The Low Down On The Way Up
Imagine this: your cell phone rings. You answer it, only to discover that the voice on the other end of the phone belongs to one of the recording artists you admire mosta musician you've idolized since you were a teenager. Who would that be for you? Now imagine they're asking you to come over to their studio to help them track and mix their next album. That's just what happened for writer/producer/engineer Bob Rice on a warm Southern California morning.
Bob Rice comments on the writing and orchestration of the Pat Metheny Group's The Way Up:
Bob: What they have is basically a symphonic approach to writing, more related in form to classical composition, with gorgeous themes (singable even) that get thoroughly developed and reoccur later in the inside parts underneath other themes.
If you are a fan of counterpoint, and modern writing in general, this record is going to leave you breathless. Pat's mastery of many aspects of guitar and a menagerie of other acoustic and electric instruments is really in the forefront here. The rest of the group make exceptional contributions also.
The recording, editing, and mixing is impeccable on every level. Anyone who mixes modern music will be shaking their heads as to how Rob Eaton has pulled this off. The mastering by Ted Jensen is exquisite as well. Unbelievable. Very inspiring.
We recently sat down with Bob in Los Angeles to get the low-down on one of the most thrilling musical experiences he's had in his career: a chance to help Lyle Mays and the Pat Metheny Group prepare their latest album, The Way Up, released several weeks after this interview in January 2005 (Nonesuch Records).
Bob shares a wide range of information, from the specifics about the gear used to his conceptual interpretation of the music and how the capabilities of the technology helped to shape the end result. While Bob considers his contribution to the album to be "humble," this interview provides a first-hand view of what it's like to actually sit down and work, hands-on, with some of the most accomplished musicians of our time.
During the preparation of this interview, Lyle Mays offered us further direct insight into the album from his first-hand point of view. So brew a fresh latte, sit back, get comfortable and read on...
MOTU: Tell us how you first got involved in this project.
Bob: I got a call from Lyle Mays while I was driving down the freeway a couple of years ago, and I had never talked to him. And for the life of meI don't knowyou just get stuck in a mental space where you just can't believe you're talking to somebody that you have such respect for...I mean, I'm a huge fan of their music. I would transcribe solos of Pat's when I was in college studying guitar. I still have all the classic PMG records on vinyl, and continue to pick up all their releases.
Anyway, a buddy of mine, Ralph Skelton, who's a brilliant engineer, had built this amazing power amp for Lyle's studio monitors. At some point, Ralph gave Lyle my number, suggesting I might be able to help him with some sampling or synth programming he wanted to do.
So I get a call from him, and I just couldn't believe it was him. Now, I've had the opportunity to work for some heavy people over the course of my career. I worked for Frank Zappa on the Synclavier for a number of years when I first got out of college. I got to do some Synclavier programming, and eventually tour with Chick Corea. I've worked on a number of projects with Van Dyke Parks. I've toured or done gigs with George Michael, Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt, and Ben Harper, but for some reason when Lyle Mays called, I just couldn't believe it was him. And [laughs] I think I kind of made him prove that it was really him. And for as brilliant as he is, he's incredibly humble. And just a normal guy. And it's my impression that all those guys are pretty much like that. Pat is like that.
MOTU: Yes, he is.
The record had been completely composed and designed before Bob and I started our interactive process. And what he was helping to sort outas a separate and yet new aspect of the projectwas the massive task of managing the orchestration of it, the framework of which was completely in place. We had decided what instruments essentially were playing what lines and what the respective jobs of all of us were in the time we had. Not to diminish the size and complexity of the project or diminish Bob's role or help in it, but I wanted to make sure that the readers of this interview were clear that we were not figuring out this record as we went along. It was completely designed and composed, frameworks in place, concepts nailed downall of that.
Bob: So I just went up to Lyle's studio to help him with a few thingsI was just doing some synth programming with him when I first got up there. At that point, I'm pretty sure the writing for "The Way Up" was either done or pretty far along. Ultimately, what I ended up doing on the record was to help Lyle build a strategy for how to track and sub-mix all of his synth parts. When I got into it, I believe most of the basic tracks were recorded, and Pat was underway, tracking all of his own parts. Pat, Steve Rodby, and Lyle had been FedExing FireWire drives to each other as more overdubs were completed. Have you heard the record?
Bob: It's just going to blow you away. It's unlike anything they've done before. It's basically one continuous piece of music.
MOTU: When is it scheduled for release?
