When The Tape Runs Out
Intrepid reporter/cameraman Ralph Denyer ventures into the wild suburban jungle of East London to capture the rarely heard thoughts of this lesser-spotted songbird and re-mix producer who has recently taken delivery of his very own Synclavier system.
When I visited Paul Hardcastle at his home in one of the leafier suburbs of East London, a very interesting change was in progress for the musician, writer, producer/re-mix producer. His newly-acquired Synclavier was changing his ideas on how exactly he should develop his recording and music making facility, particularly in view of New England Digital's commitment to the tapeless recording studio concept.
At the time we spoke, he was weighing up the pros and cons of digital recording onto tape as opposed to recording digitally onto computer memory disk with the Synclavier. He also wasn't ruling out the possibility of combining the two.
Paul had just returned from the Montreaux Festival and was pleased that a British tabloid had placed him at No. 8 in a Top Ten of best performances there, though he was a little sceptical as the No. 1 act was Frankie Goes To Hollywood, who apparently smashed up their equipment on stage - presumably not their Synclaviers or Fairlights.
His home is neat and ordered, as is his studio in an upstairs room. In truth, although it contains a 24-track tape machine and console, this music room is more like a synthesizer suite/control room, without any visible evidence of either acoustic treatment or sound insulation. And believe it or not, the Synclavier's sentinel-like brain (Winchester disks et al) lives in the adjacent airing cupboard in the Hardcastle bathroom.
Although Paul had previously experienced some success in the lower regions of the British national singles chart as well as both the American singles and album charts with earlier records, his big breakthrough came with 19 - a single that sold a staggering 3.5 million copies worldwide, making it the biggest-selling single internationally that year and winning him the coveted Ivor Novello Award for the 'International Hit Of 1985'.
As might be expected, following hard on the heels of 19 came a number of 12-inch mixes and the album 'Paul Hardcastle', as well as the hits For The Money and Don't Waste My Time. The latter could easily be his theme tune as he doesn't give the impression of being a man who lets grass grow under his feet. It's scarcely four and a half years since he got his first keyboard and six weeks later joined his first band.
Paul made us coffee and proceeded to tell his tale while at the same time dealing with a steady flow of phone calls, mainly related to the release of his new Foolin' Yourself single.
"I've always been into Dance Music because I used to go to clubs a lot myself. I used to be into Rock before that though. I mean, I still listen to Genesis and I've got my old Hawkwind albums in there somewhere, I think, but my main interest was in music I could dance to."
For Paul Hardcastle, playing Dance Music was a natural progression from dancing to it, so he made his first move in that direction.
"I got this little monophonic Korg 700S synthesizer because what's his name, Simon House, the keyboard player in Hawkwind used to use one. I thought: 'this has got to be the greatest machine in the world'."
This was at the beginning of the Eighties when Paul was also taking fledgling steps in dabbling with recording equipment, overdubbing music cassette-to-cassette fashion.
"After I'd been playing for about six weeks I joined my first band called Direct Drive. They didn't let me in for my playing ability because I didn't really have any, but they could hear that I had some good ideas. So they let me join the band and I thought they were joking at first. I honestly thought that because I had heard the demo tapes of some of the other people they'd considered and I'd thought: 'what the hell do they want me for if they've got all these wizzo virtuosos?'.
One thing they always remind me about now is when I went up to do the audition and played. They said, 'Did you write this stuff yourself? ' and I just said, 'No, I just made it up'. And that's how naive I was about the whole thing! We laugh our heads off about it now."
After three months they played their first gig at the Cricketeers pub at the Oval. By then Paul had a Fender Rhodes which, due to extreme nervousness, he found very useful for hiding behind as well as playing.
One of the original musical ideas Paul played to Direct Drive in fact ended up as one side of a single called Time Machine. Around this time Paul was also "mucking around" with various instruments, including bass guitar, and found that he could pick up the rudiments of playing different instruments without too much difficulty.
A further single with Direct Drive followed before Paul moved on to release four more singles under the band name First Light. Then he met singer Kevin Henry - with whom he still works to this day - and asked him to sing a vocal on a track called You're The One For Me.
