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DAVID LOWE: British Airways, TV Music & Me

At Home With By Paul White
Published November 1996

TV music composer David Lowe tells Paul White how a British Airways World commercial took him halfway around the world — and back...

David Lowe has managed to do what so many of the readers of this magazine dream of: he has a string of successful TV commercials and theme tunes behind him, the most prestigious probably being one of the British Airways World commercials, and he's currently working on a world music‑influenced album for a major record company. The majority of the work is done at David's home studio, though he has made several visits to exotic locations to collect world sounds first‑hand.


David's musical story begins with piano lessons at school — which were discontinued when it was discovered that he was learning the pieces by ear, rather than reading the notes! Later in life, after hearing a Tomita album for the first time, he developed a keen interest in the synthesizer. A failed romance eventually allowed him to afford his own; he sold the engagement ring and spent the money on a Roland Juno 6!

"I never thought about music as a career, but I would hang around Musical Exchanges in Birmingham on a Saturday afternoon, trying out any keyboards that happened to be switched on. I never really thought of buying one at that time. Instead, I took up a career in broadcasting, starting with local radio, but in my spare time I'd experiment by putting sound effects together on tape. The next move was to become a sound recordist with a film company. It was good training, but suddenly I found that after doing a job where I had a chance to do everything, I was employed for just one technical function, which left little room for creativity. I almost became, in effect, a human mic stand!.

I tend to find a basic loop, write a percussion part over it, then often I'll remove the original loop or use it low in the mix.

"I realised that I needed to put the creative element back into my life, and shortly afterwards, in the early '80s, I went to a music fair and saw a Juno 6. That was it: I had to have one — you already know how I paid for it! I was sharing a flat with a mate, and he didn't see me for about a year — I just disappeared into my room and played. I was like a hermit, in my bedroom with the headphones on.

"Eventually the synth was joined by a drum machine and a Portastudio — all this was pre‑MIDI, of course. I wrote and recorded a few songs with different singers, then a friend at Pebble Mill said they were looking for a new signature tune for the local TV news programme, Midlands Today. Obviously, I was keen to have a go, so I took the keyboard into Pebble Mill and borrowed one of their little studios with a couple of stereo open‑reel machines in it, and recorded my ideas using basic sound‑on‑sound techniques. They liked what I'd done and used it. This led to another commission for a theme for BBC Wales."

Writing For TV

Were there any special disciplines to writing a signature tune for TV?

"I knew it had to be 15 seconds long or whatever, but I literally went in there, had an idea, and stuck it down. I found I had this knack of knowing what was required — I'd have it in my head almost straight away. Perhaps this was something to do with the fact that I was still working in television. However, I wasn't asked to do anything else for a couple of years, then out of the blue, another job came up for BBC Wales, which turned into a network TV programme.

"I was quite careful not to give up my broadcast work, but I did go freelance, to give myself more flexibility when music commissions came along. This went on for three or four years; work came in entirely by word of mouth, and I even got a commercial for Timotei shampoo. By this time, I'd upgraded the studio, but I didn't go out and buy new equipment just because it got good reviews — I used to wait until I'd run the old stuff into the ground and completely worn it out.

"Most of my work was instrumental, and the introduction of MIDI meant that I could sequence the end result directly to DAT. I used to do some collaborative writing with a guy called Robin George up in Wolverhampton, and he had an Akai ASQ10 which I got to know really well. When it was time to buy my own, it made sense to get the same model, because I knew it so well."

Were you never tempted by software sequencers?

"No. I've seen loads of them, and I've played with one or two, but I always found them too distracting. I don't find I need to do a lot of editing, though I have to admit that some editing procedures are slow on the ASQ, especially when you've played something non‑quantised and want to adjust the timing to get it spot‑on. There's a lot of scrolling involved, but other than that it's pretty quick.

"I really love the simplicity of the ASQ. With computers, there's so much you can do that it would be too tempting to keep fiddling with things. It's the same when you write a letter on a word processor — you keep adjusting the style and the layout. With the ASQ, because there's not a lot to look at in terms of visual information, I find that I can concentrate much more on the sound, which, of course, is the most important thing.

"The first real multitrack I had was an Akai 12‑track, which I plugged into a small DDA mixer, and I mixed onto a Casio portable DAT machine. I bought the Casio around 1989 and it's still going strong — it's never been serviced, but I've never had any trouble with it. I only cleaned the heads for the first time last year! I also discovered the joys of sampling, when I bought an early keyboard sampler which was later augmented by an Akai S900. I'm currently using an Akai S3000 — I've found that just about all the sounds I need could come from a sampler, which makes having racks of synth modules rather less important."

Flying High

Was there one big career break for you, and if so, what was it?

