Hands Across the Keyboard
Veteran songwriter Peter Hammill and programmer Paul Ridout have used some revolutionary applications of MIDI technology in the creation of Hammill's latest album. Paul Tingen interviews them, and comes away suitably impressed.
While most professional musicians just talk about applying MIDI to new situations, veteran songwriter Peter Hammill and programmer Paul Ridout are putting fresh ideas about computer music into striking practice.
EVEN THE BIOGRAPHY supplied by his record company is unusual, but then, Peter Hammill is an unusual figure. What would ordinarily be superficial, pseudo-witty and ill-written, reads: "Hammill holds a unique position in the pantheon of modern music, with a sometimes bewildering array of writers acknowledging themselves to be in his debt. Unsung hero though he may be in the ears of the public at large, the echo of his voice reverberates through many of the alleyways of modern rock music."
In a strange sort of way, the lavishness of this piece of prose resembles Peter Hammill's colourful lyrics, in which he pursues an ongoing quest for the deeper meaning of the things in and around us. In fact, it's probably true to say that Peter Hammill is one of the best lyricists of our time.
But he has also been consistently way, way ahead of his time in music and in recording techniques since he started his career in 1968. At the beginning of the seventies he was a pioneer of the one-man recording style which is now so common. With Van Der Graaf Generator, the legendary avant-rock band which he founded and effectively led, he was a pioneer of the symphonic rock music that pervaded so much of that decade.
Later, in 1974, he recorded what this writer sees as probably the first punk album, Nadir's Big Chance, which John Lydon acknowledges to have been a huge influence on the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks. Lydon is one of that "bewildering array of writers". Others are David Bowie, Bryan Ferry and Peter Gabriel.
At the end of 1986, Hammill released his twenty-fifth album, And Close As This, on which he has again taken a step into the unknown to present us with some new and unusual applications of computer technology. He has recorded single keyboard performances into a Macintosh computer, edited and split them, sending the result through various synths and samplers, and layering sounds into a complete arrangement which still comes from only one performance.
In the dressing room of the Bloomsbury Theatre in London, shortly before playing a gig in which he is going to apply MIDI in an equally innovative way (more later), he explains why and how.
"The fundamental theory about it is that there is just one pair of hands and one voice to be heard at any one time.
"It was all a logical progression. I'd realised that I have been playing lots and lots of shows completely solo. So many people have asked me over the years why there hasn't been a completely solo record of me. Normally that would have been a live album, but I didn't want to do any more live albums after Vital with Van Der Graaf (1977) and The Margin with the K Group (1983).
"So I thought about doing a solo album with just guitar/vocal and piano/vocal in the studio. Then, when I started thinking this through, it became obvious that the technological possibilities were there to do it in the rather strange way that I've done it. You can now get just about seven minutes of continuous playing in computer memory. When you're doing that, you're effectively operating a completely different system than when you're recording onto tape.
"So me and Paul Ridout used a Macintosh computer with a sequencing package called Total Music. Once my playing - done on a DX7 - was in the Macintosh, we edited it. We would either split hands or extract melody lines, rhythms or basslines.
"Then, having got all that, we turned the tape machines on, put code on, and started sending the performance to different sound sources: a Roland MKS20 piano module, a PPG Wave 2.3 with Waveterm B, a DX7, and Super Jupiter and a Bit 01 analogue. We would record sounds one at a time onto separate tracks, using SMPTE code to keep it all in line. Sometimes we would add over ten different sounds. "As we restrained ourselves to a lot of piano-like sounds, we were faced with the fact that an acoustic piano resonates with itself. The strings are beating against each other, producing lots of overtones. So we tried to create that in a different kind of way, which was done by layering up to eight slightly different piano sounds on top of each other, all coming from the Roland and the DX7. Together they created a similar kind of resonance effect to that of an acoustic piano. Apart from the piano-like sounds, we did send parts of the performance to more extreme sounds, like little bits of human voice, Burundi-type drums or what have you, like in the song 'Confidence'. But everything is still coming from this one pass of the hands across the keyboard.
