Writer and electronic musician Paul Nagle successfully combines a day job with live performance and regular CD releases. Paul White zooms up the M6 and comes in for a landing at his well‑stocked studio.
The name Paul Nagle will be familiar to many SOS readers, as he's a regular freelance contributor to the magazine, with an obvious penchant for analogue‑style synths. But Paul is also a very prolific electronic music composer, with a number of album releases to his credit. When he's not planning one of his live appearances, he can usually be found either in his studio working on his next album project or talking to his pet iguana, Worf.
Paul's first significant cassette release can be dated back to 1981, though apparently there were some even before then that he isn't keen to admit to. More recently, he's released the Elements series of CDs, comprising Wavemaker , Firedancer, Skyrider, Earthshaper, and The Live Element, the last recorded live at Jodrell Bank planetarium in 1997. Paul first played live at UK Electronica in 1983, along with Hawkwind, Ian Boddy, Mark Shreeve and Robert Schroeder. Since then he's played at a number of other electronic music festivals. More details of Paul's work can be found on his web page, where he's also happy to enter into discussions on the relative merits of various vintage synths or exchange information, patches, Cubase mixer maps, and so on.
The concept of being able to distribute material from home, directly to the public, is one that's going to grow and grow.
I was naturally curious as to how Paul had become so interested in electronic music, so I asked the obvious question.
"I took some piano lessons as a child, but I soon lost interest in it because of the type of music I had to play. It was years later that I began dabbling on an electronic organ that I was allowed to play while babysitting. At that time, I was listening to people like Bo Hansson, a Swedish player who composed music based on The Lord of the Rings. Of course I heard TD's Stratosfear in 1976 and Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, and it was those things that set me in the direction I'm still exploring now.
"The first instrument I bought was an organ, which I used to record onto cassette, but then the organ shop got in a Korg Micropreset synthesizer, so I had to get one. From then on I was on the perilous slope to an empty credit card. I had to try every new synth that came out, and I bought many of them."
How do you go about creating music now? Is it entirely synthesized?
"I try to involve as many 'real' musicians and instruments as possible, because I think synthesizers sound more interesting when heard in the context of other instruments. My studio is in a converted loft which is accessed via a lightweight ladder, so getting drum kits up here isn't really an option. The percussion I use includes African Djembe drums or Indian Tablas. Guitars and wind instruments are recorded here quite regularly, and my new project will have a lot of guitar and flute in it."
I like a synthesizer to sound like a synthesizer — I want to be able to hear it and not be confused into thinking that it's a normal instrument.
In what is essentially a MIDI studio, what do you use to record real sounds?
"The Roland VS880. Prior to that I had to use other people's studios (I've never had much of an affinity for tape). The VS880, which has the effects board fitted, is sync'ed to Cubase running on a PC, and that's the master clock for everything. I've made a Cubase mixer map to drive the VS880 from the computer, so I hardly ever need to touch the thing. I can do EQ, effects, patch changes, and almost everything else, from Cubase. On the whole it's been a wonderful machine, and there are only a couple of things I don't like about it. One is that the display is, criminally, not backlit, and the other is that there are no on‑board mic preamps (because of this, I often send things through my little Mackie desk first). Other than that, it's probably the single best bit of kit I've ever bought. It's easy to use and the sound quality is really very good — the 2:1 data compression is not an issue for me."
"I don't have any hard and fast rules for writing, except that I don't start to record until I have a definite idea of what I want to do. Once I've started I usually work the piece to completion. Often by developing an idea that seems to be going nowhere you can drive yourself into something wonderful. It's then an easy matter to get rid of the naff idea that led you there. If you always just give up you get nowhere, but the trick is to realise when something is not special enough to release. I guess that's one reason I produce CDs: it gives me a goal to aim for, a deadline to finish by and a standard to reach. I use the whole thing as a learning process, formulating techniques of performance or composition to refine again and again.
"I'm afraid I still write 'concept' albums. Underneath, most of my stuff is actually about something, although different people get different things from it. Quite often I get my ideas when not in the studio, and many scruffy bits of paper contain my scribbled ideas, which I attempt to transform into something later. I think that if you compose at your instrument your fingers tend to find their old favourite positions and everything starts to sound the same. Similarly, I don't believe that mindlessly improvising for hours on end, then chopping out all the bits that don't work, makes for an interesting album either. You can get ideas from gear and software, though. I recently bought the shareware program called Seq303, a step‑time MIDI sequencer that can generate sync'ed loops (each loop can be a different length), running several synthesizers at once. Better still, it's possible to sequence MIDI controller changes so that, for example, I can flip through different filter types on my [Access] Virus synth, select different start‑waves on my [Waldorf] Microwave II, speed up the LFO on my [Waldorf] Pulse, and so on. When I've created something I like, the whole thing can be exported into Cubase as a MIDI file. For a born 'messer' like me, this is great!"
