The Boddy Electric
At the forefront of independent synthesis
Ian Boddy is one of the UK's foremost purist synthesists. Tony Mills gets the lowdown.
Ian Boddy is one of the most successful musicians on the British 'pure Synthesiser' music front. His three Mirage cassette albums and two vinyl releases — The Climb and the recent Spirits — have established him as a well-known figure in the field, and compared to most solo synthesists he's had a relentless gigging schedule over the last couple of years, playing more than 20 concerts from art centres in the North-East to UK Electronica '83 in Milton Keynes. Boddy's also lined up for UK Electronica '85 at Sheffield University on 24th August. On the day he visited us he was in London to check the digital cut of the new album.
"I've certainly had more letters and interviews since putting the first album out. There are a few changes on Spirits though — for instance, I'm using a real drummer, Ian McCormack, because I sometimes wanted the effect of power, passion and energy. However long you spend programming a digital drum machine it wouldn't sound the same, and in any case I prefer some synthesised sounds such as hi-hats to the sampled version.
"At some points on Spirits I gave Ian a simple beat to play along with, using the bass drum from a Roland TR808, the snare from a Hammond DPM48 and the hi-hat from a TR606. Also I've used the DX7 a lot, and a Roland rack-mounting vocoder for a lot of effects — like producing a voice-box type guitar sound from the DX7".
In the past Ian's had the use of the temporarily defunct Spectra Arts Workshop eight-track in Newcastle. How does he go about recording on such a setup?
"I usually record all the sequences first, then chords, and add on drums last if I'm using a live drummer. I use a Roland System 100M with a CSQ100 for sequences, and for treatments such as chopping up the sound of the DX7, which seems to have become my trademark! I've got a Roland SH2 for bass sounds and a TR606 drum machine — sometimes the bass patterns are very simple, just a repeated octave such as on Living In A Ritual which is a chant building up slowly with two sequences, a DX7 Log Drum pattern and so on. A lot of the "sequences" are in fact played by hand, which gives it more of a human feel.
"At the moment I'm hoping to work with Newcastle University's facilities — they've got the same TASCAM eight-track with Bel noise reduction and Alice mixer that Spectra had. I've also been using an RE501 tape echo — I think digital echo is often much too precise and clean, although I do use it to double sequences. I've got a Roland SDE2000 for that, a Roland Flanger/Chorus and a Yamaha R1000 Reverb, and I also managed to get a little MXR01 and Quantec Room Simulator onto the album! Because of the limitations of time and facilities I had to add some of the reverb effects onto the original sounds rather than at mixdown and just guess the right levels".
Although individual themes are shorter, many of Ian's pieces are in fact over fifteen minutes long. How does he cope with a complicated mixdown?
"On the second side of Spirits I needed some help because it's 23 minutes long and there may be eight or nine sounds and effects on each of the eight tracks, one after another. Every one needed a different level and set of treatments, and I was making three masters simultaneously — a PCM F1 digital mixdown, a Revox A700 quarter-inch and a chrome cassette.
"The new pieces I'm working on at home use both a drummer and a vocalist, but in many cases they don't sound like electronic music any more. I want to incorporate rock, classical and pop elements, not work out on a limb, and I really listen to all sorts of music — Debussy, Ravel and Bach, all sorts of rock, Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Eno and so on.
"I'm sure we're all influenced by everybody we hear, but it's peculiar sometimes that you do a complete experiment and somebody tells you they've heard it before! The only sort of music I really don't like is pop synthesists like Howard Jones — they're just not prepared to take risks, particularly on an instrument like the DX7. Everybody has a couple of "new sounds" to play you and they all turn out to be trumpet, trombone and string patches. Most of my new DX7 sounds are basically strange, even humourous — there's a few real Hammer House of Horror sounds in there somewhere!"
What about live work? Isn't it difficult to reproduce some of the multitracked effects of the albums in concert?
"I've played about 25 concerts now and I'd got about as far as could without using backing tapes except for a couple of sound effects. Now I've collared a second keyboard player and I'll use a live drummer if I can, or put the drums on a backing tape and play in time. The difficult bit is to play tightly with another keyboardist — he'll be using a DX7 and Prophet 600 MIDI'd together, playing all the chord work.
"Most of the sounds I'm using, particularly in the DX7, are new, with only about 10 of the 128 factory sounds in use. I treat the thing a lot too — the drum machine triggers a sample and hold on the modular system and the DX7 goes through that, it's much better than any imitation of a filter you could do with FM synthesis. I even manipulate the filter by hand sometimes, and I like to use other tracks like starting a drum pattern off on the TR808 and fading it into a real drum kit".
How hard did Ian find it to sell his music?
"Well, The Climb was put out by a local record retailer and they didn't really have the finance to do another album. For Spirits I got a grant from Northern Arts which allowed me to cut it, press 1,000 copies and produce a sepia-tinted sleeve for around £1,200. If I sell a third of the copies they've broken even, and since it's getting distribution through Lotus Records, The Cartel/Red Rhino and Making Waves that's pretty certain. The biggest problem about selling this sort of music is that nobody takes British musicians in the field seriously."
Our diagram shows Ian's home keyboard setup, and on the tape you can hear a exclusive example of the crossover style of his distinctive brand of synthesiser music. If, as Ian hopes, he can eventually found his own label and plough back profits into new albums rather than more equipment, there'll be no danger at all of his music not being taken seriously.
Interview by Tony Mills