'We did relatively little of the more extreme sounds because, by the whole nature of the project, we kept examining ourselves in terms of the theory and the philosophy of it. Technically you could go down one morning and just bash your hands across the keyboard and say: 'OK, here are all the notes stored in computer memory, we can now spend 12 months recreating the 1812 Overture and say that it was done by touching the keys just once'."
And apart from anything else, if Hammill had chosen a wider range of synth textures, they would have provided an awkward contrast with the two tracks on his new album that feature just acoustic piano, and which sound convincingly "live".
Essential to the whole process was an integral, unedited performance of each song.
We may have done a dozen takes of one song and chosen the best one, but everything was one performance. Obviously, a normal way of writing would have been to say: 'OK, here's a perfect verse, and there's a perfect chorus, let's stitch the two together.' The challenge, however, was to use computer-based technology in a performance kind of way, rather than in the normal fragmentaric, chopping-and-changing way."
Equally, Hammill's playing isn't quantised, although some velocity adjustments were necessary.
"Some of the sound sources reacted badly to full velocity, so we had to dampen it. But the performances were left intact in real time.
"We would run a metronome tick for two bars before I started playing, just so that I could lock into a tempo. Then we switched it off. So the playing shifted, as any live performance will, slightly in and out of tempo."
On another level, Hammill and Ridout were careful about what they considered permissible in terms of sampling.
"We didn't want to negate the principle of just one pass of the hands. I could go down and say: 'Oh we need a guitar', and play a chord, sample it and fire it. However, that would mean that there were two passes of the hands involved. I know this might sound like hair-splitting, but we talked about this a long time and decided to use only the existing library, regarding the sampled sounds as synth patches."
LISTENING TO And Close As This, the music does breathe; it has an organic-sounding quality. If you didn't know anything about the theory behind it, you'd never guess there was a lot of hi-tech chemistry involved in its construction. Yet that, as Hammill explains, is exactly what the record is about.
"I wouldn't go as far as to say that it humanised computer technology, but I did try to really use it creatively and as a tool, rather than as an end in itself."
"If a song works, the music should be able to stand by itself, and so should the lyrics. But the real thing happens when the meaning and content of the words interacts with the meaning and content of the music."
Perhaps because he adopted that attitude, Hammill has succeeded in creating a record that is good music, first and foremost. It doesn't shout "technology" at you, the way so much music that concerns itself with process or technique does.
So it's accessible to a wide audience of musicians and music lovers who have no interest in technical theories at all. And because Hammill and Ridout limited themselves to piano-like sounds, the strikingly simple song arrangements throw an added emphasis to the vocals and lyrics.
This in itself is a contrast with some of Hammill's previous albums, which have been lavish, multi-layered affairs, the artist playing and recording most of the instruments in his home studio in Bath, Sofa Sound. Those recordings have stood the test of time rather well, but at the expense of Hammill's lyrical messages, which often get lost amid the mass of instruments and textures. As a poet (his lyrics do stand on their own well, and he's also published two books of poetry, short stories and lyrics), has Hammill made a deliberate move back to words and melody, to the essence of the song?
"Of course, there is more weight thrown on the lyrics when there's only one performance behind it. But the songs were already written before the idea came to me. Every song tends to demand a certain treatment, though sometimes a certain treatment is laid over a song like a matrix. If a song works, the music should be able to stand by itself, and the same for the lyrics. But the real thing happens when they are joined together. The meaning, content and emotional content of the words should interact with the meaning and the emotional content of the music - sometimes in harmony, sometimes in opposition."
HARMONIOUS IT MAY be, but And Close As This is hardly a commercial album, and this in itself reflects Hammill's uncompromising nature.
