An Interview with Composer Dan Alvarez

An Interview with Composer Dan Alvarez

Dan Alvarez is an Emmy award-winning composer and producer based in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. He was taught music technology by Malcolm Cecil (producer of TONTO's Expanding Head Band, Stevie Wonder, The Isley Brothers, Gil Scott-Heron) and then went on to work with Denny Jaeger (one of the designers of the Synclavier II, as well as a sound designer for Michael Jackson's Thriller album), guitarist Jason Becker, synth pioneer Pat Gleeson (with Herbie Hancock), and Gary Malkin (Unsolved Mysteries theme and score).

Nick: What was your first experience with music?

Dan: When I was very young my mother noticed that I was plunking out by ear some of the piano pieces she was learning. One of our neighbors was a piano teacher, so my mother sent me to take piano lessons with her when I was about 6 years old. I also started violin at about 9, although by the time I turned 13, violin was just not “cool" anymore so I kind of left that behind, but continued on with Piano. I can also recall writing a few short little classical piano and violin pieces by the time I was about 9. Nothing really long or complicated but nonetheless I was trying.

Nick: At what point did you get interested in the electronic side of things?

Dan: I was about 10. I took an electronic music class in summer school. It was based around a small modular synthesizer—I don’t remember the brand. Playing with that thing radically changed my thinking; there was just something mysterious and visceral about all the buttons and knobs and wires, and the sounds I could make with them, that I found enormously compelling. After the class was over I ended up studying electronic music privately with the same guy that had taught at the summer school. He had a fairly large Buchla 200 modular system in his studio, as well as a bunch of 2-track tape recorders that we would use for tape echo. I just remember feeling awed by that wall full of wires and panels, and the sounds coming out of the speakers.

Electronic music in those days was defined a little differently than it is now. These days it has a much broader definition because there are so many genres of music that make use of electronics and synthesizers—let alone computers. I mean really almost everything is electronic now in a way, if it was recorded on a computer. That term has almost lost its original meaning. When I was first introduced to synthesizers, people were just starting to think about hooking up microprocessors to them. These days “Electronic Music" often has a kind of EDM connotation, but that term generally meant something more esoteric at that time. "Electronic Music" was a term associated with people like Tomita, Wendy Carlos, Jarre, Tangerine Dream, Stockhausen, Subotnik, and so on.

Nick: Did you find it easy to understand it all?

Dan: At that time, as a 10 year old, I was a bit overwhelmed by this huge beast and not really equipped to comprehend the Buchla, even though I loved the sounds, and can still remember the special kind of resonance it had on the filter sweeps. I didn't really understand what was going on in these lessons exactly but I knew I was having fun. I was definitely bitten by the bug and loved the sounds I could make, and I wanted to learn more. But the technology was expensive, and I came from modest means. Synthesizers were not exactly in every home at the time. And recording technology was mostly only available in recording studios, so even home recording was unusual. There weren't a lot of people with personal multitrack tape machines at that point. So, without access to a proper multitrack studio, even if one had access to a synthesizer, one just made the sounds one made, and recorded them without benefit of overdubs or layering, and that was your piece.

I continued to focus on the piano for a while, but by a stroke of good luck, it also so happened that the neighbor that had recently moved next door to my family was a professional musician. He had bought an Oberheim Two Voice synth. He was very kind and generous to me, letting me play around with it frequently—and that was really what taught me about basic signal flow in the synth arena. I remember one day it just finally "clicked" and I had that a-ha moment when I finally got the whole VCO-VCF-VCA thing. Before that I was just twisting knobs without understanding how I was getting the sounds I was. The Oberheim was a simpler machine than the Buchla and easier for a kid to understand. The next summer when I was about 12 I finally bugged my parents into buying me a PAiA modular synthesizer kit—it was the least expensive synth I could find. I think it was $150 or something, but it had to be built. I spent the whole summer with a soldering iron building that thing. I think I barely even went outside that summer. I played around with it endlessly. I had no access to do any multi-tracking, but I would do very crude live ping-pong bouncing with two cassette machines, literally just speaker to microphone, to try to build layers of sounds that way. I had endless fun with it, but eventually I sold the PAiA when I was maybe 15 years old, because it wasn’t practical for band use and it wasn’t very portable. So I traded that up and bought an Octave-Plateau CAT synth, which I used in some rock bands that I formed in high school. I was still taking classical piano lessons the whole time, so I was really doing all these things in parallel: keyboards and synths and rock bands in middle and high school, and classical piano lessons as well.

Nick: When did you first get experience with multitracking?

