“Let’s get technical part 1” - Nick Magnus talks to TWR’s cub scout reporter Frank Rogers about all things keyboard-y. Interview conducted at Nick’s studio on 18th May 2016. Photography and other gizmos… Alan Hewitt.
TWR: Well first of all, Nick thanks for letting us come here and do this…
NM: It’s all in a day’s work for International Rescue (laughs).
TWR: This is where we ask people about the how rather than the why of recording…
NM: It is amazing actually as there are huge chunks of this and bear in mind you are talking up to thirty five years ago … actually thirty EIGHT years ago .. Yeah, Spectral Mornings was thirty eight years ago, incredible. But there are huge chunks I can remember very clearly and there are other bits which have mysteriously disappeared.
TWR: Well, let’s see how good your memory really is! I would like to go back to the very beginning and so lets go back to the beginning, how did keyboards start for you…?
NM: Oh god, how long have you got? (laughs) It started probably when I was about four years old and I went to pre-school at a place down the road from our house and in one of the backrooms, a nasty little back room that nobody else ever went in they had an old upright piano and it fascinated me. That was the first time I think that I had ever come across a piano and so on any occasion I could get and I can describe everything about that house! I would just run off into this room and play this piano, just making up tunes. My mum eventually noticed my interest in the piano and said. ’well you are going to have lessons’ which didn’t happen until I was about six and I went and had lessons and I found lessons to be a horrifying experience because of the teacher. Shall I spare her honour? No, Mrs Pamela Richards, if I could find your grave I would dance on it! She was a harridan, awful woman and I used to make up all sorts of excuses for not going to piano lessons like I am sick, I’ve got a headache and my mum would always spot when I was fibbing.
Basically she was a horror, because I was more interested in making the music up rather than anything else so, without the benefit of ever having seen music and I was making up my own tunes and that was what I spent most of my time in between lessons doing which probably meant that I didn’t learn the set pieces which are simple just preliminary Grade stuff. But I was never any better from one week to the next and so her solution was to rap me on the knuckles. Literally with a ruler and then as a punishment she would, what she would do was give me music theory tests to do. With no prior education in theory she would put these papers, obviously very simple ones to start with, and so she would say; ’right, as a punishment, we aren’t going to do any playing, you must do this paper’ and she would slap it on the piano and she would disappear to watch telly for half an hour and she would come back expecting to find a baffled face with tears and empty pages, all filled in. And not just all filled in but all filled in CORRECTLY and the following week the same thing would happen only a more difficult one. Until the point where she was giving me, and bear in mind I was only six years old, she was giving me Grade Five Theory things and I would just be going… and rather than saying ’this is incredible, how did you learn to do this?’ I never recall actually learning to read, I could always just do it. Like my very first day at primary school none of the other kids in the class could read, I could. I don’t ever remember learning how to do it because for some reason I could do these theory papers and yet despite all that, the one skill that has always eluded me, and I blame Pamela Richardson entirely for this, is how to sight read. You put music in front of me and I know what it is trying to tell me but it means nothing . Other people will look at it and hear something in their head but I have never been able to do it and I still can’t.
So, that hindered my learning considerably and so by the time other kids had hit Grade Eight and beyond, I was still struggling on Grade Four but at that point I got bored with the piano and decided that the organ was much more interesting because it kept on going as long as you held it down and the different noises it made so it was Cathedral Organ I did Grade Four on but then Grade five just became a little bit too difficult because the sight reading was beyond me, particularly on organ because you have three staves to read, not just one or two, and I just couldn’t do that. And up to that point I passed all of my exams but it was only because I learned the pieces by ear which was the only way I could learn them. So I learned all the set pieces but when it came to the sight reading part of the exam it was a huge embarrassment particularly because when you are on the portable cathedral organ and you are asked to sight read (laughs) and it was LOUD, you are playing in this great big sodding cathedral and you are going … err… one, two three, a, b c. d… err… and it was just an embarrassment. And I remember at one point the verger came out ad asked who was doing it and asked me to stop! So at that point I stopped any formal training and that was also the moment when I was about seventeen when pop music became an interest. Because up until then there was a hole in my musical appreciation as far as modern music was concerned.
