Creating The Future | Wally Badarou
Anyone can dream about the studio of the future, but it takes a unique talent to build it in the present. Wally Badarou's personal studio defies conventional ideas of studio design, substituting voice-controlled DMP11s for a large console, and putting the musician first. Paul Tingen listens in.
It's one of the oddities of human nature that visions of design in the future generally run along two quite different tracks. Take science fiction film sets, for example. They're either extremely stylised and abstract — smooth surfaces all around — or a turn-on for techno-freaks, with knobs, dials and meters everywhere. Similarly, visions of the studio of the 21st century tend to involve either even more flashy gear, flashing lights and computers, or a control room containing just a remote control for the central computer, with unseen monitor speakers hidden in the walls. According to one man, the latter vision is nearer to the truth, and amazingly, he's already created something quite like it in his home studio in the Bahamas. The man is Wally Badarou, producer and 'freelance member' of Level 42, composer and one of the world's outstanding keyboard players and Synclavier experts.
"My ideal," he says, "is to have just a master keyboard and a computer in the control room, and nothing else. Studios have always been designed around the engineer, and I feel it's time that studios are built which centre around the most important person in the whole studio game: the musician. I've tried to achieve that in my set-up."
A thorough dislike of large mixing desks plays a major part in Badarou's quest for the 'musician's studio', and total automation and total recall are amongst his top priorities. Badarou means business when he talks about 'total recall and automation': the ability to load all mixing and recording information from disk, making switching between songs a matter of minutes, without the need to lift a finger to manually adjust outboard gear, instruments and whatever desk substitute he envisions. On top of that, imagine being able to give vocal commands to your computer, so that it can adjust the mix whilst you're playing? ("3dB more level on the snare please, dear computer... shit, was I playing a Gm7 or what?") Sounds out of this world? Badarou has created such a studio in the present, and this is the how and why...
"I have been more and more frustrated with the present applications of MIDI technology. When MIDI was invented it was great and held a lot of promise. But I feel that somewhere down the line manufacturers have been putting MIDI down. One would have expected that by now everything in the studio is completely MIDI controllable. Every pushbutton should have dedicated MIDI software for it. But the reality is that many switches and devices are not, or are only in a limited way, MIDI controllable."
For that reason Badarou asserts that today's studios are in fact 'old-fashioned', making only limited use of the technology available. He is particularly critical of the current generation of large mixing desks: "They take up too much room. They dominate the centre of the control room, whereas I think that in a modern control room the performer should be in the centre. On top of that, SSLs and Neves are in my opinion overpriced for what they're doing. They talk about 'total recall' but they hardly deliver. I mean, in a regular studio today when you want to switch recording or mixing from one song to another, you're talking about quite an elaborate job. You have to swap the tape on the tape machine, re-set the patchbay, and spend 30-45 minutes matching the buttons on your SSL, and then you haven't even matched the outboard gear yet. It's a headache. Whereas the MIDI technology is available today where you can load everything to disk and merely swap a disk when you're switching work on songs."
This is what Badarou has achieved in his own set-up. He claims that it takes him "maximum 3 minutes" to change over from one song to another. Badarou's solution to the problems encountered in conventional studios involves a combination of 12 (twelve!) DMP11s (the rackmounted version of Yamaha's digital 8-channel DMP7 mixer) as a substitute for a mixing desk, complemented by two Macintoshes with sophisticated control software. Badarou talks about his battery of DMP11s first: "For me they were the way to go. Not because they're the best sounding devices in the world, but because they're digital, so I can chain as many of them together [as I like] without any loss of quality. They also give me modular possibilities, which I find very important — I can add on whenever and whatever I want. They take up a lot less space than a large mixing desk. In my place they're all in a back room, I don't even see them. So my master keyboard has centre stage in my control room. And lastly they're completely MIDI, so I can control all their functions from a MIDI controller, whether it's a keyboard, a sequencer or a computer."
What Badarou has done is line up his DMP11s in three series of four each, with one or two instruments going into the first DMP11, a stereo mix of these inputs connected to the next DMP11, which then has six channels remaining to take more instruments, and so on. In the end he's left with three sets of stereo outs which, for the time being, are mixed via a patchbay directly into a Sony 2500 DAT machine. A trusty old AHB Syncon D desk is still there as stand-by, because, says Badarou, "this system is still very new and I want to be covered in case of breakdowns."
