Synthesizer

From Allan Holdsworth Information Center
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Player Of The Month (Beat Instrumental 1978)

But a synthesizer sounds a bit clockwork - mostly because everyone uses it the same way. There’s only been one or two really original synthesizer players."

Allan Holdsworth (Beat Instrumental 1979)

Flowing more like synthesiser or wind notes than the essentially percussive sounds that the guitar normally produces, Holdsworth’s notes are different from those of all his contemporaries. The reason? Well, as almost his first sentence to me illustrates, it lies in his very earliest influences.

Holdsworth & Co. A New Side Of Allan’s Music. (Guitar 1980)

That’s something I’ve got really tired of, that curtain of sound over everything all the time. You get this backwash and it never stops, everything is built onto this blanket of sound. There are occasions when it can be beautiful - there are a couple of tunes on Bill’s last album where it was nice - but l just wanted to break loose from all that and play the music that I’ve been working on for a long time.

Allan Holdsworth: Synthaxe (Guitar Player 1985)

I tried adapting some of my existing pieces to SynthAxe, and it works really well for some. But there’s really so much more I can do with it. I would like to stick mostly to new things because it has opened up so many doors for me, compositionally and sonically. I’m not too interested in sampling, but I like creating sounds from scratch.

At first it was a little hard for me to get into synthesis because, being a guitar player, I wasn’t familiar with it. I didn’t even know how synthesizers worked, except that the sound came from oscillators. My first synthesizer was the Oberheim Matrix 12, so I was kind of thrown in at the deep end. It’s not the most basic machine you can get, but in a way it was good for me. It took me a while to even be able to find my way around. Luckily, my interest in studio signal processing and trying to find new sounds on the regular guitar really helped.

I didn’t realize how great those synthesizers were until I started using them. I’ve always liked the Oberheim sound anyway. It seems that every synth manufacturer has its own voice. The Oberheim has a vocal quality or something. With the Matrix 12, you can assign two voices to each string. And you can pan them anywhere in the stereo image and get some really beautiful stuff.

"...Where No Guitarist Has Gone Before..." (Cymbiosis 1986)

When I got the SynthAxe, it just sparked off this incredible interest in synthesis which I’d never thought of before. So I’m trying to get a deeper understanding of synthesis so I can create my own sounds and programs. And that is really exciting to me, because I’m so new at it. I’ve got all this energy again like I had when I first started playing. It’s a different kind of energy than the one I have for just developing my musical knowledge. So one helps the other. It’s a new inspiration for me.

Castles Made Of Sand (Guitarist 1987)

Oh, no! It’s not a controller which works in conjunction with any synthesiser; it’s a totally separate unit. This one can be connected to the MIDI controls, but I’ve been using it on the audio - it’s a voltage controlled filter, basically. It’s wonderful because it’s given me all this expression, which I didn’t think was possible out of it. For example, the second track on the album, called Distance Versus Desire, is like a ballad, and I just solo over the top the chords. I think the kind of expression that can be got with it, kind of surprised myself: you’d always expect to get more from a real instrument. I’m not saying it’s not real and eventually those barriers will break down and there will be no definition between real and unreal, because no instrument is real really. I’ve been using almost exclusively Oberheim stuff and I’ve got a lot better at it. I didn’t want to bring in programmers or anything because I like to know how everything works, even if it’s sad. I’d rather get a sad soun d and be responsible for it than have somebody else make me a brilliant one and not know how he got it. So I’ve gradually been progressing in that department and there’s a solo on the title track Sand where I used a Kursweil (sic) 250 Expander and an Oberheim Xpander mixed together. I’d created an oboe-like sound on the Xpander and I used the bassoon patch on the Kursweil (sic) and mixed them both through the breath controller. It was great because the bassoon patch ran out half-way up the range and the Oberheim kind of takes over and it’s almost undetectable - it’s hard to know where one ran out and the other one took over. But I actually forgot, when I was recording it, that I was playing anything that was anything to do with the guitar at all. I was in the studio and it was almost like I had an oboe in my chops. It’s a great feeling because it’s closer to what I want to do than I’ve ever got from the guitar. I’ve always attempted to get sounds out of the guitar that didn’t really want to come out. Plus it’ s taken me into a whole new thing; I’m not just dealing with things relating to the guitar.

