'Heat Of The Moment', 'Only Time Will Tell' and 'Wildest Dreams' which we did write in that way. So we carried on from that point for the second album."
"When we're doing an album, I tend to record my keyboards in three separate stages - I do all the ground work chords first; then I'll have a sort of major keyboard overdub period for a few weeks, which really entails building up all the orchestrations and stuff; then of course there's always the effects - bits where people have left holes for odd bits or solos."
Do you ever find yourself in danger of losing your perspective in the middle of recording, in the sense that you find that at a certain point you have to take a break?
"Yes, I do take fairly frequent breaks - sometimes it gets absolutely manic in the studio. Sometimes the best stuff comes out when you're feeling really fried, and that's unfortunately the way it is. I find that a bit of pressure doesn't necessarily hurt, in fact it's quite pleasant, at times! You'll have a bad day on keyboards where nothing seems to stick, trying hundreds of ideas and none of them sound right, and maybe when you're about to give up something will come out of it and keep you going. I see it as more like painting a picture, orchestrating with keyboards, although it's not an attempt to make it sound like an orchestra as such, more a vision of something orchestral."
"We used the Royal Philharmonic strings and French horns on 'Rock And Roll Dream' on the latest album, but you can get into this strange situation nowadays of - 'Is it real or is it Memorex? ' - because it's very easy to synthesize a French horn. When you pull an orchestra in on a track like that you think it's going to be fantastic, but the reality of it is maybe not as exciting as it might be if it was synthesized. There used to be the day about fifteen years ago when people were making albums and would say - 'Right, we're really going to make this sound expensive, we're going to put an orchestra on it'. And when the Beatles used them, it really was outrageous to hear orchestras on rock albums. I suppose it's the other way round now - nobody wants to hear the orchestras, everybody wants to hear the samples!"
When you're touring, do you find that the song arrangements alter from how they were recorded as a result of playing them in?
"Yes, but there's always this argument about whether people can recreate what they've done on record live. If you imagine that you've never heard your own music before, if you were just relating to, say, the lead voice, the tempo and the harmonic changes, some of that would still be very recognisable without needing any overdubs at all. I think that the vital thing about playing live, if you're responsible for slightly over the top, heavily overdubbed music, is to pick up the overall movement of each song. I don't like to get too bogged down with playing every sound effect that's on the record, with the exact same configuration of synthesizers."
Now to Geoff's working method in the studio when recording with Asia:
"It's generally a question of starting with quite basic keyboards: I use something like a string synth or acoustic piano to get the basic song foundation down on tape - no actual melody lines, just the basic harmonic picture - and then build the rest of the lines up from there. However, on this last album, Astra, we did things differently from the previous two. Rather than just performing each track as a group in the studio and recording it, we did it all individually, which was more from an experimental point of view than anything else. I think we wanted to get away from the 'let's do it again 'cos somebody made a mistake' syndrome." "When I put down the basic piano parts I'll work to both timecodes and click-tracks, so that in the end there'll be a general musical guide on tape so that everyone will be able to hear where their part will go. Then we can put the actual drum kit on. On this album, Carl Palmer added the drum fills separately, but on the previous albums we did the backing tracks as a group, and just edited the two over various out-takes. In that situation, I just record a stereo guide keyboard track using around twelve or so instruments, then go back and re-do each part individually."
"All three Asia albums have been recorded on 46-track, but I think we only end up using about 40 tracks, which is still quite a lot with keyboards. Mixing can be a bit of a nightmare, because there are so many types of keyboard layers to consider - I must admit that I do get a bit over-indulgent on some tracks, where I think 'I must have this one in stereo'. In fact, stereo is the thing that actually takes up the most track space, and when you come to mix you end up mono-ing most of it anyway. One of the beauties of MIDI is that if you've got a great MIDI sound that actually happens on its own, that doesn't require any major layering techniques, it can go straight onto one track. The problem with that method is the actual set-up time: I can spend three or four hours setting up a sound or sequence, and then there'll be a crash in the system or a 'blurp' down a MIDI line and, of course, I won't have saved anything! So I have to start again..."
For the future, can we look forward to a Geoff Downes solo album?
"I hope so, yes. There are vague plans afoot for me to do a project. Not specifically just me, because I think an album's-worth of keyboard sounds is not going to particularly inspire anybody. But I'm also involved in outside production work. I'm currently producing the album with Steve Howe and Steve Hackett and their band GTR, which is practically finished - I started it immediately after I'd finished the Asia album."
"With GTR I'm working primarily with guitars - playing at being 'Doctor MIDI'. You see, if you think of the problems of MIDI and the way they relate to keyboards, then you should really try thinking about the problems of hooking up guitars to synthesizers; which is what I did, using the Roland guitars. All the orchestrations were played from guitars, using my keyboards to generate the sound. I haven't actually played any keyboards on the album, but it sounds pretty orchestral. It's a very, very long way round, because the guitar is a terrible trigger source for activating the keyboards. We got round it by recording it all digitally, so we've had much better facilities for dropping in every time there was a glitch. The glitches were there because with the guitar, every time you so much as take your finger off the string it sends a trigger down the line, and you end up with a noise out of the keyboard. So, the necessary styles that the two Steves have had to adopt to be able to play all these instruments from the guitar, has really been quite an eye opener. But it's worked, and it sounds good."
Whilst always ready to embrace new and interesting instruments, Geoff Downes knows exactly what he likes in keyboards, and what will suit his purpose; however, he does not write off so-called 'obsolete' technology if it will provide him with the sounds that he is searching for. This individual approach means that Geoff's work remains unique and easily recognisable in a world of identikit keyboard stylists. Long may he continue to delight and fascinate us with his, and Asia's, work.
Interview by David Etheridge
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