Man and Machine
Axxess mainman Patrick Mimran and one of the most remarkable custom-designed synthesisers ever built. Report by Dan Goldstein.
Behind the Axxess album featured in E&MM May lies a man committed to the beauty of electronic music and one of the most remarkable custom-designed synthesisers ever built.
Regular readers will no doubt recall that a few months back (May, to be precise), E&MM carried a free flexi-fisc featuring excerpts from an album of electronic music entitled Novels for the Moons. The album's creator, Patrick Mimran, is boss not only of Lamborghini Records (on which label the album appeared) but also of the world-renowned Italian motor-car concern of the same name, hence his enviable position as catalyst of probably the most ambitious - certainly the most technologically demanding - custom synthesiser designing and building operations in the world.
However, Mimran the musician is an entirely different man from Mimran the financier. He is refreshingly modest about his own musical achievements, and his dedication to the cause of electronic music is almost unnerving in its completeness.
'I first became interested in synthesisers when I saw Tangerine Dream and their modular Moog system about 10 years ago - maybe more. I then trained in the technology of music for four years, and that gave me a grounding in basic synthesiser design.'
Mimran's desire to take part in a synth-building exercise of his own was fuelled by a meeting a couple of years back with a Berlin-based electronics engineer, Andreas Bahrdt. Bahrdt had been working in New York with former Tangerine Dreamer Peter Baumann, and the fruits of their co-operation took the form of a custom-built 16-voice programmable polysynth incorporating computer-controlled sequencing, among other things. Understandably impressed by that instrument, Mimran asked Bahrdt to design something similar for him, though by the time that machine was completed - about a year later - technology had advanced sufficiently for Bahrdt to incorporate further musical and ergonomic improvements. The engineer gives a brief rundown of his system's bewildering specification.
'Well, like Peter Baumann's machine, Patrick's is based around a Hewlett Packard 16-bit microprocessor. The operating system is 16-channel - that is, 16 channels each with four analogue VCOs. There are also noise sources and FM voices similar to those on the Synclavier, as well as extensive filtering and modulation sections, and the parameters for each channel are controlled by a microcomputer. Also, the system has provision for 16 channels of real-time recording.'
That sequencing capability - pattern and program data is stored on 20MByte Winchester disks - obviates the need for multitrack recording tape, Novels for the Moons being recorded direct from synthesiser to two-track master. Yet in spite of that, the album sounds surprisingly colourful and dynamic. Did Mimran use much in the way of outboard effects to help create that sonic variation?
'No, not really. The synthesiser has so many modulation possibilities, most of the effects can be generated onboard. The only external effects I used were reverb units and some occasional phasing provided by digital delays.'
The album was recorded at Mimran's home in Geneva with the help of a Neve 24-channel mixing console. It took nearly a year to complete (the elaborate accompanying video - produced in conjunction with director Kif Macmillan - was similarly time-consuming), but although it's an undeniably impressive and elegantly-constructed work, it's by no means the limit of Mimran's creative output.
'I'm working on a new Axxess album at the moment, which will be quite different to the first one, I think. My problem is that I'm too impatient. I'm always working too fast and I really have to slow myself down before the music I make becomes interesting.
'I'm also working with a German painter and singer, Ernst Fuchs. He's already recorded one album - Aphrica - with Klaus Schulze, but that was all in German: this time his dialogue will be in English so that more people can understand it.'
Mimran also plans to take his music out of the recording studio and into the concert hall, but at present the complexity of his planned stage show - not to mention the pressures inherent in his business life - have meant that plan has had to be put to one side for a while, at least.
Mimran's determination to improve his compositional skill is matched by a similar desire to extend the frontiers of current music synthesis technology. Since the completion of the Novels modular synth, he's continued working side-by-side with Andreas Bahrdt, and the two of them are at this very moment drawing up plans for an altogether more awesome and grandiose machine.
Bahrdt takes up the story.
'Our ambition is to build a modular synthesiser that is entirely digital, the only analogue part being the output amplifier. We'll be using additive synthesis techniques applied to sinewaves, and when the machine is finished it will be the only one of its kind in the world.'
It's a big 'when', though. It seems the only other development along these lines was undertaken by a team of engineers at IRCAM in Paris: things were going pretty much according to plan until a cost accountant in the French Government took a look at a set of yearly figures and called a halt. Perhaps sensibly, Mimran and Bahrdt have set themselves a realistic date of 'sometime during 1986' for the new system's completion.
All the same, Mimran is convinced the wait will be a worthwhile one.
'The new synthesiser will have a far greater sequencing capability. It will allow recording in both step-time and realtime, with extensive editing facilities and provision for looping.'
The amount of memory space necessary for successful application of additive synthesis technology will, of course, require a more advanced magnetic storage system, and to this end, Dr Bahrdt - himself a graduate of information technology and computer science - has been investigating the possibilities afforded by 300MByte Control Data hard disks. They're not cheap, but they'll do the job. What's more, loading data to and retrieving information from them takes a maximum of five seconds, which should be fast enough to satiate Mimran's innate impatience.
So which is more important to Mr Lamborghini - musical creativity or the advancement of technology?
'The music is the most important thing - definitely,' he stresses. 'My music is the reason for having all this machinery - not the other way around, and the reason I want to have the latest technology is that, not being a trained musician in that sense, I need easy access to as many different types of sound as possible. You see, I'm interested in a lot of different forms of music and a lot of different sorts of instruments. Having machines like the synthesiser I have now and the one that's being developed enable me to play all those different sounds myself...'
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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