Keyboard magazine December 1982
Taking the all-synthesizer sound to the Top Ten
By Michael Davis
"WELL," PAUSED Phil Oakey, Human League's central figure, "the bass was
out of tune, the keyboards were out of tune, the drums were out of time and
camein too soon, the singing was wrong, the slides were bad, and the
audience was horrible. But apart from that, I thought it was quite a good
concert." The ultimate technological breakdown or a tongue-in-cheek assessment of
Human League's UCLA show the night before? A bit of both, as it turned out.
While the members of the League displayed considerable camaraderie and no
little humour while puzzling out the previous night's problems, they also
showed a desire for excellence and a determination to get things right.
Besides, things couldn't have been going too badly for the band; with a single,
"Don't You Want Me," and an album, Dare [A&M, 6-4892], in the Top 5,
Human League's success in bridging the gap between British and American
pop stands out as quite an achievement.
In recent times other English pop-synth bands have been enjoying success
by picking up the musical residue of punk rock, adding an electronic polish,
and fusing it to traditional light rock. Why has Human League been the group
that cracked the American market? A difficult, but not unanswerable,
Fact is that the original Human League, which contained the band's current
vocalist/songwriter/synthesist Phil Oakey and songwriter/slide
sometime synthesist Adrian Wright, along with former members/
Ian Marsh and Martyn Ware, were pioneers in the pop-synth field. Coming
together in Sheffield, England, in 1977, they decided to base their band on
synthesizer lineup while sticking to hallowed traditions of songs with
catchy hummable melodies as a contrast to the guitar-heavy punks trends of
Looking back on the first version of Human League, what are your thoughts on what the band was trying to do, and how successful it was at doing it?
Philip Oakey: Well it's amazing to me that I could have made two records with a group without knowing what about hi-hats. Pathetic, isn't it?
Adrian Wright: We all like pop songs with words you could sing along to
and choruses you could remember. We wanted to write a song that would
be as good as a song written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin.
Keyboard Magazine: Yet your methods for composing were somewhat unusual. How did you out your songs together?
Oakey: Instead of doing simple rhythm, writing a song and then maybe adopting the rhythm so that it bolstered the song a bit, we'd do a very complicated rhythm and say. "That's fantastic! Let's put some tunes over
that," which is no good at all because the rhythm is really the last thing to consider. I think, in a song. We're not African drummers; we're trying to write pop songs, and pop songs are about melodies and chord changes. So we'd end up with these horrible crashing noises that sounded good on their own
and these things that just didn't fit over the top. Although it was sort of intellectual, it didn't get us anywhere.
Keyboard Magazine: But you did create an impact, as reflected in the number of British synthesizer bands that popped up after your first recordings.
Wright: Oh, yeah, we were about the trendiest thing in the world for a week
or so in 1978. Maybe that inspired a lot of bands to take up synthesizers.
Keyboard Magazine: Why exactly did the first Human League spilt up?
Wright: We split up for personal reasons not musical ones. We just got sick of each other. They [Ian Marsh and Martyn Ware] left and we had to do a tour, so we got loads of people in. In England, everybody wrote us off and said we'd had it.
Oakey: Yeah. Me and Adrian would not have made any good records, it's as simple as that. It's possible that we could go on and make some good records now, but it's only because we've learned from the people we've been working with.
Keyboard Magazine: Your current lineup seems to have assembled in a most haphazard way.
Oakey: I can't imagine how it came off. I'd seen Ian Burden in his group Graph in Sheffield. I always thought he looked good on-stage. After the first Human League split up and we went on tour, we had to use tapes of the old band because we had only two weeks before the tour began to put a new act together, and we couldn't do it in that amount of time. We wanted to swing toward the visual and just admit that we were using tapes as much as we always had. Ian worked the tape recorder, and we agreed that if he wasn't doing anything on a song, he would just sit in a chair instate and let the tape recorder roll. We got the girls [Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall] at the same time for backing vocals and to make it look a bit more interesting. We got back from the tour, and then Ian dropped in at the studio.
