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Chris Franke: The Sequencer King

Interview | Artist
Published May 1994

Despite looking back fondly on his days as a pioneering member of groundbreaking electronic group Tangerine Dream, Chris Franke has been a solo artist for over half a decade, and has made a name for himself both in the world of film scores and as a businessman. Ashok Prema talks to the man they called "The Sequencer King."

After more than 20 years, the German band Tangerine Dream are still going strong. Their continued success is evident in both their escalating worldwide record sales and their successful tours — the last one of which was in the USA 18 months ago. Now with a new line‑up, they are comprised of founder Edgar Froese, his son Jerome, an additional guitarist (to complement both Edgar and Jerome, who continue to bring out the axes on stage) and a female saxophonist.

However, conspicuous by his absence in the new set‑up is Chris Franke. One of the original members, dubbed the "Sequencer King" for his renowned skills in this field, he has left and pursued a solo career after more than a decade and a half of being in Tangerine Dream. Nevertheless, unlike many musicians who leave a successful band aiming for solo stardom, Chris Franke has not disappeared into obscurity, but successfully carved a niche for himself over the last three years in the cut‑throat world of film music. Additionally, he has shown himself to be an adept businessman, creating and running his own successful sound library company, Sonic Images. A rare combination of talents indeed!

At Home With The Sequencer King

Based now for the last three years in Los Angeles, Franke inhabits a large four‑storey hilltop house from which he runs Sonic Images. In addition to recreational facilities and his personal living accommodation, the building also houses an extensive studio with a commanding view of Hollywood, and it is here that he carries out most of his recording. However, he still retains in Berlin one of the largest studios in Germany, currently being used to dub German TV series.

After years of being based in Berlin, why did you decide to move to the USA?

"It is now a necessity to be where the action is. No longer is it possible to sit in Europe — nobody goes there any more for music. I mean, Oliver Stone may have this idea for which he specifically wants Kitaro, or Ridley Scott might especially want Vangelis for his Columbus and they will travel to see them, but this is very much the exception! Also, there is a need to be in a position to interact with the directors on a daily basis, to discuss their changing requirements. In the early days they would pretty much finalise the filming and then give it to you to compose music for it, but now you have to work on the rough cut version. This means daily contact with the musical director, the film editor, and in fact the entire crew, as changes are made very often. Basically, you are overwhelmed with phone calls — I handle 50‑60 phone calls a day sometimes."

Why did you choose Los Angeles specifically?

"LA is near the two centres of the film and music world, so it is natural that I should be here if I want to be able to deliver on time. This would not be possible anywhere else. Also, I like the character of this place, the people, and the sunshine — it helps me produce my best music."

Did you find going solo difficult?

"It was a big step, but no adventure comes easily, and this was my own adventure through another passage. I wanted to drive on new routes, and being solo meant that I was the only one steering! In this way, I discovered many roads which are comfortable and not too crowded. To continue the analogy, one nice new road led me to Hollywood."

Music And Vision

How is film scoring different from doing album or stage work?

"In some ways this is more disciplined work, since it is 'music to order'. Although I still have to generate ideas, it is within the confines of a scene in the film. So there is to an extent less freedom. Also, if the director has ideas of what he wants, he will usually explain it in words, and I will then have to interpret it musically for him. This is also a challenge, as I can no longer just say 'I am 100% satisfied with this' — because if the producers are not happy, I will have to change it."

"I now work a lot with orchestras — in fact I have my own 30‑piece orchestra in Berlin which I have assembled from good musicians in East and West Germany. I use them for film work — my Berlin studio is large enough to accommodate them."

You have produced two solo albums since leaving the band. Is it still important for you to do so?

"To produce my own music is the ultimate self‑expression, and I have full control, which is not always possible in film work. It is also nice for the fans to see the direction I have taken in my music. After years with Tangerine Dream and producing music for fans, it would not be nice to abandon them — and in my albums I do try to give a hint of the original Tangerine Dream style. The music that Tangerine Dream now play does not have any of that."

Would you like to tour again?

"Absolutely! I am making preparations for a future tour; maybe two years from now. I am preparing the material, and selecting the other musicians. I will tour with an abstract movie picture — I already have my own editing bay and video and computer graphics facilities to make this project possible. The time lag is because for the next two years I have already been contracted for film and TV work, so tour dates cannot yet be planned. I have to go with the flow a little bit!"

Dreaming Pioneers

It is interesting that not only were you, as Tangerine Dream, pioneers of electronic music, you were also pioneers of modern day equipment. Long before MIDI came on the scene, you used to interface different synths, both for live work and on albums — how was this managed?

"In fact, we developed our own kind of MIDI — an engineer called Helmut Grothe, together with the Projekt Elektronik company, used to custom‑build a lot of our gear to our specifications, and also modified other commercially‑produced synths to enable the synchronisation we needed."

You really were ahead of your time, weren't you?

