“Let's Get Technical - Part 2" - Nick Magnus talks to Frank Rogers about all things keyboard. Interview conducted on 18th June 2016. Transcription by Alan Hewitt. Photographs by Frank Rogers, Alan Hewitt and Jo Hackett.
Continuing our fascinating conversation with Mr Magnus, we now turn to the technical aspects of his own work… over to you, chaps…
TWR: Well, we are coming to the end of the Steve Hackett time and I believe you did some other work…
NM: Well, the Steve Hackett time didn’t end until 1989 so that included all the Feedback ‘86 stuff and everything that led up to that. It was very piecemeal that because it happened in lots of different studios for lots of short periods of time so it is difficult to remember specific things about that. Apart from memories of some of the studios we went to. I remember going to Eel Pie Studios when we recorded Bonnie Tyler doing Prize Fighters, or as I always called it, Fried Spiders (laughs) …
TWR: Moving swiftly on… having exited your time with Steve, and I hear that you did some work with a band who I have a particular interest in, China Crisis …
|NM: Yes, I basically did… well you always tend to move around in circles and so a lot of the session work you get because I from about 1983-4 I started doing recording sessions outside which initially got started off by Ian Mosley because he used to do lots of recording sessions as well. I asked him one day how did he get on to sessions and basically he put me forward and suggested me to somebody and that’s how it worked, recommendations unless you have got an agent, which I didn’t have. So he recommended me and I started getting more and more work and I got in with a bunch of musicians who were generally centred around the Hastings area, and so I did various work with them and the connection with them came about through Terry, Terry Pack who played bass with The Enid. Terry was and still is a very good friend and he put me in touch with all this Hastings crowd and we used to go down there and do stuff with some of them… That led to being asked if I was interested in doing a session that was coming up at Battle Studios at some point and that was China Crisis with Walter Becker and was I interested in doing the keyboards?|
I was a bit petrified because Steely Dan and Walter don’t come without … a reputation and whatever you may have heard about Walter all I can say is that he was the sweetest, nicest, kindest and encouraging producer I have ever worked with. There have been some nice people and there have been some total bastards but Walter was just probably one of the best. I was terrified of course and the job took along time an I spent long periods in residence down there although it wasn’t at the actual studio because there wasn’t enough room to put everybody up. The band were staying at the studio but me and a couple of the other session players were staying at this big country house nearby and it went on for three or four weeks continuously. It was one of the happiest times I have had outside of my own work.
Quite often when you go out and do sessions people can be quite horribly rude and demanding and unappreciative and especially stupid sometimes. This was just like a family unit again, the guys in the band were absolutely lovely. They were really sweet and I loved the songs and they were really grown up pop music using good melodies and nice chord sequences which don’t always go where you think they are going to (laughs) and this is proper grown up music. I did pretty much all of the keyboards on that album and Walter did a couple of bits of piano. The keyboards were very limited, I had a DX7 and an MKS30 Planet S Module which is the JX3P in a module. I don’t think I took the Jupiter 8 but I know why… MIDI was… well it wasn’t exactly new as it had been around for three years but at the time we were doing Highly Strung with the Jupiter 8 there was no MIDI and so none of the keyboards would talk to each other. But by the time we did Till We Have Faces, MIDI did exist and so when we came back and did all the subsequent overdubs at Marcus Studio I was obsessed with trying to get the most out of what MIDI offered, and the Jupiter 8 didn’t have MIDI and the only digital interface that existed with that was a piece of kit called a DCB8 or something, and it was very complicated and didn’t offer very much. MIDI communicated not just the note data but the DCB8 only did that and MIDI offered more and more and so you could modulate the knobs and it would transmit the data from one instrument to another. So, I was keen to get the most out of that and do most of the Till We Have Faces overdubs … the original tracks were done with the Jupiter 8, the overdubs were done with the Jupiter 6 which we borrowed and the DX7 which I had just got and the MIDI’s together and the MS30 which I already had and so they were all MIDI’s together. So similarly for the China Crisis album I had the same set up which was MIDI concerned, I didn’t have the Jupiter I had those two things, the DX7 and the MKS30 really and my Yahama KX5, shoulder slung …
TWR: How did you learn MIDI and implement it into what you were doing…?
