Keyboards in Saga
Jim Gilmour, principal keyboard player in the band, talks to Paul Wiffen about the host of keyboards the band use onstage and in the studio. Their recent European tour increased their reputation as one of Canada's premier music-makers. Photography by Sally Newman.
Saga, Canada's premier progressive-rock band, recently concluded a long European tour at the Hammersmith Odeon. We spoke to Jim Gilmour, the main keyboard player (of three) in the band, about their recent album 'Heads or Tales', which was recorded over here and the keyboards they use. Jim was actually one of the first keyboard players to use the PPG and is something of a veteran with the system now.
'The PPG is one of the fundamental items of my set-up, both live and in the studio. I am actually the importer in Canada. I was very disappointed actually because Wolfgang (Duren of PPG) didn't manage to send me a Waveterm in time for the recording of the album, which I needed badly. This meant I wasn't able to do any sound sampling in the album recording sessions. So instead I had to use the AMS DMX-15-S digital delay (which can freeze a sound up to 3.2 seconds with a 18KHz bandwidth and then be externally triggered), but this means that there are sounds on the album which I couldn't store and use live, because they were sampled by the AMS. So I got my partner Jim Burgess to come over from Canada and help me out, because I haven't had any time to play with the Waveterm what with touring, writing and rehearsing. Anyway, he came over and dumped a whole load of things from tapes, samples and the like and then my Waveterm didn't arrive in time for the tour. So I have had to mess around with my current programs and generally 'play it by ear' as far as live performance is concerned. Still it's good practice for programming.
The problem is, of course, that PPG is really taking off world-wide now. Suddenly everybody wants them, which is good for them but no so good for me as I have to join the queue of people waiting for the instruments.
I have used both the Wave 2 and the Wave 2.2 on stage for some time now and I just love them. The real beauty is that anyone who has a PPG, whatever kind of feel you want, you can get your own personal sound, which is different from anybody else."
(For those of you who are unfamiliar with the PPG system here is a brief look at what it does. The original instrument, the 360 Wave Computer, stored 30 banks of 64 digitally-created waveforms (nearly 2,000). These could then be manipulated and ordered to produce timbre changes. This made really complex sounds available but was a little difficult to use live, so the Wave 2 was introduced. This used the same basis for digital sound creation, but the resultant waveform could also be processed through an analogue-type section with eight VCFs, triggered from a keyboard or an eight-note polyphonic digital sequencer. The next product was the Wave 2.2 which not only had all the features of its predecessor but was also compatible with future products, the Waveterm and the Expansion Voice Unit. The first of these allows natural sounds to be sampled (and manipulated in an analogue manner via the Wave 2.2) as well as pure additive synthesis (building sounds out of individual harmonics). The EVU allows the system to be extended to 16-voice polyphony and has a 12-bit Sampling Memory. For more extended information on the PPG system, see E&MM, Feb 83).
"My other main instrument is the MemoryMoog. I use two of them on stage, to do the strings and brass-type parts. They're great but they do break down quite a bit. Tuning can also be a problem, but we have to have them really, because our sound is a Moog sound, we've always had Moog oscillators in our sound.
We have three of them on stage. Mike (Sadler - lead vocals and keyboards) replaced his Mini-Moog with one, and I have two, although I still use a Mini-Moog on stage. At one point we went out and bought a whole bunch of Sources, with the hope of replacing all the Mini-Moogs which didn't give us program storage. But we weren't happy with them at all. You couldn't solo on them, because you just get up to the top and the keyboard runs out, and I just didn't like the sound of them. They don't sound like a Moog at all. The sequencer is unusable, with the glitch every time the thing loops.
Jim Crichton, who plays all the bass parts (guitar and synth) uses a Jupiter 8 and Multi-Moog. Mike's set-up, which I use from time to time in the set (on 'Scratching the Surface' for example which is my lead vocal), is a Yamaha Electric Grand with a MemoryMoog on top. I also use a Liberation for the posing and showing off. I don't like the sound of it that much but it allows me to get out stage front. It has one nice feature, the performance control of oscillator sync, but what I would really love is if I could hook up the Liberation keyboard to the Mini-Moog. I've tried to devise various ways of doing it but it's impossible. I can't even do it with the MemoryMoog. There are some really neat sounds I have found on the MemoryMoog which I'd love to solo without front using the Liberation. They really got the sound right on the Memory (unlike the Liberation) and now they've got a retro-fit sequencer (a proper one this time) and MIDI interface coming out.
