Goldsmiths College Electronic Music Studio
Studio Scene is intended as a frank look at the pitfalls and delights of using computer-based synthesisers in a studio environment, whether it be commercial or educational, individual or establishment. We do this in the hope that it will offer a useful and realistic perspective on what it means to be a Computer Musician within an analogue world.
By any criteria, the electronic music studio at Goldsmiths' College in South London is pretty impressive, including as it does three racks of Roland 100 Modules, multiple Wasps and VCS-3s, a 16/8 Chilton mixing desk, a Soundcraft 1" 8-track, a Publison pitch shifter, various digital delays, a vocoder, two alphaSyntauri systems, and a Fairlight CMI. At the risk of roasting myself alive, courtesy of the Underground in the July heat-wave, I journeyed down to Lewisham Way to visit the studio and to talk to its main co-ordinator on the micro side of things, Benedict Sarnaker.
D: Could you give me a run-down of the micro-based equipment you've got in the studio?
B: We've acquired recently a couple of alphaSyntauris and a Fairlight CMI, funded by the Music Department, and a further alphaSyntauri and two BBC Micros that have been funded by the school of Adult and Community Studies. Though these additions actually happened over just six months we've been pressing for them for some years. Initially, we got our first two Apple systems as a kind of booby prize for not having the Fairlight, but then, because of some money being left over at the end of a financial year, we were able to get the Fairlight at the end of September 1982.
D: One of the perennial problems that university music studios seem to face is the hit-or-miss financing from year to year.
B: Yes, the central problem is that music departments conceptually belong to Arts Faculties, which means that people are inclined to think that all you need are a handful of books! Of course, music needs a lot more than a handful of books, and, when one gets to digital equipment, we really need to be funded as a science department, both in terms of capital costs for setting-up, and also recurrent costs for replacement, extension, and development. Although nobody will actually admit to it in quite those terms, this does seem to be the principle that's being slowly adopted by the college.
D: Could you give us some sort of idea of the people that are able to use the facilities?
B: Well, it's a little difficult because developments have been so recent that we're still finding our feet, but, for the Fairlight, we're thinking primarily of use by our post graduates and people from outside — either composers of some established reputation or younger composers who don't yet have that reputation. Of course, it's the younger one's that are in the worse situation, in that they can never get access to this sort of equipment, so we're very much hoping that we'll be able to open house to them.
D: I think that's really encouraging. You probably remember that Syco Systems had a competition last year where the prizewinner was awarded a year's use of a Fairlight. That sounds great until you actually start working with the thing and find the 150 hours allocated to you rapidly whittling away to nothing. If young composers and musicians are to grow up with digital systems as friends rather than foes, they do need the sort of access you're hoping to offer.
B: Yes, what we'd like to do is to make it possible for composers simply to work, charging them a nominal figure purely to cover incidental costs like floppy disks and so on. We're still negotiating this, and the implications are very complex for the college, so we obviously don't want a huge flood of people at the door the day after these comments have appeared in print! What we really do want to avoid is the idiotic situation where yet another Fairlight means yet another private Fairlight.
D: Moving on to the rest of the equipment, it's very unusual to see two alphaSyntauris alongside a Fairlight. In fact, it's unusual to see two alphaSyntauris, period! What made you go for the alpha?
B: A difficult one! To give you an absolutely candid answer, I'd just been asked to direct an electronic music option course within the B.Mus. degree. I knew that we had no digital equipment, which meant that I faced the problem of being unable to demonstrate digital techniques to students who already had something of a passing knowledge from reading about them. Now, as you can well imagine, this was a pretty depressing situation. So, I spent a day playing with the alpha, thinking seriously about buying it, firstly, because I had an Apple already, and secondly, because I'd then have one piece of digital equipment to show to the students. Also, it was the only readily available system based around the Apple, and I felt that that would give me some confidence in working with it. The reason for buying two was simply because of the number of students on the course.
Why alphaSyntauri as well as Fairlight? Well, again, because of the educational situation. The undergraduate students get exposure to the studio anyway, so they have some idea of what's there. Those who opt for the electronic music option spend a whole year of doing that sort of work, and we simply wanted the digital equipment integrated into that. Analogue synthesisers are there of course, but the availability of digital ones enables students to investigate their comparative values. For that, we needed something fairly simple, relatively less expensive, and which we could spread amongst a lot of students.
