Man At Work
Robert Plant's right-hand man and technology-fiend talks to Tim Goodyer about samplers, studios and dischords.
Jezz Woodroffe's keyboard-playing career has taken him from music-store owner to regular member of Robert Plant's new band. In that time, his skilful, unpredictable playing style and fine programming ability have won him admiration from all quarters. We discover more about the man, his keyboards and his studio.
Even if it's hardly the first one you'd think of in a discussion of well-known contemporary keyboard players, the name Woodroffe will certainly be familiar to musicians in and around Birmingham. A music shop (sadly now defunct) bearing that very name once added fuel to the burning dreams of local musicians, Duran Duran amongst them. Wide-eyed teenagers would make a weekly exodus to spend their Saturday mornings ogling the contents of the best-stocked keyboard showroom for miles around, and listening to words of wisdom from the resident demonstrator. One man went in to buy a keyboard and left with a keyboard player: the man was Robert Plant, the keyboard player and demonstrator, Jezz Woodroffe.
Once Led Zeppelin's front-man, Plant had maintained a fairly low profile since the death of drummer John Bonham, and the subsequent dissolution of the band. A long-term project by the name of The Honeydrippers provided him with a flexible outlet for most of his musical energy in many small clubs, and helped preserve his name and popularity in the intervening period.
Then, impressed by the playing talents of Woodroffe, Plant sensed the time was right to begin again. Under pressure to resurrect the past triumphs of Zeppelin, Plant risked the loss of his following by lending a deaf ear to the words of 'Stairway to Heaven', and moving on to musical pastures new. It was a risk, as Woodroffe now readily agrees.
'What we did was so totally different, yet it was the same voice and it was the same Robert on stage. He was very brave to do that, but on the other hand, if he hadn't done that, he wouldn't have done anything. With somebody like David Bowie or Peter Gabriel, you've got no idea what they're going to do next — and it's the same with Robert.
'I'm very proud of what I've done with Robert, and if we don't do anything else, that's OK.'
And the risk paid off. Around them, Plant and Woodroffe assembled some of the most respected names in the business: Phil Collins and Cozy Powell on drums, Robbie Blunt on guitar and Paul Martinez on bass. A fine album, Pictures at Eleven, resulted.
Since then there have been two further LPs: The Principle of Moments — spawning the single 'Big Log' which made number 11 in the British charts back in '83 — and Shaken 'n' Stirred with Richie Hayward moving in on drums.
All three albums feature Woodroffe in the joint role of keyboard player and co-songwriter. The gold and silver discs that brighten the walls of Woodroffe's home studio attest to the success of his music, while the synthesisers that surround us do the same for his love of technology.
Woodroffe's long-standing love affair with things synthetic has grown from the formative cries of MiniMoogs and Odysseys, to embrace today's digital wonders. Those with a particularly sharp eye (and a keen memory) will recognise him as the man seen posing with four Jupiter 8s in a certain Roland advert a while back. Unfortunately, the ad attracted more than its fair share of criticism.
'I had people asking Roland: "Who's that posing bastard with all those Jupiters he doesn't own?" But they were all mine — and I needed them at the time!'
Since then, two of those JP8s have been sold off as being redundant, along with one of a pair of PPGs and attendant Waveterm. The remaining PPG now forms the heart of Woodroffe's working setup.
'The PPG is the most creative instrument that exists as far as I'm concerned. I was originally going to buy a Fairlight; I even went to the factory in Sydney to look around and ordered one. But the PPG system had just come out then and when I heard it, I cancelled the Fairlight order!'
The PPG in question is a 2.3, though it's accompanied by an original series Waveterm, not a Waveterm B. Time for an update?
'Rather than update it, I'd like to take other things a step further. There is no limit to what you can do with this system as it is; you can never explore all its possibilities even if you spend 24 hours a day on it. The Waveterm B is 16-bit sampling whereas this is only 12, but that's not what it's about for me. It's more important what you do with technology than what you own. It's much more important to get as much out of something as you can, before you think about replacing it with something else.
