CS: I think we should start with synthesisers. They're your main instrument, and they're certainly the most obvious thing in here. I notice you've got the Moog set up in here again. Does that mean you're using that a lot again, or are you using the knobs as a MIDI controller for software?
Sweep: Both, but mainly the Moog itself for its own sounds.
CS: I'd like to return to software later, if I could, and ask you a few questions about the hardware synths you're using first, especially the Moog Voyager, Juno 60 and the ARP Axxe - and the Parallaxxe project. First of all it's interesting to see you using the Voyager again, because I know you have a sort of love-hate relationship with it. Or is that too strong a term? :D
Sweep: :D Yes, too strong a term, but it's true I've had very mixed feelings about it. It's been an odd sort of voyage of discovery. I found myself preferring the ARP Axxe to the Voyager for lead sounds, despite the limited features of the Axxe by comparison. Basically I just prefer the ARP sound. Some of the reason for that is the frequency ranges of the oscillators. The Moog ones are very mellow and rounded. I remember when I got the Moog I was quite shocked when I compared the oscillators with the ones in my Korg MS20. The Moog ones were so full of quality, so rich and rounded, and the Korg ones were quite weedy by comparison.
But in a purely musical context that isn't necessarily better. It depends what the music needs. I no longer have the Korg, but comparing the Moog with the ARP I find the ARP oscillator to have a richer lot of harmonic stuff happening in the mid ranges. If I boost the mids with the Moog I get closer to the ARP sound, and in fact I experimented with that using the SPL Vitalizer to boost the mids as well as changing the filter poles in the Moog (which you can do in the operating software) to get closer to the ARP sound.
In the end there's something refreshing and colourful in the ARP sound that I don't get with the Moog. For pieces like `Summer Skies' it had to be the ARP - or a Roland synth like the Juno 60. The Moog just wouldn't have had the right feel in that piece. Roland come close to ARP in tone in some respects, and I've tried playing `Summer Skies' on the Juno with some success.
But then it comes to more earthy sounds and the Moog's what's needed. It all depends what the music needs.
CS: You said recently that you're using the Moog for modulated stuff more than for leads.
Sweep: Yes, that's very much the case. The Voyager has two LFOs, in effect. You can use oscillator 3 as an LFO like with the MiniMoog, and there's also a dedicated LFO. I like to self-oscillate the filter and apply two LFOs to it for some quite complex modulations, then put that through various delays and so on.
CS: Could you demonstrate some of that?
Sweep: [playing Moog sounds] That sort of thing? That's the two LFOs.
CS: It changes speed, and changes shape. Different sounds keep coming in and out as you play.
Sweep: I can change the shape of what's happening on oscillator 3. Unfortunately I can't change the dedicated LFO in the same way, but I can mix the two sources here and change the amount of the effect they have on the sound. That brings different effects in and out.
CS: And when you play a single note low down, the pitch moves around slowly, in a kind of dance. When you play higher up it moves faster until it blurs.
Sweep: Yes, the LFO rate can follow the keyboard voltage, so the higher up the keyboard the faster it runs. When I add to that by manually changing the pitch it gets a lot more expressive.
CS: Yes, it seems to come alive when you move up the keyboard and then manually sweep the filter cutoff to change the pitch on the bits where the waveshape gets blurred.
Sweep: So that's essentially Tim Blake Crystal Machine stuff - though he's so unbelievably skilled at it, so fluent. And an important part of the whole thing is the echo. I've mentioned a bit of that, but Tim's a genius with echo and pioneered a lot of the stuff other people have discovered since. The short, bouncy echoes that bring life to certain kinds of synth sounds. Also the longer repeats he used on keyboard lines to make monophonic synth lines more complex.
The classic example of that is `A Sprinkling of Clouds' on Gong's You album, but he used it earlier. Around Angel's Egg he's already got that down. And it's always there. The stereo bounces he uses on the Caldea album are a good example much more recently.
CS: What sorts of echo have you got happening there with what I'm hearing?
Sweep: There's a multi-repeat echo on the Lexicon and then a stereo delay on the Yamaha digital recorder. For short modulated sounds the stereo delay helps a lot with giving bounce and aliveness to the sound.
So the Moog's great for that, but I'm less inspired by the lead sounds with the Moog than I would have expected - though I have a good repertoire of them and they're useful for some things - but for complex modulations and for a certain specific
character of sound it's brilliant.
CS: You really need a dual LFO ARP, or Roland, I'd expect.
Sweep: Which leads us to the Parallaxxe, which you mentioned before. When it's ready (I need some repair work done first) it'll be two ARP Axxes CVd together - parallel Axxe. That gives me more than an Odyssey in some respects. I'll have the Odyssey's two oscillators, but also two filters and two LFO's - and two ADSRs and so on. It would be better if the LFOs could be linked somehow, but basically it should give me quite a flexible ARP synth. No high pass filter or ring mod, but I've got those covered anyway so I don't need them to be part of the synth. I also intend to have the master tune knobs modified so I can clearly see how I'm tuning them apart and I can sweep one of them while the other one remains constant.
It remains to be seen how this will sound. I know quite a few other people have done it, but I don't personally know anyone and also I don't know anyone who plays an ARP synth the way I do. The dual filter is very promising. I can get two resonance peaks, and also two of the beautiful self-oscillating filter sounds that ARP filters do so well. I always check out the sound of the filter in self-oscillation when I evaluate a synth. The ones in the ARP are just beautiful. Rich and flutey. The flute piece I played you from `Mirror Lake' was done that way - just a self-oscillating ARP filter making a haunting Tibetan flute. So I'll be able to layer two of those at different pitches and play them together.
CS: You're very aware of the tonal character of different synths, and your comments just now are part of that. You mentioned similarities between ARP and Roland. Could you say a bit more about that, and also something about how you're using the Juno 60, because I've never heard anyone using it the way you were doing the other day.
Sweep: The ARP is more colourful than the Moog - rich, rainbow colours almost. But the Roland has a glossy shine that the ARP doesn't have - like oil paints, if that's not too fanciful a comparison. If I play something on the ARP it'll be like a streak of rich colour. But if I play that on the Juno it'll have a gloss that the ARP doesn't have. Sometimes you want that gloss, though not always. If I make modulations with the Juno 60 they can have a silvery sheen if I want that. So it's a matter of what the music needs. But I must say I have preferences for the ARP and Roland colours.
As for the Juno 60 modulations, it struck me that the arpeggiator doesn't need to be used just to make arpeggio effects. In effect it can be another LFO doing square waves. So I can hit the hold button and both the LFO and the arpeggiator will be modulating the sound, and I can change the LFO and arpeggiator speeds independently. That gives me modulation possibilities that may not be immediately obvious.
CS: Which is why you sound like you're playing an EMS synthi when it's a Juno 60, which amazed me when I saw you do it because I didn't know it was possible.
Sweep: In absolute terms the Synthi has more complex modulations, but in really musical terms the Juno will do a lot in those same areas and be very effective.
CS: So you have quite a range of different ways to create Synthi effects - without a Synthi.
Sweep: The VCS3 was the first synth I ever played, and I already loved the kinds of sounds it makes from listening to Tangerine Dream, Steve Hillage, Tim Blake and so on. I'd rather like a Synthi - I didn't own the one I learned on - but the prices these days are a bit ridiculous. It certainly makes more sense to me to have several different synths that can dointeresting modulations with different tonal qualities - as well as doing good lead line stuff that the Synthi can't really complete with.