Dan: Aside from my initial primitive cassette sound-on-sound methods, I first had access to real overdubbing (via a 4 track Tascam machine) while attending a summer music camp while I was in high school. The camp had brought in the venerable Malcolm Cecil to teach the electronic music classes. He turned up with an airstream trailer full of gear to teach a small group of us. Malcolm was an institution in LA, working on projects like Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life”, and with many other artists. He had created really the first polyphonic Moog Modular system in the world, and had invented all kinds of pioneering synth and studio technology. He came up to the camp with a pair of ARP 2600s, a Polymoog, a bunch of effects, an early digital sequencer prototype, and so on. I was like a kid in a candy store and I spent a couple of weeks learning from Malcolm—and it was a fantastic experience.

Nick: What instruments did you have in High School? Just the CAT?

Dan: Throughout high school I kept trying to trade up keyboards as best as I could afford. I eventually got the CAT, a Fender Rhodes (which I think I bought with paper-route money), and some kind of awful electronic piano. I used those things in my rock bands, but I had the piano of course.

Nick: So you were still taking piano lessons?

Dan: Yeah, I kept the piano lessons up more-or-less all the way through college as well. And I was writing music too, but prior to college I was probably doing less composing per se than trying to emulate and learn existing music. It’s a stage most musicians go through, I think.

Nick: Who were some of your influences?

Dan: I grew up listening to a mixture of classical music, pop, and rock. And as a kid, like most kids, I listened to all the pop music of the day. But with the classical piano lessons (and my Dad being a listener almost exclusively of classical music), that kind of formed the foundation. So I got exposed to and learned all the standard stuff—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, etc.. But as far as electronic music goes, it was probably hearing Wendy Carlos’s Switched on Bach as a kid. It really blew me away. I think that may have primed my interest in synthesizers slightly before I even knew what they were. I recently had the opportunity to do my own arrangement of Cantata #29, which opened that record—something I’ve always wanted to do since childhood. The synth arrangement was heavily inspired by the original, although this version was a hybrid collaboration featuring a guitarist [PJ D’atri].

In High School I got heavily into prog rock and what is now called “classic” rock, especially when it featured keyboards, e.g., Led Zeppelin, Yes, Genesis, Kansas, and of course Keith Emerson. Keith had made the synthesizer into a rock icon, so that had a huge influence on me. Its funny, I actually got to meet him purely by chance in a cafe in Santa Monica, not long before he passed away. I will always be glad I introduced myself and was able to tell him what his music meant to me as a kid coming of age.

Later, once I began to explore the tv and film scoring, I began to develop an appreciation for all of the great film composers like John Williams, Bernard Hermann, Ennio Morricone, Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, Vangelis, and so many others.

These days in my work as a composer or producer, I’m constantly asked to deal with many different styles of music, so I try to learn from everything I hear.

Nick: Did you make any recordings at the Malcolm Cecil camp or when you had the Octave CAT and Rhodes in high school?

Dan: Yes, I did do recordings at the music camp. In some ways I could say it was there that I created the first substantive realization of an electronic composition I wanted to do, because of the overdubbing capability. But all of my tapes, sheet music, and some gear were lost after my studio burned down in the infamous Oakland-Berkeley firestorm of 1991. I think some 3,500 homes burned [more on this later].

Nick: That is terrible! So what came after high school? What did you study in college?

Dan: When it came time to go off to college I thought I would study electrical engineering and try to steer my career toward audio electronics, but I quickly found that I hated the school I went to, was burned-out from the course load, and really wasn't happy being away from music, so it only lasted a semester, and then I left.

After another year off, I decided to go back to college to get a degree in music, with a focus on piano performance. But, during my hiatus from school, I had found a little 8-track studio that was owned by a friend of a friend. The owner was also very kind and let me mess around in there when he wasn't using it. He became impressed by how quickly I learned the equipment - so I became a regular engineer there, engineering recording sessions, and contributing to arrangements and keyboard work to many of the studio clients' projects. Working in that studio became my day job, so to speak, and got me through my first year or two in college. I was able to learn a lot on the job, so it was a great situation for me. The studio was based around one of those Tascam 8-track machines with the dbx companding-type noise reduction. The sound quality wasn’t spectacular, but it opened so many avenues for creativity—again because of the more extensive multitrack capabilities.

Nick: How did your equipment change during your college years?