"I was getting better work all the time, and it got to the point where I had a decent showreel, but I was still relying on word of mouth to get work. Then I started collaborating with a guy called Julian Ronnie, who did a lot of theatre work as a Musical Director. We did several TV signature tunes, but Julian felt that there was a lot more work to be had if we were prepared to go out and look for it. He took my showreel and went out to find new work.

"Julian knocked on the doors of all the ad agencies, including Saatchi and Saatchi, where he spoke to a producer working on a new British Airways commercial. They said they'd already decided to use the Flower Duet from Lakme, by Delibes, but there was also interest in doing a world music version, based on the same melody. If we could come up with something, they'd consider it, so we decided to give it a go.

"For the demo, we sampled part of the opera off a CD, and Julian had a copy of David Fanshawe's Spirit of African Sanctus, from which we found two or three samples, including one of children singing, that were roughly in the right key and at the right tempo to work with the opera. After these were arranged, we added a percussion part using sampled tablas, and that was literally it, apart from a bass pizzicato string part which came from a Roland synth. We didn't want to take it too far because it was only a demo — and we were bound not to get the job anyway!

"Julian took it in, and they liked it, but they wanted us to develop the idea further. This led to quite a different version with more ethnic material added, and again they said they liked it and they'd be in touch. About three months went by, then while I was doing a sound recording job in Germany, Julian phoned to say that we had the BA job and had to be in Los Angeles on the following Monday to record the final version! I managed to get somebody to cover for me in Germany, then I flew straight up to Manchester where my wife, Helen, met me with all my disks. At that point we discovered that the version they wanted us to recreate was the original demo, not the reworked version, so there was a panic to find the disk with the original version on it. I couldn't find it — the disk had crashed or something — and the main percussion part was quite complicated because it was played spontaneously and would be very hard to recreate. I spent all night trying to redo the percussion part — I didn't feel it was quite as good as the original, but hoped we could busk it.

As an alternative to layering, I like to write two different but complementary pad parts using two different pad sounds.

"We assumed that as this was a British Airways commercial, we'd at least get first class flights to LA, but it turned out that we were booked in economy! Anyway, we flew off to LA with all our disks and samples, and hired an ASQ10 and three S1000 samplers to do the job. We'd got two singers from the Manchester Northern Music College to recreate the original operatic parts, and we managed to get clearance on the extracts we'd taken from African Sanctus, which meant that we could use our original samples.

"We got to this really expensive studio, set up the gear, and with about an hour before the agency people were due to turn up, I put the sequence disk into the ASQ10 and the original version of the theme appeared! I don't know why it read on this machine, when mine had come up with 'No file found', but we made about eight backups straight away! After a couple of goes at the mix, we couldn't get the ending to sound quite right — the agency wanted it to sound as much like the demo as possible — so they told us to go and book into a studio in LA, something like the one I used at home, then work on it for a day or two.

"I won't say we got the Yellow Pages out because that sounds unprofessional — but yes, we got the Yellow Pages out and found a studio just around the corner from where we were staying. It turned out that they had a Neve desk with flying fader automation, two digital multitracks — the works. Madonna had just finished recording next door! We booked in, even though it wasn't quite like home.

"To recreate the overall feel and sound of the demo, we went to a local music store and bought an Alesis compressor and a Quadraverb. These we took back to the studio, and we asked the woman who was engineering to put the whole mix through them. Of course she nearly had a fit — she thought we were completely mad, and then I kept asking her to put more reverb on. She was pulling her hair out, giving me all kinds of technical reasons why I couldn't have any more reverb, and there I was shouting at her to turn it up. It was like Star Trek, when the crystals won't stand it but Scotty has to turn up the power anyway! Anyway, we finished the track and the agency seemed very happy with it, so we went home to open the champagne.

"Then we got a phone call to tell us that our track still wasn't quite working with the video, but if we could make it work, there was a chance that it would still be used. We were tearing our hair out by then, so we went to a local studio to do yet another version of it. By that time, it was getting very close to the deadline. We played the track down the phone to the producer — but it still wasn't quite right with the video. Then, in a flash of inspiration, we took the track, put it in the sampler, sliced it up, then played it back in a different arrangement. It was the sort of thing you'd normally do in a hard disk editor, but we did it in the sampler. It just clicked into place and it worked perfectly, so we phoned up the producer, played it down the phone, counted him in to start the video — and he was finally happy with it. Then he handed the phone around so everyone could listen, and told us to get the finished version down there as soon as possible.

