Miami Nice Guy
The art of writing music for popular television in the last few years may have been single-handedly redefined by Jan Hammer. His upbeat, rocky soundtracks to the hit TV series 'Miami Vice' (along with a few of the chart hits used in the show) have now produced two albums of instrumental music. Ed Jones finds out how they were done.
The art of writing music for popular television in the last few years may have been single-handedly re-defined by Jan Hammer. His upbeat, rocky soundtracks to the hit TV series Miami Vice (along with a few of the chart hits used in the show) have now produced two albums of music that will please the aural palate of those without the taste for the extreme or exclusive. No doubt many TV shows will follow that copy the mixture of cops and drugs, black and white, designer fashion and good old rock 'n' roll. Likewise, much music will probably be written in a similar vein. The strength and depth of the music that Jan composes for Miami Vice is exposed on his latest album, Escape From Television.
Up until now, Jan has written and recorded all the music for Miami Vice by himself in his own home studio, Red Gate, situated in a farmhouse in upstate New York (a long way from the steamier climes of Hollywood). His methodical use of sequenced synthesizer patterns, power drums and mock rock guitar patches have helped create a symbiotic relationship between the on-screen action, the very obvious contemporary rock hits, and his soundtracks. He's a man who works surrounded by the latest in MIDI music technology and delights in using his accumulated experience from working with the likes of Jeff Beck, Neal Schon, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke, Billy Cobham, Mick Jagger... the list is endless.
Jan is currently in the middle of scoring the fourth series of Miami Vice in which Sheena Easton (who marries Don Johnson - but not for long!), James Brown and Jan Hammer, among many others, all appear...
Composer, performer, arranger, producer and now actor?
"Well, 'bit' actor actually - I filmed my second cameo appearance on Miami Vice last month. There's going to be more than a second and a half of me on screen this time! In this new episode Don Johnson marries Sheena Easton and I'm playing my Probe keyboard at their wedding!"
How much of your compositional output for Miami Vice can be put down to intuition, formal training or technology?
"It's sort of a juggling game, you know - especially when you're given the type of schedule under which I've been forced to operate over the last three and a half years; every week there is a chunk of music to be completely finished - produced, recorded - it's almost like making an album every two or three weeks. One resorts to anything - the best music usually comes when it is an intuitive spark from just watching the on-screen action. The drama itself gives you the flash for an idea. Sometimes if nothing comes, I shut off the TV monitor, stop thinking about the show and just go fool around with anything - it might be playing with the Fairlight Series III or trying to create a new sound on the Kawai K5. One week I may have to produce 15 minutes of music but the next episode may require 35 minutes - that's a lot of music."
Did the random arpeggiator on your Roland Jupiter 8 give you the idea for the main Miami Vice theme?
"No, I actually wrote the original theme before I was hired to do the show. It was worked out on Page R of my original Fairlight. I sampled some bass sounds from my MemoryMoog into the Fairlight and then had the three bass tracks arranged on the Page R sequencer. At the original meeting with the producers I played them that tune, they liked it and it went on to become the main theme. However, I did use the Jupiter 8 for the rolling bass line on 'Crockett's Theme'."
Do you have time in your hectic schedule to listen to anybody else's music?
"Once in a while, sure... I love Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Genesis, The Police."
"The Fairlight's keyboard is not its greatest feature - but who cares when the rest of it is like heaven on earth?"
Have you been surprised at the success of your Miami Vice soundtracks over here?
"There was obviously a tie-in with the TV show and so it was more of a symbiotic kind of thing, but I felt that 'Crockett's Theme' stood on its own much more. I was thrilled to death that it did so well - it hasn't been so in the United States where only the soundtrack album appeared. The theme sold a million over here. The Escape From Television album will be released in the USA at the beginning of next year."
You said you wouldn't do Miami Vice after the second season.
"As Marlon Brando said 'I didn't have the moral strength' (to say no). The chemistry of the show was very much at risk by having me gone. It is very flattering to be such an integral part of it - the music has really become the third star of the show. Nevertheless I did quit, officially, after the third season and spent last summer mixing the Escape From Television album. Towards the end of the summer I got a frantic call from the show's producers saying that they weren't thrilled with the guys they had auditioned, so they convinced me to continue. However, I now have an arrangement whereby I work with a guy from New York called John Peterson, and the music for the fourth series will be credited to both of us. John has a great handle on sounds and writes in my style. I couldn't see myself handling the pressure of TV deadlines for another year."
How much involvement do you have in choosing the other music that's used in the show?
"None, the songs are chosen way ahead of time. I don't get to read the scripts - I just get my rough director's cut version of each show to work from, with the songs already slotted in. However, I do work around those songs: I wrote a repeating tom pattern for one show that dissolved directly into the tom intro to Phil Collins' 'I Don't Care Any More' - so you had no idea that the song had started!"