Was the barrier into the synths the big barrier?

It was kind of confusing because I got the synthesiser before the SynthAxe arrived and I had to look at all these pages in the manual and I was totally clueless. Nothing meant anything at all until I got the SynthAxe and could figure out what was going on - I think I drove Marcus Ryle crazy. (Marcus Ryle was a co-designer or the Oberheim Xpander and Matrix 12 synths and was SynthAxe’s service agent in the us. Ed) I think he had his phone number changed by the time I’d finished! But the most important thing was that I had the desire to know. I felt about that like I felt when I first got a guitar or when I first got involved in music; you really want to have a go.

Has it made you very familiar with other synths?

It has helped. I can get around on other synthesisers because I know basically what I’m doing, say when you modulate this with that and you’re assigning this to that. It’s basically what I’ve learnt from the Xpander, and it’s fairly awesome. The amount of internal patchwork you can do on that machine is pretty incredible. I’m obviously slower on other synths, but it has helped.

Guitar Synths in Jazz (Music Technology 1987)

His last solo album, Atavachron, marked a turning point in Allan’s career, featuring much more synthesizer than is generally expected on a ‘guitarist’ album. His involvement with the SynthAxe is largely responsible for this development, since it has allowed him to step into a role generally reserved for keyboard players. But the changes in his music are not merely in the tonalities of the lead and backing instruments; the character of his compositions has definitely evolved in new directions since his plunge into synthesizers without forsaking the nuances of his playing style altogether.

So if he’s primarily using the SynthAxe, does he record his performances as MIDI data into a sequencer?

“I’ve considered it; I might even do something like that on another album. I’d like to do an album like that. And because it would all be synthesized, I could just record it into the computer, like we did on the last track on the album. Everything was recorded on the computer except the solo; that was recorded to tape, because I used the guitar amplifier and all that. It would have been more complicated to record it and then process it, because I wouldn’t have been able to get the same feel without hearing that sound.’

And speaking of sounds, are there any samplers on the new album?

‘I’ve got a Kurzweil 250 Expander I used on some of the things. But the only synthesizers I used on the whole thing are Oberheim. I’m an Oberheim freak. I’ve got an Oberheim Xpander and two Matrix 12s. They’re really flexible, just great.

“I started off in the deep end, really, because the first synthesizer I got was a Matrix 12, and it isn’t the easiest synthesizer for a beginner. But it helped me, I think. I’ve had a lot of help from Marcus Ryle, who’s one of the designers. He must have been fed up with me calling, Marcus, Marcus! How can I do this?

“But I’ve got a reasonable understanding of it now. I’ve created a lot of my own patches from scratch and it’s getting closer. No cigar perhaps, but it’s getting closer.’

Guitarist's Guitarist (Jazz Times 1989)

"I’ve been trying - and I haven’t succeeded yet, but I keep getting closer - to create a kind of a horn sound that’s somewhere between an oboe and a soprano saxophone. And since there’s no real acoustic instrument that I can learn how to play, I use the synthesizers that I control with the Synth-Axe to create a sound which is somehow like that. I’ve always liked the idea of synthesis. I mean, there must be so many sounds - unheard sounds - that would be wonderful to hear. The real quest is to find some of them. Hopefully, eventually I’ll come up with a sound that isn’t trying to be something else, but which is definitely identifiable as something else.

The Unreachable Star (Guitar World 1989)

I also saw the vocal thing sitting me on the fence really hard, and that people who like instrumental or "jazz" music were kind of perturbed by the vocal aspect of my music. I never was, but I thought that they were, and I also felt that there were people who liked the vocal aspect of t he songs but didn’t like the rest of it. It was like stretching both sides, and, like I said, when I got the SynthAxe I decided that that was what I wanted to do, so I just continued to sit on the fence in a different way.

GW: And now?