For a long time I felt I had unfinished business with the Synthi. I wanted to see how it felt to play one now I have so much more experience as a musician. I was fortunate last year when Frank Spears let me spend a few hours with his Synthi A. I really appreciate him letting me do that, and it confirmed that I'd like one but it certainly isn't essential and I can get similar things in other ways. It certainly isn't indispensable.
CS: I think you recorded that session with the Synthi A?
Sweep: Yes, I recorded all the patches I set up, and some basic tones, and some performances. My piece `Amid the Waves' was constructed from that session, and I've sampled masses of those sounds into the Roland V-Synth for use in my Synthi emulation projects. So I can make sounds similar to a Synthi as well as sounds the Synthi would never be able to make using the V-Synth to reproduce and modify the Synthi sounds.
CS: could you tell me a little bit more about `Amid the Waves.'
Sweep: I wrote it in memory of a guy who used to be on the Synthi discussion forum on the net. He called himself Samzen, and he died a couple of years ago. There was naturally some discussion about Synthi music in his memory. Initially I wasn't able to contribute because I don't have a Synthi, but when I had access to Frank's Synthi A I was able to make sounds that I could compile together into a completely Synthi produced piece. I thought there was going to be a group effort to make an album in Samzen's memory, but for whatever reason that hasn't happened yet, so after a bit of a delay while I waited to see what happened I decided to put the piece on my Synthi website the other day.
CS: So that's your only completely Synthi piece, I think?
Sweep: Yes, it is. I didn't keep any of the things I recorded back in the 70s. I don't know why I didn't - I could kick myself for that. I may compile something else from what I recorded at Frank's, but most likely those sounds will become music via the V-Synth, or be added to pieces made predominantly with other instruments.
CS: As we've mentioned, you've done a lot with different synthesizers, making modulated sounds. Any `secrets of synthesis' that you'd like to pass on?
Sweep: Well if I did I suppose they wouldn't be secrets any more. :D But yes, I don't mind saying things about how I make certain sounds. In the end it's all about music, not just about sounds, so if I give away how I make the sounds, that doesn't mean the music's no longer unique. Also I've sometimes explained how I did things and the other person hasn't managed to reproduce them anyway. Someone asked me about the Rainbow Dome Musick effects in my piece `The Red Book,' and although I explained the process it still wasn't easy to reproduce it, as it all depends on the interplay of sounds, effects and playing.
That was one of those occasions when I've been mistaken for Tim Blake. That's happened a couple of times and I've received Tim's fan mail. :D I take that as a compliment, as I respect Tim very much. I'm relieved to find it isn't because I sound a lot like him - I wouldn't want to be a Tim Blake copyist, and I think my music is unique and quite individual. It seems the mistake happens because of some similarities plus some coincidences. For example I clearly wasn't Steve Hillage or Miquette Giraudy, but I knew how to do the Rainbow Dome thing that had baffled two recording engineers and a synthesist, and that plus the synth stuff and some associations with the Gong and Hawkwind communities indicated Tim Blake.
The fact is, I know how `Garden of Paradise' from the Rainbow Dome Musick album was done simply because I read an interview with Steve Hillage in which he explained it, and I tried my own variants on the technique along with many other experiments of my own using synths and echo.
The trick is to have a sequencer playing suitable sounds (and that bit, suitable sounds, is vital) and run the sequence through two different echoes so you get very long loops that cross over themselves and create a complex shimmer of sound.
I've done similar things with different kinds of sounds, crossing over into areas Eno and others have also explored. `Sunlight Through Ice' on my website was done in a similar way, though it sounds quite different from Rainbow Dome Musick.
The skill is in the playing - in choosing the sounds and the sequences, and in feeding them into the echo loops. The variations on that are pretty much infinite, and it's possible to make a very diverse range of different kinds of music that way.
CS: You mentioned getting asked about music you've put on the Internet. Does that happen often? What sort of emails do you get?
Sweep: I get quite a range of them. Actually that's one of the most gratifying things, when someone writes to say they've appreciated something. I've even had emails like that that from someone who was with a band I was listening to when I was young. It's good when it turns around like that - someone I've appreciated is enjoying my music now.
I suppose there are two kinds of emails. One kind has technical questions about how I do things. The other kind is purely musical. I appreciate both kinds. If someone wouldn't know a DX7 from a Voyager but they really appreciate the music and enjoy it, sometimes that matters to me more than someone who's really into all the technical side of things. I like to feel I've connected with someone purely through the music, without any reference to what instruments I've used or even what other musicians I may have something in common with.
But I do also appreciate the ones where someone asks what model of Lexicon I used, or how I got a certain sound.
CS: Does anything interesting come out of the technical discussions for you?
Sweep: Yes, definitely, because they reflect on what's working in the music, connecting with people. One interesting thing is that it's becoming clearer and clearer how much damage is being done to modern music by over use of compression. My music appeals because it's subtly dynamic. It feels alive and fresh to people, and open and airy. Music without compression is literally like a breath of fresh air.
I've said this before, but compression can be used on a specific sound, just as fuzz might be. But just as you wouldn't fuzz the entire track, so you can't really compress the entire track without damaging it. It gets even worse when the band does that at the mixing stage and then it gets a second layer of compression when it's mastered. And of course we have the `loudness wars' where record companies are remastering albums with excessive compression to make them sound louder, clipping the sound with distortion and flattening out the dynamics as they go. It's ridiculous. Maybe before long there'll be a reaction against it and excessive compression will sound terribly dated. But certainly it's doing a lot of damage, and it's clear that given the choice people find uncompressed or only slightly compressed music preferable, often without knowing why uncompressed music sounds so fresh and open.
CS: Before I ask about reverbs and delays - you've mentioned ChorX earlier, so I'd like to ask about that specifically, but I'd also like to ask your thoughts on signal processing generally. I think that leads on quite well from the compression issue.
Sweep: ChorX is a chorus effect in software from the XILS company. But the real beauty of it for me is that it gives movement to the sound in three dimensions. It emulates a crossed pair of microphones and moves the sounds around in the three-dimensional space between them. For quite a while I've been aware that I need something that gives space and in particular depth to the sound, and ChorX came along just when I was wondering how I was going to do that.
In terms of treatments generally, I think all electronic sounds need some kind of reverb, at the very least. All acoustic instruments have a sound box of some kind, and they also benefit from a lively acoustic environment. An electric or electronic instrument needs that adding. I think Klaus Schulze said something once like "Without the reverb it all sounds like shit," and he's right. The best synth in the world needs reverb if it's to sound at all musical. Otherwise it's like a guitar or a violin without a soundbox. That soundbox is a major part of the instrument.
This applies even when I do synth demos. I think there's definitely room for synth demos with completely dry sound. You can add your own preferred reverb to get a sense of how you could use the synth. But also, a synth is an instrument, and I like to make a demo by playing a piece of music, not just by playing some sounds. This is why I've done software demos using external processing sometimes. Software needs processing even more than hardware.
If I play you this [playing a sequencer line on the Arturia Moog Modular V] it sounds ok, maybe, but small somehow. Now see what happens when I do this.
CS: That sounds incredible, massive.
Sweep: What I've just done is to put the sound through a programme I set up on the Lexicon for processing softsynths. When I started the sequence I had the Lexicon in bypass mode. When I switched the bypass off the sound became massive, much fuller and with presence and depth. That's what software needs.