D: One criticism that has been levelled at the alphaSyntauri and, I think, American micro-based systems in general, is that they're heavily reliant upon real-time entry. Do you think that is a just criticism?
B: I think it is a just criticism. In fact, it's a very severe limitation on the system and, worse, it's a limitation which I don't think is really necessary within the technology. If we had non-real-time entry, we could be using our alphas as something that's more than half-way to the Fairlight rather than as a conceptually different machine. That's the real pity. On the other hand, what we have at present in the alpha is useful to those students who are used to the real-time method of working.
D: I agree with your point about what should be available from current technology. For instance, if you look at the Casio CT-7000 keyboard, which has a multi-track tape recorder in software, allowing you to step through the sequence to edit mistakes and change voices within tracks, the alpha seems pretty unintelligent in comparison. After all, if you'd spent a lot of effort entering 20,000 notes in real time, and had to locate a mistake, you'd have every right to expect a bit of auto-location assistance from the micro to avoid a hunt-the-needle-in-the-hay-stack syndrome. Also, a fair number of people have put the point to me that you could quite easily put together a system based on a good polyphonic synthesiser and a Portastudio for the same price as the alpha system which would easily outstrip it in terms of performance. So, apart from the ability to build up waveforms, and play around with disk files, what's one really gaining from the alpha?
B: I agree entirely. Franky, if I had a student who's got his fingers around the alphaSyntauri well enough to be entering 20,000 notes seriously, I'd put him on the Fairlight! It's as simple as that and, for us, it's a simple solution to the alpha's limitations as the Fairlight is just down the corridor. Of course, conceptually, it's a daft solution and it's a daft way of using our resources.
D: I suppose by using the alpha one is acquiring some sort of computer literacy in a musical situation. For instance, the student rapidly gets to learn that there's a key marked 'Return' that has to be pressed at every other opportunity! Moving on to the sound of the alphaSyntauri, and in direct comparison to the Roland modules, what would you say to somebody who questions what he'll get in place of a low-pass filter sweep? How would you assess the alpha's sound quality?
B: Well, not a great deal if you're comparing it to the most expensive analogue machines. The price differential certainly hasn't yet crossed over between analogue and digital systems. Rather than using the alpha for sound comparison, we're using it as a concept, for different ways of working, and for education. When the sound quality becomes the predominate issue, then it's the time, in my opinion, that the student becomes a post-graduate, and he'll then be given access to the Fairlight.
D: Do you therefore think of the alphaSyntauri as a sort of proving ground for somebody interested in micro music?
B: For us, it's a training ground. It's a training machine which looks different and has to be operated differently. That's extremely important for the students to grasp, and I think we'd be failing in our educational responsibility not to give them access to it. And for that purpose, the alpha works very well.
D: Moving on, how easy would you say it is for somebody to come from the real-time input of the alphaSyntauri to the MCL of the Fairlight?
B: My impression of the Fairlight is that you're now given a great deal of help in the most recent software to actually guide you through its operations. If you work systematically, rather than trying to get a big, complex job done in a short period of time, you'll soon see the way through its tree-like structure and be able to move around fairly fluently. To actually grasp its range of capacity is obviously going to take a considerably longer period of time, and, so far, far too few people with access to Fairlights seem to have got beyond what I can only call the cliches of Fairlight sounds. By that, I mean the presets — the sounds that have sold the system because they display its power — but it's also true that the people who created those knew the system inside-out in a way which most of the users haven't yet given enough time and thought to.
D: I think that's very true and amply demonstrated by the rather middle-of-the-road quality of most of the examples on the Fairlight demo cassettes.
B: I think that's something that could have been predicted considering the pressures of commercial work, people will tend to take the ready-made and use it in a clever way rather than spending a lot of time on something else. I suppose people with private Fairlights are under such commercial pressures that they probably spend less time with their systems than they would like — the by-product of jet-setting around, doing various gigs, and so on. And that situation turns the Fairlight very rapidly into a glorified sound effects generator. In fact, it's become an in-house joke here for students to listen to new products by a number of artists and go and locate a particular sound on the disks supplied with the Fairlight!
D: Like 'Orchestra 2' on Kate Bush's recent album, the infamous 'Saxy', and that wretched pan-pipe which appears on every commercial and wild-life documentary under the sun!
B: Yes, those presets are becoming pure cliches, and that should never have happened to what were originally very exciting sounds — rather like wearing a beautifully-cut suit so much that it becomes worn-out and threadbare.