Bob: It'll be released on the 25th of January [The Way Up was released January 25, 2005 by Nonesuch Records]. So I kinda helped him build a strategy for how to track and sub-mix down all of his keyboard parts. He had a lot of it done when I came up and saw it for the first time. And I was completely...this was one of those situations where the level of excitement as a listener was continuous for the entire time that I was helping him. 'Cause there's so much going on in terms of the development of the composition, you can't help but to be drawn into it. The piece is, at times, rather dense and driving, with these intricate rhythmic figures, groups of instruments coming in and out, and then it will break down dynamically to just Pat on nylon string guitar and Lyle on piano for a little while, developing another part of the story. It's quite a ride.
The first thing we put up was the overture. The overture has a glimpse of pretty much everything from the entire record...a number of lines are weaved together in this one short three and a half minute thing that moves along quite quickly.
There's so much going on in this one piece of music, and when I first got there, there wereI couldn't tell you the number of tracks, but essentially the phone call was, "Hey could you come up here. I'm getting a hard drive from Pat, and it's got all his parts on it, and I need you to just get a sound on the basics, and Pat's parts, so I can figure out how I'm going to orchestrate my synth parts." And he had, prior to that, gotten into transferring a lot of his [E-mu] EIV libraryhe had a pretty massive EIV library of stuff that he uses for his compositions. The Miroslav Vitous string library, which he likes.
MOTU: And so that stuff was transferred into MachFive?
MOTU: So Bob mentioned that you did a lot of sample library consolidation into MachFive. How did that work out?
Lyle: Wonderfully! And it was interesting because we [Bob and I] both ended up talking about the Synclavier in the process of working with this, because one of the great things about the Synclavier environment was that everything was in one place. And as conventional synths got better and cheaper, it made more sense for most of us to come up with rigs that involved a bunch of different products from a bunch of different companies, all to achieve these effects that were possible.
What we're seeing now, with Digital Performer specifically and especially, is that we're now at a stage where we're going back to what was a fantastic aspect of the Synclavier, which is the project living in one place. Where everything is recallable, controllable, and now capable of being automated. It's a powerful, powerful environment that I think is finally a realization of the promise of the Synclavieror what was great about the Synclavier. So for me, the environment of being in Digital PerformermostlyI mean I still have a few modules. I still need to get certain things from certain boxes. But I can see on the horizon, we're back to a place where it's far easier to concentrate on the music, and being less distracted by the technical somersaults that are required to get everything to work together.
MOTU: My next question was going to be about how your recent transition to Digital Performer worked out, but it sounds like you've got a pretty good handle on it.
Lyle: Well, it happened pretty effortlessly for me. I think the layout of everything is really well done. Very intuitive. And it keeps getting better. MachFive was a huge leap forward for me as a keyboard playerhaving all this synth power available right there, so integrated. But even before that, as I've said, I've taken to using the sequencer itself as a tool for sound design. So it's been a very central part of making these records. It's a really great package.
Bob: Into MachFive, yes. And I would go up and help him transfer some of that stuff and then eventually he got into it, so he was tweaking all his own sounds...first of all, I gotta say, he's one of the most brilliant human beings I've ever met in my entire life. I don't know how much interaction you've had with him, but he's actually one of the smartest guys [laughs] I've ever met in my entire life.
MOTU: That's not surprising.
Bob: And everything those guys do...there's integrity on every level. Even as I started filing through the tracks and figuring out what was there, I saw just how extraordinary a player, Pat is. All of his parts were played so clean, with great attention to tone. There wasn't so much as a tick in any punch-in. The attention to detail is unmatched with all of them. Steve Rodby is one of the most extraordinary audio editors that I've ever witnessed. He did a great deal in terms of, not just impeccable audio editing, but the overall organization of the project files. And all that, coupled with such musicality...There's just such a level of precision about their performances, and all that feeds into the recording. And just by putting up the tracks, I could see what the level of standards were.
MOTU: So at that point, the tracks that he had gotten from Pat were pretty much all just guitar, or was it a rough mix of the whole thing?
Bob: As I recall, the first tracks that I heard had most everyone playing, and the main structures of the pieces were very much there, but there would be more parts added. The thing is, this piece of music is...I think it has more of a basis in orchestral writing than in traditional jazz writing, and there's an incredible detail in the orchestration. But this time, instead of orchestrating it with the group and a solo guitar, or a couple of different flavors of solo guitar, it's orchestrated really with a lot more of what Pat does, playing all of these wonderful stringed instruments. It's funny because it has an incredible level of balance between improvisation, and the composed elements. And everyone in the group is featured throughout. It's one of those records you can listen to over and over again and constantly find new stuff, new things to draw your interest. And that was one of the major challenges for mejust trying to get a handle on all the parts that are going on. So it's not just a solo guitar over a rhythm section and couple of other soloists. On this record they added additional solo voices, such as a harmonica player [the Swiss-born harmonica virtuoso Gregoire Maret].
