Robert Fripp Lays Bare His Legendary Effects Rack | Robert Fripp
A rare interview with this virtuoso King Crimson guitarist and much admired 'guest soloist'.
Robert Fripp is very much a musician's musician, whose innovative approach to both guitar playing and signal processing defies categorisation. Mark Jenkins looks at the technology behind Frippertronics...
Robert Fripp is one of the very few guitarists distinguished by his sound rather than his style, image or on-stage histrionics. In fact his rather laid-back appearance gives no hint as to the sonic extremes his guitar can produce — witness the incredible wailing solos which have distinguished albums from the early days of Giles, Giles & Fripp, through a long career with King Crimson to the more recent League of Gentlemen and League of Crafty Guitarists. With the last of these line-ups, Fripp has also developed a distinctive tuning technique which further distinguishes him from the pack — although it's one that he insists any guitarist can happily adopt.
"I wouldn't call it unconventional or non-standard. How about 'the new standard'? To me it's far more logical than EADGBE. I have no idea who could come up with EADGBE — it's arbitrary, there's no seeming rationale to it. The new tuning is CGDAEG, primarily fifths, and the seven-string tuning — at the moment I'm working with a Japanese company on a line of seven-string guitars — is CGDAEGA. The seven-string tuning for normal, standard players is EADGBEG — I think Steve Vai had the right idea in terms of a seven-string guitar, but not the right tuning".
But Fripp's tuning is only a small part of his distinctive sound, which has always relied on a careful selection of fuzz pedals, amps and guitar synthesizers. Lately, however, there's been more reliance on programmable digital effects; Andy Summers, who has worked extensively with Fripp in the past, seems to believe that modern effects allow the guitarist to forget guitar synths altogether and do anything required using digital effects alone.
"Well, Adrian Belew, myself and Andy Summers all experimented with the blue GR300 Roland guitar synth, and in other interviews Andy's done, he still mentions it as the only guitar synth that was ever practical. And he's right — I would agree with Andy's overall view that nowadays guitarists aren't looking at guitar synthesizers. I saw a world class guitar player in New York sounding like a third-rate saxophone player — it was absurd. However, I tried to get rid of my little GR300 so I wouldn't have to have another thing on the floor, and when I turned up at David Sylvian's to work, he said 'Where's your trumpet sound? Where's your little synthesizer?' The GR300 is the only practical guitar synthesizer that I've ever used — it's exceptionally limited, but if you work within those limitations there's nothing else to replace it. It does things nothing else will do. A fuzz box is very limited, but if you can work with a fuzz box, the things you can do are phenomenal — it's a similar thing with the GR300."
Powerful chains of effects are now the order of the day as far as Fripp is concerned.
"What I do is to combine fuzz and the GR300, and then move on to multi-effects processors. Recently I've been using the Korg A2 — one of the presets. Program 74, is even called 'Andy S', and it's a superb basic sound. But I won't chuck out my foot pedals. The Korg A2 and A1 are superb, versatile, multi-effects units. They're small, light, and with the available cards, they're superb, but they don't replace fuzz — nothing replaces fuzz. You can actually get very good distortion simulations, sustains and so on, but fuzz from an early Big Muff, an early Foxy Lady, or the early Vox Fuzz Tone — those are the big three. They have to be the early ones; the later ones are good, but not as good as the ones they made five years before.
"The very first fuzz box I had was the Burns Buzzaround, which was superb but very buzzy, and there wasn't a lot of level on it. The real problem at the time was how to get a setup which could provide something like the 'Andy S' program with chorus and echo — a beautiful, clean, rippling sound — along with something which could give you overdrive. You could try different amps, different selections of pedals, but have all manner of problems. So on this boxed set [a King Crimson retrospective CD set based on live material and remastered by Tony Arnold] you'll hear the same fuzz unit I use now, and a Hiwatt amp which is still in the next room; there's nothing that comes close to that setup for sustain. However, when I try and play clean things, I really wish I'd had the A2. You can hear me floundering about with terrible, feeble sounds, because you didn't have chorus pedals then.
"The Roland Jazz Chorus 120 combo was really the first occasion most guitarists had an opportunity to use that effect; now the A2 gives me two of the three basics — the wonderful 'Andy S', which I work on with the echo and delay; then you have good distortion sounds which you can modify; and for sustain I still have to have the fuzz.