Ian Burden: I was going to come down and help because you said you had to record an album [Dare], and I said something to you about helping with the playing on it.
Keyboard Magazine: You wound up playing synthesizers , mainly for bass lines, on Dare and joining the band. As a guitarist at the time, how did you wind up on keyboards?
Burden: Having a guitarist play keyboards leads to a different approach to things. If you play an instrument you're not used to, you come with different ideas.
Oakey: He was the first person I knew who would be impressed more by the bass lines of a song instead of by the general effect, so he seems to be our bass line player.
Keyboard Magazine: How did your most recent addition, Jo Callis, join up?
Oakey: Jo and Adrian got friendly because they both like to collect toys - spin-off toys from TV shows, comics and that sort of thing. Jo came down to visit Adrian and we just picked it up from there. The only problem with Jo is that he's got so much energy, you can't turn him off sometimes. It astonishes me that he's playing keyboards with us. The first time he ever played keyboards instate was when we were number 3 in the charts; that puts a hell of a lot of pressure on someone. And he's not just playing one note here and there, but chords with both hands on every song.
Keyboard Magazine: So why do you sometimes hire Mike Douglas, who tours as a spare keyboardist with Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark to augment your keyboard parts on stage?
Burden: On the album there are so many overdubs that there are more parts in each song than there are people to play them, so we get in an extra keyboard player.
Oakey: So what do you want to know about keyboards?
Keyboard Magazine: What happens when you push the keys down?
Oakey: Subtle things.
Wright: Random things, actually [laughs].
Oakey: Just exactly what you're not expecting a lot of times. Jo's been known to punch up the wrong program for the start of "Things That Dreams Are Made Of."
Jo Callis: I used to do that a lot. On the first tour, all my presets were in alphabetical order. Then we changed the running order, and it took me ages to get used to the fact that we went like from G to F and then to H. Another good one is leaving the arpeggio going in "Circus Of Death" [from Reproduction].
Oakey: Always good for a laugh
Keyboard Magazine: What kind of drum machine are you using?
Oakey: We use the Linn, which has a limited memory capacity, so we have a cassette machine which reloads it halfway through the set. While we're reloading it, we use the Roland 808 drum machine, which is good for programming patterns, but not for programming a whole song, and it doesn't have as nice a sound. And when we do encores, we use the 808 again. We drive a lot of stuff off of it. We've got the pulse line, which comes out of one of the drum tracks on both the Linn and the Roland, driving the Yamaha CS-15. To get the Syndrum sound, we use a Simmons SDSV drum synthesizer, which is quite a nice machine, but a bit slow in triggering. We did a whole show with Ian [Burden] bashing the pads on it, and we couldn't understand why the rhythm track wasn't in time. It actually takes a little bit of build-up time to trigger. What else do we have?
Wright: We have your old Korg with the two keys missing.
Oakey: Which we use on one number, "Darkness" [from Dare]. It's a Korg 770. I don't think very many of them were made. Everyone got the K-7005 (Minikorg] because it looked nicer.
Keyboard Magazine: What does each member of the band play?
Oakey: Jo's got a Roland Jupiter-8. Mike [Douglas, auxiliary keyboardist] has a Jupiter-8, the drum equipment, and the Korg, and he has the SDSV on his stand. Near Ian is the bass unit, which is the Roland GR-33B bass guitar synthesizer, and the Yamaha CS-15. I have a microphone, and the girls each have one two.
Keyboard Magazine: Aren't you playing anything on-stage?
Oakey: I'm just playing those little runs on "Love Action" on the Yamaha. We trigger it, and it does all this noise all the way through; I make it change pitch when it's supposed to. I've got a feeling that our sound man turns it off at the front anyway, and just leaves it in as an indulgence to me.
Keyboard Magazine: Where you playing more in concert in the original Human League?