He did, however, once attempt to break through to a wider audience with the beautiful The Love Songs, a compilation of re-recorded and remixed love songs released by Virgin in 1984. As it didn't sell too well, Virgin dropped him again, and Hammill released his next work, Skin, last year on the independent Foundry label. According to many, Skin was his most accessible album to date. So now he's back on Virgin, with a record that is, as we've said, scarcely commercial at all.
Peter Hammill, it seems, isn't too concerned about his lack of commercial appeal...
"It's not at the forefront of my mind. I obviously think about it a bit, but I think the only reason I'm still doing this, and am still enjoying it after 18 years, and still have an audience, however small it may be, is that I've always only done what I wanted to do, rather than consider what would be a good career move.
"I mean, some of the songs of Skin could have been done in the And Close As This way and would probably have ended up sounding resolutely uncommercial. Similarly, the recent songs could have been done in a Skin way, and would have sounded what I'd laughingly call 'commercial'.
'But I don't apply value judgements on commerciality and lack of commerciality. If you took my most commercial end, say the In Camera end (a solo album released back in 1974), you could work out a good commercial career series if it was said: 'Make the following three albums like this'. I'd probably have more success. Probably I'd also be bored out of my mind.
"The real problem in terms of commercial success - which I don't see as a problem - is the fact that I want to do different things with each record, often even with different songs on a given record. And that doesn't meet the required normality of consistency in your work. I do a song in the best way I can do it and according to whatever the original attitude has been, and I try to apply technology in a way which serves that.
"The danger with technology is that it can make everything sound like everything else. You can change your mind halfway through while recording a song by just changing the programming. In the early days, once you'd recorded a backing track you had to start from scratch again if you wanted to change the arrangement. That does mean that today, you have to have more mental discipline. A large part of technology is the thinking through, but I'm not aware of anybody else doing that."
Which is a rather bold statement. But, it has to be said, Peter Hammill's live performance showed as much evidence of that thinking through as his latest recorded work. Here again, he applies technology in a way which supports the humanity of his playing, rather than throwing that quality aside in a quest for computerised perfection. He is in total control, the machines serving him rather than vice versa.
During his current solo performances, he uses an Akai MX73 master keyboard, which is, apart from an acoustic guitar, the only instrument on stage. Again, like the songs, the stage appears starkly simple, focusing all the attention on Hammill himself. The MX73 is MIDI-linked to a Roland MKS20, a Super Jupiter and a Yamaha TX216 module, which are at the side of the stage.
From his master keyboard, Hammill can choose the different sounds he wants to use, and also, by means of volume faders, make his own mix of the keyboard sounds he has at his disposal as he plays. Once the basic balance is set during the soundcheck, the sound engineer doesn't touch it any more, leaving it up to Hammill to choose the specific mix he wants to hear. So Hammill is in complete control of the performance, having the power not only to play every song differently every night (as he used to do in his vocal/piano days), but also to make them sound differently, layering various textures on top of one another, organ-fashion.
WHILE MOST OF his contemporaries (Hammill is 38) have slided into the habit of repeating themselves over and over, Peter Hammill is at the forefront of modern music once again.
So after recording 25 albums and writing perhaps 350 songs, what keeps the man going? What inspires him to keep renewing his ideas, time and time again?
Hammill laughs. "Because I still like doing it. It still makes sense. I don't mean that it's sensible or even that it makes logic, but it's a thing that still fulfils me. I don't feel any pressure in terms of: how many more do I have to do? Obviously there's the normal thing of: where do these songs come from, and how many more do I have?
"But I don't feel I'm close to the end. If anything, I'm more fired up about it than ever. Perhaps because I know more now. I see more possibilities. As evidenced by this record, there is room for a fundamentally new approach. So all these songs and ideas keep popping up, and I'm excited about it still."
He is indeed an unusual and inspiring man, this Peter Hammill.
"We decided we were allowed to do on the computer anything which couldn't be done with a tape machine. So there was no taking the second verse and substituting it for the first verse."
