John Dyson is one of the UK's most popular electronic music composers, yet he works with recording equipment that is more state of the ark than state of the art, and his northern pragmatism won't let him give up his day job. Paul White met him at his home studio.
I'll remember my visit to John Dyson's Sheffield home for a long time; about half a mile from his house, a large Volvo coach decided to restyle the back of my car. The fact that its reduced length and improved visibility (due to the lack of a rear window!) made it easier to park when I finally got there somehow seemed poor compensation.
John is a key member of Surreal to Real, originally a small consortium of electronic musicians formed with the aim of producing, promoting and marketing their own material. Surreal to Real is now a limited company, directed by John Dyson, Anthony Thrasher, Paul Ward and Mark Thrasher. John's first flirtation with success came as half of the duo Wavestar, but since the band's split, he has maintained a strong following as a solo composer. He cites one of his early major influences as The Shadows, though with the introduction of the synthesizer, and since meeting Dave Ward‑Hunt (the other half of Wavestar), he later became drawn to such artistes as Tangerine Dream, Jean‑Michel Jarre and Klaus Schulze.
After a traditional Yorkshire lunch of toast flambé and strawberry jam, John gave me the VIP tour of his freshly vacuumed studio facilities and told me a little bit about his past.
"My influence is a more melodic style of music — I've always liked tunes. My interest in electronic music came through working with Dave Ward‑Hunt, whom I met through the contact column in a music magazine; he was the first electronic influence on my music. Up to then I was primarily a guitar player, but I was also into keyboards to provide the string parts for the tunes I was working on. When I heard Dave's big modular system with the sequencer running, I could hear musical ideas just jumping into my head."
When did the interest in electronic music develop into an interest in recording your own music?
"Before I met Dave, I was trying to do these Shadows‑type things with a twin‑track Elizabethan tape recorder. Then I got myself a 4‑track, which was luxury — I could do the lead guitar, the rhythm guitar and still have two tracks spare. But you inevitably find you need more tracks. I'd already got the 4‑track when I met Dave, and around that time I was made redundant, so I spent my money on a Tascam 38. But no matter what you have, you always want some more, because there's always something you want to do that you can't manage with the equipment you've got. For example, I now need a 32‑input desk because the old 16:8 Allen and Heath System 8 simply doesn't have enough inputs for all my synths, tape tracks and effects."
John's studio setup is fairly modest with very little new (or even recent) gear in evidence. Furthermore, it's all set up in a tiny loft that's only just about big enough to store the equipment, let alone use it. Yet John has worked in that studio to produce some incredibly good‑sounding work. When Wavestar clinched an American record deal for the Moonwind album, the record company remained convinced the album had been made in a major London studio, even though John didn't try to hide the fact that it had all been done at home. Paul Ward, another key member of the Surreal team, only half jokingly says that John's studio is firmly in the grip of entropy, progressing steadily from organisation to chaos. He almost implies that John records his albums using only what he can find still working at the time, so I asked John to talk about his choice of equipment and instruments.
"The Allen and Heath desk must be around 10 years old, as must the Tascam 38. But the amount of work that's been done on those two bits of gear is unbelievable. The tape machine is only now starting to show its age and it needs to go in for a major service, while the desk is fine except for the perennial dodgy insert points and eternally blowing meter bulbs. The desk's been on tour with us to France, it's undergone a fader transplant in a marquee in Wiltshire — it's been through a lot. I can't knock them, but I have to admit that they're really past the end of their useful lives. Even so, to replace them with something like an ADAT and a decent desk would cost £7000 or £8000. We always said with Surreal that we'd walk before we could run — and we didn't want to get heavily into debt just so that I could have a better studio. But now the time has come to think seriously about an upgrade."
John's monitoring system is, to say the least, unorthodox, yet he turns out consistently good‑sounding mixes. It comprises a small PA system mounted behind him, in the back corners of the room, driven from a modestly powered domestic hi‑fi amplifier. I asked the obvious question. Was it all a serendipitous accident?
