Penthouse and Statement
DATA: Martyn Ware/new album/Synclavier keyboard/digital technique... HARD COPY
Martyn Ware is one half of futurist funkateers Heaven 17 (about Heaven 8½ we reckon). He's just taken delivery of a new set of digital toys ready for the next Heaven waxing. Try to stop him talking about them. We didn't. Interview of Quality and Distinction by Tony Bacon.
"There's a disturbing tendency towards making things too easy for synthesiser players," says Martyn Ware, a confirmed experimentalist whose synthesiser operating mode consists largely of trying everything practically (and impractically) possible.
Martyn's pre-BEF/Heaven 17 exploits were undertaken with the fledgling Human League, and a financial link with this past also has an important effect on his creative present: "We're more interested in the methodology — we think that the method we use to achieve our ends does lend the music a certain idiosyncratic charm, and I think the people who buy our records appreciate that.
"Fortunately we're not in a position where we need to worry too much about how many records we sell because we've got quite a lot of money coming in off the royalty on 'Dare'. We don't have to be quite so paranoically obsessed with making money."
A pleasant position to be in, and Martyn now finds himself looking to 20th Century orchestral music, in the guise of Lost Jockey's John Barker, as an additional tone colour to his musical picture.
But equally, he finds that his compositional techniques are shifting in time with synthesiser developments. "In the past we tended to compose in much the same way that, say, groups like Depeche Mode and Soft Cell end up — by interlacing monophonic synthesiser lines. Because we only had monophonic synthesisers for quite a while, that's the way we tended to compose.
"But nowadays it tends to be moving more towards actual chord sequences and structures, working melodies around that. More traditional, actually, but hopefully we'll not lose the more unique, strange edge to it."
And while he's used the Roland JP polyphonies to this end, he says that the New England Digital Synclavier (pictured right) is now probably his most favoured polyphonic studio instrument. Why?
"We've not been able to hire it for too long yet — you've got to be very rich to own one to get the full benefit — but it's an astounding machine. You'd need weeks of experimentation to use it to its full capacity. It's got 64 presets on each floppy disk, and previous hirers tend to leave on the disk sounds they've found.
"It's a useful studio instrument because you may not be able to get exactly the sound you want, but if you get it approximately correct you can modify what you've found: once the program's loaded you can modify it. The overall design is excellent — it's a bit temperamental, that's the only problem."
Martyn reckons that his best use of the Synclavier so far was on the Hot Gossip LP that BEF produced.
"I'm really proud of the version of 'Word Before Last' that we did on that," he says. "It was all Synclavier: things like the sliding bells and chimes, with long sustain — I really like that.
"With 15 harmonics to play with, assuming you want to play monophonically, the bell sounds you can get on the Synclavier are amazing."
OK, so there you are with your Synclavier hired at a 100 quid a day, cases of hardware spread out before you. Now what?
"It comes with a floppy disk drive," explains Martyn, "and a series of floppy disks. If it's been looked after properly there should be a matrix, or a guide, showing you what's on each of the 64 presets — sometimes those lists go missing, but it doesn't take very long to check the disks anyway.
"You can load any of the presets from the disk into the actual main processor, and then you can modify any of the parameters to whatever you wish — the nice thing about it is that there are so many parameters, and you can radically alter the sound, or get it exactly to do what you want.
"It's not, for example, got a traditional ADSR, but, like the massive old systems, has eight or nine parts to the envelope shape. That also applies to the filters. And the fact that it's got 16 oscillators means you can achieve an incredible density of sound on lead lines.
"The basic failing of the studio systems is that they're not recallable, so you're getting the best of both worlds.
"The keyboard of the Synclavier is velocity sensitive, which you'd expect from a machine of such expense, but that's useful. It's also got a long keyboard, five or six octaves, which, although I'm not a great keyboard player, is nice to have at your disposal."
But who can afford to buy it?
"Hopefully when the technology advances in the next two or three years a machine like that, instead of costing say £10,000, will probably cost 2 or 3,000."
But Martyn stresses that he has to be given the facilities with which to make mistakes on synthesisers in order to come up with unexpected new sounds: you have to be given room to manoeuvre and interrupt the voltages and break a few rules. And it's here that he feels that players attracted to instant sounds can be given short change, even though they welcome the initial pay-off.
"There's a disturbing tendency towards making things too easy for synthesiser players," he says, "because there's an awful lot of people who want to achieve 'the modern sound' and have never seen a synthesiser before in their life.
"It's great that they can pick a synthesiser up and literally start playing it within half an hour, but to me the current theme of synthesisers is veering a little too much towards that."
If you're crazy, of course, you can start with a modular system.
"We did. We're crazy," says Martyn. "But there again we're more interested in the technical side of it rather than the musical side... we experiment all the time, but you need a machine you can experiment on. The more interesting, the more manipulatable a synthesiser is — and a modular system like our System 100 is totally manipulatable — the less preset it is, if you like, then the more likely you are to stumble across something that actually appeals to you."
