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DAVID LORD: Enigma Variations

Interview | Artist By Paul Tingen
Published November 1996

After much high‑profile production work in the 1980s, David Lord retreated from the stress of the pop world to concentrate on chosen projects which would exercise his considerable composing and arranging talents. Paul Tingen runs him to earth at Terra Incognita studios, for a long‑overdue update.

Producer, composer and arranger David Lord is one of the most successful people working in the UK music industry. The long list of famous artists and bands he's worked with — including Peter Gabriel, Peter Hammill, Jean‑Michel Jarre, John Renbourn, Tori Amos, Tears For Fears, Icicle Works, The Pretenders, and Echo and the Bunnymen — testifies to this. Given his impressive pedigree, and given that he has been at the heart of some of the most important developments in British music, it's a little odd that Lord is also one of its most elusive figures. He rarely gives interviews, and these days spends most of his time out of the limelight, working in the appropriately‑named Terra Incognita studio on TV soundtracks, or non‑mainstream recording and production jobs. Moreover, his career to date has followed a complicated zig‑zag pattern, from respected classical composer, by way of folk music home recordist, commercial rock studio owner, record company boss and producer, to his current work. Small wonder that he's a bit of an enigma to most.

Private Lives

Terra Incognita is located right in the middle of Bath, and is the private reincarnation of Bath's most successful commercial studio of the '80s, Crescent. The large entrance hall contains comfy sofas, TV, loads of music and technology magazines, and a wall full of bizarre postcards from friends. Stairs at the back lead to Lord's control room. Elsewhere in the building, singer/songwriter Peter Hammill has converted the former SSL control room into his own private recording facility, with two Yamaha Promix 01 digital mixers and three Alesis ADAT digital multitracks, whilst Lord has taken up residence in the two former Crescent live rooms, filling one with three ADAT XT digital recorders, plus an amazing array of studio gear, and using the other room as his recording area. Lord, greying hair, stocky and a twinkle in his eyes, appears eminently at home amidst all the technology. He swings around in his swivel chair and takes his unorthodox musical life story from the top.

"I trained at the Royal Academy of Music as a classical composer. After I finished, I received many commissions — works for the London Symphony Orchestra, Julian Bream, and singer Janet Baker, for example. I was never really an avant‑garde composer; my work tends to be more lyrical and melodic. I actually wrote quite a lot of children's music. I moved to Bath around 1970, bought a TEAC 4‑track tape recorder with some money I'd made writing an ident tune for the BBC's school programs, and started doing demos for friends in my bedroom. During the '70s, this became a large part of my work, and I recorded The Korgis, Tears For Fears and John Renbourn in this way. By the end of the '70s, I had moved into these premises and begun Crescent Studios, Bath's first commercial recording studio. It grew from an 8‑track to a 48‑track facility during the '80s and was a centre for the local music scene. I also set up Crescent Records. We released about 12 records, mainly folk music, which were all very well received."

Sampling Pioneer

Crescent turned into one of the UK's most successful and popular studios, with many big‑name artists passing through. Lord himself, meanwhile, built up a formidable reputation as a producer and engineer of high‑quality music, with his productions of XTC's The Big Express, two albums for Icehouse — Measure for Measure and Man of Colours — and, most famously, Peter Gabriel's fourth album. Featuring perennial Gabriel live favourites such as 'Lay Your Hands On Me', 'San Jacinto', and 'Rhythm of The Heat', many regard the album as Gabriel's best, and in the clarity of sounds and arrangements and the confident execution of what could have been nothing more than interesting but off‑the‑wall ideas, Lord's guiding hand shines through. Lord remembers the making of that album as "very stressful at times, because we had lots of technical problems with the equipment. But it was also very rewarding. Peter hadn't completed any songs when we started, and so spent a lot of time putting bits and pieces of the music together."

I find it amazing that despite all the beta‑testing they do, manufacturers still bring products onto the market with basic things not sorted out.

During the making of Peter Gabriel IV, Lord was at the heart of another piece of music industry history: he and Gabriel were pioneering the early use of sampling with Gabriel's brand new Fairlight, the first one in the UK. Lord explains that his most abiding memories from his sessions with Gabriel centre around the work they did with the Fairlight: "Peter was becoming interested in ethnic stuff, and had masses of ethnic music on cassettes, recorded from TV, radio, and wherever else he could lay his hands on it. Many of these became samples that we used on the album. Peter and I became the test‑bed for the Fairlight, and we actually produced a lot of the original Fairlight sample library, recording many sounds with a friend of mine, Stuart Gordon." By the late '80s, however, Lord's enthusiasm for working as a rock music producer had faded. When Bath city council then decided to build a road right next to Crescent Studios, and finding affordable new premises proved rather difficult, Lord decided to throw in the towel and closed the studio: "I battled with the council for two years and and eventually got compensation. Soon after the studio closed, Peter Hammill moved in and built his own studio in the former control room. Crescent closing was a turning point for me. I realised that I didn't want to carry on producing rock bands, because of the stress factors involved: the internal dynamics of the band, the battles between band and record company — in short, lots of politics. I enjoyed the years that I did, but I really felt like I was getting too old. I wanted a bit more life, really." (laughs)