In between the last three DMP11s and the patchbay are another three Sony 2500 DAT machines, used purely as D-to-A convertors: "The DMP11 analogue outputs aren't clean enough... It may sound outrageous, but I was forced to get three Sony 2500 DAT machines just for their D-to-A convertors." Slightly outrageous indeed. There won't be many people who can lay out a grand for a simple stereo D-to-A convertor. Yet Badarou asserts that one of his main concerns is that his 'musician's studio' will be affordable for most musicians and that prices of a lot of gear can and should come down.
The nerve centre of the Frenchman's setup is two Mac SE30 computers. On one he runs Performer, which drives his instruments and controls the DMP11s. The other Mac is used for a variety of other applications: Opcode editor/librarians; Digidesign direct-to-disk recording; Voice Navigator, which allows him to control his studio by talking to his computers; HyperCard. The 'nerves' of the system are formed by the MIDI Time Piece, a 32-in 32-out MIDI patchbay which also functions as a synchroniser. "My whole system wouldn't work if it weren't for this sophisticated MIDI network, which connects everything. It assigns and merges channels, and gives you 128 MIDI channels."
"Studios have always been designed around the engineer, and I feel it's time that studios are built which centre around the most important person in the whole studio game: the musician."
Badarou describes some of the vital software and hardware in more detail. First of all, HyperCard. "What I've done is to create a stack of 'cards' for the DMP11s, which gives me a real total recall starting situation with the DMP11s, outboard gear and my keyboards. I have as many 'cards' as DMP11s, and I can flick through them on my Mac, comparing, updating or merging data, like the names of the synths and the sounds and patches and the levels of the different channels or auxiliary outs. So I can save any set-up as a file on a floppy or hard disk, and when I want to come back to a certain song, all I have to do is load the disk and all the initial data are set, including keyboard sounds. HyperCard gives me a static initial view of what's happening. Once I start working on the song, Performer takes over and adjusts the levels of the mix and the sounds."
On Digidesign Sound Tools: "I actually have an MCI 24-track tape machine in my studio, though I record very few analogue live sounds. Yet I had been looking at a direct-to-disk recording system for some time. I didn't want to invest in the Synclavier system because I was expecting something much cheaper to come out for the Mac. I was proven right. Digidesign is really good, it sounds great, and it's affordable. At the moment I have the 2-track version, which is enough for my purposes. I have a 600 megabyte hard disk on my Mac, which gives me a full hour of stereo sound. I use it for audio recording, or I mix on to it to use the digital editing facilities."
And lastly, the one you've all been waiting for, the computer chat program, Voice Navigator; something which seems to have been lifted straight out of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Badarou assumes the role of Ford Prefect for a moment.
"Voice Navigator is hardware and software for the Mac which allows you to conduct with your voice anything that you could type with the keyboard or click and drag with the mouse. It only works with one person. You have to train it so that it will recognise and understand the words which you are going to use, so I've assigned certain words for certain specific tasks, like pulling down a menu, selecting from a menu, ejecting disks, and all the commands for its main application, which is controlling the mix data on the DMP11s. Of course there are limitations. There's only a limited number of words that you can [train it to understand], and the program is very slow recognising words it doesn't know. So word processing is asking too much of it. And the more words you train it to understand, the more risk there is that it might confuse them and misunderstand."
This starts sounding a bit like an excerpt from a dog training class manual... and of course, it wouldn't surprise anyone if the role of 'man's best friend' was soon taken over by the inanimate computer, which unlike a dog doesn't need loads of canned food, and even talks back... "To make sure that the computer has properly understood me, I end my command with 'confirm' and the computer will repeat the command, and only execute it when I say 'OK'."
So who is the man who is single-handedly creating the studio of the future? Contrary to what some of the above may suggest, Wally Badarou is not from another planet. He does, however, have roots in two different cultures, African and French. He was born in Paris, but spent his childhood in his parents' native Benin, West Africa, which was once a French colony. Back in France he began studying law, but quickly became distracted, taking up music as a keyboard player and solo artist. His first international break came when he played a Korg 800DV synth on Robin Scott's legendary 'Pop Musik' in 1979. Soon after he was invited by Chris Blackwell of Island Records to come to Island's Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas and play keyboards on a new Grace Jones album. These sessions resulted in another classic record, 'Warm Leatherette', and Badarou's fame as an eminent and innovative keyboard player with a unique featherlight touch and great feel began to spread.
