Captivating electronics: an interview with Glyn Lloyd-Jones
Date: November 11 2008
Glyn, how did you initially start in electronic music, can you sketch a bit of you background as well?
Well, I’ve always been interested in music generally and started taking piano lessons at around 10 years, although I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about them at that time. I also studied the double bass at school and played the bass guitar in a few bands during my time at school, none of which played music in any way related to electronic music I was to become interested in later. I think I first became aware of electronic music when a music teacher at school played Wendy Carlos'”Switched On Bach”. I remember being impressed by the quality of the sounds, they were so clear and pure that you could almost hear them bouncing off the walls, giving a whole new dimension to the music that I found fascinating. Later on when I heard Rick Wakeman’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “The Myths and Legends of King Arthur…” albums I became even more interested in synthesizers and electronic music. But not exactly that kind of music, I had a vision of a music that was more electronic and much less with its roots in rock music; a music that wasn’t necessarily underpinned by rock drumming.
The desire to make this music that I could imagine but hadn’t yet heard became the driving force to create my own. Only much later I found out about Tangerine Dream, and that they were doing pretty much the kind of music that I had in mind. If I had known about them earlier I probably wouldn’t have been inspired to start producing music myself at all. I must have been around 14 years old at the time and I didn’t have any money to buy electronic gear but there were loads of magazines with do-it-yourself projects for all kinds of stuff and so I started experimenting by building circuits; oscillators, filters, effects units and things like that. I borrowed two tape recorders from friends and tried building up soundscapes by bouncing between them. The results were bizarre to say the least! But slowly I gained experience both on the electronics side and on the musical side and by the time I was 18 I had built a complete modular analogue synthesizer, a polyphonic ‘string’ synthesizer (it didn’t really sound anything like strings but no commercial string synth did either), an 8-note analogue sequencer and a few effects units.
With this gear and a Tascam Portastudio – basically a 4-track tape deck that recorded on cassette tapes at double speed with a built-in mixer – I realized what I consider to be my first ‘musical’ creation. By ‘musical’ I mean with recognizable melodies and rhythms and some crude sequencing – elements that had been largely lacking in my previous attempts. Nevertheless, looking back on it now I can say that the result was pretty horrible, both in terms of sound quality and musical content. That’s one tape (which was actually called “Mind Music”; BS) I won’t be re-mastering for release! So basically in parallel I developed both a love for electronic music on one side and an interest and understanding of electronics on the other. In the end I chose to pursue electronics as a career and the electronic music as a hobby.
At the end of the ’80, you released two impressive albums on cassette, “Ri” and “Icesteps”. What’s the story behind these recordings. Would you be so kind to give an overview and description of your albums so far.
When I started “Ri” I had just got an Amstrad CPC128 computer – one of the first home computers with more than 64k or RAM. I designed and built a MIDI interface for it, wrote a simple pattern based sequencer software for it and started experimenting with more complicated sequencer based music than I had been able to do before. Initially I had just a Roland Juno 106, a Yamaha DX21 and a Roland TR909 drum machine. My plan was to use the same recording setup I had used for the previous album ‘Timelines’ – a Fostex 1/4″ 8-track tape recorder and mixer, but early on it became evident that I wasn’t getting the sound quality I wanted with this method as 8-tracks were very limiting and I needed to bounce down frequently to make space for more tracks.
At this point I changed strategy and decided to abandon the multi-track tape recorder in favor of using multiple instruments controlled by MIDI in real time recorded straight to a 2-track recorder. So I sold my Fostex gear and got a Tascam 1/2″ 2-track recorder, and increased my armour of synths with the Roland D50 synthesizer and the Roland MT-32 multi-timbre sound module. I used the Juno, the D50 and the DX21 for the main sounds with the MT-32 providing most of the sequencing and bass lines all run from Steinberg Pro-24 sequencer software on an Atari 1024 computer.
The result was a revelation for me, tape hiss was (almost) a thing of the past since everything was recorded “live” to the final stereo master tape. The setup did impose serious limitations on the arrangement of the music, as the non multi-timbral synths could only be used once at any time so for example if I wanted two D50 sounds at the same time I would have to choose to use one, and use the MT-32 to do a (fairly poor) imitation of the other one. I think also that the freedom to make the music as complex as I liked allowed more of my own musical character to show through than was possible on “Timelines”, which is a much more conventional sounding album. “Icesteps” followed on right after “Ri”, using pretty much the same setup.
“Icesteps” was very much inspired by the wonderful glassy sounds possible with the D50, sounds that sound quite cold and expansive unlike the traditional analogue sounds that are much warmer. I wanted to use this new sonic dimension to create a cold and bleak sounding album. You could say that “‘Icesteps” is a D50 inspired album, while “Ri”‘, although the D50 was used quite extensively throughout, was already composed before I got the D50 so wasn’t really conditioned by the sounds of the D50 in the same way.
Following “Icesteps”, I produced an album called “Ocean of Serenity”, which in addition to my previous setup featured an Ensoniq VFX synthesizer giving me a much greater sound palette to work with, and was pretty much a continuation of the previous albums in terms of style. This was my only album to be released on cd on the Surreal to Real label.