Orchestral Manoeuvres In MIDI

As a result of his decision, David Lord's high‑profile presence in the British music industry gradually lessened. Today, even though he occasionally still gets major offers (he was offered the chance to produce The Stranglers's new album recently, for example), Lord basically just does "whatever takes my fancy really. I'll only say yes to a production project if I think I'm really the right person for it. During the last few years, I've mainly done television and radio work, usually orchestrating things for people I work with, like Stuart Gordon, who does a lot of local TV work, and David Ferguson, with whom I worked on the music for two series of Cracker. David and I have also just finished the music for an eight‑part, eight‑hour BBC documentary about the history of American art, called American Visions, which is yet to be broadcast. Recently I've done some major production jobs again — funnily enough, both of the new age type: Tim Wheater's album Heart Land, which was released on Jerry Moss's new label, Almo Records, and an album for new age author Stuart Wilde, called Violet 19, that will be released this Autumn on his own label, Tolemac. The latter record is unusual, because it's the first time I've written all the music for a project for many years."

For both Violet 19 and Heart Land, Lord had to resurrect the production and project‑management skills that he'd honed to perfection with major bands and artists during the '80s, and the result is impressive in the case of the one album that yours truly has heard, Heart Land. Although one over‑the‑top writer called it "the most important album to be released this decade", the music, co‑written by Lord and flautist Wheater, will not be to everyone's taste, a slightly awkward and self‑conscious mixture of new age, rock, opera, world and orchestral music. But throughout in this eclectic and, in places, frankly bizarre mixture, there's a clarity of thought and sound in production and arrangements that is remniscent of Lord's best work of the '80s. The orchestral arrangements, 95% samples played and programmed by Lord, are especially impressive and uncannily realistic. It appears that 'canned orchestra' is one of Lord's specialities: he also did some excellent sampled orchestral arrangements for Peter Hammill's 1992 album Fireships, as well as tracks for Tori Amos ('China') and The Pretenders ('Stand By You').

It's clear that Lord's experiences as a classical composer, engineer, producer and sampling pioneer have combined to produce a truly unique set of skills and know‑how in this area. The obvious question to ask is "how do you do it?" Lord laughs shyly: "I don't know whether there are any tricks. I just do it and don't analyse what I do. I've seen articles in SOS where people talk about how they do it, and I think the main difference with my way of working is that I don't work very strictly to a click. I find that it starts to sound much too unreal when everything is bang on the beat. Obviously, if you're writing to picture it has to be roughly to a click, but in terms of the actual playing and phrasing I bend things around quite a lot. I play everything in manually and then don't quantise things. Even if there are phrases that are doubled vertically over various instruments, I'll play the phrase in separately for every instrument, unless it's a tight rhythmic thing, when I may copy it across. But even then I'll later put some human imperfections in."

Seemingly Perverse

Lord's immense experience in both writing for and recording classical orchestras, and as a sample pioneer, combine perfectly when he's faced with the task of creating orchestral parts, even though he admits that he has a few options that the average person tinkering with a sampler and a sequencer in a bedroom doesn't have. He has, of course, built up an immense library of sampled sounds over the last 16 years, and he has the opportunity to record live orchestras when the budget allows it. Interestingly, and seemingly perversely, he will even add samples to the real thing, to make it sound even more real. Lord elaborates on his attitude to samples: "The sound quality of samples and the editing facilities available have obviously improved enormously since the early '80s. I never edit my samples very much; I prefer to just try and record them well. I actually did a lot of my sampling during the mid‑'80s, when the Prophet 2000 arrived. It was only 12‑bit, but it sounded good. I still use many of these samples, and prefer them to the Akai. There's a nice graininess, a slightly unreal quality to them. My favourite modern sampler is arguably the Roland S760, which also has an excellent library.

