Thoughts Of A Marathon Songwriter
You don't know his name but you'll have heard his refrains. Composer Paul Bliss writes hits for the best of 'em using a UMI-2B sequencer package and several synthesizers. Ralph Denyer finds out how.
With the sophisticated instruments around today, it's so easy for the would-be songwriter to have his attention drawn away from the real reason for buying them - to make music. Songwriting, as Paul McCartney will gladly tell you, can be a lucrative business and there are few finer examples than Paul Bliss of a musician who has managed to fuse together the creative power of computers, synthesizers and songwriting skill with such resounding commercial success.
Paul Bliss is now in the enviable position of being a successful songwriter with his own professional quality studio set-up within his home. During a period in which most recording acts write their own material, he's managed to rack up some 30-plus name cover versions from his catalogue of around 85 songs. They include 'Murphy's Law' (Al Jarreau), 'Heart Attack' (Olivia Newton-John) co-written with Steve Kipner, 'Starfleet' (Brian May), 'Innocent Eyes' (Air Supply), 'Take Good Care' (Barbara Dickson), 'I Used To Love The Radio' (Bucks Fizz), and 'Dancing Shoes' a current Japanese Number One by Seiko Matsuda. Record producers John Farrar, Phil Ramone and Chris Neil are always among those willing to give a Paul Bliss song a listen.
The main pieces of equipment in his recording system are a Soundcraft mixing console and 24-track recorder, a Yamaha DX7, three TX7 modules and RX11 drum machine, a Roland Juno 106, an Oberheim OB8 synthesizer and DMX drum machine, and a recently acquired Ensoniq Mirage sampling keyboard. The piece of equipment, however, that Paul says has become the "heart of the system", and has greatly expanded the creative possibilities and the technical capability of his set-up, is the Umusic UMI-2B sequencing and MIDI controller/interfacing package.
Paul never intended to be exclusively a songwriter and played bass guitar and keyboards in an assortment of bands during the early 1970s. In 1974 Paul was asked to join a band called Dog Soldier as a bass player and they recorded an album and toured in America. His first effort at songwriting was a track on the album called 'Giving As Good As You Get'. Dog Soldier weren't exactly a megagroup and so when they disbanded in 1975, Paul wasn't exactly inundated with offers and found himself at a bit of a loose end. He subsequently spent a while working at Soundcraft assembling mixing consoles.
In the mid-seventies Paul made the move to keyboards. This was really a means to an end in that he was becoming more aware of the importance of songwriting and wanted to write material for the Bliss Band which was a group he'd formed featuring himself as singer/songwriter/keyboards player. "That's all the move to keyboards was really, a way of finding different chords and inversions to give me ideas to write songs. When the Bliss Band started I thought: Hang on! Keyboards can't be that difficult. Writing songs on a bass guitar - as even Paul McCartney must find - is very difficult. I'd always played a bit of acoustic guitar but keyboards took my fancy."
Activity on the Bliss Band project was initially limited to writing, rehearsal and recording of demo-tapes and while some kind of recording deal was being sought, they all had to make a living. Just a year after taking them up, Paul found himself also playing keyboards for David Essex.
The Bliss Band never expected to do much in the UK. Heavily influenced by the musicality and songwriting style of Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, they represented the antithesis of Punk and New Wave which dominated everything that was then happening on the UK music scene.
Though a great deal of time and energy went into trying to secure a USA recording deal, after writing for three years and having the band together for over two, Paul had almost given up hope when fate took a hand and a deal was struck through a somewhat circumventive route.
"It was a really strange connection because Jeff Baxter happened to be here on tour playing guitar with the Doobie Brothers and heard the tape of our band at a record company in Manchester. It had been sent there by a friend of a friend and I didn't even know. So it was a really big coincidence." Baxter got in touch and said he wanted to produce the band and, with the added momentum of having the guitarist's name attached to the project, a deal was struck with CBS Records in the USA and two albums were released there.
By the end of 1979 the Bliss Band had called it a day. Paul was hiring out his services as a keyboards player with Essex and others, but a lack of inspiration meant he was no longer writing and considered the albums dead and gone. "It had it's shot and that was it. Then in 1980, Michael McDonald and Patrick Henderson produced a girl called Amy Holland who was unheard of at the time and they recorded the song 'How Will I Survive' from the second Bliss Band album and that was the first time I'd had a song of mine covered by another artist."
"I heard it and thought it sounded quite good. I played it to a few people in England but nobody was particularly excited by it. Nevertheless, it still made it as a Top Twenty single in America which made me think: Hang on! I didn't even try to write the song specifically for anyone. Shortly after that, Uriah Heep cut a song off the same album called 'That's The Way It Is' and Graham Bonnet recorded the same song. And all of a sudden there was all this interest in me as a songwriter."