"I don't believe my own voice fits my music properly. My tracks tend to be very hard and up-front, and I like someone who's really got a gutsy sort of voice to do the vocals. Anyway, we made that record and put it out on our own label which we called Total Control because I was so pissed-off with record company A&R men saying: 'Do this! Do that!'.
We really had a bit of luck with it too. It got to No.41 in the national charts and that was purely by taking it round the record shops, distributing it ourselves."
That was the first single under Paul's own name, the tracks being You're The One For Me, A.M. and Daybreak. Another single called Guilty followed on Total Control, again hovering around the No.50 mark in the charts.
"Then I was asked to do some music for a dance video which this company called Bluebird Records were doing, and so I cut this little instrumental track called Rainforest which got to No.41 here. I thought: 'Blimey!'.
But then they sent it to America and it sold about 350,000 copies there. Then I put together an instrumental album - stuff for break-dancers and that sort of thing - which also did very well. We sold over 200,000 albums in the States. That was because I tried something different.
I took a real hard Electro beat kind of backing and put a jazzy little melody over it, which no-one had ever tried before."
In the interim, Paul had signed with Chrysalis Records in the UK. They were the first company to tell him to just give them his music and they would market it, instead of telling him what kind of music they felt there was a market for. Eat Your Heart Out (with Kevin Henry singing) was Paul's first Chrysalis release but it brought frustration again, as it climbed into the Top Fifty and slipped back out again.
"Then I had this idea. I saw this TV programme about Vietnam and I thought: 'No-one's ever used the actual news readers talking about the war at the time it was happening'.
So I took this idea to Chrysalis and at first I don't think they knew what to make of it. Then there was one bloke called Ken Grunbaum who was the TV promotions guy. I was playing the demo in the office and people were saying: 'That's quite unusual' until Ken Grunbaum came in and in his loud Manchester accent said: 'BLOODY 'ELL! THAT'S GREAT!'."
Grunbaum told Paul that he must finish the track off and mix it properly because the tape was still essentially a demo at that stage, without the female chorus or much in the way of effects. This he did and called the finished track 19.
The day the record went out to the radio stations, Paul could hardly believe his ears. It seemed almost as if no matter which station he tuned to, he would hear 19. Then he had to go to the States to promote the follow-up to Rainforest, a track called King Tut. Expecting 19 to enter the chart somewhere around the No.50 mark, Paul was stunned when told it had gone straight in at No.4 and by the next week's chart had risen to No.1.
"I had a bit of a problem afterwards because with a record like that, your first on a major label, which sells 3.5 million copies, there's only one way to go - and that's down, isn't it?
The second single, For The Money, stopped at No. 19, believe it or not. But I didn't really mind because it was a little bit more hurried than I would have liked it to have been. There's lots of people who have massive records and then fail to get the next one in the Top Fifty."
Paul was aware that people were saying that he could only make one kind of record and so he reacted. He decided to do something totally different and put together Don't Waste My Time with a vocal by Carol Kenyon. Paul gave me the impression that in a way the success of this record meant more to him than that of 19 because it was a straight-ahead piece of music - a good song, good track and good vocal.
"It's been a Top Ten hit everywhere it has been released, all over Europe. So that's put paid to all the people who, just because you've had one big hit, want to pull you down. It's gratifying when that happens. Then, as luck would have it, the day we went to do the Top Of The Pops appearance for Don't Waste My Time, Michael Hurll (the show's director) came up to me and asked: 'Would you like to come up with a new theme tune for Top Of The Pops?'."
Naturally, Paul said 'yes'!
We went on to talk about Paul's general approach to writing and recording, remembering that he is now at something of a transitional stage. He has, however, used more or less the same equipment for all his records with the exception of the recent Top Of The Pops theme and the new release Foolin' Yourself. Still, his roots remain firmly in Dance Music.
"For Dance Music you need to keep the rhythm pattern quite constant because that's what people want. That's why rhythm machines are so good.
I like to hear a big-sounding snare all the time so I usually mix the rhythm track up very high. I tend to stick to a few trusted sort of fills and things because they are very easy and they don't distract people. I can play drums myself but I don't want to put lunatic fills in if it's going to stop people dancing at that point. I always think like that.