Hopefully next year, I'm going to get all the keyboards linked in to MIDI. Instead of everyone rushing around from one set-up to another, if they could just press a button and get the sound they want triggered from the keyboard in front of them, it would make life a lot easier. And if we could get all the keyboard sounds loaded in and set up for the beginning of each song. At the moment we use Walkman's to cassette-load sounds but a controlling MIDI system could make that all automatic. Into the song we could make our own setting changes but just to know that everything is ready waiting to go would be so good. It would make things go so much smoother on stage. You'll see me on stage at the moment with my flashlight in the dark scurrying around thinking to myself, 'What number am I supposed to push?'. I do have all the numbers written down but seeing on a darkened stage is sometimes a real problem. Actually during songs I make a lot of setting changes, so I wouldn't like that to be done automatically. I like to keep control of the editing side of the sounds, but to have the starting point sorted out would be such a relief.
The MemoryMoogs help a lot here because they have chains of programs. I use them particularly on a couple of songs where I have to make a lot of program changes and haven't any hands free. I just press 'advance' each time and also the 'backwards' step. You can do this with the new PPG as well, but I don't use the feature so much as when I'm playing a good PPG sound, I like to stick with it.
Of course, the electronic instruments in the band don't stop with the keyboard. Steve (Negus) uses the Simmons SDS5 on a fair number of songs, as it gives a more modern feel to some of the material, particularly on my song 'Scratching the Surface'. Steve is actually the Canadian importer of Simmons kits.
It might seem like Saga has got the Canadian musical instrument market sewn up, but we don't do that much business. We don't sell that many PPGs as it is a fairly expensive system, but a lot of the bands want to have them, it's a sort of status symbol. I really wanted the distributorship so I could control when and how I use it. If I wasn't doing it, someone else would be and then I would be restricted by when they could allocate me the equipment. There's not really all that much money to be made, but it's fun and it keeps my partner Jim Burgess occupied full time. He spends all his time on that. Stevie Wonder flies him down all the time to help him program the two full systems he has just bought. I am also looking at the new British synth, the Oscar. They tell me it can sound just like a MiniMoog, a real full sound, so I'm getting one over soon. I might even use it to replace the MiniMoog on stage so I don't have to change sounds manually.
Ian, our guitar player, uses a Roland Jazz Chorus amp for the nice mellow sounds and Mesa-Boogie for the lead lines. He uses a footswitch to move back and forth between them. His main guitar is a Les Paul and he uses a digital delay to control his own echo. His set-up is really simple. He never really got into guitar synthesis as we have enough synth sounds at our control. Ian is the one in the band that brings us out of zzz... sleepy keyboards and really rocks. He's a great soloist and gives the band a lot of bite.
The only person I've ever heard get a good sound out of that Roland guitar synth live is Pat Metheny. I couldn't believe it, it was just beautiful. But it's not really right for our music. I couldn't believe it when I heard that Eddie Jobson had joined Yes (- he has now left again - Ed). I just loved his solo album 'Zinc', he's such a great player. But he shouldn't have sung - it sounds like he's trying to imitate Jon Anderson. It's strange because we may be opening for Yes in the States when they tour there next year. It really freaked me out to see he only used a MiniMoog and a CS80 on that solo album. I talked to him when we toured the States with Tull last year, he came backstage to watch. He didn't even know what a PPG was. I told him he ought to try and keep up with new developments, but if he can make those sounds with a CS80, then perhaps he doesn't need to.
I loved the CS80 but it broke down all the time. I had to try and find something that was close to the CS80, big sound, touch sensitive and versatile, and so I settled for the PPG and MemoryMoog combination. But to see Jobson on stage with a CS80 is a real education, because he's changing those fiddly little manual presets all the time.
We all live in the Bahamas now. I live two doors down from Robert Palmer. I sold him a PPG system too, so I can work on his while I'm out there. Keith Emerson lives on the island too, but I'm still trying to find out his address. It seems to be a closely guarded secret. There's a good musical community down there, it's great! I haven't met any of them yet, as we moved down there in August when everyone else was on tour.
As far as recording goes, we are settled into working in England, ironically enough as our records sell less here than in the States or Europe. But this is the second album we have done with Rupert Hine at Farmyard Studios in Little Chalfont. He's really great to work with, particularly for the keyboard player. He helps you find the right sounds and really makes you think about why you are using a certain sound. I introduced him to the PPG two years ago when we were doing 'World's Apart' (in the same studio). He'd never heard of it. I think I was one of the first people to record with it, because after 'World's Apart' everyone was asking where I was getting these sounds from. And that's no great boast on my part, for most of them were the factory presets and they're just so good. I still like to work from them, adding a bit, changing a parameter here and there, rather than starting from scratch which takes so damn long. Editing sounds is much more immediate and it gives you a jumping off point, something something to work with.
