and The Sample Of Doom | Howard Jones
Article from One Two Testing, March 1985
common sense and uncommon synths
No, we lie. Howard Jones was smiling, Paul Colbert was scribbling, Jon Blackmore was focusing and the keyboards were sequencing.
Shards of January ice skitter across the Farmyard Studio kitchen floor as Howard Jones stamps his feet back to life. He apologises for being half-an-hour late. No, it wasn't the heavy traffic, nor the arctic-inspired driving conditions. It's just that they were up until 4.00 this morning putting the finishing touches to the new single 'Things Can Only Get Better', and they had.
Got better, that is. Seems it was the decision to use 'real' brass players, the TKO horns, that clinched it. They'd been drafted in to perform the parts he'd once composed for synths, and the transformation had been magical.
He's always really wanted a club/dance floor hit, and this might be it, he tells us, but not too emphatically. Outwardly calm, gently spoken and inherently cautious, he's not a man for wild pronouncements.
This is Howard Jones' second sojourn at Farmyard — a peaceful, superbly equipped 24-track at the far end of the Metropolitan line. 'Human's Lib' was born there and he's again teamed up with producer Rupert Hine, plus a small warehouse of keyboards and sequencers, to record the 12 tracks of 'Dream Into Action'. "Only ten will go on the album," he informs. "I wanted to put all 12 on, but you lose quality and level, and it's the people with the less expensive hi-fi who suffer. Twenty minutes a side is about right... at least it makes for some good value B sides."
It's almost exactly a year ago since One Two conversed with the Jones, and in the ensuing 12 months, his keyboards have apparently conquered the mystery of cellular division — there's now two of almost everything.
Two DX7s, two Drumulators, two Roland MSQ700s... meanwhile the Moog Prodigy and TR808 drum machine have seemingly gone to the great storeroom in the sky.
The complete keyboard collection is set-up in the Farmyard control room in the space between the computer-aided Solid State Logic desk and the glass doors of the main booth. Perhaps a tour would be in order?
"The Prophet T8 I only use now as a keyboard to control all the others, even the Emulator II — I really like the T8's action, but as a synth I find it difficult to understand, and I've lost interest.
"I've been a piano player since I was seven and that's still my favourite instrument. At home I've just got my Yamaha CP80 which was secondhand. It's brilliant, so reliable. I remember we used it in Japan on tour. It was tuned there, once, and when we got back I used it on the album without having to touch it.
"The JP8 I probably use more than ever. It's one of those synths that has such a beautiful analogue sound; it's such a contrast to the DXs. I'm still finding new sounds on it, and again, it never goes wrong. I've got a box which converts the DCB output to MIDI, but it doesn't respond quite quickly enough when you play it from the MSQ sequencers. That can lead to some interesting effects but it won't articulate the notes fast enough, so I usually just play it straight."
Below the JP8 is a Roland Juno 60 which, to my surprise, was the keyboard responsible for the vast and fabulously soft string sound on 'Hide and Seek'. I'd always suspected it was the Prophet T8 but, no, it was the 60 with the filter resonance backed off from the factory preset level, then treated strongly with a Roland Dimension D chorus.
Subterranean to that is one of the oldest surviving devices in the Jones' lexicon — a Sequential Circuits Pro-One, still responsible for many of the single note bass lines. The Pro-One can only store two sequences at a time, and visitors to Howard Jones' gigs will be used to seeing him load new riffs between numbers. Not any more.
"When I'm writing I like to have one pattern, initially. When the song starts to grow I might then arrange it with three patterns and then, in the studio, do the complete, detailed arrangement. I'm not a big 'fill' person so I don't use drum fills. They're too cliched for me, and I prefer to put in 'musical moments'.
"It's a better way of working than having a complicated drum arrangement at the start. You know you're getting off on the song, not your complicated programming."
Had he ever considered taking the Fairlight path of one master instrument to do all the work, from first moments of inspiration to eventual 12in mix? No, not the Jones method, it turns out. "What I've got at the moment is 'modular', I can keep slotting things in as new they come out, like the MSQs. A Fairlight is a Fairlight. Anyway, everyone's got one."
Perhaps the Fairlight would be too tempting. He admits to being aware, and concerned, about habit. "When I do write I always try to have my keyboards set up differently, connected in another way so I never fall into the same patterns."
Trademarks are another bloom to be cautiously tended. "Er... Aflat, Bflat, C over a C pedal occurs quite often," he confides, "'What Is Love' is a classic." More dangerously observable are sound effects such as the sampled, orchestral crescendo which was at its peak on Paul Young's 'Playhouse...' single, then became grossly overpopular.
"What we've done is make sure that nothing is left exposed in the mix; special effects are always in combination with something else. A pronounced effect dates your work... almost to the month. If you're the first one to come across something very original, okay you should use it strongly, but if you know it's current, it's important to be careful."
Listeners should detect an overall hardening of the sound in the new album, tougher and more metallic than 'Human's Lib'. He also felt they had made innovative use of the combined DX7s. "There are a lot of unusual DX sounds. I really like one in 'Dream Into Action' which is a sort of industrial percussion, very 1980's."
There is a desire to be different in Howard Jones. The avoidance of cliches and concern for how other songwriters work are common homing beacons in the conversation. "I've never had a four-track cassette recorder at home," he remarks at one point, completely at odds with the mass of time-saving technology around him. "I've always done everything live onto two-track. I prefer it that way because it makes me work differently to everybody else."
What he has recently acquired is the Akai MG1212 mixer/recorder — a massive, 'portable' 12-track studio, reviewed in last month's One Two.
We found the Akai good quality and highly promising, but distinctly unweildy and uncertain due to its use of totally non-standard ½in cassettes. Howard Jones worships it. "It's brilliant. It's so simple to use. I didn't even read the manual. I just wanted to record on it as soon as I got it home, and I was able to."
It must be one of the few invasions of technology into the Jones' household as he still writes all the songs on the CP80.
Now, a proper Grand Piano — that would be something. I mentioned that Thomas Dolby had been so dedicated to the idea, he'd had a Futon mattress made to fit the top of his eight foot Steinway, that being the only way he could squeeze it into the bedroom. If you ever want to know what envy looks like in the eyes of a famous pop star, I'm now in a position to tell you.
'Dream Into Action', the album, is out in March, and he's very pleased with it. There'll be a tour to follow with the initial dates in Scotland and Ireland. It's not a one-man show. For example, Trevor Morris will be looking after the drum parts on a proper kit... as proper as any kit can be when it's built to be played standing up.
Where does it come from, all this music? He can't really say. There are no powerfully influential bands hollering out the chords from the back of his memory. When pressed he admits to an admiration of Keith Emerson and of trying to learn his early riffs, but otherwise... maybe it's just all the radio he's listened to over the years. "It's a bit of a mistake, really, copying other people. That's what I could never understand about classical musicians, just playing other people's stuff forever.
"You should," he concludes, "be pursuing your own, original thing. Be satisfied with yourself."
Interview by Paul Colbert
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