'I don't know where technology will take us next, and I don't think it's important either. Using technology to be creative is fine, but I can't see any other reason for having it.'
The two remaining JP8s are not in evidence at the time of our meeting, but a Roland MKS80 Super Jupiter module and MPG80 programmer sit atop an MKB1000 Mother Keyboard. These cater for Woodroffe's analogue requirements, whilst a Korg DW6000 now fills the gap left by a departed DX7 and DX9.
'It took me about six weeks to crack the algorithms and operators, but when it came to using them in the studio it was a complete joke, so I went for the Korg because the access is so fast.'
None of this would be possible without our old friend MIDI, of course. But MIDI plays a greater part in the studio than the simple linking of keyboards. A Roland SBX80 Sync Box is on hand to cater for Woodroffe's involvement in writing music for films and videos — and provides a central communication point for MIDI messages. The situation is further complicated by the Programmer hogging the only MIDI Out on the Super Jupiter, without offering anything in return. The result of all this is a severe test on the flexibility of MIDI, and one that poses Woodroffe a few problems.
'MIDI on the PPG has nothing to do with MIDI on anything else. You can link two keyboards together, but they lock up after they've taken a certain amount of information, so it might as well not exist.'
Sad words from a man who has, in the course of his career, forsaken the banks-of-keyboards approach in favour of an economical system that's of more musical value — even if it doesn't look quite so impressive. A Godwin string synth, one member of the older generation, is present in the studio, and looks rather incongruous alongside the PPG. Woodroffe is quick to come to its defence.
'The Godwin did all the orchestration for 'Big Log' and 'Moonlight in Samosa'. You just can't get that sort of sound out of the PPG. Sampled cellos sound great, but they just don't work the same way that the Godwin does.'
Good old technology, but what of the sampling? The quality of sampling is rising almost as quickly as its cost falls, and it's all too easy to become obsessed with the idea of reproducing natural sounds more and more convincingly. But with the notable exception of drum sounds, this is the lowest priority on the Woodroffe list.
'You have to use sampling creatively for it to be of any value. If you sample something as a recognisable sound and reproduce it as a recognisable sound, then I'm not sure that's a particularly good idea. Unless you're going to use samples out of range, then it's a waste of time sampling choirs and things.'
He illustrates the point with a sampled cello that assumes koto-like tones in an unnaturally high register. Woodroffe's PPG library disks are filled with unusual (though always usable) samples from as disparate sources as the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, used to great effect on 'Too Loud', to Bongo Joe playing an oil drum with brushes.
Colouration and distortion of sound come into their own here: 'I've done some sampling off Compact Disc but I like samples to sound a bit different, and if you use a bad way of recording them they can sound really good. It's nothing to do with the quality of what you've heard, it's what you're creating with the machine you've got.'
Sounds like a good case for buying a cheap sampler to me.
'Cheap sampling keyboards are a brilliant idea. They're not going to sound like the real thing anyway, so you could end up getting interesting sounds very easily. If I had a spare hundred quid I'd be out buying one of the little Casios; as it is, I'm thinking of getting one of their sampling drum machines.
'I don't think drum sounds have to be that good. Look at Prince's single 'Kiss': the sounds on that are awful, but it's a great single. I like really horrible snare drum sounds, 'cos they work — as long as you don't try to make them sound like good snare drum sounds.
And the drum samples?
'The minute Phil Collins puts his snare drum through a reverb unit on Compact Disc we'll have it in the Waveterm, thank you', he says, patting the PPG like a favourite child.
'One thing that really annoys me, though, is the number of good drummers that hate drum machines. They should be the very people that like them. Rather than the machine being a substitute for them, think what they could do with that sense of rhythm and the background to playing a drum-kit if it were applied to a drum machine. It would be unbelievable.
'Richie Hayward is one of the best drummers in the world. But any time I switched a drum machine on, he'd do a big moody thinking I was trying to replace him. So I asked him if he'd got a drum machine; the answer was no. I said: "go and get a Linn, get anything you like, learn to program it and come and show me what you can do." It gets me mad!'
