Jethro Tull's Peter Vetesse
Computer Musician in Rock | Peter Vetesse
Peter, what has made you turn towards computer-orientated instruments?
I haven't made a conscious effort to actually turn to computer instruments, I haven't done anything like that. I've found through a gradual learning process — that started with an ARP Odyssey and continued through many various analogue monophonics to analogue polyphonics and lately digital synthesisers — that there are many ways in which a computer can help my performance input techniques and means of storing the input, as well as storing prepared sequences. One obvious advantage with something like this instrument here — the Roland MC-202 Microcomposer is that it kind of frees my hands and we can have an absolutely accurate backing track done even within a few seconds.
The way I do this is by writing the music, discussing the part that I should be playing with Ian, and writing music and entering the pitch data, the gate data and the step data, and we'll have an accurate and groovy bass track in the first take!
With instruments like the Rhodes Chroma, the computer aspect of the thing, as you know, has changed our thinking away from the volt per octave control and more towards digitally scanned keyboards. Now it's a microprocessor that scans the state of readiness of the synthesiser, which obviously makes operation quicker and more versatile.
The Chroma was designed from the outset to interface to the Apple II and various other micros and it gives me a chance to initially store many programs and recall them in a couple of seconds. As far as live rock work is concerned, I can go through hundreds of programs per night and have them sequenced in order of events from the computer.
Jethro Tull has such a distinctive musical style that the possibilities for short sequencing and polyphonic riffs are very evident even from the last record, the 'Beasty'. Is that how you see a linking of micro control into the rock music of Jethro Tull?
I'd only been with the band for about three months when that album was being rehearsed and played and my input was limited to writing some of the musical passages. My input on the electronic side was not as much as on the album that we're doing now; the reason being that it's contextual, I really have to play in a sort of context not to offend any of the Jethro Tull public but at the same time I tend to introduce, without surrender, with my kind of feelings as to what Jethro Tull perhaps should sound like, and also the fact that I'm playing with guitar players, bass players and drummers, and you simply have to play in context so that the computer control enabled me to recall many patches, program and controller settings instantly. I also play short arpeggios often sync'ed to a control pulse, although there are times when we do 'wild' things. Plenty of the arpeggios you hear sounding micro-generated are actually played live.
Of course your musical interests run much deeper than rock music, is jazz your strongest base for your own music?
Well, I would have to say yes, but then again simultaneously as I say yes there will be thousands of (well at least seven) people I know that will chorus a resounding "no". One of the reasons is that the synthesiser has taken its own place in jazz now, but at the time when I was trying to play synthesised jazz there was just complete and utter confusion as to what I was doing on stage with the synthesiser. I remember silly comments like, "It doesn't sound like a piano" and "Oh dear, isn't that terrible, and you're not really a player because you play one," and all that crap!
But my interests do run to jazz and just prior to Jethro Tull the Scottish Music Society asked if I would lecture on jazz and I toured with the Scottish jazz lecture group discussing the history of jazz, bringing it up to date and showing the influence of electronic instruments. Unfortunately, that was limited to the arrival of the Fender Rhodes piano, which obviously played a large part for people like Herbie Hancock.
So my interests are primarily 'jazzoid' but at the same time I don't think it gives me the full satisfaction of making music — jazz tends to be slightly technical and harmonically 'wondrous', and I like the incredibly loud aspect of Rock — so my desires can really be fulfilled when playing with Jethro Tull because I'm LOUD!
Tell me how you put together Jethro Tull music?
On the last album for Jethro Tull it worked that Ian would come in and say that he had some kind of sketch, an outline of a melody and some thoughts on what kind of chords the melody was going to have. The band would have a reasonable free hand in its input as to what kind of rhythm should happen although Ian would invariably specify that it should not be of this or that type. We'd rehearse the first verse, chorus, second verse and then land up at a place where we thought something else should happen musically — whether it be instrumental or something else should happen musically — whether it be instrumental or something else should happen — and then Ian sort of casts out "Well, who can think of anything to happen here?" and I was invariably the first one with my hand up! For every ten ideas that I had invariably only one or two of them would be possible to use.
So how did you reckon on using an Apple IIe or Commodore 64 or some other computer with your current system on stage?
I started using the Chroma with the Apple II and later updated to the Apple IIe. So the Apple sees 16 independent synthesisers, which means that, along with all the very complete expression devices that are on the Chroma: velocity, sensitivity, pressure sensitivity, plus spring loaded modulation levers, I can assign extra control of most functions in a creative way. Any of the input that you have expression wise will be recorded by the Apple II as well as the note playing and sound programming information. So its use is virtually like an 8-track or, with an expander, a 16-track tape recorder with all the realtime expression that you care to put into a performance retained. You can clock the sequences from an external source and this is important for stage use.