|All through the Sixties I loved pop music and stuff like that so The Tornados were my favourite ever group and The Shadows weren’t bad either and one of my first recollections in pre-school was listening to Apache on the Dansette, they had a Dansette and we played it over and over again and so in my early teens it was all just classical stuff but then I suddenly got interested in pop and rock music and I remember going to a party and somebody put on The Man Who Sold The World by David Bowie and it had just come out at that point and I was transfixed, and went out and bought it and that was when my interest in rock music started and almost at the same moment I joined my first school band and at home I had a Hammond L100 organ but I managed to persuade my parents to sell it and buy a Wilson President because it was portable… you couldn’t carry a Hammond! But the Wilson President you just unstrapped the legs and clipped the lid on and away you went.|
I think the interest in synthesisers happened in a long smooth arc, but eventually fired fully by funnily enough was the Radiophonic Workshop music that was frequently played during daytime programmes and more often than not the themes were done by the Radiophonic Workshop and they were either early synth stuff and quite often Musique Concrete you know, chopping up tapes and splicing it together, and I sourced a whole load of records, I found that s these were available on record to buy and I still have those records. Then I just went out and looked for other stuff and then Walter Carlos did Switched On Bach and that just got me going completely because this was what I want to do and that was followed by the discovery of Yes and Genesis and all the lovely keyboard instruments that they had, synths and Mini Moogs and Mellotrons and all of this stuff so that all kind of formed a long, slow curve from very fumbling you know, formal beginnings, to being self taught for the rest of it.
TWR: I believe you were involved with a band called The Enid…
NM: Indeed, I can tell you the exact dates, it was the 20th May til 5th November 1976 dates forever etched in my memory! That came as a result of me seeing an advert that they had put in Melody Maker I was just basically floundering at home on the Dole and having just left… I had kind of voluntarily left art college early, two years into it because my original plan had been that I was going to be Ardman Animations! I was going to be Nick Park and somebody else turned out to be him! (laughs) but that was what I wanted to do originally, I wanted to do film animation. The art college I went to at Portsmouth claimed to do that as a course … they didn’t and I saw the animation room when I went to visit and then when I went back the room had vanished, well it was still there but it was empty! Apparently in between they had stopped doing the course and hadn’t bothered to tell me. So I opted to do a graphics course instead and found it extremely boring and not what I a wanted to do and so spent my entire art college life doing music, I was in about three bands at the same time and only ever went into college to have lunch and came back home to play and practice again.
So after two years I left it and was struggling thinking music is what I should actually be doing and reading Melody Maker, saw this advert and I can’t remember the wording of it at all, but it sounded intriguing and so I got in touch and got asked along to do an audition and that’s how I joined them.
TWR: Can you remember what keyboards you were using at the time…?
NM: Back then I had a … certainly I had a Clavinet, a Vox String Thing, and a Mini Korg 700S synth and I am pretty sure it was the RMI … no it must have been the Rhodes and I had got rid of my first RMI then so it was those four keyboards. And that was incorporated into their set up which was essentially a Hammond L100 as well but we did have a leslie for it and Robert would crank up the pre amp to make it distort because in The Enid all the sounds were very clean but I used to crank the pre amp up so … it growled and I would get told off . They had Solina, two ARP Odysseys if I recall, one to do tinkly things and one to do brassy things. A Pro-Soloist, a Mini Moog and I think that was essentially their set up which was incorporated into mine.
TWR: Anyway, Mr Hackett came along so how did it come about that you joined Steve…?
NM: Well, ok, in between The Enid and Steve was a band that was very formative for me and that was Autumn, and we must mention Autumn and that was a really fruitful musical partnership particularly with the guitarist mark, who happens to be my oldest friend, we have know each other since we were four. But we worked very well with that and it was very symphonic and at that moment in time very Enid influenced with all that soaring instrumental stuff and no vocals at all. That was going quite nicely. We didn’t do an awful lot of gigs but we did do some but wee were all on the Dole pretty much and three of us were living together in the same house which was literally a two up, two down, half the size of this house and three of us living there.. It was horrendous (laughs) but great fun. You don’t care when you are that age it is all just part and parcel of following your dream. But the dream was going a bit sour simply because we were finding it very hard to get any gigs.
