Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, released in 1973, set trends for a new generation of composers and instrumentalists, and opened the eyes of the public to a range of musical styles previously unconsidered. His combination of influences, from folk and rock music to the minimalism of Philip Glass and Terry Riley, led to the almost single handed production of an album which still sounds fresh and new today.
All this despite the fact that Tubular Bells used no synthesizers, no computers and none of the high-tech mixdown hardware which Oldfield now has available in his private studio just outside London. After its massive success, Oldfield followed up with an album which was more orchestral in feel, Hergest Ridge; then with Ommadawn, he introduced more keyboards and synthesizers which paradoxically had a folk-oriented feel.
Subsequent Oldfield albums have tastefully utilized whatever new technology has become available. The LinnDrum, the vocoder and the guitar synthesizer have all had their parts to play, although for the last few years (during the production of such albums as Discovery, Crises and the film soundtrack for "The Killing Fields"), the Series II Fairlight CMI has been dominant.
His most recent album, Islands, is a showcase for two relatively new pieces of high-tech; the Harrison Series X (Series 10) mixing console and the Series III Fairlight. This is particularly so in the case of "The Wind Chimes Pts. 1&2" which takes up the whole of Side One on which he has also used several MIDI synths as well as a few human musicians.
Oldfield's latest product is a full-length video to accompany the album, created on his in-house video computers. He's spent about $4,000,000.00 on video equipment including a Quantel Mirage driven by a Hewlett-Packard computer, an Aurora 280, a Zeno, a CMX, a Fairlight Computer Video Instrument and four Sony 1" editing recorders. A confirmed workaholic, he spends most of his time either playing music or creating new visual images with his graphics computers.
Yet when Oldfield's first album Tubular Bells was released, a few voices were raised against the apparent self-indulgence involved in producing a one-man album. But with modem MIDI equipment this process is quite common; so perhaps Oldfield's original intentions have been vindicated.
"What I did was an electronic version of the one-man band with a bass drum under his foot and a cymbal under his elbow. But Paul McCartney had made an album before Tubular Bells where he played everything ... drums and bass and guitars and piano, so I don't understand this term 'self-indulgent'. It's just creativity and I don't feel any need to apologize for it".
Now that MIDI has given many of us the potential to create one-man-band pieces, perhaps Oldfield feels closer to the mainstream of music than he has been?
"Well, most things are now produced by one-man-bands, but I don't hear a lot of interesting music coming out of it. A lot of commercial music is done with Synclaviers and Fairlights, but it's only when you try to really use them and push them that the music becomes interesting".
He's certainly avoided the danger of becoming too insular, since he still uses other musicians such as the flautist Bjorn J:Son Lindh and percussionists Pierre and Venoit Moerlen. But his main criteria for choosing to use other musicians rather than machines are very practical.
"There's a slight danger with synthesizers that everything sounds a bit mechanical. I believe people are writing programs now which upset the timing clicks so they're not so precise. I like to use a few live sections and cut them in between the sequenced stuff and, I always play the guitar live as I'm basically a guitarist. There are certain other things where it's much quicker to overdub than to program it in".
Oldfield seems primarily interested in expression and so, knows exactly when to mix a "live" performer in with the machines.
"There's no substitute for real musicians - it has to do with all the little subtleties in between the notes. A sample will play just one note and can be a bit monotonous, but a flute is a very expressive instrument. If you've got a synth part you may as well sequence it because it's a machine anyway. But if you've got a real acoustic instrument, it's a different matter".
"But a lot of it is just for the sake of speed. It takes considerable time to get a musician in, mike him up and get him to learn his part. It could take six hours when you could do it in two minutes just by calling up a sample. If the thing is going to be part of a texture in the background you may as well do it on a machine. But if it's a lead solo part, it's infinitely better to have a real person".
Oldfield's studio is based around the Series III Fairlight now, although in the past he has experimented with other machines for sampling and sequencing.
"I use the Fairlight for sequencing, so I haven't needed an Amiga or Atari. I used to use the Linn 9000 - a friend of mine in Germany, Michel Cretu, used it all the time, and there's something about that machine that's very musical in the timing. Once on the Fairlight we put down an oscillating pulse, something like 64 times every four bars, and as the bars changed the thing would slow down very slightly, and when you quantized things the attacks of the notes sometimes got lost. They've improved it now, but I used the Linn a few times instead and it's a very natural sounding sequencer".
"The sequencer page on the Fairlight III is fine; I've had a Fairlight since 1979 and had every new software release, so I've grown with the machine and I'm fairly quick on it now. But if I was to start straight away and learn on it, it would take quite a while".
Oldfield went on to explain how the construction of his music is shared between sequenced and overdubbed tracks.
"About 60% of the music is sequenced and when I'm making a 21 minute instrumental, I often make up a skeleton of sequenced bits so I can just get a picture of what the whole thing's going to be like, then start overdubbing things on top so it's got a human feel to it. I could equally well play everything. The trouble is that I'm like a kid with a toy, I like to sit there with a keyboard and make like a magician - press a key and out comes the music. So I'm a sort of technology freak".
"On the songs, I seem to spend days just trying to get the machine to have a feel; it seems to be something to do with the relationship in time between various bits of percussion, sequencers and bass parts and you have to really play with those. The Fairlight can't shift things in relation to each other in small enough degrees, so I keep running each individual track off to tape, synchronized to time code and changing the trigger delay; two milliseconds back or forward can make a big difference to the feel of a song".
