Living Sound: Richard Barbieri brings years of synth programming mastery to progressive rock and cutting edge electronica – by Scott Healy
Richard Barbieri breathes life into the circuits and transistors that create electronic sound. His career spans four decades and bridges many trends and eras in electronic music production, and fans of post-punk British pop and electronica will fondly remember the work he did in the ‘70s and early ‘80s with the seminal band Japan. His first solo release, Things Buried, is a lush sonic journey whose intensity comes from Richard’s craft of sound design and manipulation – and draws a compelling contrast to the edgy progressive art-metal-pop band Porcupine Tree. His palette with the group varies from thick prog pads and strings to icy pianos and burning leads, an arsenal he constantly tweaks in real time on stage. In the studio, his approach is similar, but regardless of location, for Richard, the performance of the sounds is the key.
Electronic pop music was born in the world of bulky modules and messy patch cords, and soon became the realm of those who could consistently coax musically useful sounds out of some early synthesizers, most of which were underpowered, quirky, expensive, and built with obtuse interfaces. Players like Barbieri, who came up in this challenging age, have a different outlook than the archetypal modern music superstore shopper. The programming techniques that, at the time, seemed the invention of necessity (or perhaps of sonic deprivation) became valuable skills which electronic pop and rock musicians would later turn towards. And Barbieri’s work remains true to that pop-electronica lineage. You won’t hear solos, or even standard song form. But what you will hear, like in good orchestral music, is the beauty in the details. Rich sound layers meld, while sonic motifs build and morph into other musical textures as the track moves through the electronic landscape.
To some digerati, the onset of digital synthesis, sampling, and now inexpensive one-touch synths might render Barbieri’s hard-won skill set quaint at best. But the variety, depth, and the intensity of the sound design and realtime sound manipulation on Things Buried and Fear of a Blank Planet amply demonstrate how his abilities are more relevant now than ever; with so much sonic clay commercially available, it falls on artists like Barbieri to express and codify electronic music, to make it organic and real.
We caught Richard one afternoon on one leg of Porcupine Tree’s worldwide tour.
Things Buried is recorded digitally. That means nothing analog, not even synths?
Basically, it means I didn’t use any analog synths, for the first time on any recording in my career. I had gotten into a real comfort zone with the old analog stuff and, as much as I love it, I thought this would be a good challenge. I want to embrace the new technology as well as the old. I thought, well let’s do the whole album with software, and see if I can get it sounding warm, if I can work with the textures the way I always used to.
What specific software instruments did you use?
A lot of it was Native Instruments software, like the Pro-53 and Absynth, but I’ve also been using the synths in Reason quite a bit. I’ve been doing some programming for Reason and I really got into Subtractor and Maelstrom. And to be honest, if you’re working with subtractive synthesis in a software format, then I think you can more or less get what you want. I can make it sound like a Prophet-5 if I want to. If you know what you want to do, if you have the sound in your head, then you can achieve that.
You obviously spend a lot of time on your sounds, probably more than most keyboard players.
It’s manly because of lack of ability. I’m self-taught and I’m not a technical keyboard player. I didn’t grow up knowing the scales and I didn’t know how to play blues progressions, jazz progressions – all that was completely alien to me. So I just started making the sound do something, rather than my fingers. So I would create sounds that evolved over ten or so seconds. I would put more features into the sound, more modulation, various kinds of effects that would come and go, filtering, panning and LFOs. That for me was the way forward, especially hearing what Brian Eno was doing with Roxy Music in the ‘70s. I thought, well this is interesting, because it’s quite abstract, but it’s working in the context of pop music.
When your parts move and change over a few seconds, the effect is an undulating and moving part or layer. Where most keyboard players might cut and paste or loop a section, you seem to perform it.
I do. I try to avoid MIDI, to be honest. I like the performance aspect, so I don’t want to get caught in that cut-and-paste kind of thing that people do sometimes when they’re working with computer software. And I try not to look at the screen – people now are watching music more than actually listening, working with chunks of information and blocks and passages. I like to do most things manually, so I’ll set the bpm, and I don’t care if it’s a half-a-millisecond out of time. I’ll just try to get a groove going and play right through the track, but play with the synths in real time as I go. That way when I listen back to something, I’m thinking, “It’s nice that changes there and this happens here.” It wouldn’t work in a cut-and-paste way where, well, once you’ve heard eight bars, you’ve heard it.
