A prolific American synthesist interviewed
Larry Fast may not be a household name in Britain and Europe but in his home country of America he is slightly better known, having been voted one of the top synthesists by various music magazines. Although you may not have heard of his name, you have almost certainly heard his work, because he has contributed his considerable synthesising skills to such diverse artists as Barbra Streisand, Hall and Oates, Meatloaf, Nektar and Kate Bush. Perhaps his most famous association is with Peter Gabriel, having been on all of his albums and having toured with him across the world as his synthesiser player. As if these achievements weren't enough he has released 6 albums of his own music under the name SYNERGY, all of which highlight his highly original use of synthesiser and electronics.
"I was first attracted to synthesisers at college, mostly because of my background in electronics. I don't have a degree or anything but I had covered a lot of the groundwork that enabled me to build my own simple modules. The first commercial synthesiser I bought was a MiniMoog — it was the first real synthesiser that offered a lot of musical possibilities under the multi-thousand dollar bracket.
I still have a Mellotron, and the original MiniMoog. The Mellotron has a unique sound and so I hung onto it. I dig it out if someone particularly wants to use it, like FM, the Canadian electronic rock band. Now I've got a big Moog - a Moog 15 modular. I had one of the really big Moogs once but I got rid of it although I did hang onto a few modules which I still use. I've got some Oberheim expanders and sequencers, the MiniMoog and Mellotron, a Polymoog and 2 Prophets. I still have a lot of PAIA equipment; although their stuff is good it's not quite up to the standard of my other gear so it doesn't get used that much. My favourite item of theirs is the computer controller. I took two with me on the last tour with Peter - I thought one was bound to pack up - but it performed brilliantly. It's a great little unit. I don't have many problems interfacing it; I've built a couple of scale trimmers and trigger interfaces so that everything is compatible. They're nothing fancy - just basic circuits.
I've modified the Prophet too; when I first got one I opened it up and got into the keyboard circuitry which enabled me to control it using the computer. Since then Sequential Circuits have fitted an interface as standard which gives even greater control. I have one of those which I use with the Apple. As well as pitch you can control other parameters and also change memories. I don't use a MicroComposer; they do things I just wouldn't use and don't do things I would want. With the Apple I simply modify the program slightly for it to do exactly what I want.
It's an MCI 1" 8-track DBX set-up. It's got a punchy sound because of the 1 inch format. The House of Music has got two 24-tracks which can be synced together if needed. They're MCI as well. They have some good outboard gear as well. It's about one of the best studios in New York at the moment but it's not an electronic music studio as such - it caters for all kinds of things. I mean, you wouldn't call Meatloaf an electronic music band - they record there. Most of 'Audion' was done at home on the 8-track. I then put a SMPTE code onto a 16-track so that I could sync the 8-track and the 16-track together. I put a rough mono mix of what I had already done onto the 16-track and then added more parts onto that. The album was mixed at the House of Music, with additional effects, echo and reverb. The trouble with synthesisers is that they have no space of their own when they go straight into the desk and so they require some form of acoustic enhancement to give us some awareness of their position in space. Sometimes, of course, you don't want this, but more often than not you do need this spatial positioning so echo and reverb effects are almost essential. When I talk about 'non-real' stereo what I mean is that the way multitrack recordings are made, where instruments are positioned across the stereo image with panpots, does not give a true impression of space as it occurs in the real world.
As a result various enhancers are used to try and recreate this space, but it falls short of the way we actually hear things. They tried experiments in the mid seventies where they fed each track of a multitrack tape through its own speaker and then mic'd them up with crossed pairs and things, but it was a complicated procedure with minimally effective results.
For the 'locked in' approach I record a low frequency oscillator and then trigger the sequencers off that. I can divide a fast click down or I can multiply a slow click up using a phase synchronisation patch on the Moog which, in turn, triggers the sequencers. I used to use an old metronome with a contact mic on but that went into early retirement because it was getting unreliable, so I use the oscillator now. I sometimes record clicks at different speeds and splice them together... it really depends on the piece. I haven't been taught orchestral arrangement; I just play it by ear most of the time. I've learnt a lot from Peter, funnily enough. David Lord, who produced Peter's new album (PG4), has an extensive background in classical music so I've learnt a lot from him as well. I feel that most of the instrument sounds we hear today have been more or less defined by a Darwin-like evolutionary process... the best having survived. As a result I tend to use these textures and then fill in the grey areas with new synthesiser sounds.
Things like the Prophet are easier for writing on but I still do most of the work on the mono synths. Things like organ and some string sounds I sometimes do polyphonically but a lot of it is done in much the same way as I've always done it. There are better keyboardists than me around, that's for sure. Some of the more intricate lines I programme into the computer. I could play them if I wanted to spend the time, but as far as I'm concerned it is the final result which is most important and if I think it's quicker to programme it into the computer I'll do that. Technique can be important but it mustn't be the overriding factor. I generally find that people who have good technique are often more musically aware than musicians whose technique is not that good, but that's not always the case. My biggest disappointment is that synthesiser players never seem to develop to their full capacity. What I mean is that they catch on to one particular aspect of synthesis and stick with that rather than explore other possibilities. The disco thing for instance, discovered the 8 note analogue sequencer and exploited that but they didn't try any of the other avenues that were open to them. This happens so much these days, which is a real shame because the foundations are laid for some really exciting developments but sadly they never seem to happen.
Wendy Carlos has been a big influence on me. She has such a great understanding of her craft. The Beatles... it's difficult to pin one person down specifically. I listen to a lot of classical music... Beethoven, Stravinsky and so on. Peter's been a big influence funnily enough. Although he's not a synthesiser player as such, he has a great ear for synthesiser textures - that's why I enjoy working with him so much. I've just finished a soundtrack for a film soon to be released called 'The Jupiter Menace' and there'll be an album of that coming out (reviewed in E&MM Feb. '83). I'll be touring with Peter again, and I've just finished working on Joan Armatrading's album. I've also got some sessions with Hall and Oates... plenty to keep me busy I think!"
I should like to express my thanks to Steve Paine and all at Syco Systems, also Gail Colson and Peter Gabriel who went out of their way to be as helpful as possible to me in what were very chaotic conditions.
Interview by Steve Howell
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