When we hit the studio we have most of the music worked out and rehearsed. In the studio I spend most of my time at the board, at the AMS and programming the synths. Solos are improvised and stuck down as they are, once the sound is right. Everything is worked out arrangement wise. However, lyrics are never written before we go in - they are always last. Sometimes we have to rush around writing lyrics to finish a piece, so we can get the vocals down.
When we're writing and arranging the song, I know the sort of sound that's wanted, but the studio is where we (Rupert and I) narrow it down. Rupert's particularly helpful if I don't know what sound I want. He'll get his tape of sounds, load them in to the PPG and see if there's something suitable from which I can work. Again I like a base to start from. I'll hear something and say 'I like that but I'm going to change this' and so on.
We all play the basic tracks together to get a tight feel. In fact, there's a lot of keyboard parts I kept when I could have redone them, just because they felt good. Obviously I often went back and worked on the synth sounds that weren't suitable but we kept a lot of the original parts. We concentrate mainly on the drums. If they feel good, then we go for it. Actually, Steve Taylor (the Farmyard's house engineer) knows exactly where the mikes should go and it takes him no more than an hour to get a good drum sound. Sometimes even a house engineer can spend two or three days just working on a snare sound, which is stupid, but drums are still the essential. By playing with them you get a live feel, and you've got to make the album sound as live as possible even if there's a few mistakes (which probably won't get noticed). The big problem with a lot of the Seventies bands, and a trap we often fell into until we got together with Rupert, was that the drums went down first on their own. None of us would even play along. Steve would have to memorize everything with no musical clues. Then we'd be going in at different times, putting layer upon layer of keyboards, which is not really effective, because you miss out on the subtle interactions in a live situation. You can end up with so many layers of string sounds nobody can tell what's going on. It's better to have one good sound with lots of space.
People have been telling me while I've been over here that a real old video of the band was shown on a late-night spot not so long ago. It must have been really old as it was from long before I joined the band. I wish they hadn't sold off that old thing, why did they do that? We've just spent a small fortune making really good quality promo videos, why didn't they use those? We've done a video for 'Flyer' and 'Catwalk' and we're just about to do one of my song 'Scratching the Surface'. We actually use videos to promote the album, not just the 'flash-in-the-pan single' mentality. We're still very much an album band, but you've gotta have a single. Record companies won't touch you unless you've got a single. In England the problem is really bad. If you haven't got a single, no-one hears you, because you have no FM stations playing albums. That's why the big English bands seem to have so much trouble. Jobson weaving around trying to find a stable unit and now John Wetton got fired from Asia. I couldn't believe that.
I hope John comes to see us tonight, he's quite a big fan of ours. In one of the Canadian interviews he did he was talking about us. Be interesting to get his reaction to the new material and the show.
We have just done seven weeks in Europe (sold out) as part of our World Tour. Tonight is our first headlining show at Hammersmith. We haven't really done much in England, I'm a bit ashamed of our previous record companies. Hopefully the concert will change things and now Maze (UK) seem to be fully behind us.
I hope the British audience are going to like the show tonight. We've had great reactions elsewhere in Europe, particularly to the new light show. We've got this great screen with polarizing filters to change the colours in computer controlled patterns (see photos). We bought it from the Yellow Magic Orchestra. We've also introduced radio mikes and transmitters for guitar and Liberation signals which makes us a lot more mobile. We still do the old favourites like 'Careful Where You Step' and 'Take It or Leave It' for those faithful few who've followed the band from the start, but we're hoping the new material will really take off over here. We love coming here and we find recording here produces great results. We'd really like to go down well tonight."
The concert was in fact a triumph, a surprise perhaps for some of the media, but not for the hard core of Saga fans who had travelled from all corners of the British Isles to see the band. They were certainly a lot more exciting visually with the introduction of the radio leads and musically they sparkled. The duets between Ian Crichton on guitar and Jim on Liberation raised sparks. The sheer versatility of all the musicians in the band was impressive with everyone constantly shifting between different instrument set-ups. They came back for three encores afterwards and even then there were calls for more. Listen to the album (reviewed on page 46) if you missed the gig and try to pick-up one of the first batch with the free live single to give you some idea of their on-stage performance.
Interview by Paul Wiffen
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