An interview with one of Britain's most gifted keyboard players and programmers. He takes us through the various electronic instruments he's owned, and gives some insight into how to go about programming such complex polysynths as the Yamaha CS80 and Rhodes Chroma.
There can be little doubt that Vic Emerson is currently one of the UK's most respected keyboard players. From his early days in cabaret to the formation of the 'classical rock' Mandala Band and its subsequent reincarnation into Sad Cafe, he has been notable for being one of the few synth-players whose playing and programming ability has stood out in the context of a conventional rock band. More recently Emerson has played with 10cc on a number of major concert tours, in which that tradition has continued. E&MM caught up with him as Sad Cafe made preparations for their mammoth UK farewell tour....
'About fifteen years ago I used to play cabaret, and it was then that I came across one of the forerunners of what we today call a synthesiser: the Selmer Clavioline. I was in a band called Second City Sound, and I had three Claviolines wired-up to a Copicat echo, because the instrument was only monophonic and what I'd done previous to that was use one machine playing arpeggios through the echo unit, to give a vague impression of chords that way.
I think they first introduced the Clavioline in about 1934, so of course it was all valve and had more or less nothing resembling envelope shaping controls. What it did have was very short keys, and because each instrument's keyboard was so tiny, you could stack three of them together neatly and position them under a piano, for example. You could get some beautiful string sounds out of them, and they were once quite easy to find (I got all mine pretty cheaply) though I imagine they'd cost the Earth to buy now.
My first 'proper' synth was a VCS3, which looking back on it you could say gave me a crash-course in how a synthesiser works and how you can use it. When you consider the complexity of how one of those things has to be patched up, you'll probably begin to realise that I really had to learn my stuff fairly quickly to keep up with it. It was a tremendous education but, to be honest, not a lot of use in any musical context. I think I used it live once: there were a lot of problems with it but the most obvious one was that every time you tried to change a patch on it, all its internal voltages went up the spout, which wasn't much help.
My first 'live' synth was a Minimoog, which really bore no resemblance to the VCS3 whatsoever. When I first got it I thought "Now Vic, remember everything you've learned, it's got to be in there somewhere," but it wasn't: a lot of my early work with the Moog was fumbling around in the dark, but one thing that was obvious almost immediately was that it had an absolutely wonderful sound - still to be equalled, in my opinion.
So, if you can imagine it, my keyboard rack consisted then of the three Claviolines laid-out in a row for string sounds, and the Minimoog stacked on top for all the lead stuff. As well as being a pretty much ideal (for the time) set-up for live use, it was also great fun to use in the studio, because playing three string parts on three different instruments meant that you could record, for instance, a violin line panned left, a cello in the centre, and a double-bass line panned right, which sounded astonishing.
I did use quite a lot of other keyboard instruments in addition to synthesisers. For a long while my basic keyboard was a Hammond M100, and later on I acquired a Fender Rhodes and a Clavinet. I also got a Korg 800DV duophonic synth, which really is a delightful instrument. It's got a re-triggering facility that I've used in the push-pull mode to create some complete percussion tracks, sending various things into echo and EQs. You can end up with hi-hat, snare and bass drum, simply using two oscillators. It was pretty good at more conventional sounds as well!
It was really quite a jolt for me to actually decide to buy a polyphonic synthesiser at all, because I'd developed my playing technique on monosynth to quite a high degree. When it came to doing chords, I'd either played three different octave ranges using the Claviolines, or played two notes on the Korg and overdubbed the third one later on, which meant that the third note became not only the remaining note of the triad but also a completely different line in its own right.
Each polyphonic instrument has its own individual merits and I was fortunate enough to be able to sample each one more or less as it came out.
The Polymoog had some truly great sounds, but with no disrespect to it, I often looked upon it as a sort of highly tunable organ. I did use it on the first 10cc album I did, and it did the job perfectly, but I used their machine - I never dreamed of ever buying one myself.
The Yamaha CS80 seemed to me to be a much better proposition, because it had so many things going for it. Apart from simply being polyphonic, which was obviously the first thing I was looking for, it also offered touch-sensitivity, which allowed me a far greater degree of expression. As far as I can remember, it was the first electronic keyboard that offered me really usable touch-sensitivity. On a lot of instruments previous to the CS80, you could have velocity-sensitivity but it was really pretty worthless because it wasn't calibrated properly - it wasn't really suited to the way people actually played keyboards.
