From his involvement in the infamous Frankie Goes To Hollywood sessions, Andy Richards has become an accomplished producer and programmer in his own right. Nicholas Rowland listens to a rationalisation of technology.
Since playing keyboards on the infamous Frankie Goes To Hollywood sessions, Andy Richards has been busy building a reputation for himself as Fairlight programmer and record producer.
WHEN SOMEONE HAS been talking to you at great length about their state-of-the-art keyboard rig which represents an investment of upwards of a hundred grand, you don't expect them to finish up by saying how much they look forward to the day when their gear is made redundant by the next generation of instruments. Nor would you expect them to hold the view that technology for technology's sake is both boring and self-indulgent. But these are just some of the seemingly contradictory statements which come up in the course of a conversation with Andy Richards, currently one of the busiest Fairlight programmers-cum-session keyboard players in the bizz.
"I must say I'm a little depressed", he confesses with a sad smile. "Technology seems to have reduced everything to the lowest common denominator, rather than the highest as it should be. The charts are full of records which have no identity beyond the voice of the lead singer. Take that away and you honestly wouldn't know who you were listening to."
Thousands would have no hesitation in agreeing. Yet many people might find it rather puzzling to hear these sentiments expressed by one who makes his living contributing to certain of the records in question. Wasn't it Richards himself who produced the Pet Shop Boys' 'Heart'?
The fact is that, having been involved in keyboard technology ever since it came into existence, Richards is in a position to see both its good and bad points. Hence, while he undoubtedly enjoys discussing the technical aspects of hardware and software, he's also extremely aware of the bad habits technology can lead people into.
LET'S START SOMEWHERE near the beginning - in 1983 to be precise. This was when Richards first came to prominence as one of the gang of four who helped turn a set of rough demos from a bunch of Liverpool lads into the singles 'Relax' and 'Two Tribes' - two of the most stunning and influential production jobs of the '80s. As ZTT sidesman, he was also involved extensively on the rest of Welcome to the Pleasure Dome, along with tracks from Propaganda's A Secret Wish and Grace Jones' Slave to the Rhythm. Having served his apprenticeship under Trevor Horn, he then decided to blow his own and embarked on a freelance producing and programming career working with the likes of Nik Kershaw, Gary Moore, George Michael, Blancmange, Def Leppard, Godley and Creme, Prefab Sprout, Yes, Chris de Burgh, Rush and Berlin. Add to this an extensive list of comparative unknowns, usually recent signings to record companies, and you're talking about an extremely impressive CV.
If you happen to bump into Richards in the studio, you'll also end up talking about the extremely impressive rack of gear which he (or rather his technician, Pete Rowlandson) carts around from session to session. At the heart is the Fairlight Series III along with four hard disk drives and a tape streamer for data storage, plus an extra QWERTY keyboard terminal and screen and tape streamer. To one side is a PPG Wave 2.3 synthesiser and processor, Roland D50 and Super Jupiter module and Oberheim DMX, all linked through a 16-way Sycologic M16 MIDI matrix. Kicking around somewhere nearby you'll also find an Atari 1040 sporting Dr Ts and C-Lab sequencers synced to the Fairlight or indeed anything else courtesy of an SRC synchroniser. There's even a printer tucked away in one corner which provides engineers with a diagram of all the outputs and the band with lyric and cue sheets written and edited on the Fairlight's word processor.
Should you decide to hire Richards' services, for around a thousand pounds per day you'll not only be getting this half ton of equipment and someone who knows how to use it, but you'll also be getting an accomplished keyboard player for good measure. Richards began his training on classical piano at the age of six and in his own words "got quite good at it" - good enough, in fact, to graduate with diplomas from the Royal College of Music and London Royal Academy of Music. Along with piano he also studied classical organ for a brief, but influential period.
"I found I liked the idea of being able to make different sounds with different stops, and also the way that it involved developing a different technique of expression. I later dropped it because I realised that the piano was a far more sophisticated musical instrument to play. Also, with the organ you have to find somewhere to practise. Inevitably I found myself having to go into churches late at night. Quite frankly, I got scared wandering through graveyards!"
When Bob Moog came along with an instrument through which a keyboard player could express himself with sound manipulation rather than keyboard technique alone, Richards was an instant convert. Minimoog and Fender Rhodes slung in the back of an old Cortina, he got out and played with several local Stoke-on-Trent bands before turning fully professional with The Strawbs in 1978. Having fantasised for years about being the keyboard player with all the gear, he suddenly found he was the keyboard player with all the gear: a grand piano, Hammond C3, two Mellotrons, Fender Rhodes, Yamaha CS80, ARP Odyssey and a couple of Minimoogs thrown in for good measure.