How many shows are there in a season?
"22, sometimes 24. I've completed three full seasons and almost another eight episodes at this point. One episode a week - I see the show for the first time on Tuesday and have to ship the finished tape out to Los Angeles on Sunday for the final mix. I play all the instruments and record them all in my studio at home. Almost all my work is done on keyboards, although I do add some rudimentary guitar parts - a few fifths, through an amp. The guitar has such a liquid sound that it never feels the same if I sample it into my Fairlight. The Fairlight is really great for the backing 'band' - drums, bass and orchestration - but there is always a need for one or two parts that are constantly, harmonically changing; for these I love the feel of the DX7 MkII. The Fairlight's keyboard is not its greatest feature - but who cares when the rest of it is like heaven on earth?"
Is your unique 'Probe' remote keyboard now MIDI compatible?
"In a group of percussion instruments, the Kawai sounds great - especially those big toms you get on the new sound chip."
"Unfortunately not, it is now just a visual prop - you could call it my trademark, along with the breathy Fairlight Series II sample and my constantly evolving mock guitar sound. You have to be careful with sounds, though - the Roland D50 is a wonderful instrument but everybody is using the same factory sounds at the moment. I'm careful to stay away from that. I bought the new D550 rack unit because it does have great potential for new sounds in the future, although, funnily enough, a lot of the current sounds remind me of my Series II."
Do you get inspired by new sounds?
"Absolutely, everything helps. I have my own Fairlight drum samples, custom Linn chips, as well as a new Kawai R100 drum machine with really nice sounds. In a group of percussion instruments, the Kawai sounds great - especially those big toms you get on the new sound chip. I over-programme percussion parts and then remove some to create interesting textures that I would not otherwise have come up with. My rolling percussion tracks have everything but the kitchen sink going on in them - usually all three sound sources run in-sync at the same time."
Have you explored the concept of algorithmic composition yet?
"Yes - I bought a Commodore 64 solely to run Dr. T's Algorithmic Composer package! Jim Johnson's phrase generator allows you to outline scales, bars, change probabilities, weighting, and several more quite involved parameters; what comes out is very usable. Two or three of the most recent episodes (in the fourth series) have most of the music written in this manner. Monophonic phrases are generated (by the computer), played across to another sequencer and then layered and repeated. Miami Vice has long cues and this kind of music can help bridge, say, three scenes."
Do you have a need for any other computers apart from your Commodore?
"Oh yes, I've just got a Macintosh to run Jam Factory, M, UpBeat and Performer, as well as my IBM which now handles the automation of my Sound Workshop series 34 desk with DiskMix. I also know Roger Powell's Texture sequencer on the IBM so well that I can almost do things instinctively on that. Although I have MidiPaint and Performer with the Southworth Jam Box 4 interface, it will take me some time to know them as well and get to the depths of their editing capabilities. I like the use of colour in Texture - it makes editing on-screen so quick."
What's the state of play with your Fairlights?
"Well, I have a Fairlight Series IIx and a Series III - but the IIx is finally going back. Your ears get so spoilt by the better quality sound of the Series III that there is really now no more use for my IIx. Some of the Series IIx samples even sound better on the Series III - it must be the better digital-to-analogue convertors, I suppose. Maybe it's wishful hearing! I'm also going to check out the program for the Macintosh that helps you store and catalogue your Fairlight sounds."
Do you spend much time editing synth sounds?
"Mostly I use presets but I do edit - especially when it comes to lead sounds."
"Not enough time and too many machines! Actually, I have all my sounds stored on the IBM computer, as there are so many beautiful sounds coming from left and right. Mostly I use presets but I do edit - especially when it comes to lead sounds; I reshape a lot of the guitar-like textures for live playing now that I have both the new DX7 MkII and my original DX7 [now equipped with an E! board so that Jan can use it as a master controller and send maximum velocity of 127 when required]. I also use a voice editing program for tweaking my Kawai K3 sounds."
How do you currently produce your famous 'lead guitar' sounds?
"Well, the faithful MXR flanger is almost hard-wired into my system now! It's always first in-line after the instrument and before the sound goes to any distortion device. I've also still got my Sundown valve amp for that classic overdriven preamp sound. Over the years the original 'guitar' sound has come from many instruments: my MiniMoog, the original Oberheim expander module, the Oberheim 4-voice, then the 6-voice with my Probe - but these days it comes from the DX7, the Kawai K5 or the Oberheim Xpander. With the Xpander, I can create a patch that will react to a normal MIDI pitch bend wheel and bend, say, five semitones upwards but two octaves downwards by using a tracking generator. It's the only instrument I've discovered that will do that. When I play live, it's all Rockman. By the way, the acoustic guitar sound on 'Last Flight' is a DX7 nylon guitar patch, but MIDI-ed up with a warm MemoryMoog cushion."