Oakey: No one was playing anything on-stage then; almost everything was on tape. Martyn used to play certain things that were already on tape. Ian used to put the occasional white noise crash into things, and he had one tune to play in one song that he used to get wrong. The rest of it was on a Sony 2-track tape recorder. I was singing live, and Adrian was doing his slides live. It was horrible.
Keyboard Magazine: What sort of equipment did the original band have?
Oakey: The original Human League only started because of the availability of the original Roland System 100. It looked like an old radio - great big units with one oscillator and an expander unit. Ian Marsh got it on credit, along with two analogue sequencers. We did our drums by using white noise filtered with a lot of resonance. He used the second bank of pots on the analogue sequencers to time the first bank. We did all our drums like that, and it was rotten. The bass drum sound is critical on a record. You can't sell anything for dancing nowadays without a good bass drum.
Keyboard Magazine: What specifically was the problem?
Oakey: As soon as the oscillators got low enough for the bass drum, they became unstable and began fluctuating all over the place. You'd get maybe two really good beats and five rotten ones. You couldn't have a bass and snare on the same beat because you'd have a step where your voltage was so high that it opened your filters up and let the white noise through. We wouldn't touch a drum machine on two albums because we didn't like how they sounded. Around that time, Martyn got the Korg 700S. It was very popular; you couldn't sequence it, but it was very cheap and usable, and very adaptable, with two oscillators, ring modulation, and everything you could want out of a keyboard synthesizer. Then we got the Roland JP-4, which was potentially good but unstable. It only had eight programmable memories and eight presets. I had my 770, which we still use. Then the band broke up.
Keyboard Magazine: How did you use your tape recorders?
Oakey: We used them a lot to record bass lines at half speed and things like that. I think using tape recorders and sequencers was at least as important as using synthesizers at all. They enabled us to get around the fact that we were very bad keyboard players, and to get our ideas over a little bit. Then there was the problem hat we never had the money to buy the devices to sync the synthesizers to tape.
Keyboard Magazine: You did synching by ear?
Oakey: We did a bit of that, but I guess our biggest problem was that our complicated rhythms never varied. We couldn't even, say, go into the bass drum section while someone sings, or leave off the hi-hat cymbal. We were stuck. The song would start and end with the same rhythm, and it wouldn't change anywhere in between, which is dull. When we're live now, we work with one basic rhythm for each song, one variation on it for the chorus, and maybe a fill for both of them. It's not complicated - we don't use up too much memory on the Linn - but it's enough. You've got your fills there, and you can go from a swing rhythm of some kind to something a bit less swinging.
Burden: You find that the least is the most effective as far as the drum machine goes.
Oakey: When you're recording with the Linn, you can program up to a hundred different things. And it's very good for people who haven't had a lot of experience with computers. Do you know the little Roland 808s and 606s? They've got 16 divisions in each bar, so you can turn it to, say, snare, press 5 and 13, and you've got the snare at those positions. I like that. I like being able to see that, because I haven't got the feel for rhythm that Ian has. Ian does it by ear, and it's very good for that too.
Burden: That's the great thing about the Linn as far as being a musician goes: It's all real time, rather than on some sort of computer terms.
Keyboard Magazine: How do you do your songwriting these days?
Oakey: It depends on who's there that day. If Jo is there, he writes tunes. Jo writes an album before you go for a tea break.
Callis: You just go into a second-hand record shop, pick up a record, and if no one has heard of it, you copy it.
Oakey: So if Jo's around, he seems to take over the songwriting. And when Jo's in Edinburgh, we manage to do some things ourselves. We're getting lucky that he lives in Edinburgh, or it would have been a Jo Callis LP, or a Martin Rushent LP.
Keyboard Magazine: What comes first - words or music?
We found it very handy to write a whole song, then make a big gap and write
a catchy chorus from the vocal line, rather than writing the music and
fitting the vocals to it. In this group - and you should include Martin
Rushent - there's always someone who will have what you'll need for a song.