"I got into this because a couple of years ago, it suddenly became obvious that very capable keyboard players were not getting involved in the new technology because it posed problems to them that they didn't want to deal with. All they were interested in was hitting those keys and getting a performance sound, rather than having to sit down for a week with the manual first; and rightly so.
"First there were the pianos and organs, and then suddenly there was this synth that could do all kind of things. And I thought: 'well, I like finding sounds and hopefully I understand the technical problems, so perhaps there is a position here for someone like me.' "But as I say, I don't see myself as a programmer, that'd be too grand a word. I think I'm more a facilitator. A lubricant, rather than an irritant."
Paul Ridout laughs. He sees the joke in calling himself a lubricant. Apart from that, it might be that he is a very modest man. As we're sitting in his domain - a programming suite at The Wool Hall studio in Beckington, near Bath - he manipulates the machinery there with remarkable ease. As it turns out, he has every reason to be familiar with the hardware in the suite, since the existence the whole place is the fruit of his own labours.
There's a Fairlight series II, a PPG Wave 2.3 and Waveterm B, a Prophet 5, an Emulator II, an E-mu SP12 percussion sampler, a Yamaha MIDI rack, the odd Synclavier and a Macintosh computer. It was the last item which Ridout used so innovatively on Peter Hammill's latest And Close As This - though more of that later.
Modest he may be, but in his own way, this experienced wielder of the hi-tech axe has a lot to say about applying machines in a sensitive and musical way - and most of its well worth listening to.
But to get back to where we were at the start, why his sudden fierceness when asked whether he's a musician? Ridout admits that his ill-starred attempts at mastering a musical instrument have left him with a slightly sour taste...
"I once tried to play the piano, but it didn't work. I couldn't physically do it and I didn't understand what the hell was going on. So I lost my faith in my ability to do it. I told myself I wasn't a musician. I had to come to terms with that."
Born 38 years ago in Bath, Paul Ridout is a relative newcomer to the music world. Once he went to Art College, did some sculpting and painting, and failed to make a living out of that. To survive, he did a post-graduate course in teaching art and set up an art department at University. In the seventies he got more and more involved in graphic design.
But nearly a decade ago, his interest in music was rekindled by two things. First, he began designing record sleeves, after Crescent Studios' David Lord asked him to make a sleeve for him. Second, he kept pace with developing musical technology by building his own EMS VCS3 synth, partly from burglar alarms and bleepers. He used the VCS3 to accompany the storyboards for videos which he was putting together with series of slides.
"I suddenly realised with a shock that I was making noises, something which I never wanted to do again", Ridout remembers with a smile.
His interest in computers and in applying computer technology to music then led him to work as a Roland MC4 programmer in his spare time, helping people out with their demos. Once he realised how big the communication barrier between musician and machine could be, he started buying his own equipment - an Emulator, the Wave and more - and learned to master the technology, hiring out his services along with his equipment. A couple of years ago, he realised he wanted to work in close connection with a studio.
"Everybody was - and is - setting up small programming suites independently, but I wanted a facility which was located in a studio, because it works a lot faster and more directly. Here we can program and change and modify while the work in the control room goes on, and we have continuous feedback. And for me it's nice to be part of the whole process, and see what happens to my work."
LAST YEAR, RIDOUT'S vision materialised when he got an offer from Tears For Fears' Wool Hall studio to furnish and run a small programming suite on a freelance basis. Since then, though, things have gone well enough for The Wool Hall to put him on the payroll, and to offer Ridout and his programming room as an extra facility. Their aim is to make clients' projects go easier, faster and better.
"The studio is rented at a fixed price", explains Ridout. "This is an on-top extra, but it's so cheap that if you were a keyboard band which uses sequencers and computers, you'd be crazy not to take it on. It's a lot cheaper than renting equipment from London.
"Still, the real advantage is time. Things become more relaxed. It's nice to be able to take 15 minutes for a sound, rather than, say, 30 seconds, with the engineer and everybody else desperately waiting to get on with it.
