Getting It Off Pat
Pat Metheny and the well-tempered Synclavier
Synclaviers, sampling, sequencing, system exclusive... is this a jazz guitarist or what?
The word for Pat Metheny is mellifluous. In conversation, the words flow not unlike the notes from his guitar. Even a sea of strange faces at an official reception presents no problem, and for Pat Metheny it is a smooth crossing. Shaking hands, promoting an album, running up and down the fretboard: it's all done with the measure of a man at ease with himself.
And so he should be. Not many jazz guitarists notch up album sales like his, and since the mid Seventies when he first trod the boards with one Gary Burton, he has taken his place among that jazz elite whose names crop up on the lips of those who have no interest in jazz. Like Chick Corea, his virtuosity has not presented him from seeking out new sounds and new formats, and it's won him a wider audience. The search has led him into film music, in and out of various aggregations of jazz alumni and now to a sweeping new 80 minute album which he sees as a culmination of all his musical experiences away from the straight and narrow.
This wider success is due in no small part to Metheny's broad palette of sounds and styles. The album is called Secret Story but it's no secret that the 30 something guitarist from Kansas City loves technology, and loves to use it to extend the vocabulary of the jazz guitar in the face of many a furrowed jazz brow...
"I'm always having to reassure people that technology is OK", he admits. "I run into a lot of jazz guys who are into this thing of 'it's killing music' but I just don't buy it. What I will say about a lot of electronic instruments is that they basically want to sound bad. You've got to really work to get them to sound good. But that could also be said of a violin. The point is that it's not that easy to make anything sound good. The thing about synthesisers is that you can get them to sort of sound like something, just by laying your hands on the keys, but, for example, in my case there's one particular guitar-synth sound that I've been working on for 10 years. I've used it on different records, and it's gradually becoming something that's really part of me.
"If you get a synth and it's got 250 presets, you go through them and next month you get a new RAM card - or a new synth but you never really learn any one sound that becomes part of you. It takes a long time to graft yourself and a sound together. Part of this is because the instruments themselves have been under such incredibly rapid development, you never have the chance to settle in on them. But in the last few years things have started to calm down a little. You've basically got your Yamaha stuff, your Roland stuff, each of these core manufacturers have their own basic language and architecture, and also have their own basic sound. As much as people say 'it's got 250 sounds', a Yamaha synth will have that sound no matter which preset it is. The mixing of manufacturers is what gives a richness of texture. And you really do have to practise your sound."
The instrument Pat Metheny chooses to practise his sound on is the Synclavier - his chosen form of synthesis for nigh on 13 years. But has it always been a happy marriage...?
"The Synclavier appeared about 4 years before MIDI existed, and I remember what attracted me was an ad that they ran in all the music magazines. The headline was 'The Last Synthesizer You Will Eiver Need'! Every now and then I'd like to take that ad and cram it in their faces! But it talked about this 16-track recorder built into it - this would be 1979 or early '80 - and I thought 'Wow!' Then I checked out how much it was and it was, like, $30,000 - even now that's a lot of cake for a 'thing'. But the salesman came and gave us the demo, and I just went for it. I've been in that world ever since. I think I had the 16th system ever made, and I've been really deeply involved in it throughout its development.
"I've always done most of my writing on keyboards. The main attraction of the Synclavier was the recording and storing aspect. Being a little bit disorganized, working in that environment has saved me dozens of songs that I would have just lost. You can come back two years later and it's right where it was. Something that I like about the Synclav system is the total recall aspect; you actually get all the sounds, all the files back. You don't have to go through that thing of 'let's see, at that time I was using Opcode MIDI Merger on channel 7 - or was it channel 8?'. People I know with MIDI systems find it impossible to reconstruct things from 3 years ago like that. I know it's getting better with the System-Exclusive stuff, but the Synclav comes back just where you left it."
Having also looked at the Fairlight back in those early sampling days, Metheny made his commitment. "Back then they were really the only two things available. They competed for a while, improving the sampling with each step, but for me the Synclav sort of won, you know? - so I always felt like I made the right choice. All those systems were very expensive, so you were taking a risk. Those were very small, adventurous companies."
His chosen technology is matched for significance only by his chosen instrument, which offers some clues to the origins of his easy relationship with both. "Basically, because I'm an electric guitar player, I've been dealing with electricity, knobs, switches and everything, from the second that I started playing. All that stuff is very natural for me. I've always been aware of and involved with the technology. I think that as long as it's kind of a natural instinct to use that stuff it's OK. People who have a resistance to it should stay away from it. They're not gonna have much luck with it anyway. I guess I've always had kind of an affinity for it, and I've also never seen it as anything that threatens anything else, I just see it as an addition."
"I'm always having to reassure people that technology is OK. I run into a lot of jazz guys who are into this thing of 'it's killing music' - but I just don't buy it"
It's an addition that has long played a critical part in the Metheny modus operandi, never more so than on the latest album. But there is a point where even Pat Metheny draws the line... "On the new record I did all the string parts on the Synclavier, but I knew that wouldn't sound anywhere near as good as gettin' the cats to play it at Abbey Road - and it didn't. It's almost laughable how much better it sounds when you get real guys playing it. You think 'well, maybe nobody will really tell the difference', then when you hear the real thing it's like, God, y'know', it's not even close."
It emerges that this line is drawn with a very pragmatic hand, guided by a staunchly musical brain. "In fact I did the entire album first on the Synclavier, exactly as it is now, all the arrangements. The Synclav is fantastic for things like laying down time code onto multitrack tape, and then just having it slave to that, which allows me to have 24 or 48 tracks of tape plus the sequences. On this record there are several tunes that use as many as 160 sequencer tracks, and all 16 tracks of the Direct-to-Disk as well!
