The recording industry has recently embraced a new breed — the programmer. These skilled individuals, specialised in the operation of top‑flight computer musical instruments like the Fairlight and Synclavier, find themselves in great demand by studios and record producers. Recognising this need, Karin Clayton has created a specialist agency — The Programming People — which offers clients the services of various expert programmers. Paul Gilby sampled her story and discovered how it all started.
"Seven years ago I started as a receptionist at Sarm Studios East in London and a few years later was promoted to Bookings Manager. Then around 1982, I was asked to move from Sarm East to Sarm West when we took over the old Island Records studios in Basing Street.
"Basing Street Studios, as it was called then, was coming to the end of its heyday but Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair, his wife and manager, who were involved with Sarm, decided to expand Sarm Studios into it and completely revamp the building. And that was the start of a whole new Sarm empire that included ZTT Records as well. I was there for about two years until last year when I decided that it was time to move on. Basically, because I'd spent seven years in studios and there was nowhere else to go — apart from owning my own studio which was a bit ambitious for me!
"The thing was, whilst I was working at Sarm I was giving out information on a daily basis, and because I'd been in the business for seven years and I'd had so much contact with bands coming in and out of, what was by that time, three studios, I'd met so many people — bands, producers, engineers, record company men... all sorts of people. I had a book full of telephone numbers and, of course, everyone would use me as a central information bureau. Other studios would ring up saying they needed an engineer and asking if I could recommend someone. Young producers were even ringing me up to ask about royalty agreements for a B‑side etc. So there I was sitting there giving out information all day long and not, in fact, making a penny out of it.
"Sarm West, at this time, was gaining a reputation for state of the art recording through the work of producers like Trevor Horn and Peter Collins; people who were working with the new Fairlights and Synclaviers. The trouble was, they had the money to go out and buy the machinery but nobody ever knew how to use it, and there were all these frantic phone calls going on during sessions. We'd ring up Syco to get someone to tell us how to do so and so.
"Obviously, demand grew for people who could operate that sort of equipment and some young chaps were wise to see this coming and they went off, got themselves the equipment manuals and went to Turnkey and places like that to learn how to use these machines."
"In my house in London at this time lived a man called 'JJ', who was one of the first Fairlight programmers and who, it's probably fair to say, is one of the most experienced Fairlight programmers today in terms of actual application of the Fairlight. Other than working on many hit records, he's a full‑time member of the Art Of Noise."
He's probably one of the more well‑known programmers in the public eye isn't he?
"Yes. It's his catchy name 'JJ'. He's a bit of a crazy guy when it comes to ideas but he's become the sounds man on the Fairlight. JJ's had the Fairlight for years — his was one of the first models to come into the country. I remember it was set up in my dining room all the time, and it sort of intrigued me.
"To cut a long story short, it became more and more apparent to me that there was a hole in the market for people who knew how to use this equipment, because the manufacturers generally didn't — they'd give you a quick demo — but they generally didn't have the time or the patience to spend days explaining things to you. And, of course, there was the added problem that the young chaps who were interested in this equipment couldn't afford to buy it."
"So what actually happened was that I left Sarm to form a management company — managing engineers and producers — and towards Christmas of '84 I was approached by someone who had purchased a Fairlight and a Synclavier, and was starting to get lots of people wanting to hire the machines. But he had a problem, in so much as he never had anybody that he could send out with the machines when the client needed technical back‑up. So he approached me and said: 'Will you help me to start scouting around Britain for young programmers, to train up?' So we did a lot of scouting around, and interviewing people like Simon Lloyd, to find young programmers — who didn't have their own machines but could operate them.
"Some of the hire companies kindly gave enough free time on the machines for the chaps to be able to go and play with them and learn how to use them. David Whittaker, at Turnkey, has been extremely helpful. He never objects to our chaps going up there and running the latest software etc, because obviously it benefits David.
"We started The Programming People back in April 1985, basically, because I felt that the programmer today had become as much an integral part of the recording session as the engineer or the musician. We try to provide the service of a programming agency because, really, it's a chore for a busy producer to have to waste his valuable time phoning round looking for the right people for a session."
So you've got your finger on the pulse and know where everybody is then?
"Yes. All clients have to do is phone us and say, 'Right, Saturday, in studio such and such, 10 o'clock start. Be there!' And we will."
"I like to take on programmers that can play as well as programme because they're just so beneficial to the overall session. We try and match up somebody who is musically suited to the project as far as we can because they are often asked to throw in ideas and play on the records; they are not just strictly machine programmers. Simon Lloyd (see box later), for example, plays saxophone — in fact, he's a very good saxophonist — but also programmes the Fairlight and the Synclavier so he's got a tremendous musical knowledge — as all of them have in fact.
"We've had hundreds of programmers contacting us — so many guys who have been sitting in back rooms studying away with manuals. Actually, those we were more interested in were the ones who had session experience and could handle a session under pressure and who had a good musical knowledge as well.
"We've selected about 15 from the ones that have applied and of those, three or four are PPG Waveterm people; two or three are Synclavier men, and two or three specialise on the Fairlight. You see, the funny thing is that all this gear is very expensive yet it moves in and out of fashion very quickly. At the beginning of the year demand was all for Fairlight, then suddenly everyone wanted Synclavier. Then there was a big wave of the PPG stuff, and at the moment it's Emulator II."
What about the DX7 and the rest of the Yamaha FM system?
"There is a demand for DX. We get asked quite a lot for it but most of the keyboard players now know how to operate those themselves because they've gone out and bought one and had time at home learning to programme them. Whereas few of them would have Synclaviers at home!
"What we've actually managed to do is bring together programmers who previously didn't know each other but are now communicating between themselves. It's a case of: 'I've had a so‑and‑so problem on the Synclavier. How have you got around it?'."
So their whole knowledge has been pooled together for the benefit of all?
"Yes. One guy might know the PPG Wave inside out and the other one will know the Fairlight and they tend to swap: like, one'll teach the PPG to the Fairlight guy and vice versa. I think it's a healthy situation when they talk between themselves about the latest software and tricks of how to do this and that. I mean, they are surprisingly unselfish about their trade."
"There seems to be more and more demand now for programmers who can do a bit of everything and who actually stay on the project from start to finish. What the studios often do is supply the producer with a variety of machines hired in for the session and we would supply the right programmer for the job — one programmer from start to finish, actually involved on the project rather than just coming in to do one specific task.
"You see, a lot of producers are pretty busy and generally they've got their heads down in the studio and so they quite often appreciate someone coming along and telling them what's available. What we try to do when we take all the bookings — the programming session bookings — is we try to ascertain the clients' needs; what it is they're trying to achieve. Otherwise you sometimes find that somebody will book a Synclavier for a session and, in fact, we could do it quite easily on the Emulator and save them a hell of a lot of time and expense. So we try to do a little bit of pre‑production planning whereby the programmer can take away a cassette of the track and do some programming out of the studio, so that when he goes back it all falls together."
"Debbie Kempson is now running The Programming People on a daily basis and has really taken over from me completely — my involvement is minimal these days. Other than looking after the administration of the bookings and organising the technical side, Debbie's very much involved in trying to match personalities on sessions. Nothing can be worse than people who don't get on in the studio.
"If we know that someone is a particularly difficult person to work with — then we've got to give them the most patient of our programmers. Our job deals with people and not just unemotional machinery and because they're human, confidence is an important thing too. We'll never let a programmer go onto a programming session unless he's absolutely sure that he can provide what the producer is looking for. And 99.9% of the time they can, fortunately!"
How is the session charged out? Is it costed individually for each programmer, as obviously some have more experience than others?
"Well, somebody who has three years experience on the Synclavier and knows all the latest software and everything is going to cost more than somebody who programmes a Linn Drum. We do have a set scale of charges, and we also take a booker's fee of 12.5% for finding the programmer.
"We take commission from both the programmer and from the client that we're providing the programmer for. So that way, programmers aren't paying us a huge commission for work being given to them and the clients aren't being charged a vast amount for the legwork we do for them."
Could you cite an example then in real pound notes?
"Well, we have a minimum charge for a programmer which is £200 for a 12‑hour day. It ranges between £200 and £250 a day, depending on the programmer obviously. And that's for a standard day. The other thing we try and do as an agency, for the programmer's sake, is to protect them from being worked 24 hours round the clock."
As it were, an inferred union structure?
"Yes. The clients have to pay overtime, if only to stop them from trying to get three days work out of the programmers all rolled into one.
"The normal day session is extremely hard on the programmers because they're expected to provide a lot on the technical side as well as try and come up with creative ideas and sounds. Plus they have to sit around for hours while nothing happens — which isn't their fault. We just try and encourage people to plan a little bit better before hiring the gear, so that they know what they want to do with it.
"We also found when interviewing these programmers that they were letting themselves go out for far too little money really. They were on a much lower scale of fees than the session musicians — who at Musicians' Union rates, are on something like £54 for a three‑hour session. I think that the programmers should be paid the same fees as musicians."
But doesn't the programmer receive a royalty payment?
"No. You don't get a royalty... you might get a credit on the album sleeve or whatever. You only get a royalty if you actually ended up writing the song, which can be a bit of a moot point sometimes. Generally, the programmer's just doing overdubs and advising on the way in which things may be done. But sometimes a programmer may be called in and he ends up playing all the keyboards and composing the middle eight for a song as well, and it's part of our job to protect them from that situation."
