Monday, August 02, 2004

Synclavier: Artists and Albums

My Favorite Synclavier albums would be Laurie Anderson's MISTER HEARTBREAK and Frank Zappa's JAZZ FROM HELL which as far as I remember both featured Synclavier arrangements created before the advent of sampling technology.

MISTER HEARTBREAK was interesting for that very reason: The mixes include ambient sounds –like birds and other nature sounds, for instance– layered into the music tracks. Those sounds aren't samples - they're synthesized sounds. Which is to say, that essentially, the Synclavier was so powerful that one could synthesize sounds to the degree they sounded sampled, if one had such an ear.

I like to think of the ability to synthesize sounds to such a specific degree as a talent akin to perfect pitch: that is, the ability to reproduce what you hear. I call this talent and indicator of Aural Intelligence.

Some songs that particularly feature the Synclavier include Soft Cell's TAINTED LOVE - as was, I can safely say, probably most of anything produced by Mike Thorne throughout the eighties & nineties.

I was an acquaintance of Mike and went down to his studio in lower Manhattan on occasion. One of his ‘tricks’ was to feed a Serge Modular rack into the sampling input of the Synclavier. In those days I was all about working 'within the box' at the time, so I thought sampling the Serge was a pretty neat idea.

Martin Rushent was another producer I had the chance to meet (at the Synclavier II Seminar I mentioned in another post on this blog), and he was a HUGE Synclavier fan. I think he may have been the first producer who hired a dedicated Synclavier operator to assist him in record production, such was the level of his investment in the technology. I suspect all the Human League Albums were arranged on a Synclavier as were the electro elements on Pete Shelley's HOMOSAPIEN.

Sometimes when you read the liner notes for some albums, it says everything but the Synclavier. Back in those days many producers tried to keep their Synclavier usage on the hush hush. But you can hear it all over the place! And by hear it, I don't just mean the sound of the instrument, that is the patches produced by its synthesis engine, I also mean the warmth of the samples and timing of its sequencer, which pretty much locked everything right on the beat and definitely did NOT swing. There are some indie cats out there that mock the quarter million price tags of those beasts, and you can hate on the old dinosaur all you want, but the eighties wouldn't sound they way they do without the Synclavier.

Michael Jackson's THRILLER is chock full of Synclavier sounds - the opening gong that makes up the intro of BEAT IT is not only a classic sound created on the Synclavier, but in fact it was a PRESET on the original unit!

Of course, Yes' UNION album is also chock full of Synclavier sounds. That album is notorious for the bad blood that evolved between the group's legendary keyboardist, Rick Wakeman, and my boss, record producer Jonathan Elias. In the end, as it was my understanding based on a glance at the old 2"s, Jonathan's writing partner, Alex Lasarenko, performed a good chunk of the final synth parts.

Stevie Wonder was another fan and if I remember correctly even appeared on the Cosby show with it!

I can't mention great Synclavier artists without mentioning Pat Methany. Regardless of the fact that omits any mention of Pat Methany’s use of the Synclavier (as of this writing), In 1985 or ’86 I had the opportunity to stand five feet away from Pat while he played the Synclavier via a Roland guitar controller - probably a Roland GR-303 but I can't remember the make. It was mind blowing, and earth shattering. I still remember how my coffee cup jumped out of my hands.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, although I must burst your bubble with the not so startling revelation that Sharkeys Day has Synclavier Samples all over it, the bird sounds, trumpets et al, were all from its 16 bit mono sampling option and not from the Synclavier synthesizer. Although the synth section could well have been used for audio processing.

Terry O'Gara said...

Hi Anon, Thanks for posting your correction to my post regarding Laurie Anderson’s MISTER HEARTBREAK album (album title amended).

As to the availability of sample technology, Sample-to-Disk was offered as an option on the Synclavier II as early as 1982, right when Laurie began making Mister Heartbreak, and as an owner myself since 1984, I should have remembered this.

But otherwise, it was not my intention to portray an album featuring an ensemble of live musicians as completely represented by sounds achieved by the Synclavier synthesis engine alone, but rather to point out that many of the sounds on that album that one might assume are samples of live performances of organic instruments or sources have in fact as their origin the performance of a sound created using the Synclavier synthesis engine.

Allow me to suggest that it may be the case that such sounds, including the simulated brass and bird patches, many of which bear a striking resemblance to the stock presets found in the 1982 FM Factory preset Diskette package, were then sampled and triggered for stylistic purposes, or combined with samples of organic sources.

And certainly, if you have any more firsthand knowledge to add to the making of Mister Heartbreak, by all means do post it here. Thanks –Terry