In The Dreamhouse
An ES&CM exclusive... At home with top synth pioneers Tangerine Dream, in their own recording studio - a three page special.
Tony Mills travels to Berlin to find the answers to all the Tangerine Dream questions you've never dared to ask.
There's no question as to who's the top electronic music group in the world — it's Tangerine Dream, and it always has been! Since the late 60's they've been experimenting with electronic sounds in a way which no other musicians have ever equalled, and their recent signing to the new Jive Electro label will hopefully bring them back into the limelight which they so richly deserve.
Tangerine Dream's lineup has been stable for a good few years now — the old guard of Edgar Froese and Christoph Franke having been joined by Johannes Schmoelling after the departure of Petur Baumann for a career in New York pop music. Each of the three band members has a 24-track studio in Berlin, Edgar having recently completed another studio in Austria and Christoph having a house in France complete with compositional computers. Jive flew us over to Berlin to meet the band in Chris Franke's studio in Spandau (in the Northern part of West Berlin) and some of the revelations concerning the band's history and instrumentation make fascinating reading.
To set the scene, Christoph's studio seems to be a converted hotel dance hall, but we were too stunned to ask because for somebody who's lusted after a few expensive keyboards in his time it's a veritable wonderland. The whole area's laid out like a keyboard shop, with everything on stands and plenty of space to wander about. A mixing desk and TV monitor for film work dominate the front of the studio, and one wall is taken up almost entirely by a massive modular synthesiser system.
We began by asking the band about their apparently flourishing trade in film soundtracks. Over the last couple of years (and apart from the well-known Wages of Fear for William Friedkin) they've completed soundtracks for Thief (on Virgin), Deathbite (originally Spasms), The Keep (a commercial failure for Thief director Michael Mann and never shown in the UK), Codename: The Soldier (available on video), Wavelength (soundtrack on Varese Sarabands US import), Firestarter (MCA album), Flashpoint (American EMI), Risky Business (Virgin), Forbidden (a film for German TV) and Street Hawk (a 26-part American TV show) — among others.
Did you find films were something you enjoyed doing, or are they really a business venture?
Edgar: "Both, honestly — you see all that equipment costs a lot of money, and just with the albums we'd never be able to afford it all."
"Sometimes your film music is used unsympathetically whether you're a beginner or a professional. Most people think that if you're a star in the record business and you're selling millions of records you can do soundtracks. But you'll often find that 90% of your music is not used because it's not needed or the director uses it in a different way. You can't do anything about it."
Christoph: "With Wages of Fear we had a lot of luck in a bad luck situation, because the film didn't do very well but we were satisfied with the way the music was used. The reverse happened with Risky Business, because the film was successful in the States but the company just couldn't arrange to have the record out at the same time."
Edgar: "Once we decide to do a soundtrack we do everything we can to help the director and producer to make the best possible film, even if we realise it's a shitty film because we've only seen an early version when we sign the contract. Sometimes they're very surprised that we do everything we can when they're not even happy with their own film.
"We would complain about the way the compilation was done for Risky Business, because you listen to our piece and then a piece from Muddy Waters or someone — we wanted all our music on one side of the album, but the producers decided to use the music more or less chronologically as it occurred in the film. The best way of doing soundtracks was on Firestarter where we had total freedom. Dino di Laurentiis flew in from Italy to watch some of it being done, then we went to LA to discuss the music with the director and we discussed everything as we went along. We did new mixes for the album, we produced the record and it more or less gave it a unity which mirrored the way it was used in the film."
"There are certain films we will not work for in general — films which blame people for their nationality or religion, or films which glorify war, or pure pornographic things we won't touch at all. We did a lot of music for The Keep — almost an opera! — and they used it all, but the film was a flop because it went over time and over budget so it was withdrawn after being shown in France and Germany, so there's no soundtrack album. The film's for a very special sort of audience — it's a Gothic supernatural film but it doesn't have a pure style.
Do you often use old pieces of music for films, TV or theatre and give them further exposure on an album?
Edgar: "No, although we counted around ten triple albums' worth of unused material from our last years with Virgin. When we were doing Encore in 1977 we used a piece of music that we'd made for the play Oediupus Tyrannus at the Chichester Festival under Keith Michel a couple of years before. Generally we wouldn't do that, but one of the reasons was the departure of Peter Baumann. The whole record was done when Peter decided to stay in the States so we looked back to what we had and used a couple of pieces from rehearsals we did, and the Oediipus pieces which came from CBS studios in London in 74-75."