The level of precision in editing that I could see on the guitar tracks was...Pat was basically recording his own guitar tracks. I think they had some semblance of an overall structure of what they were going to do, and they recorded the basics, so the structure of the piece was kind of laid down. And then they would each go back and take their parts and orchestrate them out with a number of instruments. So it's not just Pat playing guitar, it's Pat playing...there might be a section of Ebow electric guitar playing slide, but they're voiced in three parts, so it's like an Ebow section, like sections of the orchestra, but there might be a couple of tiples, which is a very small old South American instrument, a higher range acoustic instrument. And then there might be a few tracks of strummed acoustic guitars, and then there might be...I'm just speaking off the top of my head, I can't remember the breakdown of all these parts. And there are also pulsing textures like in Steve Reich's music, where there's a series of electric guitars playing sixteenths notes...and that would be a pulse that comes and goes throughout the entire piece. So you'd get these sections, and they would have to cross fade. So there were all these seamless cross fades. So if you weren't really focusing on what was happening, these sections would kind of waft over you as you were listening to it. The precision and subtlety of the music really requires a tool that would allow you that kind of precision in mixing.
MOTU: It must have also been great to sort of see the music evolve on screento have that visual feedbackas well as being able to hear it.
Bob: There are some basic things about Digital Performer that really helped to organize that. One was simply organizing and color coding the tracks with like instruments into groups. When we got into it, Lyle and I had discussions about sub-mixing and grouping of instruments. And for some reason, Sergeant Pepper kept coming up. The brilliant thing about Sergeant Pepper of course was that every time they would build the layers of these tracks, they would commit to a sub-mix. And when you listen to the final mix, it's a series of incredible sub-mixes all layered on. So we kind of adopted that approach. In the same way that the guitar parts were orchestrated, the synthesizer parts would also come up in a similar way. Where he might normally have a Fender Rhodes track, in this case Lyle would want certain notes to pop out of the texture, and all this was all done when I got there.
So he was making use of DP as a means to try different orchestrations. And he would take all the synthesizers in the room, maybe four or five synthesizers sitting there, and put them all on different Fender Rhodes patches. And have a number of them that would show up in MachFive as well. So when I got there, this one part that was written basically as a Fender Rhodes part, was split out so that some notes would be played across different "like-minded" instruments, and that would create its own kind of texture. So there's an impeccable level of detail about dynamics on this record, about crossfading of textures. It's a brilliant use of the sequencer, and that's not a sound we get to hear in modern music. So when I got there, I had to figure out a way to evenly make it sound like one sound, so the musical effect comes across. So I'm in there with the pencil tool automating each of these things, and it took a while...
Bob: Exactly. And trying to make it one sound out of those five or six Fender Rhodes tracks, and then commit to a mix of that.
There are all kinds of pulses that run throughout this entire recorda string of pulses. Sometimes they are in the guitar parts, sometimes they are in the keyboard parts...And there are some brilliant things done with metric modulation of some tempos that are related to duple and triple feels that are implied and then eventually they pay off to a new tempo, but it's related to the previous tempo by this metric modulation. So there's all kinds of amazing stuff going on with the structure of the music, and it really speaks to the genius they've developed over the years of working together...and you're getting asked to come inI mean, I get asked in on a lot of Digital Performer mixes, but this one, I was just jumping out of my skin because there were so many exciting things going on, and as a fan, being in on the development of it...seeing it come together...and, granted, I was only in on it for a little at the beginning, when Lyle and I were sitting there trying to figure out how we were gonna...He basically said, "Here. Here are all of Pat's parts." And I look at the screen, and there's 20 stringed instrument parts: mandolins, Ebow guitars, slide guitars, sitar guitars, his VG8 instrument, and the ES175kind of his signature soundis in there, and these incredible strumming guitar parts. You just see so many aspects of his brilliant musicianship and the incredible orchestration techniques and the depth of knowledge and the depth of history that they bring to everything that they compose.
MOTU: Do you feel like the process and the structure that you are describing seemed like it was the normal routine for them, or was this sort of a departure from what they normally do?
MOTU: So do you feel like this was a pretty significant departure from the process you've gone through for previous albums? Or was it kind of an evolution of what you've been doing in the past?