D: One of the most interesting features of the Fairlight — the ability to draw in individual harmonic envelopes — seems paradoxically to be causing the most headaches because of its perceptual complexity. Do you find this?
B: Indeed. That's where we really need much more development so that getting things out is not so slow. For instance, the most precious possession for anyone working with Music 11 (a delayed playback software synthesis system derived from Max Mathews' Music V and running on a PDP-11/23 micro) is instrument files, because they take so long to create and are so complex. In fact, you find that Music 11 people form a club to exchange this sort of information because it's so hard won, and it'd be good to see a similar thing happening for the Fairlight.
D: Changing tack to the composition side of the Fairlight, do you find that students with a rock bias are more interested in the Sequencer Page (Page R) than those with a classical bent who might be more attracted by the MCL?
B: Yes, I think this is an absolutely fair summary of the situation so far, though I must add that this impression is based on a fairly small number of people using the system. It's also something that I hope we will very actively undermine, because it's my feeling that each has something to offer the other and anyone using the Fairlight ought to master both and use them selectively for their needs, rather than using them because they're reminiscent of processes they're already familiar with.
D: Do you think the Fairlight MCL is a music language that really works as hard as it should for the composer?
B: I'd say probably not, though I say that very hesitantly, bearing in mind my rather limited use of it. I think one of the problems is the influence of commercial pressure on its design. For instance, you can't have simultaneous different tempi on all 8 tracks, which is something that the more experimental sort of composer might actually want. Mind you, I think the MCL has got the versatility to do most things pretty well provided you dig into it deep enough.
D: Is it the MCL or sampling facilities that attracts students most?
B: Well, there has been a big demand on both fronts. There are those that see the MCL as an ideal way of working — they tend to be a smaller number, but they're also the more intensive users, as you might well expect. The sound sampling facility, of course, has excited everybody. When we finally got the go-ahead to buy the Fairlight, but didn't actually have it, our engineer, Richard Guy, grabbed a cassette recorder and recorded single tones from a Javanese Gamelan orchestra which we actually had here for one day. Then, when we'd finally received the Fairlight, he sampled the tones and put them on file. Using the samples with a Page R sequence, one's got a pretty good imitation of Gamelan orchestra music, although obvious problems arise at the extremes of the range.
D: Sooner or later, though, one's got to get off the sampling hobby-horse and move on to something that's more creative than regurgitative.
B: Well, the way you do it is by people like you, me, or whoever building libraries of really imaginative sounds which don't exist anywhere else, and sounds which are so compellingly used in compositions as to start making people re-think all their preconceptions. I think the limitation is one of experience, and, without that experience, the imagination tends to be stifled rather than stimulated.
D: Could you tell me what you're using the BBC micros for?
B: Well, I haven't been directly involved with their use because they actually belong to a different department, but a project that's well underway in the evening classes is an interface to the Roland modules. At the moment, it's just a monophonic sequencer, but the idea is to extend this to a fully polyphonic system.
D: Various people, or, rather, EMAS in particular, are trying to persuade university studios that the BBC micro with the addition of The Tube will be ideal for the sort of software synthesis approach typical of Music Hand so on. I personally think that's slightly misguided when you can design special music synthesis hardware specifically for the job.
B: Yes, I agree. I don't see the value of that. I see real values in the Beeb for extending people's awareness of these things fairly cheaply. If we could get better service and back up from Acorn than has sadly been the case, then I think more external firms would be encouraged to produce cheaper add-ons for music synthesis. There's no question that there must be a vast potential market for that sort of thing. If we could get the alphaSyntauri translated into a Beeb Plus for half the cost, then, almost certainly, we'd have bought three more Beebs rather than three more Apples.
D: Is there any new equipment you're thinking of getting in the future?
B: Well, we're thinking about Music 11 as the complementary parallel to the Fairlight for the composer, or things of that ilk, but the problem, of course, is finance — even though there's a lot of sympathy within the college. The encouraging thing is that nobody is suggesting that these are ridiculous sums to spend on a music department, but, in the case of Music 11, we're really talking about a similar sum to the Fairlight.
D: What is the particular advantage gained from Music 11 over the Fairlight MCL?
B: I think it offers a wider range and more flexibility when you've really mastered it. Also, it's very important from an educational point of view to show what's happening.
D: Benedict, many thanks for a fascinating discussion, and I wish the studio lots of success in the future.