Keyboards With Dire Straits
Although still very young, keyboard player Guy Fletcher has a long list of album/single credits already under his belt for such artists as Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger and Dire Straits. Paul Gilby finds out how Guy landed such plum roles and learns more about the way Dire Straits make use of music technology in their recording.
Behind frontman Mark Knopfler are a group of talented musicians each of whom play an important part in producing that distinctive Dire Straits sound. Guy Fletcher is one of the band's two keyboard players and it was during a recent session at Air Studios in London - where he and Mark Knopfler were busy working on the new Tina Turner album - that Guy took time off work to talk to Paul Gilby and to reveal exactly how you go about getting the big name jobs in the business...
One of the first jobs I had was at DJM Studios in London, which is where I got my technical background from, as well as from my father who is also in the business - he manufactures mixing desks. So during the early part of my career I got a lot of engineering experience and I was also in a band at the same time, playing jazz-funk. Eventually, after a year or so, things were getting quite hectic and I couldn't carry on doing both jobs, so I decided to leave the studio and concentrate on the band.
It was sometime later that we were doing a pub gig and the woman who is now my manager spotted us and got us a record deal. Her husband is Duncan Mackay, who used to play keyboards for Cockney Rebel, and through that contact I got in touch with Steve Harley and ended up joining Cockney Rebel for a British tour.
When that tour finished I started doing a lot of work on jingles and session playing for a year, whilst also building up my range of equipment. Then one day I did a session at Phil Manzanera's studio (guitarist with Roxy Music) and the engineer there recommended me to Roxy Music who were about to do the Avalon album world tour. I got the job as keyboard player and that was the first major tour I did. It lasted for about two years off and on.
As a result of that I ended up doing session work on Bryan Ferry's recent album, Boys and Girls, and then went on to work with Mick Jagger."
Did you get all your session work through personal recommendations?
"Yes. It starts slowly, and then obviously the more people you know the better it gets."
Could you fill in some more details about your involvement on the Bryan Ferry album?
"Well, I had one of the first Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizers, I suppose because many years ago I used to demonstrate equipment for Roland... I used to demonstrate their DCB interface and show what you could do by linking keyboards together - this was before MIDI appeared and people hadn't really done those things before. The Dr Rhythm drum machine had just come out and I was linking it up to sequencers and other things...
Anyway, I had this Jupiter 8 which Bryan Ferry had always liked the sound of. In fact, I used two of them on stage for Roxy's Avalon tour. So most of the keyboard work that I was asked to play on the Boys and Girls album was Jupiter 8 synth... plus a little DX7."
There are some very orchestral-sounding parts on that album, are they real or electronic?
"Most of my parts on it use Jupiter 8 sounds, as I said, though there are a few sampled sounds as well. I must say though that I didn't do all the keyboards on the album because Bryan went off to America to record a few things as well, so I couldn't say whether there are real strings on it or not.
I basically used a lot of the keyboards that Bryan had lying around in the studio. I love the Jupiter 8, it can create very smooth textures which are perfect for Roxy's style of music. The sounds you can get out of that instrument combined with effects are quite amazing, you would never believe it was a synth sometimes! It was during the recording of that album that I first used MIDI you know."
So after the Boys and Girls album you moved on to what?
"Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits got in touch with me through our respective managers and we did the soundtrack album Cal together. That was my first film project and I loved it."
Was the music written to film or away from the visuals?
"One day I did a session down at Phil Manzanera's studio and the engineer there recommended me to Roxy Music."
"Well Mark had a few basic themes which he had already written at home, and we came into the studio, linked all the equipment together and brought in a U-matic video player to view the film. We used Mark's Synclavier on Cal, which I got to grips with quite quickly."
What do you think of the Synclavier?
"I love it! Unfortunately we don't have the full system yet but I think we're getting it soon. At the moment we don't use the sampling facilities, so I actually just use it more as a synthesizer and obviously as a multitrack sequencer too. It's really good for syncing to film.
On Cal, Mark and I did a lot of the groundwork on the Synclavier and from Mark's initial theme we developed the final music. We used very simple Synclavier sounds - often just pure sinewaves. It's amazing what you can do with just a pure sound. For example, the timpani drum sounds you hear on the film soundtrack, they were all created with just a pure sinewave and a little echo effect.
