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Simple Minds

Article from One Two Testing, April 1985

Mick MacNeil's wee synthesisers


The keys to a simple mind. Mick Macneil tells Tony Bacon about complicated DXs, mixer madness, and Big Dougie the spaceman.

"We'd always felt that 'New Gold Dream' was a bit like coffee-table music in a lot of ways, nice clean sounds played softly in the background. That was very nice for the time, what with Herbie Hancock playing solos, it made it very glossy, very shiny somehow.

"With 'Sparkle In The Rain' we just kinda jammed it and thrashed it out a lot more. Mel the drummer was a big influence in making that sound really happen live.

"And now we want to have the reputation for being the best live band there is."

Mick MacNeil sums up his hopes for the future of Simple Minds during a month's break between recording a US-only single for a film called 'The Breakfast Club' with producer/drummer Keith Forsey, and getting down to some solid jamming with the intention of producing song ideas for their next LP.

"I think we're gonna go for quite a loud album," he suggests, "but bearing in mind that we're foremost a live band. I think it's taken us up to now to realise that's where our future lies. I think we're going to concentrate on being a five-piece band that do really well live."

I think this man must like touring. Unless, of course, things don't seem quite right. Simple Minds hadn't got half way through their world tour after 'Sparkle In The Rain' when they realised things didn't seem quite right.

"Yes, we thought, 'We should be having more fun!' It was only just before Christmas we were sat down again, and we rearranged most of the songs for the three gigs we did then in Glasgow. We took some really old songs and re-arranged them as much as possible. So we did the gigs and I thought it was really, really good. Because we'd take things down, and not get run away by the audience.

"Often on tour you're playing the song, the audience is with you, you're getting faster and faster, and you end up in a great rabble. So, after disciplining the set in Glasgow, the whole thing flowed much better. We should have done that with the set for the world tour."

With that experience firmly in mind, the group will undoubtedly spend more time routining, pacing and generally working on the live set that will come after the next LP. There is still a distinct feeling about MacNeil of dis-satisfaction with that less-than-sparkling tour for 'Sparkle'.

"If someone had said they'd have come to record and video one of those gigs, we'd have been a bit shy, a bit frightened, because we didn't feel too comfortable with it." He pauses. "Whereas in the future I think we're gonna make sure we're comfortable and we won't be frightened of recording any night."

For the uplifting, rearranged Christmas concerts, MacNeil had used a basic system of keyboards that has also benefited from re-arrangement and from a desire to play what's right rather than display what's expected. There were five keyboards: a Korg CX3 organ, a Yamaha electric grand, an Oberheim OB8, a JP8, and the inevitable DX7.

"To me, the DX7 is a bit too complicated to be bothered about. I think there's been a severe lack of musicians involved in the development of that. I don't think a good musician's got time to go into all those parameters, operators... it's a total distraction to actually getting down and playing a tune."

He had the DX in time for 'Sparkle', but used it sparingly, mainly, he says, for the "mouth organ sound and some percussion", and on stage he describes its purpose as "a fill-in keyboard". The extent of his programming was to alter very slightly a few of the existing presets, but he found little time or inclination to go beyond that.

"You never know what the outcoming sound's gonna be — if I've got a sound in my mind there's no way I can sit down and get that sound. It's pure trial and error, pure chance. And everybody I've spoken to feels more or less the same way about the DX, even though they're very impressed by the quality and the touch.

"The keys are great, it's great to play. There's a good feeling when you play wee runs and things, it springs up nicely. It's a lot better than a lot of the Roland and Oberheim keyboards I've got in that respect, they've really light and plasticky keys, you always make lots of mistakes, say playing two notes at once. You can express yourself much better on the DX7."

But for ultimate expression, Mick finds himself drawn more and more to the piano lately. His Yamaha electric may make way for a Kawai soon, if his positive reaction to a recent demo of the instrument holds up when he tries one more fully.

"From what I know, the main difference is that the Kawai is strung with three strings around the mid-range area, whereas the Yamaha uses two around there. But I don't think the Kawai is as portable as the Yamaha. Also on the Yamaha, if you have the bass turned up and you've got the sustain pedal down, there tend to be these big, rumbling bass notes. That's a problem."

But the synths Mick understands best are his JP8 and OB8. The Oberheim is "good for thick, stringy, organy sections" and the Roland for its "fizzy, toppy, trebly thing". And it is here that we are introduced to Big Dougie the spaceman.

"I'm getting MIDI fitted to those two synths so I can link them to my DX7. Big Dougie in Edinburgh's doing it for me. That's what I know him as — he looks like a spaceman, he's an electronics genius. His pastime is making model aeroplanes and helicopters." Watch out for an aerobatic OB8. Or, more likely, big Oberheim sounds seemingly coming from Mick's DX.