Christoph: "It may be that we'd take a piece we'd done for a film and play it live, but to be perfectly honest most of the film music pieces are much too complicated to play live because of all the cue points in the film. That particular piece was very slow and floating so it would have been much easier."
Since we were on the subject of Encore, the band's live double album from their 1977 American tour, I asked a few more pointed questions about that era — such as whether Coldwater Canyon was a genuine live piece?
Edgar: "Why do you think it wasn't? In fact we played that piece on a lot fewer dates than the others because it came from the second half of the tour. The first part went very well but the second half was knocked down after three concerts. We always said I broke my arm falling off a horse, which was bullshit. I can hardly ride a horse. (Christopher adds "that's probably why you fell off it"). The real reason was that all the concert promoters went bankrupt because Emerson, Lake and Palmer had just cancelled their massive tour with a 120-piece orchestra. We were a part of the disaster and we lost a lot of money on the tour. We had to grab together some bits and pieces — on Cherokee Lane there were pieces from three to four concerts, so we got a lot of letters saying I've got the tape from the concert you played here and I can't find that part anywhere"!
"Sometimes we played for three hours and even on a double album you've only got four times twenty minutes, so obviously you have to edit things down. For Ricochet we used a rented eight-track in Hemel Hempstead and we searched for a week in a mass of forty-two or forty-three tape sets for sequences; we still think the second side is one of the best pieces we'd ever done. It was taken from nine concerts and we added little bridges to join them together, not a new melody but just a low tone that made a key change. You see, we don't believe that whatever happens in a concert should be put on an album — we think that the audience should get the best out of the whole tour.
"We couldn't add new sequencers on that album because we hadn't recorded a trigger track on the tape. Normally we'd do that today, because even with modern technology you get a sequence out of tune or out of step and a SMPTE code on the tape will let you overdub it in the studio."
Were you using a drum kit on Riocochet?
Chris: "We were using the first electronic drum machines from Roland, plus a few percussive effects set up on Moog modular systems triggered by sequencers. On Side One there was one part where we used congas; when we had the second side finished we didn't want to do the first side the same way so we went to the Manor and put the first side together in a proper studio."
Edgar: "On Logos there is virtually no alteration except for a new mix of the ending; something went totally wrong with the applause and the ambience from the audience came out on all the tracks. We recorded everything at the Dominion Theatre in London with the Manor Mobile studio; in the past we often did just 4 or 8 track recordings, particularly in America or Australia because you run into very strange difficulties with the unions if you do a live recording for commercial reasons. You get people running round searching for the tape recorder, so for the last two tours we build a special box with a locked door with a tape recorder in it!"
Was the East Berlin concert the first time Johannes played live with the band?
Johannes: "Yes, that was the first time. For me it was a pleasant experience to be with the group, and in that case I was mainly playing piano more than synthesisers. Quichotte starts with a piano piece which opened the second part of the two concerts — it was a funny experience for me to jump into it, because we only had one week's preparation for it and then we jumped over, so most of the music was improvised. Some of it was afterwards played on Tangram."
"I'd joined the band three months before, but the East Germans only told us at the last minute that we could play. The band were preparing the new record — which turned out to be Tangram — and I joined then, and after a month or so they asked us to play in East Berlin. The preparation went on for three years but they eventually made a very quick decision!"
Edgar: "All of Quichotte is improvised — we were in the delicate situation of not being so well together, and since Johannes had brought a Yamaha electric grand piano he had the idea of playing a longish opening on it. It helped a lot in the concert and we used the idea on the UK tour after that."
Why haven't you worked with other musicians?
Edgar: "There's a very particular reason for that; because Christoph and me started off way back with little audio generators, toys really, and we went through the fields of technology over the last fourteen years and made a lot of experiments with all different kinds of equipment you can think of. That gave us some knowledge which makes it very difficult for other musicians to step in; you can buy a Yamaha or a Roland or whatever and that allows you to start improvising with other musicians, but to know how to step into the deeper side of the philosophy of the technology is very hard for people outside the band.
"We had a musician in here who always played very fast runs on the pianos; he played very well, but he destroyed the atmosphere by doing it. We've worked together with Johannes now for four or five years and we know each other very well, and we can reflect each other's intentions when we play together."
