Martyn Ware flatters Fairlights
Casios in the home, Fairlight in the studio, heaven in the making. Martyn Ware discusses with Tony Bacon the digital steps taken for the next Heaveneers album.
You've been recording the new Heaven 17 album at Air and at CBS – do you detect many differences between the big, major studios?
"Oh, mammoth differences. It's not so apparent when you're inexperienced, but it's more the ambience that counts than the technical facilities. We've been hanging around studios for seven years now, so we're bound to have started discerning a little bit of difference. Also, I've been producing with Greg, and the technical side I understand a lot more now. I always understood it, but I mean 'understand' now in terms of being able to use it. For me there's no doubt that Air's definitely the best studio in London."
"It's not just facilities – I mean they haven't got state-of-the-art equipment like a lot of other studios. Their desk is probably three or four years old, maybe older, a Neve desk. But the standard of technical expertise that is 'assumed' at that studio is wonderful. For instance, if you have a breakdown it's normally fixed within half-an-hour, whereas even if you have a minor breakdown at a lot of other studios they're humming and hahing for like an hour or more, where's the spares, we'll have to send out, and so on. They're on the case at Air – even though they may not have as much outboard gear as lot of other studios. Taking one extreme: I'm told that at Polar, Abba's studio in Sweden, they have all the synths, even, built into the studio, they're there for you to use, Fairlights, Synclaviers. You don't have to hire anything because it's all there. If you want flash outboard equipment it's an additional expense at Air, which is a bit of a drag. You get what you pay for."
What have you recorded so far (late May)?
"We've done the basic tracks for 14 songs at CBS, that took about eight weeks – all the stuff we could put on Fairlight was done there, the rhythm tracks, the electronic equivalent of the three-piece that was prevalent in the 1960s. When we moved to Air, where we've spent about 10 weeks, we obviously tried to narrow that down to nine tracks which we wanted for the album, which we did. All the tracks are finished now: we were mainly recording analogue stuff over the top of the electronic tracks at Air."
Analogue in what sense?
"Acoustic instruments as opposed to electronically-generated sounds. So we have a little mixing still to do; we take an enforced five-week break now, the next time we can get in the studio is June 20th. It's worked to our advantage though: the album isn't coming out till September anyway, so we'd have to keep ourselves from getting bored with it in the remaining gap. That'll be less of a problem now – it's about two months."
How did you demo the tracks for this album? For "Luxury Gap" you used a Portastudio and a Dr Rhythm triggering System 100 modules...
"We used a Casio 7000 for demos this time. We didn't bother pre-defining any rhythms, we used whatever the presets were for the rhythm, basically a timing mechanism. The fact that you can record sort of three-part arrangements internally, without having to resort to cassettes of any description, except when you've finished and dump it encoded on to cassette, made it a lot easier this time."
You found the 7000 easy to use?
"Oh, phenomenally easy, ridiculously easy. Dropping-in yourself on to what you'd previously done was actually easier to do than asking someone to do it for you. It becomes a creative tool, because you can experiment with different combinations and counter-melody lines without all the drag of having to find the exact drop-in point, rewinding and all that stuff. It just zooms through the tune, without altering the pitch. We've got a few ideas from being able to play it backwards at the same pitch; sometimes the chord sequences sound more interesting backwards, so you copy those chord sequences backwards. Criticisms? Well, it would be nice for the 7000 to have, say, eight tracks, but it'd make it vastly more expensive – you're paying for storage time and R&D as it is. Three tracks are OK, in fact – anything over that and you start getting over-elaborate. Also, Casio haven't included all the features they could because they want to to be able to sell the next model. Despite that, they come up with better ideas than most of the others now in that area."
Going back to their original VL1, that was an astounding breakthrough.
"Yeah, just a quantum leap in attitude, and something ridiculously cheap. The last thing similar to that was the Stylophone. But I suppose that was never serious... David Bowie would argue about that, maybe.
"I imagine if I was going to predict what Casio's next model would do, I suppose it would have something like the Dr Rhythm style of writing your own simple rhythm patterns. The sounds don't need to be very good, but that would definitely have been useful to us just as a sort of memo thing. The ironic thing is that it's getting to the stage where the demo arrangement goes through so many metamorphoses before it reaches tape, and it's going to get more and more remote. We've been using the Fairlight a lot on this album, and it's helped enormously as a composition tool – it expands the possibilities immensely. But you also find yourself in a position where you've got to cut down the possibilities, not expand them.
Otherwise you get carried away along aimless routes?
"Exactly. You've got to keep as many options open as long as possible, but also you've got to make decisions, and make more important decisions earlier. It's like anything: the more freedom you have, the more you need to be careful how you judge it, or else you just disappear up your own bum.