Artists like Robert Palmer, Talking Heads and Mick Jagger have since made use of his talents, but he's never really been seen as a simple session player. His role has always been more as somebody who gets hired for his special talents, and is given plenty of creative freedom. Badarou's greatest claim to fame is his longstanding collaboration with Level 42. He initially started out as a freelance keyboard player with the band, but gradually his role changed to co-songwriter and co-producer, a situation that has lasted since World Machine.
"Badarou asserts that today's studios are in fact 'old-fashioned', making only limited use of the technology available."
It's interesting to note that many of Level 42's best songs were co-written by Badarou with Mark King. 'Lessons in Love' and 'Running In The Family' (from the album Running In The Family), for example, suggest a pivotal role for Badarou in the Level 42 machinery. The French keyboard player has also demonstrated his writing talents on film scores for Kiss Of The Spider Woman and Country Man. Again, it was Chris Blackwell who first saw the full potential of Badarou's writing talents, and gave him the opportunity to exhibit them on his 1984 solo album Echoes. Echoes features several upbeat Afro-Caribbean rhythms and tunes, some more introspective pieces, and two amazing hybrids of symphonic and rhythmic influences ('Voices' and 'Jungle') Although still relatively unknown and generally underrated, the album is a must for every self-respecting keyboard player as a demonstration of the potential of the analogue synth. Listen, for example, to his impersonation of African slide guitars with a Prophet 5 on the track 'Hi-Life', or the many synthesised percussion sounds.
Last year Badarou's career took another extraordinary turn when he was invited to supervise, arrange and partly write the music for the big parade in Paris for the 200th anniversary celebration of the French Revolution, an event which featured 15,000 musicians from around the world. It took him most of last year and was quite a challenge for a musician who hardly ever plays live. Laughing: "It was the best live experience I have ever had, and there's nothing like it and there will never be anything like it again."
Early in 1989 Badarou released another solo record, Words Of A Mountain, which, surprisingly, featured highly classically orientated music, all performed on samplers and synthesizers, although there are still some African grooves to be found. But most of the album is introspective, stark, almost meditative, yet managing to avoid the pitfalls of most New Age music. One way in which Badarou achieved this is through using lots of dissonant harmonies; another is through the many exquisite, shimmering, breath-like sounds. It comes a bit as a surprise to learn that many of them were created on the Yamaha TX816, not usually seen as the ideal medium for 'breathy' sounds. Badarou comes back from the future for a moment to remember a primitive past when he wasn't yet working with his DMP11 set-up.
"Words Of A Mountain was largely created on two TX816 racks, with help from a Roland MKS piano module, the Oberheim OB8, the Korg VP1 Vocoder and some Synclavier." The reason why the Synclavier, normally his main workhorse, stayed rather out of the picture was that he "was running both Performer and the Synclavier sequencer at the same time, but I couldn't trigger many channels from Performer, which is by far the superior sequencer, in the Synclavier. So... I used the Synclavier only for sounds I couldn't duplicate on the other synths, like a lot of the sampled percussion sounds. "
Today Badarou still uses the Synclavier as his master keyboard, "just because it has a very nice touch and feel." It's also used as his main sampling device ("superior quality") together with an S1000. Recent additions to his keyboard arsenal are the Proteus 1 and 2, a Kurzweil AX+, a D110 and a Korg M3R rack unit. Interestingly, he doesn't use the Prophet 5 anymore, simply because it isn't fully MIDId - he can't load its sounds from the Mac.
Badarou has no hesitation in using a device less, or even dumping it, if the technology can't integrate fully with his current setup. Yet at the same time he's not a cold, technology orientated player. On the contrary, Wally Badarou is one of the world's few synthesizer players who has a instantly recognisable sound, seemingly regardless of what machine he plays on. He also has a rare talent for creating a warm, organic sound on his all-synthesizer albums.
"A lot of synth dominated albums don't sound very alive, that's true. Because of the synthesizer's inherent easiness and directness people believe that all you have to do is push a button where you have your cello sound, play it and that's it. But there's more to a synth than that. It takes a lot of work to make synths sound as organic as live instruments. A synth is a cold machine at first and it needs to be adapted to your way of playing and what you want to express."