Dan: I kept acquiring and trading synths. I sold the Rhodes so I could buy a Yamaha DX9, which I figured would replace it because of the DX Rhodes patch that was so popular at the time. These days of course, everybody wants the old Rhodes and Wurlitzer sounds, and you don't hear the DX Rhodes as very much. But maybe in a few years that will become "vintage" as well. The DX9 I sold in the mid 80's at some point, and I upgraded it to a Yamaha DX7. The Octave CAT had served me well for a few years, but was eventually upgraded to a Sequential Pro One, I think because I could sync trigger it externally, and it had a small built-in sequencer, which proved to be invaluable. The Pro One was more versatile, although the Octave CAT, in some ways, had arguably more personality (and it was duophonic). I still miss it sometimes. I often ran it through a guitar amp, and it was great for doing "crunch guitar" power chord - type parts in a rock context. Anyway I got the Pro One probably around 1985 or so. For drums I was using an Yamaha RX-11 drum machine. I was leveraging and trading up every couple of years.

Sometime in the late '80s I bought the Oberheim Xpander, and a Roland D-50. Both wonderful machines. Armed with those two and the DX7 and RX-11, I got signed to produce electronic dance music for a record company making these mid-80's Euro disco tracks. While I frankly would just as soon forget about most of those records, it was work—so I was doing that and writing classical music for my classes at school. I won a piano competition or two. Eventually I did a piano recital at my college consisting of my own compositions. I was also doing a bit of session keyboard work around the Bay Area in other studios. And I studied privately with jazz pianist Dick Hindman. So it was an eclectic mix of things during that period.

Nick: You worked with Thomas Dolby at one point, yes?

Dan: Well just briefly for an afternoon. Probably around 1987 or something like that. He was doing a film score and working locally. Basically I did some synth programming for him, as I was known for being pretty good with the DX7. I spent a couple of hours with him, but it was a lot of fun to see how he was working. He’s quite a talent.

Nick: So you were a working musician when MIDI had come out and appeared in instruments, and there were also all the big strides in digital audio. That must have been exciting. What was it like seeing this new technology constantly evolving?

Dan: The 80's was a time of rapid technological growth and development when it came to music and computer technology. And I think it’s pretty obvious that the technology had a huge influence on the changing music styles. I mean, case in point, I can remember being asked to replace a human drummer with a drum machine {laughs}. 10 years later that request would have garnered weird looks. Drum machines were new and all the rage in the early to mid 1980s, and a lot of the pop music was using those for drums. There was this ethos of computerized-sounding tracks in much of pop music, and this was clearly driven by the novelty of the new technology. And the ‘80s became the decade of the "producer-as-artist", if you will. Prior to that point, very few artists were able to do an entire record on their own. It really required a band of some kind in most cases. It required other people. Of course not all mainstream music was made one-man-band-style with computers, but it became a huge part of the pop music culture of the time for a few years, until the backlash against it started in the ‘90s.

As far the as the actual technology development goes: as I mentioned, there had been desultory attempts since the mid ‘70s to use microprocessors with Synthesizers, and some companies had developed proprietary integrated systems, such as the Roland MC system, or the Oberheim DSX system, but these were mostly very limited, finicky, expensive, and complex to set up. The period of time around 1984 or so, was right after the MIDI spec was introduced, so it soon followed that standalone multitrack sequencer boxes such as Yamaha’s QX series came out, and also personal computers were beginning to be outfitted with MIDI interfaces and sequencing software. This period of time was really the inception point of this kind of full band arranging capability sans tape for most musicians. It is an interesting thing for me to reflect on the idea that this is just about exactly when my professional career in music started.

While I was working at the 8-Track studio, MIDI and MIDI sequencing was just starting to happen. Right when Midi sequencers first began to appear on the scene, I got a Commodore 64 computer, and a very early sequencing package for it. I used it in many productions even though it was very primitive and buggy. I remember that syncing to tape was a real nightmare because there wasn’t even SMPTE code at the time. It just had FSK code which was a primitive form of sync without positional information. So if you wanted to print a track, or punch in, you’d have to rewind the tape all the way back to the beginning, and hope that the FSK track on the tape wouldn’t have any dropouts!

But the important point to emphasize here is that I was able for the first time to do complete arrangements without even using tape, by creatively employing the sequencer in combination with the multitimbral capabilities of the synths I had. Of course you eventually needed to print it to tape, but as a compositional tool it was completely unprecedented in the history of music. I think the influence and importance of that development on the direction of the music business—and certainly on the direction of my career—cannot be overstated.

Nick: How long did you use the Commodore for your work?