If Ian and I toured this kind of music on tour from this album, then we could perhaps clock some of the backing tracks played on the Chroma, using a clock in from a Linn Drum say, playing all the various parts on the album that originally played. But I would still do some of the lines that were important to play live.
So that's how the micro could be used in a live context and also, as I mentioned earlier, the fact that program dumping and storage takes much longer on cassette, the computer's floppy disk system gives retrieval and storage within about a second-and-a-half.
You're a creative musician who likes touch sensitive keyboards and things like that and you're having to give away some of that to introduce the computer on stage, because the computer then takes it over at your press of a button and it plays a sequence. So you're giving up part of your playing for that machine, and I wonder how quickly the computer musician will become the all-embracing musician or whether he will always be part of the existing creative player?
Well, my thoughts about the musician and the computer run along these lines. Anybody that says no matter what music they play, if it's classical music, if it's jazz, if it's rock, if it's anything, if they stand on the side lines and say "oh dear, this computer music is taking all the feeling away, it's robbing us of jobs, it's doing this and it's doing that — these people I have no sympathy with. I'm also antagonised by the fact that they just stand back and say "Oh no, definitely not because I play piano," because I was doing a demo of the Chroma in a well-known music shop in London and somebody came up to me and said, "Of course, I play the piano and it's touch and all the rest of it," and that kind of attitude is just so ridiculously short-sighted. Whether or not you can play keyboards or whether you can't play keyboards, whether you're fantastic or not, the computer and computer related devices are shaping the new developments in music making and anybody that chooses to ignore that, be it at their own peril!
Even though Jethro Tull music has a free feeling in its performance, I get the impression that it's precisely organised.
Oh yes, Ian's astute enough to know that even the best of the band's own jam sessions only come together for a precious few seconds where everything is wonderful and you want to go down to the pub with all your friends and say we are the best band in the world, but of course there's nothing that replaces a concerted effort by either Ian or myself or with the rest of the band in getting together and saying, well, that works, but of course it took 15 minutes to blow through the entire soul before it started happening and so let's analyse how we can bring that much closer, much nearer to the beginning of the tune, let's say.
You then get a danger that you can over contribute as individuals to the piece and it becomes too busy or whatever. I did hear a lot going on with JT in the tracks. I personally like it because I think it's not muggy as a result, but that is a criterion that one has to watch, isn't it?
Well, of course, you're talking about my input into a band like Jethro Tull, with such a sizeable reputation as they have. I was in second year at school when somebody brought in 'Thick as a Brick' so I've come into Jethro Tull with a slightly different viewpoint concerning how things should sound. Not that it's any big deal, but I prefer myself a more transparent, more direct or apparently direct approach while Jethro Tull tends to, because there are many fine musicians in Jethro Tull who by right should be heard anyway, keep bits that they might find they can't live without.
Even the bass takes over some of the melodic lines.
Yes, and of course that's what makes Jethro Tull Jethro Tull. If it weren't for that Jethro Tull would be nameless countless others.
What do you currently use on stage with the Chroma then? What are the instruments you are using now?
On the American Tour I didn't have the Chroma at that point, that was ended in November of last year, so I didn't have the Chroma until I got back from America. On the American Tour I used the Yamaha Grand Piano and I had the JP8, OBX-A, the Promars, CSQ 600 Sequencer, a Roland Vocoder Plus, and all the various peripherals plus my custom-built hand-held monophonic synthesiser for going out front, posing and trying to see if there's any good-looking women in the audience!
How do you use the Korg Vocoder?
I played the notes and Ian triggered it from his microphone. Strangely enough a master vocal had gone down and I played the Vocoder from the tape track which was quite an interesting thing to do — good for phrasing, although very difficult. Ian's phrasing is the result of many years of thought and practice and his phrasing very much belongs to him and him alone. One of my hardest tasks was to try and play in his type of phrasing.
Yes, it's quite hard to learn the techniques of another skilled musician in that detail, isn't it?
Yes, very difficult. I also sang some of the harmonies on the 'Broadsword' album which had to be phrased with Ian, and some of the tunes he was phrasing behind the beats and you had to hang back. It's not the way I would do it, but then again it's a great challenge to try to do it that way.
So on stage you've got a Chroma keyboard with the Chroma Expander module on top?