Lyle: In what area? Or do you mean in general?
MOTU: Just this whole sub-mixing approach of taking all of these many stems and creating the many stems and distilling them down into a manageable numberyou know, that whole distillation.
Lyle: I would say that this was the most refined approach yet. It's not an entire departure. But it was a very clean and successful approach. And like I said, the most refined and polished yet. And part of that was, I have to give credit, from the keyboard standpoint, Bob helped with that tremendously.
Bob: Well, based on what I know of their previous records, the musicality, the dynamics, the care, and the attention to detail has been there for quite some time. Their process and the way they organize their workflow, I would think, has developed over the many years of working together. As an outsider looking in, though, they are incredibly efficient and organized. I'd have to say it's certainly some of the most brilliant music I've witnessed in my career.
My first gig out of college was working for Frank Zappa as a Synclavier programmer, and I worked there for five years doing sampling and Synclavier programming and just creating a situation where it was easier for Frank to write electronic music. With the standards that high, I got an incredible opportunity to learn discipline about really clean editing and making the best use of the tools, and knowing what the tools would do to maximize the potential of what kind of music you could make with them. The Synclavier, rest in peace, was the beginning of my experience in professional studio life. And it was a completely integrated system that had music printing and scoring capabilities, sound design, integrated instruments, a sequencer that was incredibly flexible, and a sonic quality that was at that time probably the best thing you could come up with in terms of digital audio. And this many years later, I'm sitting here...and essentially working in DP, I'm finding that MachFive and MX4MX4 especiallyare an excellent pair of products. That's such a wide open synthesis palette that I'm sitting there with a completely integrated system to compose, do sound design, and the more I know about DP...I like to think of it as a "home court advantage."
I'm thrown all kinds of situations. I've had to run playback tracks, live, ten minutes before going on BBCI did this with Boz Scaggs. They said we could add another song. But the track that I had from the record is a five minute piece, and I have to cut it down with 10 minutes till air time. But Boz knew exactly what he wanted to do and I said, "Yeah, we can do that. We'll figure it out." And literally, we sat there and figured it out with [DP's] markers, and it's done and it sounded great. And it went on air. And Boz got a second song that he didn't think would air on the TV show. So he was happy. I was happy. It was a little adrenalin rush.
Bob: But the thing is, I knew I could depend on it without crashing. To be able in that moment to say, "Yeah, I can do that."
MOTU: When was this? Was it recently?
Bob: No, that was a few years back. But I've been using it live for backing tracks for a number of years. It's hard to get an artist to commit on what the arrangement of the backing track is going to be, so I always keep a backup in DP on my laptop. That was my rig to take with me as an editing system on the road. And it's a really solid good one. And I keep a little micro express for MIDI input. And if anybody comes up with a project they need to do overnight or before the show, I can pull it off and get it on the show. It's an incredibly flexible rig.
In the middle of the project with Lyle, I realized that I basically had my [Zappa] system back. If I need to print out parts or do sampling right now, or synthesis right now, it's all right there. And the Consolidated Window is brilliant.
Bob: And I think that really has pulled you ahead of Logic.
MOTU: So DP 4.5 really came in in the of the middle of this thing, or before it started?
Bob: We did most of it in Version 4.12. By Version 4.5, the record was pretty well done. I think they must have been in NY finishing the CD when I got my copy of 4.5.
When Lyle left for NY, I got a call to put a system together and go out on tour with Chick Corea, another artist whose music I have a great respect for. He needed a system to be able to play the soft synths, so I ended up building a system with a MIDI Express XT, and 2 828mkII's, running Absynth, and Atmosphere. I set up basically what Mike McKnight has on the Madonna tours. But my setup was two laptops and two 828mkII's, and it didn't play back sequences. It just provided a host environment for the soft synths. And I swear, I had no problems that entire tour with that rig. It was absolutely solid.
Bob: So the night before I was leaving for Chick, that's when Lyle called and said, "Hey man, come on over to listen to the final mix." And I couldn't imagine another thing in life that I would rather do than come over right now. But I just finally heard it a couple of months ago, and I was just floored. With that many tracks in a project, what Rob Eaton did was extraordinary. Some of this stuff will make more sense when you hear the record.
MOTU: How did the idea of doing an entire continuous album come about? Was that something that had been kicking around for a while amongst you guys?