Dan: For a couple of years, I was pretty desperate to have better sync-to-tape capabilities, among other things. So I upgraded the Commodore to a Macintosh Plus (using Opcode Vision software), and then later, an Atari TT running Cubase. The Mac Plus was pretty jittery when it came to MIDI, and I had heard the Atari computers were much more stable for music purposes. The TT was a very rare Atari; I think they only made a few hundred of them. It had a faster processor and a larger monitor than the more common Atari ST. I loved that machine, and it served me very well for a few years until the mid-1990’s when it became clear that a Mac was the way to go again, if for no other reason than being able to do digital audio recording alongside the MIDI as well. I’ve been running Logic Pro on various incarnations of Macintosh ever since then for my day to day work. Like so many others, I have been through multiple iterations of Apple machines over the years. It’s interesting that the music technology arms race seems to have slowed down in the last few years. Maybe now it’s in software, just less so on the computer hardware side. I cannot remember a time in my career when I wasn’t wishing for more capability, more speed, more memory. There was always this push to upgrade every couple of years. I think there’s been a little bit of plateauing going on. I’ve been pretty happy with my Mac Pro tower since I bought it almost 6 years ago. I think that’s a record! Maybe Moore’s law doesn’t apply anymore…lol

Nick: But you were still using tape I assume.

Dan: Yes. Although there were some instrumental things I was able to mix directly down to 2 track from the synthesizers, tape was really a necessity for most projects. The development of multitrack recording technology was its own story, As I mentioned, even though when I was first getting off the runway, it was possible to do basic arrangements away from the tape machines (by dint of the sequencers), we were still quite a few years away from practical hard disk recording of any consequence. So we had to incorporate analog tape machines into the production process. One helpful innovation was the addition of SMPTE time code, which was a code track recorded to tape, and which finally gave the sequencers positional information, so they could automatically play in lock-step with the tape.

But until the early 1990’s we were still using analog tape for recording. Of course, high end studios continued—and even continue to this day—to use 2-inch multitrack analog tape as a matter of principle, or because it imparts a certain appealing sound (as witnessed by the current proliferation of tape emulation plugins!). But, the introduction of affordable digital tape machines like the Alesis ADAT and Tascam DA-88 in the early 1990’s also signaled a sea change in how music was recorded for a few years, and these arrived on the scene roughly in parallel with early hard disk recording systems or DAWs. But since the first hard disk recording systems were primitive, buggy, and limited by small hard disk sizes at the time, that technology was still mainly useful for offline editing, to be later transferred back to multitrack tape. The advent of the ADAT format (as well as some concurrent innovations in mixing console technology) had a similar effect on the business of recorded music as did the advent of MIDI a decade earlier. A lot of smaller home and project studios began to crop up and become viable for making professional level recordings. These digital tape machines of the ‘90s not only took a zero off of the previous entry price of a multitrack setup, but it also made it possible to record with much better sound quality than most people had had access to previously, and it allowed for backups and a certain amount of editing which had been previously more difficult or impossible to achieve with analog tape. I had a couple of those machines and it really enabled me to do a lot of things I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to.

It was just a few years later when the economics and capability of hard disk systems like Pro-Tools, began to overshadow those of digital tape—and the digital tape machines eventually went the way of the dinosaur, much as the Synclavier had just a few years earlier.

Nick: And what about sampling?

Dan: Yes, going back again to the early ‘80s, the other thing that had happened in parallel with the advent of sequencing platforms was the inception of Sampling and samplers as a commercial product. At that time, sampling was also in its beginning stages. On the low end you had the Emu Emulators and the Ensoniq Mirages. These were within means of musicians, but they had very poor sound quality and very limited memory. Nonetheless they had a certain signature sound that many people valued. But on the high end there were two crazy expensive behemoth machines that many of the celebrity musicians were buying: The Fairlight, and the Synclavier. These were like a synth, a sampler, and a multitrack sequencer all wrapped in one box. This configuration simply did not exist for the average consumer, or even the average pro, simply because of their astronomical six-figure pricing.

One of the original designers of the Synclavier user-interface was a guy named Denny Jaeger, who happened to live near me. He had done a lot of film and television scoring work, and had also done a lot of sound design for Michael Jackson. He had a state of the art studio and also one of the most elaborate Synclaviers in existence. He was looking for an assistant, so through a recommendation I began working for him, learning the Synclavier as well as the craft of composing to picture. He was kind enough to support my finishing my music degree at the same time, but I don’t think I got much sleep during that time {laughs}. Nevertheless, I think it was there that I realized this was what I wanted to do with my life. Prior to that there was obviously a desire to be in music, but I didn't think the life of a touring musician was really my cup of tea. I'm too much of an introverted detailer, a perfectionist in certain ways. More the equivalent of a musical sculptor than a performer. I wanted to be able to sculpt music in the studio, and I got a certain satisfaction out of seeing the results of my ideas as they were working to picture. I couldn't get that kind of satisfaction from performing on stage. Something about that process just really appealed to me. But at that time this was not easy to do without a band or orchestra at one's beck-and-call. But with a machine like the Synclavier, it was possible. And only a few hundred people in the world had access to a machine like that in the 80's. Nowadays that big expensive studio all fits into a laptop computer. but in those days it was a rarefied experience, and I was fortunate to have had access to it.