"On 'Finding And Believing' which is this massive, 10-minute tune, we had outputs from all the small faders and all the big faders of a 96-channel SSL! We took a picture of it! If we'd had a recall it would have taken two days to set it up. But the Synclav slaving to tape is something I've been doing now since Still Life Talking (1987), and it really works great. You can continually move around notes of the track until the final second you're mixing - and I do! Adding things, taking things away - it's a very malleable form.
"But the thing about acoustic instruments is that there's a power in the air, things vibrating in the air. I've already got into this a lot with the Synclavier because it has so many outputs, using lots of different speakers, like, 16 separate amplifiers with lots of different things coming out of it. That's a completely different experience to having everything jammed into two speakers."
But how does Pat make the decisions involved in replacing sequenced parts with real instruments? "I just try it. I actually doubled a lot of the things in the Synclav with real people, including myself. I've never done a record quite like this. I even thought about doing the whole record just by myself. I did, of course, but then I went through it and said how can I make this better? Like, nothing beats real drums, or an orchestra, but there is some kind of glue thing that happens when you combine a good player with a sequenced track. It gives it a life that it doesn't have otherwise. It's not a question of replacing one with the other, it just opens it up."
The presence of harmonica legend Toots Theilemans on the album prompts the notion of a potential conflict between the real thing and the guitar-triggered harmonica sample - one of Metheny's favourites - and the threat, maybe, of confusion in the gob-iron department... "No one has ever fooled me," comes the reply, "and I assume it's that way with everyone. It's just a different kind of effect. There are clues that real instruments give us, as synthesists, that we can respond to, emulate, change, mess around with.
"There are musical functions that definitely exist: a cello section does something not unlike what we want to do with synthesisers - a rhythm or a pad - but the synth is never going to really sound like a cello section. It's just something that's functioning in that register. We use a lot of harmonica-type sounds on the new album. Besides Toots, I'm playing guitar-synth with a harmonica sound, but to me it sounds like a guitar-synth playing a harmonica sound! And if it was someone else's record I would hear and identify that. It's just another possibility, one of many."
Mention is made of composer Steve Reich, whose influence is felt in the attention to layers of texture that makes Secret Story such a rich, dense listening experience. The influence, it seems, was a direct one. "I recorded one of his pieces about two years ago, called 'Electric Counterpoint', and it was the first time that I know of that a major contemporary American composer has addressed the electric guitar. It was just me working with tape; I played 10 electric guitar parts and 2 electric bass parts. Working with him was really fascinating. I'd been a fan of his music for a long time, but only when I got involved with playing that piece did I begin to understand how it was made up. He showed me a sound that I didn't even know I could make. Overdubbed things; this whole process that I really loved. I used a hint of it on 'Cathedral In A Suitcase' on the new album, this technique of locking lines together to create other lines."
"Nothing beats real drums, or an orchestra, but there is some kind of glue thing that happens when you combine a good player with a sequenced track. It gives it a life that it doesn't have otherwise"
Secret Story is a magnum opus. It's a culmination not only of Pat Metheny's personal and musical adventures to date, but also of his experiments with technology, reflecting a serious and clearly defined attitude to machines and their place. This jazz guitarist has come a long way, and wants to go further... "The thing I'm most interested in is combining everything. Probably the most interesting part of technology for me is sequencing, where you can mess around and try things and get a very clear picture of what you're working on. The tail-end part of it - the sounds and samples and so on - is the least interesting.
"I wish there was a way (and I bet there will be some day), where you could have a sequencer actually triggering acoustic instruments. We're seeing signs of that, with the Disclavier, but I've been imagining this for years, and I'm sure it's going to happen. Somebody soon is going to come up with a drum robot, something that actually moves air, that's something I'm really interested in. Chips are chips, speakers are speakers, and the dynamic range of speakers just does not compare with, say, a snare drum. You cannot get a speaker to do what a snare drum does in real life, but you could get something whacking a snare drum. I think that will happen, not even sampling any more but robots.
"But good sequencing depends on the writing, too. In the case of my band, 60-70% of what we've done since Offramp (1982) as a group has been played with a sequencer. But almost no one knows it because, first of all, we never have just a drum beat playing over and over. When I hear that I think, guys, come on, try a little bit! In fact, we rarely have a drum beat at all. It's usually a musical part that we lock to, and I put dynamic changes just like in real playing. If you have a metronomic, boring part, just like if you had some guy in the band who was playing with no dynamics, it would kill everything. But it's not the fault of the machine if people put in garbage. Those machines are way more sophisticated than 99% of the input they're getting.
"Theoretically, I like the idea of non-musicians being able to come up with music, but in practice music is unfortunately very difficult, and there really is no short cut to understanding it. There's no quick way to the wisdom you get when you finally know, say, why D wants to go to G, and G to C. Eventually you get insight into why music works the way it does, and as that insight improves and you gain confidence about your skills, the input that you give to your synth will be better. Then, the synth sounds better and it sort of comes back to music."
But can't you learn music from a synth/sequencer package just as well as from a guitar? "That's going to be interesting to see. I think it probably will be possible to have incredible, virtuoso musicians who don't play an instrument, that do everything in the context of non-real time. But so far it hasn't really happened. Most people who don't play an instrument have come up with things that are kind of catchy, or quirky, y'know, interesting for three minutes, but substantial musical developments that have a long term impact can only come from musicians. We'll see. You're right, we're gonna have a whole generation of kids whose first instrument has an onboard 16-track sequencer, but I really believe that music has no short cuts. Eventually you're gonna have to get your hands dirty."
Interview by Phil Ward
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