Jonathan Sorrell is one of a handful of session programmers working with the world's most sophisticated sampling keyboard - the Synclavier. Paul Gilby discovers how it came about.
Jonathan Sorrell is one of a handful of session programmers in this country who are working extensively with the world's most expensive polyphonic sampling keyboard, the Synclavier. Paul Gilby finds out how it all happened.
Jonathan Sorrell's involvement with hi-tech instruments stems from the time he attended Goldsmith's College, London where he studied for a music degree. The course there caters for many musical tastes to such an extent that they have their own 24-track studio and a Fairlight.
"As part of my course I was able to devote a lot of time to getting into electronic music, sequencers, drum machines etc and I had a lot of spare time when I could just nip into the Fairlight room and learn to programme it without any commercial pressure.
The course leader was, and still is, Hugh Davies who people may have heard of before. He's well known in the avant garde circles and has worked with the likes of Stockhausen.
Since leaving Goldsmith's, I've now actually returned to teach an evening course there as part of their electronic music/recording classes."
After leaving Goldsmith's, where did you go?
"I had already been involved in pop music for several years before I left college and I was very keen to make a living in this field. A few months before leaving I thought the best way to market myself and make the right sort of contacts was to approach music publishing companies, so I wrote about fifty letters to publishing companies explaining who I was, what I had done and what I wanted to do. I received all the usual polite replies saying: 'we'll keep you on file' etc...
Then one day I got a call from a woman called Jill Sinclair, who said 'you probably don't know who I am but you may have heard of my husband Trevor Horn'. They said that they had received my letter and would be interested to meet me. I met Jill, and she said that they might have a more specific job for me than simply working in the publishing part of ZTT Records as she thought my experience would be wasted.
At the time, I wasn't really aware that Sarm recording studios were part of the same company as ZTT. I knew that Trevor Horn had produced Frankie Goes To Hollywood and knew he had his own record company, but the address for the interview wasn't that of Sarm West so I didn't relate the two. This was back in the summer of 1984.
I was taken on by ZTT and spent my first day in a professional studio at Sarm West. It was a Godley and Creme session in Studio Two and they were recording 'Cry' with Trevor producing. It was an amazing experience just to be there, though I was only a fly on the wall at the time."
Could you explain how your involvement began with the Synclavier?
"Trevor Horn had bought a Synclavier a few months before I started working at the studio. Steve Lipson, Trevor's engineer, had been working with it and picked it up quite quickly, but I think Trevor felt that Steve wouldn't always be around to work on it and he'd eventually start to become involved in other projects. So I started to come into the studio when the Synclavier was available and learn how to use it.
"Then one day I got a call from a woman called Jill Sinclair, who said 'you probably don't know who l am but you may have heard of my husband Trevor Horn'."
For about two months I was able to explore the machine, mostly at nights and weekends, because they were working on the Frankie album at the time and the machine was always in use. And obviously over that period of time I became aware of what an amazing machine the Synclavier really was."
So what did you do at Sarm?
"Once I'd become quite proficient with the Synclavier I started to work with Propaganda on their album A Secret Wish. That was very interesting because it was more than just programming the Synclavier, we were doing a lot of pre-production work in rehearsal. We hired in a 24 channel mixer and a Tascam 8-track, a PPG, Linn Drum and SRC Friend Chip... and, of course, we had the Synclavier. Then we started recording 8-track demos of the songs. It was a wonderful situation and proved one very important point to me, which was that so much of the programming doesn't have to be done in an expensive SSL-equipped studio. It can be done in a rehearsal studio or anywhere really, at most you only need a mixer and a tape machine to capture some rough results.
It's by far the most economical and most creative way to work. When you're trying to programme you are inevitably concentrating very hard and you don't want the pressures of the recording session going on all around you. The end results are usually far better, though you can still end up doing some programming during the session."
Isn't this idea starting to be realised in the form of the programming suites that are now appearing around London?
"Yes it is. These type of facilities are just what are required and they're not coming a moment too soon. You see, you can get really stupid situations where you're booked for a session, you turn up and start working on the track at the studio, and then you might spend the next day having to programme parts into the instrument. Often it's a ludicrous situation where you have to sit in the tea room trying to programme with a load of noise and people rushing in and out, and at the same time the session is being held up waiting for the programmer to get the parts together."
You left Sarm West to pursue other ideas, what are these?
"I left Sarm because in some ways the job that was sort of created for me with the Synclavier started to disappear as Steve Lipson continued to work alongside Trevor, which of course meant that there was less for me to do. It became obvious that it would be worth going freelance, so I left. Things were also helped along because The Programming People agency had just been set up by Karin Clayton, and so they were able to give me work. Since then my freelance activity has gone from strength to strength over the last year."
What sort of projects have you been involved in then?
"The future lies in the tapeless studio and it's in this area that the Synclavier will develop."
"I had a short session with Air Supply at the beginning of last year, that was produced by Peter Collins. I then did a couple more sessions with ZTT acts. In the summer of last year I got involved with an old friend, Ben Angwin, and we started a band called Silent Age. It's in a sort of Simple Minds/Tear For Fears mould. The interesting thing is that although we have been using the Synclavier, we've tried to keep the music very live.
I had a call just before Christmas - Stevie Wonder was in London and he wanted a Synclavier programmer. Unfortunately, that didn't come off and the project never materialised, which was a pity really.