It's a bit like playing an electric guitar through a small practice amp. You need a good amp, possibly a value amp, to really bring the sound alive.
It amuses me when you have people who desperately want some instrument they've seen and heard someone else using, and then when they get that instrument it doesn't sound like the record at all, or like a pale shadow of it at best. People tend to forget what a studio does for someone's sound, or what people use on stage to process their sound. They just see the instrument and think that's it. But making good use of signal processing is all part of the process of making music.
CS: You have quite a range of different reverbs and delays. I know the Lexicons are your favourites, but can you tell me how you use the different ones, and how you choose which ones to use for a particular piece.
Sweep: As you say, the Lexicon MPX550 is a favourite. You can programme your own sounds as well as using the factory ones, and I have a wide range of effects that would probably be useless to most people but which suit my music. The Lexicon has a certain quality to it that I like, but sometimes a clearer and less coloured reverb or echo is needed, and the Roland V-Synth is often the answer to that. I set up a project for audio treatments, so I can load that and I have a whole group of programs for processing sounds, using the V-Synth as a signal processor.
Of course I can combine the two, and indeed I've used two Lexicons together on a few occasions.
CS: Is that in series or in parallel?
Sweep: In series - perhaps surprisingly. You'd expect the sound to get very muddy with one set of echoes getting echoed again, but with careful programming and playing it's possible to make it complex but still clear.
I did a CD called Voyager with Nick Braithwaite that way. He'd recorded some stuff, and I used that, sometimes processing it through one or both Lexicons, along with my own Voyager through the two Lexicons. So it's a complete album of just Moog Voyager using his expanded Moog system and my standard unmodified Moog. The sounds fade and move and evolve through the reverb/echo process.
I also use software echoes and reverbs, but usually only with softsynths. I record on a hardware Yamaha digital recorder, not on computer, so the software signal processing is what softsynths sometimes go through before being recorded. There are some free VST programmes that are brilliant called Classic Delay, Classic Reverb and so on. On `Sunlight Through Ice'
and`The Red Book' I used a couple of instances of Classic Delay with a touch of Classic Reverb.
The reverb in my software sampler is also beautiful. That's Direct Wave, an inexpensive but brilliant software sampler that I use quite a bit.
And I have a Line 6 Delay Modeller and a couple of other things.
CS: I've heard you say you can never have too many delays.
Sweep: That's true, I think. I nearly bought Gilli Smyth's Roland Space Echo a few years ago, but didn't because I'd recently bought the Line 6 and the Lexicon. I didn't think I really needed it. But in retrospect it might have been useful. On the other hand it occurred to me that Gilli was still gigging, so I asked her what she was using now, and it turned out to be a Lexicon similar to (but not the same as) the one I'd bought. So I'd evidently gone in a sensible direction with what I'd bought - and time has confirmed that - but for certain things the Space Echo might have been nice. I may get one sometime.
CS: Not with the history of Gilli's one, though.
Sweep: I'm not greatly into history - things other people have used. Even people I respect. Maybe especially people I respect. They're people. I wouldn't idolise my friends, so there's no real reason to idolise musicians I like either. I respect them, but there's no "Oh, wow, they used this, they touched it.." :D
It might be different if it was a specific and unique instrument. Tim Blake's Crystal Machine, for example. Not because - oh, wow - it was used by Tim, but because it's unique and it would be interesting to work out how Tim did certain things, and to use it for things that a more conventional instrument can't do. The same with Steve Hillage's MiniMoog. That was on ebay and I could have bid, and it went for a decent and affordable price. I watched the bidding but decided I didn't need it and I wasn't in awe because Steve Hillage had used it.
CS: What did you do with the tissue you used to wipe up Charlotte Church's spilled glass of wine?
Sweep: That's a strange question. :D I wrapped it in another tissue to put it in my pocket until I found a bin. :D Actually I binned it in my kitchen at home. So no, I didn't keep it. :D You didn't think I had, did you?
CS: No, it just came to mind as it happened the other week. I'd have laughed if you'd said you still had it, especially when you're saying you don't bother about such things. But I can see it's true - you don't. :D
Sweep: It amused me, but no, I wouldn't keep something like that. That kind of thing gets creepy. Like Medieval relics or something. I don't know - Madonna's toenail clippings or something. Or one of Lemmy's warts. That happened, on ebay. Someone had this story about Lemmy breaking a string on stage and it slicing one of his warts off and catapulting it into the crowd, hence this guy having it. Even if the story might be true, I can't imagine anyone buying it. I don't know if anyone did. :D
How did we get onto this? Oh yes, Gilli's Space Echo. So it might have been useful after all, and I respect Gilli a lot, but no, that wasn't the way to go and I wasn't about to grab it just because she'd used it. I suppose with all the dope it must have absorbed at various Gong gigs and so on over the decades I could have set fire to it and left my neighbours stoned for a week. :D
Shall we get back to synths?
CS: FM synths. We haven't touched on those yet.
Sweep: Yes. The DX7's something I like to use and explore. It seems it has possibilities that haven't been developed. At least, they sold masses of them but I've still not found anyone who plays it in edit mode. People like Dave Bristow [Yamaha's synth demonstrator in the 1980s] hadn't come across that, either. But that really makes it more expressive, and it isn't that difficult. Mostly I just edit the frequency ratios as the note sounds. On its own it wouldn't be much, with echo it's very interesting. As I've mentioned before, it helped with getting the glassy quality of shallow seawater on `Llanfairfechan.'
CS: How did you get all the unusual sounds in `Lakeland Fells'? That was entirely DX7?
Sweep: Yes. I just set up the DX7 and a Lexicon one night and started playing and liked what I got so I kept going and recorded that piece. The Lexicon is the key to most of that. The choral sounds about ten or fifteen minutes in, for example - that's a electric piano sound, but strongly modulated with the LFO and then changed tonally with the Lexicon so it has this choral quality.
CS: And on `Parisian Parks in Autumn' you used the TX81Z.
Sweep: Yes, that's an interesting one. That also says something about how the Tim Blake influence works, I think. I did something similar to Tim's Crystal Machine style, but using a digital FM synth with no manual control knobs - very much the opposite of his analogue synth with masses of knobs. The secret is in the echo, mostly. You can hear how that works in the echoed bass notes, and it's there in the keyboard parts. All the modulated bits and so on were done by editing the TZ as I played.
CS: And that was without a software editor.
Sweep: Yes. I didn't actually know there had been a software editor developed for it until I'd done that piece and someone asked about that. I did it by delving into the menus.
CS: So as the music's playing you were navigating menus and using the cursor to edit parameters, then playing sounds from a MIDI keyboard while you held the cursor and moved values up and down?
CS: It doesn't sound like an easy way to make music.
Sweep: In practice it wasn't half as bad as you'd expect. To come back to the Tim Blake thing - the association was there in the way the piece was constructed, and the sounds made me think of the parks in Paris at the time of year I was recording that piece. They all seem to have that gritty yellow stuff on the ground which reminds me of a desert, and that seemed to link with the gritty FM sounds. So the association was the season in which I was recording - the nature of the sounds - the nature of the Parisian parks - and Tim Blake having constructed some of his music in a similar way and living in France (not in Paris though I think he visits there quite frequently). So it's like a chain of associations that come together organically - almost like dreams do.
CS: And that's an influence.
Sweep: That's an influence, for me. Exactly. It's a living thing. Not copying, ever. But something becoming part of my experience and then involving a response to another person.