Are you wooed by manufacturers of hi-tech products?
"Not really, but I do have a relationship with Kawai and Fairlight, of course [Jan has featured in both companies' US advertising campaigns]. The Fairlight has really been my best friend. The company's been great to me for a long time and I have a great relationship with them. It's nice to get out there and do product demos for them, occasionally, at AES shows or whatever."
Does direct-to-disk recording interest you?
"I find the musical interface of the Fairlight better than that of the Synclavier but I am waiting for multitrack DAT. I still use analogue tape machines in my studio [an Otari MTR90 24-track]. The most beautiful addition to the studio recently was the Lexicon 480. I am experimenting with some esoteric MIDI-controlled effects, such as changing the reverb time from a keyboard's aftertouch or velocity parameters. One of my favourite processors for mixing is the Universal Audio 176 Tube Limiter; used on bass it makes the sound come alive - like it's coming out of a great old Ampeg bass amp!"
How did you learn your engineering techniques?
"I picked up most of my techniques by sitting on the right-hand side of Ken Scott for a long time during the early Seventies, when we were doing the Mahavishnu, Billy Cobham, Stanley Clarke, and Jerry Goodman albums. Hours and hours of listening and watching; I guess it was osmosis because that guy is just a whizz. From then on it was trial and error with my own Tascam board and an 8-track Scully machine - the woolly sound."
"I think the Emu SP1200 might be the best bet to replace all my gear at home for live work."
What special criteria do you apply when mixing for television?
"Well, Miami Vice is done in stereo and I use a pair of Yamaha NS10s as my main monitors, checking the sound on a small, portable, mono cassette recorder with built-in limiters as well. It's been a challenge to create the sense of depth that most of the music has; you can hear it on the records but to get it to come across on the TV is hard. The MemoryMoog is still the one instrument that comes across with that depth, and the impending sense of doom, when required. Even though most TV speakers cannot reproduce the lowest notes, you know that they are there."
It's a great shame that Moog isn't still in the market as a manufacturer...
"Well, Yamaha had the great foresight to buy FM. I think it was passed on by everybody else. The DX7 was beautifully put together - all the way down to putting the right control wheels on it. I always thought that pitch bending levers and joysticks were very nice but that the wheel was the only way to control pitch bending. [On Jan's Probe remote keyboard you may notice two wheels - one for pitch bend, the other for modulation, but also a black lever which acts like a 'whammy bar', bending chords downwards over an octave or more to faithfully reproduce guitar idiosyncrasies.] For live work I have a modified Yamaha remote MIDI keyboard with mini keys and a sprung pitch wheel."
Is that a real piano on 'Theresa'?
"No, that's a multi-sampled Fairlight sound. I don't have the time to actually set up microphones around the piano or make sure my kids don't scream during the take. The main thing is to be able to record the part and then edit it with MIDI. However, I am going to be playing more piano next year because I'm building a new studio at home, outside in the barn, with a special room that will have a beautiful wooden ceiling and hardwood floor. I don't like weighted keyboards that try to reproduce the piano action - they feel bogus to me. The DX7 and K5 keyboards feel beautiful."
How are your drum 'chops' these days?
"A lot of the drum parts are played in via a Roland Octapad so that I have the sensation of hitting something. I'll set up my old kit in the new studio and get back to hitting skins again." [Jan played acoustic drums as well as keyboards on Jeff Beck's Wired (1980) and James Young's City Slickers (1985) albums, among others.]
What are your plans for live work?
"My last tour was in summer '86 with Jeff Beck in Japan. I took the Fairlight and Jeff played the Miami Vice theme. We'd like to do something like that again in 1988. Jeff and I will be working together as soon as the new studio is finished and his broken thumb is mended! If we go out on the road, we'll probably need a couple of guys 'playing televisions' as Colin Hodgkinson [Jan's long-time musical collaborator and friend] calls them! I need to feel safe on-stage - in Japan, if the Fairlight went out to lunch we just eliminated half the show! I think the Emu SP1200 might be the best bet to replace all my gear at home for live work."
Do you have any film work lined up?
"I've done four film soundtracks and I would like to do something other than another silly teenage movie stuffed with mediocre rock songs."
Jan Hammer's latest album/CD Escape From Television is released on MCA Records and features 47:17 minutes worth of music. 6:05 minutes of that is an extended remix of another track on the same album. 2:26 minutes worth of the original Miami Vice theme is also included for those of you who missed it on the first album. Jan says that "that kind of thing is beyond my control". For a man who has every other aspect of the composing and recording process at his fingertips and has produced a fine sounding album, that's a pity.
Interview by Ed Jones
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!