On the forthcoming efforts I will have a Chroma with an Expander or perhaps I will have a few Chromas with a few Expanders, because as you know the Expander simply duplicates any of the things — it doesn't increase the polyphony, simply paralleling two different set of sounds together.
Right, and the Emulator, how many discs will you carry and what sort of sounds are you using with that?
On this album as I mentioned previously, Emulators I'm a bit wary of because first of all I can (I'm sure lots of other people can), spot an Emulator at twenty paces — I hear it on the new Midge Lire single, I hear it on Dave Stewart's which is a very good single, but I can hear an Emulator, the French horn sound on that Paul Weller single trumpets solo playing incredible queen triplets the likes of which I've never even heard Woody Shore playing, and also during the Weather Report Concert I thought it was a bit of a giveaway to hear the standard Emulator four-piece playing timpani and French horn.
But Ian has got all of his own sounds now on the Emulator and they were generated by him playing that instrument, so there's flute, cello, bits of piano, guitars, mandolin — we have all these things on the Emulator and I'm sure that it will become a part of the stage set-up. The Emulator suffers from that horrendous silly plastic keyboard that current technology will only allow.
Are you criticising it because of its lack of pressure and touch sensitivity?
Yes, but there's nothing very much at the moment that you can do to bring out filtering or whatever because the digital filter is not with us and won't be with us for quite some time. All you can do is adjust volume and filter cut-out.
That's an important point that was raised with the designer of the 360 Systems, Bob Easton, who also said that with sound sampling the modulation is not just with the VCA but is also with the filter.
Yes, that's right, it's all very well having an analogue filter tweaking the cut-off or whatever, but it's just going to sound like somebody stuck their cello into a wah-wah pedal.
It just takes it away from the fact that you've got a real sound to begin with.
Yes, in fact I've found that most orchestral types of things can be best achieved at this point in time by using an analogue synthesiser.
How do you cope with the vocals as well when you're playing on stage?
I've never found that difficult. It's just been one of these things I've done naturally since the age of six. I've played various instruments, I wrote my own tunes and all the rest of it, and so I can play reasonably complex things on the keyboards and sing "La la la I love you" on top of it and it's no difficulty. The only difficulty is in a loud band situation, hearing your vocals well enough to be able to pitch properly, but of course, as far as I can tell, pitching problems are tending to become less and less important!
I imagine that you would consider that the use of the computer instrument in your set is going to be even more valuable when you're making your records.
Oh yes, for instance, in the new album we used the Roland MC-202 and I can duplicate all the things that I've done by playing it back again into an Apple or such like micro and reproduce it and perhaps not even turn up for the gig — but of course I wouldn't do that!
Has the Chroma offered you any real improvements in playing and composing now you've exploited the playing and composing side?
Yes. First, I feel that the Chroma allows a musician to put his stamp on not only his playing, his style of playing, but also his sound, in other words he not only goes down on record playing the way hopefully that he wants to, but he also comes out sounding the way that he personally wants to.
For instance, although you can spot piano players all over the world, you can spot styles and stuff, it's a piano and it may be wonderfully recorded but it's a piano; and there's such things as wonderful technique and great singing cantabile and all the rest of it, but I can be exactly the way I want sonically and technically by playing the Chroma. The Chroma has made me rethink my playing, where perhaps before when I had my Oberheim, my soloing tended to be of a Jan Hammer type — it would be guitar-type bends and that sort of thing. But the Chroma tends to change my attitude because of the keyboard. I can return to the way I really should be playing which is the way I want to be, sometimes I do pitch bends, other times I'm just playing in a more pianistic type of way.
I think it's a good thing to practice pitch bending, but it is somewhat overused and I notice nowadays that another style that's emerged is to play more saxophone-type phrasings — pitch bends bending from underneath the note instead of bending up to it. And also to do saxophone-type things like the Stevie Windwood thing from 'Arc of the Diver' or sometimes harmonica-type phrasing. I notice too there tends to be another style where synthesiser soul-type lines can develop.
What about the pitch bend wheels themselves. How do you come to terms with Chroma's rather simple sliders? Well, it's a bend lever that looks like a slider, isn't it. Do you find that adequate or do you go for the more horizontal Roland kind of approach?
