What's In Studio Four?
Ralph Denyer reports on London's prestigious CTS Studios and keyboardist Brian Gascoigne who recently teamed up to establish a MIDI/SMPTE-based electronic musicstudio purpose designed for the post-production of film music.
Superman, Star Wars, Rambo and Outland are just a few of the feature films that synthesizer player Brian Gascoigne has worked on. He has now established Studio Four at CTS Studios as the most comprehensive electronic music production facility in Britain today, offering a range of top flight synthesizers with immense flexibility and full SMPTE/MIDI sync to film. Ralph Denyer interviewed the man behind the idea and shot the stills on location.
Brian's first non-academic foray into the music world, while still a student in the mid-sixties, was as Musical Director of the Cambridge University 'Footlights' review in a year that Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden also took part. They, of course, went on to form The Goodies with Tim Brooke-Taylor.
Brian was classically trained and won music prizes at school though he never attended "proper" music school. "It didn't even occur to me that you could be a professional musician. It wasn't in my ken until I was 23 or 24." Brian studied at the Berklee School Of Music in the USA. With a taste for jazz, Berklee was in fact ideal for him, with legends of the jazz world teaching there and giving workshops. When he left the college he was offered the job of Musical Director to the Court of Thailand. As everyone knows, King Bhumipol of Thailand plays tenor sax in the Radio Bangkok Orchestra! Brian, quite obviously a student of human nature and the interesting situation, regrets that the ends were never tied together. "They were looking for someone to update their arrangements to make them sound a little less like Glenn Miller. I was sorely tempted, except that it was all a bit nebulous. When I came back here I started playing the piano in an Irish pub in St.John's Wood on Saturday nights for four pounds a night."
Berklee attracts serious music students from around the globe and so it was that Brian met Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta who was also a student there. Yamashta later came to London to put a group together and roped in Brian for the project.
"Stomu started me playing the synthesizer because up until that time I'd only been interested in avant-garde music - the Stockhausen sort of electronics - and it was long before the days of the synthesizer. It was when you either had oscillators and filters or you had computers, but there was no such thing as readily available synthesizers when I started. And in fact the man who taught me was a German called Ernest Berk and he wouldn't have a keyboard in the place and thought electronics should not be connected with keyboards. He would only have the raw materials: oscillators, filters, envelope generators and six linked Revox's with tape-loops going all the way around his dance studio on coat hangers, making wonderful pieces of trance music which never repeated and went on for hours. On top of that he would twiddle the occasional oscillator and make bubbling noises, swoops and things. Very good use of electronics in the early days."
Some tracks from Yamashta's Raindog album were picked up and used on the soundtrack of David Bowie's 'The Man Who Fell To Earth' though they were never initially intended to be used as film music. Brian's first proper score was for 'The Breaking Of Bumbo' which was directed by Andrew Sinclair. Other projects followed, including the 'Phase 4' sci-fi film which recently re-surfaced with a television screening. Sinclair invited Brian to bat on a somewhat sticky wicket when he asked him to write the score for his film version of 'Under Milkwood' with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Disappointingly for Brian, the film had a scathing reception from the intelligentsia though he says it was nowhere near as bad as the critical reception indicated.
"Then in the mid-seventies the film industry collapsed and my career as a film composer went with it. So I lived off pop arranging for quite a long time, writing very undistinguished pop overdub arrangements. Then films started to re-appear and I became the sort of visible synthesizer player on film orchestral sessions, doing all the 'Star Wars' trilogy, 'Superman' and a zillion big feature films that were recorded from then on. A recent batch includes 'Rambo', 'Supergirl' and 'The French Lieutenant's Woman'. I played on lots of enormous features that happened to record in London, which is a very interesting discipline - purely as a synthesizer player - and in fact leads to why I set up Studio Four here at CTS."
"On orchestral film sessions you have to take the synthesizers to the studio at 10 o'clock in the morning and some might require quite a large synthesizer set-up. You have to have a quick ten minute chat with the composer about the sounds that you are going to use. You then have to work, at an orchestral pace, sight-reading through the day. Orchestral musicians read very well and sight-reading music is very demanding. You also have to create the sounds and assemble them. And this means that you actually have one more thing to do than the orchestral players, if you're doing a read-through and record of each cue which is a standard way of working. But the synthesizer player has to make and assemble the sounds first. Then he has to sight-read the piece which means that very often while the rest of the orchestra is on their second read-through, you're recording on your first read-through. And it's very much wall-of-death stuff but I enjoy it tremendously. I was terrified when I did my first film which was 'Outland' (starring Sean Connery) for Jerry Goldsmith."
