everyone syncs Synclaviers
Tony Bacon takes the Air at League Studios... or is that the League at Air Studios. N matter. Phil Oakey, Jo Callis, Ian Burden and Adrian Wright assist with the oxygen.
Production of 'Hysteria' has not been the quickest of exercises. Rumours of ears the size of Quincy Jones helping in the proceedings were fuelled probably as much by frustration as concrete evidence. What the record ended up with was a sound coaxed on to tape by Chris Thomas and Hugh Padgham, the latter being brought in when Thomas could carry on no longer – due to prior commitments.
All producers have a different approach, of course, but what were the league listening for this time? Jo Callis contrasts the out-going producer, Martin Rushent, with his initial replacement, Chris Thomas: "Martin is more precise, he'll select parts as you do them bit by bit, building the track like that. Chris just likes to get as much on there as he can. It's like the difference between painters. Chris is a guy who likes to get it all on the canvas and then sort of wrestles with it. He knows what he wants and at the end of the day he gets it. Martin is gradually painting up the whole picture, filling it in slowly. More of an additive process. Chris was more subtractive, somehow."
Thomas also turned out to be a good synth programmer – and Oakey claims that it was Chris who programmed the synth for Chicory Tip's devastating dawn-of-the-synth revelation, "Son Of My Father", as originally demo'd by the virtual inventor of sequences, Giorgio Moroder. So that was handy.
But more than that, the band wanted Thomas for his vocal production. Ian Burden thinks that the weak point of "Dare" was the quality of recording of the vocals – not enough time was spent on these, he says. "There was all this spinning-in stuff, tape syncing and so on. If the girls had been given more time they could've done it. It seemed a bit unfair."
A Chris Thomas trait is undoubtedly up-front vocals (cf Roxy Music, Pretenders et al), and Oakey got the treatment too. "It looks like you're not scared of them," he reflects. Padgham came in towards the end of the project, tidying up all the reels of stuff that had been recorded, laying down a couple of things, but mostly mixing. A craftsman, the band seem to hint without actually saying as much.
Phil, in fact, didn't want to use Padgham at first, apparently because he hated Phil Collins' records, which Padgham produces. Then he discovered that the Police had also been a client, "the biggest record in the world bar Michael Jackson", and everything seemed to go suddenly smoother.
Phil: "One of the first people we worked with, he got out a Marshall Time Modulator. This is a fantastic box, he says. It cost so many thousand pounds. So we asked what it'd do. Well, you can make things sound like they were recorded down a cardboard tube!"
PO: You can't use a 24-track recorder until someone's invented it, unless they've got a reason to. There are a lot of commercial pressures, big companies that have sold as much of one thing as they can and have to do something next. And if you've got a state-of-the-art studio, say, you've got to have the latest gear, you've got to have these things.
JC: The danger, then, when you go up to the studio, is that you might think that because the gear is there and cost so much money, you've got to turn it on and use it. But you have to be selective about that stuff: it's there for you to use, not to use you. When you're making a cup of tea you don't take everything out of your cupboard and pour it all into a pot, you take what you want.
PO: I used to know someone who did that.
Phil: "People have been selling records for 50 years recorded on tape. Just because you read in a manual somewhere, 'Digital is better,' is no reason to believe it. "
The Human League's introduction to the wonderful world of computer synthesis began with a long-ago and unproductive try-out on the Fairlight. At the time, the Australian number cruncher did not have the useful 'Page R' composition facility, and, claims Oakey, "it had a whistle on top of everything". So they bought a Synclavier.
Getting their machine to sequence in time has been the major obstacle to anything approaching an endorsement from the League. Ian Burden suggests the source of the problem is that the Synclavier has one computer for timing and sounds.
At one stage Phil tried linking the Synclavier to a Linndrum. This got tricky. "We were taking a click out of the Linndrum into the Synclavier. Most of the time that was all right, but just when you didn't want it to, it'd start going out of time."
And Jo Callis gives a specific example: "If you listen to just the bass and drums on 'The Lebanon' the bass is just that bit behind the drums – when the guitar and keyboard went on after that they'd been played to the bass and you maybe don't notice it."
But the shortcomings of the Synclavier's interface potential in the League's experience brings out the philosophical in Oakey: "It says in the brochure that it will do this, and it doesn't. It's because computer instruments are actually cheap for what they do. There's an awful lot in those, 35 grand isn't actually that much – not if you consider an AMS delay, 10 grand for a small box. There's a hell of a lot of state-of-the-art stuff in a Synclavier – there's chips they've had to buy from the military for sampling, very expensive custom chips to sample that quickly, 50,000 Hz."
And while we're on philosophy, thinking could be aided if you use close-by transducers. One day in the almost endless-seeming Human League recording sessions for "Hysteria", our men from Sheffield tried recording, that is sampling, a bass drum into the Synclavier. Played it back, and Renata the engineer proclaimed it different-sounding. "I believed the book," remembers Oakey. "It said it couldn't be different. That was good enough for me. But she listened to it, she said it's not there, it hasn't got the attack."
So the moral is to use your ears? "Yeah," agrees Oakey. "It's hard playing keyboard with them, though."
