Larry Fast Interview

April 1997 via via e-mail by Paul Clark.

Do enjoy re-visiting your earlier works for the purpose of remixing or mastering, and are you ever tempted to add lots of new parts or change arrangements or the sounds that you originally used?

I do enjoy revisiting the older projects. In fact I've been pleasantly surprised by the fact that they're generally better recorded and produced than I had thought they were. There are a few temptations to do fixes, but most of those done so far have been to redo edits that have bothered me for a few decades or slight engineering changes. On the two reissues to date ("Electronic Realizations" and "Sequencer") I've used all of the same studio mixes that were on the original LPs. There is a slight temptation to start toying with the arrangements, but if I open that can of worms I'll never get on to anything else or get the reissues out. So, I've taken the attitude that these are essentially historic documents and I'll just blow off a little of the dust and repair a few obvious flaws. There are, however possibilities that in some of the later reissues I'll use one or two alternate mixes made at the same time as the mixes first issued. The ones in question were the subject of debate at the time the records were originally done and about which I've felt that the wrong decisions were made at the time. They'd still be contemporaneous mixes with the rest of the album.

Do film producers ever give you specific examples of music and say "I want the score to sound something like this" or do they generally give you a free reign?

It's very rare to get free reign. The more likely scenario is that a film has been temp-scored by playing either another film's soundtrack CD, or some pop music songs to the work print. The director will often ask to have as much of the feel recreated just short of copyright infringement. It's not the most creative, but film scoring is more of a trade rather than an art form. The real danger is that the director falls in love with his temp score and nothing you can come up with will please him as much.

Musicians that use electronic musical equipment are all too well aware that the creative flow sometimes has to be rudely interrupted because a mundane but crucially essential technical operation has to be undertaken before being able to continue. When preparing to begin work on a new project how do you go about minimizing the potential for such interruptions?

I try to create a technical work environment where all of the debugging, troubleshooting and streamlining has been done before the creative juices start flowing. That extends right to preparing collections of synth patches that are likely to be needed ahead of time and cataloging a library of patches that can be accessed with a minimum of effort. I also keep all of my SMPTE, MIDI and other sync tools pretty well debugged so I can count on them to be reliable. There are a few ground rules about not doing any major system upgrades or even application version upgrades when in the middle of a project, especially if there is a tight deadline. If the computers and instruments are working well on any given software version, it's better not to risk upsetting that balance until there is ample time to play with upgrade-induced crashes.

Do you prefer working on your own or with others?

There are times and places for both. There is a special freedom that comes with not having to answer to anyone else when working alone. I can be just self-assured enough that I'm reasonable confident that the decisions that I'm making are the right ones. On the other hand I'm limited to absorbing and interpreting only what I can do myself. Working with others brings their strengths and experiences into the creative process and can lead to (pardon the usage) a synergy of the component forces. I've found that doing both, but at different times works the best for me.

From your many and varied experiences working with other musicians could you give us some examples of unusual or eccentric behavior exhibited by any of them while in the studio in the pursuit of musical excellence. Did Rick Wakeman for example ever wear a silver cape while laying tracks, or maybe Peter Gabriel has been known to do unusual things while in the recording studio?

Actually, nearly everybody that I've worked with leaves their stage act persona at the studio door. All of the successful musicians that I've worked with are practical, hard working and diligent professionals. It stands to reason, because anyone who doesn't exhibit that kind of single-mindedness about their career probably wouldn't have made it anyway. Naturally, everyone has their own eccentricities if you want to call it that--maybe it's more of a personal working style, but nobody has been so strange or odd that it's worth noting. I'd describe it more like Peter Gabriel has a very tough time finishing his lyrics so we'd work around that, or Jim Steinman loves to order out for food and take long studio breaks where he can tell his terrifically entertaining stories--while the project deadline slips and slips. The real eccentrics that I've worked with have been amateur wannabes with enough money to hire expensive professionals and studio time but then had no idea how to use it. They thought that their carefully cultivated quirky personalities could substitute for real creative thought.

How was the music at the recent Wendy Carlos concert at the Beacon Theater played, was everything sequenced or was it all played real-time, and what makes and types of hardware were used?

All of the Bach music was played by real musicians in real time. No sequencers were used. Seven of our eight players had a Kurzweil K2500 synthesizer and one used a K2000 VX. Each musician played one of the orchestral families from the conductor's score. All the patches were constructed ahead of time and stored in way that where they could be stepped through to provide the frequent timbral changes that made the original "Switched On Bach" albums such classics. MIDI sysex tuning intonation tables were downloaded into all of the instruments before each piece was played in order to perform the music in the authentic tuning that would have been heard in Bach's time. It meant a lot of programming preparation, and a lot of good old keyboard and ensemble practice, but it came off great. The ensemble was conducted by Ettore Stratta with each of the players taking the dominant parts at different places. Wendy Carlos runs one of the most democratic and ego-less ensembles I've ever been associated with.

Do you think that electronic music is now a fully fledged genre in its own right, I ask this because it seems that anything that is science or technology based is rarely regarded as something that has the potential of sticking around, unlike rock and roll music there is still a novelty factor attached to modern electronic based music.

That's a complicated question because electronic music in it's earliest "analog" sense probably still is a bit of a novelty at some level. But electronic instruments, samplers and digital synths have been so completely absorbed into most of contemporary music that electronic music simply based on the use of electronic instruments has ceased to exist as a separate genre. There is a bit of a revival of "pure" electronics with techno and all of it's variants like ambient and electronica. This has led to a resurgence of analog instruments and sounds. But, I suppose it's possible that all-electronic orchestration will remain a niche genre from which other more widely popular music field will continue to draw ideas. I also feel that as long as we have a technology based society there will always be keepers of the electronic orchestration flame.

