Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Interview with Synergy (Larry Fast)

Larry Fast is a synthesiser expert and composer, best known for his series of pioneering electronic music albums recorded under the project name Synergy. He is also known for his work with Peter Gabriel; playing synthesiser on records and on tour, and rounding out the production team on many of Peter's albums for nearly a decade. Larry has also worked with Rick Wakeman and Yes, Foreigner, Hall and Oates, Bonnie Tyler, Wendy Carlos, Tony Levin, Nektar, Iam Siam, Annie Haslam and others. He also contributed music to the Carl Sagan 1980 television program Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, and created the soundtrack for the 1982 film The Jupiter Menace.

  1. You are one of the pioneers of electronic music. How did you enter, what was once, one of the most exclusive worlds in modern music?
It really started happening for me in the late 1960s. I had been an electronic experimenter since I was a kid, building and wiring things since I soldered my first wires together in the late 1950s. I also loved listening to music and took lessons on violin and piano, and later self-taught myself guitar and bass. Couple that with hi-fi and stereo, tape recording and the various aspects of audio circuitry and I was primed for electronic music. When the Moog products evolved into instrument systems from individual modules between 1964 and 1967, I wanted to own some of them. But still in school at that time, there was no way I could afford those thousands of dollars. So I started building my own devices. Some from circuits I found in technical magazines and others that I developed myself from classic oscillator and filter circuits. One of my first oscillators was a modified Morse code practice oscillator.

By the early 70s I was building electronic devices for other musicians such as Rick Wakeman from Yes.

But I had also started to write and record, to satisfy my own creative leanings. And by then had managed to scrape together enough money to buy some genuine Moog instruments, which were superior to my own designs and construction. I used the combination of Moog and my own equipment to work with bands and on my own. After a short-lived band experience I was offered a record deal in 1974 for what would become the Synergy solo electronic project.

Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra

  1. How and why did you choose the name ‘Synergy’?
I was looking for a project name to hide behind - a sort of fictional band. Reading Buck Minster Fuller's Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth there was a chapter called Synergy. He was describing the combined effects observed in metallurgy, chemistry and environmental sciences. But the word did apply to the effects I had observed in multi-track audio recording. And it sounded a bit like "synthesizer", so I appropriated the then-obscure term for my project. Now, about forty years later, it is a much-overused mainstream term.

  1. In my opinion, Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra is one of the most innovative and important recordings of the 20th Century. Tell us about the development of this album, and the technology you employed to produce it.
The earliest form of the album started shaping up as a senior thesis piece in my 20th Century Composition course at college. There is an entire section of the appropriately named Legacy piece, which was written for that course. Slaughter On Tenth Avenue was a piece that I had performed on piano as a student in junior high school. It struck me a decade later, as something that would translate well into the electronic genre. Other pieces evolved from writing sessions with a short-lived band I had on a development deal with Warner Bros. Records, which didn't pan out, and things I wrote after that band broke up.

Soon after that I signed as a solo artist to Passport Records and began putting the album together in preproduction. The technology was fairly standard for the time.  Much of it is listed in the album credits. I used Moog instruments, which on that early album was mostly Minimoog along with modules from Oberheim and 360 Systems. Recording was quite conventional 16-track to 2-inch tape with dbx noise reduction. Mixing was done in both quad and stereo. The original quad mix is encoded in the stereo mix, though the quad fad of the 1970s soon faded so few people have heard the old surround mix. The original release was on the available formats of the day which were vinyl, cassette and 8-track. There was even a quad 8-track format released in very limited numbers.

Peter Gabriel Tour, 1977

  1. Tell us about your work with Peter Gabriel and others.
That is a huge topic covering more than five albums and almost a decade with Peter Gabriel alone. Session work and touring with other acts has never really stopped, but was a fairly consistent 35-year-run with so many recording dates that I can't even remember all of them anymore. Without a specific question it's difficult to know where to even begin. For the years 1976 through 1985 or so, the recording and touring cycle with Peter Gabriel was fairly constant. Many of the other recordings that I worked on like Foreigner, Hall & Oates, Bonnie Tyler and others were slotted in when there were breaks in the Gabriel schedule. After that, it was easier to get involved in special projects.

One of the most interesting projects was working with Wendy Carlos in 1997 on the live version of Switched On Bach performance at a Bach festival in New York. It was the first time that the classic 1967 album had been performed live by a synthesizer ensemble. It took months of work and was the finest all-synthesizer group that I have ever performed with. That kind of work was so different from the many rock tours that I have done that it really stands out in my experiences.