"I want to prove that music is not where you come from, it's where you live. I'm African and people expect me to play African music. But I've been living in Europe, I've been living in America. I've been surrounded by many different influences and they all show in my work."
When pressed to be more precise about how to achieve an organic approach to synth playing, Badarou doesn't quite know how to answer. "I wish I could give you a clue, but I don't really know. I think it has a lot to do with how I write the parts, and secondly the kind of sounds I use and how I build all that up and record it."
Another reason for Badarou's distinctive sound may lie in his multicultural background, and consequent open-mindedness. "I'd like to play to people who like both Ravel and James Brown", he once told me on a previous occasion, explaining that it's a very Western habit to compartmentalise music. "I want to prove that music is not where you come from, it's where you live. I'm African and people expect me to play African music. But I've been living in Europe, I've been living in America. I've been surrounded by many different influences and they all show in my work."
If an organic approach to playing is hard to describe, Badarou is much happier when describing how sequencing and mixing can contribute. As far as sequencing goes, his initial experience with the Synclavier was crucial.
"The Synclavier was one of the first to look upon sequencers as a tape machine, rather than a modified drum machine. In fact when the Synclavier first came out, its sequencing side didn't feature a quantise function. Although there was a click-track, everything was played back exactly the way you'd played it. It was great — I used to do demos using the sequencer, store them on diskette and when I would come back to them two months later it was all still there, without tape hiss, but with all the human feeling, all the retardandos and also all the flaws of my playing. That concept of the sequencer as a tape recorder is still very important to me, also in using Performer. Although the quantise function is easily available, and is now very sophisticated, I hardly ever use it. In the rare cases that I do, I would never quantise 100%."
Badarou asserts that the right approach to mixing is essential. "It's something I learnt from Alex Sadkin, who used to be a good friend of mine [Sadkin was a top producer who died last year — PT], which is to start with mixing the very minute you put a note down. The beginning of recording is the beginning of mixing, and as you work on a track anything that you add should have its proper status straightaway. I don't mean that you can't change things again later on, but it's about giving things the best sound and the best surrounding from minute one, with the right type of reverb, panning and so on. It's important because a lot of the overall effect of a track comes from crossmodulation between parts. Some parts might sound strange or bad on their own, but fantastic in the total mix, so you don't get a good picture if you're not mixing things properly whilst you're putting them down."
This is one of the reasons why Badarou has opted for his elaborate DMP11 set-up — it allows him to continually mix his tracks faster and more efficiently. Is there any modern desk that could do the same?
"Well, I'm not quite sure whether it's as completely MIDI controllable as I would like it, but the French Abac Rustin is the only desk that comes close. It's modular, which is one of my requirements, consisting of 16-channel modules which can be linked to a total of 96. It's digital, and the closest to what I expect from genuine total recall capabilities. It looks a bit like a Synclavier, without the keyboard — it's a big vertical tower, which you command from a remote control."
The Abac Rustin uses assignable soft-keys, like Trident's Di-An, and Badarou admits that this would be less than ideal if you were recording a large band or symphony orchestra, and would have to jump very rapidly from channel to channel, and the same is true of his own set-up. The Abac Rustin is of course far too expensive for the home recording market. "I would like to see a fully MIDI controllable mixing system developed, which is modular and affordable for the average musician."
But perhaps Badarou's system will be adopted by other professionals. Perhaps the large mixing console of the future will also be completely voice controllable, even to the degree that the conductor can give it directions from his place in front of the orchestra: "a bit more cello please, and a bit more clarity on the woodwinds..." Could be something out of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Or Monty Python for that matter. But seriously...
Still looking to the future, but in a more tangible sense, Badarou reveals that his current plans include leaving his Compass Point base and moving his studio to Normandy in France. He's also set to produce a Herbie Hancock album next year, and is already thinking about another solo album. However, he's most enthusiastic about a collaboration he's trying to organise between South African singer Miriam Makeba and opera singer Jessie Norman. "I worked with Jessie on the bi-centennial parade in Paris and it would be great to hear her sing with Miriam. I'm dying to put that together, but whether it's going to be an album or a single I don't know yet." The future will tell, as it always does. Later.
Interview by Paul Tingen
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