"However, this time I wasn't quite satisfied with it, and I asked if we had time to have one more go at it. They needed it by Monday to send it to the 55 different countries where it would be used, and the Sunday night before, we were back in my home studio where it all started, trying to recreate this thing from scratch — then we noticed little glitches at the sample edits between sections! The only way around it was to use the, by now, seriously clapped‑out Akai 12‑track — it was so bad that you had to hold a pencil up against the heads while it was recording or playing to keep it working. I didn't even bother with the sequencer at this point, as I knew the track so well — I just threw it onto the multitrack in about an hour, with me playing the samples where they were supposed to happen and Julian underneath the tape machine holding a pencil in the works. But we did it. At about six on Monday morning, we jumped into the car and drove the tape down to London to get it there by nine in time for the deadline. Because we'd done it on the spur of the moment, it sounded brilliant and they were really happy with it.

"That was a real turning point, and from then on, I didn't have to do any more sound work, because there was enough music work coming in."

Personal Studio

Perhaps this would be a good time to jump forward to the studio setup you have now, and your reasons for choosing your current equipment.

"I now use two ADATs, because of compatibility with other musicians, though in broadcast, a lot of people use Tascam DA88s, so in some ways I could have gone for those. It's very useful that you can send tapes to people, so that they can add vocals, then send them back. I do quite a lot of work with vocals now, and in Malvern, where I live, there are some superb local singers and musicians, who I use regularly. Julian, who lives in London, also has an ADAT, so when we're working together, it really helps to be compatible.

My secret is to make the ethnic samples sound like studio performances.

"For reverb, I have a Lexicon LXP15, but I still use my Quadraverb, which is permanently set to the 'String Dreams' patch. The only fairly exotic synth I have is an UltraProteus, because most of the sounds still come from the sampler. I've got a good collection of sample CD‑ROMs — Distorted Reality has got some excellent rich pad sounds on it. I'll often write something using one of the synths, then replace all the sounds with samples when I come to mix. One piece of gear that's been really useful is the Iomega Zip drive, which I use to organise my samples.

"My desk is an Alesis X2, and I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with it. I love the sound of it, especially the parametric EQ, but it's had several niggly reliability problems, and when something like this does go wrong, you need to be able to get an engineer to come and fix it — it isn't practical to unplug it and bring the whole studio to a standstill while you ship it back for service, which is what I had to do."

Tomorrow The World

We should finish up with a few words about your current album project which, again, seems to have a 'world' theme. After making your living in theme tunes and commercials, have you found it very different working on 'stand‑alone' music?

"Having the chance to make an album is absolutely fantastic, and in some ways I find it easier than writing to picture, because I'm not limited in the amount of time I can spend, or tied to creating a particular mood. Having said that, after doing so much picture work, this album is almost like the music to a film in my head."

Do you have a particular approach to writing?

"I'll often start with a rhythm, but I may just tinkle on the piano in the house and come up with a melody first. Sometimes I'll come up with the chordal structure first and then weave a melody into that, whereas with TV work, I usually come up with the tune in my head before I start work on it. With the album, I've been starting more with melodies.

"I like really good pad sounds, and that's what attracted me to synths in the first place. I don't tend to do a lot of programming on modern synths, so the sampler is my main source of sound textures. I'll often layer two or more sounds to create something new, but I rarely edit synth patches. The other thing I like to do, as an alternative to layering, is to write two different but complementary pad parts using two different pad sounds.

"As I mentioned earlier, I have a favourite Quadraverb patch which finds its way onto nearly everything. I like really big, ambient reverbs, and although I'm not using anything very special to achieve the results, people are very happy with the sound. Then again, if I did buy something like one of the big Lexicons, I'd probably discover a fantastic new sound that would inspire me in a different direction."

How would you describe the style of the album?

"It's very hard to categorise, although I guess it will appeal to the Sacred Spirit or Deep Forest type of listener. I've been working with world music for several years, but it's only now that it seems to have become popular commercially. I've carried on using a lot of ethnic material in my TV work, especially in wildlife programmes.

"I've been working on the album for a couple of years on and off, and I've especially enjoyed combining English lyrics with ethnic vocals and different instruments. My secret is to make the ethnic samples sound like studio performances — to make them as real as possible. The album is called DreamCatcher and is due out in March, with a single in January. It doesn't concentrate on any specific strand of ethnicity; it's more a combination of sounds that you wouldn't normally expect to hear together — like blues harmonica and pigmy voices, for example!

"There are several rhythmic parts on the album, and I quite like analogue drum sounds. I tend to find a basic loop, write a percussion part over it, add to it, then often I'll remove the original loop or just use it low down in the mix. I have a D4 which I use for some drum sounds or for writing, but again, most percussion comes from the sampler."

What's the long‑term plan, other than to finish this album and make lots of money?

"Do another one!"

TV Timing

How do you handle sync for TV work?

"When I'm writing for TV, the company send me a VHS cassette with timecode on one audio channel and dialogue on the other. I mix onto DAT and provide a SMPTE start time, and if there's a piece that fades in, I'll include a count‑in before it, so that they can get everything in sync. I don't use a timecode DAT — there are no sync drift problems as long as the start times are synchronised."