Back in the '60s it was Jefferson Airplane, then it was Jefferson Starship, then it was simply Starship. Brad Leigh Benjamin compares notes with the Synclavier king of one of rock's institutions.
Starship's keyboard virtuoso Mark Morgan began playing organ before playing with Chaka Khan; right now he's playing with a new album on his home Synclavier system...
WHO'D HAVE THOUGHT THAT STARSHIP keyboard virtuoso, Mark Morgan, would have started out at age seven with organ lessons? Where many of his pre-B3 brethren, however, fell prey to a life of beer-barrel polkas, Morgan's passion was jazz; Chick, Herbie, Miles... Morgan's studies took him to Berklee. Returning to Los Angeles, his first gig was with Stargard who had a hit in the Richard Pryor movie Which Way is Up?. This led to session work and tours with Ricki Lee Jones, and Chaka Khan, promoting her major hit, 'I Feel For You'.
Contributing keyboard skills to projects for Steely Dan's Walter Becker, Morgan navigated the LA studio scene doing everything from albums to ad spots for Michelob, Dos Equis, and Levi's. It was Morgan's association with ex-Zappa keyboardsman-turned-producer Peter Wolf, that led him to Starship. Their single, 'It's Not Enough', prompted a tour and an appearance on America's popular Arsenio Hall Show - noted for its live music and quality of sound. Currently, Morgan is preparing to go back out on the road with Starship while working with the Synclavier in his home studio, on a solo instrumental album.
It's a rainy afternoon when I arrive at Morgan's home in Northern California. He greets me and ushers me in. I'm immediately taken by the surroundings: steeped in the tradition of the Orient. Erte, ikebana, bonsai, Vasarely, and a black baby grand. (Strictly uptown.) I'm introduced to Morgan's wife, Wendy; assured of our comfort, she disappears.
"This is Koto", Morgan says, introducing me to his dog. "Koto's kind of Japanese".
"Yeah - the top-knot gives you a hint, but his obi and short-sword give it away".
Koto bows. "Bow", says Mark, gesturing to me. "Bow-wow", I reply. (Word association.)
"Really; you'd better bow or he won't leave." "Konnichi Wa, Koto", I say, bending slightly at the waist. Triumphant, Koto grunts and saunters back to his favourite zabuton in front of the TV.
"So Mark", I begin, one eye on the dog, "tell me about Starship."
"I was on the road with Chaka and doing an album for this guy, David Palmer, the first singer in Steely Dan. This was '85 and we were working at the same studio as Starship. They were mixing No Protection and I started hanging around with Peter Wolf - he was producing Starship. He said 'Starship's looking for a keyboard player. Are you interested?'. I thought 'Sure'. I liked what they did. I liked their records - Knee Deep in the Hoopla was out at the time. Peter had a Synclavier at the time, so the tracks sounded different than a lot of pop records that were coming out then. I jammed with them, which led to a tour, and eventually they made me a member."
Morgan especially enjoyed the Arsenio Hall Show. "That's a good show because the sound is great. They really spend the time getting the sound. It sounds more live than our record. I listened to the record, then I watched the videotape of Arsenio and it was 'live' but it still sounds like the record because they really work on the reverb settings and all that kind of stuff. The cool thing is that you can use all your technology on that show, full keys, and outboards. They have enough inputs on their board for all that. You can't lip-sync, you gotta play live. It's like doing a live show - only better."
Morgan's range of keyboard tones and patches have come together over a long period of time. He is not one to constantly chase after the newest technology. Instead he prefers to incorporate newer technology into what has consistently worked for him on tour and in the studio. He traces the beginning of his sound back to the I Feel For You tour with Chaka Khan.
"Chaka's tour was a lot of TX racks and Jupiter stuff, because of the strong R&B element. I didn't use any sampled stuff. In Chaka's band we didn't use any sequencers or any of that type of technology. It was really a great band, a players' band, which was really cool because her record was totally sequenced. The MIDI thing was starting to take off and I was really into the idea of utilising MIDI to run multiple patches from several keyboards, blending several keyboards simultaneously to create these multi-textured tones. I still use a lot of those patch combinations today, like TX816 FM attacks blended with warm analogue envelopes from the Jupiter. You get great horn sounds that way, real punchy on the front end, warm on the decay. Also, I like blending TX bass attacks with Minimoog underneath to get this really fat bass sound.
All of the bass tones on our recent Starship album are TX/Minimoog blended, except for a couple which are sampled Yamaha bass from an Akai S1000 or Synclavier sampled bass. I've got to say though, I'm moving away from heavy analogue technology, toward more organic sounds. I like analogue for pads and strings but I don't like the buzzy stuff out front."
MORGAN MAKES A CLEAR distinction between his use of music technology for studio and "live" applications.
"For live performance MIDI is strictly for layering and blending sounds to make them interesting, or maybe using a sequencer to call up effects. Otherwise, I don't enjoy sequencers 'live' at all. I'd rather have a band, burning. Although you have to sound close to the record during live performance, perfection is not quite as important as the level of energy and degree of intensity. The audience is there to interact with the artists. Recording albums and filmscores, however, is different. All the sequencing technology keeps things clean and precise. That's what people have become accustomed to."
