Paul Farrer's name has been a fixture in SOS for several years, but these days he's best-known as the theme tune composer for top BBC TV quiz show The Weakest Link. Paul White asks the questions...
Paul Farrer is probably best known to SOS readers as the guy who does a lot of reviews for Sample Shop. He's also been known to review the odd keyboard and module, but most of the time he can be found in his cosy basement studio at the western end of the Malvern Hills, beavering away on music for TV and occasionally film. Most of the time, writing TV music involves a lot of hard work for modest returns, but just occasionally something really lucrative turns up, often when you least expect it. In Paul's case, his lucky break was being asked to submit music for four BBC pilot TV game shows for in-house production. The clients liked his ideas and he was assigned to one of the shows, while other musicians handled the other three. Only one of the three shows survived, and as luck would have it, it was the one Paul was working on. Today, The Weakest Link is one of the most popular game shows of all time, currently syndicated to 47 other countries across the world from the US to Australia, and Paul's music accompanies every episode.
But that's now. I wanted to press the rewind button to find out how Paul got into this business, how he escaped slavery in a jingle-writing sweatshop and how he finally made it on his own...
How did you first get into the music business?
"I did it the old-fashioned way, really, and started out as a tea-boy at the Old Smithy studio in Worcester. I'd had a fairly musical upbringing — I played piano and I used to sing in the choir at the Cathedral, so by the time I got to tea-boy status, I already knew quite a bit about music and I was surprised to learn that in a working rock & roll studio, not many other people did! Realising this, they put me on 'musical' duties, which involved making radio jingles and adverts. That meant I had to cut my teeth on the engineering side, and the studio's policy was not to provide any form of guidance in that area — you had to learn in a session under the gaze of the client tapping his toe and paying 25 quid an hour! I was there for about five years, and it provided a great grounding because of the range of work I got to do. There were live jazz bands, solo singers, contemporary programmers — all kinds of stuff. It also gave me a sense of writing music for clients. While I was there, I did some work on the Gladiators album, doing extra beds and remixes, and that kind of work gave me a taste for what I do now.
"I left the Old Smithy to work on a copyright-free music library with, another Malvern guy with an interest in multimedia. He had the idea of doing copyright-free music at a time when it was still quite a new concept. It was aimed at mid- to low-end users — wedding videos and upwards — to give them a library they could use without having to bother about MCPS and PRS forms, which most of them didn't understand anyway. By that stage I'd accumulated a bit of recording equipment, as had Bob, so we pooled resources and somehow managed to make about 26 albums in various styles. Occasionally these find their way onto TV programmes, and then you do get PRS from them as their copyright-free applications are limited to non-broadcast uses. We had distribution in Australia and Japan and it's still earning money today, albeit not a lot."
Your big break was getting out of all that private client work and into mainstream media. How did you make the contacts that are so essential to getting on in that area?
"Really it was down to being consistently available. Writing music for TV and film was what I knew I wanted to do, so no matter what other projects I had on the go, I'd always try to make space for anything that was aimed at TV. Word of mouth actually turned out to be much more important than I ever thought it would be, and I've tried to maintain continuity by always living in the same town and having the same phone number. I've also had help from other musician friends who've given me work when they're offered jobs they're too busy to do. Whatever I was offered, I'd run at it and grab it with both hands. They'd ask for two pieces of music and I'd give them eight!
"I was surprised to learn that even in this part of the world there are more companies making TV programmes than you might imagine. You think they're all in London or Birmingham, but that's not necessarily the case. Most of the places that these little independent companies are set up in seem to be out in the sticks. If you get one gig and do it well, word will get around, because people move around a lot in this business and you want them to take your name with them. It was in that way that I got a gig for a company in Stratford called Cromwell Productions, and at that time they were making programmes for the Discovery Channel and History Channel. They were commissioning suites of music from me after briefing me that they were doing a series about the Ancient Britons or the Aztecs or whatever, and then it turned out they were also making a feature film and their composer had dropped out. There was no budget in it at all, but if I wanted to, I could do the music for it — every producer's dream. And so I ended up doing the music for what turned out to be Oliver Reed's last but one film before Gladiator. It was great — an entirely British-made, British-funded and, er, British-budgeted film (he laughs).
"After that I did about four feature films for them, including Macbeth with Jason Connery and Helen Baxendale, and then a film version of King Lear directed by Brian Blessed. They were also low-impact, low-budget British films, but they did pretty well in DVD and video sales worldwide as well as being on limited release. Again, there wasn't much money, but I would have done it for beer, to be honest! Musically, it was great, because I had the challenge of expanding a few samplers and MIDI modules to sound like a real orchestra.
"My standard procedure to make these things sound more real was to write something like an orchestral piece with a solo cello, then hire a real cellist to put on the solo part. The outcome was convincing enough and I don't think there are many members of the public who would have noticed it wasn't a real orchestra. You can get a long way by hiring just a couple of good instrumentalists, and on the historical stuff, I worked with local musician Phil Howard who has a strong interest in medieval instruments. We did one session and then I'd sample things and chop them up. I managed to stretch out that session across the whole soundtrack."
Paul is one of relatively few music professionals who's chosen to base his current setup around a PC, rather than a Mac computer. I asked him how he ended up as a PC musician, and how he's got on with his system.
"When I started I was just using my own domestic video recorder feeding the Unitor on the side of my Atari, and it worked so well that I was quite late in making the change to Logic Audio on the PC. Although I like technology and get off on what it can do, you never really know what you're missing until you make the plunge. At the time, I remember feeling that as the Atari did everything I needed it to do — why would I need anything different? I was speaking from the perspective of somebody who didn't know any different, and OK, the Atari could do everything I needed musically, but I didn't realise how convoluted that process was. Because I'd grown up with it and used it from the age of 15 or whatever, I just assumed that was how sequencers worked. Now, looking back, I'd say that the two biggest revolutions in the way I make music were when I got a stereo sampler and when I moved over to Logic Audio. If I meet anyone with an Atari now, I say just ditch it and get a PC or Mac running Logic Audio.
"I know some people give PCs a hard time, but I bought mine as a music-specific system from Red Submarine and it's worked perfectly, with the exception that the latency is just too high for playing virtual instruments in real time unless they're slow-attack string parts. That's one reason I don't make more use of my EXS24 sampler, which is otherwise excellent. In fact you're speaking to me in one of the last stages of PC-dom, because as soon as the PRS fairy arrives later this month, I'm planning on buying a Mac G4 based system with all the trimmings.
"The PC, which is running two monitors and a Delta 66 card, was an appropriate route for me to go down two years ago and for the money I had available at that time. Since then I've had fantastic use out of it, even though it's lumpy and doesn't always do all the things you'd like it to do. I don't have any software on it other than what I need for music, which has paid off because it hasn't missed a beat. I have a second PC for the office work and CD label printing. But the bottom line is that at the time the PC was half the price of the equivalent Mac system, and that's all there was to it. Once Logic is running on the PC, it is very similar to running it on the Mac, except for the high latency with my particular system. And if you have too many audio tracks using too many plug-ins, it starts to feel a little stretched, but in a typical project, I wouldn't have more than eight or 10 audio tracks running.
"Logic is a fantastic program, and it can handle most of what I need. That's partly because I don't use a lot of external processing — I only have one main reverb, and that's a Behringer Virtualizer! I like the plug-ins that come with Logic, though I've also got a few third-party things that I use. Auto‑Tune is particularly useful to me, and it's probably one of the biggest revolutions in studio technology in recent years. Bear in mind that although SOS readers know what is going on, I'd say that 99 percent of clients have never heard of pitch-correction technology, particularly singers, who tend to be the most neurotic and insecure bunch of people you're ever likely to meet. To watch their faces light up when you fix a pitching problem is a real treat! It's such a cheap plug-in, yet so useful. It can be made to sound fairly natural providing you don't overdo it and only apply it where it is really necessary. Turn the tracking speed down so it's a bit slower and also check out the lead vocal carefully to see if it's really necessary to process it all. How will it affect the vocal delivery, and is tuning the most important element of the performance? I remember a quote from Peter Gabriel where he said he's a better musician because of all this technology, not because of what it enables him to do but because of what it teaches him. Just as quantisation makes you think about timing, you really start to think more about intonation and tuning when you've got Auto‑Tune.
"I've also used it on instruments such as flute — you can reduce the scale to fewer notes and do lots of creative things as well as just pitch correction. I've also found it works extremely well with classical cello — in fact, possibly more successfully than it does with vocals. We hear voices all the time, so we know if there's something not quite right with it, but the difference between a tuned cello part and an uncorrected cello is just something you pick up on an emotional level. I've never had a problem correcting things to the equal-temperament scale when classic players tend to use just intonation — what matters is how you perceive the end result in the mix as a producer and arranger. Again, the secret is knowing when not to use it — don't process everything as matter of course."
When you did the music for The Weakest Link, it must have been very different to writing conventional music?
