Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Alan Parsons Project - I Robot (1977)

Alan Parsons, an engineer at Abbey Road studios, famously worked on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon album – well-regarded for its use of found-sounds, tape effects, and innovative studio technique. The Alan Parson’s Project continued in this vein, creating thematic albums of pop/rock music with an evolving cast of studio musicians & vocalists. The use of obscure instruments and innovative sound-design gave their music an out-of-the-ordinary feel. Their first album, ‘Tales Of Mystery and Imagination,’ based on works by Edgar Allan Poe, is a case in point.

On their next album, ‘I Robot,’ a funk-inspired affair, the synthesizer begins to play a larger role. It’s worth mentioning that a device called the Projectron was also used on this (and other APP albums). The Projectron was a one-off device created by Parsons himself:

“The Projectron was effectively an analog ‘sampler’. It could therefore produce any sound fed into it. It was a little like the Mellotron, but was capable of much higher quality. Usually it would reproduce tape loops individually recorded to a 16 or 24-track tape machine. The attack and decay times were adjustable using voltage control technology. One of the most featured sounds is the female background vocals on Breakdown. The Projectron looked something like a keyboard synthesizer but with lots of sockets on the front panel for connections to a multi track tape machine. Sadly, there are no known photos of it and it has disappeared into the annals of legend.”

The EMI Vocoder shows up on ‘The Voice’ (a track inspired by The Temptations’ ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’):

The Raven [from Tales of Mystery & Imagination] was the first rock song to feature a vocoder, which was designed by EMI's Research Laboratories. Eric Woolfson: "That's right, that was one of the earliest uses of vocoder. It was a machine that the EMI scientists had developed, a very cumbersome thing that was very much in its early stages. They had gotten it together in a way that let us do some relatively new things with it.”

This would be one of the rare occasions Alan can be heard doing 'lead vocals' in his career. "For The Raven it was not a real vocal sound at all, it was an electronic synthesis of my voice. I also did that electronic piece on The Voice ('he's gonna get you') [from I Robot]. The part on Time [from Pyramid] could be argued as a counter lead vocal. The real reason that I don't sing is that I don't think I'm a really good singer. Modesty prevents me from stealing any limelight. I'd much rather have people ask ‘why don't you sing?’, than 'why do you sing?’” 

As for the synths used here, information is a little sketchy. Duncan Mackay played a Yamaha CS-50 or CS-60 (and a prototype CS-80 on subsequent albums); there may have also been an EMS Synthi-A. If you have more info, please post in the comments.

*Thanks to Micke via the Vintage Synth Explorer forums for the interview excerpts.

The title track, an instrumental, opens the album. Some nice phased sweeps start things off, and a bubbly bass sequence propels the track along as various acoustic elements are added; including choir, cymbalom, and kantele.

I Robot, courtesy of unstoppable3rd

Next up, the otherworldy ballad "Some Other Time." The synthesizer parts here are such that they blend seamlessly with the orchestration. The most overtly synthetic-sounding part, ironically, appears to be guitar fed through an effects pedal.

Some Other Time, courtesy of leonheart54

'The Voice,' on which you can hear the EMI vocoder. This song was inspired by The Temptations' epic track 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone.' Well worth a listen if you enjoy this one.

The Voice, courtesy of colejordan123 

The final track on the album is perhaps my favourite. My one complaint is that it's so short. Beautiful synth-work throughout, and the orchestra just tops it off. The concept here is an addendum to the Book of Genesis, in which robots, which we've created in our own image, inherit the earth. 

Genesis Ch. 1 V. 32, courtesy of PARAFER2004

I could go on posting tracks from this album. There's the shimmering proto-ambient track 'Nucleus,' which I suspect features heavy use of the Projectron. There's the slide-guitar vs. synthesizer dreaminess of 'Day After Day.' There are the album's funkiest moments in 'I Wouldn't Want To Be Like You' and 'Breakdown,' which don't have much to do with synthesizers, but are fantastic tracks. Perhaps the only song I tend to skip is 'Total Eclipse' which is exactly the sort of dramatic music that should accompany an eclipse of the sun. Composed exclusively of choir and discordant strings, it doesn't make much sense alongside the other tracks unless you've listened to the 'Fall Of The House Of Usher' suite from the previous album. I hope, by hearing these excerpts, you'll be tempted to give I Robot a listen.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Supertramp - Fool's Overture (1977)

When I was born, my parents had one cassette tape: Supertramp's "Breakfast In America." Little wonder, then, that I grew up enjoying the band's music. Today's feature is a song from the preceding album: "Even In The Quietest Moments." There's not much synthesizer on the rest of the album, but it's no less enjoyable for it. 

