Keith Emerson still reigns as king of the keyboard & Dr. Robert Moog is still king of synthesisers. Together theyve formed a superb partnership and here they talk with Ray Hammond in an exclusive interview about Keiths music and Bobs electronics.
I. M. Do you play keyboards every day of your life?
K.E. It varies. I have been playing every morning lately, before breakfast.
I. M. When do you usually play?
K.E. Well, when I was living in Sussex, I would play at all times of the night, and then the disaster happened (Emersons house burned down in April). Now Im back to living in London, in a pretty sort of residential area and it really brought me down, actually the first night I moved into the new place because I had a flash of inspiration at three oclock in the morning, and there was a phone call. It was the people next door, telling me to turn the radio down! They hung up, and the next morning there was another telephone call, and I just went bananas, got my car out of the garage, drove up and down the driveway, blowing my horn full blast just to annoy them. They havent bothered to complain. Whether or not I play mornings depends if I feel like it, sometimes I have to push myself.
I.M. When you go to the piano, what do you play? Is there something that you always seem to find when you first sit down?
K.E. I usually go over a few things which I think are good exercise, any piece of music. It neednt be something that I would be playing or wanting to play for a concert. There are pieces which I just choose for regular practice - it could be anything, you know ragtime or just anything.
I. M. Do you play much ragtime?
K.E. I like it.
I.M. Do you play it fast, or the way it was written?
K.E. I always play it both ways, really, the Scott Joplin way is meant to be pretty laid-back, but it really sounds good both ways. Scott Joplin reckoned that it ought to be played slowly.
I. M. I always thought it was funny that there was a revival of interest in ragtime when everyone discovered that it could be played slowly. How do you feel about that?
K.E. Well, about the same way I do when you get all the markings on classical music, and they dictate all these rules about which way it should be played. When I did the Brandenburg Concertos with The Nice ages ago, we had a small chamber orchestra in there, and we had to really push them to make them play at the tempo we wanted. At the end, they themselves got into a discussion, that perhaps this was the way Bach had really intended them to be played after all, at that particular tempo.
I.M. You obviously must have lost a lot of stuff with the house. What kind of piano do you have now?
K.E. I've got a small upright Steinway.
I.M. Does it matter to you what kind of piano you're playing - does it alter your manner of playing?
K.E. Well, if youre at an instrument, the sound that comes from it is going to influence you, but usually I like to get the majority of my ideas away from the keyboard, writing them down on manuscript paper. I found the result of working that way is a lot more valid. The basis of the idea, the construction of the whole piece of music is formed away from the keyboard. The first initial vibes do come from the instrument.
I.M. Are you trying to escape from the limits that are put down by actually sitting at a keyboard?
K.E. Yeah, if you play a keyboard instrument, you can fall into the trap of playing a figure which youve done before. That way its done too mechanically, your fingers are used to that sort of reaction, and therefore you do it that way. Thats why working away from the instrument is a lot more beneficial because then you are putting down exactly what is in your head.
I. M. How easy do you find it to get an accurate transcription of what youre hearing in your head on to the staves? Is it usually 100% reliable, or do you find that you then have to take it to the keyboard and check it?
K.E. I usually do check it afterwards, adding the harmonies, and the counterpoint is needed, that usually comes after. It takes a long process of time, I take a long time to convince myself that what Ive just done is right. I can mess about with an idea for a year, and possibly in the end think Yeah, I like it after all.
I.M. What youre saying in fact is that you are your own worst critic, that you toss things out when you possibly shouldnt?
K.E. Yeah, I could possibly work a lot quicker if I just worked all the way through it. I notice that way with all of us, when Greg writes, he thinks the same way about what he does, were becoming more critical in our old age!
I. M. To what extent do you rely on the opinions of others, not just the band, but on other people in general to judge what youve done? If you produce something youve written, and hold it up to someone and say what do you think of that, how shattering is it to you if they dont llke it?
K.E. Well, all musicians have this built in thing about what they do is like the end of everything and, of course, its shattering to their egos when they hear the other side of things. Sometimes, if you look at it, its true, other times its not. Because they bring in all kinds of outside external effects, which just dont mean anything. Theyre put off by the wrapping paper.
I.M. As a keyboard player, whats the weakest area in your playing?