"It was slightly different, as I was pretty much on board from the very start, and as the show developed from pilot stage to finished version, so the music evolved with it. The upshot was that the original composition ideas only took around two or three days, but it probably took a further four months to fine-tune the arrangement and timing elements of it all. Even so I didn't realise, until I saw the first show broadcast, the extent to which the music is the framework upon which the show hangs.
"The show essentially comprises discrete chunks or modules, and each of those has a piece of music assigned to it which effectively controls the pace and feel of each section. At the time it was a real pain to get it right, because I didn't really know where the BBC were going. They'd tell me they needed an extra two seconds on the start of a sting or whatever, and I couldn't understand why. There's a reverse cymbal that starts the sting and they wanted it longer to give Anne Robinson time to spin her podium round or for the studio cameras to pan out or whatever. It was infuriating re-covering the same musical ground time and again, and there were a couple of occasions where I though 'I really don't want to do this any more'. But I stuck with it, and a short while after it went on air they commissioned another 180-odd shows including both BBC1, BBC2, and satellite channels, which means the thing is currently on about 16 times a week in the UK for 53 weeks of the year. I remember when I saw the first completed episode, it was 45 minutes long and there was exactly 45 minutes of music in it — the letters, P and R and S suddenly sprang to mind!
"The music is the same in all areas apart from the US, where they wanted a couple of changes to make it busier and to make the segments shorter. I think it's to do with their advertising schedules — they have more rounds and they get shorter quicker. In fact it ended up more like my original BBC submission which the producer felt was too busy for the UK version."
So how would you approach a more typical TV project, such as a documentary or a wildlife programme?
"In the early stages, it's a good idea to make friends with the editors who will be using your material, and talk to them about what they actually need. Probably the first thing you'll get, both for films and TV, is a rough assembly on stereo VHS cassette with extra material — so if it's a half-hour show, you'll probably get about 45 minutes of programme material. It usually has dialogue on one track, but probably no music, or it may have some music tracks that they've included just as a temporary soundtrack. The other track of the stereo VHS cassette may have SMPTE code. Normally, you know what the programme is about before you see even the rough assembly, so I'll try to send in some musical ideas that they can listen to before they start editing. If it's a wildlife show, there's probably going to be a chase scene, some scenic stuff, some dramatic stuff... Even if I just send them five or six pieces on a CD, they can start editing the program — all editors love having music to work to as it gives them a sense of direction and pace. Then when you get the tape back it may have some of your ideas on it, probably edited, so you know what you're working to.
"On Channel 4's O'Shea's Dangerous Reptiles, the director has said in a couple of instances that they're off to shoot in New Guinea or the Philippines or whatever and he's asked if I could come up with some ideas by the time they go. I've sent them some music which they took with them, and in some cases, they tell me they've shot it almost like a pop video with the pictures being edited to fit the music rather than vice versa. In that respect it's great, because I don't have such a difficult job of trying to make everything fit afterwards. Of course it doesn't always work like that. In fact it rarely works like that, and generally you'll get a final cut after which the hard work really begins because you have to change everything to make it fit. It's at this stage that you get a VHS cassette with burned-in timecode, dialogue on one track and SMPTE on the other. The dialogue tracks may also contain any musical ideas they've had.
"At that point I sync up my Emagic Unitor 8 to the SMPTE track and use this to lock up my PC system which runs Logic Audio. I prefer to get a locked programme later on than have something that isn't quite finished sooner, because there's nothing worse than getting something back where the editors have made a few small changes that mean you're going to have to completely rework your music. I was amazed how fluid the process of making films was — they were still making editing tweaks right up until a couple of weeks before the premiere. Those tweaks obviously impacted on the music and very often an edit that changes just a couple of seconds at the start of a scene can completely throw out your rhythm and pace. That's when you have to apply all your sequencing skills to get everything to fit again and to get back on the beat."
- Akai cassette machine: "Bought from a pawnbrokers some eight years ago for £25, and by design rules should not still be functioning as well as it currently is. Scientists should reverse-engineer the mechanics of this device and apply the same rules to space shuttles, power stations and aircraft. They would last forever."
- Alesis ADAT XT modular digital multitrack recorder (x2): "The very definition of an industry standard multitrack format. Great sound, quick transport, cheap media but already looking dated compared to the stand alone HD recorders from the likes of Mackie and Tascam."
- Alesis Midiverb multi-effects: "Lo-fi and nasty as hell, which means there will always be a place for it in my rack."
- Alesis Quadraverb multi-effects.
- Behringer MX8000 mixing desk.
- Behringer Composer dynamics.
- Behringer Virtualizer multi-effect.
- Emagic Unitor 8 MIDI interface.
- JL Cooper Datamaster sync unit.