With the increased reliance on synthesized sound for film scores, that traditional way of working soon appeared to make less and less sense to Brian. "Firstly, I began to get fed up with humping synthesizers into the studio in the morning with a heavy day of sight reading in front of me. Secondly, I was fed up with the fact that because the composer is desperately trying to arrange the orchestral textures and the sync to the picture, although he really wants to be listening to the synth sounds, there's no time for it and you're probably not audible in the studio anyway because the synths are all being DI'd into the control room desk. It's only after he's sent the orchestra home that he'll wake up, realising that the synthesizer sounds don't work perfectly 'cos after all, one's foldback is adequate but it's not good enough really to tune the sounds of the synthesizers to what the orchestra is playing."
"And I began to think: Why do we do it like this? Why do we not have a little DX7 on the orchestral session, record the orchestra and you can then spend your time tuning the orchestra to your satisfaction and making sure everything is lovely for the Director. Then you carry the tape along to a room where all the synthesizers are beautifully set up with sync pulses and everything else you could want and you can sit there in great comfort and make the synthesizers do their magic with the orchestra without the desperate wall-of-death struggle which you'll have playing on the actual orchestral session."
To date Brian has been able to persuade two or three of the major film composers with whom he works that his new system provides the way to go. Trevor Jones, Brian points out, was working with a largely synthesized score for 'The Runaway Train' and so was always going to need a synth suite of some description anyway.
Brian considered a personal home studio before proposing the Studio Four option to CTS supremo Pete Harris. "You can certainly work more comfortably in your own home studio for things like albums, jingles, library music and songwriting especially as there's no pressure of time. You're not clocking up £45-an-hour all the time you are experimenting and programming but, you can't do a major orchestral feature in those circumstances because you have three Producers, five Production Assistants, a Director, Editor and 15 go-fors, all of whom want telephones, telex, armchairs and pool tables. And they're not going to come to a Hampstead basement, even if you've got an enormous spread in some delightful place. They need a cutting room, film sound cameras, 35mm and 16mm projection facilities as well as video and Q-Lock and everything else. The investment involved in that alone is not suitable for an individual's place. It's only suitable for a big company set-up which is why in London there are only EMI, CBS, CTS, Olympic and possibly Angel, who can provide those kind of facilities."
In the past year Brian has worked on two film scores as the composer. One is '1919' which is a British Film Institute project which he describes as "a very beautiful film", and the other is John Boorman's new film, 'The Emerald Forest'.
"I was co-composer on 'The Emerald Forest' with a Brazilian called Junior Homrich which was recorded here at CTS last October. It was while I was doing that with all my synthesizers huddled into a corner in Studio Three with leads trailing all over the floor, all the sync pulses not working and me constantly rushing around the back replugging the MIDI, that it occurred to me that I should just breeze into Peter Harris's office and suggest this set-up.
"I think we're the first place to build this type of studio since MIDI arrived in a big way, which means that - I think uniquely - we have the MIDI routing located in the patch bay. The MIDI is all electronically patched and the audio is just an ordinary patch bay. The maintenance people here couldn't believe the amount of channels I said I wanted. They kept saying: 'You don't need that many'."
They have 60 audio channels with an option to add another 20. "The extra 20 are for things like the extra Fairlight voices when they come and the full 16-channel Synclavier when it comes and for other instruments that people might want to bring in. All of which can be included in the (audio) patch system and the MIDI patch system without any extra leads or anything. So there is a capacity for 80 synthesizer outputs and about 20 MIDI routes."
When MIDI standards were first set, the standard number of channels for an interface was agreed at 16. Brian wanted to be able to MIDI-up far more than 16 synthesizers. "With a set-up like this you can have completely separate trees of MIDI stemming from the Fairlight, for example, which has four completely discrete MIDI outputs. So you can actually have one of those ports driving 16 MIDI outputs, all distinct, and another Fairlight port driving 16 completely separate MIDI outputs, and the same for the third and fourth ports. So you can easily have 64 channels of MIDI with this system without even beginning to stretch it. With a tiny bit of thought and application, you could probably have 128. But you run out of channels on the mixing desk and tracks on the tape recorder long before you run out of channels on the instrument system!" (The Neve desk has 26 inputs at the moment).