K.E. Well, there are quite a few, Ill have to think about that. Possibly, being affected by the reaction of the audience, wanting to please them so much that you really push it and its like blowing your fuse in the end. I think really to be genuine you have to have a certain disregard for the audience and remain unaffected by them. You play, and they have a certain idolisation for whos up there, and there isnt a musician alive who can say he hasnt been affected by it. The whole thing is to maintain a control, to go on stage completely stone cold. I mean, we play to huge audiences, and you go up there and its just like being led up to the guillotine: everybody goes through it.
I. M. Do you get to the point where you hate it?
K.E. No, not really, but at the end of some gigs you come off thinking God, how did you get through at all? Its just keeping yourself together - thats half the difficulty, ignoring it, and being true to what you want to put out, without giving way to what they want to do. We do various atmospheric pieces on stage, and you can feel the vibrations from the audience. They feel edgy, especially if were doing a space sequence, an ethereal piece of music.
This usually makes the audience shuffle in their seats, and they get agitated, and someone might yell out Play Lucky Man or something like that, and ignoring this is something one has to try and achieve. But we have to have some reaction from the audience, its up to us to lead the audience into these different corridors that were going down, and therefore you have to be a little bit oblivious. It does seem a little bit selfish if the audience knows thats whats going on.
I.M. When did you start using a Moog Synthesiser?
K.E. I was using a Hammond organ; not perhaps as the people at Hammond would wish it to be used - producing different kinds of feedback and other things. I came up with quite a few uses for the organ which of the Hammond Organ Company didnt realise. We used to take the organ back to be repaired at the shop in London. Theyd been repairing my stuff for ages, but when the television thing came out, they said Oh no, were not touching your stuff any more. Now we see whats happened. You dont respect your instrument, so go someplace else and have it done. We had that sort of reaction.
I. M. How did you first hear about the Moog?
K.E. I popped into a record store and the guy behind the counter knew me and he said Have you heard this? And he put on the Walter Carlos album, Switched On Bach, and I thought What the hell is this? There was a picture of it on the cover, and I wasnt too impressed to be honest, it sounded a bit boggy, too heavy sounding, too laboured. Then I heard that Mike Vickers had one of the first modular systems over here, and I went over to see him and I was quite impressed. We were getting ready to do a concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. We were doing some Charles Ives, a bit of Strauss, stuff like that, and I said This is great, can I use it for the concert? And he said Yeah, but Ive never really taken this thing out on the road and I dont know how it would hold up. Ive gone down to studios to do sessions with some people and Ive wired it up before I got there, and it hasnt done the thing I wanted it to. All the things like electricity and lights, they vary a hell of a lot.
So I said Well, how can we work this? And he said Well, maybe I can hide behind the thing with some headphones on and while theyre playing, I can make the necessary adjustments and tune it and he was there giving me the thumbs up or the thumbs down, and I could play! And it was literally like that. When we got on the stage, Mike Vickers is hiding from the audience, right down, well hidden with this candle in his hand. That was the first time I even used it, and I thought Wow, thats incredible!
The Nice broke up just after that, and I got hold of Bob (Moog), indirectly through our office in London and I heard that Bob was developing a modular system with a pre-set box which could be used on the stage.
I was waiting for this to come and our office was organising it, and a big package arrived at customs. They brought it back to my house, and ripped open all these parcels, set it all up - and just looked at it in awe. All these leads and wires - it took about two hours to find where we put the plug in! There werent any instructions that went with it. We looked at it, and plugged things in here and there and we couldnt get a sound out of it at all. I called up Mike Vickers and he rigged up a patching arrangement.
I.M. To what extent did you understand the technique, generating noise from an oscillator? Were you still just finding out about the sound?
K.E. I didnt understand exactly where the noise started from, it was as simple as that. Mike Vickers worked on it and set up this patching arrangement, I used that for a bit. We worked with Feldon for a bit, and Dag (Dag Felnar of Feldon Audio) came around. We got it ready eventually, for rehearsals.
I.M. How did the band react to it?
K.E. Invariably, when I got the thing set up, it wouldnt work. When you really dont understand that much about it, I mean, it could be anything. It usually turned out to be something pretty stupid, like one switch up, and that can change the whole thing, switch the filtering or the envelope off.
I.M. In the end, how did you come to control this monstor which was unleashed on you?