I don't mind, I quite like the quantifiable pitch bend where you can definitely see that you will bend whole tones or some other interval accurately, because there's nothing worse than guitar players especially bending up and not landing on the notes. It's something very satisfying when they do but diabolically horrible when they don't and if you know there's a passage you are going to play where you want to bend whole tones, it's nice to quantify it, as you can on Roland stuff. Then again, the Chroma allows me to specify most intervals and I need not necessarily have one lever for modulation and one for pitch bend, I can have two different depths of pitch bend and I could have the modulation on the pedal. I could also leave the last thing into the program reachable by the main panel Parameter Slider to be the amount of quantisation of the thing — so I could change it if I wanted to during the course of each specific passage.
Isn't it more likely that the MIDI will be of greater benefit than say a dedicated system like the Chroma which is restricted as far as we know to the Chroma and nothing else?
Well, possibly, I think the MIDI is obviously a wondrous step forward to be able to interface things together and you can layer sounds and stuff like that and you can also clock things properly and what not, but the Chroma has actually gone out on a limb and said that synthesisers and microcomputers will be as one anyway and ultimately I think that research and development will gel in future Chroma products to have a dedicated user instrument with in-built micro capabilities and you won't necessarily have to rely on patching lots of things together in order to do that sort of thing. The MIDI is a great idea but I believe that the way Chroma is going at the moment in terms of their research and development is the right way, as far as I can tell.
Provided it has the expansibility then you're not worried?
That's right. The Chroma can link up to five expanders. Future Chroma products will not only be able to parallel the expanders but also to put them in series to increase the polyphony and the amount of programs, and sequences, so I think it's going the right way.
How important then is it to you as a person who writes music down to have VDUs perhaps showing music on stage. Would you like that possibility?
I never like to see bits of music floating about on stage in a band situation, unless of course it's incredibly difficult to remember. I don't like to see that because it's just not nice, I don't like it, the kind of music that Jethro Tull plays it's not so complex as to have music floating about, and I wouldn't ever think of a time where I would have to look to anything to be able to remember something that happened. If I did, then of course we haven't rehearsed properly or I haven't rehearsed properly! But I could see that it would be a good idea to perhaps have something equivalent to an auto cue with music being screened.
On the other hand, as far as the Chroma is concerned, it would be nice to have all parameters displayed, but of course that might be getting away from what the Chroma tried to do in the first place because, even displayed on a screen, it's a kind of analogue way of incrementing various different functions, that you could do with a lightpen or whatever. But the Chroma relies on a slider incrementer for making setting changes, and now Korg use two switches to put things up or down, and even the Synclavier has an Incrementer. I quite like the Incrementer idea, people might think it's slow, but I quite like its very orderly way of doing things. The new Chroma Polaris just unveiled uses analogue controls for all the things that you would tend to gratuitously twiddle with anyway during a performance, plus assignable controls. I suppose that's the one thing that the Chroma has taken away from the new synthesist is the opportunity to twiddle! But it's still built around the normal synthesiser functions, an oscillator, a filter, an amplifier with assignable envelopes to each of an ADSR variety if you wish.
Do you feel that the algorithms are adequate then within the Chroma as it stands?
Well, the algorithms in the Chroma relating to the various keyboard algorithms and the way that it assigns its oscillators to the notes that you play, I don't feel have been quite fully developed yet. There are some things that I would like to try and sort out for instance, with keyboard algorithms 3 and 4 — well 3 is a note sharing thing, if you play one note all 16 oscillators are in unison but it's not sharing where you can play chords as well — but 4 is completely monophonic with all 16 oscillators on the one note that you play and I would like to be able to change the priorities of that setting, I would like to be able to make it top note, bottom note priority, even with all 16, and also I would like to be able to change things so that it can, for instance, leave the amplifier open all the time when retriggering notes, just simply retrigger the filter instead of having to retrigger the filter and the amplifier every time. It means that you can't do trills, you know, holding a finger down you have to retrigger every time.
So, in a little more detail, how do you actually construct your keyboard music for Jethro Tull? You say you get an idea from Ian and then you would have to create your harmony. Do you have any sort of special way of going about things?
When I first joined Jethro Tull I listened to the music they played and generally felt it to be a kind of classical orchestral arrangement and so it was simply a matter of me playing in context with the music. Certainly for the last album, where I thought Ian wanted to hear in that situation, yet still try to make it something that satisfies me too. And it tended to be more classical kind of stuff but it's all a matter of musical sensibilities which you gather during your life, during exposure to other people's music.
So if Ian gives you an E major chord that you don't necessarily play E major, you might play E major seventh, you might add the 13th or 11th to it and give a jazzy input or a new edge to it by the way you're playing?
