Turning digital dreams into reality | Ian Boddy
Ian Boddy is one of this country's foremost independent 'electronic music' composers. David Hughes talks to him about the recording of his new CD 'Odyssey'.
Ian Boddy has spent the best part of the last decade establishing himself as one of this country's foremost independent 'electronic music' composers. He released his first electronic composition on cassette way back in 1980, but major success has eluded him - despite the fact that he now has something of a cult following around the country.
So what has happened to Ian since he last appeared in the pages of this magazine way back in December 1986? Well, he hasn't been idle by any stretch of the imagination. For starters, he's played live at a number of venues around the country - including UK Electronica - and he's produced a further two albums. The first of these, Jade, appeared only as a limited cassette release, though his most recent effort, Odyssey, has just been released on compact disc.
I spoke to Ian recently about his past work, his new album, and the trials and tribulations involved with bringing new material into the public eye.
How do you feel the new album fits in with your previous work?
"It's a logical progression from the previous release. The first three albums, The Climb, Spirits and Phoenix, were all obviously electronic or synthesizer based LPs. The biggest change came with Jade, which was intended to appear as a CD but didn't actually make it. It used a greater number of imitations of acoustic textures and is not so obviously a 'synthesizer' LP."
What happened to Jade?
"I managed to secure a deal with a record company and subsequently recorded Jade with the understanding that the finished work would appear on CD. However, months and months went by without any apparent action. Eventually, my agent and I contacted the record company and, after some discussion, they agreed to release the copyright on the material and I was allowed to keep the advance. As a stopgap measure, we released Jade in the form of a limited edition signed cassette. Happily, we managed to sell about 300 copies without any promotion whatsoever. There is a possibility that Jade will be re-released as a CD some time in the not too distant future."
Your most recent live performance was at Gateshead Library's Science Fiction Festival in March of this year. Is live performance very important to the way you work?
"Live performance is very important. I've lost count of the number of gigs I've done over the years - but it's probably about 50 or so. That may not seem all that many compared to some of today's rock bands, but for the kind of music I play it is quite a lot. I wish I could do more live gigs."
Why don't you?
"Well, err... I don't get asked enough! It's a question of being asked! It's not the sort of music that you tend to play at the local club. And then there's also the question of time. I generally do gigs at six monthly intervals and each gig takes roughly three months to prepare for.
"A lot of my pieces are written especially for specific gigs. For example, 'Hyperion' was written with the Gateshead Science Fiction Festival in mind. I often use gigs as an opportunity to try out new work. I live with the piece for a while and then I record a final version."
Your first album, The Climb, was recorded at Spectro Arts Workshop in Newcastle and the new album was recorded at Projects UK in Newcastle, which is just a short hop from the original Spectro site. How did you find it?
"Actually, the new album was only mixed down at Projects UK. They've got a brand new 32-16-2 Allen & Heath Saber desk with onboard MIDI-controlled muting. We used their Dynacord DRP20 digital reverb, and we also hired a Roland R880 reverb. Everything was mixed direct to Sony DAT, and the whole process only took about two days. The compositions were entirely written in my home studio beforehand and stored as MIDI data on floppy disk. All I had to do was to take my gear into the Projects UK studio and dump each of the tracks direct to DAT."
Your home studio is based around an Atari 1040ST running Steinberg Pro24 software. How do you use the computer? Is it a much valued compositional tool or just a dumb recorder?
"The computer is great! It's one of the best things I've ever bought. Remember, the prime aim of making music is the enjoyment of seeing the original idea develop into a finished piece. There's a lot of work involved in the process, trying out new arrangements, changing the way a part sounds, etc. The computer makes this very much easier. OK, there's still a lot to do but, as a compositional tool, the computer is phenomenal. I don't know how I would compose without it. I wouldn't want to go back to using tape."
What equipment did you use on Odyssey?
"Well, my own gear consists of five Yamaha DX7s - actually, a TX416 and a DX7 Mk1. There's a Roland Planet S, a D550, an R8, and an Akai S900 sampler. I also managed to borrow a Roland S550 sampler and a Korg M1.
"The Planet S does all of the warm string pads and the DX7s handle the percussive and bass-type sounds, although they do provide a couple of lead sounds as well. The D550 tends to produce the big sparkly pad sounds, as well as a couple of lead lines. The main percussion is handled by the Roland R8, although there are a number of percussive-type sounds generated by the samplers. The S900 handles the more esoteric, ethnic-type sounds.
"Each of the machines has its own function and none of the instruments can do everything. I know that a lot of manufacturers have produced big glossy adverts claiming that their particular instrument can do everything, but it's just not true. There are some sounds that the DX7 can create that the M1 can't, and vice versa.
"I think that people get very blase about gear these days."
"This has caused us a few headaches in the past. For instance, Dave Berkeley, who helps out by playing at gigs, sold his DX7 and bought a Korg M1. For one of the tracks ('Chameleon') which we've played as the encore piece for the last few gigs, Dave plays a choppy backing chord riff with a very percussive sound on the DX7. When it came to do the Gateshead gig, we couldn't get anything even remotely like that sound on the M1. We solved the problem by sampling the required sound from my DX7 into Dave's S550, and at that point in the gig he was playing the DX7 sound via MIDI on the S550, with the volume turned off on his M1. We had to have that sound but the M1 couldn't reproduce it. Mind you, the M1 can do an awful lot that the DX7 can't!!!"
What was Dave Berkeley's involvement with the new album?
"Dave actually co-wrote two of the pieces on the album, 'Lammergeyer' and 'A Time Remembered'. 'Lammergeyer' was originally Dave's piece. As it appears on the album, there are two main themes - a melodic theme and a chant theme. Dave originally composed the melodic theme in his home studio. He played it to me and, after a bit of thought, I modified it to use percussion sounds of a slightly more ethnic nature and also composed the 'chant'. He liked the end result and we decided to do a full arrangement. So, the song actually started life being shuttled between two computer systems. Not so much trans-continental composition, more like trans-Tyneside!" [See S0S May '89.]
These days, equipment is very much more reliable than it used to be. But it can still cause the odd headache. Any comment?
"The gear we use is very compact. I've seen a number of bands with simply mountains of gear - Tangerine Dream immediately spring to mind. When we turn up for a gig we just bring two keyboards, the Atari computer, and a very big rack of modules, and that's it. Basically, the computer provides all of the backing parts, such as bass lines, rhythmic sequences and sound effects. Dave and I play all of the main chord textures, piano parts, brass parts and lead lines. The computer also takes charge of the program changes, and even reprogrammes my DX7 while I'm playing it. We feel it's an unnecessary waste of our time having to worry about program changes; it's far more important to get on with the playing.
"The computer also sends messages to our Simmons SPM8/2 mixers, which means we can do live mixes that a human engineer would find difficult. At one point in the gig everything except my solo fades out and the reverb level is changed. Then the solo is auto-panned from left to right and various effects are faded in. So, the equipment is pretty complex but at the same time it's very versatile.
"We have had the odd problem, though. At the recent Gateshead gig, it would appear that the Atari crashed for the first time. I don't know how, but apparently the MIDI Thru function locked up without crashing Pro24. The really ironic thing was that it was the only instance in the gig where there was no computer playing, it was purely me and Dave playing by hand - except that I couldn't play anything because none of the other MIDI gear was responding! I managed to scrape through the remainder of the piece using only a single DX7 sound. Not many people in the audience actually noticed, but it made a real difference to us!"
Having started out years ago with analogue equipment, how do you feel about modern instruments?
"I think that people get very blase about gear these days. One of the best sound modules that you can get is the Roland U110. Two years ago, people would have had kittens over what it can do, but you still get folk criticising it for not having a built-in reverb unit. Not much can excite some people these days. OK, so any changes today are more or less refinements to existing gear, but I think that a lot of folk are a bit fed up with the constant stream of new equipment.
"I think there are three classic synths of the Eighties: the Yamaha DX7, the Roland D50, and the Korg M1. I used those instruments on the album to give the best of all three worlds. At the end of the day, the gear isn't really that important. It's what you do with it."
Where did you draw your inspiration from for the new album?
"The title track, 'Odyssey', is based very loosely on the feelings generated by reading Homer's 'Odyssey'. That's why it's very grand and epic. 'Hyperion' was inspired very much by the feel of '2001: A Space Odyssey'.