NM: Well, there wasn’t much to MIDI at the start, its implementation has just grown over the years and so there wasn’t a lot to learn you just plugged on end into another and play notes on one and they appear on the other and that was the basic thing. It goes a lot further than that now but at the time there wasn’t that much to learn about it. It was more to do with the sound layering possibilities and the FM synthesis sound with am analogue synthesis sound.
TWR: How did you find programming the DX7 and I hear horrible stories about that…
NM: Well, I got mine early on because I actually got mine a little bit before they appeared in the shops here an the reason for that was that I went to Japan in 1983 to take part in the Yamaha World Popular Song Festival which is the Japanese equivalent of Eurovision. Exactly the same excessive over the top kind of show where the winner is fixed right from the very beginning (laughs). It is a show based on hierarchy and pre-determined winners and basically I was backing a singer called Louis Tataglia and while we were over there I spent a lot on musical instruments because I went down to Shinjuku which is the equivalent of our Tottenham Court Road and went into all the music stores and saw all these new bits of kit that were … that they get before we do and not only that but at Japan prices which were, at the time a tiny fraction, so for example, when the DX7 came out over here it was something in the order of £1300 in Japan it was about £500 and so because we were taking part in the show and because it was a Yamaha contest sponsored by Yamaha we got Yamaha to provide both me with a DX7 to get familiar with it before we went to Japan and play live. It wasn’t miming, we had a full orchestra backing us but we actually had to play our bits live and so they wanted us to do it on the DX7 which was this new thing and so I got mine ahead of its release over here and as soon as I got it I shut myself away for a couple of e weeks and did nothing but play this thing and figure out how the hell does this work? It takes a little to get your heard around it ad the result s unlike on analogue synths where the result are in many ways predictable, you know basically what’s going to happen if you turn a knob, it is either going to open or close a filter or change an envelope speed, or turn off the resonance or change the tuning but with the DX7 it is all mathematics, you modulate that sine wave with that pitch and do it with that sine wave at that modulation and pitch and put the sum of those through into another sine wave to modulate that one at that volume and pitch and then have an envelope on these and you can’t predict what’s going to happen. After a while you learn there a couple of basic tricks where you just know that if you combine oscillator A with oscillator B at that volume and that pitch, you will get a square wave, but do it differently and you will get a sawtooth wave, and you can work from various starting points and at the time there were a couple of useful tutorials that explained this stuff so if you want to make a string sound, you start with saw tooth waves and this is how you do it. And you could use that as your basic kick off point. Ad when the DX7 became popular people wanted you to go in and programme them for them and so I got quite a few gigs as a DX7 programmer and people had no idea what the thing could do and they were invariably asking for sounds that had an everyday point of reference ..a string sound, a piano sound, a brass sound whatever and you were using your knowledge of how you would do it on that and you could make something that they could relate to and the fact that it didn’t sound particularly brilliant didn’t matter because it came from a DX7!
Then I started to get better at it and I was able to make the more complex sorts of sounds you associate with FX sounds and I have forgotten how to do most of it now but I have the FM7 and EFM8 plug-ins and I hardly ever use them and if I do I just pick one of the pre-sets (laughs) and I always used to berate people for using pre-sets and in fact in the session days in he mid ’80’s when there were all these synths going round like the Prophet, the Jupiter 8, the Memory Moog and the Oberheim OB8 and all this kind of stuff, all the session keyboard players prided themselves on their own personally designed sounds and jealously guarded them and wouldn’t let anything go and if anybody asked how did you get that sound? That’s for me to know and you to find out… (laughs) work it out yourself I am not telling you! (laughs) Because it was your personal arsenal of sounds that defined you and what you could do with them and you were not going to give that away because that was like giving your work away!