"You spend a lot of time tweaking it until it has the right feel and that's very important for a song, especially if you're trying to go for a commercial song. Apart from that, the only difference between the instrumentals and songs is that the songs have vocals and lyrics instead of a guitar or some other instrument".
Potentially Oldfield could mix much of his music down "live" from the Fairlight via the Harrison board, but prefers to commit himself to multi-track tape before mixing.
"I've done little things on the Fairlight playing live, but I'm still a bit suspicious of it being 100% in sync so it's safer to have it on tape. But the board is a magnificent machine. I had some little problems to start with on the software, which was unreliable. You'd be listening to your mix and all of a sudden the drums would go "whoomph" and blast the room to pieces. Luckily, they sorted all those problems out and it's fantastic now - I mixed a whole instrumental in one pass with EQ's, pans, echo sends, routing, chopping and changing, and it was great. The only trouble with that is that the mix information got so big that it would take two minutes to merge if you just wanted to change one pan position".
Oldfield's compositional methods haven't been changed by the Fairlight, although he has used it to create a "modern" version of the opening of Tubular Bells as his video logo.
"When I listen to Tubular Bells now, it sounds as if it was made on sequencers, because there's a lot of repetition in the individual parts. So it is a temptation to do a complete new version; the only trouble is if it didn't come out very successful, it would spoil the whole thing. I think it's nicer to leave it as it is; it's a minor classic in its way, so I'd like to leave it like that".
One of Oldfield's trademarks has been his sonic inventiveness, although as he admits
"I do use a lot of factory sounds. But if you want a specific sound like a modified sine wave, you can spend half an hour trying to get that on the Fairlight fiddling about with the harmonics, but it's very quick to get it on a MIDI-controlled analog synth like a Super Jupiter. I sequence that from the Fairlight along with the other sounds; it's a bit time consuming to modify sampled sounds, apart from filters, vibrato and things like that".
The Fairlight sequences Oldfield's other synths via MIDI, but most of the percussion comes from the Fairlight itself. Since this only has 16 voices he often does several passes and copies the sounds down on tape;
"On "The Wind Chimes" I'd have used the Fairlight probably twice: but the piece is arranged in relatively short sections because the board allowed me to change the complete setup in milliseconds if I wanted to".
The composition of "The Wind Chimes" is a tale in itself.
"I really like ethnic sounds and I'd heard a lot about the music of Bali and Indonesia, so I travelled out there with a small film crew and recorded pictures of all the musicians and the dancers. We brought back a very nice stereo soundtrack and I spent a few weeks just picking samples off the sound track and experimenting with those; that was the starting point, and a lot of the pieces are based on their Gamelan scale which was very inspiring".
Oldfield has just completed a full-length video to accompany Islands, but thanks to the use of the Fairlight/Harrison combination the album seemed a little too complex to tour with.
"There was a lot of interest in America but it's very expensive to tour as you need a certain number of people and machines to do justice to the music" - but a tour to accompany the next album is quite likely. "I'm probably going to make two albums this time, a song album plus an instrumental album, and put them out within a couple of months of each other".
Oldfield is now much more interested in creating his own videos than in working for films; he didn't enjoy compromising his soundtrack for "The Killing Fields", although he's now quite pleased with the music. Although his music has been used in many other films, he hasn't composed specially for any other productions.
His career as a songwriter really started on Platinum.
"I just wanted to start experimenting with song writing. It used to annoy me that I couldn't write, songs, and it was very helpful promotion for the album. I set about learning how to do it, I talked to people, I got a few reference books like a rhyming dictionary and a book of synonyms, and set about it very methodically. At first they were very complex songs, rather like little operas - I couldn't bring myself to write a simple song. But "Moonlight Shadow" was probably the first simple song I ever wrote, and that was very successful".
Yet Oldfield refuses to allow his music to fit into a category, be it "New Age" or any other. What is it that makes his music different?
"I think when I'm making a piece of instrumental music I'm very honest with myself, it's really all an expression of myself, my mind, body and spirit, it's almost like a religion to me - I go in there and I switch off reality and exist in this musical world. I'm not trying to copy anybody, I'm not trying to do anything, just turning on the music and out it comes. There's all the technical things you have to go through to get there, but I'd still rather rub something off if it felt it wasn't 100% my spirit, and if more people would do that in their own music, one instrumental album would be completely different from another; a lot of things now tend to sound the same".
Oldfield has a few special techniques for modifying his sounds - such as writing. sequences for a whistle sound and replaying it on a gong to see what happens - and also works very much with Compact Discs in mind.
"Before CD's, a little board or compressor hiss would be lost in the surface noise on a record, but now no board channel is left open if it's inactive (it gets muted in the mix) so I really listen for hiss, tiny noises and hums. I tend to make two or three versions of everything; I've four or five versions of the song from Islands, so I put one of the other versions on the CD - it's just a marketing ploy really".
After some years, Oldfield is still using a single analog 24-track tape machine, and feels that using 48-track is "silly". He prefers to wipe alternative takes, "burning his bridges" to make the final mix as straight forward as possible. He did get hold of a set of early Dolby SR cards for the Islands album though, and masters digitally to avoid any loss of fidelity. The Harrison has built-in gates and compressors which see heavy use in the mixdown stage, so the final quality of the albums is quite staggering.
Despite his massive success, Oldfield seems singularly unaffected by commercial pressures of any kind. He uses the equipment he desires, plays the music he likes, creates his own promotional videos, works alone or with other musicians as he chooses, and has the world's most impressive home audio/video studio to show for it.
It's enough to make anyone envious...
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net