"One of the things that I like to do is to take various ethnic influences from around the world and incorporate them into my music. Although I don't feel that this is particularly obvious on Odyssey, it is more evident on Jade. For example, there's a track on Jade called 'Sumatra', which uses the western equivalent of the Balinese Gamalan scale, called the 'pelog scale'. Although we didn't use exactly the right tunings, you can come very close to it on a standard keyboard. For those who want to know - in the key of C - it roughly corresponds to C, C#, D#, G, G#. A very peculiar scale. It sounds very Malaysian. We used this as a basis for sampled rock drums, very synthetic lead lines, and at one of our gigs we actually had a jazz sax player join us on stage for what turned out to be a genuinely unique experience. A lot of the avant garde composers tend to experiment with tones and textures. I tend to experiment with the music itself, which I feel is more relevant.
"As another example, on Odyssey, the 'Lammergeyer' track sounds superficially like an out-take from an Incantation LP. Although I've used similar kinds of sounds, such as tight military snares, pan pipes, and a skinned bass drum placed on all four beats of the bar, a number of the other sounds are quite different. Furthermore, the piece 'Masquerade' is played in a compound time signature, and although very few electronic bands tend to use compound time signatures, it does actually sound quite right under the circumstances. It's actually three bars of 5/4 followed by one bar of 6/4, played over and over again, but it sounds right for that piece. It also uses some very Sixties-type chord progressions, but the overall feel is very different from anything else that you might hear."
The feel of a track is obviously very important to you. Is that why you used a real drummer on this album rather than a drum machine?
"The advantage of dealing with Surreal to Real is that I have much greater control over the contents of the CD than I would normally get with a record company."
"Tony Tuddenham was the drummer who came in to re-do some of the drum parts."
But why bother when you had a Roland R8 - the 'human rhythm composer' - in the studio?
"Well, on this album the R8 was used purely as a sound source. You can do some very clever things with that machine but you just can't add the kind of feel that I wanted. It was quicker, easier and gave a better feel for Tony to play the parts into the sequencer via a Roland Octapad. This was very important on tracks like 'Masquerade', especially with its unusual time signature.
'A Time Remembered' was recorded in a slightly unusual way. I wanted it to have a very natural feel, based around an Ovation guitar sample. One method of recording it would have been to play the piece in time with the computer and then doctor the master track to get the accelerandos, ritardos and all of the very subtle tempo changes that I wanted. However, that would have taken ages and totally spoiled the feel of the piece. Consequently, I simply switched off the metronome, set the sequencer to record, and just played the piece straight in. I played right across the bar, completely ignoring the bar lines. I didn't quantise it - in fact, you couldn't quantise it! All of the overdubs were done in the same way, simply layered over the top. You wouldn't believe the number of people who have said to me 'You can't do that!'. Well, you can!"
You previously set up your own record label, Something Else Records, to release your Phoenix album. Now Odyssey has been released by Surreal to Real. Why didn't you release it on your own label?
"Surreal to Real was set up by John Dyson, who was one half of the group Wavestar, and Anthony Thrasher, who has been very involved with the setting up of UK Electronica in the last few years. John enjoyed quite a degree of success in the States under the Wavestar banner but, due to a few bad experiences with his record company, he decided to set up a new label to promote synthesizer music - for want of a better word - in the UK. The idea being that the artists themselves would run the label to minimise the risk of being ripped off. John's CD was the first release, about three or four months ago, and it's doing very well. It is distributed by C&D Services of Dundee, who are specialist distributors of this type of music, and they are attempting to market the label throughout the world. Odyssey is the second release on the label, and although other releases are planned, these have yet to be finalised.
"The advantage of dealing with Surreal to Real is that I have much greater control over the contents of the CD than I would normally get with a record company. The other advantage is that the royalties are much better, although my main motivation was to help them, because I believe in what they are doing and I wanted to support them in the best possible way."
Ian Boddy's persistence does him much credit. But it's sad that, despite the fact that there is a considerable amount of talent in the field of electronic music within the confines of our own shores, the general record buying public shows little or no interest in our native artists. Hopefully, Ian Boddy's enthusiasm and persistence may help to change this unfortunate state of affairs...
Surreal to Real, (Contact Details).
C&D Compact Disc Services, (Contact Details).
Interview by David Hughes