Inside the Synclavier (Part 4)
David Mellor concludes his exploration of the world's most expensive musical instrument with an interview with a musician who can actually afford one, Simon Franglen.
Simon Franglen is a composer of music for TV, films, stage plays and commercials, and also a record producer and keyboard player/programmer. He works mainly at home - in his Padded Cell studio - with his own Synclavier. Before there are any shouts of 'lucky devil', remember that you don't get to be a Synclavier owner unless you are pretty good at what you do. Obviously, megastars like Stevie Wonder and Sting can buy Synclaviers out of their small change, but for a jobbing composer a Synclavier is a major purchase. So why spend all that money?
"I was a programmer for a couple of years before being able to buy one myself, and I suppose you could say, if certain people were built to play certain instruments, then I was built to play the Synclavier. If people ask me what I play, I say I play Synclavier; I don't play keyboards, although I do happen to have other keyboards in my system."
To Simon Franglen, the Synclavier is a very natural instrument to play.
"I don't think when I use it. With any instrument - violin, guitar, piano etc - if you have to think how to use it, it loses its point, because you are not thinking about the music. It becomes a machine rather than a musical instrument."
Since the Synclavier represents a major investment, there has to be a justification for that investment. You do not just have one because you fancy the idea of being in the Synclavier club. There has to be a financial motive. For Simon, it made financial sense to buy his own system rather than continually renting other people's, and the benefits of having its facilities available 24 hours a day are obvious, of course. There are other attractions: "The variety of work you get by using the Synclavier is quite stunning. The wide range of facilities that you can offer an artist, producer or director means that no two jobs are the same. I'm in the fortunate position of tending to work with more established artists, to whom quality is more important than cost."
The Padded Cell studio is, in a word, compact. The studio is just wide enough to fit in the REIMS mixing console. Simon's keyboard arrangement is designed for maximum ease of use, with the Synclavier keyboard protruding from under the mixer - which is raised by eight inches to make this possible. In front of the Synclavier keyboard is the Macintosh II keyboard. In action, Simon continually swaps back and forth between faders, keyboard and computer keys, so the arrangement makes a lot of sense.
Simon's Synclavier system is not the world's largest, but certainly of adequate capability: 64 voices, 24 megabytes of RAM, plus a 180 megabyte hard disk. At the top of his shopping list at the moment is an optical disk unit (costing over £20,000). Simon currently stores his sample library on three optical disks, each of which can hold up to 2000 megabytes of data, but he has to hire the actual unit when necessary. The Synclavier's internal hard disk holds a library of 'greatest hits' samples for day to day use.
So how does a Synclavier owner rate his machine against other musical technology?
"What makes it the best machine in the world is the hundred and something little red buttons on the keyboard. Where on other 'workstations' you go: Control A - Option B - Command C - drop this in - set this up... all you do on the Synclavier is hit a button. It is as simple as that. You just hit a button and work.
"It is the most ergonomic package currently available, and even if you ignore the sheer size and quality, you are still left with the most versatile system I've ever seen. I know other manufacturers are addressing a mass market, but sleeker packaging doesn't necessarily make equipment any easier to use."
As you can tell, here speaks a dedicated Synclavier man. And for a final comment...
"The whole thing about working with the Synclavier is control. Getting the best out of the music. And this is the best way I know of doing that."
Because it has a music keyboard, most people think of the Synclavier as a musical instrument. This is a pretty logical conclusion, of course, but the music keyboard in general is only a means to an end. It was developed over a period of centuries into the standard form in which we know it today, and can be a highly sophisticated interface between the human hand (also the eyes and brain) and any form of machinery. Its virtues are these:
- Easy recognition, without labelling, of 76 (on the Synclavier) different keys.
- The arrangement of black and white keys fits the shape of the hand.
- The velocity at which a key is struck can be used as a controller.
- The pressure with which a key is held down can be used as a controller.
So the Synclavier is a versatile and user-friendly control system - but controlling what? Well, what about sound effects for films? An area of work which still relies heavily on some very old and labour intensive techniques.
Film and video post-production is a market that New England Digital are very keen to exploit. Sound effects can be as sophisticated and subtle as music, once you have developed an appreciation for them. Hopefully this will become apparent as you read on.
In any film or video, sound can be divided into four basic areas: atmospheres, effects, music and dialogue. In many films, all these elements are created separately from the picture.
For foreign distribution, for example, unless a film is subtitled, the dialogue has to be re-recorded in appropriate languages by local actors. This leads to the concept of a film having two separate sound tracks: the dialogue track and the M&E track - 'M&E' being an abbreviation for Music and Effects. The M&E track will stay with the film wherever it is shown, the dialogue track may or may not, as circumstances demand. This brings up an interesting point: if the dialogue track is to be replaced, then it must be completely free of sound effects or those effects will be lost when the dialogue is rerecorded.