"What's hip about technology is that I've got entire sampled orchestras at my disposal - tones ranging from analogue, to digital, FM, additive, LA, you name it."
I enquire about the type of sequencing used for Love Among The Cannibals. Morgan replies: "A lot of the record was sequenced on an Atari with C-Lab Notator software, and of course the Synclavier sequencer was used also. Synclavier is really the ultimate sequencer; it's totally accurate and quantises perfectly without sacrificing performance and 'feel'. It locks right in on the groove. Given its orientation toward motion picture work, it operates in 'song' mode relying on its cues from SMPTE, so there's no pattern mode. This means you can't work on a song section-bv-section and then piece it together, you've got to play it all the way through from start to end. In some cases, where you want a live feel that's great, but in other cases, say, on an R&B tune where you want to just work on one section of a groove, I find 'pattern mode' preferable. That's where C-Lab comes in."
Love Among The Cannibals contains tracks from several songwriters, and is the combined effort of various producers, including Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell), Mutt Lange (Def Leppard), Tom Lord-Alge (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) and Starship members Mickey Thomas, Craig Chaquico and Morgan. The varied methods of production amongst this cast of characters presents us with a wide and dazzling array of music technology utilised in the production of the album. Morgan is quickly becoming acclimatised to his Synclavier and welcomed the opportunity to use Synclavier technology on the album tracks produced by Starship.
"The cuts that the band produced, 'Love Among The Cannibals', 'Dream Sequence' and 'We Dream in Colors' were tracked entirely on the Synclavier in Studio 01 at The Plant. We used it for everything - drums, bass, percussion, even guitar stuff like Craig's power chords - we'd sample into the Synclavier, and move around with the digital editor. On 'Love Among The Cannibals' there's a lot of African stuff, so we used tons of percussion hits from the Synclavier library along with kick, snare, all the cymbals and this really happening R&B slap-type bass. We did all Mick's vocals direct-to-digital, and if he was pushing or rushing, we'd just pull him back in the track with the digital editor. If Mick had any questions about his pitch in particular spots, we'd raise or lower it to his satisfaction. It's great to have that kind of control and flexibility, although you don't need to do much of that with Mick because he's a great singer. We sampled all the background vocals on both Synclavier tunes. We'd do one chorus and fly them around wherever we needed them with the digital editor. They sounded great.
"On most of the other cuts we used my keyboard rig consisting of two TX racks, a Jupiter 6, a pair of Emaxes, Minimoog, and PPG 2.3. The PPG was one of the first hybrids of analogue and digital technology; you have digital filters in an analogue-based machine. The first time I heard it was on an old Thomas Dolby album. It can get really grainy and metallic, but it can be real warm because of the filters. I use it for metallic sounds or bells. Most of my bells are blended TX and PPG. The PPG adds that dimension to a bell that you just can't get from a TX or any FM technology.
"I really like working with the Emaxes also. We used them for vocal oohs and ahhs, blended with some kind of analogue Jupiter pad. They're really user-friendly and I like all the sample processing parameters, the analogue filters and all that. The Emax actually offers more sample post-processing and modification than the Synclavier.
"My main effects for keyboards are a Yamaha Rev7 and a Lexicon PCM70. I like the Rev for the graininess of the chorusing, and some of the gated effects. The PCM I use for all the longer, warmer reverbs. I always have my keys running through at least one of these.
"On the Tom Lord-Alge cuts, we supplemented my rig with an Akai S1000 and sampled some of his drum sounds from DAT. Tom's an engineer so he's really into the technology aspect of things. He'll do whatever it takes to get the sound he wants, whether it's massive EQ, or blending a drum sample with a vocal sample. No rules. He goes on his instincts; I admire that.
"On the Mutt Lange, Larry Klein cuts, we used the Akai S1000 for sampled Yamaha bass as well. Larry Klein also contributed his skills on a Fairlight Series III. All these cuts were sequenced on an Atari using Notator software."
MORGAN'S LOVE AFFAIR WITH HIS Synclavier knows no bounds. Its contribution to Love Among The Cannibals is only the beginning of what he expects to accomplish using Synclavier technology.
"The Synclavier directly locks to SMPTE, no interface or boxes necessary, and its features are all onboard. It's the ultimate workstation with massive storage and a ton of RAM. You can store on optical disk or HD. Mine is 32-voice, 32Meg, with a 160Meg HD and an optical disk. It samples at somewhere close to 100kHz which can severely limit your sample time, but if you've got Direct-to-Disk, it doesn't matter because that's giving you memory for days. The sequencer never drifts more than a hundredth of a millisecond. The computer is so precise and the resolution goes beyond description. I'm not into music that's robotic but the sequencer locks on without sacrificing the 'feel'. Anyone who questions the accuracy of this sequencer should examine their samples. How much air is in front of them? Are they truncated for optimum attack? That's a big part of it.
