Drёm (drempsb) wrote in some_spec,
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Pet Shop Synthesis

As we move into an era where a small laptop computer can store and generate any sound imaginable, it’s easy to forget that 20 years ago you needed to be very lucky or very rich to possess the equipment to achieve what we can do now with the click of a mouse. If you look back at Neil and Chris’s performance on the BBC’s “Old Grey Whistle Test” you can see the sheer volume of equipment required to reproduce a passable version of their early songs like “Opportunities” or “Later Tonight”. What you don’t see is the blood, sweat and tears that when into programming and setting up those synthesizers. The synthesizers of the 1980’s might have been unique, some even say “classic”, but they were also expensive, cumbersome and bloody difficult to get synchronised.
When looking at the equipment used by the Pet Shop Boys we must start with the Fairlight CMI. The Pet Shop Boys chose to work with the Fairlight CMI music computer widely, but not exclusively. Ok so who didn’t use the Fairlight in the 1980’s? A whole industry had sprouted around this machine; companies hired them out, specialist programmers had to be employed to work the machine, someone had to move 50-70kg of gear around, but almost everybody used them. As I remember the “Old Grey Whistle Test” performance features a CMI IIx, but Neil and Chris would have more commonly used a series III machine after 1985. The Fairlight features on just about every Pet Shop Boys record until around 1993; when the Fairlight finally succumbed to new technology. Chris even bought a series III around 1988 and used it as his home studio to record and create songs with. With a 60,000 pounds price tag the series III [right] it was not a small investment.
Happily the aural evidence seems to suggest that Neil and Chris got use from their Fairlight in many ways. The drums on the Fairlight were considered to be some of the best samples around in the 1980’s and as a consequence they appear all over the albums “Please” and “Actually”. The string samples are also employed frequently on these two albums; most notably on the song “It Couldn’t Happen Here” which, due to time restrictions, could not be recorded with a real orchestra. The Fairlight had to be programmed to mimic the orchestra note by note, attack by attack, and instrument by instrument. It achieved a very passable imitation of a full orchestra, something Chris liked: as whilst the Fairlight sounded ‘real’, it also retained a unique timbre. The sequencer was another of the Fairlight’s strengths, whole songs could be sequenced and stored to disk simply and quickly. However this synth isn’t famous for these reasons: it’s famous because of its ability to sample. Songs such as “It’s a Sin” would sound very bare if it wasn’t for the Fairlight, its sampling capabilities were crucial to its success. The Fairlight’s main competitor was the Synclavier II (favourite of Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk) but Neil and Chris stuck to the Fairlight as the centre piece of their studio for years. That is not to say they did not use other sample based keyboards and samplers.
The EMU Emulator, Emulator II and Emulator II+ were great favourites of the Pet Shop Boys. The strings on the Emulator II feature on many early Pet Shop Boys records and we can see Chris playing an Emulator II+ as they appeared on the Channel 4 show “The Tube” [left]. The Emulator also generated the saxophone sounds on “Confidential” and “Do I Have To?”, the sound effects in “Suburbia”, the French Horns on “Tonight Is Forever”, guitars on “So Hard”, the piano on “Later Tonight” and the trumpet solo on “West End Girls”. The list goes on and on. However, the Akai samplers of the late eighties and early nineties formed the back bone of the live set up for the Performance and the MCMXLXXXIX tours. These flexible and relatively inexpensive samplers offered much more versatility and clarity of sound than the Emulators. Eventually Akai killed off the EMU Emulator both in the Pet Shop Boys set up and in the music industry in general.
In their early recordings the PPG Wave [right] also features frequently. This was one of the first keyboards Neil and Chris bought in around 1984. The PPG was a digital polyphonic instrument with a unique sound; it is still highly revered as an exceptional instrument. The PPG wave inspired Neil to write the chords for “Tonight Is Forever” and in turn Chris used the PPG to generate the bass and organ sounds on the track “Violence”. The PPG was one of the first utilizable digital synthesizers, and along with the Fairlight and the Emulator it was responsible for the unique sound of the Pet Shop Boys first album from conception through to final recording.