The natural conclusion in many cases is that it is pointless trying to record sound effects together with the picture. 'Wild tracks' - unsynchronised recordings - of particular location sounds are taken. With these and other sound effects, a complete effects track can be built up in the comfort of a post-production studio.
The most fundamental sound effects are 'atmospheres' - background noises which are continuous throughout a scene. Atmospheres can be further subdivided into atmospheres consisting of sounds that change as a result of the action, traffic perhaps, and 'buzz' atmospheres - eg. air conditioning, or the whine of the jet engines of a plane in steady flight.
Added to the atmospheres are the effects: door slams, gunshots, crashes etc. These, of course, must synchronise precisely to the action. Traditionally this is done by recording the effect onto magnetic sound film and synchronising this mechanically to the picture film.
Another type of sound effect is known as 'Foley' or 'Footsteps' (American and British terminology respectively). Foley is the art of making human sounds to fit the picture, such as footsteps, breathing, the rustle of clothes etc. These are done on a Foley (or footsteps) stage by a Foley artist who steps in sync with the picture on various surfaces - wood, concrete etc - and breathes and rustles his clothing at the same time. If this sounds trivial, it's not. Foley is serious business and has to be done correctly. Footsteps and other human noises must sound right or the scene just will not work.
'Lay up' is the process of assembling and synchronising the correct atmospheres and effects to the picture before all the sounds are mixed together with the dialogue and music.
The Synclavier is ideally suited to the lay up process. Being the ultimate sampling instrument with as many as 96 megabytes of memory and 96 voices, all the sounds necessary for a scene can be held in (RAM) memory and triggered from the keyboard. SMPTE/EBU time-code ensures that everything stays in sync. At New England Digital's demonstration studio, film sound expert Max Hoskins took me through some of the stages of laying up an effects track...
The three most important items we needed for a demonstration lay up were the Synclavier (of course), a video playback system, and Max's vast library of sound effects. We started simply, without any picture, by building up a scene of a man walking to his car, starting it up and driving off. Simple in concept, and simple in execution - when you know how!
We started with the Foley effects - the human noises. In Max's effects library were such gems as 'Footsteps, male, concrete, left', somewhat abbreviated to fit the file name. I wasn't quite sure that I would be able to hear the difference between the sound of a left foot and that of a right foot, but take my word for it, the difference is important when you hear it.
Max loaded a Timbre on to the Synclavier keyboard consisting of a variety of left and right footsteps, shuffles and scrapes. He played these into the Digital Memory Recorder just as you or I would play a tune. Next came some clothing rustle, then breathing.
The trick seems to be to keep the effects at the right level. The rustle of clothes is generally a very quiet sound. When the recorded effect is played very quietly it is hardly noticeable, but it adds just the right amount of realism.
To set the scene, an atmosphere of rain was added with a couple of distant rumbles of thunder. The final effects were those that told the story: the key in the car door, the door opening, the engine ignition and drive away - with the obligatory screech of brakes.
Creating sound effects by themselves are fun, but doing it to picture is something else. NED use a scene from the film Aliens (the only sequel to be as good as the original!) as a demonstration piece. They have removed all the original sound and redone it with the Synclavier, apparently in a fraction of the time it took to create with traditional methods. I spent an hour having a go at this myself, putting effects (which were already to hand) to the picture. Different spaceship shots require slightly different types of atmosphere - low FM synthesized hums in this case.
In the film, there is a rather spectacular shot of a torch cutting through a metal door, which combines long shots with medium shots and close-ups. The Timbre we used had the hiss of the flame, and also sand thrown into a bucket to simulate the sparks coming off. I played this sound into the Memory Recorder using the modulation wheel to control the level for the various changes of angle.
More precise synchronisation techniques, such as were needed to create computer-style 'blips' to match a video screen in the picture, came next. With the Synclavier, you can either slow the visual action right down while you play in the effects, or enter the timecode values - which are 'burned into' the video picture and shown on the monitor - into the Macintosh II terminal.
One thing struck me while I was fitting in the atmospheres and effects: every now and then I reached a point where I could see that the scene wasn't quite right - the effects were at the wrong levels, or another effect was needed. The snag was that I didn't know what to do about it. It's like when you are building up a piece of music and you know it needs another musical line, but it takes a little time to come up with something suitable. I put this down to two things: 1) my lack of experience with sound effects in this application, and 2) the immense complexity and subtlety of post-production work.
There is a lot to be learned, and a lot of fun to be had, in this field of endeavour - especially on the Synclavier.
NED UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
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Feature by David Mellor