I used the CS80 extensively for the first time on Facades, and the way we worked was that the Yamaha would be in the control room while my old set-up would be in the main studio area, so that if I was working on something new I'd work it out on keyboards that I already knew well, rather than use the CS80 and get bogged down with its extraordinary sound.
I do feel quite strongly that people shouldn't pay too much attention to a particular sound, especially if it's a new one they've just discovered. Quite often you hear instances of that where people have come up with a revolutionary new sound and played a really lazy line, which really is a terrible waste of what that sound could be used for, if only people could be bothered to spend a little time with it. There have been a number of occasions when I've been doing sessions and come up with a sound everybody has liked instantly, and they've said "that's great, just play it like that", and I've had to reply "wait a moment, let me work on what I'm playing first". I do think that to a certain extent you've got to take the tools of your trade for granted.
I think the one word that sums-up best what I like about the CS80 is 'subtlety'. The filters really are beautiful - they're the key to the creation of those acoustic-type sounds it's so good at. The touch-sensitivity is very sympathetic to my style of playing. On the other hand, I personally find that the pressure-sensor on the CS80 is a little bit limited, because you've only got one LFO on the whole machine, so you're limited in the different sorts of vibrato you can create.
The shortage of user-programmable presets is a problem, and in fact it took me a fair while to reconcile myself to it. I did toy briefly with the idea of having my machine modified in the same way Duncan Mackay had his adjusted, but I never actually got round to it. I've never been in the position of having to open up the preset panel during a live set: I've adjusted things like the keyboard dynamics to suit whatever mood I'm in, but in general I've left the pre-set section alone.
I first came across the Chroma at a London Trade Fair. I'd seen a picture of it in a magazine - so I knew it had a keyboard and a few rather flat-looking switches - and I'd been using it for about ten minutes when the time came to start demonstrating it on the CBS-Fender stand! I think I managed to bluff my way through most of the show, and in time, of course, I got to know the keyboard very well indeed.
I have to admit that initially I was a little bit frustrated with the factory pre-sets, but there were a couple of things on there that actually sounded as if they made use of the Chroma's facilities, as opposed to just sounding like any other polyphonic synthesiser. After I'd read through the manuals two or three times, I became more and more convinced that it was a machine that was well worth following-up, and after a short while I put a couple of my own programs into the memory of the demonstration machine, and lo and behold, I realised that it really was quite an instrument.
Just before I started using the Chroma for artistic purposes as opposed to commercial ones, my keyboard set-up consisted of the Yamaha CS80, a CP70, an ARP 16-voice electronic piano, and a Prophet 5. Because the Chroma arrived when I was already in the middle of a Sad Cafe tour, I decided that the simplest thing to do was to try to replace the Prophet with the Chroma. It was simply a case of ergonomics - I wanted to see if I could replace every Prophet sound I used with an equivalent one on the Chroma. It took me a week or two to get them all absolutely right, but by the time the tour had ended, I'd managed to reproduce all the sounds of the CS80, too. The Chroma was that good.
The next tour I did I used only two instruments - the Chroma and the CP80 Yamaha electric grand. It made me think about whether or not we'd actually ever get to the stage where most keyboard-players require only one synthesiser which'll serve every function they demand of it. Personally, I don't think we're quite there yet - and anyway, there are so many different sorts of players around, no two keyboardists' requirements are going to be identical, so I think the universal electronic keyboard instrument is still some way off.
It depends I think to a large extent on whether you've come to the synthesiser from piano or from organ. I came to it from the organ, but previous to that I'd been playing piano for many years, so a piano sound has always been more or less a necessity for me. On the synth side, I find what I'm looking for is something approaching a console organ in layout, but incorporating both programmability and touch-sensitivity....
Programming the Chroma can be a very complex process and I find in general it's best to think a new program through for a while before I touch the instrument at all. If I'm trying to transfer a successful program (from the CS80, say) to the Chroma, I'm obviously going to go about loading that sound into the Chroma in much the same way as I loaded it into the Yamaha in the first place. So long as you've got the routing fixed in your mind beforehand, it really is quite difficult to start, say, editing Oscillator B instead of Oscillator A.
There are certain cases when I adopt a "Let's have a fiddle and see what happens" attitude and forget about the thought process altogether, because there's no doubting you can come across some truly magical things when you do that. On the other hand, I do think it's very dangerous for synth players to spend all the time working in that way: you've got to be methodical about things for some of the time.
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!