"Fool's Overture" is the ten-minute opus that ends the album, weaving several musical themes into one track in true prog-rock fashion. It also features some bombastic synthesizer work. Synths credited are an Oberheim, and an Elka Rhapsody. The latter provides synthesized strings, and can be seen in action in the second video. I can only imagine how powerful this song would've sounded in concert.

Fool's Overture (album version)
Courtesy of: hilltops123

Fool's Overture (live in Toronto)
Courtesy of: TravisBickle

Monday, January 12, 2009

Elton John - Jump Up (1982)

While this is neither Elton John's most synth-heavy album, nor his finest usage of the synthesizer, it's special to me as the album that got me hooked on music as a kid. The song that stood out in particular was "I Am Your Robot," thanks, undoubtedly, to a fascination with robots fostered by TV shows such as Doctor Who, Metal Mickey, and The Goodies.

The album's liner notes state the synthesizers were provided by Yamaha, and played by James Newton-Howard. James has since gone on to do soundtrack work, notably the scores to M. Night Shyamalan's films and Batman Begins/The Dark Knight.

Elton John - I Am Your Robot 
Courtesy of mrseltonjohn

The best song from the album for me these days is the single, "Empty Garden," a tribute to the late John Lennon. Some very nice understated synth work on this one.

Elton John - Empty Garden 
Courtesy of 007koko007

One more for the road: "Princess," a ballad overlooked in favour of the "Blue Eyes" single, features a cheesy-but-fun synth-brass solo.

Elton John - Princess
Courtesy of mrseltonjohn

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Doctor Who Theme

It would be remiss of me to start this blog without mentioning one of the most important pieces of electronic music in popular culture: the theme to Doctor Who. It's certainly what introduced me to the concept of synthesizers at an early age. Technically, it was created before synthesizers (as we know them today) existed; but nearly all elements of the tune were created by tone and white noise generators (oscillators, in effect), then processed and sequenced on tape machines. Composed by Ron Grainer and realized in 1963 by Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, it's a piece of music that still sounds fresh and haunting today. Indeed, elements of Delia's original are used in Murray Gold's current version of the theme.

Mark Ayres, former composer of incidental music for the show, curator of the Radiophonic Workshop archives, and the man in charge of audio-restoration for DVD releases of the classic series, has written an extensive article on the history of the Doctor Who Theme which is well worth a read.

Exhibit 1: The original theme, 1963. Courtesy of TheDoctor001

A classic clip of Delia Derbyshire at work. Courtesy of radioshaolin

Exhibit 2: Peter Howell's version, 1980. Courtesy of timelord726
Synths: Yamaha CS80, ARP Odyssey, EMS Vocoder, and Roland Jupiter 4. 

The making of Peter Howell's version. Courtesy of thegreenman42

Exhibit 3: Dominic Glynn's version, 1986. Courtesy of timelord726
Synths: Roland Juno-6, Yamaha DX21, Korg 770. 

Exhibit 4: Keff McCulloch's version, 1987. Courtesy of timelord726
Synths: Sequential Circuits Prophet 5. 

These are by no means all versions of the Doctor Who theme. The original went through many subtle changes during the ten years it was used on the show, and there was even an aborted version Delia Derbyshire created on an EMS Synthi-100 (known as the "Delaware" version). Countless others have been produced throughout the years for audio-adventure releases, specials, etc... Not to mention the hundreds of fan-produced versions found at whomix.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Enter Synthspotter


The Synthspotter blog is aimed at fans of music made with synthesizers - past, present, and future; and, to a lesser-extent, synthesizers themselves (although there are far better blogs on that subject). The main focus, to begin with, is highlighting recordings I feel are unsung gems of the genre, buried in obscurity, or by artists rarely associated with the synthesizer. I'll also be posting about songs and albums I consider classics of the genre.

But wait... why should you trust my judgement in such matters? I have no illusions of grandeur; I'm simply a fan, like you. I've loved synthesizers since I was old enough to know about them (which wasn't very old, I have to say!). I grew up in the 80's, the decade the synthesizer was king. Perhaps, like me, you find yourself listening to a song on the radio and asking the question: Where are the synthesizers? That's a question Synthspotter can answer!

See you soon!
-The Manitou