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Loneliness & The Long-distance Programmer

Sounding Off By Paul Wiffen
Published June 2004

Paul Wiffen reflects on the evolving role of the programmer and the lonely life of the modern studio musician...

At the first proper studio session I worked on 20 years ago, there were six different people in the studio: the producer, the engineer, the keyboard player, the guitarist, the programmer (me) and the tape op (who set up the tape machine and made the tea, though not necessarily in that order). In the old days, these were clearly defined roles and, as a programmer, my future career path was all mapped out. All I had to do was set up the synth sounds, then the keyboard player would take over. If things went well and I kept up the piano practice, then one day I might get to do the playing as well.

Paul Wiffen c.2004.But at that first session, there were already two traditional members of the band missing! The keyboard player was covering bass with his left hand and a drum machine was used instead of a real drummer. The frightening thing was that, as the producer had brought me along as his programmer, I was expected to program said drum machine. Not having used one before, I ended up making it up as I went along and, with a bit of input from the producer, we got there in the end.

With the advent of sequencers, I found myself responsible for tidying up performances as well as getting the sounds. As producers obsessed with getting as tight a sound as possible insisted on more and more severe quantisation, I would be recording a live performance into a sequencer and, by the time it had been edited and quantised, there would be hardly anything of the performance left. I remember Peter Vitesse (whose playing I had admired for years on records by Jethro Tull, Go West and Simple Minds) walking off a session because he felt his skills weren't being used. After hours of me taking all the life out of his great playing at the producer's request, he asked if he could do a solo on the track. The producer agreed and he did an amazing solo, but after Peter had gone back to the hotel, the producer had me program a much simpler part. This was the last straw for Pete!

By the end of the '80s, with companies like Roland, Ensoniq and Korg adding effects into synths and workstations, I was suddenly responsible for programming reverbs, chorus and other DSP effects. As workstations developed, this expanded to cover EQ, compressors and the rest of the signal path, all previously the responsibility of the engineer. Then people started hiring programmers to do remixes with DJs, who often had little studio experience. I remember one remix where the DJ in charge of the session discovered the SMPTE timecode on track 24 and insisted on putting bursts of it in the middle of the percussion breakdown on the 12-inch version!

As hard disk recording became the norm, I found myself looking after the entire recording process on the computer, not just sequencing all the MIDI gear. It wasn't long before people were asking me which microphone they should be using to record things. From that moment on, at every session I worked on with a real engineer, I started watching him like a hawk to see which mics he used and where he placed them.

By the end of the '90s, I realised that I was doing all of the jobs which had been divided between six people on that first session at the beginning of the '80s, including making the tea! The main reason for this is probably that all the technology had disappeared inside the computer, but where along the line did I suddenly become qualified to program drum parts, let alone mic and compress things? For that matter, how come the engineer on that first session now plays and programs all the synths on the sessions he works on? And so does the tape op, who had a number one record on which he did everything but sing?

At least this is evidence of an exchange of skills: I end up showing the engineer how to set up a Mac for music, and he explains to me how a compressor works, while the tape op listens and picks both our brains.

But surely something has been lost along the way. Even if you now know how all this gear works, what you really need is someone to turn to and say, "What do you think?". Nine times out of 10, there is no one there to do that with. I've found myself really enjoying some of the film sessions which I have been working on recently because the traditional job roles are still more or less adhered to, so the old sense of teamwork is back. For the first time in years I have experienced the joy of collaboration on a piece of music. As a result, wherever possible, I try to do the same on all the music projects I am involved with now. In the last year, I have taken several projects back into a real studio to record a real drummer or into a concert hall to record real strings. Suddenly, I am starting to remember why I got into this industry in the first place: to make music with other people, not all by myself!

About The Author

Paul Wiffen made his name as a synth programmer for Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, but after adventures in digital audio, orchestral composition and digital film-making, now likes to think of himself as a renaissance man.