"That is true. Even before the sampler existed, we experimented with recording things like industrial and chorus sounds, and having our own tape loops made up to be played on the Mellotron, which was really the first perfect sampler. I got my own hardware to record sounds and it was very enjoyable. I still remember the time I told Mellotron in the seventies, ' Hey, you have to go digital!' and they said 'What? — that is not possible!'. It was like science fiction to them. I enjoyed that moment. But Oberheim said 'Yes, we would like to do that' and now samplers are commonplace."

Does the easy availability of equipment to lesser mortals make it less satisfying to produce music?

"Not at all, I like competition — but of course there is a tendency to do things cheaply, and though it doesn't sound as good, it is sold as something expensive. But that will always be the case. I rather like that everybody should have the same tools — a democratic process. I don't like the fact that some equipment is too expensive for musicians to afford. I think electronic music is a good hobby instead of smoking and drinking."

Those Were The Days

Do you ever look back on the days when you were looked up at in awe, because of the unique equipment you had, which other amateur musicians could never afford?

"Sure. It was good to be pioneers, but like every invention, there are two sides of the coin. With the affordable technology now, we can communicate with more people and learn from each other. The whole process has become more interactive — the family has grown bigger! — which is great. Also, it means we have to try and stay ahead by doing things differently from others — try and find the next step. For me, this means to try and record an orchestra in a different way to anybody else. There are always new ways to explore, and really it is only when you stop exploring that it is perhaps time to stop. But if you see new doors that need to be opened, then you are on the right track, and there is no need to criticise others trying to do the same thing."

What was your first synth?

"That was the EMS from a British company. Moog were already active in the USA, but the best synth suitable for electronic experimental stuff was made by this London company. I smuggled it into Germany, which was easy, because it looked just like a briefcase. It was used first on our Alpha Centauri album for weird effects. It was funny because when we toured East Germany, the customs opened the case, and when I told them it was a musical instrument they didn't believe me! They always inspected us carefully then."

Do you remember your first Moog synth?

"Yes! The Rolling Stones had a big Moog Modular system, which they didn't know how to operate. Our record company brought it to Germany, though nobody had any idea what to do with it. It had lots of cables and plugs, but no manual. So I tried to play on a trial and error basis, and found some unusual and interesting things, which I would never have done logically if I had been taught. It also had something similar to a sequencer on it, which allowed notes to be repeated over and over again. I was able to explore this concept and used the Moog and the sequence idea on our album Phaedra."

After using the old analogue synths, are you comfortable on the new phase synths without the knobs and faders?

"Oh yes. If I have a 15‑inch monitor and perhaps some editors, I am perfectly happy. Time has progressed and technology with it."

Matters Of Equipment

Your studio has a variety of old and new synths. Which are your personal favourites?

"Of the analogue, I like the ARP, Oberheim and Moog best. In the early years with Tangerine Dream, we had a lot of stuff custom‑built for us, which was very expensive and unique. I still retain the old Moog, Oberheim and ARP units which were converted into rackmounts. The filters and modulation of the ARP and Oberheim are fantastic — and on the Moog, the bass is unbeatable."

What is the heart of your studio? Is it your mixer, the 96‑channel Soundcraft 3200?

"No. The desk is only a visual centre, but I do most of my mixing in an electronic way, on screen, where everything is stored. The mixer acts just like a big switchboard, routing the signals — I don't use the faders much anymore. With my controllers, I do the dynamics processing automatically, while the crescendos and so on I do with the MIDI fader, the modulation wheel or foot control, and other tracks I mix on the faders on the screen — like an automatic mixer. My main equipment is still the Waveframe sampler, with 200Mb memory and over 5Gb of hard disk space. Also I have the other cheaper samplers, which deliver a lot of firepower, because I get a lot of CD ROMs from different people of orchestral sounds and so I use the Roland S770 a lot, the Akai S3000 and S1000 series and the E3XP quite a bit, which is an excellent engine with a lot of firepower. I use most other gear — the only things I don't have are the Kurzweil 2000 and some of the Wavestations. I passed on those. But I still use the Oberheim DPX1 with all my custom‑designed Emu sounds. So altogether, I have several hundred voices available, which means I don't need to use tape recorders very often. I just have a model of an orchestral piece using the samplers for the producers to listen to, and if they like it, I can perform it live. This way, I am not recording something which they don't like. I remember Tangerine Dream re‑recorded the soundtrack for the film Legend, because the director was not happy with the Jerry Goldsmith score. In the early days, there was always a scary moment when the music was revealed — would they like it? Now, I don't like to take chances — I just say 'Be here', and they listen to my ideas and give comments."

Do you dictate to them, or do they dictate to you?

"Oh, you have to tell them at times how you see the music fitting, but other times you have to ask them if they find the music is playing against the picture or not."

Composing Himself

Tell us a little bit about how you prefer to compose. Do you start with the rhythm and build from there?

"That was the way I used to work. When you listen to the Tangerine Dream stuff, you can often hear that. But nowadays I sometimes like to start with a melody and build up the chord structures around that, which is a good way to work for films where the same melody often provides a theme throughout the film. The result can be simple but effective, and this is good, as the music should not swamp the visual image. For my own fun sometimes, I like to build layer on layer, creating a wall of sound, so that some instruments are totally submerged after a while."

