Article from Music Technology, June 1988
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.
"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?
"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
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