As you know, there’s has been quite a demand for first two albums to be released on cd. Why did that take so long?
After the release of “Ocean of Serenity” by Surreal to Real, they planned also to release “Ri” and “Icesteps”, and to that end I had made DAT copies of the original analogue master tapes and sent them to Surreal. Nothing happened for a long time and eventually Surreal to Real wound down their activities and stopped releasing new cds. Despite this, they continued to say that since they had already taken care of the pre-mastering process they still intended releasing them, but time passed and nothing happened.
In the end when I eventually setup my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) based studio, the one I have now, I decided to re-master the analogue tapes to digital myself, but to my dismay I found the analogue tapes to be unplayable. The oxide layer had become sticky and bound to the tape machine, making it grind to a halt and leaving huge amounts of the oxide deposited on the heads and rollers. I did a bit of research and found that this is a well known phenomenon called “Sticky Shed Syndrome” caused by the use of an unstable binder in the production of tapes made by certain manufacturers in the ’80s. Fortunately, there’s a remedy – to bake the tapes for several hours at 50°C, so I had to take the tapes to be baked in a special oven after which I was able to play them and transfer them to digital. Following that, it took a bit of work to repair some drop-outs where the tapes had been stripped of the oxide layer altogether and to do some general cleaning up and equalization of the sound. Overall the result is quite good, definitely an improvement over the cassette.
Recently you released a new album, which is 18 years after “Ocean of Serenity”. Why this long hiatus, did you produce no music in that period??
Well, sometimes life just gets in the way! After moving to Italy, I became a partner in a start-up company making industrial equipment and that took up all my time for the initial years and in the meantime I got married and started a family. But the thing that most of all got in the way of making music was that I made the big mistake of deciding to design and build my own house, which turned out to be a much bigger burden on both my finances and my time than I had imagined. I moved into the house in 2001, but it wasn’t yet completed at that time and I had no space to set up a studio. It was only in 2003 when it was finally complete that I was able to start re-building up the studio. Most of my old gear had fallen into disrepair, so I had to spend time fixing it before selling it on Ebay to buy new (used, but new to me) stuff.
When did you start working on “From Time to Time”, what’s the background story of the album, in what way is it different from your previous works?
As said, in the period 2003 – 2005 I built up the studio and started to use it to re-master all the existing analogue masters from “Timelines” to “Icesteps”, so I really started to work on “From Time to Time” at the end of 2005. Mostly just working on it at weekends it took nearly two years from start to finish.
The album was originally meant to be in two halves – the first half being the title track was planned to be around 30 minutes in length and made up of a number of shorter sections most of which are variations with some interludes of ambient and other material to provide contrast and hold them together. The second half was to be three shorter tracks to make up the rest of the album to 55 – 60 minutes length. In the end during the development of the main track, some sections grew in length because they just seemed to ask for more development, and despite cutting out a whole 8-minute section that didn’t seem to work, it ended up being over 42 minutes, some 12 minutes longer than planned.
Since it was destined for download I divided the long track into two 20 minute parts to make the files more manageable. I then had to cut out one of the three remaining tracks to prevent the overall running time being too long. The track I cut out is unfinished, but may appear on a future album. When I finished mixing it all, I was very satisfied with the result – something that is not true of any of my previous albums. Usually after listening to them in all their individual parts and their whole many hundreds of times over during the production, I am usually sick of the music by the time I have finished, but this time I can say that I still like it. I think it’s partly because I have learned a lot from re-mastering “Ri” and “Icesteps”. Listening to them both very carefully many years after their realization allowed me to hear them with fresh ears, and to identify many problems both musical and technical. Problems with structure, arrangement and balance of sounds and so on that I set out to avoid when doing “From Time to Time”. I also changed my workflow for this album, working to a scratch track recorded using a piano voice with which I perfected the structure and got all the variations in tempo and key changes just right before starting to record any of the actual instrumental parts.
This new album is only available as a download. Was nobody interested in releasing it as a pressed cd? What do you think of downloads anyway…
Actually I didn’t look for anyone to press it as a cd. I think that music buying habits are changing, and eventually physical media like cd will become obsolete. It’s happening first with pop music of course, where mp3 has largely replaced the FM radio for mobile listening, for example. Obviously, the main obstacle to mp3 replacing the cd is the sound quality -it’s a lossy compression so you never get the same quality as the original and for serious listeners that is unacceptable. For the musician too of course. Fortunately there are alternatives to mp3, and on the Musiczeit download site the music is available also in FLAC format, which allows the music to be restored to exactly the original quality without any loss, while still achieving a fairly good level of compression. Together with the fact that full artwork is provided, it seems to me that it being a download doesn’t offer any significant disadvantage to the buyer, and has the obvious advantage that it is easily accessible to an international public through internet, not requiring mail order from specialized catalogues and so on. I can say that making a comparison of sales of “Ocean of Serenity”, which was my only album to be released as a pressed cd so far, and the download version of all my albums including “Ocean of Serenity”, that there hasn’t been any obvious reduction in the sales volume due to them being available only as download.