Nick: What kind of tracks did you record with the Synclavier?

Dan: While I was working there we did an eclectic mix of things: the whole gamut of movies, records, TV commercials, etc. Most of it was in-house, but we had a few other artists come through that I got to work with. We also created one of the very first commercial orchestral sampling libraries.

Nick: For the Synclavier?

Dan: Yes, we did a lot of extensive sampling of strings, and developed some techniques that are kind of taken for granted now, but were much more painstaking and difficult at the time. One example of this is what people refer to as “round robin” sampling these days. I don't know if we invented the idea—probably other people were experimenting with it too, but we were certainly at the forefront. For me it was done out of necessity, because I just couldn’t get the realism I was looking for. I was trying to avoid the repetitive and artificial sound of string attacks repeating on the same sample. This is now usually done with automated scripts for round-robin sample playback – a standard technique in most commercial orchestral sample libraries these days – but it is very memory intensive, and at that time we had only a very limited amount of RAM, something like 32 Megabytes. You have to imagine that when I first started using the Synclavier, a megabyte of memory cost in the thousands of dollars. That’s how logarithmically the costs of these things has come down since that time. And at the time 32 Megabytes was considered top-of-the-line for the Synclavier; it wouldn't even address any more memory than that. So in order to get realistic-sounding strings under those conditions, we had to do string parts in sections, using a limited note-range because only a few notes could fit into RAM. We would trigger pseudo round-robins by assigning the alternate attack samples to similar notes on the keyboard but in different octaves, and then we would “randomize" them by assigning the different notes in a phrase to different octaves—manually—in the sequencer. To get a full part done, I would just trigger all the notes of a composition that fit in one small range on the keyboard because that was all the samples that would fit into RAM. Then I would record those notes on one track of a multitrack tape machine (we were using a couple of early multitrack digital tape machines made by Sony called the 3324). Then we would load another patch into the Synclavier memory to cover another part of the range of the composition and record that…Wash, rinse, repeat. So one string part might take up several tracks, but then I could bounce all of these tracks down to one and get a smooth composite performance. It was a painstaking process to do the string parts this way, but it was the only way we could get the realism we wanted.

Nick: It sounds like a tremendous amount of work. Did you ever consider whether it was more cost or time effective to just use real orchestra?

Dan: Well sure, although there were often budgetary considerations. I mean that was the whole point in some ways—and still is to this day for most composers—which explains why there are so many orchestral sample libraries out there. We were just doing this very early on, and at considerably more time and effort than what is required now.

It’s also worth noting here that sampling at its inception was not universally embraced as something good. A lot of people were afraid of it early on, and found it threatening. And there were controversies, particularly once rappers and other artists began to use previously copyrighted materials and mash them up in new ways. We all know that was a legal morass for many years until the lawyers and legislators got it all sorted out. But it’s just like any new technology which can be disruptive. I can tell you that Denny was probably the first person to do (most of) a film score entirely in the Synclavier with samples - “The Hunger” with David Bowie. And this was followed up by an even higher profile score which I won’t name, but when he delivered the initial cues for the 2nd score, it caused a huge furor with the musician’s union, because it was emulating an orchestra. That had never really been seriously done before. I don’t mean a synthesized orchestra a la Wendy Carlos, but a sampled one, which entered a different territory. The pressure applied by the union was so great, that the film producers nixed the Synclavier version under the pressure, and they went instead with a real orchestral score. There are some parallels one can see decades earlier with how there was backlash when vinyl records first appeared and performing musicians feared for their livelihood. Or when talking movies first appeared. On and on. The history of technological innovation in media is rife with these kinds of stories. Eventually these things are accepted and people move on—for better or worse. But obviously at this point the political horse of the “orchestra in a box” has long since left the barn.

Nick: So, I heard there is a "legend" about the Synclavier and Michael Jackson. The note sequence and patch in "Beat It" was on the Synclavier demo record and apparently Michael or Quincy Jones liked it so much that they simply replayed the same sequence and patch for Beat It. Do you have anything to add first hand or passed down from Denny?