Yes. In this album that we're working on — I mean Ian's solo album on which I contribute keyboard playing — I feel that he has certainly allowed me more of an input on the harmonic structure.
Does he actually specify then the full chord or would he give you a root?
He would give me a fairly open kind of thing. He likes the sound of the tonic fifth, but the notes that give a chord it's mood are invariably the thirds, minor third, or the seventh, or things like that, even ninths. They give chords and therefore music its very meaning, so I would suggest, "What about this Ian, do you like that, let's try that, I really like this — can you not put up with it," or whatever.
How have you developed your exceptionally fast playing technique?
Well, I went to piano lessons way back when I was five or six years old and I didn't enjoy it very much, so I came away from my piano lessons and started playing, writing songs of a kind of Beatles nature and singing and generally being a bit of a 'child protege' I suppose! On looking back, my songwriting given current standards was probably at its best during those years, you know, when I was seven years old or something! Because they were quite uninfluenced, not derivative of anything, unashamed, raw, rough and reasonably nasty.
As a piano player not very much development took place until I was about 11 when my father, who's a saxophone player, moved us further north near to a good friend of my father who'd also tutored my father on the ways of saxophone and piano playing. He said I was a piano player of 'zero promise' and my parents gave me the encouragement to interpret that remark in various different ways and after I got it into my head, I decided to attack the technique side of things because I wasn't going to be left at the post not knowing how to play scales and stuff, which I didn't at that point.
So you were reading music as well?
I read bits of music and although my classical repertoire is not much because I never really did advance further than a few preludes and fugues and some Chopin, but by that time my harmonic expectations had probably exceeded the things that I might hear from, dare I say it, some of the classical things are harmonically mundane as far as I see it.
What do you listen to in terms of music — do you listen to a lot of keyboard music, do you listen to other people, do you like that kind of input or do you tend to keep away from it.
I love music, I love playing the piano, I love playing the synthesiser, I love talking about piano, I love talking about synthesiser. I listen to Radio 1, I listen to all the pop stuff, love it all, have many criticisms to make concerning the various... they're just tetchy little technical observations about one or two things. But I just love it all. But the music I listen to and discovered after I'd come through my kind of Keith Emerson — not come through, I don't mean this glibly come through the Keith Emerson phase, because Keith Emerson I still find to be a very very great piano player, but I was halfway through that when a friend let me hear 'Black Market' by Weather Report which kind of changed things around and I realised that there were other people in the world, which is a thing that people should try and remember when hiking after the Keith Emerson, Rick Wake-things. There are other people in the world now who are prepared to do for synthesisers and pianos what maybe Keith Emerson did in his day.
How much do you write down these days?
I write down all the bass patterns for the MC-202 because the most accurate way to enter information into the 202 is either numerically or using the normal entering in quavers, crotchets, what have you, so we discuss — Ian and I — what these patterns should be, I enter in the pitch information... and then I go back and enter in the gate and step time simultaneously, because entering in the pitch and then going back and tapping in things, even though you might be the most accurate player in the world, it's still a slightly random thing and syncing back off a Linn, if you have an ear to be able to detect things that take less than 19mS to elapse, then you will be able to tell that it isn't accurate unless you enter it numerically or the normal crotchet, quaver way.
Thinking positively, what does the MC-202 offer you?
It frees my hands bass wise because I can play the bass part with the drum part as we're rehearsing the tune, and then I can enter all that information into the MC-202 and we can play the two things back and then we can layer up and find out if we like this or that part, and instead of having to go from the Control Room, open the Control Room door, through into the studio and say to the bass player, "honestly, I don't like that, it's terrible, being honest about it, you're just playing a load of rubbish," you can simply switch the thing off and start again.
There are a lot of problems with tuning machines, although they've been consistently improved upon — a touch of a button allows you to have an auto tune facility, and I see that you've got a Conn Tuner running here. Do you use that for setting up?
Yes, I refer to this Conn Strobe Tuner before every overdub and it's not just a kind of habit I've formed now — I suppose it is a habit — but I would find it absolutely necessary to refer to the thing, not because my own ears would fail to tell me when things are out of tune, but because I would prefer to be rest assured in the fact that it is in tune.
Yes, I think that if you're using a lot of detuning or polygliding and so on that you ear or your brain can actually take you away from the pitch you're working at without you realising.
Well, of course, there are some times during a track where I have something heavily detuned on the Chroma where you have to find the sort of point in between the two where the entire effect will be in tune with the tracks. Sometimes I might look or use my ear to tell when it's in tune and when it is not.