Lyle: Not really. But it emerged during the first few days of meeting with Pat. I flew out from LA to New York to start a writing process for this record. Our discussions before the record were pretty minimal. And Pat and I got together with the idea that we would compose a record. And we didn't know that it would be a single piece of music at that point. We didn't know a lot about what it would be, but we just trusted our working relationship, the fact that we've been able to write together in the past, and we'll probably be able to write together now, and we'll see what happens. And we were pretty open to almost anything. What was interesting was that for the first two days, we didn't write a note. We just talked. About the world. Culture at large. The music business, in particular. And at the end of that, there was this thought in the airand for the life of me, I can't say who said it first, or who "seconded" itthe important thing is that we both agreed that, yeah, our response to all of the problems we saw and all of the weird, uh, sad, just horrible stuff around usthe sort of crass culture that we were in at the moment, was to not try to offer something of that culture specifically. Not to return crassness. But to go the opposite direction. A more lofty direction. And it started with us wanting to challenge ourselves because we saw too little of that in the world. Too much of a desire for faster, instant, effortless whatever. And we were saying, "what's the opposite direction?" To try to do something that was longer, harder, more meaningful. More resonant. And of value. Not of expedience.
So in that context, it's not a big leap to say, "Well, what if it's just one piece of music?" Because that's obviously a challenge, and it's obviously going to point people in the direction of thinking a little more seriously about it. They kind of have to.
MOTU: And it also gives you a chance to stretch out on an idea and develop it much more so than you might during the course of a normal, shorter album track length.
Lyle: Well, I would take the "might" out of that. I would say that it's absolutely essential that when one is dealing with long form, that "in-depth" is the only way to go. It's the only way this piece could be successfulthat ideas could be explored in depth. Otherwise, you have a suite. Or you have a loose collection of things that you call a piece of music, but don't in fact have the structure of a single piece of music. And that's another point. I've seen this piece described as a suite. And I couldn't disagree more strenuously. It's the opposite of a suite in that it's not things that just are compatible. It's all derived material from a central core kernelof a very small motifthat's then manipulated and examined and worked using some very classical compositional techniques to a coherent single statement. It's not a suite in any sense of the word.
MOTU: Now that it's released, I've listened to it several times, but I'll have to keep that in mind the next time I listen to it to really hear what you are describing, as there's a lot going on there.
Lyle: Right, and now the score is available tooa condensed score being published by Hal Leonard with our blessing and our editing. I mean it's really the most accurate of anything that's out there of this musicor anything Pat and I have done together. It's by far the most accurate. That can help because once one starts looking into the details of how these notes are manipulated, it becomes clear they are all related to a central three note kernel. And that there are ideas that continuously are re-examined, re-workeddeveloped, if you wouldthroughout the piece. And that there's an interconnectedness and interrelatedness that one does not find in a suite.
MOTU: Fascinating. So once you had this session for laying it all out, did you then track together in New York and then go back to LA and do these sub-mixing sessions with Bob?
Lyle: Just to fill in that gapfrom where we left offwas the discussion of what we were going to do. Of course, rolling up our shirtsleeves and actually writing it was a pretty intense thing. In the course of the next six weeks, Pat and I wrote the piece. And kind of "designed" it, I would say. We absolutely knew what was going to happen, what instruments were going to be playing whator what family of instruments. We then made a score based on some of the MIDI filesthe demo MIDI sequences happened after the composition. It wasn't necessarily a part of the composition. We wrote most of thisI'd say 95% of itwith the two of us sitting in a room. I was at the piano. Pat had his guitar, with a pad of manuscript paper there. We were taking notes, sometimes just on a legal pad, about what was going to happen, and then it would be fleshed out later. So by the time we got into the sequencer, the overall design of the piece was set. And then it was a question of producing parts that people could play or read in the studio. And then we recorded the basic tracks.
Then I went back to LA to flesh out the keyboard parts that had been designed. And again, as I said before, that's not to diminish the massiveness of the project. When Bob came on board, there was still a huge set of problems to solve. At times, when I was putting keyboard parts on this music, there were dozens of tracks, none of which were substantial enough to have their own faders in the ultimate mix. They were just part of this almost pointalistic way of orchestrating that I've sort of evolved to. And at this point I should say that the sequencer itself has become a synthesizer in a way. It's a place to do sound design within the sequencer itself. With conventional synths, everything is tied to the note-on event, and you can time things after that. Or you can introduce random things, like certain LFOs that aren't tied to the note-on, but you can't get very specific about things in the note-on trigger world. But in the sequencer you can. You can get into specific sonic events that are automated, cross-faded, and so on, that are not tied to the note-on. So they can constantly be changing in a kaleidoscopic way. And so I've really gotten into using the sequencer as a tool for sound design. And consequently, I'll end up with a number of tracks that are essentially producing one sound from the listener's standpoint, in the end. But they all have to be balanced and addressed and handled in some way. So when Bob first came on board, there were these massive amounts of tracks in this pointalistic waythat we're creating this web of sounds that were ultimately going to have to be distilled down to something that could be mixed. You know? [laughs]
MOTU: Yes, he mentioned that doing these sub-mixes would give you a way to treat them as a single thing.