"The CS80 was my first introduction to polyphonic synths", he recalls. "After that, like everybody else I suppose, I worked my way up through the Prophet 5 and Rhodes Chroma to the Jupiter 8. In fact. I'd say that the Jupiter 8 was the best keyboard I've ever had. It's certainly been the most reliable."
IF YOU WANT proof of the power and versatility of the Jupiter 8, then dig out your old copy of 'Relax' and listen to the sounds that many assumed to have come from a Fairlight.
"It was an incredible feeling when 'Relax' finally fell into place", comments Richards.
"The interesting thing about it is how relatively low-tech it was. Very little was sequenced. There was a LinnDrum and a bit of Fairlight, but everything else was played.
"We just didn't have the technology in those days. Things were getting a bit better by Propaganda's 'Dr Mabuse' where we had the Conductor which linked up two Jupiter 8's, two MC4's, three Oberheim DMX's and a TR808 to JJ's Series II. But honestly, we'd spend days trying to get things to work properly even then.
Just before 'Two Tribes' we were introduced to the SRC which, for us, really was the start of sequencing in a big way. I remember how we took weeks programming in every single nuance and dynamic. I'd just acquired a PPG Waveterm - the sampling was better than the Series II and in many ways it was a more interesting machine for a keyboard player to use. Also, with JJ's Fairlight and Lipson's Synclavier the three machines seemed a perfect complement to each other. Each little idea we had was blown up in size until it became of monstrous proportions, and we ended up with a record crammed with good ideas and not a single bad one. That really is Trevor Horn's forte: sifting through lots of ideas, then choosing the best ones and pushing them to their limits.
"People often don't realise that it's the relationship between the sounds and the music that is what actually makes a record work."
"That's what made it such a brilliant technical record: it wasn't just the sounds that were great or the musical parts, but the way that both of them worked together. People often don't realise that it's that relationship which is what makes a record work. I've always believed that the important thing is to have a good song and a good set of ideas. Everything else is secondary." Coming back to the present, let's discuss Richards' approach to session work, since he's often called upon to provide both parts and sounds. But before touching on the more theoretical aspects of this, it seems there are some practical details to be sorted out. Would-be professional programmers take note.
"I've spent quite a long time organising my keyboards so that once they're set up, which takes my technician about three hours, everything's plumbed in and ready to go. I hate that faff in the studio which arises from trying to sort out minor technical problems. For example, the number of people who have two synthesisers set up just too far apart for the MIDI lead to stretch between them - you've got no idea how much time those things waste and, if you're in an SSL studio, just how much money that can cost. In fact, leads are a very underestimated item, even in the best studios. People spend an awful amount of money on synthesisers and remarkably little on leads. Then they wonder why things don't sound as good as they should."
The extent to which the rig gets used is dictated by the stage of the recording when Richards is called in. Sometimes he's there to provide a few keyboard overdubs or short sequenced passages. At other times, he's presented with a band, a tape machine and a demo and told to come out with a finished record.
"I've occasionally turned up and realised that all the track really needs is a live drummer. On the other hand, there are times when you go in and say 'Let's get Page R cracking on the Fairlight and be as outrageous as we can'. And there are other times when I've listened to the stuff they've put down already and had to say 'This is so bad, we've got to start again. I can't guarantee it's going to be any better, but I promise you it won't be any worse'."
IN THE SITUATIONS where he's expected to provide both the sounds and the notes, how easy is it for him to give the artist what they want... Indeed, how often do they know what they want?
"Sometimes they talk in abstract terms and say they want a song to fulfil such and such a function. Or they might be specific and say 'Do you remember the middle eight of that track by so and so?'. That doesn't necessarily help because even if I managed to get that exact sound, there's a very good chance that, because the track is different and running at a different tempo, it may not actually fit.
"The important thing is to try and understand the nature of the sound they're after - whether it's a sample, an analogue sound or whatever - and what role it's going to fulfil.
"One of the hardest sounds to come up with is the keyboard pad. Traditionally people have tended to jam loads of stuff together, but personally I believe that one good synthesiser is better than a dozen MIDI'd together. Not only are they not going to be quite in time with each other, since MIDI is such a terribly slow system, but you have cross-phasing of the different waveforms and before you know it you've just got one big mush.