"During the recording of Earthshaper, I needed a violin for the slow, haunting melody of the track 'Going Grey'. I managed to find a classical musician, Steve Barnes, who had both an acoustic violin and a Zeta electric model. Being classically trained, he needed sheet music to work from, so I recorded the violin solo into Cubase myself using my Korg Prophecy. For the recording session we connected the Zeta directly to the VS880 and Steve read the music from the Cubase score page as the song played through. The secret for me is utilising the talent of other musicians — we completed the whole thing in just two takes, added a little reverb from the VS880, and Steve said that it was the best he'd ever heard his violin recorded.
"You can't beat involving other musicians. During the recording of my new album, I was beta‑testing Cubase VST, so I created a track with lots of changes, on which I performed all the complex edits I could think of. I added a drum loop created by a freeware program called Hammerhead, and processed it via Cubase VST's real‑time effects. After I'd tinkered with this song for several weeks it was starting to take on a life of its own, so I asked Matt Shepherd and Andy Boland to come round and add some flute and guitar. These were recorded on the VS880, and it is to both of these guys' credit that they coped easily with the weird scales I'd generated using Cubase's 'Transpose to Raga Todi' function. Various types of flute, lead guitar, bass and acoustic guitar all made this track far more than the sum of the parts, successively replacing many of the synthesizer sections."
As a regular SOS reviewer, you're clearly used to expressing your opinion about equipment, so perhaps you could talk me around your studio and tell me what you like about the instruments you use?
"I like a synthesizer to sound like a synthesizer — I want to be able to hear it and not be confused into thinking that it's a normal instrument. If I need a saxophone, I'd rather get in a real sax player. Although I have a few standard S&S synths, I try not to use them predictably. My favourite albums come from the late '70s to mid‑'80s, when synths had a certain sound, almost organic.
"My main keyboard is a Roland XP80, though I started off with an XP50. The reason I went for the '80 wasn't the keyboard length, but the extra sequencer memory. It's also got a few extra sliders and an arpeggiator, which means I can do some cool things when I play live. When I'm gigging I don't want to take a computer with me, so I prepare everything on Cubase, save it as a MIDI file, then tinker with it on the XP80 as the mood takes me."
I don't like it. It's OK for pitch‑bend but it's useless for modulation — it's either on or off, really. I have a Korg Prophecy mounted directly above the XP80, and this has a much better control interface. I think it's a great instrument. It's as good as a controller as it is a sound source. There are so many one‑handed synthesizer players who leave their other hand doing nothing, whereas with the Prophecy you can put it to good use modifying the sound. Immediate control is the key to making an instrument feel and sound alive. The only thing wrong with the Prophecy is that the five real‑time knobs above the display are hard to grip, so I've changed the knob caps on mine to make them more usable. I can use these knobs to control any synth I like, and at the last gig I did the Prophecy was controlling the Access Virus.
"I've created a lot of sounds by just using the regular synthesis part of the Prophecy, rather than the modelling side, and it has a good bass end too. I also like the way the effects are properly integrated, so you can set an envelope to affect not only the filter cutoff frequency, but also the amount of reverb. Mostly I'll use the Prophecy from its front panel, but I have a couple of Cubase maps, one for editing the arpeggios, and also a basic synth editor for it."
Looking into your main rack, I notice a very strong Waldorf presence. What's the attraction of these machines?
"I didn't really know much about Waldorf until I got one of their synths to review. I was so impressed with the strong analogue sound of the Pulse that, when I heard it, I sold a lot of my old gear, including my Jupiter 6, and bought one. I've got three of them now — I pestered the guys at Waldorf for ages to change the operating system so that they could be linked for polyphonic use. They did it, and now that I have version 2.0 of the operating system in there, I can play three‑note chords using the three linked machines. In this mode, the master machine sends out the appropriate controller information to make the slave machines play the same patch, though you can tweak them independently afterwards if you want them to be slightly different. In time I may get more of them; they're particularly good for bass, lead and sequence patterns — actually almost too huge‑sounding to be polyphonic! The Pulse not only has good fast envelopes, but you can also tweak anything via dedicated MIDI controllers — so that, for example, a little rolling pattern in Cubase can change the envelope decay as you play.
"The other Waldorf I have is a Microwave II, and it's probably the single most accessible digital synth I've come across. It's very well thought out, though I was a little upset when they announced the bright orange, knob‑laden Microwave XT, complete with integral effects. Now I want one of those instead! The Microwave has a pretty strange sound, and the factory patches don't really show what it's capable of (though the latest ones are much better). You have to spend a little time programming it and then it really starts to cook! It's got a tendency towards 'spiky grunginess'. The original wavetables are made up from only 8‑bit waves, which gives it quite a distinctive sound, especially when processed via its powerful resonant filter.