Do you think the rock musician or rock music needing a fairly free approach might have problems using computers? Or do you think that it could develop into a different kind of style?
Well, I view it this way. When the first punk revolution or the new wave revolution came around I went "Oh my goodness, what's all this" and everybody said to me "Well, this is the shake up that the music industry has needed." I'll come more to your point, this is in fact what I think playing did need, it needed someone to say, "all this stuff, let's have something a bit more honest." It's like anything, there's a lot of trail blazers, pioneers, followed by a lot of people jumping on band wagons... but all these pioneers, of which I think Ian and Jethro Tull were such, are the people that I have respect for. Even when the punk thing came out and I went "Oh my goodness, the playing's not very good." But at the same time it doesn't matter because what's developed from the punk thing has been tremendous playing as well as creative ideas, with honest to goodness straight-down-the-line-popular tunes... memorable tunes. I'm not saying that harmonically they're satisfying, and I would say "What's happened to beautiful music, what's happened to stuff that's nice?"
The music's got to hit people, it's got to be hypnotic, it's got to hit them within three minutes, and do all this and more. Ian's obviously never needed that kind of approach and I admire him for that. And when we look back and we see skiffle and we think about how our parents reacted to skiffle and even further back when classical musicians reacted to jazz, they said, "Oh my goodness, it's terrible," when I look and I see guys that can't actually play a keyboard instrument but are using computer technology well, they well might be pioneers themselves and something equally tremendous will evolve, I am sure, from the people who pioneer computer music — they can be non-players or they can be players. I have chosen the path of playing, I enjoy playing, but will not ignore the fact that the computer and the synthesiser are now one.
How do you choose for example between the Jupiter 8 and the Chroma now, because they both have tremendous potential on the sound making side?
Nowadays I tend to think of 'no contest' because I'm very much enamoured with the way that the Chroma performs and responds to my input. I would say that the plasticy robotic type of clinical approach works well with the JP8 and is very good from that of point of view, and of course you can clock the arpeggiator so you can do runs the likes of which would take many years to get together.
I would also never deny that I like the monophonic synthesisers, you will still see a monophonic synthesiser in somebody's set up, I do believe these multiple set-ups... with keyboards rising, I do believe that kind of thing — I'm not so keen on seeing that anymore, I think that's the hankering for days of yore.
Yes, you've been through that cycle and you just come back to using your special few, don't you?
It's about ergonomics and your desires. The ergonomics of keyboard playing is if you stack things up and you're standing there facing the audience and you're playing two parts with two hands and you're looking wonderful, you really look like you're being crucified!
Do you find that you spend a lot of time practising technique or does that just come through playing because you're playing as much as you can now?
To play well, there is no other way other than to practise. Roundabout when I first got my first professional engagement as an organist at a French restaurant, my days were spent many many hours practising scales, arpeggios, Czarni studies and a book that I've just got by Oscar Beringer, with scales or passages all using C fingering, which is interesting for your technique. It's published by Bosworth, but I wouldn't suggest starting off on that, definitely not.
That's right, but that's not to say that the ultimate aim is incredible speed, because I've been reading a book on psychology of music and there's a certain speed you can reach when people will not be able to tell whether or not you've played a sort of linear portamento run or whether or not indeed it's in fact all fingers giving it broken chords. But recently I've played a lot of arpeggio things that sound like an arpeggiator which in fact are crossing over hands and that's something that you have to practice, there's no other way of playing something where you cross over hands back and forth other than practise the thing. There's good exercises in that Beringer book for using left and right hand cross overs.
I don't want for people to think that this is the ultimate thing to have... shocking horrendous technique — I enjoy it — but it's not necessary because you can divide it up to the songwriter type of piano thing, where if you want to take it on the basis of input versus money earning ability, well... if you want to go and earn money in music, forget the practice and go and develop your creative skills and if it's pop music you want to do, then don't bother about harmony either. No, I shouldn't say that!
Do you use a lot of foot pedals?
I use volume pedals and of course any of the control functions from the Chroma are assignable to a foot pedal so I could increment the filter from a foot pedal. I also play bass pedals, I'm a bit of a whizz on bass pedals. I've learnt the heel toe and crossover and stuff like that. I've got a set of those Eko bass pedals.
I don't use bass pedals on stage because I quite enjoy not having too much stuff around me so that the audience can see that I'm playing and that I'm human and that I like them and hopefully they'll like me!
Do you have any particular notation that you use now?