"In that respect the D50 has made life a lot easier because it has lots of wonderful pad sounds. Although I think the only reason they are wonderful is because of the inbuilt reverb. I don't actually think it's a particularly good synth. I mean, how many fewer people would have bought a D50 if there hadn't been inbuilt chorus and reverb? It's a very clever marketing ploy.
And to prove it, just listen to the sound of the D50 without the effects.
"I think that there are less and less good synthesisers being made. The best ones were undoubtedly analogue ones. There's something about the punchiness and vibe of the analogue synthesiser which these digital machines just haven't got. And when it comes to emulating samplers, they just don't work either."
The Fairlight comes in for its share of criticism too.
"One of the hardest sounds to come up with is the keyboard pad - I believe that one good synthesiser is better than a dozen MIDI'd together."
"Soon after getting it I realised that the standard 140 megabytes of memory was nowhere near enough. When you're talking about 16-bit sampling at a rate of 44.1kHz or higher, then you're eating up memory very quickly. So I went out and bought three more hard disks to give me 710 megabytes on line."
One hard disk is always kept completely free for whatever session Richards happens to be working on, while the others are kept as archives. The extra terminal allows him to view the file names and call up new sounds into the RAM, without having to exit from whatever music programs are running on the main system. At the end of a session, Richards records all the new data on tape streamer, and from there it gets dumped to a temporary hard disk directory. Eventually, he looks at any new sounds he might have created and, if he decides to keep them, adds them to the archive.
"It's very important not to let the archives get out of hand, otherwise you end up taking up too much memory with sounds you'll never use again, or giving yourself far too much choice. I've seen people calling up 56 hi-hat samples of every conceivable description across the keyboard. You're talking about nine megabytes of RAM just on hi-hats, and by the time you've loaded your bass and snare variations too, that's practically all your RAM used up. And inevitably, no-one can decide which of those they prefer anyway."
While aware of the pitfalls of colossal memory capability, Richards reckons that the considerable extra cost has been well worth it, particularly when he needs to gain access to libraries of voices extremely quickly.
"No-one wants to hang around while you try and retrieve data off tape streamers. And even if people don't really understand what's going on, they feel thrilled when you can take one of their ideas and quickly manipulate it that one stage further."
In general, though, while many artists might not know that much about the capabilities of the Fairlight when they first arrive, they soon seem to get the hang of it.
"Where the Fairlight is concerned, every artist I've worked with understands the concept very quickly. The Pet Shop Boys, for example, love to generate everything on the Fairlight because they like the screen interaction between the machine and the artist. Everyone likes that ability to look at all 16 tracks at once and see the relationship in real time between them all. I'm surprised that no other software company has yet managed to do that. Other sequencers always seem to have the data hidden in a buffer somewhere. And when you do get a peek at it, it seems to be a row of letters and numbers.
"Also, because the principle of the Fairlight sequencer is quite easy to grasp, you can get those wonderful things which arise from a non-tutored person's relationship to a piece of equipment. Through session work I've picked up a lot more about the intuitive approach, something which I don't have because I always look at it from a trained angle."
While acknowledging the creative accidents that often occur because people don't possess a formal musical education, Richards believes that a musical training is important.
"The more musical your approach, the more longevity you've got. I think that to be able to play to a reasonable standard helps you get more out of the technology. It certainly gives me an advantage over other programmers that can't. And it's extremely useful when someone puts a written score in front of you and says 'play this into the sequencer'."
For that reason, while the Fairlight is described as the most stimulating investment Richards ever made, it also goes down on the record books as "one of the least musical".
"With many of the synths I've owned, the Jupiter 8 in particular, I'd spend time programming what I thought were all these super sounds, but then I'd play them. With the Fairlight, because it's really built around this amazing sequencer, your orientation changes towards inputting data rather than developing a playing relationship with it. No wonder I've lost my technique when all I really do is press keys and type in data. Technology has a lot to answer for where technique is concerned.
"Which explains my slightly cynical attitude, because although I have what many people would regard as this fantastic setup, I can really only see its limitations. As far as I'm concerned, music should live and breathe and have soul, yet here you have a machine where you've got to work very hard to make it not sound like a machine. Certainly that's what I aim to do, and I like to think that occasionally I achieve it.
"But then in ten years time, data processing will be so fast, we'll have machines which are fired up and ready to go before you even switch them on. These so-called great instruments of the '80s - the Synclavier, the Fairlight - all of these are going to look trivial and irrelevant compared to the technology which will be at our disposal then.
"I hope that by the time we get to that stage, what will have remained constant is that musicians will still want to make music and sing songs and touch people's hearts."
Let me be the first to sign that particular petition.
Interview by Nicholas Rowland