You could be forgiven for thinking that the D-70 was simply the best true synthesizer on the market. Well it is but that would be to ignore its potential as a controller. Prefab Sprout run their whole keyboard rig from one D-70.
The man in charge of Prefab Sprouts keyboard setup is Jess Bailey. An intelligent, softly-spoken guy, he not only has a great love for music but also for the technology which helps make it. He attended the Royal Academy of Music, left when he was 15 and returned there after University to teach. Newslink caught up with him during rehearsals for the tour to find out about his keyboard rig.
“I’m using two master keyboards — a D-70 and a KX88. I also have a DX7 Mark II and an Oberheim Matrix 6. In the racks are a Roland D-550, MKS-70, MKS-80, a Kurzweil PX1000. Korg M3-R and an Akai S1000. I‘m also using a couple of effects an SPX90 and a Yamaha D1500 digital delay unit.
“The MIDI brain of the system is the Function Junction which is a 16×16 MIDI matrix which can map the whole system. Every song has program changes and the Junction takes care of zoning, filtering, transposition and so on.
“I actually change patches from the D70 because the MIDI spec on the KX88 isn’t really that great. I had a look at the A80 — the MIDI spec is marvellous but the feel of the KX88 keyboard just suited my way of playing. It’s a personal thing.
”But the D-70 has become my control system for the whole setup. One button push and the system is ready for the next song. Prefab Sprout were rehearsing about 30 songs but it wouldn’t be until near the end of rehearsals that they formulated a running order.
“With most systems you have to put everything into a logical order in order to play the set otherwise you‘d be jumping about from bank to bank One of the great things about the D70 is the User Sets. You can arrange them so that visually and psychologically you see them next to each other. This means I don t have to reroute things or transfer one program to another within the D-70 and I don’t have to do it in the Function Junction so whatever I have on the front panel of the D-70, that’s the set. It’s brilliant. It saves hours of work.
“That’s the basic system. I’m also using the Roland M-24E Mixer which accepts the stereo outs from all the synths plus separate outs from the S1000. The sound engineer will just have to take the stereo out from the mixer. if he needs anything separately he can take it from the inserts on the back. I send to my monitors from the Cue outputs which means I can adjust my levels without affecting the main output.”
The whole setup was in the process of being racked-up by Jess’ keyboard technician. All the keyboards were being provided with looms from the back of the racks carrying MIDI, audio and mains leads. One mains plug powers up the whole system. By mounting the M-24 on top of the rack, all that has to be done each night is to connect the four looms to the keyboards.
“I’m also using Ultimate Support stands. The whole thing will look very neat and hi tech and not like the inside of a building site.”
How did Jess get involved with Sprout?
“I’ve known the drummer. Neil (Conti), for a long time – he joined Sprout in 1984. For the last two years I’ve been closeted away with sequencers and computers, writing music; I haven’t actually been out playing live. About a year ago Neil said they were going on tour and asked if I Would be interested. I said ‘yes’. ”
Most people will know the song When Love Breaks Down but how would Jess describe Prefab Sprout’s music?
“Neil has a phrase for it. If it has to be categorised, he says it’s a cross between Steely Dan and The Beatles.”
He went on to describe the band’s line-up and other equipment being used on the tour. “Paddy (McAloon) is the genius behind the band. He’s one of a rare breed— a songwriter who’s also a poet. Not only are his songs beautiful, but the lyrics are really stunning. He plays guitar, his brother Martin plays bass and Wendy Smith does vocals. Neil is on drums, of course, and also uses an R-8.”
For the tour another guitarist, Paul Harvey, was drafted in. He uses a Roland JC-120 amp.
“He has one of the old RE-501 Space Echoes which still sounds great after all these years. We also have percussionist Karlos Edwards and both Karlos and Paul do some backing vocals.
“For me this is a great gig. It’s a real marriage of music and technology with neither one suffering. It’s certainly the most musical gig I’ve ever done. The equipment is being used to the maximum. On some songs there may be eight or nine different sounds mapped out across different keyboards. I’m the only keyboard player and we’re doing the whole thing without sequencers or backing tapes.”
It‘s becoming quite fashionable now to do ‘live’ gigs and Jess seemed to have made life unnecessarily difficult for himself in that he chose not to use a sequencer.
“The original intention was to sequence everything using C-Lab’s Notator which is the system I use at home. However, because Ataris don’t really like travelling, we decided that once everything was arranged we’d transfer it to the Roland MC-500. I did this the last time I was out on the road (with Alison Moyet in 1986) although then I did the sequencing with the UMI sequencer running on the BBC computer. I actually took the BBC out on the first leg of the tour but then we transferred it to the MC-500 which was great ’cause it’s a solid state dedicated unit and very reliable.”
Why then the decision not to use a sequencer on this tour?
“I’ve been in situations when we‘ve been playing to a sequencer and the band suddenly turns around and you’re a beat or half a beat out. The sequencer doesn’t want to know so you have to switch it off and either try to punch it back in or play the rest of the song without it. If there are core parts in the sequencer you’re in real trouble. Nine times out of 10 it’s not the sequencer that goes wrong, it’s the musicians. For the tour we decided if it’s possible to play it, we’ll play it.
“Obviously we try to get close to the sound of the records but with Paddy’s music you can convey the atmosphere of the songs even if you don’t have the exact sound because they are so memorable. My own feeling is that we are capturing the essence.”
The tour kicked off with three weeks in the UK, and after a couple of weeks break there followed three and a half weeks in Europe. At the time of writing the band was still waiting to hear about American dates after Christmas.
Jess also has an association with Roland through the Royal Academy.
“Yes. I teach there on the Musical Instrument Technology Course and Roland is supplying the Academy with some equipment. I’m taking a day off rehearsals to visit Roland along with another two heads of department to finalise equipment details. We’re looking at things like the D-70, S-770 Sampler and MC-50 Micro-Composer.
“The idea is to have people working in little workstations. I know Workstations have become a bit of a buzzword recently but I opted for the D-70 rather than something like the W-30 because I think the D-70 and sequencer give you more flexibility.”
We were joined by Neil who described the role of the R-8 in his setup.
“Live, I use it for checking tempos and as a click for songs which benefit from being rock steady. Also for its sounds which I use on certain songs. It’s great because you can alter the sounds in it.
“I will also be using the M-16E rack-mount mixer. Having my own mixer is much easier than trying to get the monitor man‘s attention and trying to tell him what you want more or less of, especially when you‘re drumming. I can just about fit everything into 16 channels. And it’s great because it’s a rack. Before. I had this ridiculous desk and l was trying to play with one hand and adjust the faders with the other.“
What about his kit?
“I use a Yamaha kit and Zildjian cymbals. I don’t use any electronic drums, but I do play along with programmed patterns from the R-8. In fact our set opens with a song which uses its percussion sounds — the first thing anyone will hear on the Prefab tour will be the sound of the R-8.”
Finally, how about a plug for the band’s latest album?
“It‘s called Jordan The Comeback. If you missed us during the UK tour in October you should rush out and buy it.”
True enough. And if you caught the live show you’ve presumably already got the matching CD. Now get the matching controller keyboard.