What about the future? Do you intend to expand the number of programmers you have on your books or is 15 enough?
"It's enough to keep the personal contact. Any more and it would become a little impersonal, I feel. We like the programmers to call in and see Debbie here and keep us up to date so that we can see how things are going. We like everybody to feel they're part of a team really. It would be very difficult to know what everyone's up to if we had a lot more programmers. I think 15 is plenty. For example, if Simon's on a session and he suddenly gets flu, I'd like to know that the person I replace him with can offer the same expertise and follow the job through because, at the end of the day, we need to maintain our reputation as The Programming People."
The Programming People have supplied programmers to work on a variety of projects by the following artists: ABC, Asia, Culture Club, China Crisis, Duran Duran, Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney and Tears For Fears amongst others. They offer a 24-hour service and can be contacted through Debbie Kempson.
Simon Lloyd (Fairlight and Synclavier) has recently worked on sessions for bands such as the Eurythmics, Dead Or Alive, Dream Academy and Kate Bush. Here, Simon relates the programmer's position.
"I was a sax player for a number of years, playing with various bands, one of which was The Members. About three years ago, we were recording with producer Martin Rushent at his Genetic Studios. During the down‑time on the sessions I became interested in the Fairlight which the studio had and spent a lot of time acquainting myself with the system. After we'd left the studio I was still very interested in the computer side of music and started to study manuals and read all the magazines. Eventually I moved across from saxophone to Fairlight and started to do some programming.
"I've moved on to Synclavier now and have been spending around two days a week at Turnkey [the UK's Synclavier distributor] working on their new polyphonic sampling system; it's one of only three in the country at the moment. So, if I'm asked to do a session on the polyphonic Synclavier, I'll know the system inside out — you have to keep well up on these things."
Do some of the programmers find that they're in demand because of their sound library?
"Yeah! Cos if you've got hundreds of sounds like about a year's worth of sampled bass drums, snares, bass guitars, this, that and the other; it's a huge sound library. I've got about two dozen of each drum and lots of percussion and cymbals — all sorts. So, if anybody hires a machine without any samples in it already, it's going to take them two or three days to do the sampling. If you've got someone with a library of good samples, it saves a considerable amount of valuable studio time.
"All the programmers have their own set of samples on disk and obviously the better your sound library, the more you're in demand and so you get a reputation for being suited to certain types of work."
If you're on a session working for a producer and you create various sounds for him — say, for a Fairlight. Will he allow you to take the samples away and add them to your library?
"It depends. Generally, there's no problem because you're sampling with them and the easiest thing to do is to give them a copy and keep a copy for yourself. I've never had any problems about that. If they want disks of particular sounds that they use on the session, they can have them."
I suspect an awful lot of people want what they've already heard?
"They do, yeah... People still want the same Fairlight orchestral sounds they've heard for the last few years. It's alright but we like to give them some new sounds as well, which they haven't heard before. It seems a pity in some cases when producers go for off‑the‑peg sounds that are so well‑known. They're actually paying for an instrument that's capable of generating a phenomenal variety of different sounds and all that they want is a programmer to call up the presets!
"It does happen, though part of our job as programmers is to disseminate information about what all these machines can do and try and make studios and producers more aware of their potential."
So what kind of work have you been doing away from the studio?
"I recently did the new Zanussi TV ads with the Fairlight. It already had some synth work on it and they just wanted a few effects. We worked on the ad, which was basically a set built around a 2001 theme with astronauts etc, and a view of doors opening and the washing machine coming out of the space ship. They spent a huge amount of money on that ad which was filmed down at Shepperton Studios. I worked on it for three days giving them various spacey effects for the overdubs.
"Recently, I've been working on a couple of films as well but it would be nice to get more video work. These machines are particularly suited to that sort of work now that they all run SMPTE timecode, because you can synchronise the sound to the visuals."
Is your time outside the studio spent gleaning information from manuals and sorting out new sounds?
"It is actually. You're involved in a continuous process of updating your sound library and keeping in touch with the software developments. The forthcoming Fairlight Series III, is a good example. When that comes onto the market early next year there's going to be one hell of a demand for it, so I'm planning a visit to Fairlight in Australia and hope to do some work on it out there, before the system is made available in the UK."
This all sounds as though a programmer's life is a fairly hectic one?
"It very often is. All the sessions I've done to date have been high pressure all of the time with almost no down‑time at all, which is the way it should be. You can quite often find yourself doing a long 12-hour session with almost no breaks, just the odd cup of coffee and that's all. It's certainly very tiring at times but also very enjoyable!"