K.E. Well, Ive had it for about four years now - and I know my way around it.
I.M. How long do you think it took you to really master it?
K.E. Possibly about two years, but even now you still come up with various odds and ends - which are a bit undescribable - you cant come up with reasons why it hasnt functioned. Sometimes its been down to humidity, hasnt it?
R.M. There were one or two instances where a circuit was shorted out because of excessive humidity.
I. M. Is that pretty rare?
K.E. Well, we usually found this if we went to a hall and the temperature went up. Everything could be fine when we went on stage and tuned up, but when we left it there and the audience came in, Id usually send the roadies out to do a spot check to give me a reading on the instruments. Theyd come back, Id be sitting in the dressing room, biting my finger nails and theyd say Its still at four-four, its doing this.
I. M. What was it they were checking?
K.E. Usually the frequency, and the line voltage. It got really silly because the rest of the audience would come in and theyd start sweating and the humidity would go up, and just when you came out, youd get the most bizarre things happening. Wed find the reasons for it afterwards. The pitch would drop off, and I had charts of the whole system, every switch, every knob - even if it wasnt used, Id mark it. Even after checking that, youd find that there were things you couldnt explain. When the temperature dropped off, it worked alright.
I. M. Bob, why were the early models more sensitive to this sort of thing than an organ or a solid-state amplifier?
R.M. They wired up the circuit boards inside the modules, they were the circuit boards and the actual switching mechanisms of the keyboard and the rhythm control. The rhythm control, for example, triggers when you place your finger across a gap between two metal plates, and your finger then closes a circuit. It was possible for sweat or moisture from the air to do the same thing. That was one problem Keith experienced, once in Tokyo and once again in Pennsylvania, where it was just very wet outside and moisture was always condensing.
What Keith was describing earlier, when you let go of the key, the pitch will fly down, could simply be a case of moisture collecting on the key contacts. The circumstances under which the band work were incredibly difficult for any piece of electronic equipment, but especially so for the kind of circuitry that our keyboards and rhythm controller, both of these have a memory. When you let go of the key, its supposed to remember what the voltage was and hold it so that the note drops off without pitch drop.
That works by charging a capacitor up at the voltage of a given key when you hit that key, and the capacitor is supposed to retain that voltage. With the least bit of moisture, the charge will be leaked off the capacitor and the voltage will drop. In the ordinary conditions of a studio, or even in a closed concert hall, you would never notice. But under conditions where you are literally playing in a fog, with water all around, you get difficulties with leakage in the current.
I. M. What did you do to improve the system?
R.M. Well, we attacked each problem individually. For instance, on the rhythm controller, Keith now has a switch where he can completely disable that triggering strip and use a button instead, because theres simply no way of keeping moisture off a triggering strip if the group is playing when its raining.
I.M. Does that make a difference in the sound?
R.M. No, its a mechanical means to produce the same effect. Theres no advantage, you could make do with the button on its own.
I. M. What about the general moisture problem that you have? At any gig, things will tend to be very sweaty, when its going well and youre working hard. Have you improved the whole of the Moog line as far as moisture penetration goes?
R.M. The rest of the modular equipment is not that sensitive to moisture. The keyboard is because of all the contacts and all the possibilities for leakage - thats a sensitive area and the rhythms a sensitive area. Both of these are generally active - theyre controlling the pitch or the sound. If there is leakage in one, what you hear is a drift in the pitch. The tone source can be stable, but if the controlling device itself drifts, the pitch will drift.
K.E. Before we even approached Bob with the problem I was getting - Bob mentioned the Tokyo incident - this thing was so frequent, but I hadnt found a reason for it. We were playing in Tokyo, and earlier on in the afternoon, I thought, Well, I know that a rise in the temperature or humidity alters the function of the instrument. So I got the roadies to set this huge modular system up, and I went out there and it was all working well. All of a sudden it started to rain - in fact, there was a typhoon on its way - so we literally put polythene covers on it and ran across the baseball stadium with it and found a little shelter.