CS: Can I ask you a bit more about those Parisian parks. You said it was like a desert, this gritty yellow stuff everywhere, like the gritty digital synth sounds you got....
Sweep: Part of that digital hardness was the gritty surface of those parks, the yellow flakes of stone they all have under your feet. I remember being in.... the Tuilleries I think it was .... but one of those areas along the Seine, and I was looking along the park at ground level and thinking "it's like a desert, all sandy and sterile." The contrast, I suppose, is with the trees. So I was thinking of this gritty hardness under your feet and the dying leaves falling. If I'd been portraying a natural woodland - or even a British park in autumn - there'd have been a different feel and a different sound.
CS: That's what I was wondering about. So what would you have used if it had been, say, Hyde Park or somewhere?
Sweep: It's a long time since I've been in Hyde Park... but yes, soil and grass. The latest London park for me would be Highgate. I'm not sure. Maybe the Moog. But maybe even the Casio CTK900 - back to digital.
CS: So we're coming at this same thing from a different direction now, and this makes more sense to me. I think I understand the synth stuff when you show me by playing the sounds, but for someone reading an interview it may not be so clear. You've talked about grittiness and earthiness, and skies and colours. So, as an example, how earthy is the Moog?
Sweep: Very. When I was at Hope Bagot recently I was standing by the ancient yew tree and what came to mind was the Moog sound. In the end I used a processed and looped shakuhachi and Frank Spears' EMS Synthi playing, which had a similar effect - the shakuhachi is earthy and organic, and I processed Frank's Synthi to get it into those areas - the shade and earthiness under a large and very ancient tree - but my initial thoughts had been the Moog. The shakuhachi would have been a Moog flute sounds instead, in the ideas I had first. But the thing was, I was experiencing that earthy feel you get under a very large old tree with the ground under your feet, and the right area of sound for that was the Moog, in principle. I changed it because of Frank's - almost equally earthy - Synthi sounds, and the shakuhachi sounds went with that, so that's how the piece developed. If I'd done it entirely alone, without Frank's input, it would have been Moog synth and who knows what else.
CS: The same notes, or not? I get the feeling it would have been a similar, but different piece?
Sweep: Yes, similar, but not the same. Different sounds would have meant different notes to make the same thing, get the same kind of feel.
CS: I think I understand a lot more about how you approach synthesizers now. And music in general. Perhaps we can move on to software.
Sweep: We can, but there are a lot of other hardware synths I use.
CS: Of course! That's interesting, how I forgot.
Sweep: You forgot all the cheap ones. The unglamorous ones. The Casio CTKs and the Technics stuff. The ones with built-in speakers that no self-respecting musician would be seen dead with. :D
CS: And yet they're very important.
Sweep: They're brilliant. Apart from the ARP bird sounds, `Bradnor Hill' was done that way, with a Technics KN750. And `Silbury Hill' with a KN720. And `Spring Meadows' with two Casio CTK 900s, and a lot of other stuff with the CTK 900 as well. Keyboards like that are dirt cheap and superb.
CS: You've said people think you're joking when you recommend Casios.
Sweep: When they realise I don't mean the CZ series, yes. Actually I bought a CZ1000 and the CTK 900 at about the same time, and sold the CZ and kept the CTK. The CZ might have been useful if I could have played it in edit mode like the DX7, but the sound stops when you edit it - it stops just for a moment as you change the parameter - and that's no good for me. I liked it in some ways, but I just programmed sounds I like and sampled them into the V-Synth, then sold it.
CS: And kept the 900.
Sweep: The 900s so good I've now got three of them. At about £30 to £50 each that's feasible. And I can layer them with MIDI as well. I've got some great sounds with the Casio WK 1800 as well, and that sounds great layered with other stuff as well as on its own.
But the CTK 900 is amazing. It's worth having three because the sampling memory is a bit limited, but also because of the range of good sounds you can make with it. Its synthesizer facility seems limited - they've limited the programming to the most basic elements, just attack and release times, for example - but what they're provided, plus the great built-in effects and the quality of the sounds is amazing and very useful. (It doesn't sample as such, by the way. But it will import WAV files, so I can make WAV samples with the V-Synth and then bring them over into the Casio.)
On the downside, it can sound a bit plasticky at times, and the sounds aren't always up to the standard of, say, some of the Technics sounds like the ones on the KN750. But they're good enough.
CS: You've said before you think Casio have a lot of frustrated synth designers making home keyboards.
Sweep: Definitely. They're showing signs of moving back to professional synths again, which is very welcome. But they really must have proper synth designers in there. Why else make a home keyboard like the CTK 900 and put a ring modulator in there? Access that via the synth programming mode and you've got instant Radiophonic Workshop. That wasn't for people sitting in their living rooms playing `My Heart Will Go On' for the wife and kids.
That keyboard is a gem, a gem that's hidden from casual eyes. It's got built-in speakers, and no control wheels. What professional synth player is going to give it a second glance? But if you do, you find out you can do all sorts with programming the sound, including really far out ring mod stuff, you can access the pitch-bend and modulation parameters through MIDI, so you've got your usual performance wheel stuff using a remote keyboard, and you can even import your own waveforms, as I mentioned. I've got Fairlight sounds in one of mine, so I can go out in the street and busk and play classic Fairlight patches if I want to. I've also got a set of shakuhachi sounds, so I can play some quite unusual shakuhachi-like things from there, things I'd never have the technique for on shakuhachi, and also things no shakuhachi player could do. And all for £30-£50 on ebay.
CS: You mentioned performance controls just now - pitch bend and mod wheels and so on. How important are they to your playing? Obviously I realise they are, but you play in such unusual ways sometimes, you don't approach a synth the way most people do. The Juno and the DX7 are good examples, but generally that's probably true?
Sweep: Maybe the most obvious thing with analogue synths is that I tend to use the mod wheel for filter cutoff rather than vibrato when I do lead lines.
CS: Is that because a slow filter change works better on the mainly slow lines you often tend to do, when you're making atmospheres?
Sweep: Very much, yes. I like control over slow changes in tone, especially when using very heavy echo, sustain-echo type things. But I also don't like mod-wheel vibrato very much. I just can't really get a vibrato that I'm happy with using a wheel to control an LFO. The pads on the ARP are an interesting idea - the Proportional Pitch Controls they put on their later synths. Both my Axxes have those, though they work better on one than on the other, so maybe they were better when they were new. But that still isn't quite it.
The best vibrato I've got is with the Kawai 1K, where I can use the joystick instead of the wheel. I'd like to be able to use joystick vibrato more generally. Maybe if I can get a joystick that transmits MIDI or CV. Actually it's a real pity the K1's MIDI implementation doesn't include joystick information. That would open up a lot of things.
So yes, I do approach these things a bit oddly, but that's partly the music I play and partly this thing with vibrato that just doesn't sound natural enough with a wheel and LFO. Actually I do have an idea that I haven't tried yet with the Moog, using parameters that you can only access through the software. I'm not sure it'll work, but it could be interesting. I'll say more about that if I do manage to get some good results that way.
CS: We've not mentioned the V-Synth yet.
Sweep: Possibly the best synth I've ever played, or at least the most versatile. So many possibilities, especially using samples as waveforms. You've heard me do everything from EMS Synthi stuff to ethnic instruments, of course. And then there's the signal processing side of things which we mentioned before. I'll use the V-Synth purely for processing other instruments, the built-in effects are so good.
