Another Bell Sound

January, 2000
Bruno Heuzé
Keyboards (French magazine)

Have you felt concerned by machines for a long time?

I have always been attracted by technology. At the beginning, I worked as a sound engineer with "Manor Studio", where I did, by the way, make a couple of stupid mistakes… In front of consoles, I was like a child fascinated by the flashing lights on a Christmas tree. I was just interested in turning all the buttons! Now my situation has of course changed a lot: technology should be as transparent as possible as well as very accessible.

What were the first synthesizers you used?

In the early 70’s, there were very few synths; at this time I was mainly working with organs such as the Farfisa. The first model I had was a VCS3. I must admit that at first I was a little confused by these machines that didn’t have a keyboard; they seemed unconquerable with bizarre and fluid tones. Then I worked on an ARP 2600 which looked enormous to me, but which I could, however, control with a keyboard… I learnt all the basics of synthesis with this one, i.e. manipulating oscillators, filters and envelopes in order to achieve a really musical sound. I also used the Moog a little bit. However, despite liking the innovation brought about by analogical synths, I have never really been interested in completely abstract sounds.

In 1973, when it came out, 'Tubular Bells' was really thought of as innovative…

Yes, but less by the tones than in the composition itself; it was a long ten-movement sequence without any breaks. "Tubular Bells" was written to make musical styles that I like meet, such as repetitive music, blues, symphonic rock, folk or even heavy metal!

When you were recording all of the parts of 'Tubular Bells' at home alone, you were became one of the inventors of the home studio!

Yes, probably… I made the model on a two-track Bang & Olufsen recorder which I had arranged to go backwards and forwards from one track to the to the other, thus not losing much of the quality and keeping with the stereo sound. It was very "hand-made", but that is how Richard Branson, from Virgin, signed me on!

Did sampling from the beginning interest you?

Yes, in England, we had the chance to see the first Fairlights very quickly. I remember it very well. My engineer and I took almost a week to get the first sound from it! We got a bit lost in the process of recording and looping due to the fact that the synthesis approach was really different to what we knew from analogs. At this time, working with a screen was really new. By the way, I think that the real revolution of the Fairlight was the famous "R Page"; it was used to compose sequences and arrange patterns by adjusting sounds one next to the other. All the software such as Cubase, Logic or Performer took their inspiration from it. For example, I used Fairlight for the synthetic flute sound one can hear during the credits of the "Killing Fields". I paid great attention to the computing of the attack as well as to the portamento in order to get a very expressive sound. Paying attention to details such as these are very important in creating the expression effect when working with electronic sounds.

What other samplers have you used since?

All the classical Akai and Roland. But for everything orchestral, I prefer Roland expanders such as D-550 or JD-990, especially with extension cards. Like every musician, I create my own samples from the commercial CD-ROMs; these elements build up my own sound bank little by little. When I was working with Trevor Horn on "Tubular Bells II", he gave me many of the sounds that he had received himself from Hans Zimmer – the composer of "Lion King". I finally noticed that sounds were passed out a lot between musicians, particularly since today’s samples are compatible from one machine to another. I also use a Nord Lead for more analog sounds and I keep an old SE-1 for bass lines.

As a guitarist, have you ever used 'synth-guitars'?

Very little, because I don’t think of them as perfect. I feel that disconnecting or delay troubles no longer exist with MIDI, but I am much more interested by effect pedals and guitar sound processing than by synthesizers’ programming. I am, for example, a big fan of Eventide. It is a machine I use a lot to color my guitar sound and create the space effect you can hear in the "Songs from distant Earth".

What do you think about musical technology advancements?

I feel much more comfortable with today’s equipment than with yesterday’s synths. One can now create the exact tool needed in order to express an idea. I think virtual worlds are perfect for a musician; he recreates his own imaginary sphere, moves within it and plays with elements of his choice. Personally, I work essentially with Logic Audio; it is perfect for the style of music I compose. The possibility of moving any part of it and being able to insert it somewhere else is probably the most interesting thing in the actual sequencers. Old analogical synthesizers probably had a significant influence on the birth of this new technological world in which all the musicians are navigating.

Did technology change your musical approach a lot?

No, because it did not change my way of composing. Technology brings more possibilities in music realization, but cannot change the process of writing music, in any case not in mine. I can work much faster, but in the end, I use it solely to prepare the structures on which I will operate later with the guitar – my main instrument. Of course technology is an important factor in my latest record, but I only started using "Direct-to-Disk" recently. I am probably one of the last musicians using magnetic tapes…

For the next millennium, what would be the ideal instrument be for you?

A machine directly connected to the brain, which enables me to immediately hear the music I imagine so I can play some guitar on it! No kidding, I think computers are great machines but very uncomfortable to use, essentially because of the mouse; you use only one finger – much too much rigid and handicapping. In front of a computer everybody looks like "Hook"… The position is completely frozen and not very close to musical expression. In a couple of decades, let’s hope that the interface of machines will have completely changed. And musicians will only feel better.

Mike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield