One League Forward
Ian Burden of Human League outlines beginner's tips and a future strategy for electronic music.
Ian Burden explains the current strategy of the Human League and their technical hopes for the future to Pete Picton.
It all started when I visited Air studios on a summer's afternoon. I'd been briefed to find out the whys and the wherefores of the Human League, the group who had established themselves as the British act at the beginning of the eighties with the hugely successful Dare and more recently Hysteria.
From behind closed doors the sound of remixing of a new 12" single could be heard. Various Leaguers appeared. Phil with his constantly two-day-old beard, Jo Callis looking tired. They all disappeared again as quickly as they arrived to continue producing ominous clumping and thunking from inside the recesses of the studio.
I was led up to the canteen and introduced to Ian Burden the synth/bass player who along with Jo Callis filled the gap left by the departing Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware en route to the BEF at the beginning of the decade.
Ian looked tired. His doctor had told him to get more sleep. I told him finish the interview and I'd let him get back to bed. So how did all this begin?
"It started with just scrounging around borrowing oscillators from the Physics lab at school, dismantling cassette machines and short circuiting them. It was all experimental... not having a microphone to record with so we'd use a set of headphones turned the other way "round".
"I think sometimes having very limited resources encourages that initiative to get things working. If you're suddenly given £3,000 to go and spend on a synthesiser it will probably not have the same background. It's all there instantly, just a set of buttons to push. It was useful for me having all that ad hoc stuff strung together because I'd seen people like the Pink Floyd and ELP obviously with thousands of pounds at their disposal. I just thought well there's no way I'm ever going to be able to do that. Then there was Punk and The Sex Pistols. In Sheffield in particular at that time it was all right to have all these little boxes and stuff. It was punk synthesisers, punk electronics and that's it really."
Ian mentioned that today probably the best starting point for the would be synthesist was the Roland MC202 as it provides a good introduction to synthesisers, a knowledge of programming computer based synthesisers and loading/sorting information on tape. Good enough even for the League to have used one on Rock Me Again, a track on the last album.
Instrument-wise have there been any radical changes lately?
"We've used a lot of stuff that we used on 'Dare' — MC4, Roland System 100M, Jupiter 8. To that we've added guitar, bass-guitar. Towards the end of recording we got a DX7 which I really like. We've got a Synclavier as well which we use quite a bit. In fact with the synths we've added in a certain way because all of 'Dare' was analogue stuff and now we've got the Synclavier and the DX7 there's digital stuff as well so we've not just added conventional instruments, such as grand piano, bass and guitar."
"The only line we'll draw is that we'll do it all ourselves with the assistance of an engineer and a producer. If we can't play a brass section then we'll use something like a Synclavier or a DX7 if it's going to come up with a sound that approximates to what we had in mind. So even though I can't play a trumpet we can sample one and I can play it on the keyboard."
Why did you choose the Synclavier as opposed to the Fairlight?
"The quality of sound you get from the sampling was better. The Fairlight always seemed to stamp its own little characteristic on any sound. The problem with the Synclavier was that it only has one processor doing two jobs whereas the Fairlight has two processors, one to deal with the digital sound and one to deal with the timing aspect. So we had a lot of problems. We had a sampled sound that's playing a very fast pattern and it just hasn't got enough time to read its information and falls back on the time. For example on Rock Me Again there's a brass part which is a sampled sound of a trumpet and we wasted a whole day trying to get a Synclavier to play it. It becomes a little battle, you almost forget about the song. All you're interested in is not to let the machine beat you, to actually get it to do what it's supposed to do and to prove to yourself that it's not you doing something wrong. In fact what you can probably do which is what we did in the end is to take the sampled sound and Jo played it manually off the Synclavier keyboard and it took about two hours."
When the first single The Lebanon, was released off the album it caused a bit of a stir insofar as most of the instrumentation was based around an electric fuzzed guitar. Had this been a conscious change?
"Jo had demoed it on his Portastudio and he'd done it on guitar. He played it to us and we thought 'It's great'. I could see no reason why it should be done on anything other than guitar. If it sounds good on guitar that's the way it should be done. Which is pretty much the way we think now. Whereas with 'Dare' there was a very conscious decision, on the part of Phil I suppose and Adrian to a lesser extent, to do it purely on synthesiser with vocals. That's a legacy from the old group.
Phil has always had this ambition, I'm not sure why, to prove that he could make Top Ten records using only synthesisers and that time it was achieved with Dare so it's no longer anything to achieve. So the process now is whatever instrument is going to do the job the best then that's what should be used."
Have you or Jo used a guitar synth recently?
"Well, it was used on the single Fascination and a couple of songs on this album. We didn't use it on The Lebanon, that was straight guitar. I think it's his Les Paul or something. We've got one of the Roland guitar synths the GR300. I've also got a bass version. What we've found with them is that there are a few sounds, maybe five or six, which are very usable and very distinctive. Then there's a lot of other stuff that's in between and in some cases you'd probably be better off finding another instrument to do it on. What they do is very interesting, it's just not full of millions of possibilities."
What developments do you see in the field of musical technology?
"The big advance recently has been digital synthesis and sampling. I think a lot of that's still in a crude phase though. When we bought the Synclavier about a year and a half ago, it's an astonishing thing when you think what it can do, but it's going to look crude soon. Now I think in a year's time, it will be as short as a year, if you look back at the Synclavier it will look like John Cage's synthesisers looked in the late 50's — ad hoc boxes tied together with wires and stuff. I think it's going to be simplified into one box and made much easier for musicians to use — more user friendly."
I mentioned the article I'd read on Martin where he'd mentioned his idea of reducing practically everything needed for recording to the size of a small box.
"He's been envisaging that for a long time actually... We talked about that a lot. This idea of a mixing desk with 48 channels on it might disappear and you've got one box. You just somehow type into it to tell it what channel it is now currently working as and you can wander around the room with it. Nothing will go on tape so the mechanical side of the studio will disappear altogether and everything you record is stored digitally. It's not going to happen for a while though."
"I like to hear an instrument as if I can actually see that person there playing it. To me that is part of music — the image of the drummer actually hitting the drums. That's always appealed to me. But then I do also like to think that there's a load of machines ticking away. I find that just as exciting. I suppose we've got a bit of both now. Neither angle is to be discounted in any way because ultimately you've got singing on the top and to me that's what's really important at the end of the day."
Feature by Pete Picton