You seem to be discovering new aspects of a sound as you’re playing it, as the sound morphs and changes. I’m thinking in particular of a sound on “Medication Time” from Things Buried, a warbley, lowpass filter thing with a cool envelope. It starts off as a melodic idea, then it becomes a bass. It sound improvised.
Yes, that formed the basis of the track. It was improvised. That was on an Access Virus Indigo.
In addition to the virtual instruments, what other synths are you using for recording?
The hardware synths that I use are the Virus, the Roland V-Synth series, and the new Roland SH-201. And then I use the 201 to control the computer and the software. I also use the M-Audio Radium 49.
There’s tremendous layering in your music. How do you go about achieving a balance and finding a space for each sound?
It’s tricky if you’re just working with synths. They’re not as defined as guitar, bass guitar or drums. They have their place and their own frequency. With synths, anything goes, so it is a lot harder. In the end, unconsciously, I probably work out the frequencies and what needs to happen – I just go with whatever works, what things are working well in context with others, what creates nice combinations of sounds and textures.
I heard a tweezy, distorted layer spread across the whole mix on “Fear and Trembling” also from Things Buried. Another of your tunes has two bass lines rubbing together. You’re not afraid to take chances in combining sounds and layers.
That’s the advantage of a solo album. You get to do these things.
Do you sample?
I don’t sample that much. I tend to sample voices more than anything else. My wife’s a singer, and usually I grab vocal samples of work she’s doing. I’ll run them backwards, or through filters and LFOs, and they sound quite a lot like instruments. I’m probably late to using sampling but it definitely has a place in my future albums.
It’s interesting that you mentioned your comfort zone earlier; you and other artists in the early days of keyboards were all working beyond your comfort zones.
All those keyboard players who were great in the beginning with the limited analog stuff – when digital came along, to me their work became less what I wanted to hear. Not so many people took to the digital era, whereas now, the people pushing the envelope with digital synthesis are groups like Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. These kinds of artists love the analog stuff, but they embrace the digital because it’s what they’ve grown up with, in the way that Edgar Froese would have had the huge modular systems.
Describe your creative role in Porcupine Tree, how you take part in the writing and arranging.
Porcupine Tree has now settled into a way of working, and Steven is the main songwriter, but the band co-writes probably about 20 percent of the material. We all arrange the material together. So it has a leader, but on the other hand, we’re all very involve dint he music arrangements and writing as well.
Regarding your own work, in writing music that doesn’t have traditional song form or solos, how do you sustain interest over a long song? What do you listen for when you write?
That’s the whole artistic dilemma, isn’t it? Is what we think of as interesting to us, personally, interesting to people listening? I suppose when I’m writing, I just do what keeps me interested. It sounds a bit pretentious, but it’s almost like going into a trance. You start something, and you take it down a certain path, and you see if that’s an interesting journey, or whether there’s nothing there. That’s why making a solo album is always something I was a bit apprehensive about, because you’re working on your own. Working with people is a lot easier, because you’ve got things to play off of, and you’ve got feedback. Whereas when you’re on your own, you know what you’re going to play, and you want to surprise yourself – and that’s a lot harder to do.
Do you think it’s ironic that some of the best music was made with some of the worst gear?
You’re right. That’s how I feel. I know everybody’s nostalgic for the music that was there when they were growing up, but I firmly believe that the 70s were such a great time for all kinds of music – electronic, soul, heavy rock, progressive rock, dance, anything. There was such a variation of sounds and artists at that time.
It’s hard to recapture that spirit because so much of that music came from artists working within strict boundaries.
Absolutely. Going back to Eno again, that was one of the things that he was interested in – using the studio as an instrument. You just kind of accepted what you were working with and that was it. That was the limit. And you just did everything you could to get every variation out of those instruments and out of those effects.