We hit upon the bright idea of putting an advert in… I don’t know if it still exists, but there was a magazine sent around all the colleges and universities called Circuit Magazine which was literally a booking magazine so that the social secretaries could book bands to appear at college functions and such like. Everybody was in it. Even Yes and Genesis were in it and I may be misremembering this but I seem to recall that Genesis went out for something ridiculous like £2000 (laughs). That can’t be right! Everyone was in it and we thought oh, we’ll stick an advert in and I did a nice little graphic with a cartoon thing and we thought that unless we put it in for a month to see what happens. Exactly at the moment that our advert appeared our ’phone got cut off because we hadn’t paid the bill (laughs) so we never found out if anybody had tried to call us to book us. Or of they did then they couldn’t get hold of us. So that was a complete waste of effort. And we were all thoroughly depressed at that point and this was sort of mid 1978 and we were all a bit disappointed and depressed so we said we will carry on doing this but it might be an idea and it was ok for us to look for other things to do because it wasn’t going so well at the moment. So we did and so I was looking through Melody Maker and I went through numerous auditions with some bands who have subsequently gone on to continue in the business and others who were never heard of again an I didn’t really feel an affinity with any of them. I have to say I passed all the auditions except one and that was for a band called Romance and the centrepiece of Romance was a drummer called Mark Ibbotson who used to be the drummer in England. We Didn’t get on, let’s put it that way, we didn’t get on.
So, my answering ads didn’t work but I saw and decided to place one myself and the first advert went in with the phone number misprinted, so I called them and complained and they said sorry we will put it in again in two week’s time with the correction made, which they did and it was the subsequent reprint which was the one that I think Steve saw and he had asked Ged (Fitzpatrick) his guitar roadie to scour the adverts for anything that looked promising ad Ged went to him with this one which was my ad and if they had got it right the first time I wouldn’t have put it in again and it would never have been seen so talk about fate! (laughs).
TWR: So now you are working with Steve and I think Spectral Mornings was the first album you worked on, so tell us about the album and how you were involved with that and the equipment you used etc…
NM: Oh gosh, that is a very broad question! That was the reason Steve was looking for a band, to : A. go out live with his first outing as a solo act as he had done two solo albums before that but he was still in Genesis or had freshly left. But by now he had started writing the music for Spectral and was looking for a band an so the live gigs that we did at the end of 1978 obviously got that ball rolling. We played mostly Voyage Of The Acolyte and Please Don’t Touch material and whatever there was of Spectral Mornings by that time because some of it came together in the studio. Most of it came together in the rehearsal room and there were tracks like the Red Flower Of Taichi which really didn’t come together until we got into the studio. Steve had a koto and he was experimenting with that.
TWR: Tell us about the title track and how you were involved in that…
N M : Well one thing about all the pre-existing music on Spectral.. The album we rehearsed up before we went into the studio, the thing was and it doesn’t happen much these days, where music is written to be performed live first. Usually it is recorded first and then you have to work out a way of doing it live afterwards certainly back in the days of tape and no computers and sequencers and that stuff. You had to be able to play it live anyway but rehearsing it with a band in real time basically informed how it was going to be recorded. So, really the answer to that was that it all came together in the rehearsal room rather than in the studio. So beforehand we knew what instruments we were going to be playing and we had the essential backbone of it. The other details were kind of the icing on the cake really. Spectral was pretty much fully formed live. There was nothing even by way of overdubs afterwards I don’t think there was anything there that wasn’t there in the live performances.
TWR: Can you remember what equipment you were using at the time…
NM: yes, pretty much. I had a Fender Rhodes piano which I must have bought around 1975 so it was one of the earlier models of Rhodes and was far and away the best for tone, all of the pianos from that era and this was when they replaced the original Rayback tines which were reeds with Torrington… no they were tines and Rayback made the ones which also go into Wurlitzer pianos but they made the original ones which went into Rhodes pianos but they were made by a grinding process which made them without the skin and gave them a dead tone. They replaced them with suaged tines which were made by a company called Torrington which were made in the same way as sewing machine needles, so they were like bright and shiny and they were very elastic and so they had a much brighter tone and a much longer sustain and it was the first generation of those pianos where mine came from and all of the ones from that era sound equally musical and lovely. I never got on with the later models.
So, I had the Rhodes piano, the Clavinet Vox String Thing, Mini Korg and it was basically The Enid set up basically and I had the RMI as well and that was my second RMI because the first one was a 360 which had a fairly restricted sixty note keyboard and the subsequent one I bought was a 360X which had the tone control and the volume control on the panel. Gordon Reed still has that in a flight case and whether it works or not I don’t know. I had the Roland SH2000 and the Roland RS 202 and the Mellotron and that was the lineup for Spectral and the first tour as well.