I still wanted to see how long it would last under the wet conditions. So we sat under this shelter and wired it up and I sat there with these headphones. It was so damp it was like a sauna bath. I got the headphones on and it was doing really silly things. I thought Oh, no - not again! We packed it all up and I took it into the dressing room. We tried to get through to Bobs office and we finally realised that it was early in the morning in New York, no way could we get hold of him. We kept the fans in the dressing room going on it. We had this big entry laid on: the idea was that we had three limousines, one each with Emerson, Lake and Palmer on them. Im in the dressing room, still not ready to go on. Everyones saying Come on, lets get going, get in the limo and Im saying Leave me alone, Ive got to get my instrument going, I dont care about your fancy entrance schemes...Stick anybody else you want in the limousine, theyll think its me. I want to stay here and get my gear packed up.
So out go the limousines, across the stadium, spotlights on them, a great roar goes up - and Im still in the dressing room working feverishly to pack it all up, because I think Ive got it working, Im nursing it and we loaded it into this great truck, which is backed into these stairs, and I creep into the truck with the synthesiser and they close the doors. According to the crowd, were already on stage. The truck starts heading out toward the stage, across the stadium. As it draws away, the back doors fall open, the spotlight falls on me and they suddenly see me and this big cheer goes up! So I improved on the entrance really. The instrument worked when I got it set up, there was no decay or release, so I just cut off the bypass into the mixer.
I.M. How did you get Greg and Carl to respond to your problems? They had no way of knowing instantly what the problems were, how did they manage to relate to it?
K.E. When a bands been working together for a long time, you get this ESP thing going. If I crawl through a number, I sort of relate that to a roadie and he goes around to tell Greg to skip the next number, if I cant do it. Or else I do it on another instrument, and he susses right away.
You have to be able to improvise very quickly.
It was more of a headache in the early days, mainly because we didnt really understand what was going on. Now, I think weve faced about every problem possible. The early organs had the same problems, and eventually Hammond got so confident that they said You can take this organ in the jungles - I think that was their sales slogan in the end. Theyve obviously been through the whole thing.
I.M. How has the Moog Synthesiser affected your writing?
K.E. It has opened up a lot of doors, It works in funny ways. Youve got an awful lot of facilities at your command, numbers have been created by playing the synthesiser alone.
We just finished a rehearsal and everyone was packing things away and I was fiddling around with it - I set up a certain sound and everyone sort of said What are you doing? And I said I dont know man, but whatever it is, lets get set up again and get into it.
The whole art of it is that you can discover things by accident. On things like the miniMoog, you can discover things quite by accident - a novice can. But its really up to the guy who uses it - how he uses it is his own choice.
I.M. Are you in such command of the instrument that you can find something instantly?
K.E. Yeah well, I usually mark it all down and keep a chart for every setting, and a patchwork of the modular system. The variations are endless. I dont need to do that so much because I know a lot more about the instrument now.
I. M. (To Robert Moog) What effect, if any, has your communication with Keith had upon your building and design development?
R.M. In general, everything weve ever done has been in collaboration with musicians. Its not something you can do out of a formula book or in an ivory tower, theres constant experimentation. Keith was the first guy who really, in a professional and business-like way, took a large modular system on stage and made it work. That synthesiser of his is one of four instruments that we made that were the first pre-set instruments ever. We had no idea what the problems would be on stage, and what would be more convenient than the first arrangement we had. Over the years, Keith has come to us with complaints about what is convenient and whats inconvenient, and some of these things are ridiculously simple. In retrospect its hard to understand how we overlooked them, getting into the pre-set-up without skinning your knuckles was something we overlooked. We had to devise ways of positioning the guard so that Keith could set the pre-sets up.
The range of pitch which you would want to pre-set and the accuracy with which you would want to pre-set it is something that we didnt know precisely.
Keith went out and developed his own technique for tuning the instrument up with one hand while playing the organ with the other, that was the damnedest thing Id ever seen, and only at the highest level of professionalism could someone do that, to have the discipline to do it effectively in front of 10,000 people.
I. M. How difficult was it in those days to tune the instrument? Was it fucking difficult?
R.M. That would be a good way of putting it. In addition to having an early pre-set box, Keith had our early oscillators too, which, although they were tunable, had to be retuned every time the temperature changed. Once again, in the studio, that was not a problem - especially in an air conditioned studio. But my God, when youre working outside, after dark when the temperature goes down by 20 degrees...
K.E. You could draw a graph, plotting temperature against frequency.
R.M. Right. That very practical, prosaic thing of building an instrument that would stay in tune when the sun went in and out, was something that never occurred to us when we were working in a laboratory.