When we did "Love Action" I had the whole idea for the song and the drum
track that we'd done. I couldn't do the bass line it needed just like that,
so I said Ian, "I need a bass line that's a bit optimistic, but it's got to
convey something of a realistic mood." He did four or five bass lines that
weren't quite right, then he just came out with the simplest bass line in
the world, but it was right for the song.
I don't play anything on the recordings, do I?
Oakey: That's because there's not much in it. We program a lot of things on the Microcomposer; that does a lot of the more difficult parts.
Keyboard Magazine: You just store the parts you need in it, then punch up the program in concert?
Oakey: Or the whole song from start to finish if you're careful with it. It's a matter of juggling it around and wondering which suits the songs. At the moment, we're thinking that maybe you can microcompose things too much.
Burden: Especially after we've just played live.
Oakey: I was all for the Microcompose until Jo and Ian pointed out that sometimes things sound better played by hand.
Burden: Sometimes you can go back into the studio to hear what's been programmed, and you're really disappointed. All the beats are in the right place, it's all logical and correct, but it doesn't feel right. That happened on "Sound Of The Crowd." The bass line was programmed up, but I thought it just didn't feel right, so we did it again. You can't play it perfectly, like a machine.
Oakey: And that's good. Ian, didn't you play most of the bass lines on "Don't You Want Me" yourself on the keyboard?
Burden: "Seconds" was done entirely by hand, I know that. No Microcomposing on that one. There was quite a lot of manual playing on "Don't You Want Me." Didn't we use the Korg for the bass on that one?"
Oakey: You do whatever seems best at the time. If it's not sounding right, then you do it some other way. We were in a rush when we recorded the album.
Wright: Even though it took months, we were in a rush.
Oakey: We were worried about studio time. We'd spent all the money on the studio, so we sort of panicked when, say, Jo couldn't get his elephant sound exactly right on "Hard Times."
Wright: I think that was the saxophone preset of a JP-4, but it sounds nothing like a saxophone. They should just say "elephant" instead.
Oakey: Why did you want an elephant in there?
Callis: Well, I pressed the button thinking it was going to be a saxophone, like a Junior Walker thing. Then I thought, well, that doesn't sound much like a saxophone, but it's a real bitchin' elephant.
Keyboard Magazine: How much synthesizer programming does your co-producer, Martin Rushent, do?
Oakey: He did all the programming on Dare. We'd never seen a Microcomposer before. We've since bought our own, and I can program it now, so I'll be doing a bit of that in the future. Normally, when we used Martin's equipment, it would be the other way round. Martin's not very interested in getting accurate or wonderful sounds; all he's interested in is getting enough to support the melodies. Melodies and song structures are his basic interest. Because we didn't have much time on that album, we didn't spend more than a few minutes programming anything. We'd just come up with the first sound. And he'd use his effects units to turn it into exactly what he wanted. Next time round, I think we'll be more careful.
Keyboard Magazine: How well does that process translate into your concert settings?
Burden: We rework the programs to get an approximation of what was on the record.
Oakey: Jo tends to drive us all mad with reprogramming for long periods of time to get the keyboard sounds he wants, but a lot of them turn out better than what we had on the album. He drives you wild until you realize that what he's doing is right.
Keyboard Magazine: You've released extended versions of many of your songs on 12" 45 rpm singles. Do you redo them in longer forms than those put onto your regular singles?
Callis: No, we record a song in its longest possible form, like an album track. That way, if we've got one chorus too many at the end or something, we can cut it or fade it. The extended instrumentals are made by tacking on bits and pieces.
Wright: When we record, we put everything in a computer so Martin can just go through and find what he needs. Then he transfers the music from the 24-track to quarter-inch tape, putting all the effects from the deck onto the tape. He sits there for hours, chopping the tape with a razor. We're all sitting around for like six hours, and all we see is the back of his head until he turns around and goes, "Great!"