TWR: Moving swiftly on then to Defector and one track in particular: Hammer In The Sand so tell us a little bit about that one…
NM: It had a very different vibe to begin with and a very different beginning. The original beginning… Steve had a song that was a kind of skippy up tempo song in 6/8 which as far as I can remember and I can’t remember what the words were but there seemed to be some sort of nautical theme and there were obviously long periods in the day where somebody else was busy in the control room so you went and entertained yourself on the Space Invaders machine or whatever and on one such moment I went into the big studio downstairs and it was deserted and there was a beautiful Bosendorfer piano sitting in the corner and I thought, oh good nobody’s listening I can play unselfconsciously and found myself basically playing the chord sequence for this song on the Bosendorfer and I just slowed it down and turned it into what is now basically the first half of Hammer In The Sand. Little did I know that John Acock was standing in the doorway listening and he waited until I had finished and then he said, “that is really great you should play that to Steve” and he got Steve down and he listened and then said “we’re doing that, let’s do it like that” and so that’s how that came about really.
The strings in that were two things essentially, it was a very undermixed, you would hardly know it was there, Mellotron and Prophet 5 but done line by line basically I worked out the string part and scored it out on four lines and recorded them separately from the top to the bottom in separate takes and tracked the second thing again with the Mellotron and it is barely audible but if you took it away you would notice and then the second half of the song really hangs on Steve’s guitar synth.
TWR: How did you go about recreating that Bosendorfer sound live…?
NM: We didn’t. We never did. There was not the technology at that time, there was no such thing. I mean, the nearest thing would have been the Yamaha CP70 or CP80 but it would have been entirely the wrong sound.
TWR: Moving on to Cured, what can you remember about that album and what equipment you were using at that time…
NM: Cured was one of those albums that really came together in the studio. I don’t remember playing any of the material off Cured live before we recorded it and I am almost certain that we didn’t so we did most of the putting together of the songs in a rehearsal room in Shepherds Bush as I seem to remember, just off Wood Lane somewhere. Then we went into the studio and put it together and I personally had loads of fun doing Cured because I got to do so much! (laughs). That was when the dreaded Linn Drum which has been accused of so much of ruining that album by a lot of people. I don’t agree. When you compare it to the overall sound texture and production of the album and compare it to what you can do now then yes, it does sound a bit flat and limp but I think what we tried to do was very brave. As far as I know at that point the only other example of the Linn Drum being used on that I am aware of was on Steve Winwood’s Arc Of A Diver album and allegedly only for the hi hats as well!
Cured was the first album that used the Linn Drum in its entirety to do the drums apart from the cymbals because it didn’t have any cymbals in it and so they were overdubbed by hand afterwards. I loved doing that, it was frustrating because it kept on dropping its memory now and then and you would get to the end of programming a track up and you would hear the dreaded four beeps and it would drop everything and you would have to start again and just contain your temper and do it again. You could save memory by dubbing to cassette tape which was very unreliable and on many occasions it wouldn’t load back in properly because you would hit dropouts on the tape just at the point where you recorded. Usually the second attempt to do the programming was better than the first anyway so that was fine.
I really enjoyed that and again the keyboard rig grew a bit more because by that point I had got the Roland Vocoder which I had anyway for Defector and I added a Korg CX1 and Mini Mooog and probably something else too …the rig was growing.
TWR: Where did the Jupiter 8 come in…?
NM: That was on Highly Strung. That album was almost entirely Jupiter 8 but we shall get to that. I really enjoyed doing Cured and we did it in a studio which no longer exists called Reedan Recorders at the back end of Whiteleys at the back end of a little mews in Bayswater. I had three Mini Moogs, I went through three of them. The first one I bought from Andrew Shand who used to be in a band called Druid and I really liked Druid and Andrew has subsequently found fame and a great deal of fortune as the composer for all the Teletubbies music. My first Mini Moog I bought off him and it was one of the original ones with the frosted plastic pitch and modulation wheels without the little ridges on them! But it also had terrible stability problems. It sounded beautiful and it is one of those classic examples of where you compare an old and a new model of something, there is a distinct difference in tone and you really could tell it with those between that one and my third Mini Moog. Unfortunately it was so drifty that it was a real problem live and I realised I had to replace it and so I sold it and bought what was then the current model which was nice but there was a kind of liquid quality missing that the old one had. It got stolen from a rehearsal room up in Canonbury where we used to rehearse. They also had Dik’s (Cadbury’s) bass pedals and I think a couple of guitars went as well and so I had to get another one and fortunately it was insured so the insurance money paid for number three!
TWR: Now we get to Highly Strung and the Jupiter 8...
NM: it was a real passionate love affair I had with that synth. If I ever had a love affair with a keyboard instrument it was that one. If I had it now I would still be using it the Jupiter was gorgeous and I couldn’t believe anything could have so many guises. People would and the common opinion at that time was the difference between Japanese synths and American synths. Basically it was American synths are warm and organic and Japanese synths are cold and digital and I never found that. To me it seemed to be able to do all of those things whereas to me the American synths to me were only fat and warm, they couldn’t be anything else. Japanese synths could be whatever you wanted. They could be fat and warm and they could be cold and digital and clinical if you wanted and this was a completely analogue machine not “digital”. It could just make any sound that came to mind.