HOLDSWORTH: Now I’m sitting on the fence between what the record companies see as my audience and what I’d like to see as the audience. I don’t know if there are piano players who wouldn’t buy a Chick Corea album because he was playing synthesizers and not piano, because he’s the same musician, with the same kind of quality of performance. But there’s this little thing in the back of people’s minds that relates keyboards with synthesizers, and it’s actually horseshit, because there’s nothing - other than the fact that it was once easier to control a synthesizer with a keyboard - to relate a keyboard to a synthesizer, any more than there is to relate a Jew’s harp to a synthesizer. So it really tells me something. It tells me that guitar players don’t listen with their ears. They don’t relate to the music or to the notes; they’re only relating to something physical.

GW: Hmm...

HOLDSWORTH:: It must be the fact that people are conditioned to combine in their minds things like keyboards and synthesizers. They say, "Oh, it sounds like a keyboard," and they’ve already spoken an untruth. It doesn’t sound like a keyboard; it sounds like a synthesizer. That’s the truth.

GW: You can’t deny, though, that there is a certain amount of dehumanization involved in using synths of any kind.

HOLDSWORTH: I’m not of that opinion at all, because any instrument is a product of technology. Absolutely any instrument,

GW: Even a string stretched across a hole?

HOLDSWORTH: Even a string stretched across a hole. And even the most primitive flute, made out of bamboo cane, with holes in it, is a product of technology, because someone had to know where to put the holes. It’s that way all the way down through time. Even a grand piano, with its steel strings, is a product of technology - they didn’t know how to do that at one time. I see a synthesizer as being another instrument. The barriers between what people consider real and unreal will eventually be just broken down completely I remember when people used to think that electric guitar was some kind of horrible monster that didn’t have anything to do with music, and that people wouldn’t give it any credit whatsoever as even being a musical instrument. Now the electric guitar is almost regarded as an acoustic instrument. All the people who thought the electric guitar was a monster because it used primitive magnetic coils to pick up string vibration and pumped it through a fifty-watt Marsh all to create this’ kind of bizarre tone utilizing distortion - it’s amazing how many people still don’t understand the principle behind that. You just can’t tell some guys, electronics guys in particular, how you want something to distort, because distortion is something people have been fighting for years. It comes down again to the music. I mean, you can give an idiot a synthesizer and it’s going to come out sounding pretty bad, but if you give a musician a synthesizer it’ll be okay. I’m not saying I’m either of those [laughs].

GW: It’s been said by certain musicians that synthesis, by its very nature, blocks a certain essential path of their creativity, their ability to express. It creates an undeniable separation between the actual dynamic and its transmission.

HOLDSWORTH: That’s not true. That’s an opinion and I value it, but I think what’s most likely is that I haven’t learned to control it - I haven’t had as long a time to learn how to control it as I had with the guitar. I think that during the Sand period, I really made a lot of progress with regard to that specific area of the communication of music. I suppose the outside perception and the inside perception are so different that I can see why someone might say that. But I’m closer now; especially with Secrets - not necessarily playing-wise, but with a focus on the musicality that I’d like to convey - than I was before.

Allan Holdsworth’s Untold Secrets + Worthy Quotes (Guitar Player 1990)

Ultimately, Allan’s decided knack for steering clear of his obstacles came to fulfill the beauty of Secrets, the next careful step in his ongoing search for sounds. The vehicle, he hopes, will eventually become irrelevant. "People who have followed and liked my music over the years have been pretty forgiving when I wanted to do something different," he admits. "It got a little tough when I started using the SynthAxe. I knew I wanted to get into it, but it was difficult for me to get my own personality to come through, and now I’ve got it to where it’s a lot better. I know the limitations of the instrument, I’ve come to understand synthesis a lot more, and I feel I’ve tried to get more of a voice, so that you can hear the musician through the instrument. I’m not saying it’s there yet, but it’s a lot closer now. It’s all a learning experience.

Because I long to be a wind player - I always wanted to play saxophone - when I go to a synthesizer to create a sound, that’s usually where I start. I’m not trying to replicate anything specific; I just say, "Well, let’s try and get a wind-instrument-from-Mars tone." So long as it’s a wind instrument, that’s all that matters. I quite liked the sound on "Spokes," which is just a lone Oberheim Xpander. In the middle, I had a second Xpander detuned a tone away from the first, and faded that in during the middle section where Jimmy and Vinnie are just completely reaming. I wanted to leave it kind of open there for the bass and drums to do a bit of savaging.