I dont want to take away any of the magic of the technology, but really the things that Keith brought to us out of his experience were very prosaic things. Youd be surprised how easy it is to miss these things when youre working in a laboratory.
As far as musical things go, weve constantly added to Keiths system. When we began, it was one cabinet with a preset box on it and now its three cabinets. Every time we added something, it was Keiths suggestions, and after we added it, one of us from the company would work with Keith to get some patches that would do different things. Some of the really big associations that people have with synthesisers today are things that Keith pulled out of that modular set-up.
From Lucky Man on up, that fantastic, gliding, driving, melody line, the way he used the sequencer or the C, F, G, that triad played on the keyboard. I think Keith was the first one to show what we totally believed was there, and that was the ability to get new tone colours out of things other than just octaves.
I. M. Keith, to what extent has it taken you outside the normal chromatic scale?
K.E. As a musician, you have a totally new and different way of thinking about music. You can programme it to produce all sorts of scales.
I. M. Have you worked with any deliberate intention of breaking into new scales?
K.E. No, not deliberately.
I. M. What Im getting at is the extent to which this has forced you to revalue your own musical training.
K.E. I dont understand your question.
I. M. Has it made you feel that your basic training is now of less value to you than it was? Has the synthesiser forced you to break any of the rules you were taught?
K.E. Yes, Im sure it has. Im not really sure how to express it in words. If youre orchestrating a piece of music, like this whole trip for musicians, Im not that adept at total orchestration and so I work at it.
To your ear it works, but written down...
Ive discussed this with classical musicians as well, whove seen my stuff written down on paper and theyve said It cant really work, and Ive said But it does work, you can hear it, it does work.
I. M. What is it about the synthesiser that makes it work?
K.E. Well, there we get into the mathematics involved in music. To put it simply...I started learning the piano and my piano teacher said to me You cant play a C and a C sharp together, its a dischord. But it depends, a C and a C sharp can sound good, but under what conditions? She was looking at it on the mathematical level: its wrong, so you cant do it. Theres a fine degree here between the instrument and the player...a lot of people are worried about instruments taking over, you know, computerised instruments, which is probably where your question is leading to, it can work out. People have already started designing equipment which can write and compose. Its really a matter of who is leading who...all I can say is that I know what sounds right and I got after it.
R.M. The synthesiser doesnt force anything. Its a tool, an instrument which you play. One big difference between it and most other acoustic instruments is that while most other acoustic instruments have a fixed way of working, a fixed set of sounds, a fixed set of pitches and theyre optimised generally for 12 tones to the octave, the synthesiser doesnt have that limitation. Its possible to change scales to construct tone chords that just dont exist in most acoustic instruments.
This becomes useful to a musician only after he has absorbed the nature of the synthesiser into his technique so that it becomes part of his nature. He can stop thinking about what hes doing on a mathematical or professional level and just explore; the same way that a guitar player will pull strings without it being mathematically precise... the way a sculpture [sic] will push clay around... its intuitive. It only happens after the musician has control over his instrument and what that means is they feel whats happening, without thinking about it, without going by the rules.
I. M. Do you feel synthesiser music as much as piano music?
K.E. Oh absolutely. Once you really know your way around the instrument, things are very easily accessible. When you write things down on manuscript paper, they might not look right, but working them out on the synthesiser broadens your musical mind to various tonal blendings, wave shapes. Its helped me understand a lot more about orchestration in its traditional sense - scoring the clarinet, for instance.
Its all created electronically and its all there at your disposal. If you are concerned about orchestration, you can stop thinking about a clarinet as a clarinet, you dont think about its shape, only about its wave shape; the way it shows on the instrument. You can experiment with various blendings of wave shapes and produce a total blending of sounds.
I.M. Do you think in wave shapes?
K.E. I didnt used to but I do now. Its taken me time to work up to that.
I.M. Can you tell now which shapes will work with which shape?
K.E. They can all work, theyre all possible. It depends on what youre working on at that particular time. If youre using it at the lower end, for bass, a lot of things can throw the bass that much farther into the audience, just the wave shape makes a difference. Its not until you experiment with it that you realise that this particular bass sound travels that much a farther, but then its down to dynamics.
