A Portrait of Rock Musician Dave Mason
by Mard Naman
On the cover of a pre-MIDI album called Some Assembly Required, rock musician Dave Mason is staring into the camera with a look of confusion and despair on his face. Directly behind him is a huge tape deck with recording tape running amok all over the place.
On the back cover of Mason's brand new album, Two Hearts, he's standing with a look of contentment on his face. And he has good reason to be not only contented, but excited. Because between these albums, Mason has gone MIDI. His new album was recorded almost entirely using the Atari ST and the latest MIDI technology.
Mason has been in the music business a long time. In the sixties he made two best-selling albums with the English band Traffic. In the seventies he carved a niche for himself as a successful solo artist with the top pop album Alone Together. His new album is his first collection of new songs in almost eight years.
Like a lot of talented musicians, Dave Mason is very creative, but not necessarily a technological genius. So when he decided to go for computerized music-making and realized that some assembly would indeed be required, he got MIDI wizard Jimmy Hotz to set everything up for him. Jimmy Hotz is a record producer who has also become the "Johnny Appleseed of computer music." Many top musicians have gotten into MIDI because Hotz has made it accessible to them in a way it never was before. In other words, he makes MIDI totally user-friendly without sacrificing one drop of quality.
When Mason first heard MIDI, it was an Atari system that Hotz had set up for Leon Russell. Remembers Hotz, "The timing was the thing that impressed Dave the most. A lot of the other units sound pretty good, but the timing isn't 100% there. The timing is just so right with the Atari using the Hybrid Arts sequencing package."
For Dave Mason, as he did for B.B. King and others, Hotz got the Atari 1040 ST and the Hybrid Arts SMPTE Track sequencer package. He also got GenPatch for generic patching and a variety of synthesizers, sound samplers, drum machines and editors. "Don't ask me how this stuff is wired up," laughs Mason from his home in Chicago. "I haven't got a clue. But you don't have to know how or why it works, you just have to know how to work it."
For the last two years, that is exactly what Mason has learned how to do: work with MIDI. "In the beginning, it was difficult," he admits. "It drove me crazy. But it was well worth the time and effort. I mean, now I love it. It's wonderful."
Mason loves his MIDI system because "for a songwriter, it's perfect. It's invaluable. You've got everything here at your disposal. Every musical instrument known to man, and some that aren't! I can work out most of the songs I'm going to do in the studio right here at home. It's great to be able to write at home and get your ideas down instantly"
Mason has this advice for musicians who are just getting into MIDI: "I'd recommend to just jump right in and buy the Atari ST and the Hybrid Arts sequencer or something similar. You might as well start out with something that really does the job and learn how to use that. Otherwise, if you get something smaller, you'll just have to re-learn everything."
YESTERDAY'S STATE OF THE ART
Mason is not a total stranger to new electrical devices. "When I played with Traffic years ago, we used the Mellotron," he says. Mason says the Mellotron was like a primitive sound sampler, though it was "actual tape on loops inside a thing that looked like a Hammond organ. The sounds were nowhere near what we get today with MIDI, but that was state-of-the-art then."
For the new album, Mason wrote all the songs using MIDI and the album was recorded using the ST. The drums, bass, keyboards - all the instruments except for a few of Mason's guitar solos- were programmed with MIDI. Even some of the vocals were MIDI-made. "We'd sample choruses, then fly them back into the track," Mason noted. "You can get a great-sounding chorus and sample it down to 2 tracks without losing a thing. And you've got a great chorus every time it comes in. It's wonderful."
Mason thinks the drums sound great, too. "If you listen to my album, you wouldn't know the drums were programmed at all." Still, he thinks he has much to learn before he can get the exact live sound he wants. "I've just got to work with it some more. I'm still learning."
But Mason says other artists have already achieved a totally live feel using MIDI. "That Peter Gabriel album, So, is hot. I couldn't tell at all it wasn't live. It sounded to me like some drummer really kicking ass, but it's all programmed drums."