Didn't Christoph do some pieces on Lutz Ulbrich's solo album Luul?
Chris: "No, I didn't do anything myself. My name's on it but I wasn't here when they received it. I just gave them some program for Prophets and things, but there was another guy from Berlin doing the sequencers. There were plans for me to do a solo album at one stage, but time ran out in the last year and at the moment it's very unlikely that I'll be able to do anything. On the Virgin Boxed Set 70-80 you have three solo pieces, one done in each studio, and also the second side of Phaedra consists more or less of solo pieces."
Edgar: "We weren't entirely happy with the technical side of the boxed set; it would have been a better idea if Virgin has used the short tracks rather than cutting down long ones or making people who didn't really know Tangerine Dream listen to the longer tracks. It would have been better to make it for "beginners" — but at least all the pressings were very good quality."
Did you have to redesign the stage equipment after Peter Baumann left?
Edgar: "We first had to redesign ourselves rather than our equipment. After working together for six years we could sit down without talking about the music and we could start playing, and whatever keys we pressed would fit automatically, so that was all gone when Peter left — that was the hardest part. We didn't know whether to continue as a two-piece or as a four or five-piece; we tried on Cyclone (with Steve Jolliffe and Klaus Krieger) but we hadn't been able to search for too long before starting and in the end we all realised that it wasn't a band that could continue as Tangerine Dream. There's not much more music from that time — we thought to record more but we realised that all the influences were coming from too many different angles — although the record has quite a few parts that we still like.
"Playing live with two people would have been possible, but we'd have lost the interaction you get with three people — it's like a war, two against one, or one with two, or three all together, a triangle of interaction, and with two people it can never be so aggressive or so peaceful."
Was it decided to use Johannes' classical music education to forge a new style for the band?
Chris: "Johannes brought a new colour into the band. Even if there are no sounds or ideas directly from classical music, there are still some ideas of feeling and dynamics, timing and so on, rather than a real classical structure in the songs."
Johannes: "I learned piano playing for many years, and of course I had to play all the piano pieces that everybody learns, but my greatest experience was playing a church organ. My parents are very religious and I went into the church every Sunday, and I was very fascinated by the sounds; there's a real connection between playing the organ, because there are many more sound colours than on the piano, and stepping into this group, synthesisers give you a great range for creating sounds which have never been heard before — they also give you some of the same feeling of power."
Edgar: "The music also began to become more optimistic. A lot of the trouble we had with Peter in the last two years with the band was that he brought the music into a very depressive area and we had to do a lot of work to keep that out and not release it on the records. Obviously we don't like it, because who needs depressing music nowadays anyway? Johannes always takes everything as it comes.
How about on stage gear? It's changed a lot since you started, hasn't it?
Chris: "We looked at everything that was programmable that we could take on stage; we didn't want to take the modular system on stage and we wanted to make a lot more fast changes for new sounds and colours. We started with the Oberheim programmable synths, the Prophet 5, then the Roland Jupiter 8, and then all the companies brought something out. We could have digital sequencers on stage which looked and operated like analogue machines so we'd have access to the notes in a live situation; at this time we had to have them built specially, mainly by electronic engineers who had a little understanding of music, and we told them the basic kinds of functions and how reliable they had to be for stage use and transportation."
Edgar: "Wolfgang Palm (now of PPG) modified some of his equipment for us, but there were also many others who aren't really connected with the musical instrument industry. On the PolyMoog they made a very fine instrument but they didn't trust the memory system to the new computer memories — they gave it to Keith Emerson for almost a year I heard, but when it was brought it was only 50% ready. The Oberheim was a nice instrument, but you have to tune sixteen separate buttons, so we could see that most of the big companies weren't really listening to what the musicians wanted."
Chris: "The Prophet 5 was the biggest help, and the Jupiter 8 after that. I went to see the development in Japan at the stage where they still thought they could build it with one oscillator per voice, and I told them they had to have facilities such as cross mod and ring modulation — when it came out it had most of those functions.
"In the late 70's we had percussion units built which make up some of the sections of my rather old-fashioned modular system. They all use sampled sounds, but now we also have commercial units with special modifications to the software such as adding floppy disk drives to the Oberheim drum machines and sequencers. It doesn't matter whether you're in a live situation or the studio, it's always important to be able to get the speed of access that you want on these units. Programmers don't understand that two key depressions to reach a new section is one too many, and sometimes you have to use eight or nine. PPG are much better in this sense now — they've grown up a lot, and we've bought everything they've ever done."