Is that judgement based on your previous experience, or is it just a matter of common sense?
"Well... I think you need to be pretty dumb not to see it as a danger. Because it is. We could spend from now to 1994 doing this album – we could do at least 20 or 30 versions of the album where one wouldn't sound remotely like another, given the information we've got on the Fairlight and the possibilities we've got for reprogramming various things, even at the mixing stage. If we'd got the guts we'd run the outputs from the Fairlight direct to the master, without even recording it on to tape. That takes a lot of guts! But that's the major problem I can see for people working with these sorts of machines. There's just so much you can do."
The capabilities are expanding so quickly, as well.
"And they'll get cheaper and so be available to a lot more people, which I think is a good thing. The only problem there is that the record companies have such appalling taste, they tend not to choose the best ones. They ideally want groups who are in the same old format. So all this means that a company like Virgin, for example, gets sacks full of demos every week, the vast majority of which would be of a much higher standard than anything that would have been sent to record companies in the early 1970s, both in quality and in general sophistication of arrangement. Not necessarily musical excellence, but proficiency. Because the electronics are so sophisticated now that if you've got the money, you can do it."
How do you rise above that levelling?
"You learn to write songs. That's basically why we gave up the rat-race for sophistication in terms of musical equipment a long time ago. We gave up the pure electronics side of it because it was so obvious that it wasn't impressive any more. To me, anyway. So what if Jean-Michel Jarre could come out with it? For God's sake, anyone can! All it really is, is Radio 2 music, and anyone could do it now. I don't think there's anything clever about being an 'electronic genius' any more, cos it's all done for you. It's only if you choose to make it difficult for yourself that it becomes an achievement at all. If you wanted to do it on a System 100 (Roland modular system), for example, you really have to work hard. Probably the end results would be better as well. The Fairlight's a different kettle of fish – it's really a professional tool for saving studio time to a certain extent. I'm actually sick to death of the sound of Fairlights now. Trevor Horn's really astute, the inherent sound of the Fairlight has become so associated with The Art Of Noise and all that. Quite frankly, anyone who knows how to use a Fairlight and takes a listen to that will tell you it really isn't all that sophisticated. It's really a marketing exercise. Even TV adverts have it now, the fake scratching and stuff. Gets on my nerves – it's so predictable and unimpressive."
So what do you use the Fairlight for?
"As an aid to composition. We use Page R predominantly, which enables you to play up to eight musical lines in sync with each other, played on different instruments or sounds as you choose. They'll play simultaneously, and you can get eight outputs from the back of the machine. You can write in with notes on the screen, or you can play it in manually with a keyboard, in which case it automatically corrects according to what you've previously told it to do, to the nearest 32nd of a bar, 16th of a bar, or whatever. The major advantage to all this is that you can restructure the song after the event – after writing lyrics, for example. Or one could transpose the entire song up or down in key. You can swap all the instrument sounds you're using around, even play percussion instruments if you wish – maybe tuned drums in tune with the track, say. The possibilities are, er, manifold.
"But we use it as a compositional tool rather than trying to impress people with the sound of a Fairlight. That sound is no longer impressive as far as I'm concerned. We try to keep things moving forward if possible in the context of being popular, which is always difficult. I would be quite happy if people didn't realise we'd used the Fairlight, and just listened to the sounds it produces as sounds, not 'the Fairlight'.
"We recorded about 500 new sounds for the Fairlight, and we indexed them on a hired Osborne computer, in an electronic cardbox file taking all the criteria involved. So we could call up a sound in a certain 'range' of criteria and consider all the options at our disposal. We put a brief description of each sound into the file. So supposing we wanted something that sounded distorted, we'd call up everything that has 'distorted' in the description. You could do that with any of the keywords we'd used – if we wanted something suitable for chords, say, we'd call up everything with 'chord' or 'chords' in the name and it'd give us. maybe 30 or 40 options. Then we'd just narrow it down from that – it was very useful."
How difficult is it to sample new sounds for the Fairlight properly?
"Very difficult – I think you need a very good engineer, which we have in Greg Walsh. If you record it directly without any equalisation changes on to tape, the damage is really done by then. You've got to record the sounds into the machine, to sample the sounds, with great care and attention to the quality. That's really the point at which additional care pays off a lot, because once the sample's in there there's not much you can do with it. If there aren't any frequencies above or below a certain range you can't cut or boost them. They don't exist. Those 500 new sounds we recorded were a case in point: we actually took a lot of care in sampling them well, accurately. So many people just seem to bung the sample in and they often get quite rough-sounding results – in a way people relate to that as an inherent sound of the Fairlight, too. But we were very careful about it. Some of those 500 sounds were just that, "sounds," but most were samples of instruments of some kind. There were a few odd ones, a few surprises: for example we sampled each string of an old 1950s Les Paul that Glen has – he collects vintage guitars as an investment. That ended up giving us an almost harpsichord-like sound – a surprise, but a lovely sound."