So your creative methods have changed over the years?

"Yes. In a way, I have come full circle. I was taught violin and trumpet at a very early age, and the method was very formal. When I became older, during the sixties, a lot of Eastern philosophies were reaching the West. I rejected the formal structures and went towards the free expression form of music, which Tangerine Dream became famous for, especially in the seventies, when we played totally improvised concerts each night of every tour, dependent upon our mood and atmosphere. We never repeated any concert twice. Then later, in the eighties, we produced more structured concerts, so that people could hear pretty much the same concert the next night. And now I go back to very formal structures for film work, which is useful for the orchestral pieces. I even want to learn how to conduct so that I have full control of the orchestra!"

Leaving The Dream

Why did you leave your successful and ongoing career with Tangerine Dream?

"There was never any original plan for me to leave the band — it happened in a progressive way. After our tour of 1986, we reached a situation, in 1988, where we could afford to take a long break. Our record contracts had been finalised so they couldn't sue us, and all the film work was out of the way. I felt that we needed such a break, as music was not any longer the exciting medium of self‑expression it used to be. We had worked and worked, like mice on a wheel — no end! Edgar liked the idea — but he changed his mind at the last minute because of the business ideas, which kept coming even then. Tangerine Dream is more like a company than a music band — most of the organisation was handled by Edgar, and I concentrated more on the music production side, though a level of overlap did exist, naturally. So anyway, I decided to take my long break, and Edgar accepted this. But we then reached a point one day when he wanted to tour, and I had to say 'Yes — I will tour' or 'No — I am out' My break had vitalised me, and I enjoyed the experience of freedom so much that I said 'I am out'. Of course Edgar asked if I was certain, and gave me time to think it over, but my decision stayed the same."

Six years on — did you make the right decision?

"Absolutely! Music is now fun for me again, and I don't have to force myself to do music if I really want to do something else — a new freedom after many years of forcing myself. So the reasons for making music are different, and I really enjoy this! I do not have any regrets,and neither does Edgar, since it enabled Tangerine Dream to take a new direction automatically — a kind of natural progression. We still see and help each other, which is a nice ending."

On Sonic Images

"It's a sound sampling library, available on various formats, including CD ROMs for Synclavier and Waveframe, and all these fancy music computers. They are marketed worldwide, and it's useful because I have recouped all my money for my very expensive hobby of keeping an extensive sound library. Musicians like Jean‑Michel Jarre, Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham, and Stevie Wonder have all given their endorsements to promote Sonic Images. I wanted to make the company succesful in its own right, and not use my name for promotion, so I didn't reveal in the beginning that I was behind it. Now that it is successful, this is no longer of importance."

Sonic Images CDs are available in the UK from AMG, PO Box 67, Farnham, Surrey, GU9 8YR. There are six available at present, at the special price of £25 each, or the complete set is available for £125. The CDs contain the following:

  • CD 1 DRUMS.

Chris Franke: Recent Activities

  • THE TOMMYKNOCKERS 4‑hour TV movie based on Stephen King's novel.
  • TALES OF THE CRYPT One episode of TV series
  • MOVIE MAGIC TV series (18 episodes) about special effects in Hollywood films.
  • YARN PRINCESS 2‑hour TV movie
  • ANGEL FALLS 6‑hour mini series for TV
  • WALKER TV series (22 episodes) starring Chuck Norris
  • BABYLON 5 Science Fiction TV series (22 episodes)
  • EXQUISITE TENDERNESS Feature film/thriller
  • EYE OF THE STORM Feature film
  • McBAIN Feature film
  • DRIVING YOU CRAZY Feature film
  • UNIVERSAL SOLDIER Feature film
  • RAVEN TV Series

Sequencing 1975 Style

What about your first sequencer — tell me a bit about it, and your developments in that field.

"It was a Moog sequencer I bought in 1973. It had access to every note, and allowed improvisation by manipulating the controls as it played. I used it for two years, but because each note was set by a tuning knob, you couldn't go up and down the pitch, as it was stepless. My idea was to quantise the pitch and timing by having lots of switches, three marked 1‑12 for semitones and fractions and one from 1‑8 for octaves. Then we built a programmer, as we had a lot of Moog sequencers, and we could then play one sequencer for four bars, another for eight and so on. The Moog was nice, because it had not one CV but three, so you could control cut‑off frequency of a filter, or the volume of a VCA. We made modifications to enable us to play live with this equipment, but found that the oscillators were not very stable. So we built our first digital oscillator, which was controlled not by CVs but a switch matrix, so that it didn't go out of tune. This was good, as the switches were already digital. This was back in early 1975.

"I bought my first composition machine after that — the Roland MC8 — which wasn't very satisfactory. I always looked for a live sequencer for stage use, and in the early eighties had large digital sequencers built, which had three screens on them for access to the information. We used these on stage in 1982. After that, the big manufacturers built more sophisticated hardware sequencers which we could use on stage, and then the software composers came. We also used these, and still do."