At the moment I would think that the best way would probably be a fairly long-hand explanation. For instance, making notes on my sounds is not so difficult with the Chroma as I simply note which group it was, which bunch of programs it is, which numbers I used, whether there's any editing to be done during that, what I edit during that thing. It's a fairly long-hand way of going through things and also I note — I don't know if you saw the sound synthesists memo that's a schematic of the MC 202 panel — the various positions of the sliders in relation to a specific tune.
As far as effects are concerned, I don't take much note of what specific effect went down, because invariably if there's something that we're convinced about having, especially recording, we'd just put it down with the track since there's no point leaving it to the mix when you're just convinced that's the right thing to do.
Before you choose the Chroma, you must have looked at all the current micros, like the Commodore, the Sinclair Spectrum, and looked at maybe the music facilities of those. Did you go through that process?
Well, strangely enough, it kind of worked around the opposite way for me, the first thing that drew me to the Chroma was the fact that it had this keyboard and it had just something about it. It's a flawed instrument but it's gloriously flawed, the way that the Yamaha CS 80 was a gloriously flawed instrument, it just sounded fantastic, invariably it was never in tune anyway, but the Chroma struck me as yes, here's something that's taken up where the CS80 left off. And that's what drew me to it. Then when I found out that it was interfaceable to a computer which I knew to be more and more important in the role of the synthesiser player or at least the computer musician, then I got more and more interested in the computer side. So it was the instrument that drew me to the computer, not the computer that drew me to the instrument.
Do you have any feelings about current micros, have you any ideas that maybe we shall be using a Commodore 64 for example?
I recently went to the Apple UK organisation to speak with some of the people there, and they talked about the Apple Lisa which is a completely different format that uses a slightly more analogue kind of way using The Mouse and stuff, and I thought that might be quite a good way of getting various functions from a micro computer with music as the language. But even more exciting I think that, as music is a fairly finite language, voice recognition would also be a good way to call up various routines from a computer and also to sing or to instruct the computer to set a note in a certain bar on a certain line or whatever, voice recognition might be another way to go.
At present, I prefer the more dedicated function of say the Roland MC-202, where I know if I press a pitch followed by a gate time I know it's going to be a quaver, I know I'm entering it in, I know the gate time, I know the step time, and it makes a lot of sense whereas I'm slightly, not anxious but... you're playing a Rhodes Chroma and you turn around and you've got a QWERTY keyboard, and I feel a more dedicated form of interface to the computer would be better.
Didn't you find that the editing of the Chroma sequencer as it stands is really a hard job?
Well, yes, it's bloody difficult. The editing of the thing is a drawback. The other thing is it has kind of missed the point in a number of ways, although it's fantastic it's got all these things where it can record all the various dynamic expressive input, but it's kind of got it wrong in a couple of ways — as indeed the Roland MC-202 has got it wrong.
It would have been nice if on both of these instruments the Chroma interfaced to an Apple or whatever micro and the MC-202 had an error correct function the way that the Linn Drum has: it corrected to the nearest 16th, 32nd, 8th, whatever, it would do an error correct so it might encourage slovenly playing but who cares, but it would have been nice if we could have done that error correction. Also, as far as the Chroma is concerned, it would have been nice if firstly we could have had a way of entering information in step time rather than real time because most of the information that you enter into the Chroma viz a viz performance is of course done in real time, so you will be limited ultimately with this software revision with how good a player you are unless of course you do it a note at a time and do... 8 track or 16 track multitracking which kind of perhaps defeats the object slightly and also, yes you're quite right, the editing facilities are not fully developed and they would have to find out a way of portraying the appearance of the bar in a more visual way.
Have you been attracted to other smaller keyboards — there's a tremendous boom in the portable keyboard market now?
I would agree and then immediately after agreeing would disagree with you because the thing that really has me in amazement is people falling over themselves to buy Synclaviers and Fairlights. Let's say now, until Synclavier come up with something better — it's plastic, it does nothing. OK, it's a digital synthesiser but if you play a low note you just listen to that huge amount of digital noise, you must have heard it, it's just beyond belief. The Fairlight itself, no performance controls, plastic — it's something they'd want to look at, the performance aspect of these things, the performance input. Smaller keyboards — I have a Casio MT40 which is quite good. I bought it initially with the idea that I might be able to practice and write tunes on it and write songs in my odd moment, but of course with the small keyboard it's a bad idea to practice on it because it's too small for your fingers you get into terrible problems crunching your fingers up and then you can't play. In fact, once when I first had it I practised on it for a day before going and doing a Jethro Tull concert and I made a complete boo-boo of myself — I just couldn't adjust to the small keys.