  1. You have designed listening devices for the hearing disabled; and you own several patents for optical distribution using infrared audio technologies. Has this expertise helped you with your career in music, and if so, how?
In reality, it's the other way around. The technologies that underlie audio in the studio and synthesis are all about quality sound. For people with hearing losses, finding ways to compensate for their hearing through technology is very much related. I had already spent several decades exploring the nuances of audio circuit designs so it was not a big leap when I was charged with finding some new solutions to problems in accommodating those people with hearing losses covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  

The only aspect that was new to me was getting up to speed on transmitting audio over infrared light. But even that was not all that much different from the design of blinking LEDs that I had incorporated into a lot of my sequencers and computer interfaces for analog synthesizers. The one irony out of the whole exercise was that in all of my earlier years developing specialized synthesizer modules, nothing I had developed was clearly patentable. The changes that I brought into infrared assistive listening, a small side project, was patent-ready on multiple counts.


  1. Tell us about your new Synergy album. Why have you chosen to return to the Synergy project, after over 20 years, and what do you hope to give to your listeners?
There wasn't a conscious decision to stop doing the Synergy recordings. It was more a matter of economics. The record business has always been notoriously unstable and to some degree untrustworthy. Over the years, I found myself getting more commissions to work on corporate projects and in broadcast media, which took up as much, if not more, time to execute on a per-project basis. That left little time for making records just for art sake. That, coupled with the bankruptcy of the label I had been originally signed to, and a protracted fight to get the rights to the Synergy catalog back, put new Synergy recordings on hold for quite a while. 

What has happened recently, is that at my current stage in life (older) I can back off on the outside projects a bit. And in the current extended recession, there aren't as many commissioned projects as there once were, either. So that opens up some time for me to indulge in the Synergy project experimentation again.

The listeners are along for the ride, because I can't predict exactly where it will take us or even when it will be completed. I do know that the recordings will be high-bit audiophile digital masters, which will be down-converted to regular CDs and of course compressed audio for download sales and streaming. However, I'm actively pursuing the best way to make the audiophile versions available to the general public and in what formats. I'd also like to do 5.1 surround versions of the final mixes. I expect that I'll use many of the same creative tools, which these days focus heavily on software synthesis tools.

  1. Is there an underlying theme or message in your work?
No, not really. You might pick up something from a title here and there, but I like the music to stand on its own, conveying spaces and emotions non-verbally. And even that tends to be "fiction" without a specific storyline. Think of it more as a soundtrack that doesn't have a movie attached to it.

Metropolitan Suite

  1. Of the music you’ve created, is there one piece that you are particularly proud of? If so, why this particular work?
So far, the Metropolitan Suite is the most integrated collection of my earlier works. But it is very hard to have a single favorite piece. At the time any one of the Synergy pieces is being written, it is my favorite piece in the world. If it wasn't, why would I even bother to keep working on it? But after any collection is finished, some of the pieces just work better than others. And sometimes that is completely unexpected.  

The pieces I've created over the decades are so different from each other that various aspects of different pieces have strengths that are more appropriate for different listeners and in different settings. So no one piece could ever be my universal favorite for all times.

  1. What do you find most rewarding in the creative process, and how do you overcome that which you find challenging?
I never quite know where the creative process is going to take me. I sometimes have a starting point with a rough idea of where I want to explore. Setting up some parameters of tempo, feel, texture and so on, gives me the beginnings of structure. Often I'll also have some kind of melodic hook or partial melody to get me started. And then it's off to that mysterious place in the creative thought process where ideas come together. I'm constantly switching between programming, arranging, writing and rewriting parts. These days it is all integrated into an ongoing recording process in the computer. Even the mixing is roughed in at this point, as the piece develops. The simultaneous job functions are somewhat of a departure from the analog days where there was a writing phase along with programming sounds on the synthesizers. But other than rough sketches on a 4-track recorder, there wasn't a whole lot more that could be done outside of the studio other than plan and note things like patch setups and the settings on the outboard equipment. Then, after all of the preparation, there was a distinct master recording phase onto multitrack tape, and then another period of time where recording was finished and locked, and mixing could begin. And the mastering for LP manufacturing.