It was interesting that the people who serviced these machines just didn’t realise that because I remember the guy that used to run Syco Systems and sold and distributed all this really high end music gear, and they used to laugh at the fact that people would bring in their Prophet 5 back in to be serviced and they were saying I don’t know why we bother with synths like this that can do so much because every one that comes back in still has the factory pre-sets in it still. The point that they missed was, yes it has because they had been reloaded back in and people save off their own sounds because if you didn’t the next thing you knew was all of your sounds were being sold in libraries! And so people were well aware that they would get stitched up because the sounds were actually being stolen and sold on and you didn’t get anything for it. So people were very careful to load the factory pre-sets back in. So the assumption was made that nobody ever programmed their synths.
TWR: Jumping forward a few years to your own stuff, we are at home in your studio, so maybe you would like to tell us a bit about what you use now…?
NM: As you can see… (Nick indicates the confines of the room that constitutes his studio and the gear that it contains) space is not at a premium… I just love new ways of doing things and I like to have as much of an armoury of instruments available as possible and the form that they take isn’t important to me all they need to do is be good and sound great and be fun to play and easy to operate. Fortunately these days most things are good and nice and fun but I would love to have kept all my old analogue gear but if you remember what the studio looked like when you first came (back in 2004 - AH) there were A frames here and there and a huge mixing desk there and you couldn’t swing a cat in here and one day the A frame over there and all the modules on it did actually fall on top of me and I was thinking what do I do save myself or save the gear, I don’t know! (laughs) it was a frightening moment and luckily I managed to do both but…
|Fortunately with the advent of “Virtual Instruments” I can get all that stuff and so much more in a zero footprint, no mass, no footprint but lots of fun and loads of music. That is the important thing because at the end of the day getting the music is what you are after doing. Yes, there is a huge amount of pleasure from owning and playing with the physical hardware but on a practical level I just couldn’t have any more. Also it needs maintaining and things do go wrong. The only hardware I have kept is these (indicates a bank of keyboards). The one piece of hardware that gets used more than anything r else is this one which is oddly enough, the least sophisticated of these three and this is the JV1080, the JV2080 which is a later model of that and it improves various functions and has more effects and better sound quality and has a bigger edit window and then the XV5080 which is a 2080 with added sampling but strangely enough the one I use all the time is this one (the JV1080) because it is just so easy and it sounds great even though it is the least sophisticated of the three and it still sounds brilliant and I is a doddle to set up and w twiddle sounds so if I had to keep only one of these three then it would be that one. But they all get used to some extent but there are some sounds that come out of them that don’t seem to exist anywhere else.|
What’s next? The P330 module is the piano SAS, the structured and adapted synth piano which started around the RD1000 from the early Eighties and this is the evolution of that series of instruments but the reason I keep this is purely for the electric piano which you can hear featured on the track Entropy and so that is this… I have really got enough Rhodes piano samples but they sound like Rhodes pianos, this sounds like that! It has its own quality and nothing else sounds like it.
The D550 I still use from time to time and it is a module version of the D50 and I don’t use the Wavestation at all anymore. The Supernova is a lovely keyboard that doesn’t get a lot of use but the one sound which I made up which I first used on the Hexameron album, I made a simulation of an E Bow which even Steve thinks is him! I have played him tracks with it on and he has said; “am I playing on this…?” and I have said “no, its me” and he has said “oh, its your bloody E Bow thing again isn’t it?” (laughs). So that is the favourite sound on there but it is a really lovely synth and it can do eight parts at once and it has a very liquid analogue sound to it even though it is a virtual analogue in there it is probably one of the nicest sounding of the virtual analogue keyboards that has ever been made.
TWR: What software do you use…?