What's wrong with the Fairlight at the moment?
"If there's one weak point about our use of the Fairlight it's to do with the fact that it would be nice to have more analogue control of the functions that the Fairlight can do. We've found some ways around that by using the System 100 keyboard, bending notes and so on, but it's very long-winded. There's an analogue-to-digital converter in the back of the machine, but it's not really designed for that sort of thing. I hope when they do the next update on the hardware of the Fairlight that they'll have a lot more performance control – not for live, just for studio work. It's almost impossible to control the portamento or the vibrato using the machine's sliders, and you certainly can't do it by altering the numbers all the time! Because the sliders have a logarithmic scale, you've got about one micron at the bottom that controls all the useful range, while the rest of it is out of any useful range at all."
What else are the Fairlight people actually changing?
"They're changing the duration of each of the notes, of the sampled sound, so that they will be the same all the way up the keyboard. At the moment it gets shorter higher up and longer below. All that will be altered is the pitch, because the machine will be storing the information in a different way – I think it will store the timbral information separate from the pitch information, some sort of FM principle I suppose. In other words, the sound of the actual thing doesn't alter no matter where you play on the keyboard. It alters the harmonics – I can't think of a way in which it can be done, but Fairlight apparently say they can do it."
They're also increasing the sampling time, aren't they?
"Yes, it's impractical at the moment, and that's where the Synclavier scores over the Fairlight just now: the quality of sounds, because Synclavier have hard disks. Compositionally, of course, there's no competition, the Fairlight wins hands down. Obviously a more intelligent machine, but it just doesn't have state-of-the-art reproduction sorted out."
Do you still use your System 100?
"Oh yeah, and it's still great for stumbling upon things. We found an amazing acoustic guitar patch by accident, for example, by having each of its four oscillators issuing a different waveform and having each of the ADSR and filter settings identical, cycling around on each oscillator in turn – one would give you the sound of a closely-picked string, another the sound of the plectrum just catching ag&inst the string. Played together, that sequencing of oscillators gave an incredibly human feel to this acoustic guitar patch – played on keyboard, of course, by our keyboard player, Nick Plytas.
It astounded everybody even our orchestral arranger. David Cullen – he's worked with Barbra Streisand and lots of famous people. He was convinced it was a real guitar, and didn't believe us when we told him what it was. We used that patch on a track called 'The Skin I'm In'.
You used an MC4 at one time – how do you rate that now?
"We used that extensively with the OP8 interface for our JP8. It's very laborious, entering in each note in that code form. To a certain extent that's the same problem that afflicts the MPL on the Fairlight – that's a programming language similar in format to the MC4's operating system. It's not really user-friendly at all. If you've got the odd three or four weeks to spare you might be able to program a song. It's actually more flexible than Page R in the final analysis. So what? More flexible if you've got that amount of time, which you haven't if you're a professional musician.
What other instruments have you used when recording the new album tracks?
"We were trying to get hold of the Synthaxe for Ray Russell to play. The one that we saw, while good, but with limitations, was a prototype, sort of in bits. It would have been immensely useful to us, but to some extent it'll give us something to change the sounds with next time."
The advantage to you of the Synthaxe, presumably, is to get someone of the dexterity of Ray Russell producing Fairlight-sourced sounds?
"Totally. We've never been under any misconceptions about our own musical dexterity – not very high at all. It's our ideas that, if anything, are interesting and/or commercially viable. So we just get in people who can do it. I don't think you'll get a much better keyboard player in this country than Nick Plytas, and Ray's really excelled himself. We might even send him a free copy. No, he's got to be one of the most talented guitarists here – one night he'll be down Ronnie Scott's playing in a five-piece, the next day he's doing heavy metal licks for some band.
"We used orchestras this time around too, and I think quite frankly that unless something very seriously changes, we will never use orchestras again. We said this last time, but this time it was even worse. I don't know... how can they express any astonishment that orchestras are not getting as much work in pop music? It's beyond me. They're just the most unconscientious people – I'd rather have Lemmy in there doing something, he'd be much more conscientious. They just sit around, couldn't care less. One minute past the time and it's quarter-of-an-hour overtime. And it's depressing – they've taken the trouble to learn how to play their instruments, and now they've been transformed into machines. Which is ironic, considering how the Musicians' Union is fond of telling us how synthesisers are, you know, inhuman. There's nothing more inhuman than a session string player."
Interview by Tony Bacon
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