Sounds of Metropolis
Mark Jenkins pins down the expert synthesist/programmer best known for his work with Peter Gabriel, and discusses the release of his eighth solo album - 'Metropolitan Suite'.
Mark Jenkins pins down Larry Fast, the expert synthesist programmer best known for his work with Peter Gabriel, and discusses the release of his eighth solo album - 'Metropolitan Suite'.
Over in the States, Larry Fast is one of the most respected keyboard players on the current music scene. Not that he's associated with flashy playing technique in the style of Rick Wakeman, or the on-stage showmanship of Keith Emerson. Fast's forte lies in keyboard production, a skill which in 1983 earned him the coveted accolade of 'Best Studio Synthesist' in Keyboard magazine's Reader Poll Awards. Over the last few years Fast has appeared on record with Peter Gabriel, Hall and Oates, Foreigner, Air Supply, Nektar, Jim Steinman, Bonnie Tyler, Moon Martin and many others, as well as releasing a series of solo albums under the stage name 'Synergy'.
We spoke to Fast while he was working in London with producer Hugh Padgham on a new album for Dream Academy. The connection with Padgham came about when the duo worked together on the Peter Gabriel 3 album, and although the working methods are very different, Fast's role on the Dream Academy album is similar to one he has played many times before.
"On the Dream Academy album I'm acting as a sort of associate producer with responsibility for the keyboard parts. I've done two weeks on the album so far, with a couple more weeks to go, and by the time I have to finish, hopefully, we'll have basic versions recorded of eight or ten songs."
"Their keyboard player, Gilbert Gabriel (no relation apparently), is a very important one-third of the band, and Hugh (Padgham) thought that increasing the degree of production on the keyboard parts was a very important way for the band to develop. I've been using various synthesizers and sequencers here, most of which I asked for in advance before I flew out."
"Here," refers to Lillie Yard studio, London, the brainchild of synthesist Hans Zimmer (see interview SOS August 86), who has worked in the past with The Buggles and on scores of albums and film soundtracks. Lillie Yard is perhaps best known for Hans' monstrous modular synthesizer, which consists of a wall full of Moog, Roland, PPG and custom modules. Upstairs is a programming suite equipped with a Series III Fairlight, an E-mu modular synth system with a Polyfusion keyboard controller, and all the usual Roland/Yamaha/Sequential goodies.
Fast's set-up for the Dream Academy sessions includes an Emulator II, an Oberheim Xpander, a DX7, TX7 and a Roland JX-10 - all interlinked by a Sycologic M16 MIDI Matrix.
The main studio in Lillie Yard is equipped with a Series IIx Fairlight, which can be tied to the Series III upstairs, plus a LinnDrum and stacks of effects. Yet it is small compared to The House Of Music, the American studio in which Fast has a one-third share and where he has recorded and mixed most of his Synergy solo albums, including his latest, Metropolitan Suite.
"House Of Music has two 48-track rooms and will have a third soon, and has a swimming pool and facilities for video which we'll be bringing in over the next eighteen months. A lot of very 'big' albums have been recorded there, including Jim Steinman's two albums (he writes all Meatloaf's stuff), some of Bonnie Tyler's albums, an album for Kool And The Gang, Barbra Streisand and so on. But the administrative staff there are very good, so I don't have to get involved with that kind of work - I just sit on the Board and make more global decisions such as what mixing desk to buy."
Before proceeding, it seemed worth clearing up the question of Larry Fast's non-appearance on the last Peter Gabriel album, So, after the success of his work up to and including Peter Gabriel 4 and Peter Gabriel Plays Live: "I did work on the latest album, less extensively than before, but those tracks weren't used in the end. Peter always records a lot more music than he needs and Daniel Lanois, who was producing the album, was taking it into a new area which was slightly less texturally dense. One or two of the pieces on which I was quite proud of my work just didn't seem to fit in with that approach."
Instead, Fast has concentrated on developing the sophistication of his own music, with Metropolitan Suite adding to an impressive back catalogue comprising Electronic Realizations For Rock Orchestra, Sequencer, Chords, Games, Computer Experiments Vol. 1, Audion and the The Jupiter Menace (now deleted).
"I've left it quite a long time since releasing the last album - six years to be precise - so the leap in sophistication is relatively great. In that time the New Age music scene has opened up a whole new marketing area for instrumental music which didn't exist before, except possibly for jazz music. I don't identify my music at all with the New Age tag, but at least now the record shops have somewhere to file all kinds of instrumental music!"
"In the first few weeks of release, I've seen Metropolitan Suite do as well as all my previous albums, which tended to sell steadily over a very long period. I'm looking at around 100,000 sales, and we've been sending out promotional CDs of the new album to film companies in the hope of getting some work in those areas. The movie I did in 1982, 'The Jupiter Menace', was terrible - a sort of science fiction semi-documentary - and they started out using existing music from my albums and ended up asking me for forty minutes of new music as well. But I'd certainly welcome an opportunity to score an entire movie soundtrack."