Dan: The story about the Michael Jackson "Beat It" sound is more or less the same, although depending on who you ask, there is a slight variation. Denny claimed that Michael lifted it right off the original Synclavier demo vinyl recording that he created for NED. Other sources say that Steve Porcaro of Toto essentially replayed it in the same way using the same factory preset that Denny created. That would have been easy as I think Michael owned two Synclaviers. But this is really splitting hairs. What is not in dispute is that the sound and sequence of notes was Denny's creation. Denny created all the sound and music on Side A of the Demo record (Pat Gleeson, whom coincidentally I ended up working with a few years later, did the B side). As far as I know, because Michael loved that demo record so much, and apparently listened to it frequently, he wanted that “gong" sound to be on the record. Or maybe he played it for Quincy and then Quincy had the idea. I wasn’t there at those sessions, so I don’t know. I will say that it always struck me as odd that the key it’s played in, if it was replayed, was a half-step higher than the song that follows, so take that for whatever it’s worth. [ed. you can check the original out here at 6:27 and judge for yourself]

At any rate, because he was so enamored with these sounds, Michael later hired Denny to do much of the sound design on the Bad album. Many of the elaborate sound effects sequences that opened some of the tracks on that record were essentially designed entirely by Denny. I learned quite a lot about sound design and mixing from him. Unfortunately I never was directly involved with the work with Michael Jackson, since I met Denny just after work on Bad was completed. Although I did field a few phone calls from Michael while working there, which was kind of fun. I think Michael wanted Denny to come back to LA to work on the next record as well, and kept calling him about it, but Denny had moved on to other things by that point.

Nick: What was fun about it, other than the obvious?

Dan: Well Denny and I had similar sounding voices, so when Michael would call, I would sometimes just go on pretending I was Denny for a while and let him talk. I’ll leave it at that. {laughs}

Nick: How long did you work for Denny Jaeger?

Dan: I worked for Denny from about 1986 to 1990 or so.

Nick: So tell me more about this studio fire. That sounds like a nightmare!

Dan: In the Oakland-Berkeley firestorm of 1991 I lost the the DX7, Xpander, D-50, RX-11, all of my master tapes, and all of my sheet music. It was a pretty devastating loss. The fire insurance paid for a Kurzweil K2000, an Alesis D4, a KORG Wavestation A/D, and a Yamaha SY99. I used these instruments (and of course the Synclavier) for many years, on tons of production all through the 90’s. Most of them are gone now, as I’ve moved to working primarily ITB in recent years. But the SY99 remains my central controller. It's built like a tank and it has a wonderful keyboard action which I have been unable to find in anything else since. I really love that keyboard and haven’t had a single problem in 25 years of near daily use. I only wish it had 88 keys. The keyboard has had virtually no maintenance. I don't understand how it still works so well after all of this time, except to say that Yamaha builds things exceptionally well, and I’m actually only recently considering replacing it with their new Montage synth.

Nick: So in 1991 after a big loss, you were back with a fresh new setup and ready to take on the world! What did you do next?

Dan: Knowing the Synclavier as well as I did opened some other doors. I began working with another Composer, Gary Malkin, on a bunch of TV ads, and also the TV series Unsolved Mysteries, which created some nice employment. Gary had composed the famous theme song. But I was essentially one of a team of 4 other composers who worked on the underscore for the episodes of that show. We scored many of these episodes during the 90s. Once the series went to the Lifetime Channel in 2001 - 2002 I was the sole score composer for all of the episodes. I also did a bit of other ghost writing and/or engineering work for some other composers. I worked on "Knott's Landing" for a season, and a couple of other TV shows. TV scoring is really one of my favorite things to do. It's typically less micromanaged than film scoring, but can be equally creative, and maybe in the scoring world it's about as close as one could hope to come to a regular day job.

Nick: So you continued to use the Synclavier for that stuff?