The two Technics keyboards I mentioned before are an important part of my sound. At least, the KN750 is. The 720 is a little later, but it isn't as good - although it worked well enough for `Silbury Hill.' I'm very pleased with that one.
I've had the 750 since the mid 90s, and when I returned to making music back then it was my main instrument, with the Korg MS20 adding very occasional stuff to supplement it.
I find the acoustic and electric pianos very good on the 750. I did actually buy Native Instruments Bosendorfer piano software with a view to replacing the 750 piano with that, but I ended up continuing with the 750. The Bosendorfer software might be good with a really powerful computer, but as soon as I played with any speed or complexity it couldn't follow. But in any case I had a lot of problems with Native Instruments' software registration procedure and all things considered it just isn't a practical option. When I first got the Bosendorfer I had no problems registering it so I was authorised to use it, but later they changed things so you have to use their so-called `Service Center,' and if there's a fault with that then you're basically screwed because not only can't you use your software but you also can't notify Native Instruments of the problem because you have to use the Service Center to do that as well.
When I changed computers I spent two months getting Native Instruments to authorise my Bosendorfer piano and FM8 software.
CS: How long?
Sweep: Yes, two months before they sorted the problems. And it's not just the time. It's the hassle as well. I can switch on a Technics KN750 and it's there waiting for me to play whatever I'm capable of playing on a keyboard. It's been totally reliable since 1996 and I bought a spare one for £40. I was also able to put it into a gig bag and play a loft jam session with it last year.
CS: So software's become a nuisance?
Sweep: Yes. I feel a bit of a growing frustration with software, which isn't always the fault of the people who are making really good softsynths. The problem is the practical one of using computers to host the stuff - as well as pathetic nonsense like the Native Instruments thing I just mentioned. FM8 is brilliant, but if problems at NI mean you can't use it, it doesn't matter how brilliant it is.
Regarding computers themselves, I've been having a lot of problems with a corrupt Windows PC registry. The computer seems to be fine, but Windows keels over so often it's unuseable. So I've moved to a different PC while I get Windows reinstalled on the other one - and now there's a problem allocating icons to any softsynth that runs as a VST, because of a bug in Windows that's been there for years and never been fixed. I'm continuing with XP, but I'm told it's still not been fixed in Windows 7. So basically I'm wasting a lot of time and having my creativity interrupted by crap. And when I read synth forums it looks like getting a Mac wouldn't be the solution.
It's a problem because there's so much great software. Things like XILS3, for example. And the ChorX processor from the same company is brilliant as I mentioned earlier. I'm using that a lot now, with hardware as well as software.
But there are other softsynths I wouldn't want to be without. Arturia's 2600V is a prime example.
CS: So do you find software gives you things the hardware can't give, or is it just that the expense of hardware equivalents would be too much?
Sweep: Both - in different ways maybe. I'm not sure if I could get a hardware equivalent of the 2600V. A hardware ARP 2600 may do the job, but the Arturia does have features the hardware ARP never had, and the sound isn't the same. People criticise the Arturia by saying it doesn't sound like a 2600. I find it's ARP-like enough - something like `Rainfall at Hemingford Grey' is a good example. I was playing one of my hardware ARPs and wanted to do a sequencer thing with a similar sound to the one I had, and had to use the Arturia as I don't have a sequencer for the ARP hardware. But the sound is ARP-like. But it probably isn't an exact copy of a 2600, which is fine with me because I really like it as it is.
It has a really organic sound, which I find very useful. Also there's a feature for drawing your own modulation waveforms, which is superb. It would be great to have that on a hardware ARP synth, but as far as I know that isn't available in hardware. The nearest equivalent would be several blended LFO waveforms, probably with smoothed sample and hold in there. That would be interesting in itself, but would take a lot of hardware.
CS: Thinking of a lot of hardware, you mentioned layering different synths before.
Sweep: [Putting on a track from his digital recorder] Tell me what you think this is.
CS: Well it sounds like a Synclavier. But if that's you I know you haven't got one.
Sweep: It's the Yamaha TX81Z and Casio CTK 900, layered using MIDI. So it's clangy and metallic and choral as well, all at the same time.
CS: It's quite a breathtaking, impressive sound. And `expensive' sounding - which is what made me think of the Synclavier.
Sweep: Yes, I thought so when I found it as well. Actually less than £100 when you add the second-hand prices for the TX and the Casio. Still cheaper than a second-hand Synclavier, I suppose.
CS: You've said before that sounds and prices have little or even no relation. And some instruments are absurdly priced now, like the EMS Synthi, as you said. Which reminds me, what's happened to the Synthi emulation projects you were going to sell? You mentioned having projects with Frank Spears' Synthi A in them for the V-Synth.
Sweep: Yes, I may still do that. I've demoed them a bit on the second website, the Synthi site. They're all done on the V-Synth XT, so they need translating somehow to be used on the keyboard version, so I'd need to sort that. But yes, I should try getting people more aware of those. I've got a lot of them, some made with sounds I made and sampled myself on Frank Spears' Synthi A, and some done with software. But the software ones are quite amazing as well as the ones from the `real' EMS Synthi. And you can do more complex modulations than on a Synthi, as well as other sounds that you just couldn't get - except maybe with whatever EMS might have made if they'd survived into the 80s and made a polysynth, the Synthi equivalent of what Moog did with the MemoryMoog or something.
So yes, that's another area that I'd like to develop. I'd like to hear more Synthi stuff from people, and no-one can afford the things any more. So the V-Synth projects I did might be a solution to that.
CS: Finally with regard to synths, what about `phat' sounds?
Sweep: :D I wasn't expecting that one.
Yes, that's the whole area that irritates me with the Moog, and generally.
CS: Sometimes I wonder if the reason you haven't recorded more with the Moog is because of all this - how people are about Moogs.
Sweep: Possibly. I do sometimes seem to have a bit of a mental block on Moog lead sounds and basses. And I do seem to play the Moog more when I keep away from Internet synth forums.
Basically people go wild as soon as you say the word `Moog.' So there are people who just go `wow' as soon as the Moog gets mentioned, or people who say when they find out you play synthesisers "have you got a Moog?" - pronounced Moooog, like a cow, of course. :D
And then there are the people who play synths and think Moog is God. Any less than 100% comment about a Moog synth is blasphemy, somehow. I have to say I get sick of both those attitudes. Neither of them are anything to do with the music I play - or the music anybody plays, really - but I sometimes have to back off and let my distaste settle down.
CS: So Moog definitely isn't God. Certainly not for you, clearly.
Sweep: Moog definitely isn't. Even Bob Moog himself wasn't - I'm sure he'd have been very quick to say so. Definitely a remarkable man, and by all accounts a very likeable one as well as a man deserving of a lot of respect and gratitude. Moog synths are fine instruments. But they're not everything.
People go on about the `fat' Moog sound. Or `phat' if you insist on being silly and posey about it. But imagine if orchestral players talked like synth players: " Hey, man, saxophone's the thing. Saxophone is phat, man. Flute - that's just weedy, man, not phat at all. But really, really phat - that's trombone. Nothing else like it. Huge sound. Violin? - forget it. Get that really phat sound, man, trombone's the thing, even better than sax."
So you'd just have orchestras full of trombones - trombone symphonies, concertos for trombone and trombones. So it only plays one note - but what a note....
Don't even get me started on the tuba....