A while back you moved from Scotland to Italy. How did that happen, is there any electronic music scene there as well?
The move was related to work; the company I worked for in Scotland was bought by an Italian company and they decided to close down the manufacturing facility in Scotland and move the engineering to Italy on a 2-year contract. At the time it seemed like a good idea, and at that time the economic situation in Scotland wasn’t too rosy so given the choice of moving to Italy or being laid off, moving to Italy seemed the better one. When the 2-years expired, the Italian company decided to close the engineering department down so a small group of us decided to start up a new company on our own to continue the business. In the meantime I had also met my wife, which was another good reason to stay.
I can’t say that there’s really any electronic music scene in Italy to speak of. Actually, I’m a bit skeptical of the Italian musical scene in general, as most of the music coming out now seems to be very derivative and based largely on what has already been done in the USA and UK in the past. It seems sad that a country with such a strong history of important musicians has lost its heritage of musical innovation; music isn’t even taught in schools any more. Having said that, local music scene of any kind is decreasing in importance as music becomes more and more globalized by its availability on the internet, which means even unsigned ‘local bands’ can be heard all over the world.
Glyn, How does your studio look like, what gear do you use?
My studio now looks pretty Spartan with respect to how it was a few years ago, as most of the functionality can be achieved in software reducing the need for a mountain of keyboards. It’s based around a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), which is basically a PC with a 24-bit audio interface running Cakewalk Sonar software. The DAW takes care of all the MIDI sequencing and audio recording directly to the hard disk of the PC as well as hosting virtual instruments and effects. I have one master keyboard – an M-Audio Keystation 88 Pro connected to the DAW for playing and recording MIDI, and a 19″ rack with various sound modules and effects.
The rack contains the following equipment: Roland MT-32 Multitimbre LA Synthesizer, Yamaha TX81Z FM Synthesizer, Kawai K4r Synthesizer, Roland MKS-50 Synthesizer, Roland D550 LA Synthesizer, ART Proverb 200 Multi-effects processor (x2), Alesis Midiverb reverb, and a home made midi patcher
Everything is connected through a patch panel to a Seck 122 MkII Mixer, and monitored through KRK Rokit 8 Nearfield speakers. As you can see on the photo’s, the hardware gear is mostly vintage stuff. For the more modern sounds, I use a lot of virtual instruments directly in the DAW. I use many different ones including freeware ones, but the most used are Wusik Wusikstation, U-He Zebra and NI Kore Player. Similarly I use a lot of virtual effects directly in the DAW itself.
Would you be interested in a collaborating with other musicians, any preferences or persons on your wish-list?
Back in 1990 together with Nick Rothwell, we formed a duo called Cassiel to perform at the UK Electronica festival in Sheffield. The set was made up of music that we had composed separately and put to together for the performance. Shortly after that collaboration, I moved to Italy so nothing more came of it, but I think it could have been interesting if we’d continued to work together. Nick had continued on his own, still using the Cassiel name, doing more experimental music for dance. Thinking about a possible collaboration now, I would like to work with someone who is doing music that is completely different from mine – maybe ambient or experimental, that could open up new horizons.
What are your thoughts about nowadays electronic music, were do you fit in?
If you say ‘electronic music’ nowadays, most people will associate the term with dance music, so the kind of electronic music that I’m doing has lost it’s identity somewhat over the years. In fact, when I’m asked “what kind of music do you do?” I don’t really know how to give a simple answer. Saying just “electronic music” will probably give a completely wrong impression, whereas in the ’80s it would have been the right answer. That’s not to say that’s there is anything wrong with these modern idioms, and I am also using some ideas from modern dance genres in my music. All the music forms that have lasted over time and evolved have done so because the ideas from the past have been integrated with new ideas from the present to make something that is new but that builds on what has already been tried and tested and proven to be successful. That’s what I am trying to do with the music I’m doing today – it’s based on the foundations such as progressive rock, and the sequencer based so called “Berlin School” electronic music, but trying also to bring on board fresh elements from Trance, Chill-out, Techno and so on, without letting any of these elements dominate. At the same time I’m trying to imprint my own ideas and style on the music. That’s my goal anyway, it’s up to the listener to decide how well it works!
You don’t have a personal website for your music, any reason for that?
I’d been meaning to setup a website for ages, but it’s a time consuming task if you want to do it well, and whenever I’ve got some spare time, which isn’t often, I usually want to use it for making music. Then quite recently, I read a comment somewhere, I don’t remember where, basically saying that nobody visits homepages anymore and if you don’t have a Myspace you aren’t anybody. Well it’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, but it was a good excuse and sounded like an easy way out, so I set up a Myspace page instead: http://www.myspace.com/glynlloydjones
Timelines (formerly called “Icons”) (Unreleased), Ri (1988), Icesteps (1989), Ocean of Serenity (1990), From Time to Time (2008)