Sound And Fury
The story of one man and his synthesizer | Gary Numan
The Numan face of synthesis
Right from the Vintage SH-2000 model, Gary Numan has rarely recorded without a Roland Synth somewhere in the mix. Now, arming himself with a whole battery of JX-8P's for his current tour, he reveals why he's found the ideal synth-of-all-work.
Before Gary Numan was a musician he was a pilot. When flying he learnt (sometimes the hard way) that an aeroplane has to be reliable and solid.
Gary Numan still flies today. His plane is a Harvard and it is reliable and solid with just that little bit of class. Similarly Gary Numan is still a musician with a brand new album The Fury (named after a plane) in the shops and a tour wending its way around the country as you read. His attitude to aircraft also extends to musical instruments. That's why he uses Roland. Solid and reliable with just that little bit of class.
Gary's first contact with Roland gear came when he was making the album that would make him famous. Replicas was recorded in a cramped 16-track in Soho, London. Today he is standing in his own considerably larger studio in West London recalling the encounter for the "Newslink" tape recorder: 'It was dead funny actually,' he laughs. 'They had this sort of first generation Roland synth there — an SH2000 as I remember but because of the studio and the area it was in they had cut a hole in the control panel where there weren't too many knobs and stuck this massive chain through it so no-one could nick it. It was very odd trying to play tunes out on this little synth when it was chained to the wall.'
These days Gary uses the more traditional lock and key method to make sure that no unsavoury types run off with his coveted Roland gear. And looking around his studio, the Roland logo is very much in evidence.
'Well I've got five JX8Ps,' he reflects, 'because very soon we'll be going on tour and I'm going to have two keyboard players each using two JX8Ps. I'm going to keep one spare as well because you can never be too safe even though everybody's telling me that they're the most reliable synths you can use. I really like the idea of that sort of uniformity on stage from an aesthetic point of view and from a sound point of view it's great because the JX8Ps sound brilliant when they are MIDI'd together.'
When Gary first decided to go with JX8Ps his main concern was that they'd be able to recapture the sounds on his older records. You see up until about a year ago I was still using Polymoogs and Odysseys, he confesses, 'and I really hadn't been keeping up with the synth scene. Then Roland asked me to try some of the JX8Ps and I was amazed that I could get those old sounds on them. For some reason I thought they'd all be a lot more hi-tech. I never thought I'd be able to replace that Odyssey sound on Cars because it's very distinctive; like a bad voice but a recognisable voice. But I called up the string sound and modified it a bit with the programmer and there was that sound.
'It was really inspiring when I first played the JX8P,' he continues, 'some of the sounds are just ideal for me. I remember the first time I listened to the Voice pre-set. It made me want to write a song straight away! Actually I've used that sound and the Hollow Pad sound pretty well exclusively for the music I'm doing to go with a mini showcase film for the plane. Actually I think the Voice sound is probably my favourite on the whole synth. I use it a hell of a lot. We spent quite a while fiddling around with the sounds and the programmer trying to recapture the old sounds and I often found the Voice with a bit of modification from the programmer was just what I wanted. It's got everything you want, that sound. It can be quite insidious and dark sounding or it can be ethereal and very atmospheric.'
Although a lot of people still associate Gary Numan with the very early synth type sounds that made him famous, his later material has encompassed a whole spectrum of atmospheres and textures. Again the Roland JX8P is just the instrument.
'There's much more to the JX than those synthy sounds. The piano sound is just incredible and I feel a little bit qualified to talk about that. Not because I am a brilliant pianist or anything but I write all my songs on pianos and I've got a Bosendorfer which is meant to be the business and I've got my old faithful upright at home which is really knackered and a bit out of tune, but the JX has got all the character and the sound of both of them. It's perfect. We've used it virtually untreated for some ballad type songs because it's just so rich and full sounding. I love it. It's also got a really excellent Rhodes sound. At first I thought it wasn't really me but I liked it so much I wrote a song that was specially designed for the sound — like I was saying about songs being inspired by sounds. I think the only thing that stops me from writing on the JX8P is the scale of the keyboard but I'd obviously much rather have it that way.'
And if you think Gary's going to stop praising the sounds there, you're wrong. This is very obviously a man impressed.
'Some of the string sounds are great,' he says 'and there are a whole host of string sounds. They go from really good solo violins to full string orchestra sounds. What I like to do is MIDI up Strings 4 and the lo and hi 6 and 7. That sounds magnificent. Then there's the brass. I've always been a little bit dubious about brass sounds on synths but some of them on here are great. The brass stab is tremendous and if you MIDI up the brass stabs it sounds like a really honking brass section. Earth Wind and Fire? Forget it. Out the window.
'Another sound on the JX8P that I liked a lot, was the 'cello sound. It's so realistic. I mean I'm not the world's greatest authority on 'cellos but to me it sounds very authentic. On the long version of Miracles we even had a 'cello solo!
Another glance around chez Numan reveals yet more Roland gear. In pride of place on top of the piano is the ubiquitous TR-808 of which Gary says: You can often hear me with that going at home sitting at my old piano waiting for inspiration to strike. It's got some really good sounds in it and I don't know if it's me or not but it seems to have a better feel than some of the other drum machines I've heard.'
In the effects rack lie the new Roland delays the SDE-1000 and SDE-3000. It transpires that these were quite a find for Gary and they now get put to great use on both voices and instruments.
'Over the years,' he says 'I've become quite familiar with a lot of outboard gear due to the fact that all the albums up until this one I have produced myself so I was spending a great deal of my life in the studio surrounded by studio equipment. So I'd always keep abreast of gear that was coming out. And to be quite honest when this Roland range came out I thought it would be great but I didn't think I'd use it the way I do. You see I saw it as more of a machine for maybe adding frills here and there, but it's turned out that this can do everything my old gear used to do and what's more it can do it quicker and better and cleaner. It's like I was with the JX8P. I was lugging about all this really old gear but now I've got one unit that can do more than everything the old stuff did. I did have MXR digital delays and I was really happy with them but I use Roland now. I've heard they're working on a feature for a future delay whereby you can MIDI the delay to your synth so that if I press a sound on the JX8P that needs say, 250 mill delay then I'll get the two together and then when I want to change to a sound with a completely different delay time that will happen automatically when I call the sound up. That will just be the business. (Actually, Gary must have missed his last copy of Roland Newslink. The rest of you will be aware the product he describes is already here and called the SDE-2500—Ed.) But then again who knows what they're going to bring out in the future. The JX10P — can you imagine that? My God!'
Gary Numan and Roland. Flying high.
Roland Newslink - Autumn 85
Gear in this article:
Feature by Lee Russell
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!