"What's really hip about all this technology is that as a singular artist, I've got entire sampled orchestras at my disposal, along with a vast palette of tones ranging from analogue synthesis, to digital, FM, additive, LA, you name it. Combine that with good sequencing software, outboard and all the rest, and an artist can become a one-person orchestra, a one-person band. I like that. This technology' helps me get things done right here, right now, at home."
But isn't it all getting out of hand? Especially in the domain of rock 'n' roll?
"There was a time when keyboard/MIDI technology was totally new and people were experimenting", comments Morgan. "Keys tended to be a little overdone and obtrusive. Now I think artists and producers are striking a balance and using the technology to enhance the basic elements of rock 'n' roll. Some styles don't require heavy keyboard orchestration or technology - I won't put a synth in a song just to have a synth in the song."
"Listen to a recorded acoustic piano on a rock ballad: it's EQ'd to cut across the power chords. In the mix it sounds great, but it's nothing like the original sound."
Doesn't it influence songwriting? Don't modern songwriters get distracted by tones and sounds, at the expense of melody and harmony?
"Some may be", he agrees, "but you've to change with the times. On R&B tunes, for instance, I'll find sounds, or textures, build grooves around them, and then write a tune from that. 'Send A Message' from the album, is a good example of a song which emerged from my experimentation with a synth-bass patch. For thematic music, I might compose around a string tremolo that I like, the modulation presenting a rhythmic quality of its own. Many composers begin with the colours of the orchestra before they've developed any harmonic or melodic ideas. Sometimes, however, I sketch out a tune on the acoustic piano and then develop its arrangement through samplers and synthesisers. The approach really depends on the idea."
Then what is Morgan's overall approach to music and technology?
Running one hand through his long black ponytail, he ponders, then responds: "To be as organic as possible, and create patches that aren't too synth-sounding. A lot of my textures have that pluckness or mallet feel because that's the organic part of the sound. Where a pad is needed under an initial attack tone, I'll substitute a human breath underneath it instead, make it as organic as possible. These days I like to blend percussive, wooden sounds with TX attacks, or take a marimba sample from the Synclavier, and combine it with a TX click or pluck. On the record, Tom Lord-Alge had me use plucks and clicks even under synth pads to give them a strong entrance. I like approaching pop music that way, especially rock. It's so guitar-oriented that keyboards need strong attacks to carve out a space. Unfortunately, sometimes my keys are subject to massive EQ so they'll jump out of the track, creating a slight buzziness which detracts from their original organic quality. It's a necessary evil relative to keyboards on rock recordings - overlapping frequencies and all that. Just listen to a recorded acoustic piano on a rock ballad. Generally, it's heavily EQ'd to cut across the power chords. In the mix it sounds great, but if you solo the piano track and listen, it's brash and bright - nothing like the original sound. That's one of the reasons why I'd like to work on more thematic and cinematic music. It affords one the opportunity to work with more natural sounds, free of the constrictions of rock band instrumentation. I'm getting more and more into composing for films. The passion involved in that kind of music is so inspiring. Pop music can be kind of cut and dried. In film, you can take it a little outside, and that's what I'm after."
He continues, "I listen to film scores all the time. One of my favourite composers is Ennio Morricone. He has an extremely organic approach to orchestration, lots of pan pipes, and strings blended with acoustic guitar. Peter Gabriel's score for The Last Temptation of Christ is another great one. He's a great example of a successful pop artist whose film scores are incredible and defy the parameters of pop/rock music."
I ask Morgan to elaborate on his overall perspective and philosophy in regards to music. Adjusting his black framed glasses he reflects a moment: "I'm into architectural design, so my music is rooted in that concept. I look at notes and rests the way an architect looks at form and space. I like things to be very spacious and uncluttered. I don't like overly ornate, lavish buildings or musical compositions. Simplicity presents a minimalistic beauty. When you employ a small quantity of sound sources, each one exerts a greater impact. The fewer the sources, the more presence each one has. You could say the same about the composition itself, and the number of notes you play. Peter Gabriel is great at that. He knows how to make just a couple of notes really speak.
"I embrace a Japanese approach to design and lifestyle, blending the organically simplistic, with newer, more contemporary motifs. Bamboo pavilions and glass high-rises, side by side; rice paper on polished steel; shakuhachi and TX tones, blended, contemporary, yet uncomplicated."
Wendy's footfall on the stairs captures our attention.
"Here Toto", I call out to the dog. Instantly, he's up on his hind legs, sword drawn high above his head between his front paws. Rage is in his eyes.
"That's Koto", says Wendy. "You shouldn't ever call him Toto. He hates the Wizard Of Oz. He's ruined every pair of ruby slippers I ever owned."
"That's quite a dog", I reply nervously. "Sorry, Koto".
He exhales slowly, resheathes his sword, and settles back down in front of the TV, muttering to himself like Toshiro Mifune on a bad day.
"Guess I better take off", I offer awkwardly. Picking up my coat and some newly-bought CDs, I head for the front door.
"New CDs?", asks Morgan.
"Yeah", I reply.
"Who's the band?"
Whooosh - the sound of an angry dog's sword.