I read a quote by Steve Wilson in which he was talking about the idea behind Fear of a Blank Planet: “Everything has become so easily accessible that none of it means anything anymore.” I imagine this might apply to you as an electronic musician. How do we find true meaning in sound among the vas amount of available sonic technology?
It comes from within yourself. I don’t think the actual gear, software, and designs are important things. The important thing is the idea that you have in your head, or the emotion that you have in your heart, and your relationship with music. I believe that the personalities of musicians are very mush part of the music that they make. If you have an idea about what you want to do, then it doesn’t matter what particular instrument you play. I read these synth forums and I hear kids saying, “Wow, man, I’ve got to have that synth because I need to make dance music!” or “No, I can’t do this track until I get this new software.” Or “I can’t write a bass line unless I have this keyboard.” They get it in their minds that it’s all about the gear and that gear is going to be their answer. You get a piece of equipment, or any technology, and you think, “Right, this is going to make my life easier.” But in the end it’s nothing to do with that. It’s what’s in your own mind and what you’re going to do personally.
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Who are Richard’s sonic influences?
“From an experimental point, Stockhausen, and all the early electronic experimental stuff he was doing in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” says Richard. “From an abstract sound point of view, Eno and Ryuichi Sakamoto in the early days were quite an influence on me. In terms of playing and playing sounds, Joe Zawinul. I’m not a great lover of jazz keyboards, but for me Zawinal was so different, because he used to create these sounds and then play them as the sounds should be played – he would get a beautiful flute sound, or some kind of exotic wind instrument sound, and he’d just play it right, with sensitivity. And that’s really amazing programming. Early Vangelis – I was listening to the Blade Runner soundtrack the other day and it’s just amazing. If you really want some saturated analog sounds, that’s a beautiful album. And the early stuff from Tangerine Dream, Edgar Froese, the early analog sequencer music, Kraftwerk. I loved all those sounds and approaches.”
Playing the Porcupine
Porcupine Tree has no lack of technology on stage. “People say we’re a progressive rock band, but we’re not looking back to the ‘70s for the inspiration,” says Richard. “We’re progressive in the way we’re using today’s technology, and we’re trying to find new ways of making our music sound interesting.”
Barbieri’s live keyboard rig includes analog and digital synths, effects, processors, and a laptop running Reason instruments. “That’s pretty safe,” he says. “I’m also using a Yamaha CS-01 for the lead lines through a distortion modeler, then through an SPX90, that always sounded really nice and warm.”
The band plays along to tracks and sequences as well as to a click track, all generated from an offstage laptop running Logic. But Richard’s setup offers a certain flexibility and room for improvisation within the strict confines of the show. Within his complex rig, he finds his own sonic and creative space. “This is the first time I’ve worked with dynamic rock music and obviously, for a keyboard player, it’s not always easy,” he says. “You have to find you space within that. You have to find the right sounds and the right frequencies.”
He’s Big in Japan
Richard’s work with the band Japan was very influential. “The Tin Drum album was an important one in terms of the synthesis, because we were working with real limitations,” he says. “I had two synthesizers, and Oberheim OB-Xa and Roland Sytem 700, and David Sylvian had a Prophet-5. That’s a really valuable process for keyboard enthusiasts to got hrough, to try to do something working with limitations, maybe working with only one synthesizer. Then you tend to find things within it. You can get very lost because there’s so much available now. In the end it’s better to keep to two or three instruments and really get to the bottom of what’s going on with each, and not just play a few presets.”
Programming and Sound Design
Barbieri recently designed 40 factory sounds for the Roland V-Synth GT. “They got me involve din the early stages,” he says. “I’m a little surprised it didn’t happen in the ‘80s, really. I’ve been using Roland keyboards right from the beginning.” Also, Propellerhead Reason 4’s Thor synthesizer comes with a “Barbieri” folder. “It’s nice to be part of something – I guess it sounds corporate – but they’re all sounds that I enjoyed making, and they’re out there in the world. There’s some kind of recognition there for me as a programmer, and I feel proud, because I’ve never really been a player. That’s something I’ve had to fight with for my whole career.”