"I also have a Korg Wavestation A/D, which has quite different strengths. You can create a wave‑sequence using any of the internal waves, in any order, with any pitch transposition, level and duration. It's very versatile for creating swirly, evolving textures, whereas the Microwave produces a harder, more 'in your face' sound. The Wavestation is superb for backgrounds and pads. There's also a vocoder in the Wavestation A/D, which I sometimes use with external sources. Vocoding a drum machine with a choir can be interesting."
I notice you have an Emu Vintage Keys synth module, which seems very down to earth after the more esoteric things in your rack.
"There was a time when I had mainly Korg PCM‑based synths, and the Vintage Keys just sounded totally different. It also has a resonant filter, and I really like some of the raw samples, particularly the Mellotron strings. And it's very easy to program. In fact the only gripe I have is that the envelopes are too slow; you can't do a good snappy sequenced line with it.
"I've had my Korg EX8000 for years, and it has a kind of analogue/digital character that I really like. I know it well now, so I can program it very quickly, and it makes sounds that people are less likely to recognise. I also have a Korg 03R/W, which is used almost exclusively for piano sounds these days.
"My Roland JD800 is particularly nice, not least because of its sliders. It's almost the best synth ever made. On stage you just call up a patch and then use the faders to change it — you hardly even have to worry about calling up memories. It's a very immediate instrument — almost as easy to program as the old analogue synths, and arguably more versatile. Another favourite is the Korg DSS1, which I'll keep until it dies. It's a very basic sampler combined with a great synthesizer. Its superb filter and oscillator sync give you a rich palette to work with — those resonant sweeps are as good as anything I've got."
Most instruments these days come with effects thrown in. Does this simplify your external effects needs?
"I'm a big believer in using the on‑board effects with instruments, because to me it's a part of the sound of the patch. I hardly ever use synths multitimbrally because I have so many to choose from, so the restrictions you get when you start trying to share effects between the different parts of a multitimbral bank don't apply.
"My Boss SE50 is my main studio effects processor, but I also use the effects in the VS880 a lot. I wouldn't mind another SE50, or even an SE70. Although the SE50 has a vocoder I've never used it; I tend to use the one in the Wavestation."
What would you like to add to your system?
"I mentioned the Microwave XT, which looks interesting, and if I'd known it was coming, I'd have held off buying the Microwave II. The XT comes in a 5U package, but it has a 3U section full of knobs, plus on‑board effects... It has almost everything I want in a synth, but I'm not sure yet if I'll trade up for it. The Virus is pretty cool but I'd like to check out the [forthcoming Quasmidi] Polymorph too, for its built‑in sequencer. I hear rumours of other similar instruments springing up all over the place, but I guess you can fall into total inactivity if you're forever waiting for the next big thing. To be honest, I don't actually need anything else."
What's your next musical project?
"The working title is Lore and despite its drum loops you shouldn't expect to hear it on Top Of The Pops. It will also have ambient swirling synths, squelchy sequences, flutes and guitars, grungy Microwave textures, treated vocals, naturally recorded sounds and a bunch of other stuff that reveals I've been tinkering with the much‑abused 'ambient dance' genre, but blending in my own electronic style. At the moment I've only completed one track, and when anybody asks me what style it is, I really struggle to come up with an answer."
I would imagine that the main problem for instrumental music in the UK is that you either get categorised as a Tangerine Dream wannabe or put on the New Age shelf. Presumably you're keen to avoid either fate?
"For me, New Age has its place, but it's not really what I want to do. At the same time I don't really rate Tangerine Dream so highly these days, as the music has become very shallow. What I want to do is produce something that works on a number of levels, follows some kind of compositional structure and, of course, has real melody. I've also been listening to a lot more varied music from world to dance — acts like Banco de Gaia and Future Sound Of London — and though I wouldn't say I've moved in that direction, I've taken on board some of the elements of what they're doing."
How are you planning to distribute the forthcoming album?
"That's a good question. I've had a couple of offers from small labels, but I'd actually like to have a go at doing everything myself this time, keeping total control, including designing the label, the sleeve artwork and everything. I've had a lot of encouragement and the traditional mail order people have already shown interest. I've also had a lot of success selling my existing music via the Internet, using my web site. I have audio samples of tracks that people can listen to, and I do get orders from a variety of countries now.