I usually use my Prophet-5 synth for the bass. I think I tend to have quite distinctive bass sounds and bass lines, maybe it's because I always play them manually and live. They tend to sound boring if they're sequenced all the time. Now and again, I've pre-programmed a couple. I also use my Prophet-5 for brass-type sounds and clavinet."
With previous records, a Hardcastle favourite is a sound reminiscent of the 'Orchestra 1' preset sample on the Fairlight Mk II, a quick stab of a whole range of orchestral/synth sounds.
"That's a mixture of a few things actually, that I created on an Emulator. I think one of the samples might be a Fairlight. One's some other orchestra doing a quick stab and I've just blended them together with a string sound from the Prophet-5. I like that sound. I know it won't last too much longer but I must admit, I do like that. I didn't have an Emulator when I did 19. Someone had hired one and it was just lying around in my house and I used it for that sound." Paul has been quite happy using a Linn Drum and a Roland TR-808 in the past, finding that the two drum machines together gave him ample flexibility.
"I've got a great way of doing it now. I've got lots of samples of drum machines, live snares and things stored in the Synclavier. So I've got a Linn Drum for sale if anyone wants it. Me trusty old Linn Drum is going to have to go because I haven't got room for it." And the TR-808?
"I've never owned a TR-808 actually. I've always just hired them in but I've sampled all its drum sounds into my Synclavier anyway, just in case! It's better this way because the TR-808 was a bit of a bore to programme. With the Synclavier, if I want to make the snare sound of the 808 touch-sensitive, I can. You can chorus the bass drum, split a sound in stereo, and basically do what you like."
Although his drum machines are now redundant, until Paul's spent a few more weeks or months with the Synclavier he doesn't know exactly what he'll do with his old synths.
"It's obviously not going to break me to get my Prophet-5 MIDI'd, even if it's just to link it up to my DX7. The Prophet is a big old friend of mine, it was the first big synth I ever bought. I saved up every penny to get it. My first one was a Rev 1.0 model and it broke down so much it cost me a fortune but bloody hell, it had a great raw sound though..."
Paul recalled lugging the notoriously temperamental synth round on live dates during his early days.
"But now I've got a nice one, a Rev 3.3, which was the last model Sequential made and I'd never get rid of that; nor my old MiniMoog because that's got a sound of its own. I've still got the Roland Jupiter 8 too which I use for synthesized strings. And there's the classic DX7, of course."
Had he used the Minimoog recently I wondered?
"I haven't used it recently but I might still get that MIDI'd up because the only thing I don't like about it is the keyboard - I find that a pretty horrible keyboard to use."
The Minimoog is still popular for bass lines though?
"It is but I can get a much tastier sound I think on my Prophet. I put all the oscillators in unison mode and use it that way."
Paul Hardcastle's past records were made around the small array of synths assembled in his home studio and tapes recorded there were then taken to a relatively modest 24-track studio for mixing, some overdubs and assorted vocals. He still doesn't own an AMS delay unit, the piece of equipment he used boldly on the documentary voice to create the celebrated 'n-n-n-nineteen' effect. At the time he made the 19 record, he owned his Aces 24-track recorder and console, a Prophet-5, a Roland Jupiter 8, a Yamaha DX7 and a Linn Drum. The AMS delay line, Emulator and Roland TR-808 were hired or borrowed along with other bits and pieces.
The success of his records has now meant that Paul is in a position to consider a quantum leap in terms of the technology available to him. For an initial investment in the £100,000 range, he has acquired himself a Synclavier system which, regardless of further equipment he is considering, will be the heart of his recording set-up. He's already used it to produce nearly all of the new Top Of The Pops theme.
"It's very good. You can be eight minutes into a song and then you hit the 'Start' button and you're back to the beginning instantly. There's no rewind time at all. Also you can do things like speeding tracks up without changing the pitch because it's digital."
Is he finding that learning to use the Synclavier is a natural progression from the kind of sequencing, sampling and syncing he's become used to over the past two or three years?
"Well," he said, taking a deep breath, "I don't think I've done too badly considering the fact that it comes complete with four thick manuals and video demonstration tapes!! The part I haven't got into yet is writing music using computer numbers because I think I'd find that quite boring. I don't want to do it that way, I'd rather actually play something."