Though the Bliss Band material was published by CBS's April Music, Paul's contract with them terminated when CBS (USA) Records failed to take up the option to renew the recording contract. Then session guitarist Phil 'Willie' Palmer - also in the Bliss Band - was playing on Sheena Easton's first album and therefore learned that record producer Chris Neil was looking for material for the project. Phil and Paul quickly dashed off a couple of songs together and one of them, called 'Take My Time', became the album's title song. Paul went to April Music with the song and reached a new agreement with them. "Then," he explained, "all sorts of things started happening. The Nolans recorded some songs, Barbara Dickson recorded a song which I also produced, and Roger Daltrey recorded some songs."
Paul was still playing keyboards for David Essex, the Hollies and others while at the same time seriously considering the possibilities of songwriting and the avenues open to him.
April Music then introduced him to American Steve Kipner who had just had a colossal commercial success in that he wrote 'Physical' for Olivia Newton-John, a woman who has brought a smile to the face of more than one or two songwriters' bank manager. 'Physical' had just been one of the longest Number One records in the USA, staying at the top of the charts for ten weeks. Paul needed little persuasion to spend some time co-writing with Kipner. "Later that year I went out to America to do some writing with Steve and that's when we wrote 'Heart Attack' which was a Number Two hit in America for Olivia Newton-John. It was also on her Greatest Hits album which sold really well. And that really - along with the smaller hits that I'd had - got me accepted as a songwriter and people actually started saying to April Music: Have you got any Paul Bliss songs?"
Paul made a conscious decision to put together his own professional quality 24-track studio in direct response to the royalties he started to receive from 'Heart Attack' during 1982. He considered various financial options before coming to a logical decision.
"I decided to invest in myself and thought the best way of doing that was to invest in a studio. As a writer or writer/producer your chances of having a longer life in the industry are much greater than as an artist. So, looking at the long term I thought: OK! How can I best develop my talents?" Paul decided to "invest in technology". "I'm not saying that the equipment makes you write songs. But what it can do is give you the inspiration to do something that if you're just sitting there with an acoustic guitar, you may not be able to bring out. I know I can't just sit there at a piano or holding an acoustic guitar and write songs, I need to hear something to inspire me."
Paul originally worked with a Teac 4-track recorder for a year or so before graduating to a Fostex 8-track machine. "Then it seemed silly for me to then go to 16-track when the actual difference between that and the 24-track package I eventually bought was minimal." As the console was fundamentally the same, the cost differential was between £4,000 and £5,000. Paul settled for the Soundcraft 'Producer Package', based on the Soundcraft Series 1600 mixing console and the Series 760 24-track tape recorder.
"As a writer/producer your chances of having a longer life in the industry are much greater than as an artist."
Paul used the Fostex 8-track recorder with a Soundcraft Series One console, an Oberheim DMX drum machine, DSX sequencer and an OBXa synthesizer which was later superceded by an OB-8 synth. "It all worked very well for about three years but the technology moved so quickly that in the space of two years it became a bit of a dinosaur." Paul used his Fostex 8-track/Oberheim system for virtually all of the music he wrote and recorded for the children's animated TV series 'Starfleet'.
"All the incidental music for 'Starfleet' was done on my 8-track system. I cut the front and end titles at Riverside Studios. All I had was the OBXa synth, the DMX drum machine, and I think I used a vocoder as well. I'm still very proud of what I did and I think it sounds pretty good."
During 1984 Paul had bought a BBC-B computer and colour monitor. Just when he, myself and many others had more or less given up hope of seeing any software/hardware with any serious musical applications for the BBC-B, like a beacon in a storm, along came the UMI-2B package (see review in this issue).
As Paul already owned the computer and monitor he had only to invest in the UMI-2B package itself, optional disk drive and disk file system (a lot more reliable, faster and easier to use than cassette storage) and the Aries memory extension board. He is pleased he opted for the larger memory version of the UMI as he's had occasion to use close to half of the operating memory capacity, which would otherwise have taken him to the limit of the more basic package. Also, the Aries board version has a spare socket allowing new ROM upgrades to be added.
It is no exaggeration to say that Paul Bliss is ecstatic about the UMI package, the cost-effectiveness and user friendliness of which is unchallengeable. He'd like to do another TV or movie soundtrack, feeling that he is now far better equipped to work on such a project.
Paul finds that one of the beauties of the UMI is that he can use it to expand his system to a very useful 38-track recording set-up!
Paul explained the basics of how he uses the equipment to aid his songwriting.
"The way I usually work is to first set up some kind of rhythm - whether it is the rhythm that I'll eventually use or not - and then start playing around with chords, riffs or whatever and seeing what springs to mind. I record everything onto UMI - the drum parts and the rhythm keyboard parts, and gradually arrange the song before I commit anything to tape.