"To me, the most exciting development is the ability to produce your own CDs at home. At the moment I'm using the VS880 with an external CD burner to produce discs, so if I just want 10 copies of an album I can do it fairly quickly. Creating the first copy takes ages, as you have to make a disk image file first, but then you can copy it to CDR fairly quickly. With the current VS880 software you can't save your image file either, but I'm sure they'll sort that out. However, the concept of being able to distribute material from home, directly to the public, is one that's going to grow and grow. The sooner the greedy record companies disappear up their own arses, the better!
"A small bunch of people who mainly like Tangerine Dream, The X Files and probably Star Trek (but not Voyager). I feel I know most of them personally, which is nice. Since 1983 the scene hasn't really grown. I guess one problem with synthesizer music (or whatever you call it) is that it is superficially easy to make it, but it's bloody difficult to be as good as Jean‑Michel Jarre! The standards are pretty low now that Tangerine Dream have descended into shallow pap for the American market, and fans can easily get a bunch of synths and produce something that sounds very similar with very little musical training.
"Some people are seeking 'the answer' by looking backwards, and several 'TD in 1975' bands have sprung up, the best of which are Redshift. But I want to move on, assimilating what has happened since 1975 while keeping my awareness of my heroes — Vangelis, Jarre, Camel, Colin Towns and Yello. There are some great talents in the UK — such as Ian Boddy, Mark Shreeve, Andy Pickford and Asana — and it's a real shame that these hardworking musicians don't get more recognition. I don't know why instrumental music is still such a no‑no in the UK, but becomes OK when you add a drum loop somebody else made for you and a couple of samples taken from just about anywhere."
Everything looks pretty permanently wired in, so how do you go about taking gear out for live performance?
"Live work is one of the reasons I have the keyboards: I take the XP80, the Prophecy and the JD800, and I'll start to take the Virus soon. The Waldorfs stay at home, because they don't have built‑in effects, and it would be a pain to have to take them out of the studio system every time."
What kind of controllers do you tend to use?
"I do a lot of tone shaping as I play. With the Microwave II, I've created patches which respond to the four assignable MIDI controllers, so I might change the filter resonance, the position in the wavetable, the rate of attack, and so on, from just a single controller, then tweak a different bunch with another — the kind of thing that the Prophecy's performance knobs are ideal for. The synthesizer isn't the most expressive instrument when just played from the keyboard, so you need to do this kind of thing to give it depth. People brought up on traditional keyboard instruments such as pianos or organs seem to have trouble adapting to synths, either because they'll play inappropriate 10‑fingered chords, or they won't use any performance control. You have to learn to get more out of the instrument. Just being able to flick through 1000 sounds on an XP80 is enough to blow your mind — as fellow UK musician Nick Rothwell once said: 'That isn't synthesis, it's cable TV' — but if you concentrate on fewer patches, and spend more time tweaking your favourites to work just how you want them to, you'll feel the benefit when you come to perform with them."
- Access Virus
- Emu Vintage Keys Plus: "Cool sounds, easy to program."
- Korg DSS1: "Best filter Korg ever put on a synth."
- Korg EX8000: "An old favourite."
- Korg 03R/W: "My piano sound."
- Korg Prophecy: "Just can't leave this baby alone."
- Korg Wavestation A/D: "Superb synth despite shite architecture."
- Roland JD800
- Roland XP80: "A 'do it all' synth that manages to be very useful and musical."
- Waldorf Microwave 2: "Gritty, muddy, swirly monster of a synth."
- Waldorf Pulse x 2
- Waldorf Pulse Plus: "As above, but with filter input and CV/Gate connectors."
- Akai ME80P MIDI Patchbay
- Alesis Microverb
- Alesis Monitor Ones: "Good when you're used to their bass response."
- Alesis Parametric EQ x 2
- Behringer Composer
- Behringer Noise Reduction
- Boss SE50: "Nice effects unit."
- Boss DE200 digital delay
- Creative Labs AWE32 card
- Fostex 16:2 submixer: "Useful for gigs."
- Mackie CR1604 16:2 mixer: "Brilliant. Clean, reliable, beloved."
- Mackie Mixer Mixer: "Combines my CR1604, RacPac and VS880."
- Peavey PC1600 MIDI controller with sliders: "Jolly useful."
- Pentium 133 PC, twin hard disk, 32Mb RAM, running Windows 95, Cubase VST, Steinberg WaveLab, MOTU Unisyn, Turtle Beach SampleVision: "Well, it's working until I tweak it again..."
- Roland CF10 MIDI volume/pan sliders.
- Roland VS880 hard disk recorder,two hard disks, internal effects: "Excellent."
- Sony DTC690 DAT
- Sony TCD‑D7 portable DAT
- Spirit RacPac submixer: "Great value."
- Zoom 1202 multi‑effects: "A rather grainy reverb, to my ears, but it's OK."