Keyboard Magazine: Do you try to imitate horn and string textures in your programs?
Callis: There are quite a lot of obviously stringy or brassy parts on our records, a simulated horn sound, for instance, with maybe the attack of horn. Then for some things, you just get a sound that works, whatever it is.
Oakey: If we wanted something that sounds like a trumpet, we put five or ten minutes' work and come up with something that sounds adequately like a trumpet. If you're going for the cliché real trumpet sound, why mess around? Go get a trumpet.
Burden: One of the interesting things about synthesizers is, if you want something that's got the feel of a trumpet, you try to achieve that with a synthesizer, but you don't quite get it. You come up with something new, something you wouldn't have deliberately set out to get - an approximation.
Oakey: And if you're using the Microcomposer, you can combine sounds in a very accurate way that you could never otherwise have done. If we wanted a trumpet, but with a hard attack that trumpets don't have, we could, say, hit a bell, but you could never hit a bell at just the right time to combine with the trumpet sound. But with the Microcomposer, you can set up the trumpet, set up the bell, and play them together perfectly for a new sound. The horn sound on "Don't You Want Me" has a lot of string parts in it that are a mixture of pizzicato strings and horns. Martin and I kept going back and adding sounds to it. I think it's really a good sound, and one that's never been on a record before. The problem with Microcomposers is that they are in time all the time. You just have to send them a little bit out of time occasionally. Say you set up a string section on a Fairlight and do it with a microcomposer. Instead of having a string section of seven violinists, you get the sound of one violin that you go back and record again; it'll be so close that it'll actually phase. No violinist is going to start at exactly the same time as another violinist, so you can't get that real, rich sound unless there's something slightly "wrong" with it. All the effects in the world won't make up for that.
Burden: If you do a series of passes on one sound, you can slow the tape down slightly the second time you record it, then do one with the tape sped up slightly the third time. You can get a nice spectrum of sound that way. But when you're using the Microcomposer, you still have that business of having every note start at the exactly the same place. Detuning helps, but what needs to be done beyond that is to delay and push things just a bit further.
Oakey: When you get to the strictly technical side, the problem is that everyone is going to get really bored while you're working out how many milliseconds you need.
Burden: Well, I remember a couple of times explaining a melody to Martin Rushent, then he disappeared and came back just an hour later. He'd programmed everything in that time, and we started recording.
Oakey: He did take a long time on some of them, though. The horns on "Things That Dreams Are Made Of" took him hours and hours.
Keyboard Magazine: Will you be using primarily synthesizers for the foreseeable future?
Oakey: Primarily, I'd say yes. But I think that we will very likely be admitting other instruments if we think they're necessary. We've proven what we had to prove, that we can get hit records only using synthesizers, and now that we've done that, we've taken very seriously, and we've got to compete in the same market as everyone else. The gimmick will hold you for one album; after that, you have to work for excellence. No one's going to be impressed with a gimmick for very long. There's a lot of music coming out of England now, a lot of competition.
Burden: But I don't think it's a gimmick. I don't think we'd have gotten where we've gotten except that we chose to do it by a different route.
Oakey: But I think we did go overboard to a certain extent, and people were right when they said, "Don't be stupid." We made it a selling point that our music was only synthesizers, and that we wouldn't have a drummer, and those were the gimmicks.
Keyboard Magazine: What makes you different, in your opinion, from the most of the other synth bands you mentioned coming out of England now?
Oakey: We're a song band. We believe that song bands will make it, and the rest won't. You can push it only so far on silly things like having a pretty face, and there are bands that use synthesizers just because they are synthesizers. But the song bands will push on through - the ABC's, The Imaginations, the Police. We're lucky because this band has a bunch of guys with melodies in their heads.
Burden: The thing is, the people in this group have all had a go at it in previous years. We've all had previous attempts at success and made a lot of mistakes. So the new Human League got together afresh after learning from those mistakes. We've just managed to get things right this time.