Dan: All of the people I worked with to do the TV scoring and the advertising work during the 90’s used the Synclavier. It was just the tool for the job in those days—up to about 1995 or so. But by the mid-nineties the Synclavier was really facing some competition from the Roland, Emu, and Akai samplers, as well as all the MIDI sequencer platforms that were becoming available. These setups could be had at a small fraction of the cost of a Synclavier. So the Synclavier became a kind of white elephant very quickly, and NED went out of business because there was no way they could compete with their pricing structure. It's a shame in a certain way. The Synclavier had some workflow advantages. It was very fast and efficient and had a great front end controller with over a hundred buttons, so you weren’t fussing around with a mouse so much. Also, even to this day, the Synclavier data transmission protocol was superior to MIDI in terms of timing accuracy. It had far less timing jitter than what I found to be the case with most of the MIDI sequencers I had tried, and it sent and triggered notes much more in parallel. These days DAW workstations essentially have that kind of timing on output when driving virtual instruments, but MIDI keyboards have never been as accurate on the input side. I don't know, maybe now with USB it's better, but the reality is that putting every finger down on a MIDI keyboard and transmitting that to a computer has always been effectively a very fast arpeggio, due to the inherent limitations of the MIDI spec. Not so with the Synclavier.

Because I had my other non-synclavier setup at home, I was really using both paradigms in parallel for some time. It simply became more practical and efficient after awhile to use the Macintosh-based system. My career since the 90's has just been an eclectic mix of doing records, film and TV scores, and a bit of video game work. I always try to find something to enjoy and learn from in every project that comes my way. But scoring is probably where I feel most gratified, and at home—although the schedules and deadlines can sometimes be challenging.

Nick: You mentioned that you work now mostly ITB. Do you have some favorite software VI’s?

Dan: The desert island VI is probably Omnisphere 2. It can just do so much. And actually the real superpower it has is its search function. To me that is the biggest liability of most software instruments these days. The number of sounds one can aggregate now is just staggering. A good rating and search system really has become imperative. The system that Eric Persing came up with for that is just wonderful and brilliant, and I don’t know why more developers aren’t using it or something similar. So there’s that one. I also have NI Komplete and a smattering of others. Kontakt mostly by default because most of the good sample libraries use it. But I also have a pretty good library for (Logic Pro’s) EXS24, and that’s where most of my own samples still reside. Reaktor is really a lot of fun. I’m amazed at what one can find in there. It’s just a matter of time management trying to find things that work well. Sometimes trying to find something in Omnisphere is just quicker. There’s something to be said for being able to get to things quickly. If everything becomes a fishing expedition, then you won’t get any work done. I have some interest in physical modeling recently, so I like playing around with Logic’s Sculpture and Clavinet plugins, AAS Chromaphone and String Studio, as well as Madrona Lab’s Kaivo. I’ve also been admiring Transfer Serum and U-he’s line of synth plugins from afar, but haven’t quite explored them yet. Surprisingly, I keep getting mileage out of Logic’s ES2 synth. How old is that thing? 17 years or something? Its still great for many things. Often a go-to for Moog Bass type sounds and serviceable for some kinds of pads and trance-gate stuff. Logic always had a really good suite of included plugins.





Nick: Arturia just released a virtual Synclavier that includes some of the original code!

Dan: Yes, that’s exciting! It’s funny how music technology history has this cyclical component to it. Of course there has been this movement to go "inside the box” (computer) for a while now—and yet, hardware is certainly having a renaissance, what with the new resurgence

of modular synths, and the proliferation and popularity of hardware analog synths. I’d love to go back to using some of this wonderful new synth hardware that’s available, but my studio has such limited space that it’s not practical for me right now.

Anyway, both of these trends in software and hardware are happening now kind of simultaneously. It just gives musicians more flexibility to work in whichever way makes the most sense, both creatively and from a budget perspective. Arturia’s synth emulation plugins are an example of this—they’ve done a remarkable job of capturing the nostalgia of all these rare and venerated hardware machines in an affordable way, culminating now with the Synclavier emulation. Clearly in this case they are trying to be as faithful to the machine as possible, inviting Cameron Jones (the original architect of the Synclavier software) to work on the project. He’s a real genius, and his work was ahead of its time. It’s exciting for resynthesis to get a shot in the arm too. It should be said that resynthesis technology has not really been featured much in the landscape of synthesis history. Probably because it is so difficult to simplify for the end user. There have been a few exceptions in various forms like the (long defunct) Axcel and Hartmann Neuron hardware synthesizers, the Kyma, Virsyn Cube, and Logic Alchemy. But the Synclavier had this kind of technology built in right from the beginning. I understand Arturia included many of the sounds from the original library in the new plugin, and I actually recognize some of them in the demo I heard. It certainly brings back memories!

Nick: When did you meet Jason Becker?