- Klark Teknik Jade II monitors.
- 450MHz Pentium III PC with Midiman Delta 66 soundcard and dual monitor card, running Emagic Logic Audio.
- Tascam DA20 DAT recorder.
- Yamaha NS10 monitors.
- Yamaha Promix 01 digital mixer.
- Akai S2000: "Nice to have as a 'spare' sampler but an absolute dog to use at anything other than a very basic playback-only level."
- Akai S3000XL: "A near-perfect sampler and until the ESI appeared my most frequently used bit of kit."
- Alesis D4 drum module.
- Emu ESI2000: "My first Emu sampler and I must admit that everything they say about Emus having a warmer and more detailed sound compared to the Akais I've found to be true. The lack of waveform editing is a pain but pound for pound in terms of RAM expandability, polyphony, and features for the price it's hard to beat."
- Emu Orbit sound module: "Perhaps a bit dated now, but still full of some great analogue dance drum and bass samples."
- Emu Planet Earth sound module: "A sort of updated Proteus 3 with knobs on — literally."
- Emu Proteus 1 sound module: "My first ever synth module. It's got a dicky power supply but is much loved and used every single day."
- Emu Proteus 3 sound module: "A good resource for some more off-the-wall effect sounds."
- Korg O1R/W sound module.
- Korg TR-Rack: "My 'desert island module' — packed full of great noises. If I only had to have one MIDI instrument, this would be it."
- Korg Wavestation SR sound module: "A soundtrack writer's dream. Switch it on and phone Channel Four."
- Red Sound Federation BPM FX Pro effects unit: "A unique British-made DJ based effects unit that everyone should play on at least once in their lifetime."
- Roland JV1080 with Orchestral expansion board: "A reliable and easy-to-use workhorse which forms the backbone of a good deal of my work."
Compared with most of the studios I visit, yours seems very much MIDI- and computer-based, with relatively little outboard equipment.
"That's true — I have a Behringer Composer as my main compressor. It's laughable really, but it's the compressor I've always had and I'm quite happy with it. I have never heard anything esoteric that would make me think otherwise, and I get a big kick out of the fact that the music for The Weakest Link was mixed and mastered through an 80-quid compressor. It's the same with the Virtualizer. The reverb is perfectly fine for the work I do and I prefer it to my old Quadraverb, which is better at delays and flanging effects but noisy as hell. I've also got a Lexicon Reflex which I have a love/hate relationship with (mostly hate) and an original Alesis Midiverb, the plastic one that looks like a soap dish! I use that for one patch only, number 48, which is written in Chinagraph on the front. It's only used when I need a low-bit, cavernous reverb.
"The rack also includes a couple of ADATs, which I use less and less for my own material, but I still need them occasionally for use with clients. There's no point in getting rid of them because they're not worth much second-hand. An old Yamaha Promix 01 is used as a submixer for the ADATs.
"Of my hardware synths, the Korg TR-Rack and the Roland JV1080 get used for the bulk of the sounds, with a Korg Wavestation SR used for pad sounds. Hold down a low C on just about any patch and you've got the makings of a soundtrack! I'm also a great fan of the Emu stuff — their new rhythmic models such as the Mo'Phatt and Planet Earth are right on the button. There are limitations such as the restricted number of outputs, but they're good 'quick fix' instruments with lots of loops that you can use in a busy production environment. Even the Yamaha DJX home keyboard, which you can now buy in Dixons for £110 or so, is extremely useful. I've been a big fan since I reviewed it for SOS, and though it's a bit lo-fi and grainy, the quality of the loops and the way they're put together is good. I've used it a lot on the Channel 4 reptiles thing for drum loops, little grooves and so on. It's just stuff you don't have time to program, like a sample CD. In fact it's cheaper than most sample CDs!
"At the bottom of my rack is a Red Sound Federation which I only patch in when I need it. It's more of a DJ tool but it has some very interesting sounds and effects that you can't get on anything else. It's also great for feeding drum loops through for processing, then you can resample them back into Logic. I haven't fully exploited its potential, but it is good.
"Any studio like mine is built up over a number of years and evolves in a way that isn't necessarily the same as you'd buy if you had to start again from scratch. Take my master keyboard — it's an old Roland D5, which was the first MIDI instrument I ever bought and I'm still using it, because it happens to fit on the desk! I'm still using the old Proteus modules and I have three different types of sampler."
What other things would you like to buy when the PRS fairy comes?
