Feature of Michael Shipway

Michael Shipway talks about the making of “Voyage to Venus” 
(a musical interpretation of scenes from the Dan Dare adventure)

Date: August 24 2011

The original idea to do a new album, a follow-up to “Spirit Of Adventure” from 1995, came from a discussion with some of the guys of Germany’s Electronic Circus festival at one of their events. They asked Michael if he could make a new album similar to “Beneath Folly”, which was originally released even earlier, in 1992. He thought this would be an interesting project as it should contain shorter, more melodic tracks than the 20 to 30 minute improvisations he had been doing for years with Steve Smith in VoLt.


The “Beneath Folly” cd consisted of a series of tracks inspired by a friend of Mr Shipway who wrote stories of a Fiend that occupied a folly tower and the underground tunnels and chambers below it. Looking for inspiration again, Michael consulted him once more and asked him if he could compose another series of stories about the Fiend that he could set to music in a “Son Of Beneath Folly” album. He suggested that it might be better to take a Dan Dare story and select a series of events or scenes from it and set each of those to music. Using his original Dan Dare comic books, both selected each “scene” that could become a track plus some related illustrations, from the first ever Dan Dare story “Voyage To Venus”.

Dan Dare
For those that do not know, Dan Dare is an English sci-fi hero from the 1950’s. His stories were originally published as comic strips in the weekly Eagle comic and he is a very typically stiff upper-lip Englishman. As well as the comic strips, Dan Dare adventures have been dramatized and broadcast on radio as well as a mini TV series. Currently, a feature film of a Dan Dare adventure is about to go into production by Warner Bros starring Sam Worthington from the “Avatar” movie, so interest in Dan Dare will probably increase over the next couple of years.

One of the earlier radio broadcasts was made by the BBC in 1990 and was a dramatization of the “Voyage To Venus” adventure. To add some extra clarity to the ten selected scenes (or tracks) for the new album, Michael decided to take excerpts from the BBC broadcast that would enhance the musical interpretation of each scene. Together with the graphic illustrations from the comic strip, a cd package was taking shape bit by bit. But to do so, he would need permission to make it available commercially. After much searching, many exchanged emails and even more phone calls, he finally managed to track down the right department at the BBC. Eventually, Michael found the owner of the Dan Dare character and illustrations copyright that could provide the necessary licences to make the album legal to produce. This now results in two lines of acknowledgement on the cd cover and Michael Shipway being a lot poorer!

Having a series of “scenes” to write music for was a real help to Michael during the whole composing process.
As an example, the first track “Kingfisher” is about the launch, travel and eventual destruction of the spaceship Kingfisher, which is actually the opening section of the comic strip adventure. Musically, to describe the scene, this track needed a start section with a feeling of tension, building to an explosive launch, followed by a section of drifting chords, sequences and lead to represent the long trip to Venus which then builds to an exciting climax when the ship explodes. This is followed by the final section representing wreckage adrift in space, which is how this part is depicted in the comic strip. Michael treated each scene in this way to represent the story in musical ways, plus adding some BBC dialog at strategic moments. Sometimes, it seemed better that the dialog should only be just audible behind the music, so to help the listener, each track has its own page in the cd booklet with an introduction to the scene written by a friend of Michael, a transcript of all the dialog spoken on that track and also an illustration from the original comic strip from that point in the adventure. Therefore, with the front and back cover and 10 track pages, the cd booklet is an unusually large 12 pages!

The choice of instruments and sounds to use was not too difficult for Michael as he was trying to achieve the same big, almost pompous sounds previousy used on the
“Beneath Folly” album. Of course the range of synthesizers in his studio had changed drastically since 1992, but to get the biggest sounds meant he would use the Korg Oasys on most tracks. In addition, J Bass and sequences were mostly played on the Virus Ti module with other synth sounds coming from a range of keyboards and modules.
The one major change from” Beneath Folly” is that Mr Shipway decided to play guitar on some tracks as it sounded more appropriate than a synth lead. And being a long-time fan of Mike Oldfield, he used his PRS!

Final Notes
Michael thinks this may be the last album that is recorded in this way…. or maybe not! As mentioned previously, mainly hardware synths plus guitar on “Voyage To Venus” were used, but it is very likely that any future album could be recorded on virtual instruments inside the computer. Michael uses Cubase on the computer as a virtual studio and there are many good sounding virtual instruments that can be played and recorded completely within Cubase, providing a much more compact set-up than is possible with physical hardware synths. However, for live concerts, Michael thinks it is usually more interesting to watch a performer using hardware than staring at a screen, so maybe there is still a place for the hardware!

One other concept that is changing is the physical cd as a medium for music, something that didn’t miss Michael Shipway’s attention the last couple of years. The “download world” is among us with digital downloads of albums gaining in sales all the time, and cd sales reducing. Having thought long and hard about “Voyage To Venus” as a download album, Michael eventually decided that the illustrations and dialog text making up a 12-page booklet would be much more enjoyable as a physical product than a download. He thinks there’s no doubt there won’t be a choice soon, the same as the vinyl album has all but died out. But while the factory pressed silver disc is still there, he thought Dan Dare deserved a physical presence!

Website: www.mslmusic.co.uk

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