That is usually about four or five different parts: bass line, drum machine, keyboards or whatever. Once I'm reasonably satisfied with the shape of the song, I put that down on to tape, using the UMI sync-tone first, then I do a mix of all those parts in stereo on two tracks of the 24-track machine."
At this stage Paul has a guide-mix of a basic rhythm track which provides a structure on which to work and develop the idea for the song. He starts working on tape at this point as he needs to record the vocals to develop the song structure further. At about this time he also adds any guitar parts or any other non-MIDI instruments. A major reason for this method of working to the guide-mix on tape is that it is not possible to drop in at any point in a song if the sync-pulse recorded on tape is driving the UMI. You have to go to the beginning of the sequence. But with the sequence for the five or so UMI rhythm tracks also saved to disk from the UMI, they can be adjusted and altered at a later point and subsequently re-recorded to the UMI sync-track already on tape.
So having reached the point at which he's recorded the guide rhythm track, vocals, and guitars etc, Paul goes back and listens to the rhythm track. "If I like it - fine! I just reset the mixer's input channels and whatever and then when I come to mix, cut all the synthesizers and drum machines live to the quarter-inch master. So then I can re-EQ, re-balance, change the synthesizer voices, even change the parts if I want to. You can change the complete song once you've got the overdubs done and it expands the 24-track system to a 40-track system." In fact, since Paul acquired the UMI, none of his final mix drum machine or synthesizer parts are recorded on the 24-track tape, hence avoiding a tape generation quality loss and reducing track separation problems by recording them direct to quarter-inch master tape.
Working the way he does as a songwriter, Paul finds the system excels in that at virtually every stage of the development of a song, all the synthesizer and drum machine parts can be updated easily. "If you find that you don't like a certain snare sound or whatever, you can change it on the UMI without having to worry about levels and all the associated problems of recording to tape."
"I tend to write songs that are fairly well structured with intro, chorus, verse etc, purely because that is a commercial format that works reasonably well. So pretty much, I can get the whole arrangement of a song on the UMI. You could quite easily cut a demo direct to master if you could sing a complete vocal live while using the UMI system. If you could just give the vocal performance there wouldn't be a problem. With me there would be because I'm not the world's greatest singer. But for someone who can sing and give a good performance in one take, it would work beautifully and the sound quality would be superb because your vocal and UMI-sequenced instruments are just going direct to the master tape."
Paul uses virtually all of the UMI facilities. "The only one I don't use is the Fine Adjustment which lets you modify the speed at which a sequence plays back. If a synth part, for instance, has a delayed attack so that consequently it sounds as if it is behind the beat, you can pull it up and bring it forward in time to sound exactly on the beat. But that's something I haven't used myself, as I don't find that a particular problem."
I mentioned to Paul that when I experimented with a UMI system I found that in real-time, the auto correction key - which corrects the player's errors in timing to the nearest correct measure - was one that I used quite a lot. "I use that," he said with a laugh, "all the time. That's another strong feature. With the Oberheim sequencer I used to have, I could either play in real-time or real-time auto-corrected and once you've decided on one of those options, you can't change back to the other. With the UMI system, if you play in realtime, you can leave it like that or auto-correct. Then if you do decide it sounds too mechanical, you can retrieve what you played originally. You also have the option to use step-time sequencing which is really handy as well."
Paul hasn't found any limitation with the length of the section that can be sequenced at any one time. This is set by the user and can be up to 64 measures long though Paul can't recall using more than 32 measures and says he has not had any problems due to a song sounding fragmented. "I tend to write songs in sections anyway. For example, a verse will be 16 bars long and I'll probably sequence that in two parts, purely because the second part may change through the song but the first part will probably remain the same."
Though many UMI owners take advantage of the option of using a drum machine - commonly a LinnDrum - to drive the system, Paul prefers to use the UMI's own internal clock, as he explained: "I find that the sync-to-tape feature on UMI is very good and what I do is record all the drum parts via MIDI, not actually on the drum machine itself. Since the Yamaha RX11 I use has MIDI In and MIDI Out, I either record the drum part directly from the drum machine or via a DX7 - which gives you a velocity control - and record them as sequences on the UMI, not sequencing the drum machine itself. Therefore, the whole song comes up in sequences on the UMI, whereas most people tend to use the sync-tone from the UMI to drive their drum machine or even use the drum machine to drive the UMI, which is what I used to do with my Oberheim DMX."
"I don't think there are too many people using the system like that because there are certain problems which I've managed to overcome. But it really does give you the sequencing power of something like a Synclavier ora Fairlight. And to have the whole song on a floppy disk and not to have some of it stored on cassette for a drum pattern or whatever, is just superb."
Interview by Ralph Denyer
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