"The next step is to use the Korg with other effects units — I've been using it a lot with the Roland GP16, for example. I have a setting on the GP16 for an octave low sound which drives the 'Andy S' program, and together the result is quite unlike anything else I've ever heard; you couldn't do it with either of them individually. I also use an Eventide 3000SE, and even using their octave and pitching, you can't get it — it's the combination of the two that makes it work.
"I have a Zoom 9030 half-rack FX box and I've been experimenting with the A2 and the Zoom; they also work phenomenally well together. I'm not looking for one effects unit to give me all that I want. I've been writing, rehearsing and creating basic programs using a number of effects, so I haven't been able to find out how far I can take each of the units individually.
"What I did when I was in Italy with David Sylvian was to begin to use all the alternative Korg program cards to get combinations. The difficulty is that an A3 card can't be downloaded into an A2, so you keep buzzing backwards and forwards between cards. Generally the new stuff has to do with distortion — instead of me having to do all the work to come up with a good overdriven sound, various characters have already done it for me. The Nashville card in particular is a very good card with a number of useful sounds".
Since Fripp's sonic requirements are very precise, a good amplification and speaker setup both for stage and studio use is vital.
"At the moment I'm using a Carver Professional amp with a TC Electronic parametric EQ, and I use Tannoy speakers in Lockwood cabinets that are about 30 years old. Because the speakers are very flat, this means that what I send to the desk from my effects rack and to my monitoring speakers is exactly the same, whether it's in the studio or in a live show.
"I have been using the Sansamp, the little tube amp simulation box, which is superb. And once again, what comes out will be flat and will go straight to the studio board, live board or to my monitor speakers."
As you can probably imagine, Fripp's effects setup is by now pretty extensive; at the moment it's 16 units high.
"But that will get larger, because I'm about to start using a Yamaha TX816 synth rack. My Roland hex pickup from the GR300 will drive the GR70 MIDI convertor, so now I can control any MIDI synthesizers. One other thing I have in my effects setup — used for Frippertronics (the slowly developing ambient effects loop system featured on albums such as Network) — is a pair of TC2290s; two because they are mono units, which replace my old Revoxes. I also have a small pedal unit, the Electro Harmonix 16-second delay, which they used to market as a 'Fripp-In-A-Box'. We got in touch with them and asked if we could have one free, and they said no, so I had to buy one! I'll probably get it modified and rackmounted; it's a fairly low quality unit, but used with an old Yamaha echo/harmoniser which is not good at all, the two together get me something I haven't heard from anything else.
"The 16-second delay runs into the pitch shifter, and comes out with an octave above; the beauty of the thing is that you can have a blend. What you don't have on the Eventide 3000SE is easy access to go through the parameters so the input and outputs are very easily blended at the turn of an old, cheap knob. You can't vary the feedback easily either, because it's far more sophisticated than that. You can change those parameters, but it's a lot more hard work, and you wouldn't do it in a live gig as you'd, say, change a volume knob on a guitar — which, with these old, cheap and nasty and horrible effects I'm using, is still entirely possible."
Surely it requires a very complex system to switch from one effects setup to another?
"I use a TC Electronic Ground Control; a digital, programmable footpedal which handles up to eight combinations of effects over MIDI. In addition, the TC2290 works as a patch bay because it has five send/returns, so I can have up to five effects units coming in and going out. And on the foot control for the TC2290, in addition to being able to summon up instant effects setup programs already written with the Ground Control, I can take them in or out in combination using my foot.
"The first main effects rack is the 'Arny' rack, which is all my early analogue pedals, including the fuzz, put into a rack by Tony Arnold. Second is the Roland GP16, third is the Korg A2, fourth — although I'm not using it much yet — is the Zoom 9030 half rack. There's room for a fifth multi-effects, probably the Korg A1 which is currently in America. All these multi-effects go into the TC2290s, which have up to 64 seconds of delay memory. TC's distributor in Oswestry [Systems Workshop] tell me they shouldn't be able to do that, but David Sylvian programmed it in for me, so in addition to its basic superb chorusing, flanging and 64-second delay, it can also be used as a patch bay. From there, the signal goes into the Eventide 3000, then it goes off down the line; I may use it with a graphic, but usually it goes straight out to the board".
So does every song or piece of music have to use a very complex effects setup?
"The number of effects used is governed by the material, but there would be usually two or three programs in each piece. I've done some playing in a three-piece with David Sylvian and a Stick player, and we've been playing a combination of soundscapes — Frippertronics with the Stick player darting in and out — and good basic songs. The album is released on Virgin."
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