We look at how electronics, synths and a PET computer have influenced this versatile British composer.
Probably best known for his contribution to 'War of the Worlds' LP, we find out how electronics, synths and a PET have influenced his music.
Since that time Ken has become more and more in demand in the studio, working with many acts including Elkie Brooks, Jon Anderson, Mike Oldfield, Justin Hayward and in 1975 with David Essex on the single 'I'm Gonna Make You A Star', which was produced by Jeff Wayne. In the same year Ken was part of the band that accompanied Essex on his American tour, with Jeff Wayne as MD. The synth sound on the record had been produced in the studio by quadruple tracking, and so to recreate it on tour Ken had to play a duophonic ARP Odyssey and the monophonic ARP 2600, while Jeff played a second 2600. As the tour promoters were going to have to hire the synths anyway, Ken decided to buy an Odyssey and offset the cost of its purchase by hiring it to them for the duration of the tour. "The Odyssey was very well designed, and although the sound quality isn't that good, the facilities for internal routing without the need for patching and so on are great. If it had a more powerful VCF it would still be very useful — as it is I don't really use it anymore."
The Odyssey provided Ken with his first experience of interfacing synths with computers. He built a bi-directional A to D, D to A interface between it and his PET to allow lines to be played on the synth, stored in the PET's memory and then subsequently played back through the synth. He could build a whole piece up line by line, storing each one on disc, and by using his Korg Rhythm 55 drum machine as a trigger pulse, he was able to play the lines in slowly and then have them played back at a faster speed, all perfectly in time. Of course, only one line could be replayed at any one time and so it was necessary to have a multi-track facility to get a complete piece recorded. When the first line was recorded, the trigger pulse was also recorded on a separate track, and thereafter was used as the trigger for subsequent lines. In this way sync between the individual lines was ensured. This method had several advantages: Ken could save time by writing the piece at home using his own four and, later on, eight-track facility, and then go in to the studio with the sure knowledge that a piece, which might under normal circumstances be technically very difficult to play, could be played back from the PET perfectly in time and perfectly in sync at any tempo required. With studio time costing what it does, that kind of reliability is very valuable. Ken wrote and recorded the current LBC station ident using this method.
After the David Essex tour, Jeff Wayne started to use Ken on a lot of his jingle sessions, and when he started work on the recording of 'War of the Worlds' in the summer of 1976, he hired Ken to play all the synth parts. The project took three years to complete and during the first two of those years Ken had little time to do anything else. "The equipment was relatively primitive in those days and things that would be easy to do now took a long time. We were using a 48-track recording facility, and including all the bouncing down, we must have actually used over one hundred tracks to get the sounds right. It was very good experience."
Ken continues to do a lot of work for Jeff Wayne and has therefore had a good opportunity to use Jeff's Fairlight: "The real sound facility is great, it makes it possible to make a tune out of almost any noise you want. It's limited though by its short sample length, which is only one-and-a-half seconds; after that it has to loop back and read the same data over again. This inevitably causes a glitch as it loops back, and although you have complete control over how much it reads and where it loops back to, you can spend ages trying to get a smooth, reasonably glitch-free loop, and still end up with something unusable; it's really too time consuming for normal studio work. Each overall sample period is split up into 128 samples, and if you can get each cycle of the sound to fit one sample, it gives much smoother loops, and so it is important to try and get the sample rate and the pitch of the sound right.
"The sample frequency also determines the cut-off frequency of the digital recording, and to get an overall sample period of one-and-a-half seconds, the high frequency response is brought down to about 6kHz which tends to make all the sounds a bit woolly. It's also a bit noisy for normal use: There's an odd hissing noise which accompanies each note as it's played. I don't know what it is and I haven't been able to get rid of it. Being able to process real sounds though, really does provide new scope: for one jingle we used the sound of a paper bag being screwed up, played back at a different pitch, backwards. Only the Fairlight could do that."
Since signing the contract with Jeff Wayne Music, a major part of Ken's work has been writing music to go with television commercials. When working with a visual medium, it is often necessary to have certain sounds or effects take place in synchronisation with specific points in the film or video. When working with film, there are so many different units to relate to a position in it, that complications and confusion often arise. The speed at which each individual frame of picture is moved past the projector's gate can be either twenty-four or twenty-five frames per second, and the units in common use for film length include frames, feet and frames, seconds, minutes and frames, and minutes and seconds. Ken has written a program for his PET to simplify the writing process. Film cue data can be entered into the PET in any of the above forms, and it will then list it in any of the other forms as selected. The most common method that Ken employs is to take the computer along to the viewing of the film, and referring to the countdown at the beginning, start its clock at the first frame of picture. As cue points arise in the film, he enters them by depressing another key on the keyboard, and they are then listed in order on the PET's screen. This timing sequence can then be 'played back' again, starting it at the beginning of the film. The PET will give out a blip at each cue point so that the producer can check that they are all in the right place. Any that are found to be a little out of sync can be individually adjusted in either direction. Having got all the cues in the correct positions, comments relating to each cue can be added to the list of timings on the PET screen, e.g. man turns corner, woman opens bonnet etc., and of course the data originally entered can be displayed in any of the previously mentioned units. When the tempo is entered for the piece of music, all the cue points are also printed on the screen as numbers of beats, and if the tempo is subsequently changed, the beat count is also changed accordingly. The cue points can then be used to trigger a synth or any other electronic instrument via a synchronous pulse from the user port, to give an effect at exactly the right point in the film. More often though Ken simply takes a VHS cassette of the picture home with him, and uses the PET to verify that he is writing the jingle as it was discussed at the run through, and that he isn't making any mistakes concerning the various cue points. A 4k7 ohm resistor connected in series to the line input of his mixer allows the PET to give an audible beep at each one.
Ken's style of writing often lends itself to the use of a rhythm machine, and so he has written another program for his PET which allows him to program a complete piece at home, and then if necessary, let the PET run it through in the studio, for the master recording. His rhythm machine is a Korg Rhythm 55, and although there is a difference in logic levels, the PET's 5V is enough to trigger it. The program is written half in BASIC and half in machine code using a JCL high speed assembler. The BASIC makes it operationally simple enough for an inexperienced user, and the machine code allows it to be fast enough for the demands of the program. Being an 8-bit micro, the PET is limited to the control of eight functions, which Ken finds to be sufficient for normal use. The eight available are: bass drum, snare, tom one, tom two, claves, cowbell, hi-hat and finally a tom-tom accent control which gives the toms a long or short decay time. A dot matrix is printed on the PET's screen eight dots high and up to thirty-six wide, with each line denoting a different function and each dot being a beat or rest. The eight lines are programmed individually, with an asterix replacing a dot wherever a sound is to be played and a dot remaining to denote a rest.
Interview by James Betteridge
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