But the portable keyboards can make very good creative tools. When I was on holiday in America last year, I did write a few tunes on the Casio and the drum unit and stuff. It's good from that point of view, so yes, I'm not convinced that the type of synthesis they use is going to satisfy Chroma users, but I think it's good enough for creating musical ideas.
Do you see yourself having to learn computer languages to keep up with the technology?
I would and I am learning about computer language, but as I say, I've a notion that the synthesiser and the computer will become more dedicated to one another anyway and it might become more understandable to those who first walk up to a synthesiser when I suspect they will see buttons that say 'What do you want to do now' and 'Help' and such like, so I will learn that anyway because it's a simple fact of life that's how commuters work, it's binary, it's bla bla bla! I don't think you necessarily have to be able to write in machine code, I certainly can't.
An interesting past of the growth of music making is the apparent ability of non-musicians to walk up to a synthesiser and be able to produce music with the aid of the computer, and there isn't anything so wrong with that providing of course that all the guys who think they can play are not willing to sit back and say "tut tut tut, isn't that terrible'.
When something new comes along people always tend to criticise it instead of realising that what it's doing is opening up the amount of people that make music and the possibilities of making music.
I've asked my girlfriend many times to sing me something, say a pop tune that comes up, and I've asked her to sing what part of the tune she heard that struck her. Well, she's tone deaf and she can't actually sing it back but there was something about it that she liked, is that something's just waiting to be captured by a computer, that certain something that no musician can fathom why the general public likes that tune.
For instance, a great example would be Kajagoogoo's follow up to 'Too Shy', 'Be a Jet Setter'. Now I can dare anybody, virtually anybody, to try and sing me the pitch of the notes that constitute the chorus to that tune. Could you do it? 'Be a Jet Setter' — I mean it's pitchless. So what was it that attracted people, okay there's the image and okay there's the word and the nice jet setter, but what was it that made that so interesting to the general public other than those things. Yes, and for instance as far as harmony is concerned, what I've asked many people is "What do you hear when I play this." "Tell me why you dislike that chord intensely, what makes that chord dissonant and yet when I put it in a different circumstance, in a different place it makes you happy."
There's another thing that's crept into music — irony — well, it's always been there but there's a lot of ironic sounding stuff and as far as I'm concerned it is all about the confirmation or denial of expectations in music. Pop, I suppose, if you wanted to try and sum it up would perhaps be a stream of confirmations of what you hoped would happen in pop music followed by perhaps a twist here and there. I suppose my own music — I will be making a solo album myself, after I've finished this album — could be viewed at times as a constant stream of denials, but of course that's too simplistic.
Has the Chroma taken you a long time to master?
It's not the kind of instrument one can say "I've mastered this." But all the ballyhoo about the Chroma not being understandable, is ridiculous. There are two independent channels that you can edit, each has eight oscillators A and B. You can turn off the B oscillators whilst you attend to the sound shaping of the A channel eight oscillators, and you can then go on and switch off A, turn on B and do B, and continue the way that you would with any other synthesiser ie. you assign the envelope generators to the filter if you wish, an envelope shaper to the amplifier, you would find out how much filtering you want, you find out how much resonance you want, you check what kind of tuning you want, and also very importantly with the Chroma, it's virtually a digital version of a modular system where you can change the position of the filters and ring modulators and the amplifiers in relation to the oscillators. So from that point of view it's virtually modular. Of course, the temptation with synthesisers is "Oh wait a minute, I have 120 programs stored so let's have a different program for every millisecond that elapses!" But it's all to do with your musical sensibilities. And, I think the important thing to communicate to people that are not players and are coming to computer music 'don't be frightened'. You don't have to know everything about how a computer works, you don't have to know the technicalities about a synthesiser too much, I mean, but there are books that will give you a basic insight into synthesis.
So, what's the most exciting step for you now, because you're already working with Ian in a big way on his solo album, you've got a Jethro album to do in the autumn and you're thinking of doing your own solo album?
Yes, this album I'm working on with Ian has been quite an honour for me to contribute. Also, with Jethro Tull, I still would enjoy to be seen with Jethro Tull again and to go back out on tour. Last year, I don't know if you know, but I came second in the Overall Best New Talent in 'Keyboard' Magazine in America and I want to be seen over there again to try again! So I obviously want to get back over with Jethro Tull, and my own album offers exciting prospects as I will be using computer music techniques and of course, I'll be exploiting the devastating far reaches of my technique!
Interview by Mike Beecher
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