"I'd like to consolidate my samplers rather than have assorted Akai and Emu models. To me, the S3000 is a perfect sampler, except that it's limited to 32Mb of RAM, which these days can be used up with one sample program. The ESI is expanded to 128Mb, but even that looks a bit frugal today. Interestingly, there's a noticeable difference in sound quality between the Emu and the Akai when you load the same sample CD. I always thought that stories about the differences in converters were old wives' tales, but the Emu definitely sounds better to my ears. But long-term, I have a feeling that most of my MIDI gear will eventually become virtual, especially when you see how powerful Logic's EXS24 software sampler is. Also, you have a full screen to edit it with rather than an LCD the size of a stick of chewing gum.
"It's much easier to use, and you can't do any serious sample editing on an S2000. My bedside alarm clock has a more comprehensive user interface! There's also the advantage that soft samplers are easier to set up for multitimbral operation, the samples load faster, and when you open a song you were working on earlier, it comes up with the samples loaded and ready to play. That could be important to me as I tend to use a lot of stock orchestral samples, so being able to load them all in one default song is very appealing. What I do and other people like me do is based quite heavily on sound sample libraries. I don't think I've recorded a sample into a sampler for about three years now — they're used purely as playback machines.
"I did wonder whether to get into video capture and DVD, but you find that TV companies are perfectly happy to give you a VHS tape, despite the fact that the onscreen movie facilities in Logic look as though they would be fine for the job if I ever needed to work that way. Every TV production company in the world has a VHS recorder, yet few have DVD authoring facilities. Maybe it'll be different in five years time, but I'll see what's needed then. Ideally you'd get a complete movie file down the phone line in the morning and you'd send it back to them with music in the afternoon, but that's probably a little way off yet."
What work do you want to do now that your profile has gone up a notch?
"I'm concentrating almost exclusively on TV work now. The BBC asked me to write the music to their new Saturday night gameshow Dog Eat Dog, and I've just finished a new series presented by David Jason called Infested, which was a real musical challenge and was in many ways more filmic than many films. It's all about the horrid things you find infesting your house, and there was an awful lot of music that had to be written to picture — every beat of the woodworm moving or the rat poking his head out of the skirting board. It was a bit strange to do because I don't actually like spiders very much, and there was one scene where a woodlouse spider stalks a woodlouse in extreme closeup. It was like something out of a horror movie, and I spent two whole days trying to time the beats of this thing's jaws snapping the woodlouse in half and sucking its juices out with fairly wild orchestral music!
"That sort of stuff is really interesting, though, and I'd like to stay on that kind of level where yes, they are bigger deals and there's more pressure on you, but obviously the musical satisfaction is greater. In fact it's ironic that The Weakest Link is probably financially the most successful thing I'll ever do, yet projects like these are so much more musically challenging. I'd like more of that kind of quality work, and of course I'd like another chance at film work, perhaps writing a piece for a full orchestra to perform. I've written for all the instruments before, just never all together!"
Finally, the question on every reader's lips must be, when that PRS cheque comes in, will you still be writing reviews for Sample Shop?
"Of course... although it might be from a beach house in Mauritius!"
The main musical signature of The Weakest Link is a four-note theme used to transition between rounds, as well as mark the climax of certain other tracks throughout the show. "The main sting initially grew out of the end of the main-round music beds, which had to obviously last the decreasing lengths of each round — the rounds get shorter as the show goes on, from 3 minutes down to 2'50", 2'40" and so on," explains Paul. "The bed itself was a tricky task, as the production team wanted mini-climaxes every five seconds with larger steps building every 30 seconds, and the last 30 seconds of each round needed to up the drama to a climax as the time runs out and the contestants stop playing.
"I really wanted the ticking clock sample to feature in the last 30 seconds as a device for letting the contestants and viewers know that the time is running out, and that required a tempo of 120bpm, but in order to fit a climax every five seconds I needed to force a 5/4 feel over the entire track. So the main bed ended up being three-minute-long sections (each a modulated semitone higher than the last) constructed out of 12 five-bar chunks!
"The end of the bed needed to explode with the four-note theme, which in the key of C minor is essentially G, B flat, E flat and C and for this I used a combination of orchestral stabs from the Korg Trinity and the JV1080. I spent quite a bit of time getting these to sound as punchy as possible, bearing in mind that most people still watch the TV in mono, and experimented with layering them at various levels. I actually ended up resampling the JV stabs in mono and at a lower bandwidth, which seemed to make them leap out of the speakers better for some reason, and they stand out quite well when broadcast. Along with these stabs I included unison lines playing the four notes, using all the other instruments featured in the preceding bed. These included timpanis, orchestral percussion, bass, bells, strings, choir and the kitchen sink, basically!"