"CTS are talking about installing an SSL, Amek or something. The Neve desk is old but it has a wonderful sound for synthesizers. I keep thinking that a new desk with 15 times as many inputs and 45 times as many facilities won't sound as good but they tell me it'll sound better. The synthesizers love that old desk because it makes them sound so warm."
"So that's that. That's what's unique about our place. Lots of places have got all the synthesizers and lots of them have got them all racked like this, but I don't think anywhere else can have such swift MIDI routing. For this film we're doing at the moment, the sequencing is either on Linn (in which case it can run the Fairlight through MIDI), or it's on the Fairlight, in which case a Linn sequence can be run at the same time via the Friend Chip SRC which can trigger everything. And the Synclavier (brought in for the Trevor Jones project) which hasn't got MIDI but soon will have, at the moment has to have its own sequence program, which is also driven by the SRC."
On the 'open day' held for the studio, I played an entire cue from 'The Emerald Forest' without the benefit of tape recording, which quite surprised a lot of people who didn't realise that was already possible. The SMPTE code on the video was being read by the SRC which was sending out sync pulses to the Linn and Fairlight, both of which were generating sequences. And both were driving other synths in the room via different MIDI channels. For that we had two separate MIDI trees, although they weren't both using all 16 channels. And it's all very clever."
"On 'The Runaway Train' film we've been doing the most remarkably sophisticated things via SMPTE. If you need some particular musical event to take place at a precise moment during the picture, it's a moment's work to identify which frame it hits on. In the old days, you took the film off the projector, you made a stripe with a chinagraph pencil and put it back on the projector, and then you just had to wait while the stripe came by and you went 'Bang! ' at that moment. With this set-up, you simply tell the SRC the frame number of the place where you want to hit, you write an instant sequence on one machine, MIDI up half-a-dozen others and you have the most monstrous sound capability at that exact frame. And there is no possibility of: 'Sorry, I was late!' The machine is never late."
At the moment Brian says he is generally, "hovering about", to make sure studio clients don't reach an unnecessary point of impasse trying to cope with all the machines. Obviously CTS staff are more than able to take care of any actual recording technique and operation of the recording equipment. Also Brian says CTS recording engineer Martin Ley is "a very good synthesist and has mastered all the equipment and is always here if I'm not. So there's never any danger of you not being able to patch the synthesizers or get the SRC to drive them."
"The actual way the studio functions makes it very easy for anybody who is familiar with these machines to work by themselves. Anybody booking the studio and just wanting to use all the machines can bring cassettes of sounds, or DX7 RAM packs, Fairlight or Synclavier floppies or Linn sequences. They can dump the whole lot in when they arrive or if they haven't got it programmed, they can use sounds that are in the machines. Or, if they know how to work them, they can make up their own sounds, or Martin and I can programme sounds for them. Some people prefer to install themselves here and just take over. Others prefer to, as it were, book me or Martin as a session player."
Brian says the system is sufficiently well organised that someone bringing programs on disk should be able to load them into the system and be operational in literally five minutes. A major point of the design brief was that the studio be ideal for Brian's personal use but also to be instantly operational for a wide range of studio clients. Brian has been using the Fairlight for five years and so that was his initial choice as event controller/sequencer. "Equally we have a Synclavier here for the current project which is patched into the system but because it's not MIDI it's not nearly as useful for the basis of the system as the Fairlight.
When it has a MIDI update, there will be nothing in it to choose between them." Though he hasn't got one at the moment, Brian readily admits to a great love of the Synclavier's FM synthesis and thinks that he may add one to his battery before long. "The beauty of this studio is if you are a Synclavier player and want to bring one in to use as the basis of the system, it's a matter of reconfiguring six patch cords and the whole system is then based on that machine. The Fairlight can then be a slave to the system if you want, or not used at all."
I suggested to Brian that things have come a long way since the Beatles used an alarm clock on 'A Day In The Life' to cue a section of the song. "Of course, yes. That's very interesting. Will all this technology be nostalgic in the way that was, 15 or 20 years hence? Will we look back and say: Do you remember the days when we only had an SRC, Fairlight and Synclavier? How did we ever manage?"
Feature by Ralph Denyer
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