As with creative computer-based devices of any degree of sophistication, different users will approach the Synclavier in different ways. Paul Hardcastle has considerable keyboard skills and, as Don't Waste My Time shows, he can play with a lot of feel. Others less skilful will find writing music by numbers through the computer terminal to be an absolute boon.
"I tend not to use the Synclavier in what's called 'Justified Mode' which puts everything you play strictly in time, because I find that makes the music too monotonous. I like to keep some kind of normality in there. But I do like it because it gives you such a clear, high quality recording. It's great. You don't have to keep wondering if the tape's going to come off at the end either because there isn't any! You can also keep going back over tracks and not have to worry about wearing the tape down.
If you want to find out what's on each track, you just press 'Info' and press the button for each track and if you've got a bass drum, BOOM, there it is! Or guitar or whatever track you press, the instrument is there. It's very good, it really is. It's the best piece of equipment in the world for that sort of stuff."
Being the proud owner of a Synclavier can bring you unforeseen problems apparently, as Paul went on to explain.
"I've still got the Aces mixing desk and tape machine that I recorded Rainforest and 19 on but I'm looking to change that. Now that I've got the Synclavier I've got to have a much better quality desk because the sound quality of the Synclavier is so good. I'm thinking maybe of getting a digital tape machine too or maybe some add-on parts for the Synclavier. They've got a thing where you can have eight live tracks for direct to (computer memory) disk recording which is far better quality than the digital tape machines.
I had a Mitsubishi digital machine round here which they lent me and I thought that was excellent. I might be trying out the Sony one as well just to see which suits me best, 'cos having 32 tracks on the Synclavier and another 24 or 32 on a digital tape machine is going to be quite wild!"
Along with his own music career, Paul Hardcastle has also found success as a re-mix producer, notably with Third World's Now That We Found Love, Ian Dury and The Blockheads' Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick EP, Five Star's Love Take-Over and D Train's You're The One For Me. With the Third World single, he took the re-mix concept to its logical ultimate having been told by the record company to really change it a lot and to do exactly as he wanted. His response was to advise them to give him a copy of the 24-track master tape to work with.
"So they made me a copy and I just pressed 'Record' on the tape machine and erased all the tracks except for the lead and backing vocals. I thought: 'No-one would ever do this, so I'm gonna do it'. To build the backing-track back up again, I just played the Linn Drum bass drum along with the vocal track."
Taking his metre from the main lead vocal, he tapped in each drum line on the Linn, literally playing the drum machine in real time.
"It was easy because there was a lot of spillage on the tape. I could hear a bit of handclaps or something coming off the lead vocal track but you had to turn the level up very loud to hear it, so when it was sunk in the mix, you lost it. Then it was on to the hi-hat, and the bass, then the Fender Rhodes, a bit of clavinet and some string sounds. And that's how that one was done. It took about two days."
The other hat occasionally worn by Paul Hardcastle of course is that of record producer. Ironically, Paul produced a single for the late Phil Lynott who, coincidentally, co-wrote the previous Top Of The Pops theme tune (Yellow Peril) with Midge Ure. Just to confuse things, his single too was called Nineteen.
"It was totally different from my 19. It was quite Heavy Rock but Phil wanted to come at the record with a different production approach and as I was very much into the Electro thing which he also liked, he asked me to do it.
I was also offered the Pet Shop Boys to produce but it coincided with when I was travelling all round Europe and things, so I had to decline. A pity really, it could have been my first No. 1 outside production."
At the moment Paul is putting production and re-mix work on hold while he concentrates on his own music. There's a new Paul Hardcastle single just released called Foolin' Yourself which features a vocal by Kevin Henry.
"It's a good recording, all digital, but it isn't a major breakthrough in technology or anything. It's very danceable and a good progression on from Don't Waste My Time.
I'm also about to start adding some new touches to the Top Of The Pops theme which will be coming out as a single after this one. I want to make that pretty interesting soundwise. That's going to be the one to look out for a bit more. I don't mean LOOK OUT FOR IT! But if you're interested in effects and technicals, that'll be the one."