So Highly Strung was almost entirely done on the Jupiter 8 and the only other instruments that I can think of were the Mini Moog which did some of the bass lines particularly the fretless thing on Always Somewhere Else and of course the Yamaha piano, the CP70 piano which we used and it was all Jupiter and it was a lovely thing.
TWR: Off all the instruments you used while with Steve which one do you think defines the Steve Hackett “sound”?
NM: It is the entire combined sound and palette really. It all depends on which era you are talking about. I think there is one particular sound which dominated… well it probably doesn’t but it feels like it did to me, on Spectral for example which is the Vox String Thing and that church organ sound which is a modification I did to it anyway just opened the lid up and tweaked a few things and discovered it made that sound and went “ooh” and subsequently the Logan String Melody as they became added the same modification so you could do the same thing. That sound identifies that. What identifies Defector… I suppose the Vocoder simply because that was the first album I used it on and it appears quite a lot on there in various guises. I mean the Roland VP330 not just for the vocoding but for the string and choir sound. Cured is the Linn Drum and the Prophet 5 because the Prophet was my main poly synth on Cured and that was a lovely old thing that was. Air Conditioned Nightmare and all that stuff, that’s all Prophet. And Highly Strung is definitely the Jupiter 8
TWR: You were also involved in the Till We Have Faces album, tell us about that…
NM: That was a very interesting and different album to do because we went to Brazil to do it and a large proportion of the stuff was written in the week before we went into the studio and we definitely didn’t spend any longer than a week doing it and at the time Kim’s (Poor) parents lived in Petropolis and they had gone away and said that we could use their house and so we stayed there for the week and we had to borrow instruments. Basically we couldn’t take anything over because at that time it was very difficult taking gear over into Brazil where customs and all that other stuff, so I managed to borrow a Jupiter 8 while we were there because gear at that time in Brazil seemed to be in very short supply and it was difficult to get hold of things but Steve Had a friend called Ritchie Court who had some of this stuff and he had a Jupiter 8 and also a Juno 6 turned up from somewhere as well. I don’t know where that came from and that kind of arrived half way through the album and Steve borrowed a black Les Paul strung the other way, it was a left hand build and so it had to be strung the other way so that Steve could play it right handed . So we just sat in the conservatory of the house and worked on the tracks and we went to a studio called Som Livre and recorded the album and again I was a rather strange situation because normally you will go into a studio and find it packed full of gear, but here all there was, and it was beautiful modern studio, but all there was just the mixing desk and the monitors, that was it. If you wanted anything you had to “hire” it from the top floor. They had all of the stuff all of the toys were on the top floor! And at considerable extra cost! So even if you wanted a chorus pedal which we both did, both Steve and I wanted chorus pedals, so we had to hire them from the upstairs room. And you are talking about hiring them every day for a month and this stuff was getting expensive. That applied to everything, if you wanted a compressor… So that was interesting and the guys who worked in the studio were great and really nice, lovely guys and we got on with them ever so well and the percussion people who came in and did all the samba and other stuff and Sergio and Rui they were terrific. We got another chap in called Clive Stevens who showed up and played some wind synth on a couple of things and it was a very enjoyable time because I hadn’t been to Brazil before.
TWR: What is the Ambisonic process…?
NM: I wish I could give you a definitive answer to that. It was one of those processes like Quadrophonic and it was supposed to work best on headphones but basically you made your stereo recording and then encoded it afterwards but I can’t recall quite what the process was but we were lent the system and I never heard it do what it was supposed to do. I have never seen it credited as being used on anything else so obviously it didn’t take off. I tried to hear the effect of it but… no. Whereas the Roland RSS system oddly enough did work for me but it didn’t work for other people. I remember the first time it was demonstrated in public they set up a sound room at one of the trade shows and I was one of the demonstrators at the time and we discovered, well it seemed to be that of all the people that came into the room the guys were all uninterested and the girls were amazed by it and it seemed to be that girls could really pick it up but the guys were going “can’t hear it”. It was obvious to me, I could hear it perfectly …
And this is where we end part one of this fascinating chat about the technical aspect of Nick’s work. Look out for part two in our big centenary edition folks. Once again thanks to Nick for taking the time to talk to us and to Frank for doing the groundwork.