That's the great thing about doing film work, you can get more into textures because you don't have to do much to create a great atmosphere - the picture does it for you. Often the simplest musical ideas work the best."
What came next?
"After that project I continued working with Mark Knopfler and did another film soundtrack for Comfort and Joy, which has more of a jazz feel to it with the sax on it. Then I went on to do the Aztec Camera Knife album which Mark produced. I personally love working with Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera, in fact I'm going to do some more work with him in the future. And if things work out alright I would like to produce the album myself."
Would you like to become more involved in production work?
"Yes, I find myself doing it more and more anyway, especially with Mark; he lets me move more in that direction."
What equipment are you using with Dire Straits for both your live set-up and studio work?
"Well, live, there are two keyboard players - the other is Alan Clark. He's more of a pianist so on stage he plays the Yamaha grand, which has been retro-fitted with the Forte MIDI-Mod, and a Hammond B3 organ, as well as a few other keyboards.
On my side of the stage I've got the Synclavier, which is used mostly for string and voice sounds as well as the pure tones. For example, the intro to 'Money For Nothing' is played on the Synclavier sequencer. My other main keyboard is the Yamaha DX1. I love that synth, it's definitely one of the greatest keyboards around. You obviously have to know a lot about programming to use it properly, and it is very complicated, but if you can grasp the system it's really lovely."
Did you start with the DX1 or progress from a DX7?
"I had a DX7 at first and sat down for a few days and learned how to programme it inside out! Then I moved onto the DX1. For a while I didn't know of anyone else who could programme one...!
Getting back to my live keyboard set-up, I also use an Emulator II, DX7, Jupiter 8 and a Korg CX-3. I do all my own keyboard mixing on stage and just send the PA a stereo mix of my sound because I like to keep control of what's going on. Effects-wise, I use a few digital reverbs and a couple of digital delays, that's all really. I don't use any MIDI facility on the road.
"There's a lot of Yamaha DX1 on the (Brothers In Arms) album, one of the classic sounds is the woody-sounding bass used on the 'Money For Nothing' track."
For studio work on Dire Straits projects I use a similar set-up, the main keyboards again being the DX1, Emulator II, Jupiter 8, the DX7 and Synclavier, and they are supplemented by a Jupiter 6, TX7, and a new Roland Super JX.
For the work Mark and I are currently doing on Tina Turner's new album, we're also using the Emulator SP12 drum machine, Linn 9000, and the new Pro-24 software from Steinberg Research which runs on the Atari computer."
Tell us more about how you are using the Pro-24 package.
"It's an incredibly comprehensive sequencer and you can do amazing things with it. I find at the moment that I have to sit down with it at home and work out what I want to do in the studio, which is exactly what the Steinberg manual suggests you do to get the best out of the system. I suppose it's the same with all equipment really."
Is the Steinberg Pro-24 the first piece of music software you have used?
"Yes, and it's the first computer I have ever owned in fact. I was always looking for an excuse to get a computer before and this is the perfect one. I did consider buying an Apple Mac but then the Atari came along and I thought it looked a lot better... and I think it is."
So, as you have only recently got the computer have you had a chance to really use it yet?
"Yes, we have done a few things with the Pro-24. Before I started working on Tina's new album, I arranged and co-produced an album for a Japanese artist called Minako Honda - I used it a lot on that.
It's great for doing quick little sequences... On that record I wanted a fast sequence with lots of notes, so I put a few notes into the Pro-24 and then copied them across onto a lot of other tracks, transposed some of them and added various delays (using the software) and I then sent out the notes to control different MIDI keyboards - it was an amazing sound.
It took me a while to get used to it as it doesn't quantise your playing when you record, so you have to add whatever note quantisation you want on playback. The note edit screen is excellent, you can move any note that you have played and it's very easy to use.