"But I don't actually use sample libraries very much, with the exception of the Miroslav Vitous library. I draw on the hundreds of samples I've made over the years. The most common way of trying to make your MIDI orchestra sounds as real as possible is, of course, by mapping things out via MIDI, which can give you a pretty good simulation of an orchestra, and then add a few real instruments to make it come alive. I followed that procedure with Peter Hammill's album Fireships, which had a rather small, almost 'quartet‑ish' string sound, with Stuart Gordon playing many of the top lines. But what I've also found is that when I add some sampled strings behind a live orchestra recording I've made, it will make it sound more real. This is because the samples I add are generally recorded extremely well, and often in superior acoustics than where I've recorded the real orchestra. Or sometimes I'll simply need to beef the sound up, like when I've recorded a string section in my live room here, which holds, at most, 25 players."

What I've found is that when I add some sampled strings behind a live orchestra recording I've made, it will make it sound more real.

Another advantage Lord has over the average bedroom MIDI recordist is the quality and extent of his gear. He has the best and the latest — so equipment problems, one presumes, are clearly the last thing to come between him and first‑class recordings. It comes as a bit of a surprise, then, especially for such a mild‑mannered man, to hear him sounding off rather strongly about some of the boxes he has at his disposal. Before we get into that, though, here's an overview of his basic tools.

Lord's current main sample sources are the aforementioned Roland S760 (with 32Mb of memory and the video card option) and an Akai S3200XL (also with 32Mb). He's also the proud owner of an Emu Proformance 1 piano module, and Proteus 1 and 2/XR synth modules, Roland D110 and D550 sound modules, and, for storage purposes, Ricoh 650Mb optical and Syquest 44 and CD‑ROM drives. His section of Terra Incognita also houses Roland Pad 80 Octapad MIDI drum pads, an Oberheim Matrix 1000 synth module, a Yamaha TX816 rack, and Korg Wavestation SR and Kawai K4r synths.


All this is played via a Kawai M8000 MIDI master keyboard, and is recorded by a PowerMac 7100 (with 48Mb of RAM), which runs Steinberg's Cubase Score. A Lexicon MRC MIDI controller, Opcode Studio 4 MIDI interface/processor and a Sycologic MIDI patchbay are attached, whilst the BRC (Big Remote Control) for Lord's three ADAT XT recorders functions as a time code generator. It's the Cubase Score software and the ADATs that receive some severe flak. Lord: "I use Cubase Score with some frustration. I always thought it was a really good program, but it runs a lot slower on the Mac than on my Atari. The Atari was very quick, but the Mac version takes too long to redraw the screen. When you switch it to black and white, it's as fast as the Atari, but then you wonder where the progress is. I keep hanging in there for the next update, but I'm now considering switching to Logic, and leaving Steinberg after all these years. I can't wait any longer for them to get it together. I didn't like Logic in the past, but it now runs faster than Cubase and is a lot better. I must say that I also find this the trouble with magazines like SOS: they don't really give you enough information. They write that Cubase is now PowerMac native, so you think it's going to run faster, but it doesn't."

If you think Lord's being a bit hard on Cubase, wait till you've read what he has to say about the ADAT. Despite the fact that he announces himself as "quite a fan of the ADAT" and "one of the first in the country to get one," he then voices six major complaints about Alesis's supposedly improved XT version: "I recently changed to the version 2, and find it amazing that despite all the beta‑testing they do, these manufacturers still bring products onto the market with basic things not sorted out. For example, when you format tapes from the remote, rather than the individual machines, you can't leave them running, because when they come to the end of the tapes they don't stop automatically, and so wear out heads and tapes. There were also a lot of mechanical problems. All three XT machines I had have been replaced, none of the original ones worked properly, and I'm still having problems with the ones I have now. I had two tapes completely mangled during a recording session in Winchester. They still do these annoying things like shooting off at random and not locking up sometimes.

"The new ones also don't have external meter sockets. I was hoping to put the machines in another room and have just the remote here, but I can't do that now. During my first mobile session with them, I found this bizarre thing where when you first switch them on you can't get any sound out of them, unless your signal is above a certain level. It's a bit like a noise gate. If you're doing quiet recordings on location, you have to get someone to make a noise that comes halfway up the meters, and then the machine finally kicks into action and works OK for the rest of the session. But if you turn the machine off, you have to get someone to clap their hands again or something every time you select a new pair of channels. That's hardly the forefront of technology. I also wish they had a really beefy transport. At the moment, it's just a video transport really, that wears out quickly. And I do a huge amount of work on them.

"To be fair to Alesis, many of these problems seem to have been sorted out in the latest software upgrade."


