Music For A Small Planet | Music For A Small Planet
An enterprising duo who mix business and pleasure in the pursuit of music making.
Tony Mills discovers Music For A Small Planet, a duo with their feet firmly on the ground.
You could be forgiven for thinking that a band featuring a concert harp in its lineup and with a TV advert for cat food as its greatest recent achievement had no place in the pages of Electronic Soundmaker. But if the name of the band is Music for a Small Planet — previously known as Sleeping Lions — you'd be very much mistaken.
Music For A Small Planet consists of Gayna and Tony Sadler, whose main release under that name has been a fascinating twelve-inch on Safari Records, Love Sacrifice/Music For Electric Harp and Jungle Orchestra. The duo are also very active in the world of advertising music, and combine electronic and conventional instruments in a few highly original ways.
Both Tony and Gayna are classically trained, having studied at the Royal College of Music, and divide their time between commercial work and composing new songs for the band. "We have about six new titles at the moment, and we'd like to demo them all but it's very difficult to get studio time that we can afford! In the meantime we work for a jingle company which owns a couple of studios, and we get booked by individual ad agencies on behalf of their clients".
During the recording of the first album the band hadn't used much in the way of electronics. Tony worked with Richard Burgess of Landscape in 1979 with the first Simmons kit, but by the time they recorded Adventure Zone they felt it was time to make a stand against synthesisers. The harp, of course, had been extensively used — it was simply fitted with a Barcus-Berry pickup and a preamp to take it up to line level for the mixing desk, and Gayna experimented with a C-Ducer pickup and occasional use of graphic equalisers.
As synthesiser technology developed though, Tony saw that they couldn't just ignore the things, and got hold of an ARP Omni 1. At the time the Yamaha CS80 was much too expensive, but Tony was quite pleased with the Omni's range of Bass, Cello, Viola and Violin sounds. "It's quite similar to the Solina sometimes", he adds, "and a lot of early Trevor Horn stuff was based on the Solina's string sounds".
In addition the duo have an Oberheim OB1 and a Yamaha DX7. The OB1 isn't very common in the UK, but it's a very handy synth, monophonic with eight programmable memories and a powerful, fat sound. While the Omni is playing ensemble string sounds the Oberheim is used for heavy bass and effects — and the DX7?
"Well, it's fabulous for the price — I did a session which called for strings and scored it on the DX7 one instrument at a time instead, and it sounded much more modern. I've modified some of the sounds — although the presets are good they're too recognisable now because everybody uses them. I've got a better flute, some trumpets, bass trombone, cello and so on.
"I still need to use live strings on a lot of things though — the Oberheim's used for synth effects, and the 2 pole/4 pole filter is very versatile. The white noise isn't variable enough — there are only two volume levels you can set it to — but the sample and hold facility is good for talking robots and things, and the sprung pitch bend is quite good to use. We trigger the Oberheim quite often for repetitive effects, and I'd like to get the Roland MSQ700 eventually as a sequencer for the MIDI synths".
The duo have a good selection of outboard effects, mainly organised in Roland's 19" rack system. Included are an SDE2000 digital delay, SEQ331 graphic equaliser, SBF325 stereo danger, Dimension D enhancer, PH830 Stereo Phaser and RE555 chorus echo.
"The Dimension D is very nice on the harp for some extra depth, and the phaser is very flexible, operating in stereo with different bandwidths from 40Hz to 8000Hz — we don't use it so much now though. The chorus echo's beautiful, it sounds like the chorus on the old Roland amps. The SDE-2000 is mainly used for guitar, and it's very good for live room sounds — for instance, I use the vibrato channel of a Fender Twin amp with the delay on 48mS, and the hold effect's also very good.
"We got most of the system in one go on the CBS deal, and around the same time I got an old Strat and had Roger Griffin put 50's Seymour Duncan pickups in instead of the original Fender pickups. I've also got a Custom Les Paul, a Griffin custom with single coil taps, and a Yamaha classical guitar which records rather better than it projects under stage conditions. Also I have a Rickenbacker 35 short scale, and all these are left-handed."
"As far as studio effects go, when we work in the jingle studio we have the use of an AMS digital reverb, which we prefer to the Lexicon unit, a stereo EMI gold foil plate reverb, Drawmer stereo noise gates which are only about £250 a pair and British (!), dbx compressors, an Eventide 910 harmonizer and so on. There's a Delta Lab DDL here as well, but we prefer the Roland in our own rack.
"Quite often we record effects in with the sound as we're putting them onto tape. You could add them only at the mixing stage, but you can't get a good vibe unless you can hear what it's going to sound like in the end as you're working on it. It does mean you have to think of the overall sound before you start though! There's also a Yamaha grand piano in the studio, they're often not well thought of, but I prefer it to a Steinway — it's more modern sounding".
When they're not working on jingles, the duo take their keyboards home and work on songs to ready for the demo studio. Tony recorded some music for a film a few years back, and may well do some more film work in the future.
"We'd like to do another project as Music For A Small Planet. We must thank Safari for getting us out of a rut with the first one — they'd wanted us as Sleeping Lions but we were in debt and needed the money CBS had to offer. We did a one-off deal on Love Sacrifice but we couldn't get any radio play for it, and it sold better abroad than in the UK. We had to bounce up to a total of 64 tracks on it and we ran out of time on the mix, but we were quite pleased with it in the end — we'd been reading about Haiti and voodoo and it's also influenced by the film noir style.
"Really it's an experiment in mixing acoustic and electronic instruments, particularly in the percussion, but it was a transitional period. We'd got interested in synths again when Gayna was doing some harp sessions for Dollar, ABC, Spandau Ballet and so on — we were in Trevor Horn's SARM studio and his Fairlight programmer J.J. was playing whole snatches of songs that he'd sampled. Now I'd love to have a Fairlight, but I'm more interested in the music you can make with an instrument than in how powerful it's supposed to be."
Striking a balance between 'art' and commercial requirements is not easy — but Tony and Gayna's classical training has clearly stood them in good stead — as you can hear for yourself, on tape.
Interview by Tony Mills