At the same time, Mason says that unless an artist really knows what to do, MIDI music can suffer from losing that live feel. "It's a little hard to program feeling into MIDI music. You've got to be sophisticated to really use it in depth. I mean, they've got this program called Humanization [built into SMPTE Track], where you can offset things, build little tempo increases, little imperfections. But I'm still learning. I haven't gotten to all the subtleties yet."
TOUCH TONE TANGO
One thing Mason hopes to get in the near future is a modem. "That old joke about phoning in your parts has come true," Mason says. "Pretty soon, we'll just be sending information down a phone line. Then the person at the other end just hooks a synthesizer up to it and plays." Since Mason lives in Chicago and his producer Jimmy Hotz is in Los Angeles, and they both have the same Atari and software, a modem makes a lot of sense. "Soon I'll just send my parts over the phone line and Jimmy can play the parts at his home in Thousand Oaks," Mason stated. "The possibility exists right now All I need is a modem, then I'm online!"
"That Peter Gabriel
album So is hot.
But it wasn't live-
it's all programmed
Hotz agrees that a modem will be a great way for him to work with musicians. "They have 12-track systems at home to get rough ideas down and have them as reference points. Then they'll send the sequence over the phone to me and I'll work on it and then send it back to them with something added saying, for example, 'Use this patch number with this Genpatch file."
MAKING MIDI HIS VERY OWN
In a creative sense, Mason took to MIDI right away. "The first thing I got him was a serious drum machine, the SP12,' says Hotz. "I was just setting the system up and put a drum pattern on it just to get the equipment working, basically. Dave liked the pattern so much he wrote a song with it instantly," says Hotz. That song became the title song on Two Hearts. As co-producers, they continued to work together throughout the album. "We would agree on different sounds together," says Hotz. "I programmed almost all the drums on the album before we did anything else. Then we'd have the various keyboard and bass parts put on. We'd get the heart of it first. Then we had Mike Lawler, a red-hot studio musician from Nashville, put his own touches on. Sometimes these would be embellishments, sometimes totally new things.
"But everything you hear on the album, except for a few of Dave's guitar solos and a percussionist on one song, is all sequenced stuff. It's all MIDI sampled," Hotz said.
Now that the album is out, Mason will be performing in concerts across the country And Jimmy Hotz will probably be tapped to set up a MIDI system for the concert performances. And he doesn't think it will be a simple task. "When you do a lot of sequencing on tour, you have to have back-up units and you have to have a staff of people," Mason stated. "I'll have a couple of people just handling the sequencing and changing sounds on the side of the stage. I'll probably have at least a half-dozen Atari STs. You have to have a GenPatch on line all the time. You have to have a couple of sequencers on line all the time, You have to have massive MIDI switchers. You have to always be uploading one computer with new sequencers while you're playing the song on another one. Then you'd have to have serious documentation. You have to have a computer doing the log and basic switching functions for you. It can get pretty hairy!"
For the tour, Mason plans to take a live drummer, but Hotz says he'd have "some of the heartbeat stuff, like certain kicks and snares, programmed into the system and then have the drummer driving MIDI as well. I'll always have all the drums driving other samplers, but I'm very careful to make sure the system I set up for a drummer absolutely implements a transition he's comfortable with. It's got to respond right: it's got to sound great. I've got techniques to make a drummer totally interface with MIDI and feel not only does he not lose control, but he gains more than he ever had."
Dave Masons' new album
was recorded almost
entirely using the
Atari ST and MIDI.
In other words, just as he did for Dave Mason and many other top musicians, Hotz makes the transition from non-MIDI to MIDI as smooth, painless and exciting as possible. Dave Mason has made that transition. "If you're a professional musician or songwriter, you've got to have MIDI," Mason concludes. "Otherwise, you're missing out on a great tool."
A profile of Jimmy Hotz appeared in the Graphics and Music issue of START (Februaiy, 1988).
Mard Naman is a freelance magazine and television writer.
GenPatch ST, $149; SMPTE Track,
$575. Hybrid Arts, Inc., 11920 West Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA
90064, (213) 826-3777.
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