NM: The majority of what goes on is all software based. And all driven from the Kurzweil I have even stopped using the piano sound on it and when I was doing the gigs with John (Hackett) back in 2010 and all of the sounds came from this (the Kurzweil keyboard) because we did a whole bunch of songs that were programmed up with …it is one of the few keyboards or instruments that you will find that has the RMI sounds in it which is one of the things I really love. It does that and it has Mellotrons and pianos and clavinets and Wurlitzers and everything and all the sounds I like to use because as much as I have a stupidly huge sound palette available to me it is like the wardrobe syndrome, if your wardrobe is so big and so full of clothes you just open the door and go… “oh my god, I haven’t got a thing to wear!” (laughs) and you can’t make a choice. And having too many sounds is a bit like that. It is still very useful to have because you are sometimes looking d for something that is serendipitous… I won’t use the phrase off the wall because I hate it …Because I have heard it so many times in sessions… “oh just come up with something off the wall…” Hmmm how about your head\? (laughs) And what is off the wall for one person will be dull and boring to somebody else. So for the most part I like to try and base things around a well tried sound palette which includes all the old favourites, and I do object to the fact that if you use them people say “oh it sounds dated” … so you think… “hah, you using a guitar? That’s dated. Bill Haley used a guitar!” (laughs) . They are just physical instruments, if they work for you, use them!
|I love working with those solid foundations because you can really hang the more esoteric stuff off them and playing instruments that you are comfortable with. I cannot see the sodding point of finding weird sounds that nobody has heard of just for the sake of it. Why? They have to fulfil a function. If they don’t fulfil a function then sod them! I don’t understand this urge from people that things have to be “cutting edge” and yet at the same time there is this massive market for all things retro. Make up your minds, what is it to be?! I don’t want to come up with weird synth sounds that nobody’s heard of because for a start nobody cares anymore . Nobody is impressed by that stuff anymore. There used to be a time when people said… a bit like movies before CGI came along, how did they do that?! How did they do that it looks so real and he answer was a lot of hard work, model making and pyrotechnics and really interesting stuff like that and now I am sure where are going to see an Independence Day Resurgence where you are going to see every major landmark in the world ripped up. Nobody is going to sit there thinking how did they do that?! There is no magic in it.|
Inventing sounds for the sake of it Because nobody cares and nobody wants to know and people used to say that’s a great sound you have got there, how did you do it? But nobody asks that anymore and nobody ever says how did you get that sound? And yes, there are lots of bread and butter sounds on these things but there are also lots of very inventive things that I took along time to come up with and are kind of … and were designed to fit that particular thing and nobody ever asks what we did to Debbie’s voice on Madre (from the Hexameron album) for example, and we wanted it to sound other worldly and nobody asks wow that’s a really wonderful effect how did you do it? Well… I will tell you what we did… Well, Dick (Foster, Nicks partner and lyricist) discovered that if we got two cereal bowls that are made of what looks like black granite and if you nestle one inside the other and then rotate them, you get a sound not unlike Darth Vader’s tie fighter noise and so just by recording a stretch of that and looping it and then used that as the modulating signal in a vocoder. So here voice is being vocoded with rotating cereal bowls! And it makes it sound slightly alien. Nobody asks because they assume that it is all software and you just press the button and in fact nobody assumes that you actually put any work in on anything it is all just like… “oh , you just pressed the button, didn’t you?” .
I remember having this argument with one of John Hackett’s relatives at a garden party at John’s house when he used to live in Aylesbury and I can’t remember if it was one of his uncles and I remember we ended up having a huge row at the bottom of John’s garden because he was saying “well, you don’t do anything, you just press the button, don’t you? You don’t even write the stuff, do you?” the computer does it all for you, doesn’t it?
TWR: Speaking of creating sounds on your latest album, Nmonix, and in particular the Onde Martineau, how did you come to incorporate that into the album…
NM: Oh, where do I start? I have always been a fan of the Onde Martineau and one of the first instruments I was aware of when I was first getting interested in keyboard instruments in the 1960’s and I was aware of it because it was used on a couple of the early synth based albums that I bought which all sound horribly cheesy now but at the time I was utterly transfixed by it all. And Onde Martineau frequently appeared on these things and also it was being used on movie soundtracks since time immemorial and people always used to mistake it for a Theramin because they both have a similar tone. The difference between them is a Theramin is basically a box with a loop antenna on it and a large antenna and inside it… well the old ones would have been valve generated oscillators and it generated tones using a valve oscillator and basically it has no keyboard or anything, and the only controls you have are over pitch and volume. The volume is on the loop antenna and the pitch is the straight antenna.