Lyle: Right. At this point I should say that Bob is an amazing technician in that he doesn't come at things from a technical standpoint. He's totally capable, and totally knowledgeable about all this gear and stuff that's out there in the world. But his first instinct is that of a musician, or an artist. During the whole process, I would say that Bob kept the end result always in mind. So he was the one that brought up the example of Sergeant Pepper, which is perfect because it would be most helpful if down the road at every step in the process that each sub-mix had its own sort of artistry and intrinsic value and sonic quality and clarity and cleanliness and its own thing. We were taking an artistic approach to these technical aspects of the problem. We were trying to make each of the sub-mixes make musical sense, have a musical flow, have a really high quality to them. And that did pay off in bushels as the project went on. We ended up with a manageable final mix with one session, not a whole bunch of machines linked together and a technical nightmare. We ended up in an environment where we could focus on the music. And a lot of that stems from Bob's initialpossibly even instinctiveapproach to it. Which is to keep sight of the musical goal.
MOTU: Yeah, you've given us a lot to think about when we're listening to it. It certainly sounds like one of those records you need to listen to a number of times to really get a sense of all the dimensions.
Bob: I would definitely call these guys power users. Pat, I didn't sit with him. All I saw were the parts, and the impeccable editing, and the incredible performances, and great use of the automation. I think that the automation was really key in being able to pull any of this off. Just the sequencer and the automation and the plug-insautomating the plug-insbecomes an instrument in itself.
MOTU: Can you think about a specific example?
Bob: Well, there are some of these parts that come in that are very techno-soundingkind of sample and hold filters on sixteenth note parts. And those things were never meant to be focal points, they were just meant to be the kind of things that would come in and out while other stuff was going on. So what I ended up doing is coming up with a means of automating pan so that things would have movement, and when that particular texture would come up, that kind of movement would happen. So I was starting to think of it in terms of motific development of spatialization ideas as well.
MOTU: Was there any thought to mixing it in surround?
Bob: Oh, as soon as I got there, I said, "Man, you gotta' mix this in surround." I'm not sure what the plans are at this point, but certainly the way the tracks were organized, that's always an option now with most projects. It's imperative to have the project in a form that allows for an easy transition to that. Of course, it's rather easy to do with the way you guys implemented surround in DP.
MOTU: So when you committed to these sub-mixes, was there anything specific that you did in the Digital Performer project, or was it: you just left them alone. For example, did you do a bounce to disk?
Bob: Yeah, we definitely did bounces of MachFive instruments. I took every one of his parts and set it up...there were a series of sub-mixes to be able to pull off what we did, and once we got all the Rhodes parts as a stereo pair and got all the "techno-y" parts as a stereo pair, we would gradually see the layers coming together, almost like a painting, where you see where the colors are enough to know how to contrast other colors.
MOTU: So it's like stepping back a little bit and getting a little more perspective.
Bob: Yeah, the sub-mixes really really helped. And initially, the stuff I did, I thought was really intended just as a sketch to see what it could be. And when I called Lyle in the summer, he said, "No, we ended up using all of that stuff. And I tracked it through the 828mkII to sub-mix down the synthesizer parts." Of course, there's adequate gain on the synthesizers to do that. And once we started listening to the sub-mixes, we tweaked them a little bit and EQ'ed them a little bit, basically just using the plug-ins that are offered with DP.
MOTU: So for one of Lyle's synth stems, what would be a typical number of instruments involved? Maybe six or eight? 20?
Bob: There was nothing typical. It really did vary widely. We always had to keep an ear for the subtlety of it, so it wouldn't build up. It was more about the transition of colors in a lot of cases. This is not Night Ranger, where you're building massive, supersized pads, or Journey with a million vocals. It's not like that. There's a level of subtlety, and an organic sense. There's also a concept that they have in the group that all of these sounds, acoustic and electronic, can coexist together in a way that is just...it's its own symphony.
MOTU: Tell us about your consulting services.