PO: After deciding that we didn't want to use the JP8 very much more – a really recognisable sound that everyone uses – we ended up using it all the time. There's a hell of a lot of JP8 on "Hysteria".
JC: We got a Wave in for a few things: you can get some fantastic sounds but no-one really knows very much about working with them. Chris knew a bit; but we know the JP8 better!
PO: But we still can't get what we want. You can't get a decent trumpet out of it. Try it and it sounds like Yazoo. You'll get a better trumpet sound out of a trumpeter.
IB: It's too reedy-sounding.
JC: We sort of tinker with the JP8 really – though Phil might know a bit more about the waveforms and so on.
PO: I've read all the books about the theory behind it, and I'm only about a quarter as good as Adrian who does it by instinct.
AW: When I write I bash away on a JP8 – that's because I can't play guitar. I wish I could.
JC: Piece of piss, lad.
Some surprise has been expressed by the deafer members of the music comics as to the guitarishness of the League's more recent output. Those with ears may have caught the guitar-triggered inflections on the rhythm part to "Don't You Want Me" as long ago as 1981; as strummed by J Callis (purchaser of every One Two, and fine chap).
"Fascination", too, was more guitar-sourced than some may have realised. Not just a synth, people, but a guitar synth. "The Lebanon", guitar-laden but not synthy, came as a "logical progression" to Jo's guitar experiments, complete with half-speed-recorded arpeggios. "You end up figuring that in certain instances just an actual guitar with a few effects on it is more the sound you want" says the electric Callis.
The Roland 300 and SG-shaped controller that Callis owns he now views as a specialist instrument combination, useful for specific purposes only. The keen pluggist has also been connecting an electric to the External Audio Out of his newly-purchased(!) SH2 mono synth. "You can use the filters and some of the modulation and LFO – quite interesting. But no-one'd think of doing that now because they all want to get proper guitar synths."
Like the eight-grand-or-thereabouts Synthaxe? This draws some abuse concerning the visual properties of the instrument – a plastic kit of Space Fortress Yamamoto being the most polite. But Jo bemoans the fact that he'll never get to try one anyway. Reason? The boy is left-handed. "They won't make one. They never do. My 300 controller is about the only left-handed guitar synth I've seen."
IB: I bought these mains adaptors the other day, for a 202, a drum machine and so on, I got three. Took them home, and I found I can't use them because they've got continental two-pin plugs on.
JC: That's easy, just use a shaver adaptor.
PO: Or you can put them in Duraplug boards: if you put a screwdriver in the top and hit them hard they'll go in.
IB: But why do they sell them in England?
PO: Because England is less than a speck of dust in a camel's eye to them.
JC: But shaver adaptors are the easiest way round it. I used to like those rubber mains plugs where the top bit had a little tube for the lead to go through. You always forgot to put it through.
PO: So you always ended up cutting the tube! Pathetic.
JC: J used to actually take all the wires out and start again! I think there's a department somewhere that decides the most annoying way of doing things. How about a hole in the middle of the guitar, they'll say, so you can drop your plectrums down it and never get them out? Call it a "soundhole", that'll make it sound like it's got to be there.
PO: You could market Jo Callis Soundhole Guards, made out of chicken wire. Perfectly harmless. Fun for all the family.
Phil: ...tons and tons of dropping in: I'm not a very good singer. When the Beatles or Elvis Presley went in they had two tracks, they'd go in, start the song, sing it to the end. If it was out they'd blown it, and they had to start again. And they could do it."
PO: I have 24-track equipment in the spare bedroom at my house. Don't use it very much, though, really, do we?
IB: Because it's in your house.
PO: Because it's in my house: the room's too small and it makes a hell of a lot of noise. We've never quite got rid of the hum, there's multiple hums.
Phil: "'I'm Coming Back' was the third recording of something of Adrian's. We pressed the wrong button on an 808 – we were running the Bass Line off it – so instead of doing it on the beat, one of the bass notes came before the beat. It suddenly sounded really good!"
IB: It used to be everything to me, accident, before there was ever any money to buy decent equipment. Everything was little home-made boxes, and you could never predict what was going to happen. Whatever turned up. I can remember taking the back off a cassette machine, putting it into play/record, and short-circuiting the circuit-board with my fingers. It'd make all kinds of weird noises. (Not recommended – Ed.)
OTT: The bass on "I Love You Too Much" – You've heard Chic, have you?
IB: It's a bit of a rip, yeah. Adrian had the drum rhythm, the basic idea of the song, and I just messed around and suddenly that popped up.
JC: Didn't you get the first half of "Good Times" on one track and the second half on another track?
IB: That's right! The other hairs on "The World Tonight", a future B-side. The Chic people have been much more influential than people give them credit for, actually.
AW: But the reason why the bass sounds good on "I Love You Too Much" is because it's nothing like a Chic record.
OTT: Presumably you need an active bass for that sort of punch?
IB: Active, yeah. That was something Martin put me on to. He hired one in at Genetic, a Music Man, and I was amazed at the range of tones. So I went out and bought an Ibanez a month later. It's got to be looked at now because it hums all the time – but the tone and that punch that you can get out of an active is just unbelievable. It had a plate with "Musician" on it, so I took that off.
Interview by Tony Bacon
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!