Fast's music would certainly be ideal for feature film use. For those unfamiliar with his solo style, it's best described as 'orchestral electronics', synthesizing orchestral textures including percussion and swirling them together in lengthy pseudo-classical chunks. Because Fast avoids cliched sampling and synth presets, being mainly interested in pure sound synthesis, his first album made in 1975 has not dated at all, something which couldn't be said of many other synthesists!
Fast's ASCAP payments (the American equivalent of Performing Right royalties) reveal a healthy use of his existing music on TV and radio, with the thousand-strong American local TV station network providing plenty of outlets for instrumental snippets. On completing the Dream Academy project, Fast was due to return to the USA to promote Metropolitan Suite and spend the summer composing for the next Synergy release, using the MIDI sequencing system he'd developed for this album.
"I use MIDI sequencers as an in-between stage to refine the compositional process before I have to commit myself to tape. The in-built sequencer on the Emulator II sampler did most of the work - I don't use a lot of samples and if you haven't loaded up many sample files the sequencer's note capacity is quite enormous; if you combine both banks on the Emulator II+HD keyboard, you have one megabyte to play with! I also used various versions of the Passport Apple II composition package, and a Roland MSQ-700 sequencer to shuttle things about - it's very quick and workable as a copying machine."
"The small studio I have at home in New Jersey began as a one-inch 8-track set-up but it's now largely run by MIDI, with everything including sounds being stored to floppy disk, or notated in the case of the non-programmable synths which I still use."
"After composing the pieces I move the whole set-up into The House Of Music studio and multitrack them onto a Sony digital, putting down one sound at a time synchronised by SMPTE and really tailoring each one carefully. The Emulator II is sometimes used multitimbrally to sample sounds from the Moog modular system, so that I can hear them all together in a kind of 'scratch pad' way. I have a DX7 with its own single-ended noise reduction system built in, which I built, plus a TX7, a Prophet 5 and a MemoryMoog - both with MIDI retrofits - and the Moog modular system which can be split up to create several sounds at once, although that does stretch it a bit thin."
So Fast can hear his complete composition at home including percussion parts, which he prefers to synthesize rather than play on an old LinnDrum which he keeps for session work. Having tried both the Fairlight and Synclavier he hasn't been particularly attracted to them, although he has no major gripes about either machine.
"I'm less interested in sampling than in pure synthesis, and that isn't the forte of either of those machines, although they do have some interesting facilities in that area. I'm more interested in the new generation of harmonic synthesis machines which are coming along - the Mu Logic from the Bell Labs family looks very exciting, Wendy Carlos has a prototype which I'm looking forward to seeing; then there's the Waveframe and, of course, the constant evolution of the Yamaha DX system." (More on the DX later.)
Fast's connection with synth pioneer Wendy Carlos (creator of Switched On Bach) has become more substantial of late with the signing of Carlos to Audion, a US-based record label owned by JEM Records for which Larry acts as A&R man and "spiritual guide". The new Carlos album, Beauty In The Beast, has already been hailed as a masterpiece, although it sets itself a difficult task by tackling the problems of innovative synthesis techniques and micro-tuning simultaneously. Fast explains:
"JEM Records wanted to set up a non-New Age instrumental music label and since they'd previously had some success with the Synergy albums, they tapped my brain on it. Wendy Carlos became available, so we signed her up and we re-released the Synergy albums plus new albums from Emerald Web, Neil Nappe, Don Slepian, Barry Cleveland and Garry Hughes."
Albums from Roger Powell of Utopia and from Laurie Spiegel, both innovative software writers as well as synthesists, are said to be on their way and the label intends to feature more UK acts in the future, inspired by the example of Britain's Garry Hughes.
On the CD and cassette releases of Fast's Metropolitan Suite you'll find the five parts of the Suite itself, which musically depicts the development of New York in the 20th Century, plus four shorter pieces on the B-side, one of which is not included on the vinyl version.
When Sony heard that Fast was planning a new LP, they offered him the free use of equipment most artists simply cannot afford. Most of the top studios in the world today have 2-track digital recorders; Sony asked Larry to record on their new, state of the art, 24-track digital tape machine. Sony's goal: to use Fast's finished composition as a demonstration of the technical superiority of their new equipment. Fast took them up on the offer and began recording the pieces, which in fact rarely filled up more than 20 of the 24 available tracks.
"I tend to be fairly economical because I can put on the composer's, producer's and performer's hats simultaneously - I know what I want, so I don't have to spread a sound over four or five tracks and decide on the final version at the mixing stage. The ambient effects (reverb) go onto tape as the individual sounds go down, because I'm a very firm believer in the idea that the ambience is all part of the sound itself, though the longer delays and wider ambient effects go down at the final mixing stage. If I make a mistake I've got nobody to blame except myself, and I can go back and do it again because I've got all the basic information stored on disk."