Bob: I get pulled in to help composers integrate all of their old equipment or their new favorite plug-ins, their new favorite toys, in a seamless means to compose on a platform they are very familiar with and comfortable with in composing. And its an extraordinary effort that you guys have made to integrate, specifically with the plug-in instruments. I know it must be a bear programming-wise because not everybody sticks to the AU standard. But you are willing to commit to each of those instruments and throw programming time at it to make it right, so that when a guy like me has to walk into a situation where a guy just hands you a stack of boxes and says, "Now you've got all these plug-ins, make it all work," it does. It comes up the first time, it checks all the plug-ins, and it works. And also the latency compensation thing in DP 4.5 is just stunning. I can't tell you how many man-hours that's going to save. I'm sure you've done quite a bit of editing yourself to know. And people get fast at that process, and you don't have to do that anymore. It's like, "Wow. Cool!" But yeah, I get pulled in to help composers integrate and find a workflow and build templates for an array of different situations. There are a lot of subtle things in there that save a lot of time.
MOTU: Are there any other new DP features that come to mind?
Bob: You know what, man, I love the loop recorder. I find a lot of people don't even know it's there.
MOTU: The POLAR window?
Bob: Yeah, the POLAR window is really strong. So I've actually been developing a live looping situation for performance to use POLAR in surround in real time. And I have set up a little Lexicon MIDI controller pedal board that I can set to any of the functions in the key commands window, and I can use Digital Performer as a live performance tool. I see a lot of potential there.
MOTU: Yeah, we've been hinting to Pat Metheny about that, ever since that feature came out, that it could be very ripe for really intense live loop recording like that. It sounds like your pedal board dovetails perfectly with that.
Bob: I actually set up a thing like that for singer Ben Harper. He had a track that was recorded with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It's a beautiful song called "Picture of Jesus" that he wrote onnot this last album, but two albums ago. And it was one of those songs that he'd done in the studio but he'd never thought about trying it live. So I said, "Well, with these loop recorders, you can actually set it up to do it all yourself..." and I showed him how to do it with POLAR first, in terms of being able to layer all the parts that Ladysmith Black Mambazo were singing that were particularly well suited to be looped. It was also the excitement of seeing him take to it...I said, "just lay this part first, then lay the harmonies," and he's that good of a singer that he could just nail first takes. And that's where I first turned him on to the idea of trying to do that. Just to kind of open his ears and imagination to what is possible with some of this technology.
MOTU: That's great.
Bob: We were just back stage with an SM58 microphone plugged into my little DP rig, and he was checking it out. And it was stunning to hear his stuff. It was one of those things: it was meant to be a live thing. There's not really a recording of it, although you could pull down those tracks. It was really just meant to be, right here, right now, let's try this. And the guy nails all these first takes. It was stunning. And once all these things are going and looping, he sang the melody over the top. And he sang the whole tune. And then faded out. I think that's just an incredible potential for live performance. It's great for building ideas. But I think a lot of people don't realize that it's there and how powerful it is.
MOTU: I think it's ideal for that very initial creative stage where you're trying to get ideas down fast.
Bob: In fact, I did an entire piece of music in POLAR. "Melody"...it was an idea about having a melody that was broken up among a number of parts. So, the first loop cycle was just a few notes, and the melody would eventually develop over time, across a number of tracks. When I had everything recorded, I bounced each of the POLAR tracks down to tracks in the sequence window, and I panned them out so that the melody would be "hocketed" out to different stereo locations. Eventually I did...there's gotta be 18 guitar tracks. Literally, that piece of music came together and was mixed in two hours. I said, "Damn, I haven't done my own piece in a long time. I'm just gonna' sit down and do it."
MOTU: That's great.
Bob: And in two hours it was done.
MOTU: Tell us a little bit about Lyle's road rig for the upcoming tour.
Bob: Well, it's got one leg in the 20th century and one leg in the 21st century.
MOTU: That's fitting.
Bob: He's kind of known as an analog synth guy after all these records, and really quite a good one. He's had the 4 voice Oberheim, the Prophet, and much later, the Synclavier. And they've always been on the cutting edge of what the new technologies have been throughout their history. So sonically, there are things they are dependent upon from their older records, characteristic sounds that we need to reproduce. In some cases, some of those synthesizers are a little fragile at this point, so we did a little bit of sampling in MachFive of some of the older synths. He was just talking about this JX-10 keyboard that he has, a Roland keyboard, that has that signature ocarina sound that he is known for, and he said he has programmed that on...this will be the fourth time he's attempted it on something new. But it originated on an Oberheim synthesizer, and ultimately he moved it over to the Prophet and then moved it from the Prophet onto the JX. And actually, I was working yesterday in MX4 to see if I could get a reasonable facsimile of it.