Coinciding with the start of the Pet Shop Boys career was the widespread use of digital synthesizers. For most of us growing up the eighties, digital synthesis meant cheap Yamaha portable keyboards. These nasty little keyboards tended to rely on the Frequency Modulation approach to synthesis in which a sine wave is modulated by one or more secondary waveforms. The pinnacle of FM synthesis was the Yamaha DX7, and the less common DX1 and DX5. The picture on the left shows Neil and Chris performing with a DX7 in 1987 and they also used its big brother the DX1 on the recording of “The Old Gery Whistle Test”. Of their early recordings “Rent” features the DX7 quite heavily; the harmonica on “Why Don’t We Live Together?” and “If There Was Love” by Liza Minnelli and the bass on the original “Eighth Wonder” version of “I’m Not Scared” are also from the DX7. A little later in their career the “Solid Bass” patch from a DX synthesizer was featured on the “Bilingual” album of 1996. When Chris says of “To Step Aside”: “The bassline is from a keyboard that you only buy for that bass sound” it suggests the machine may be a DX100 or DX27 which feature only one useful sound: “Solid Bass”. But Pete Gleadall did use a Yamaha TX81Z for the bass on “Up Against It” and this is essentially an expanded rack mount version of the DX100/27. Knowing Chris’s sketchy memory, it may well have been this module rather than a “keyboard” that was used.
In 1990 digital synthesizers and samplers were the mainstay of the recording industry, a kind of mini revolution had begun as affordable samplers from Akai swamped the market. And where were the Pet Shop Boys at this time? They were locked up in a shed in Berlin with a very large collection of analogue synthesizers. Neil and Chris decided that they wanted something “cleaner” for the “Behaviour” album and that pulsating analogue synthesizers were the way to go. Red Deer studio was the home of esteemed producer Harold Faltermeyer who was also an analogue synthesizer enthusiast. The sounds used on the “Behaviour” album remain a mix of analogue and the decidedly digital. In terms of analogue synthesis the nearest they came to their goal was the track “Miserablism” but ironically enough this was cut from the LP and issued as a B side a year or so later. It appears that the majority of distinctly analogue sounds on the album were derived from the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and a Roland system 700.
Faltermeyer also used the Fairlight’s arch enemy the Synclavier II [right] ensuring the album was not going to be an entirely analogue affair. Many of the drum samples on this album are generated and sequenced using the Synclavier. Despite their continued use of the Fairlight this was not Neil and Chris’s first encounter with the Synclavier: Trevor Horn and Steven Lipson had used this instrument whilst producing “Left To My Own Devices”.
Yet, to me the “Behaviour” era is more important as it signals the arrival of a machine that would go on to feature on every Pet Shop Boys record to this very day: the Roland TR909. “It Must Be Obvious” was the first Pet Shop Boys track I remember to specifically use the 909, it sounded awesome. Later releases brought us “The End of the World” “Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend” and “Was it worth it?” all of which featured the unique sounds of the TR909. This drum machine soon became ubiquitous in both contemporary dance music and also Pet Shop Boys recordings. Another drum machine featured heavily on the “Behaviour” album was the Roland TR808, an analogue machine regarded (alongside the TR909) as one of the greatest analogue drum machines ever produced. This is because of their distinctive sound and excellent user interface. Another classic analogue machine much used by contemporary dance or specifically “acid house” was the Roland TB303 Bassline. This machine features on many tracks by Neil and Chris but it made its first appearance on “The Sound of the Atom Splitting” in 1988.
In terms of analogue synthesizers the Roland MKS80 “Super Jupiter” [left] has to be the Pet Shop Boys favourite. The huge resonated sweeps on “Paninaro” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” or the filtered sweep on “Was It worth It?” come from this amazing rack mounted machine. The sheer number of MKS80 generated sounds on “Where the Streets Have No Name” means it is practically a demo for the machine. Another favourite analogue synth is the Roland Juno 106 which was responsible for the bassline on songs such as “It Always Comes as a Surprise”.
As we move into the 1990’s the Korg M1 begins to appear increasingly in Neil and Chris’s studio set up. The Performance tour of 1990 and the album “Very” of 1993 rely heavily on the sound of the Korg M1 (more specifically the rack mounted version the M1r) [right]. The song “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing” features the ‘finger snap’ sound; “A Different Point Of View” uses the M1’s choir patch; “The Theatre” also features one of the many choir related presets to be found in the M1. Other Pet Shop Boys songs which feature the M1 include: “Where the Streets Have No Name” (choir sounds again), “Discoteca” (acoustic guitar), again the list goes on and on. Interestingly, many of the factory preset sounds on the M1 were programmed by Pete Schwartz who later went on to become the musical director for the “Nightlife” world tour in 2000.