"In a word — yes! Each side comprises a 15‑inch bass driver in one cabinet and two 10‑inch speakers plus a couple of tweeters in another. It was designed as a small PA for Paul Ward's former band, Altimera — they had it made for them by a local electronics company. Paul needed the money and put the system up for sale, so I said I'd pay for it and keep it in the family, just in case we needed it again. It tuned out that driving it from a Sony hi‑fi amp gave a fabulous sound. Dave Ward‑Hunt mounted them in the back corners of the attic studio and they worked so well that I threw away the near‑field monitors I'd been using. Even though the system is huge, I monitor at quite low levels."
What about your outboard rack? There's a lot of interesting stuff in there but nothing that might be considered new or state of the art. Probably the most up to date piece of equipment is the Quadraverb GT.
"Again, it evolved by circumstance. I've never had a lot of money to throw around on Lexicons and suchlike, so you have to use what you have to its best effect. How you use things is more important than the actual equipment you have. I have an old Scintillator enhancer which, strangely enough, I haven't had to use on this album, though I did use it on the others. I put this down, mainly, to the Quadraverb GT which can create some very bright treatments, though I think the factory presets lean too far in the direction of overdriven guitar sounds. Still, it's not a difficult machine to edit. The track 'Eagle' on the new album makes full use of the Quadraverb GT on the guitar part; it makes my 20 year‑old Strat sound like a new guitar.
"And it's not only useful on guitar. For example, there's a factory preset called 'Waterfall', which I've fine tuned a little, and if I put my old Korg synth through it, it really makes it sing. It's a combination delay and reverb patch with a lot of top end, and the only problem is that as the Korg is so noisy, the noise gets enhanced as well. Paul Ward suggested gating the Korg before feeding it into the reverb and that helps clean things up. What I'd really like is a desk with a gate on every channel. The newest synth I have is a Roland U220 and that's pretty old technologically speaking. I'm also considering getting a Kawai K1, which everyone tells me I would like.
"The old gear has something about it — like the Roland JX8P which I picked up in Holland. Paul Ward has one too, and I really admire the deep, rolling chordal sound you can get out of it — even though the chorus is very noisy. The D50 is good for specific sounds, but you can't get those juicy analogue chordal sounds out of it."
Being mainly an analogue synth man, would you be happy to exchange the sound of an analogue multitrack for a digital machine?
"There are things you can do on an open‑reel machine that you can't do on digital tape, such as reverse reverb (by turning the tape over) or analogue tape flanging, which sounds quite different to what you get from a multi‑effects box. When I was working with Dave, we used an old Sony open‑reel machine which was modified to have a very fine speed control so that it could be used for tape flanging. We used to record stuff onto the 8‑track, copy it off onto the Sony, line it up with some audible clicks at the beginning of the track, then move the speed very slowly to create flanging, which was then re‑recorded to the 38. We did this several times to create a bigger sound. The track 'Zenith' on the Zenith album was done that way. But in all other respects, I think an ADAT is the way to go. I master onto DAT and I'm happy with the sound I get there."
Though you work with an Atari sequencer, much of what you record seems to be played direct to tape. How do you emulate the old arpeggiator effects that were the cornerstone of the TD school of electronic music?
"I use an Atari 520 which has been expanded to 1Mb memory and I run mainly Cubase. A lot of our music in Wavestar was knocked up through jamming using simple arpeggiators, like the ones built into the Roland synths. Some people knock these for their simplicity, but you often just hit on something while jamming that becomes a new song. I'd just switch on the old Juno, poke the arpeggiator button, hold down a chord and off it went.
"Now I play the arpeggios into the sequencer manually and either quantise them or not, depending on the feel I'm after. I've learnt my lesson with quantising, and with hindsight, I feel I have occasionally over‑quantised in the past. You can use iterative quantise or percentage quantise to tighten up the feel without squeezing all the humanity out of it — without making it too robotic.
"I don't feel that I'm a technically good keyboard player, but if I was technically better, then I don't think I would be the person I am and I wouldn't be writing the music that I write now. I tend to work by feel, and sometimes I'll put in a simple 8‑note sequence, then let that cycle and play a different set of notes over the top of it, recording each new version into the sequencer. Then I can pick out what works and what doesn't."
As most of your compositions aren't drum based, what do you put down first to guide you?