With the sequencing power of both the PPG and a Korg SQD1 at his disposal, a full 24-track recording setup seems a little excessive for the Woodroffe home studio. But where a simple eight- or 16-track affair would be enough for many musicians, this one owns a fully-blown Aces MT24 two-inch, 24-track recorder, complete with accompanying mixing desk. Woodroffe has abundant enthusiasm for the system ('Aces are currently building me an autolocate with SMPTE which will be fab'), and believes that, even if he wasn't involved in the film and video scoring that pays him some useful extra ackers, he would still need a 24-track setup.
'I had an eight-track, but I found I could spend hours creating something on it and then not be able to take it any further. If you use a sync code to lock the sequencers to the tape, you've got seven free tracks that you can't physically get at, because the synths are already in use.
'When you've got something onto tape you can take a bit out, you can take all of it out, you can cut great chunks out of the tape, change the EQ, put it on a different channel, put reverb on it... you can do anything, within reason. And then you can take it with you anywhere in the world — stick it in a briefcase and take it to Sarm West and go "waaah!". You can get other people in to play on it — even musicians! There's no more of this: "the demo was great, what a shame we haven't actually got it on tape."'
Being unable to recapture the essence of a musical idea is a problem we've all encountered before now, but Woodroffe is quick to dispel the illusion that wide recording tape can provide all the answers. The keyword here is 'atmosphere'.
'I've got a Roland SRV2000 for reverb — it's a great tool, one of the best things I've bought, but I've just ordered a couple of spring reverbs as well. They're pretty awful apart from the fact that when you're trying to create some kind of atmosphere, you want different types of reverb, and that's a cheap way of doing it instantly. The Roland will do all that, but not at the same time: you can get the sound you want, record it, and then record the reverb on a different channel, but in those 20 minutes the inspiration you needed of being in the Taj Mahal has gone.
'Phil Collins did 'In the Air Tonight' on eight-track at home and then transferred it to 24-track. If he hadn't been able to do that, there wouldn't have been any 'In the Air Tonight', and Phil Collins wouldn't be a multi-millionaire.'
Woodroffe has plans for a commercial studio sometime in the future, and the MT24 has been chosen as a likely basis for that, too. But his enthusiasm for recording doesn't continue into the world of the portable four-track, a breed of machine which, despite its ability to make listenable home recordings a practical proposition for thousands of musicians, is far from earning a place in Woodroffe's good books.
'I think the last thing a keyboard player working with a really tight budget needs is a tape recorder. You've really got to go for something like the little Casio sequencer. You're far better off being able to create something that you can re-use at a later date, and which you can take into a studio and dump straight down onto tape.'
As for Woodroffe's own sequencers...
'The PPG's sequencer is incredibly complicated; it's a 12-month job to learn what not to do with it. Even when you understand it, it's still a very long process building up a sequence. The Korg SQD, on the other hand, will sequence anything. It's so quick and simple to use, you can use it just like a tape recorder.
'A lot of the sounds I get off the Super Jupiter are beautiful things to sequence. Unfortunately, you can't send a sequence out from the PPG over MIDI — it doesn't work.
'But you can get bogged down in the whole thing in the end. I've always thought keyboard players were a different breed to other musicians. We always seem to be slightly more sophisticated than everyone else, because there are lots of complicated computer codes in our brains. When we're playing we have different kinds of problems to overcome, we have to remember tremendous quantities of numbers which have nothing to do with music. And we daren't get them wrong, because the difference between 11 and 12 can be catastrophe whereas the difference between F and F# is only a dischord. Pressing the right buttons is actually more important than playing the right chords!'
With the association with Robert Plant having reached a natural pause, Woodroffe has begun making plans for an album with Toyah, and is also involved with ex-Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler.
'That should be quite interesting, because it'll be heavy rock and I haven't done that for a while. But the Toyah thing is what I'm really looking forward to. If I can get both things working so that they don't clash with each other, I'll be happy.'
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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