The other key elements in the “Very” album’s sound were the Yamaha TG33, Yamaha TG500 and the Midimoog. The Yamaha modules provided the string sounds (except where real orchestra was used obviously) on this and the “Relentless” album. In contemporary interviews Pet Shop Boys programmer Pete Gleadall would stay very tight lipped concerning the source of string sounds on the album, even going as far as omitting the TG33 from the kit list. The TG33 is a cheap sound module intended for home users more than professionals; the TG500 on the other hand, is at the other end of the range offering higher quality sounds. The TG500 also features on “Bilingual” producing some guitar sounds on “It Always Comes as a Surprise” and “To Step Aside”. The Studio Electronics Midimoog is a powerful analogue synthesizer; it is essentially a modern reproduction of the original Minimoog. Listen to the bass on “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing” or “Dreaming of the Queen” to get an idea of this monophonic classic. Rumour had it that Neil and Chris bought three of these monsters with the intention of using them on tour. The cover of “DJ Culture” shows us how Neil and Chris changed their live “pod” system following the Performance tour to include the Midimoog, a MKS80 programming module and the Waldorf Microwave.
Piano sounds around this time were obtained from the EMU Performance Plus specialist piano module. Neil in particular likes its “mellow” sound, it is also a favourite of Moby amongst others. However, Bob Kraushaar the albums engineer, often had to mix the sounds of the Roland JV1080 piano over the top of the EMU to make the sound brighter on the “Bilingual” album. The “Very” album also used samples of another classic analogue drum machine the Roland CR78. For the track “To Speak Is a Sin” Pete Gleadall sampled the sounds from the machine and programmed them from his Akai S900 sampler. These samples were also later used on “It Always Comes as a Surprise” on the “Bilingual” album.
With the advancement of digital synthesis, the Fairlight became somewhat redundant. The Apple Macintosh computer along with Logic Audio software became the chief sequencing and recording package in the studio for “Very”. Songs Chris had written on his Fairlight were dumped into Logic and instruments assigned accordingly as the Failight was difficult to get synchronised with the other instruments in the studio. As time has moved on the Logic system has been replaced by Pro Tools with its distinctive “auto tune” feature which can be used to alter the tuning of vocals in a very characteristic was somewhat similar to the properties of a vocoder synthesizer. Using auto tune for this purpose has brought criticism from many quarters as it has been seen as copying Cher’s hit “Belive” or simply to disguise poor vocals (a criticism directed at Victoria Beckham).
Yet Neil and Chris first used a vocoder on the album “Actually” on the tracks such as “I Want to Wake Up” and “Shopping” back in 1987. Whilst the effect on Neil’s vocals is entirely different, it still equates to vocal processing. Which vocoder the Pet Shop Boys used is not entirely clear but the Korg VC10 seems a likely candidate or possibly (but less likely) the Roland VP330.
Today Neil and Chris utilise a variety of gear including the Nord Lead 2, Nord Lead 3, Nord Electro, Korg Triton and many more. Currently there is a vogue for modern equipment with an old analogue sound and instruments such as the Nord’s fulfil this market demand. Analogue modelling synthesis an attempt to recreate the sound of instruments such as the Minimooog using digital technology. But the Pet Shop Boys also use a new “true” analogue instrument in the form of the Alesis A6 Andromeda [left]. ‘Virtual’ instruments that run within the architecture of computers are also a favoured part of Neil and Chris’s current set up. The sounds of the PPG Wave are now generated by a ‘plug in’ computer program rather than a giant lumbering keyboard and processor unit.
In the recent Release tour Chris also played a Fender Rhodes electric piano, a classic sounding instrument from the 1970’s. Neil and Chris seem to be following the current trend towards analogue synthesis married with Pro Tools technology to create a distinctive and modern sound. But will the Fairlight ever reappear? I doubt it.

автор: Гарет Эдвардз (Gareth P. Edwards)
год публикации: 2005
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Tags: 2005, btw, txt
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