Three questions with legendary song-writer and member of The Who, Pete Townshend.
Synth History: What was your first synthesizer?
Pete: EMS VCS3. 1971. Tim Souster was helping me with my Lifehouse project. He introduced me to Karlheinz Stockhausen, Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson (BBC Radiophonics Workshop) and helped me see the inevitability of wireless technology. (The story of Lifehouse was all about tubes and wires leading to Lockdown homes where people lived in Experience Suits).
To be honest the main leap of understanding for me was the manual rather than the little synth. I suddenly realised what sound actually was, what timbre was, noise, frequency, etc. I still have a VCS3. I met its creator Peter Zinovieff recently and was surprised to hear him call it a ’silly little box’. Despite that I think he has great affection for it, but his dream was always computer music and now we all have that.
Synth History: Top three synths?
Pete: I actually favour organs based partly on synthesiser technology, and synths that are most like organs. So keyboards. Although I do work on electronic ambient music, Beats and chaos, I am principally a songwriter, so I like inspiration to emerge from what I put in front of me. (That said I can build sounds from the ground up, I’m not bad at some coding or object-based computer music like REAKTOR and MAX. My brain is still pretty keen.)
1. So the 1980 Yamaha E70 organ is my top pick. This is based on the PULSE-ANOLOG-SYNTHESISER-SYSTEM used in the GX1. Beautiful, sonorous sounds. Half of the E70 is organ, the other half is synthesiser. Downside? It weighs more than a Hammond.
2. Prophet 10. I still have one, just restored by the Wine Country company in California. With both foot pedals installed (both on filters or other controls rather than just volume) these things are really expressive. They are also entirely analogue, with some digital control.
3. Synclavier 9600. This is out of the reach of pretty much everyone today. Benny Anderson still uses his every day I understand. The technology is cumbersome, but the combination of sampling, FM synthesis and multitrack hard-disk recording challenged the imagination. Again, I still have one, maintained by Steve Hills at 500 Sound in the UK. It’s expensive to keep going, but I feel a duty to it. The keyboard sequencer interface does bypass the computer, so you can just sit at it and play it like an organ if you like.
I have Moog, ARPs, Korgs and Rolands old and new. I am also into “boxes”. I love all the new battery powered gadgets, but if I’m completely honest without Cuckoo I wouldn’t be able to operate any of them.
If I were to buy new today, with less cash in my pocket, I’d pick the following:
1. Toontracks EZ Drummer and EZ keys. These are software of course, but so easy to use, and to create even complex musical forms. I used EZ Keys to create the jazzy chords for I’ll Be Back on the new Who album. Made it all up as I went along. The chords were so tricky I had to write them out in notation, and even then had to record the acoustic guitar in short chunks.
2. AKAI MPC LIVE. I love it that this is battery-powered. I used it to create rhythm tracks (that were replaced by real drums) on the latest Who album. I’m not great at finger-drumming, and I think since Dr Dre unquantized everything there isn’t much left to discover, but I like trying! I used to be quite a decent drummer, but not so much any more. Of course MPCs (and Macshine) do far more than finger-drumming these days.
3. NEXUS. This company can be a bit of a shambles sometimes, but whenever I open up this module I get inspiration. It’s genius. The new update is impressive and at last works in 64 BIT.
All this stuff is available today, even though OP-1s are sometimes thin on the ground they have just made another batch I believe.
Synth History: Can you recount a magic moment that happened in the recording studio?
Pete: Plugging my electric guitar into my ARP 2600 in 1976 and fiddling around with a patch from the patch-book and coming up with the guitar sound for "Who Are You". I have tried to recreate it a few times, and never been able to come close. It’s so great that today so many amazing guitar sounds can be created using Stomp boxes.
References: Synth History Exclusive, photo Chris Morphet.