R.M. It balances among all the overtones. Weve created a bass sound with tremendous punch; exaggerated or shaped to just about anything you want. <>
I.M. (to K.E.) Is there anything that you now want extra on your Moog, any extra facilities, anything new? Or havent you finished exploring the possibilities of what you have?
K.E. Well, one can go on exploring, but what weve been working on is making the modules I have a lot more controllable by pre-setting. I feel that my job with the synthesiser is obviously O.K. in the studio. They do wonders with it in recording studios. Im very concerned with taking it on the road and playing it in a performance. I want to get as much as possible out of it. My large modular system has everything going for it. But with as much gymnastics as Ive been performing with it; swopping leads over, etc, it makes it a risky business on stage. While youre playing you have to tune up, its hair-raising but I bring it on myself. Ive been to Buffalo and I always approach Bob with all my problems and he finds a way around them. Hes redesigned my pre-set box, which will give me more possibilities, with basically the same system Ive had. The modules are the same, but more of them are arranged on presets.
I just want to show the people all the possibilities that one can get out of this, under spontaneous conditions. Given the time, working in a studio you can go through the whole range of ideas. When you work in a studio you can put endless overdubs on it. The one thing that stops me doing it is whether I can do it on stage or not. Whatever I put on record, whether it requires an overdub or not, I still have to be able to reproduce it on stage even if I do it in a different way.
I.M. Have you ever used tapes on stage?
K.E. Yes, but it kind of restricted Carl, because he was the one who had to play to the true rhythm so that he could keep along with the tape. Occasionally the tape would fuck up or he couldnt hear it through the headphones and of course the band would be playing merrily along to Carl, whos listening to the master thing, and if he didnt hear anything hed probably stop playing. So for us it was a bit chaotic.
I.M. Did you ever get it on stage?
K.E. It worked out a few times but generally it was a bit too risky.
I. M. Do you feel that the synthesiser is going to take you away from more conventional keyboards?
K.E. No, not for me, because I always go back to the instrument which I learned on. Im still a bit conservative in my way of thinking. The synthesiser broadens your mind, but you can relate to it, you can still lay it the same way as a piano. Of course you have to know how to set it up.
I.M. (to R.M.) What about polyphonic? Do you think this will cause a great new revival?
R.M. Synthesisers up until now have been monophonic instruments. Sure, some things are called polyphonic but theyre not really. I think the monophonic synthesisers that weve had up until now have really changed the way that musicians think about solo artists. Theyve really opened musicians ears up. I think we can expect the same sort of thing to happen with respect to chord playing and polyphonic playing when the polyphonic synthesiser comes out. Polyphonic instruments and monophonic instruments are two different things, making a melody or a single texture. Its different from playing chords, from playing two hands. The polyphonic synthesiser that we will be coming out with later this year will actually have a separate little synthesiser on each keyboard. Thats only a technical description of what it has. Musically it will produce a range of tone chords that begin with organ-like, piano-like, and string section-like voices and using synthesiser techniques will stretch and expand those areas of sound into things that none of us have heard yet. The reason that none of us have heard these sounds is that it takes a musician to listen to what the capabilities are and shake them into music. Until you do that you dont know whether you have a musical instrument or not. So what were looking forward to is the discovery of the new capabilities of this polyphonic instrument by musicians and especially by Keith. As far as were concerned thats where the real creativity is going to come.
I. M. So has Keith got to start working all over - again?
R.M. He wont have to throw out what hes learned, this will be in addition.
K.E. The prototype which I took on the road, was the very first one, held together by chewing gum and elastic bands. We were very dependent on that, and because it was a prototype on occasion it wasnt functioning, so wed have to drop that number because nothing else would substitute. If wed done it originally on a conventional instrument like a piano, the number would have had a different direction. It would have gone a different way. It would turn out in a similar way but not that way. We used the polyphonic on Benny the Bouncer. It could have been done on a conventional keyboard instrument but it would have gone a different way. It was right for that instrument and it was right every time we played it. Im trying to create the same sort of effect as a conventional instrument through other means. On this new polyphonic youve got two oscillators. Ive tried to produce thirds effect of an acoustic piano. You know how you get what I call a honky tonk effect, you know, between strings. Well, Im working on doing this with a conventional piano. When the polyphonic comes along it will be able to do this, plus a hell of a lot of other things.