Edgar: "It's a little like the hi-fi companies; the designer seems to think you need a lot of LED's and lights to make you think you've got the most important piece of equipment in the world. It can disorient you — the best equipment has not one button more or less than is necessary. We have three compatible 24-track studios so it's not that you don't have studio time, it's that you're forced by your own creativity; you know what you want to do, you've got the sound together, you know how to do it, but then ten or twenty steps before you reach what you've got in mind is too much. You lose the idea from your mind before you get to tape."
Do you find interfacing all this equipment a big problem?
Chris: "On a lot of recent machines you find all the interconnections are missing, particularly between digital and analogue equipment. Some companies had the policy of making their equipment only compatible with their own machines."
But what about MIDI?
Chris: "They make a big noise about it but it's still in the development stage. It can do a lot, although it's slow, being serial rather than parallel, but we can already connect up all the equipment we've got, using custom analogue to MIDI interfaces and switching units. The idea of a Master Keyboard is very important for us, to get rid of the columns of keyboards on stage. All we need now is a long sample unit for ten or twenty seconds, and a good programmer that can cope with the Synclavier and the DX7 as well as the cheaper instruments."
Edgar: "The best thing for the next two or three years would be to have one or two master keyboards, a lot of expander modules and a SMPTE clock, and that's all you need."
Chris: "We'll be looking at the Kurzweil soon, but only when its user sampling option is working — it'll take a little time and it's too expensive to use just as a preset instrument. We always want to change sounds or do our own, so we're getting an Emulator II and we're waiting for the Synclavier's Re-synthesis package.
"In fact sampling may be just a transition stage, because a sample is like a photo and there's not much you can do with it. Once you can re-synthesise (get the synth's oscillators to align themselves into the best possible copy of an acoustic sound) you're at the beginning again — you can change all parameters, so maybe it's the next thing.
"We have a GDS computer which we don't use much on stage. Its advantage is that you have more oscillators, and that you can make chains of oscillations with an FM pair modulated by a third and by a fourth oscillator to make very complex sounds. You can call up and mix together eight different sounds on the front panel, although the Synclavier can now do that with four sounds. The structure of the Synclavier is much simpler; you can program faster because you only have FM pairs, but I now have 50 sounds for the GDS which I like — but each sound could take half a day even with a programmer to help me. You have key velocity which calls in two different sounds and not only mixes them but makes an interpolation between them to give all the different sounds in between. You also have velocity sensitivity on the PPG Wave, which is good for brass sounds because every key controls all the filters, so you don't have to play completely evenly to get the effect."
The band's current album is the epic double Live in Poland on Jive Electro, which naturally prompts questions about their recent live experiences and future plans.
Edgar: "We're thinking about playing in Summer or Autumn 1985, certainly not early 85 because of the amount of preparation that's needed. We've now converted all the equipment back to studio use; when we played in Poland the Emulator worked pretty well despite the cold, and so did the Wave system. All the sequences in the live situation come from custom computers, sometimes driving Simmons or PPG modules; we can have up to 99 four-voice Polyphonic sequences playing in blocks of 64, using equipment built by a Berlin company mainly unconnected with music. EEH also built a large sequencer for us, and some of their units are now on the market.
"When we're working in the studio we'll save sounds and patterns on floppy disks for stage use — sampled sounds for percussion are fixed in EPROMS which we had before the Oberheims and Linns which we now also use. Sampled voice sounds can come off the Emulator driven by control voltage; the "Wake Up" sample we use on Logos was made with a Publison unit which we liked, but the company were never able to complete a disk storage unit for it."
How hard do you have to work to turn out so much new music? "Almost every day."
Chris: "Because of the three studios, when we get an idea we call each other on the phone and come over to one studio with whatever pieces of equipment we need. Then we'll work in that studio until the piece is finished."
Suffice it to say that things are looking good for the Tangs. On Poland they've combined the latest digital and sampled sounds with some very simple but forceful sequences reminiscent of the old days of Rubycon and Ricochet. It makes for a powerful and varied set, but one which will no doubt contrast markedly with their next studio album.
Interview by Tony Mills