Ok, I'm exaggerating to make a point. A Moog synth will make a lot of different sounds. But the people who really layered Moog sounds together moved on to other synths as well, as time went on. Wendy Carlos certainly did. I can't remember the last time she actually used the Moog. She used a filter to process something else on Beauty in the Beast, and she put one note of Moog into her 2000 remake of Switched on Bach, in high spirits. But she hasn't made Moog music for decades. In her view it's been surpassed, and she had to make fantastic efforts to do what she did with it anyway. Tomita moved out to other synths in addition to the Moog within a few years. By Daphnis and Chloe at the end of the seventies he was using a lot of other stuff. Ditto Keith Emerson, though he does continue with the Moog modular, especially on stage where it's got the `wow' factor.
But the Moog modular and Moogs generally got a reputation for being able to make any sound, and they really don't. That was part of the early hype about synthesisers, and we really should have moved beyond that by now. I remember when Sonic Seasonings came out, many of us thought the Moog made every sound on the album - all the birds and waves and the rain and so on, not realising it was synth mixed with recordings of sounds of nature. It's still a magnificent achievement - it's one of my all-time favourite albums - but it wasn't what we thought it was, and Wendy Carlos would be the first to make that clear.
So there's a Moog mystique that's grown up. The fact that `Moog' became synonymous with `synthesiser' didn't help. I've heard a Mellotron referred to as a Moog, even an ARP synth referred to as a Moog - in an interview with the person who played the thing on a film soundtrack.... That didn't help with clarity.
So in the popular mind a Moog meant something mysterious and wonderful. An ARP or a Buchla or a Yamaha didn't have the same mystique. And even among actual synth players the mystique seems to be there in a modified form. I wouldn't be surprised if there are people getting angry with me for saying all this, or who've even stopped reading by now, because I don't make the Moog synth a god of some kind.
Basically this Moog here is a bloody great instrument. There's no doubt about that. But there are a lot of other bloody great instruments. There are also instruments people don't realise are great. That's the inverse of the Moog mystique, the bad reputation.
CS: We mentioned the internet forums. But you made a complete Moog album with Nick Braithwaite, who you met on-line originally.
Sweep: Yes, though not on a forum. Actually I think we'd better talk about this forum thing first, before we slag off a lot of people who don't deserve that.
I've learned a few important things from very helpful people on internet forums. They can be a very helpful source of information. I've also met people who've become friends online. And sometimes I've disagreed with people who I continue to respect nevertheless. The most extreme case would be one guy who can be a total pain. He does seem to have issues, and quite a few people have had problems with him. I've crossed swords with him. Other people have, or become exasperated. One guy even tried to help, in an exasperated sort of way. But that guy has some real skills as a synthesizer programmer and player. I gave a `like' to a YouTube thing of his the other day, quite simply because it was impressive, skilled, and informative. Whatever problems I and other people may have with the guy, he definitely has his excellent qualities.
The forums can also be full of arrogant idiots, and that's true of all forums, certainly not just synth ones. Unfortunately sometimes the better people don't stay because of that, and other decent people don't get to meet them because of that, so the standard remains poor. But the forums can be great places sometimes. Sometimes. :D
Regarding Nick Braithwaite, we met when he emailed me, after reading the interview on this site, I think it was. The album was interesting for being entirely Moog and nothing else.
CS: You seem to enjoy collaborations. Is being a solitary and mostly non-gigging musician isolating?
Sweep: I think it's a mixed blessing. On the whole I prefer it, though. Working alone I can focus entirely on the sudden and unpredictable nature of inspiration. Something suddenly happens with the music and I can just go for it. There's no need to quickly get together with a group of other musicians while the moment's happening.
The collaborations are very much the best of both worlds. They tend to happen when I share ideas and pieces of music with someone and then one of us compiles and produces the finished piece. So there's the sharing of ideas and the stimulus of doing something that wouldn't have happened alone, but also the opportunities to focus in solitude and peace that happen alone.
I do like the way someone else will come up with something unique. Sometimes it's a sound I couldn't make at all, like Lauren Edman's voice on `Tristan.' That wasn't exactly a collaboration. She'd given me some voice samples and what I did with them wasn't something we'd discussed. `Tristan' isn't really the kind of thing she'd have done herself, and I'm not even sure what she thinks of it. So it wasn't a collaboration as such.
The same would be true of Xavier Oudin and `Estuary.' That was his modulated filter demo of the Synthex software that he'd just completed and was about to make available for sale. I turned it into a piece by multitracking and looping it and adding music from another soft-synth of his, XILS3. So the main collaboration was in the ideas his demo inspired and the fact that I was using another of his instruments to respond to those ideas.
Voyager with Nick Braithwaite came out of some musical ideas he'd sent to me, so it was more of a shared thing. I was working with the Moog one day and what I was doing was influenced by what Nick had done, and the two things melted together.
The various Frank Spears pieces cover a range from a consciously and sustained approach with something like `Spring and Autumn,' which involved discussions and the passing back and two of WAV files at various stages of the work, to `Wave' which was done very much like the pieces with Nick, with me being inspired by Frank's Synthi recording and building the complete piece out of the encounter with that.
The next collaboration is likely to be with David Chasser Hesketh, who's released some CDs under the name Utopia, in a style he's labelled `English Ambient.' It's sort of ambient and rural, which I like very much. I've also been Welsh and even French ambient sometimes, but we'll probably stay with the English thing anyway. I really like his rootedness in the earth and nature generally.
I don't know how that will work, yet. I think we'll get together and try different ideas and see what happens. Maybe record things together or maybe record alone but based on what we've shared. He's specifically asked about the ARP synth, but who knows where things will lead? The music is the thing, and we don't know what that will be until it happens.
CS: I think collaborations can happen on many levels, not just by playing music together? What you've described seems to suggest that.
Sweep: I agree, definitely. I can think of a couple of very clear examples, actually. In one case a musician told me he has no recollection whatsoever of a piece he's supposed to have co-written. The other musician was a friend of his and I suspect it came out of some shared idea that had been forgotten but which was duly and commendably credited by the person who actually recorded the piece.
The other one is a piece by Brian Eno - I think it was `By This River.' It's credited to Eno and Hans-Joachim Rodelius. I read an interview with Rodelius a number of years ago and as I remember it, he said Eno had recorded the piece and given him a credit because he was in the studio and Eno said his being there had influenced the piece. That sounds very generous of Eno - and I think it was - but I can appreciate, I think, what Eno would have had in mind. Someone being there can make a massive difference, and someone's input to a piece can be quite substantial without them actively collaborating on it. In fact that probably happens all the time. We are who we are by relations with other people, and I'm sure I wouldn't make exactly he music I do if not for a whole number of other people.
CS: Maybe we're full circle again and back to what we were saying about the influence of people like Tim Blake.
Sweep: Yes, I think we are. Every musician we've heard who's had a positive influence, plus every other person we relate with on some deep level, is part of the creative process. As we've discussed before, creativity is about response. Response to the music and the instrument, response to other musicians who've become part of how we hear and feel, and also response to everyone else we're close to in some way.
And then response to everything else, I suppose. English Ambient, a response to the English countryside. Summer Skies, a response to - well, summer skies.
CS: So it's all a collaboration, really.
Sweep: It is. It seems that way, certainly.
CS: Returning specifically to musicians, are there any other musicians you plan to work with, or would want to work with?
Sweep: Well yes, there's a band, in fact, which also involves a collaboration with someone from another band, a `name' band - one that people have actually heard of. :D But that needs to be discussed further down the line, when we get to that point with the album.