"I'm quite committed to digital recording as far as my purposes go - some people think it's clinical but as far as I'm concerned it's just transparent; you get back what you put down. If I've spent a long time getting a very snappy synth sound or one with a lot of low frequency and it doesn't come back from analogue tape, that's very frustrating. I don't want the tape to have a sound of its own - I have a room full of tools to help me create sounds and realise my ideas, and the only new instruments I'm interested in are the ones that will help me realise those ideas more perfectly. In fact, most of the noise on this album was generated by the NECAM automated Neve desk."
Fast's Moog modular synthesizer system is still one of the quietest instruments in his studio he reckons, with the oscillators and VCFs giving very powerful sounds if well adjusted. He finds it a very flexible system, offering options which he doesn't expect to see on digital instruments for a couple of years yet, although he is intending to buy a new DX7 MarkII.
"At the moment I have a Grey Matter Response E! board (reviewed SOS January 87) installed in my DX7 and that gives a lot of the possibilities of the Mark II DX7, with an improved MIDI specification and increased memory. Yamaha have obviously taken a good look at it because they've incorporated some of its best features on the Mark II, but the E! board still has more memories and more micro-tuning capabilities, which I'd like to exploit in the future. I'll probably get a DX7 Mark II anyway because the silence of the 16-bit DAC output is important, but I'll keep the DX7 because I've grown quite attached to it now!"
To return to the work in hand, Larry filled us in on the approach he's taking on the forthcoming Dream Academy album.
"The work I've been doing is a sort of scaled-down version of the solo album. It's basically MIDI sequencing with a spot of overdubbing using the Emulator II's sequencer, with its keyboard acting as a master controller and patch selector for all the other synths, even when there's no sound loaded into the Emulator. I'm not very fussy about the feel of the master keyboard, although a heavy piano action can slow you down a little, but the Emulator suits me fine. I had what you might call a 'lightweight' classical education, giving it up for rock 'n' roll and studying music theory again in college, by which time I'd become thoroughly involved in electronic music. In fact, some of the pieces on the first Synergy album developed from a college 20th Century composition class."
"So sometimes I feel that I could play very full block chords with both hands, but you have to hold back and work in with the other instruments. You play each piece fairly sparingly - my production experience has taught me to be self-critical and self-limiting - so you think of each part in the context of the whole. When you have the finished sequencer track it gives the band some idea of where their song is going, and how they could change it. We then re-edit the sequence so that they can hear all the alternatives. It makes things easier for the keyboard player, because once we've captured his performance he can relax. Apart from the Emulator II we've used a Roland MC500 sequencer, but I haven't got very deeply into it because its architecture differs from the instruments I'm used to."
Despite the hi-technology approach to the Dream Academy album, coming as it does from a band not previously known for their keyboard work, the overall sound is quite natural.
"The important thing when you're using MIDI sequencing instead of tape, is to avoid bleeding the humanity from the music - which I certainly feel we've avoided. We've used Lillie Yard studio's modular system on almost all the tracks, mainly sticking to the Moog modules with which I'm most familiar, and that's given us some very rich sounds. My intention is just to take the album as far as I can in the time available."
Since Larry has in the past been involved with designing some of his own equipment (the 'Galvanic Skin Response Voltage Controller' and others spring to mind!), did he still have time to design and to keep up with new equipment releases?
"The last pieces of hardware I designed were MIDI filter controllers and channelisers for the Prophet 5 and MemoryMoog. But now that all the operating systems of synthesizers are contained on a 'chip', you don't find them as accessible as in the old days of voltage control and gates."
"But I do keep up with new equipment - at the moment I'm waiting for the second generation of computer-assisted composition programs to come along. New programs like 'Jam Factory' and 'M' on the Apple Macintosh are the logical successors to 'Pink Tunes', which I used on an Apple II micro to control the Prophet 5 for Computer Experiments Vol. 1, so one day soon I may get around to recording Vol. 2! Laurie Spiegel's 'Music Mouse' system is another very interesting program (it's a semi-intelligent graphic MIDI composition system for the Mac). I spend lots of 'dead' hours in hotels on various jobs catching up on my reading about systems like this."
Despite Larry's varied work over the last half decade and his undoubted contributions to the developing field of instrumental electronic music, many readers will want to know how his present work compares with his time with Peter Gabriel.
"Well, Peter's albums are always very lengthy, taking up to six months work from me and going on for even longer than that while Peter works on the vocals and other parts. He's constantly refining and changing his songs, whereas the songs I'm doing with Dream Academy are much more prestructured. Of course, we're changing them a little as we work on them, but it's a completely different way of working. Peter's albums are very exploratory and very illuminating for everyone involved - the Dream Academy work is much closer to the conventional method of making records."