"If it's a sequencer‑based track, the bass sequence usually goes down first, following a simple pulse. If I'm doing something chordal and drifting, then I may play the parts 'free' into the sequencer, paying no attention to the sequencer grid. Providing you don't try to quantise it, this is very like working with a tape recorder. The non‑MIDI keyboards are committed directly to tape; obviously you have to get it right when you're going to tape because you can't go into the computer and edit it."
I'm interested in the way you work with the rest of the Surreal team — the way you bounce musical ideas off each other and the way you contribute to each others' mixing sessions.
"We've always worked well together since we first met, which was around 1984. Anthony Thrasher and Stephan Whitlan were at university and were helping with the technical side of UK Electronica that year. Paul Ward was the one who put the ad in the music magazine, and about 20 or 30 of us, including Neil Thompson and Shaun D'Lear, used to get together in a pub and talk, or play electronic music. It was a brilliant ideal of Paul's, and eventually, the numbers dwindled down to around half a dozen of us who were really serious and that formed the nucleus of the Surreal team as it stands now.
"Paul's forte is modern production and drum sounds, and he says I'm good at chordal, orchestral things. Stephan is a brilliant keyboard player who can play anything at all; he's a genius and I hate him!"
"Those who've had financial success can buy new gear and still hold onto their old stuff, but a few years ago, we had to let the Roland Vocoder 330 Plus go in order to buy something we needed for Moonwind. But whenever you buy anything, you obviously liked something about it at the time you got it, as I did with the Korg monosynth which I still like to use. And you don't have to get involved with little windows and parameter buttons — it's got knobs on it which you can twiddle.
"I'm not against modern editing systems as such, because they're part of the technology that has made synths cheaper, but they way they present things isn't always logical; quite often you have to increase a parameter value to create the effect that you feel instinctively ought to be achieved by decreasing it or vice versa. The manufacturers have to get those knobs back, even if it's just for simple things like envelope control. On an old analogue synth, you can get all these wonderful sounds just by tweaking the envelope and the filter, so why don't they just put them on knobs where you can get at them? And the confusion even extends to effects units — for example, the Roland SRV3000 reverb that I have in the rack. I wanted to adjust the high‑frequency damping, and to me, it seems logical that the higher the amount of damping, the more high frequency you take off. But no, the numbers go the other way — the smaller the number, the more damping you get. We're musicians, not computer experts, so why can't designers give us things that make sense to us and not just to computer programmers?"
What else would you like to have in the studio?
"A sampler like the Akai S1100, because the FZ1 has only got eight mono outputs, which means it's only useful when working with something like a drum kit. What I really need is more polyphonic outputs. The S1100 also seems to be easy to use. I want to get on with writing songs, not programming. It's like when we first got the D50 — I heard this one string sound on it and it inspired me to write a song straight away. As a composer or musician, I just need to be able to go up to an instrument and go, whenever the inspiration strikes. If you've got to start messing about with numbers, forget it, it kills it stone dead. I still can't knock the technology, because I wouldn't be able to do what I do without it — but there are still a lot of things that could be improved. You have to be in a position to devote the time to getting the best out of complex equipment, and because of Surreal, and because of the nine to five job, making the time is very difficult. I can't allocate two nights a week or whatever to programming new sounds, especially when I'm under pressure to get a new album out. I suppose you have to make the time, but I find it difficult to get into that frame of mind where I think, 'I must sit down and find out how this works.'"
"A while back, I had a mental block for three months and I couldn't write a note. It wasn't at all like me; normally I just plug the gear in, play a big, fat chord and I'm into it. That's one reason why the album got delayed, but then the inspiration returned and I worked flat out for about four weeks."
After the EMMA festival in March, you're planning to start on a new album. Will this be in a similar style to your existing work or will it take a new direction?
"Like most musos, I've got countless unfinished ideas lying around on various disks, and there are some good things in there. Harry, one of the guys associated with Surreal, gave me something he'd been working on because he couldn't do anything with it. That could appear on the next album, and I suppose I owe it to people not to leave it so long between albums.
"I don't think the album will be too radically different unless I get some new toys that set me thinking in a different direction. But I suppose other people have this problem — you build up some kind of a following writing the music the way you do, and then if you do change direction, you run the risk of alienating the people who've supported you. I might explore different ways of structuring the pieces, but I think the underlying style will remain recognisably John Dyson. How can you say what's going to happen in the future — nobody knows."