Dan: After Denny and I parted ways, and I graduated from College, I continued to use his studio and others to do various projects. I began working with other composers ghost-writing for television shows such as (NBC’s) Unsolved Mysteries and doing many other things. But Denny actually called me up a couple of years later and said there was an interesting artist he had been introduced to and thought I should work with, so he made the introduction. Jason had been a guitar prodigy in the neoclassical shred guitar world of the late 1980’s zeitgeist, and he had done a few records while still a teenager. He was all over the covers of the popular guitar magazines and was really poised to have a long career ahead of him as a guitar virtuoso. Jason's story is both tragic and inspiring, due to his struggle with (and many would say subsequent triumph over) a terrible disease called ALS—which he was stricken with at the young age of 20. He had recently been tapped to work with David Lee Roth as his new lead guitarist replacing Steve Vai, who had left to join the band Whitesnake. Even though Jason was beginning to experience problems and symptoms of ALS, he had managed to record one album with Roth. But the disease was sadly so advanced by the time the album was completed that he was unable to tour, and had to abandon the gig.

Dan with Jason Becker

Nick: Can you tell me more about Jason?

Dan: When I first started working with Jason 25 years ago, he had long since stopped being able to play the guitar, but he was still able to talk, even though it was some effort to understand him because the disease had slurred his speech pretty badly. I remember being so impressed and inspired by the fact that he still was intent on making records. This first record we worked on together, Perspective, was his attempt at a second solo record—and though obviously it didn’t contain any recent playing, it was an amalgamation of some of his previously recorded guitar pieces, coupled with some things he had composed on a keyboard using Opcode Vision on a Mac, while he could still plunk out notes that way. By that point he could no longer play guitar, and was getting around in a wheelchair. I spent a year or two on that project, taking almost every song from whatever its framework was, through the arrangement process, to final mix. It was rather painstaking because Jason was basically unable to come to the studio, and this was a couple of years before the internet became available—really more like 5 years before anything like mp3s were even beginning to proliferate. So as I worked on his project, I was sending him DAT tapes of mixes, then I would get comments and feedback, and then proceed from there, back and forth like that. I was doing full orchestral emulations on the Synclavier, and as you can imagine, with the memory limitations we had, it was a long and painstaking process. But I also did arrangements using my regular synth setup and the Atari, such as for the song “Rain”(that one betrays more than just a bit of my Vangelis influence I think).

After we completed Perspective in 1995 or so, I kind of lost touch with Jason for a few years. I had gotten married and was busy with other things. We kept in touch of course and would watch football games and so on occasionally, but we didn't do any new music. Meanwhile, by the late 90's he had lost the use of his voice and muscles pretty much entirely and was using a machine to breathe for him. ALS patients rarely live more than about 5 years beyond diagnosis, and a lot of people in that situation would just give up, but clearly he felt he had more to do, and through whatever force has been with him, he has been one of those unusual survivors, much like Stephen Hawking has.

In response to the loss of his voice, he and his father had created a system of communication which allowed him to fairly quickly spell out words with his eye movements. Facial and eye movements were just about the only voluntary muscles he had any remaining control over, and it remains that way to this day. I had set him up with a Mac and Logic Pro sometime during those years, but I didn't know he would necessarily make use of it to the extent he did.

So sometime around 2006, I got a call from him, and he told me (through an interpreter) that he had composed some new material and wanted to work on a new record. So I went to his house, and he proceeded to play me an 11 minute piece of music which he had composed with nothing more than his eyes and an assistant to enter in the notes for him. I was pretty floored that he had managed to do this, and I realized how slow and painstaking it must have been. We took that piece and fleshed it out, and we also created another couple of songs based around an old guitar performance of his, with overdubbed contributions from other musicians. As I mentioned, Jason got the disease when he was only about 20 years old, but as short as his guitar career was, he had fortunately kept a pretty sizable library of his playing on those multitrack cassette machines that were so popular at the time (just prior to the advent of the ADAT). We used both of these bits of material as the genesis for another record, Collection, which we worked on over the next couple of years, and released in 2008. Collection consisted of three new songs, and a compilation of older material.

Nick: And I understand there’s a new record in the works?

Dan: Yes, after another long hiatus we are now working on a new album. Unlike Collection, it's comprised of entirely new material, most of which he has recently composed from scratch—again by slowly entering notes into Logic Pro with his eyes via an assistant. Jason continues to communicate these musical ideas to assistants via this eye movement language, and then periodically we get together and I help him with the arrangements and production. As you can imagine, it's a lot of time and effort, so we recently ran a crowd funder. The outpouring of love and support for Jason after all these years has been phenomenal. Many other celebrity guitarists are contributing guest performances to the project as well. And we are still mining bits and pieces of his playing from those old multitrack cassettes. We hope to finish the record in 2017. Jason has been such an amazing inspiration to so many people—especially other guitarists. We're quite excited about it!