MOTU: What do you think? Does it look promising?
Bob: Well, we're just going to try it a number of ways, and that's certainly one of the stronger ways to do it. Like you say, MX4 is so deep. There's some pitch envelope stuff that makes that sound the characteristic sound that it is.
MOTU: We're going to have some new envelope control features in Version 2.
Bob: Oh really?
MOTU: Yeah. That might really help.
Bob: Well, if I have it in the next two weeks, it will help. To send out there with him. The other thing is: the system I'm working on isbelieve it or notbased on....he has so many program changes during the show, he's been using his Opcode Studio 5 for a MIDI interface. And I went on a rampage looking for something that was as strong as that was in terms of mapping and programmability and live performance features. However, since he was so comfortable with the Studio 5, we decided to go with the Studio 5. So then I had to find an OS9 laptop computer to drive it with a serial port. And I found one of those for $150 that was well taken care of. So that seemed reasonable. An OS9 PowerBook G3 computer. So that'll be the front-end of the Studio 5. Then there's a new 1.5 GHz G4 laptop with OS X Panther, and DP 4.5, and MachFive, and MX4, and Atmosphereone of the Spectrasonics instruments that sounds so good. With all of that I'm going to make, essentially, a virtual synth rack on the laptop, and that will go into an 828mkII, lightpipe out of the 828, into a Yamaha 01V96, so I'll be able to split out each of those virtual synths onto their own stereo pair so he can just reach over and tweak the board. And I'll have DPif he wants to compose anything on the road, it will already be integrated into the rig. And he's just got a few other synthesizers. He retired a lot of keyboard synthesizers that the other techs are gonna be really happy not to see because they had to fix them all the time.
MOTU: Seriously reducing the amount of schleppage.
Bob: Yeah. And he's all about...Lyle really has got a programming mind. And he does regular C programmingRealBasic he's into. And he's all about making this stuff smart. And a lot of people have a hard time embracing modern stuff, or moving across into it, but I've found that Lyle is really into ithe's always searching for the next thing that's going to be cool.
MOTU: It's always nice to have a guy who's got talent like his who's not afraid to embrace new stuff and really wrap his brain around it.
Bob: Yeah, absolutely. Essentially, those guys have always sought the latest tools.
MOTU: Well, you seem very excited as you speak about this project.
Bob: I seem to be experiencing the same jumping up and down thing that I had when I walked into the project.
MOTU: It's good, though. It's great. What a treat to be so excited by your work.
Bob: In the little bit of stuff I helped Lyle with, those discussions about committing to creative sub-mixes, and building upon them as we moved through the process...I think these things helped him on his path. And that's ultimately what I attempt to do with other clients of minejust kind of help them figure out a path. I try to identify what it is, musically, they are trying to accomplish, and figure out the best way to use whatever tools there are. And thankfully, there is such a palette of things available in DP. That's what I get pulled in to do...problem solving...troubleshooting...figuring out strategies for realizing musical ideas. It's enough that these guys in the PMG are as brilliant as they are musically, but they also embrace the tools in this way. They really have an incredible handle on what's possible. It seems that sometimes being exposed to a new tool will open your imagination to what's possible musically. It feeds itself. It feeds the musicality. In the PMG, you're dealing with a bunch of rocket scientists that have more musicianship than you can believe.
MOTU: Do you have any idea about the time frame in which the album was developed?
Bob: Well, because they're kind of on their own time and because they're set up in their own home studios, they have the luxury of really developing a project. I mean, there are deadlines I'm quite certain, but they have the luxury of developing the project over the course of...this has been, I think, almost two years from the original files that were on Lyle's computer. To develop a project over the course of two years means that you can absolutely make it the best you can make it. And the level of precision and editing that I saw was...the parts that Pat produced...between Pat and Steve Rodby...they really raised the standard. And it pushes you to your capacity of what you are able to do. And when I get a project like that, I get fully engaged, and I'm "all about it." It takes me right back to what I loved so much about working for Zappa. His whole thing was: just do the most ridiculous possible things for the sake of the best possible outcome musically. And that's what these guys do. That's why I'm jumping up and down about these things. It absolutely gave me the opportunity to push myself past what I could do. And for my humble contribution on this record, I drove out of that place every night absolutely wired because the music was so cool, and I think when you hear it, you'll realize why I am so excited about it. And, you know, on top of it, they're just really cool people to hang out with. They're just really great guys.
MOTU: Well, thank you for speaking with us.
Bob: My pleasure.