Another good Steinberg program I've got on the Atari is the Pro-Creator for the DX7. It's a really good way of storing DX sounds. I'm sure there are DX owners who are running out of RAM cartridges and never know whether to store yet another sound. It's perfect for me, I just store a whole bank of DX sounds in the Atari's memory and save it on a disk. Also with the Pro-Creator if you have, for example, a DX bass sound that's not quite right, you can put it into the Creator program and ask it to give you 32 variations on that bass sound, and it does. You then just step through the resulting sounds until you find a new one that you like. You can randomly generate sounds as well and that works great on the DX7."
Are you using it on the new Tina Turner album?
"Oh yes, I use the Pro-Creator all the time. At the moment we haven't recorded any of the Pro-24 sequencer on the album yet, but I'm sure we will before we've finished - it's nice to know that you've got that sort of power there! "
"On the soundtrack to Cal, Mark (Knopfler) and I did a lot of the groundwork on the Synclavier."
Could you tell us something about your keyboard parts on the last Dire Straits album Brothers In Arms?
"There's a lot of Yamaha DX1 on the album, one of the classic sounds is the woody-sounding bass used on the 'Money For Nothing' track. A lot of the string sounds are Synclavier, DX1 or Jupiter 8."
How did you go about recording the album?
"I suppose my involvement was on the technical side at the beginning. We rehearsed the material for a couple of weeks down at Phil Manzanera's studio. Mark had written all the songs first and we went into the studio, programmed the drum parts into a Linn as a guide, and just played around with the arrangements using the music we had programmed onto drum machines and sequencers."
Really? But how much of that technology gets through to the final recording?
"Very little. None of the drum machine is heard on the finished album, though I would say that it lasts until about halfway through the recording process. Actually, we've still got the drum machine on the Tina Turner tracks we're doing at the moment and we're over halfway on this album already!"
Mark Knopfler, of course, wrote the title track of Tina's Private Dancer album which was a huge success for her. Is the format of the new album the same?
"It's similar. Rupert Hine has produced some of the tracks, as he did on the previous album; Terry Britten is involved as before, and Mark and I are working on two tracks. Mark has written one of them and it's a real rocker this time along the lines of 'Nutbush City Limits' - there's a lot of powerful DX1 on it.
The album is going along the lines of Private Dancer but everyone is trying to make it even better. Mark and I have been left to get on with our two tracks and Tina comes in now and again to put down guide vocals as we progress through the recording."
We've covered both live and studio work but you also mentioned that you work a lot of your parts out at home. What equipment do you have there?
"Well, I have already mentioned many of the keyboards I use and they are the same ones I have at home. In addition, I've got an Emulator SP12 drum machine and an OSCar mono synth. Everything is routed to one of my two mixers, either the Seck 1882 or an Alice 12 into 2, and all the recording is done on a Fostex B-16. I've just bought one of those new Fostex 4050 Autolocators which allow SMPTE to MIDI control, so I'm looking forward to using that when I get a chance.
The studio monitoring is via an HH amp which powers a pair of Tannoys and I've got a number of signal processors including two Yamaha SPX90 multi-effects, an Alesis XT digital reverb, Roland and Korg digital delays and a Drawmer gate. And I have the Atari computer with the Steinberg Pro-24 sequencer software as well."
As far as your own career is concerned, do you hope to produce more artists in the future?
"The main project I'm looking forward to is the one with Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera. The Japanese album I did for Minako Honda may also turn up some more work. She's like the Madonna of Japan, very popular. The music is only for Eastern countries really, but they wanted an English sound so they came to England and recorded it here. Basically they put the project in my hands rather than let their own producer do it and they must have been pleased with the results because they've already asked if I can do the next album!
Another project I did earlier was the Belouis Some album. I played on that from the start and he's just asked me if I would like to play on the next album, as well as do a little production work."
Dire Straits have now finished their world tour and I gather it was something of a marathon. How do you put up with the pressure of playing the same music every night?
"We just alternate the set every few gigs and improvise a little to keep things fresh. It can get pretty hard, especially when you do twenty nights in a row, which is what we did in Sydney, Australia. We've been gigging for 18 months and done 235 shows and the strangest part is coming off the road. But it's been interesting to come back home and find out about how things have progressed technically."
Interview by Paul Gilby
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