"I work here with the keyboard player and we set the sounds and sequences up together. In the end this will probably take less time than if I was trying to sort it all out with the attendant pressures of the creative process in the control room."
On the equipment side, Ridout is pleased with the present collection (partly his and partly the studio's) which he has at his disposal, though he wants to add a few more peripheral things.
"There's a good selection of keyboards here, and there will be a few more yet by the time we've finished. I also want to get some inexpensive keyboards, because the tendency is that when you have a Fairlight, everybody thinks that that's the way to make good music. Of course that's nonsense. It's the notes which are played which are important, and if they're good it doesn't matter whether you're using a £100 Casio."
Still, there remains one slightly more expensive addition which Ridout wants to make, which will enable him to do the same kind of multi-tasking possible on a Fairlight Series III, but for a fraction of the price.
"I would rather buy another Macintosh, and dedicate one to sequencing and the other to manipulating sampling and synth sounds, as well as storing them. There are software programs for the Macintosh that can store virtually all the current synth patches and sounds.
"A great sound doesn't exist by itself; it's always a combination of things, and on top of that it's a very subjective thing. Personally I prefer to combine different machines to make sounds."
"The two Macintoshes could use the same hard disk drive, running their own programs separately, if necessary interconnecting and running the other keyboards. Ideally we should have three Macintoshes: two here and one in the control room. I could write a sequencing program down here and then transfer it to the control room, and they could fire their synths from there. That would save a lot of running around, plugging and unplugging."
ALTHOUGH RIDOUT HASN'T been working at The Wool Hall for too long yet, he's already worked with some impressive names. Some of them he only wanted to mention off the record because, strangely enough, he didn't get credited on their albums. Names he could mention include Wang Chung, Martha and Mark (formerly Martha and the Muffins), Cars bass player Ben Orr, Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell's bassist and husband), and of course Peter Hammill.
It's while discussing his work with Peter Hammill that Ridout finally loosens up, and admits that his work involves a bit more than just being a "lubricant".
"I do give people feedback and ideas. I feel it's my role to do so. I might say: 'Look, this string part that you're playing, it's really no good to play chords with. If we record the whole thing separately, and then put it together again, it will sound much more believable.' In that sense I may function as catalyst for new ideas which people might get from certain sounds, or different ways of recording or sequencing."
More than that, though, Ridout admits that in working with Hammill on And Close As This, there was a continuous and positive dialogue between the two of them. The idea to record the whole album into a Macintosh, rather than onto tape, and firing MIDI sound sources from there emerged between the two of them, as did the idea of recreating the harmonics inducing resonance of the strings of a real piano with synth piano sounds.
"When you have two people working closely together", says Ridout, "there is no way of saying this was this or that person's idea, because things evolve in the middle of discussing and working."
Ridout sheds more light on the trick he and Hammill used to recreate the resonance effect of a real piano. In addition to layering slightly different piano sounds as already described by Hammill, the two of them got DX7 piano sounds to come in after the Roland voices.
"The DX7 sounds would sit in slightly detuned, slightly modulated against the Roland sounds, which gave a feeling of sustain. When you play a note on the Roland, the initial sound is very rich, but then it quickly becomes a rather simple, thin tone, so I added DX7 sounds there, which created an effect similar to putting a Roland through a reverb. The difference was that I could make specific notes reverberate, and that I could suggest reverb without getting that thick wadge. Reverb tends to make things sort of washy. Instead I got a very gentle intermodulation, which was a little more tuneful and specific."
As we've seen, And Close As This started from the idea of creating a complete, layered sound arrangement from only one performance on a keyboard. With this performance recorded into the Macintosh, Hammill and Ridout could go anywhere they wanted with their sounds, from piano to strings and back again, swapping textures within one song as much as they wanted. Which explains why they took the trouble to recreate such close piano-like timbres, rather than just recording a normal piano onto tape.