Despite all these problems, Lord still believes in the ADAT as a medium, because it has "revolutionised" his way of working. Until recently, he had a KW Electronics desk with automation, which he has now swapped for a Trident Series 65 Mk3, with 28 inputs and no automation. Since having his ADATs, he says he no longer uses automation: "I think automation degrades the signal path a bit, and with the ADATs I can mix to two tracks of one of them. So my mix is always in sync, and I can remix, and drop in and out any section I'm not pleased with. That's almost the whole reason I have the ADATs. Because I record my own stuff, I tend to record everything with the effects and at the levels I want it in the mix anyway, so mixing is usually just a matter of pushing up some faders and balancing a whole lot of stereo pairs. The stereo pairs are submixes of things I recorded on other ADAT cassettes. I don't hear any degradation in sound when I copy digitally, so I'll also happily do a mix on two tracks, copy that across to another cassette, and then do another mix on the original two tracks, and crossfade between the two mixes. That way I still have 11 stereo pairs to mix from."

On a still more positive note, Lord records almost everything via his Rupert Neve‑designed Amek 9098 mic input modules ("very popular"), a Mackie 1604 mixer ("excellent") travels with him on location for extra mic inputs and monitoring, and he monitors at Terra Incognita with Genelec S30 three‑way monitors and ATC SM10 monitors with a REL 'Stadium' sub‑woofer system, which he's a great fan of. His most lavish praise, however, is reserved for the TC Electronic M5000 digital audio mainframe: "It gets used all the time as my main reverb. I also use it for processing signals and finished mixes. I do a lot of pre‑mastering for people, and the M5000 is ideal for multi‑band EQ, compression, phase correction, levels, left and right swapping, and so on. It's an extremely good digital toolbox. It makes things sound really good and everybody likes their mixes once they've been through one of its programs."

Lord also raves about the joys of his ancient Decca stereo passive EQ and two Decca/Perry compressors, all from the early '70s, and his Z‑systems Z8‑8 'digital de‑tangler' ("it's a digital switcher and patchbay, 8‑in, 8‑out, that keeps everything buffered and at a professional level. It works very well and I'm very happy with it"). Yet, despite all his pertinent and clearly argued opinions, Lord muses a little later, with typical self‑ deprecation: "I think I'm a really awkward person to interview. I'm a typical Libra; I can always see both sides of an argument. So I don't think that what I do or have to say is of interest to people." Any reader who has come this far is certain to disagree with him, at least on the last count.

String Secrets

Since Lord doesn't like to use a click track when recording orchestral parts, the obvious question is how he manages to keep time. Lord: "I'll usually start with playing as much of the orchestral arrangement as I'm able to, as a one‑pass guide keyboard part, either with piano or with string sounds. I'll play that guide loosely to a click, and will try to do a real performance. After that, I'll gradually replace that piano guide with the different orchestral instruments, cellos here and violas there, and so on. If there is a very rhythmic part, like a snare drum, for example, I'll often play that in first and then play the other parts to that, rather than play them to the click. Although I think sequencers are great for people with minimal keyboard skills, when I see people at their computer screens for hours on end tinkering with things and trying to get them perfect, I just find playing things into the sequencer quicker. And playing gives a natural effect that the randomising and humanising features of sequencers can't approach.

"I also play around with the master tempo track a lot. If it's a very loose piece that has to be flexible and expressive, I would probably try to get that looseness into the master track, so that the click retains some relevance and I can keep on referring to it. Fiddling with the master track is ideal, for example, when you find out during recording that singers need a bit more time to breathe between two phrases. I'll just give them a little ritardando via the master track. The other thing I try to do to get more expression is record the parts I play in with the MIDI volume pedal, so that all phrasing is input at the same time as the swelling and dying away. I hate stuff where everything is bang in time and exactly at the same velocity and levels. A real orchestra doesn't sound like that. On the other hand, I will move a string part slightly forward in the sequencer if the sound I use is particularly sluggish. Or I may use a string sound with more attack on it and play it very quietly and see how much I can get away with."

It's not the only 'trick' that Lord uses to get his sampled strings sounding as natural as possible. If you've ever found yourself struggling to get a realistic string section, you're not alone: "Trying to get the strings right does tend to take up the bulk of the time. They're the hardest to get right with samples. I've been asked to do rather a lot of string arrangements more recently, I suppose because I'm quite good at getting a big Hollywood sound out of canned strings. Another thing I often do is multi‑layer strings. I'll use Roland S760 strings, some of the Miroslav Vitous library string sounds, and some of my own samples, and layer them, even within one part. And when a piece grows in intensity and the strings start playing louder, I may switch to different samples. The problem with sampled strings is that they will start sounding a bit samey after a while, and this technique helps to bring more variation and life into the sound. Finally, the different ways in which strings can be phrased, depending on various bowing techniques, I'll simulate by making notes overlap when I want things to sound more legato."