I'd like to record something with Brad Gilbert, the guy who runs this website and has his own Infinite 9ths site, in fact. We discussed that when we first discussed and shared our music, but I was going to try something and evidently wasn't ready for that. He's another Moog player - Voyager and also Arturia Moog Modular V - and by this time I should be more in the area where I can come up with appropriate responses to his Moog work.
CS: What about other `name' people? Tim Blake? Wendy Carlos? I don't know - Whitesnake or somebody? What about Charlotte Church?
Sweep: Well, I'd happily try responding to anyone I respect. I don't know how that would work in practice, though.
Tim Blake - I do actually want to do a `remix' of something of his, one of the pieces from Caldea. I was playing the opening part on piano once and thought about playing the first couple of minutes myself and then bringing in his original recording for the more rhythmic part, with my synth sounds added. Of course I don't know how he'd feel about that, but I should try it anyway and then ask him.
Wendy Carlos has her own work and her own schedules. It'd be an honour, of course. A massive honour, but it'd never happen. Not to me, and she's barely done that with anyone, in fact. I'd never even thought about it until you suggested it just now. I'd love to do it, but it's about as likely as flying round the Andes on a condor. So no, it'd never happen - but in the abstract terms of would I do it, well of course, yes.
Whitesnake? Why did you suggest Whitesnake? I don't really know anything of theirs.
CS: Just a suggestion. I was just casting about for someone totally unlikely and the name just came up. But anyone else unlikely. Maybe Hawkwind then?
Sweep: You're thinking of rock bands as unlikely. And yes, they would be. But Hawkwind would be possible - feasible, I should maybe say. I did even cover one of their things, `Awakening.' Which reminds me, I must re-do that with a better mix so the vocals stand out more. It was done as a demo for XILS3, but it needs balancing properly. So yes, that one's possible. But not so likely, I think. I can't really see Dave Brock or whoever suddenly emailing me and saying "hey, how about doing a track or two." But if it happened I'd be game for it.
I'd be game with anyone I respect if I thought it could work musically. You also mentioned Charlotte Church as your last example. Again unlikely, but who knows? Yes, I'd try it, happily. I did in fact try doing some Synthi stuff with a recording of her singing `Summertime' once. I had an unaccompanied performance of hers and tried using that. It was an odd, interesting experiment. Perhaps not as odd as the version of `Summertime' she did with Nigel Kennedy once, if you've heard that?
CS: No, I didn't know they had.
Sweep: I think it was the Brit awards or something, quite a few years ago. I suspect he just got her to sing and what he did was as much of a surprise to her as to everyone else. He played around her, really weird experimental stuff. Quite amazing and very creative. That's actually the link between Charlotte Church and Kate Bush, come to think of it, as Nigel Kennedy's worked with both of them now. Of course she's worked with masses of people, very many major names.
CS: I didn't think of her. I suppose there's no question?
Sweep: You mean would I work with Kate Bush? If the world suddenly became wonderful and all my birthdays came at once? :D But of course you don't need to ask. I'd be there like a shot. I owe her a kindness anyway - assuming my sounds on one of her tracks would be a kindness. :D
CS: I think they would be.
Sweep: But we could speculate about this all day. I think your point was to ask how far out of my usual kinds of music I'd go?
CS: Yes, that exactly. I think we've answered that now - well, you have. But I'm forgetting - there's already a Hayley Westenra collaboration....
Sweep: Of sorts. Another `remix.' Yes, I'd love to do something with that one as well.
CS: It's odd because it does sound so much like you.
Sweep: I used the Lexicon reverb to process one of her songs, which is why the orchestral parts have that long wavery sustain that you hear in some of my work. And why it lasts about half an hour. :D I mentioned it to the guy who was her manager at the time, who said the record company are the people to speak to. I'd need a specific name at Decca, though. No good just sending stuff to any major record company at random. No-one ever seems to reply unless you speak to someone directly and personally. I really should find a suitable name. The name's all I need. I can speak to anyone in the business, usually, if I have that.
CS: I think you've done that with someone at Universal - as well as Sony of course? Isn't Decca part of Universal?
Sweep: I think it is. So yes, just a name and I'm in business. I can't imagine Hayley's people really going for a half hour ambient orchestral wavery thing, though. Can you?
CS: Well maybe not. I don't know. I like it, though. I can imagine a lot of other people thinking it's beautiful. It is beautiful.
Sweep: Thanks. So maybe.
CS: Which reminds me. You were actually going to do a collaboration with a young soprano - [name deleted].
Sweep: Yes, I was. I suppose that's as odd as anything else we've discussed. I would have enjoyed doing that, and I'm sorry it didn't happen. I don't think we should mention her by name because she chose to retire from the music business and she might not welcome any references to things now. I handled that badly, I think. I should have got together with her and discussed just what she needed, instead of sending her demos with almost blank areas for her to do her own vocal parts over a bare accompaniment. I treated her like the kind of improvising musician I've tended to work with, and she's a different kind of musician. But I'm sorry that didn't work out and I'd be happy to try again if she decides she wants to make that next
album. In fact I'd be happy to buy another CD from her anyway if she ever makes another one, whether I'm on it or not.
But how did we get onto all of this anyway? Weren't we supposed to be talking about instruments?
CS: And techniques, and I think the collaborations with other musicians came out of the techniques.
Sweep: Yes, I think we'd established how inter-related it all is.
CS: If you'd like to get back to instruments - well, we still need to talk about other instruments than synthesisers anyway, but I do have another synth question that I haven't asked you yet.
Sweep: Before we move on to cello and sitar...
CS: And psaltery and guitar and things you hit and blow down. :D
Sweep: Yes, so what's the other question?
CS: Do you think complexity can become an end in itself? A distraction? Complexity of synth design, I mean.
Sweep: Yes, very definitely. In fact every sound made with a synthesiser can become a distraction. YouTube is full of that. Count the number of sound videos with synths, and the number of music videos. The actual music is a tiny fraction of the total. And often the number of modules seems to be in inverse proportion to the musicality of the sounds being made.
CS: You said once about a Buchla demo - what was it? Like a cat juggling in a scrapyard?
Sweep: I think it may have been a three-legged cat juggling in a scrapyard? There was an odd faltering rhythm to it, like it was hopping about and likely to fall over at any moment. And it was mostly weird meowing sounds and scrap metal noises.
Actually I'd quite like a Buchla to see if it's possible to make music with it. Actually to be fair a few people have. Richard Lainhart seemed to be able to play it with skill and sensitivity.
But certainly it does seem that the more complex an instrument is, the more it takes to understand it and play it instead of it taking over and generating random noises - or just plain ugly noises.
But synthesisers are also a bit of a boys' club anyway, a bit like powerful cars You get people who just want to rev their engine to show you what a powerful car they've got. Then you get people on YouTube playing one note on a CS80 and saying how great it sounds, and then other people commenting. You can make music with one note, actually, if you play with sensitivity. But these are people who just want to rev the thing, holding one key down and that's it. Freud probably had a word for it. Or Adler - he was the one who really recognised compensation and inferiority.
To be fair, sometimes that's justified. Sometimes the point is just to demonstrate a sound, or a range of sounds. But much of the time it's people being impressed with a noise, with no thought whatsoever of music having anything to do with it. :D
It's a definite hazard of using synthesisers. A similar hazard with any instrument is technique for its own sake. But with synthesisers you can fall into the trap without having any technique whatsoever. :D
CS: You often say people forget a synthesiser is an instrument and not just `equipment.'