Ridout adds: "We eventually decided that we were allowed to do on the computer anything which couldn't be done with a tape machine. So there was no taking of the second verse and substituting it for the first verse. Instead we did everything else - changing notes, changing dynamics, removing notes which weren't in the right place - apart from quantising. We tried quantising on a couple of tracks, but they immediately lost their feel and started sounding very rigid and staccato."
It all illustrates Ridout's efforts to "use computers without you becoming the slave to the machine. The machine, however important, is just a manipulative tool. You can try this, edit that, mess around with things, slide it backwards and forwards, try lots of variations of an idea without having to record anything. It's a springboard to work from, and it's very creative."
Part of Ridout's "manipulation" is "bending the rules", as he calls it.
"I don't accept the rules which a machine or a manual gives me. I remember working with the MC4, ending up writing the wrong numbers for crotchets. One bar has to add up to 192, and every crotchet is therefore instructed to be 48. I'd put in, say, 44,47,52 and 49 or something. That would make it a bit more human.
"My feeling is: a machine is only a machine because you approach it as a machine. When you approach it differently, you can get things out of it which don't sound like a machine."
In a similar vein, Ridout and Hammill started sequences on Hammill's previous album, Skin, by hand, rather than linking the starting point to SMPTE.
Listen to the song 'Shell', we had a sequenced percussion part in the verse and SMPTE code on tape. Then we would run the tape 10 to 20 seconds before where we wanted the sequence to come in, and press the Go button manually when the time was there.
From that moment onwards, the sequence would be clocking through in sync. Now, the chances of the sequences actually coming in dead on time were remote. Probably it was one or more clicks out. We did that half-a-dozen times with different percussion sequences, layering them and getting a kind of movement between them, a swing which almost sounded human."
Yet despite his quest for humanity in computer-based music, quantisation is not a dirty word in Ridout's vocabulary.
"There are obviously places to quantise and places not to quantise. Quantisation of everything gives you a particular kind of music, a particular tight feel. I think there's a lot to be said for doing both, quantising certain parts, like the snare and the bass drum, and not quantising other parts like the toms, because you can then get a nice bit of magic going on there."
RIDOUT FAVOURS AN ad hoc approach in the area of sound creation and manipulation. Though he records his own samples and stores an impressive catalogue of sampled and synth sounds, he prefers to create new sounds each time around.
"Working with Peter Hammill, we went as far as throwing most sounds out of the window after using them. We wouldn't even write down the combination that we'd done of, say, a DX sound with slightly changed Wave program.
"It's nice to approach making sounds fresh each time, because otherwise there's a tendency to say: 'Ah, last week we had this fantastic string sound, so let's put this and this together, adjust a little bit and use it again.' But part of the joy of recording a new part is the spontaneity of trying to find a new sound and coming up with something even better than what you had.
"With Peter, the advantage was that we had the performance ready and complete in the computer, so we didn't have to keep a sound in case we suddenly decided that we had to redo bar 33.
"Obviously when I'm working with a band which might want to re-record parts, I will write the sounds down. But a great sound doesn't exist by itself. It's always a combination of things, and on top of that it's a very subjective thing. Personally I prefer to combine different machines to make sounds. A single Emulator strings sound can be really recognisable. It's therefore much more interesting to take an Emulator strings sound, a Wave and a DX7 strings sound and layer them. Each time you do that, you get a totally different combination of string-like sounds, unique in itself.
"I know the purist synth programmers criticise that. They say: 'Oh, the art and the technique of synth programming is going, because all you need to get now is a lot of different synths, put them all together and you don't have to write any new patches.' I see their point, but I also think there's nothing wrong with putting sounds together. If anything, it's a much more creative way of working, because you still end up having to program new sounds when you realise the shortfall of the original single sound. So each time you try to polish it a bit further, you make it a bit better - and that's what's exciting and interesting."
Interview by Paul Tingen
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