Who were your musical idols when first getting involved in the music business, and why.

Artistically and socially I wouldn't be doing this without the profound impact that The Beatles had on me as a teenager. Beatlemania was such an overwhelming experience for those of us coming of age in the 60's that it permeated the whole culture. For me, even though I was already years into music lessons, there was a spark of excitement that I finally got out of music that happened the day I got my first Beatles sheet music folio and found that I could use that boring sight-reading I had been learning to actually PLAY the music I was obsessed with. There were many other early influences mostly from y coming-of-age time when the West Coast psychedelic bands followed the original British invasion.

I also concurrently had been a bit of an electronics nerd, building a developing audio circuitry which led me straight to designing my own primitive synthesizer equipment. By the time "Switched On Bach" came out in 1968, Wendy Carlos proved to me that one person could use electronics to express a personal sonic vision. (That makes it a special treat to have later become associated with Wendy and her career projects).

Naturally, I gravitated to my contemporaries who were using electronic instruments when I became involved in the music and radio business at a professional level in the early 70's. Since much of the best creative work was coming from England that's where my contacts and career growth came. That led to my connections with Rick Wakeman and Yes, Genesis before they were widely known and my later association with Peter Gabriel and Robert Fripp. Even my connection with Nektar in Germany was established in this period. I guess we were all inventing our own futures during this time period and I had a bit more technical experience than most of the others in the days when the analog synthesizers were temperamental beasts. The ability to design and maintain the circuitry was a big help.

When you first started working with Peter Gabriel, on his third solo album I believe it was, what kind of expectations did he have of the keyboard players role in the creative process, particularly after working with the same keyboard player, namely Tony Banks, for several years while with Genesis.

Actually, I worked with Peter right from the time he left Genesis, before and including his first solo album, and had known him from even before that. Peter's a pretty good keyboardist himself so he really didn't need someone to just hit the keys. In fact we'd used better keyboardists than either of us on record and tour such as Roy Bittan from Bruce Springsteen, or Phil Aaberg, later a soloist on Windham Hill Records. Peter was familiar with my Synergy albums, and the sonic colors and synthesized textures are what I could bring to his productions. That was somewhat of a departure from what he had experienced in Genesis. We continued to work together until 1986 when his music took a sharp turn away from technology-based music and into world and ethnic music where I had far less to contribute.

Which instrument do you think you have used the most to date and what other items of equipment are you currently using?

There is no one instrument that has been a continuous tool for me. All of them have moved into and out of favor as the technology has progressed. Naturally, in the earliest days I used many Moog devices combined with those from a few other manufacturers as well as units that I had designed and built myself.

Some of the Moog modules from that era (early to mid 70's) are still set up in my studio and get used on rare occasions.

From a slightly later era, I still have a Prophet 5 and a Memorymoog in use now and again (late 70's and early 80's). I've gone through several generations of Yamaha FM machines and still have an SY-77 which is the last survivor of the DX/TX family still in use. My old Emulator II, which itself replaced the Fairlight CMI, has been replaced by the sample playback on my Kurzweil K2000.

The Kurzweil products are my current mainstays though I have Yamaha, Roland, Korg, Emu, Technics, PAiA and Alesis devices. My computers are all Macintosh and I use Digidesign and Macromedia digital audio hardware and software, and Opcode StudioVision and MOTU Performer sequencing software. Synthesizer voicing is done using Opcode's Galaxy. It's all pretty straightforward.

I've visited your web site frequently and must say it's definitely one of the better ones I have seen on the web! How important do you think it is for musicians, especially those involved in electronically produced music, to have a presence on the net?

Since much of the core audience for electronic music is technologically aware and conversant, the logical place to communicate is on the internet. I'd have to say that if being an artist means communicating with your audience, then an electronic composer really owes it to their listeners to have a presence on the net. I only wish that I had more free time to work on my site.

When can we get to listen to some of your new music? Is there an album in the works or are you mainly involved in working with others at the moment?

Now that the Wendy Carlos live Bach concert is over, I can try to clear some time to get down to seriously working on the new Synergy project. I've had several false starts at it over the last few years, but so much time was tied up in legally freeing up the older albums and then in getting them back into production and out on the market, that I never got up to the critical mass necessary for any creative project. Unless one of the possible film scores that are in the works actually happens, I expect to have time for my own creative endeavors. I did do a little production experimenting with some techno and ambient/techno music, but I'm not sure that ever become a full-blown release.

And now a few quick questions to close with. What is the single most important event that changed your life?

Aside from personal and family items, The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964.

What piece of music has been stuck in your head today?

Leftovers from the Bach concert this past weekend (Sinfonia 29 in D minor).

If you had been born 500 years ago do you think you would have become a musician?

Quite likely. I've been attracted to creative technology and even 500 years ago the technology of pipe organs was one of the most advanced. I probably would have headed toward that.

What piece of music has ever moved you the most?

Very tough to answer--the earliest might have been a tie between Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Beethoven's Sixth Symphony when I was very young. But there have been other ties for most important at the many different stages of my life, like Barber's Adagio, Brahms' Requiem, Ravel's Pavane for Dead Princess, and various pieces from Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, Holst, Tschaikovsky...I don't know. I'm getting too old to pick out THE one anymore.

What do you like to do when you're not involved in making music, do you have any hobbies?

Computer related fooling around though I don't code for the machines nearly as much as I used to. Photography (still have my own darkroom setup) which is merging with electronic image manipulation. I'm also pretty involved in government and regional planning issues with people who have no idea of my music career. And I'm involved in infrared transmission technology for the hearing disabled. I hold a few patents in that field and co-own a company manufacturing that technology. All of this eats up most of my time.

Website: Larry Fast