"I don't feel that I'm a technically good keyboard player, but if I was technically better, then I don't think I would be the person I am and I wouldn't be writing the music that I write now."
- ROLAND D50: "An excellent keyboard, though the internal effects tend to be noisy. It produces certain types of sound brilliantly, but then it also has its share of really naff sounds too."
- CASIO FZ1: "An ancient sampler but the sound quality is superb. It only has mono outputs and it's a pig to work with."
- ROLAND JX8P: "Rich pad sounds and a few other nice things, including some lead sounds."
- KORG SIGMA: "I use this for a lot of my lead and flute lines. For a such an old, preset monosynth, it's so good — though, again, a bit noisy. It's been modified so that external sound sources can be processed through the internal filter, which is useful."
- YAMAHA DX7: "This is a Mk1. I also have two TX7s. These are good for the sounds FM synths are known for and are totally and utterly naff at others. But you use things for what they're good at."
- SIEL ORCHESTRA: "I use this for high strings on all my albums. I've also used samples of it in the FZ1 so that I could control it via MIDI. It was my first ever keyboard and has just four sounds: brass, reeds, string and piano. Apart from changing the attack and sustain, it's preset."
- SEQUENTIAL PRO 1: "Ace for bass sounds. Paul Ward says he's going to give me lessons on how to set up really good bass sounds on it."
- ROLAND MC202: "I've got two of these and still use them via a two‑channel Kenton MIDI‑to‑CV interface."
- ROLAND SH101: "Again a useful analogue monosynth which I use via the Kenton converter box."
You've recently finished a new album. How was this mixed?
"The new album is called Different Values and, as usual, Paul Ward helped a lot with the mixing. Again, it was a matter of using what was available. I tend to add some reverb to almost everything in the track other than chorused string pads, which are fine as they are. The lead lines also need to be placed so that they can be heard above the general mix, so you have to be a bit careful not to add too much reverb. I also have an old Midiverb II which has some good patches on it, but if I want to use all three reverbs at once, I start to run out of mixer channels. Paul occasionally uses some reverbs in mono as it helps place things in the mix rather than simply spreading them out (and it saves on mixer channels), so you learn things from other people all the time. I tend to keep bass sounds fairly dry or use very short reverbs, and the Drawmer DS201 gate is also used in side‑chain filter mode as an EQ to clean up guitar tracks or noisy synths.
"On the track No Replies, we had a couple of TX bass parts panned left and right that sounded a bit bass‑light. Paul suggested we patch in the Pro One set to give a chunky, analogue sound, which we panned to the centre and mixed just high enough so that you just missed it when it was muted. We also gated the TX basslines to get rid of the digital noise.
"I'm also a fan of taking a huge reverb, feeding things into it, and then taking the dry part of the sound right out of the mix. On the Moonwind album, the intro to 'Voyager' was done like this, using 707 toms. Running a sequenced part through a long reverb in this way gives a huge, polyphonic wash, and it helps to add a little phasing or flanging to the sound as you feed it into the reverb. This results in a gorgeous, swirling sound; I could listen to it all afternoon. Percussive sounds tend to stand out in the overall wash, so to create a smoother wash, I sometimes lengthen the attack times of some sequenced sounds to remove the percussive click.
"I used the Quadraverb 'Waterfalls' patch quite a lot; it's a sort of ping‑pong delay combined with a big, bright reverb — there's a lot of top to it. There's another patch called 'In the Fog', which I've also edited, and that was used on the guitar part for the track 'Eagle'; it's a distorted sound fed into reverb and delay. If you play gently, the guitar sound is almost clean, but as you hit it harder, all the distortion comes through, which is great for feel. The Roland SRV3000 is used for general reverb jobs; we used a Small Hall setting to treat the toms on one of the tracks.
"Most of my chorus effects come from the chorus units built into the old analogue synths, and I even have a selection of Boss pedals which get pressed into use. Some of these old processors are very noisy, but if the sound is good, then sod the noise! The Symetrix 511 helps clean up some of these noisy sources, and it saved the Moonwind album, along with Paul's and Neil's Drawmer gates. I use it across the main outputs to shut down general noise at the starts and ends of pieces."