Recently, I've been doing some work with a Virgin act called Twelfth Night. That's been a very well thought out project. The producer John Walters, who used to be in Landscape, sent me the sequencer parts in advance. I programmed them into the Synclavier and so when I turned up at the studio for the session, it was just a case of sampling the sounds and tidying up the odd bits and pieces. It took very little time because I had done a lot of the work off the job."
Would you say that example of a producer who understands something of the Synclavier's capabilities is rare?
"Yes. John, though, was very good. I would always recommend to a producer who intends to use me and the Synclavier on a session, to get together for a meeting first. We can then discuss the ideas and find the best way of organising the material - you really have got to map out the time carefully.
My most recent session was actually with Tears For Fears. They were working on a remix of 'Mothers Talk' for the American market. It was an interesting session where we put four snare drum sounds together to produce a new snare sound for the track. We had two of my sampled snares - an ambient snare and a fairly dry snare. We then added a Linn 9000 snare and one that was already on the track. I'd been called in with the Synclavier, and so it was a simple task of just sampling them all into the machine and triggering all four from the master clock. It was a really quick operation which resulted in a superb dynamic snare sound."
Could you explain in more detail what you actually did on that Tears For Fears session?
"Yes. We substituted the snare drum quite easily because the track was recorded with a SMPTE timecode on tape. When you have timecode on a track you can usually change things around very quickly without much bother. We took a clock out of the LinnDrum, in fact it was the cow bell output, and fed this into the external clock in socket on the Synclavier. I'd recorded the snare samples on the first beat of the sequencer bar, then put a loop point at the end of beat one, which obviously meant it went straight back to beat one, so we just had a single beat sequence on the Synclavier. It was then just a case of starting the Linn and recording the track. The only problem was a slight timing error between the original track and the new snare, so we used the SRC Friend Chip delay module to bring them back into sync.
The snare drum samples themselves were also slightly out in relationship to each other. That problem was solved by looking at the energy peaks on the Synclavier monitor screen and then sliding the samples around, one against the other, until we ended up with a really strong snare sound. It was literally a matter of millisecond intervals but it made a difference.
"You will always need people with a good set of ears to produce an excellent record."
The thing is that with digital sounds, and particularly ones that are recorded on a machine such as the Synclavier, the frequency response is so good that it captures all the upper harmonics and when you start to blend two or more sounds together you can run into problems that just aren't present on analogue equipment. You can get a clash of harmonics at the high end that result in strange audible effects that you don't want. This is something that you have to be aware of and the good thing to come out of it is that you improve your ear and learn to listen for those sorts of problems. The Tears For Fears session itself was very good, the guys really knew what was going on and how to get the best out of the equipment."
So far we've spoken about some of the projects you have been involved in but we've missed one important point. How come you have a Synclavier if you're not using the one at Sarm anymore?
"Well, obviously, with the price of a Synclavier system starting at around £50,000 it's not something that everyone on the street can go out and buy! I'm fortunate in having a good relationship with an equipment rental company called Keyboard Hire who've had a system for a few years now. The fact is that the people who are hiring a Synclavier system generally want to hire a programmer too because they'll have a good library of sounds and are able to get good results quickly. So, I've developed a situation where if the system is required for hire, it goes out, either with or without me, and when it's not on hire I spend a lot of time working with it myself. This way I increase my understanding of the Synclavier and Keyboard Hire get the benefit of being able to offer my services to customers as well. I'm not the only person working with their system though, Simon Lloyd also shares it with me. I think you interviewed him in the November issue of your magazine didn't you?"
What are your thoughts on the use of samplers?
"I think it's very easy for people to get increasingly lazy with the sampling systems available. They seem to think it's just an easy way of getting a grand piano down onto tape, it's a convenience factor. Of course, most of the samplers on the market are capable of far more than just reproducing a straightforward sound. Nine times out of ten it's far better to use the real instrument in the first place. I think the potential of these machines is far better applied to manipulating a sound, maybe by adding a bit of synth to it and producing a totally new texture.
We are now at a point where we can work with almost no limitations. Ten years ago everyone using the synths of that time were well aware of the equipment limitations. You could justifiably complain of a synth only having one oscillator or a poor low-pass filter. Nowadays, the limitations just aren't there, and the onus is on the musician to come up with interesting ideas and work hard on the instrument.
For example, the Yamaha DX7 is provided with a reasonable library of preset sounds and many people feel happy just to work with them and not explore the full potential of the FM synthesis technique. It's a difficult synth to programme but that's good. I think it's important that people realise what they're actually trying to do with the sound. They should understand the way in which the machine operates and by making a machine such as the DX7 difficult to programme, people will be forced to learn and perhaps get better results."
What about your own future and that of the Synclavier?
"Well I intend to stick with the instrument. The manufacturers keep on releasing new software updates so you spend a couple of months sorting it out. It's a great system and I think the Synclavier will be here for a very long time because the way it's been designed is to allow it to be upgraded. The future lies in the tapeless studio and it's in this area that the Synclavier will develop. All the sound will be recorded and stored on hard disk. It's just down to the cost of memory, and prices are coming down all the time. We're nearly at a point now where we can record a five minute piece of music with separate tracks totally in the digital domain and when we're able to do that, we can slide tracks around at will and manipulate them quite precisely.
The one thing I would like to point out though is that it won't make recording music any easier. You're always going to need artistic integrity. That's never going to change. You will always need people with a good set of ears to produce an excellent record."
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