Sweep: I do. In fact a lot of people talk about `equipment,' whether it's synths or guitars or whatever. I think there's a sort of `hard' quality to it, sort of "look at me I'm streetwise, tough, making my statement, using my equipment..." Any sense of musical sensitivity being involved in that would spoil the hard edge.
It's a question worth asking, I think: Is this person actually musically sensitive? Do they play an `instrument,' a thing that helps them to explore sensitively and develop some kind of human response? Or is what they use to make sound a piece of equipment like a sledgehammer or a machine gun to force other people into submission. Basically an instrument is a way for a person to open up to the music and become part of something bigger than their ego. Equipment is a means for ego to assert itself.
I think it says a lot about people what terminology they use. Some `musicians' seem a bit embarrassed about the notion of playing an instrument, being musically sensitive.
You know, as I'm saying this I keep thinking about AC/DC. That's interesting. You get their lyrics - typical rock lyrics, which they do so well with all the posing and bombast - and it's all artillery and phallic posing and so on, and the guitar's fast and flashy. And yet Angus Young's such a genuinely superb, musical guitar player. There's subtlety in there - in the delicate bends that give expression, for example. Not the typical heavy guitar bends, though they're superbly done as well, but the little,
subtle bends he can put in, the inflexions. And his use of muting, which he does so well.
I'm thinking of all of that because of what we were saying - well, what I was saying - about phallic posing and so on. Here's someone who does that because of the style of music, but it's done with balance, done consciously, done with humour, and done with tremendous skill.
CS: So you'd work with Angus Young? :D Sorry, I just had to hark back to that.
Sweep: I'm not sure that it would work, but yes, I would. I have a great deal of respect for the man.
CS: It's not easy to respect a man in short trousers.
Sweep: He's a guitar genius now. Just think what he could be like by the time he gets into long trousers. :D
CS: I'd have expected you to mention someone like Steve Hillage as a guitar genius.
Sweep: Oh yes, definitely. No question about that. And someone I'm more likely to be listening to.
CS: I think this brings us neatly to the guitar. Your first instrument.
Sweep: It was - but I really did want to be a synthesiser player, right back then. But guitars were cheap and synthesizers in the old days were fantastically expensive. So I was still at school and I got a cheap classical guitar for my birthday or whatever.
It was a good move, in a way. I learned a bit about music theory, and I can play guitar as well as keyboards. I was a fairly competent classical guitarist, actually....
CS: You can still hear that when you pick one up - on those rare occasions. You should play it more often.
Sweep: I may do something for classical guitar and electronics. I've had some ideas for that.
CS: And electric guitar? You've recorded with that occasionally.
Sweep: I really need an electric with a much wider neck, like a classical guitar. It's ok for leads, but anything else and my fingers are too wide. That's why I like playing bass.
CS: You play bass interestingly - not typically, but maybe I shouldn't be surprised at that.
Sweep: Well, Watching the Ducks Land was a bit unusual, I suppose, using the bass to trigger electronic bird sounds on the V-Synth.
CS: Plus some nice use of harmonics.
Sweep: Yes, I do like bass guitar harmonics. The whole Jaco Pastorius thing.
CS: Your inspiration was Mike Oldfield for bass, though?
Sweep: In a way, yes. Well, very definitely yes, but other people as well, like Hugh Hopper, Miroslav Vitous... The important thing about Mike Oldfield was the way he uses bass like a lead instrument. It turns out he started as a guitarist and he just applied that to bass, but it works very well. On Hergest Ridge it certainly does.
CS: So are we going to hear more bass in your music?
Sweep: Yes, very definitely, though I'm not sure how yet.
That applies to a few other instruments as well. Bowed psaltery is something I really like and want to use, but it hasn't quite fitted in yet. The same with sitar.
I tried the violin, but I found it very difficult visually. I can't focus on where my fingers are and I just go crosseyed trying. I picked it up again the other night and I'm intending to clip a tuner to it so I can learn the thing by feel and not sight, feeling where my fingers are and getting the notes right that way.
But in any case with the bowed psaltery I found I much prefer it to a violin for my kinds of music because you have several strings vibrating. I like strings vibrating in sympathy, making rich overtones.
CS: You tend to play guitar like that, with open bass strings and so on.
Sweep: It's another aspect of what happens with the echo with synthesisers. Not just the one note, but lots of related sounds in harmony.
CS: Like the drone, the bourdon in old music.
Sweep: Exactly. In early and traditional music, and also in bagpipe music and Indian classical with the tambura and so on. This rich harmonic ground. So the psaltery gives me that richness, but it somehow hasn't quite fitted into the things I've recorded yet.
CS: You mentioned the sitar for the same reason. Instruments have a way of coming into your music unexpectedly, having prepared themselves in the background. I was waiting for the shakuhachi, and that came into `The Sacred Yew,' when you were originally thinking of the Moog instead, as you said before. And I know you have that stuff with the shakuhachi samples on the Casio synth. Other flute sounds as well. Sometimes you just use an instrument once and never again, or very rarely, like the suling on `Indonesian Rainfall.'
Sweep: That was a Christmas present one year, and I was playing it and had some ideas, and decided to make that piece. There's some electronically processed tambourine on there as well.
CS: Which you have used since. You did a piece just for tambourine - though that's not at all what it sounds like - for `The Twelve Uses of Dragon's Blood.' Which also used bowed psaltery on some of the other sections. What happened to `Twelve Uses'?
Sweep: It'll appear eventually. The music somehow isn't ready yet. Like `Hayley Dreams of Japanese Gardens,' which I had to re-record after talking with Hayley's manager, when the whole thing suddenly came together. `Twelve Uses' somehow hasn't gelled together yet.
CS: So the sitar? And more cello?
Sweep: Sitar will happen in my music, one way or another. I love the sound and the responsiveness of the instrument, the expression.
Cello I do want to use again. Again, I love the sound. But it hasn't fitted again yet, though I have some ideas. Plus I had some problems with the bridge and I've tuned down to baroque tuning for a while to ease the string tension because of that.
CS: So all this will happen at some point? Many other instruments. Actually I'd forgotten the plucked psaltery and the hammered dulcimer. You used both of those on `Evanna Lynch.'
Sweep: Yes, that worked well. And I really like the sound of both those instruments. I'll be using them again, definitely. And David [Chasser Hesketh] also plays hammered dulcimer, so it may appear in our joint work, played by him.
CS: He also plays harp, another of your loves.
Sweep: Yes. I'd like to play harp myself, but money is against it for now. But the harp sounds on `Spring Meadows' worked very well.
CS: They did. And that was the Casio again - amazingly.
Sweep: That was one of the first things I discovered about it. It's capable of an amazing harp sound, which I've used on a couple of occasions now - the middle section of `Georgina Watson' as well. And treated with an acoustic simulator it makes a good metal stringed harp. And I can also get a good bray harp sound. So plenty more possibilities there.
CS: With all these instruments and all these ideas you should have a lot more music developing. And it does seem to keep flowing.
Sweep: I have more ideas than I have time to deal with. I've masses of ideas written down, as well as bits of things recorded and not finished. And the creativity never stops - thankfully. There's so much that's possible, and seems worth doing.
CS: I think I'd better let you get on with it, then. :D
Sweep: Thanks. I think what we've said seems to cover a lot of interesting areas. I hope so.