But Mick has a grander design in mind, and he's teaming up with a Glaswegian computer company called Izron to attempt to bring it about. "They know nothing about music or groups, they just know about electronics and digital chips and that," he says of Izron. "I've been showing them videos of Fairlights, and this new ten-grand one. Kizwas, is it?"

The Kurzweil?

"Aye. So I'm collecting all these ideas, and hopefully they'll come up with something so I can go in the studio with my normal synths, record the tracks — and sometimes we'll end up with something like six stereo pairs of keyboards — and then I'll take the sounds and store them from the finished mix, store them in this machine that they'll come up with. For live use I'd be able to play the sounds of all those six keyboards, or whatever, from one keyboard."

The idea seems to involve sampling, of course, and the facility to keep the eq and effects settings from recorded keyboard sounds, but is, as Mick points out, "at an early stage". But isn't it a bit of a risk going to an unknown company who've had no experience of music? Isn't that the fault of so many computer companies who see the musical possibilities of the technology, that they have not the slightest inkling of what musicans want from computer-linked gadgetry?

"I don't know," Mick admits. "I think it's an obstacle we'll come to and have to sort out. They're personal friends — it's that kind of situation. If they can get it down on paper and it's practical and we can make it cheap — none of your ten grands, maybe 3000 pounds — I could then go to someone like Korg or Yamaha and hopefully show them what's on paper and maybe they'll put up the money to make it."

What Mick is keen not to drift into is the now rather overdone sampling sound that certain producers have deemed it necessary to throw into every available space on the 12in mix, if not the album track. "Most average bands' records have those sounds on at the moment that are the exact same, the Fairlight-type big orchestral 'stabs' — I've lost count of the records I've heard that on. So I always think, well, it's great to have all these really good sounds available, but you also need the ideas for a good tune behind it. It's not the sound that's too important, it's what's played on it — having a great sound is just an added advantage.

"That's one of the reasons I want to start writing on piano: I think it's something that Simple Minds have missed out on, that you can't actually sit down with an acoustic guitar or at the piano and sing one of our own songs. You need a certain sound — I think it's good to get a song that stands up on its own. And they're probably the easiest ones in the world to write..."

But what about getting the keyboard sounds across on stage — bearing in mind that the group will, if Mick's predictions come true, be doing an awful lot of touring this year and next year. Does he think his stage sound is sufficiently accurate and robust?

"I get my sound on stage with my Soundcraft 12-channel mixer, and send the sound guy a stereo mix. I'm trying to get a bigger version of that mixer because I don't have enough effects sends and returns and that. At the moment I'm using all of the 12 ins, too — two for the Yamaha piano, two for the Oberheim, two for the Roland, one for the Korg, one for the DX7, and then coming back in, the 501 chorus, the echo on another, the digital delay, and lastly the DMX drum machine.

"Another problem with the Soundcraft I've got at present is that it only has two sends. I'd like ideally to send different levels to the PA and to the monitors, so that I could bring my monitors down without affecting the PA-out levels. So I may take a look at Soundcraft's new 16-channel version.

"And I also have a problem with my monitor speakers — I'm gonna have a look at some Tannoy equipment. I've got Yamaha bins at present with Gauss speakers and horns built for it. I've been using that setup for the last five years, but I'd like a lot more depth and top, a wider range but without having to turn it up. I believe Tannoy have some new equipment on the market that's very compact and may do the job."

But the crucial fact that has at last dawned on the group is that you don't need to play loud to play good. Mick reckons it took them years actually to organise sensible levels on stage. "At first when you do it you think you're playing at a wedding or something, it's so quiet. But in fact it's much better to get your sound together that way. So much better than where you're fighting against each other all the time, volume wars."

Finally, what of the 'loud' album Mick promises us? There seems to be no intention of using Steve Lillywhite again — one name that was suggested was Steve Levine, but some domestic set-backs meant that he wouldn't have the time. Mick also says that Keith Forsey — the bloke who produced the 'Breakfast Club' American single — could be involved, but it would mean the group playing a bigger part in studio direction.

"Maybe not a co-production, but we wouldn't readily assign things to the producer and leave it with him like we'd do with Steve Lillywhite or someone like that. But in a way that'd be good, because I think it's about time the band did get a bit more involved in production."

So is Mick keeping his hand in by playing at home before the group move to one-time Gabriel bassist John Giblin's house for their exploratory pre-recording jamming?

"All I've been doing over the last month or so is jamming along with the radio. I've not really been doing anything at all, in fact, it's all going to start next week at John's. We're all gonna get our heads down, and I'll get my fingers back then. It'll be interesting to see what comes out of it."


More with this artist



Previous Article in this issue

Pro-Amp Voodoo

Next article in this issue

Meals On Wheels


Publisher: One Two Testing - IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
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One Two Testing - Apr 1985

Donated by: Colin Potter

Artist:

Simple Minds


Role:

Band/Group

Interview by Tony Bacon

Previous article in this issue:

> Pro-Amp Voodoo

Next article in this issue:

> Meals On Wheels


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