This stumbling-across technique is central to Ware's sound making, and he cites the constant, tinkling, delay-lined-stereo rhythm percussion on Heaven 17's "Fascist Groove Thang" as a perfect example.
"At the time I think we were actually searching for a tambourine," he remembers, "and we stumbled across this thing that sounded remarkably like high-speed claves".
Certainly the System 100 that Martyn uses has been totally exploited and abused, the victim of an ardent stumbler. "We've come across hundreds of things like that," he admits. "The good thing about the System 100 is that there are no illegal patchings, you can't actually fuck anything. We've found some really strange things by attaching outputs to outputs, for instance — you'd think that nothing would happen, but often it does."
With the inexorable movement toward smaller preset synthesisers, users of modular systems are few and far between, and there's not much actually available beyond Roland's ubiquitous System 100M, the current version of the System 100. Martyn thinks that synthesiser company's R&D technicians may have overlooked the development of the modular system."
"Since the 100M came out there hasn't been anything," he says, and begins to warm to the subject. "I mean, God almighty, with new microprocessor technology what could they be doing now? They could have a system where each module could be the size of a household matchbox, slotting, wherever you wanted them, into a frame that had standard interfaces at the back.
"If I was designing synthesisers I'd definitely move into that sphere because I think there's much more to be done."
Casio are a company who Martyn reckons might well handle that kind of technological feat with some dexterity, and he mentions that he's using a VL1 and an MT40 constantly in the current Heaven 17 writing phase.
The team also employ two linked Portastudios to aid them in this task, triggering the System 100 from the Accent on a Boss Doctor Rhythm for compositional ideas and counter-rhythms — all this in what he describes as "the pre-demo stage".
The next step is to hire an eight-track and a Linn drum, and do something they've never really done before — demos.
"When we had our studio in Sheffield we'd do things, but they were more like experiments on tape than demos. But we're going to do demos for this new album because we want to tighten up the song, the traditional songwriting side of it — we want to be sure we're making the best of the song structures.
"And we're also talking about orchestral arrangements: you can't just let it meander, you've got to organise dynamics and a certain structure. It's going to be more complex, and hopefully more fun, and more interesting."
Heaven 17 first used Linn drums on "Play To Win", having completed "Fascist Groove Thang" on an early Simmons SDS-V that had been acquired in the Human League days. In the last year they've been using the Linn exclusively, and Martyn says he was impressed initially by how easy the machine was to operate.
Now, used to the Linn, he's still not quite over its ability to do things that would otherwise be physically impossible to play on acoustic percussion.
"They're good value. It's not surprising that so many people use them... just simply, for example, for the amount of time it takes in a studio to get a decent drum sound. You plug a Linn drum in and it's there, all you've got to do is tune it in.
"If you're on a limited budget in the studio it's great — it doesn't matter so much for successful groups, but I mean young groups who are coming up. For instance, that Scritti Politti single ("Faithless") was done on a Linn, that's excellent."
Despite 'Dare' income, finance still plays a part in Martyn's musical hardware, and Heaven 17 were, at the time of writing, engaged in renegotiating their recording contract.
Once that's over, Martyn's keen to invest in a Roland MC4 Microcomposer — "it won't take us long to pick that up" — and a brace of new System 100M modules — "we'll be using the system extensively on the new album".
As Martyn pushes the production side with BEF his studio experience grows, but he still reports a degree of mismatch when he's attempted to interface with some recording personnel — "I've met so many engineers who are just wankers" — and finds their preoccupation with specifications, graphs and response curves an unnecessary diversion from the proper job of recording good music.
"We were thinking of doing several bogus BEF sound effects units actually," he laughs, "one of which was going to be called the Thang Box. If your bass guitar doesn't sound quite black enough you plug it in — all it is is a cheap EQ or something. You can get away with anything."
Thankfully, Martyn has found some exceptional engineers who rise above such technical trivia. "There's Pete Walsh. And Gareth Jones at John Foxx's studio. The Garden. Nick Patrick, too, who we've used a lot lately. The thing is they understand musicians, they're not interested in impressing you with who they've worked with. They're just interested in getting the optimum result and they take pride in it.
"I remember when we first went into a big studio, we were totally daunted by these engineers who were totally disinterested in what we were doing. I mean they were polite, but while they wouldn't actually say it to your face you could tell that they'd much rather be at home listening to Rush or something. They weren't interested in advancing the state of music in this country."
Martyn's synthesiser heroes — Walter/Wendy Carlos and Giorgio Moroder — reflect his own mixture of eccentricity, charm, mathematics and music.
He takes the description just a little further: "We've always approached music as more of a mathematical process than as a so-called emotive process... we're definitely a scientific experiment, if you like. It's not necessarily the best way to sell records, but it's the only way we can keep interested in it.
"It's such a cynical business that you've got to believe you're advancing, and fulfilling your own interests, as well as just making an acceptable noise."
Interview by Tony Bacon