|An Onde Martineau is an actual physical keyboard instrument which also has valve oscillators in it but it generates the code in a slightly different way with two valves generating different frequencies and then one modulates the other and it is the sum of those frequencies that you hear. The keyboard has a lateral spring on it so that you can do vibratos and it also has under the keyboard a continuous strip and a wire loop on pulleys and on one side of the wire is a ring that you put your finger through and you can either play the notes or you stick your finger through the ring and use the keys as a guide and there are little scallops along the underside so you can feel where the notes are and so to make broad sweeps you basically take your finger off and lift it away and pull the wire out and go along. I would love to get my hands on a real one. There is a tray at one end that contains all the technical stuff for it|
Fortunately that is why I got the 53 because it has a pitch ribbon although it doesn’t run the while length of the keyboard which would be nice, it is along pitch ribbon and on most keyboards you only get a tiny pitch ribbon and the breath controller so the combination of the breath controller and the pitch ribbon so what you have to do is hold a note on the keyboard, blow down the breath controller and then play the tunes on the pitch ribbon and if you need to get to a note that is outside the range of that you have to stop blowing, change that, change note there and then start again and mentally remember your tuning from there. You get your head around it after a while and on the virtual Onde Martineau I use you can get something that sounds incredibly like the real thing particularly as it is samples of the real thing anyway that you are using. That appears in two tracks: Memory, it plays the melody on Memory, and also at the beginning of Entropy, the John Barry-ish bit.
TWR: I believe you did a lot of work for Sound On Sound Magazine, and still do. And so when you get apiece of kit to review, what is it that you look for …?
NM: Well, in all cases, it depends on whether it is hardware or software, in all cases what you are looking for is useability and the fact that it does what it advertises itself as doing in other words if it claims to sound like a Hammond organ it better sound like a Hammond organ! So at least it can do what it claims to do. Useability is also an issue with both but it is more relevant to the hardware because that is more likely to be fiddled with and tweaked in a live situation. The software probably less like to and people these days run a whole virtual keyboard rig from a laptop, and Roger (King) has a lot of stuff running off software and if I was doing it live now I would too. Because you have so much stuff now that it makes my eleven keyboard rig with Steve look like peanuts. Useability if it is a hardware thing and build quality, reliability aesthetics, all of this applies more to the hardware. Aesthetics does apply to the software as well, but generally if it works well , is easy to use and you like hat it sounds like, then you tend to ignore the aesthetics bit. When it comes down to the build quality hat can be crucial because some of these things are appallingly made and there was one keyboard that was sent to me that was so terrible that I couldn’t … I just tore it to shreds. It had its pitch and modulation wheel on the side of the keyboard so you couldn’t see them! And another one made by the same company had them up here but the edges of the wheels scraped on the slots as you moved them and buttons that when you pressed them would sink into the panel… And if it was in danger of falling to bits in the studio it was never going to survive on the road! So things like that you tend to tear to pieces and another one from several years back… it was a synth, a sample based synth that a well known company brought out that was so backwards looking in its technology, it was still, for storage it was still using PCMCIA Cards and not only were they using those but they were also only compatible with a very narrow range of them so the criteria were so specific and the chances of finding them were impossible and as I detailed in the article, I was laughed out of every shop in Tottenham Court Road (laughs) they had never heard of them.
TWR: OK, the time has come are you up for a little challenge? In sixty seconds you have to name as many of the keyboards or equipment that you can remember that you have used…
NM: OK, does this include ones I have borrowed? Can I cheat and just say my library? (laughs). OK… Rhodes piano, Clavinet, Vox String Thing, Mini Korg 1700S, RMI 360, RMI 368X, Prophet, 5, Jupiter 8, Memory Moog, Mini Moog, Moog Source, Mellotron, Novatron, Roland VP330, Hammond Korg CX3, SH2000, RS 202, Simmonds Claptrap, Emulator 2, Emulator 1, Prophet 2000, Hammond B3, Hammond C3, various pianos (laughs), Yamaha, the Marcus, the Bosendorfer,
Ad there with that bit of fun we bring this interview to a conclusion. I am sure that the musos out there among our readers will have found this hopefully useful and interesting. Our thanks once again to Nick for giving up so much of his time for this.