Now many of these phases occur as part of one continuous process with the ability to revisit individual notes on any one part and make a quick change after the mix and mastering have been done on a first or second pass. I find that work sessions will last many hours with intense concentration, which is almost like going into some kind of zone. A lot gets done to move any production forward during that process. But sometimes I will hit an impasse where I can't decide which path to take, or I find that I'm unable to make some kind of decision about a musical part or a mix level or the sound of a patch. And I find it best to just leave it all for a while and stop working on it. Hearing it fresh an hour later, or a day or two later, usually makes the resolution of whatever the problem was become obvious. Often the right path is easy to get to, but if it won't resolve, then there is probably some kind of fundamental problem with the decisions that I've been making, which need to be revisited. At those points, the best thing to do is to go back a few or more steps in the process and try to re-imagine an alternate way to make the production evolve.

Computer Experiments, Vol. 1

  1. What advice would you give to someone considering a career producing electronic music?
That is a difficult question because I’m not really sure that electronic music in the sense that I started working in even exists as a meaningful genre anymore. What is now called electronic music is more of a dance and beat genre using laptop software, dedicated devices and other tools, which evolved from the work done forty plus years ago. But what used to be electronic music, a composer and technologist's medium, was always a very small group of people and to some extent with limited opportunities.

My advice would be more universal to anyone considering working in the music business. Know your craft and be as good at it as you can be. Have high standards and specific artistic and business goals. And especially, learn the business side and have a good lawyer you can trust. The music business changes every week and if you don't understand how you are going to get paid for all of your hard creative work, then it's just a hobby.

Tony Levin Band, Seattle

  1. Evolution is an inherent facet of modern music. What new developments are you aware of, with regards to the application of technology in electronic music production?
Of course there are always some new developments in the evolution of sound technology, but what I'm seeing now in many ways is the commercialization and affordability of many of the concepts that I was fortunate enough to experience in the mid 1970s and 80s at Bell Laboratories. The underlying technologies and concepts of digital sound and synthesis were being developed back then. But it was extraordinarily expensive and time consuming. What we're seeing now is the evolution of those ideas to become available at consumer prices and on standard computers, pads and phones. And that allows further evolution of the user interface and development of ways to use underlying audio technologies in creative new ways that are a part of the social evolution of digital music. That encompasses everything from how the music is created to the many ways that digital music is distributed.

The Jupiter Menace

  1. My earliest memory of your music is from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I also have the soundtrack for The Jupiter Menace. What aspirations, or reservations, do you have regarding the continued use of your music in film and television?
Most of the last few decades when I have been out of the direct public eye has been spent working in broadcast media, TV, radio, advertising and special projects related to film and scoring. Being based on the east coast that tends to be a bit more anonymous than working on Hollywood projects. But I have almost no reservations about either licensing my existing work for these kinds of uses or accepting commissions to create new music in these same fields. I have probably written and recorded more commissioned work over the last 20 years than all of the earlier Synergy albums combined. As a purely economic matter for the working electronic musician as the established record industry continues to unravel, these alternative media provide a much-needed economic base to replace what the record companies once provided.

  1. Tell us a little about any good electronic music you’ve heard recently.
I don't listen to music much, so I can't comment on anything new. After spending time in the studio, I find myself listening to news and talk radio in the car and watching TV in my downtime at home (or on the computer while travelling). I do keep some of Wendy Carlos' classic pieces and a lot of Beatles in my iTunes collection to remind me to keep my standards high. Those works, the earliest of which are nearly a half-century old, really defined production values, composition and in Wendy's case (as well as some later Beatles pieces on Abbey Road) the purest essence of Moog-based synthesis.

  1. Tell us about your interest in photography.
That's been a hobby since I was very small. I've been documenting phases of my life, and where I've been, since I was in single digits. That's my historian side.  There's also the visual artist side, which I also express through photography. Of course for the last 15 years or so I've given up most of my darkroom work and use digital cameras and photo software.

It was only natural that I'd have a hand in both photographing some of my album art and working closely with the art directors and photographers that they brought into the projects.

Reconstructed Artifacts

  1. Describe ‘Synergy’ in one sentence.
The sum is greater than the whole of the parts.

  1. Where can we find you and your work?
It is all available on iTunes as well and a number of major online download sites.  Physical CDs of some of the titles can be found on CD Baby (www.cdbaby.com).  As of this writing there are some changes underway in the distribution of the rest of the Synergy titles on CD so the best thing to do is check the updated information on the Synergy website:  www.synergy-emusic.com.

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