Allan Holdsworth: An interview (Atavachron 1994)

CH: To what extent has the "MIDI revolution" affected your music?

AH: Well, it didn’t really affect it as much as it gave me an opportunity to play... to use it as a tool. But that’s all I thought of it as, ‘cause I thought it was a wonderful tool, you know... it’s another way to record things and... you know, for example I’ve always been interested in synthesis as opposed to sampling and that kind take, you know, like the sound of a particular thing, like say if you wanted... you could actually say it’s all computer based. So you could actually say, "Okay, well, I want it to be this long; I want it to have a reed, but I want it to have like, you know, the bell-end of a trombone, or I want it to be like...." Or you could say, "I want it to be a trombone with an oboe mouthpiece on it." You’re able to, like, really create instruments. The act...

CH: Yeah. Uh-oh! Beer break! We do need some new pints pulled. Allan? [we "take five" here] And a comment from Mr. Porter, on our discussion of synthesis, yes?

MP: Oh well, synthesis brings up... it makes people think of... "new age", and the old joke about "new age" music is: What you get when you play new age music backwards?

CH: What?

MP: New age music.

CH: We were discussing your analogy for the synthesizer...

AH: Well, I was just thinking about it when I was peeing, there... [laughter]. I was thinking... you know, the question about the synthesizer is really, the bottom line is it always boils down to the music-what you’re going to do with it-and it literally is a tool, and it’s like, say for example, if I want to fix something on my bike and I don’t have the right wrench or something, it’s like you design a tool to do a certain job, and with that tool you can do what you need to do with it, and that’s what I see a synthesizer as. It’s like, when I’m working on the handpump or something-"Oh, you know what? I have to find a way-plumbing to get from an 1-1/2" diameter to ¾" pipe", or whatever. And then you... [note, the "handpump" is an English device, commonly found only in fine ale supplying establishments that serve, fresh, unpasteurized beer-AH happens to have lugged two back from England-and manages to keep a small army of Californians interested in how this device transform s fine American beer s such as Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada, and Sam Adams-a few of the favorites at "The Brewery." Of course, during the process of installing the handpump, as he did not have a functioning pub-bar facility, he had to attach a type of sink to the hand-pump. Anyway, we had better not make too much of this, as AH could well discover that plumbing is much less stressful and immensely more lucrative than being a guitar genius...]

AH: ...first. You cannot take the tool and just use it-you have to have a need for it, and then you have to have a purpose, and then the tool serves your purpose and does the job for you. And that’s the way I see synthesizers: synthesizers are musical... is an instrument-it’s only an instrument-it’s a tool. Just like a guitar, or any other instrument. There’s no difference.

CH: Take the title track on your last album, "Hard Hat Area", where you obviously use synthesizers. How did it work for you in that context?

AH: Well, it was good, because I wouldn’t have been able to do the same thing, color-wise and texture-wise with just guitar. ‘Cause what I was visualizing was, I saw like a high-rise building being built, in Tokyo city, for example-but in "Super Mario" style. Pictures; it was like music for an imaginary movie. And it was about guys building a building. And that’s all it was.

CH: A couple more. Where do would you like to take synthesis with the guitar; with the SynthAxe: Is there a future there for you?

AH: Well, it has nothing to do with the guitar, really. It’s just that the synthesizer... I’m really interested in the synthesizer.

CH: But what can you envision doin g with it in the future that you haven’t done? Is there anything...?

AH: Oh yeah! There’s a lot. It would depend on synthesis... you know, the way it goes and how much the instruments develop. The sad part about it, of that thing, is because of the instruments that I’ve got now, is that I only have a SynthAxe that really doesn’t belong to me because I sold mine. But the next thing would be like, perhaps this instrument that Harvey Starr makes, which is like a keyboard. You know, totally like... it’s a keyboard, with like two necks. A guitar... it looks like a pedal-steel guitar. But there’s buttons instead of strings.