YAMAHA TEST DRIVE
ALAN PARSONS GETS BEHIND THE ULTIMATE YAMAHA RECORDING RIG
Very few people have equal genius as a songwriter and as a recording engineer/producer. Alan Parsons does, and his success at both has made him a living legend. His own songs showcase the same stellar production values that earned him a Grammy nomination for engineering Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon - an album that to this day aspiring record producers study in every detail. His 2006 release, A Valid Path, featured collaborations with cutting-edge electronica stars such as Crystal Method and Überzone (and a voice-over from John Cleese of Monty Python fame), and was Grammy-nominated for best surround album. We also can’t wait for him to share his studio secrets on his upcoming Keyfax DVD series, The Art and Science of Sound Recording.
We didn’t have to wait, though, for him to share his thoughts about the Yamaha Motif XS synth workstation and Steinberg software, because he dropped into Guitar Center in Oxnard, CA to check out our Yamaha ultimate recording rig: A Motif XS8 keyboard workstation and HS-50M powered monitors coupled with Steinberg Cubase 4 recording software running on a Dell Inspiron 15” laptop computer. During July, you can visit us and test drive this very same rig.
A Valid Path uses many sounds from the Motif ES, which has since been replaced by the more powerful XS. “I think the XS is a huge development from the ES, which I’ve had a lot of use from as well,” observes Alan. “It’s a beautifully laid-out keyboard. It’s very easy to find stuff you want, and there’s not a bad sound in there. I’ve used sounds from just about every category.”
Speaking of categories, a hallmark of the Motif series has always been its Category Search button. Press it, and the bank buttons bring up different instrument types: pianos, electric pianos, organs, synth pads, leads, and comping sounds, strings, brasses, you name it. This is important when you have the exact sound you want in mind and need to find it quickly. As Alan suggests, though, it can be even more important when you don’t:
“One of the things I enjoy about keyboard technology is the inspirational aspect. You can just sit down and you have this wonderful range of sounds. That was always something that was difficult in the early days, when, say, all you had was a piano or acoustic guitar. A modern keyboard synth like the Motif is so inspirational, you just sit down and go, ‘Oh, that sound would be perfect in this type of sequence!’ That’s putting my songwriter hat on, as opposed to my producer/engineer hat. The songs just come bursting out because of the inspiration of the sounds.”
So what are some of Alan’s favorite Motif sounds? “The percussive stuff like Clavinets and electric pianos,” he says. One example: a factory patch called Nu Phasing now provides the all-important rhythmic Clav comp on “I Robot.” Asked about the signature Wurly electric piano chords on “Eye in the Sky,” he responds, “On the record, of course, it was an actual Wurlitzer, but the sound in the Motif is virtually indistinguishable. There are also some great percussion sounds. On A Valid Path, I actually used a snare sample straight out of the Motif ES, loaded into Nuendo.”
Now owned by Yamaha, Steinberg was first in the game with the virtual studio technology that lets musicians run soft synths and effects as plug-ins inside their recording software, and their format – VST – is such a household term that people often think it just means “plug-in.” Alan explains why he’s a fan of combining a hardware keyboard with software tools:
“I recorded A Valid Path pretty much exclusively with Steinberg software, and we made pretty good use of soft synths within the program. But even though I arguably could have made the album without a keyboard in sight, having a hardware synth like the Motif is so instant, for demonstrating or capturing an idea.” The Motif sounds weren’t just for demos, though. Alan continues, “A lot of the Motif patches wound up being keepers, and because they sounded so great, there was no reason to change them. In this digital age, it’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, let’s just record the MIDI so we can keep tweaking the sound we’re going to use,’ but the old school in me, as a producer, insists that I make decisions. If a sound is working now, I commit to it. I don’t want to come back later and sort through a hundred different takes and patches. That’s why the immediate aspect of the Motif appeals to me.”
One way the Motif XS helps you capture musical ideas immediately is the new Performance-Record Setup feature. To help understand that, here’s a little back-story: Like the Motif ES and “Classic” before it, the XS is packed with tons of arpeggios, riffs, rhythm patterns, musical phrases, and multi-zone keyboard Performances, and there are almost no barriers between one “department” of the synth and another – with just a couple of button-clicks, you can turn a track in the sequencer into a phrase the arpeggiator can trigger, for example, or turn either of those into a layer of a Performance for playing on the keys in real time. With the integrated sampler, you can record raw material for creating your own Voices (that’s Yamaha’s word for “patch” or “program”) that use all the Motif XS’ filters, modulation, and Virtual Circuit Modeling effects. Max out the sample memory to 1GB, and you could plug in a mic or instrument and record real audio tracks over a tune you created in the sequencer, like you were working on a computer. Also like a computer, you can pop a USB thumb drive into the XS and save your whole project as a Yamaha “all” file. The next time you load this up, everything – MIDI, audio, and all settings – will be exactly where you left it.
On the Motif XS, Performance-Record Setup takes this no-barriers thinking to a new level. Suppose you’re just jamming away, trying out Performances, and you find one that gives you a song idea. (“Whenever I get the arpeggiator going, I think, ‘I must write something based on that,” laughs Alan.) Simply hit the Record button, and the onboard sequencer automatically assigns all parts of the performance to consecutive tracks. Since every part sounds just like it did in Performance mode, you can immediately record what inspired you into a new sequence. Since there’s no manual setup, there’s no fumbling from one mode of the keyboard to another – so your muse won’t sneak out the window because you were too busy pressing buttons.
Since Yamaha and Steinberg are partners, you’d expect their stuff to play well together, and you’d be right. The Motif XS integrates so well with Cubase that each handles like an extension of the other. Just one example of this is that with the included Cubase AI4 (or more full-featured version of Cubase bought separately) and the Motif XS connected to your Mac or PC via FireWire, Cubase can import entire projects from the XS, creating all necessary tracks as it goes – MIDI tracks for all sequencer parts and audio tracks for anything you’d recorded into the Motif’s sample memory – then filling them with the material you’d originally laid down on the Motif, track by track. Because the Motif XS’ eight knobs and faders support the Mackie Control standard, they become a hardware control surface for Cubase with the touch of a button. That means you don’t have to reach somewhere else and break your creative flow to go from your “songwriting at the keyboard” headspace to your “mixing in the software” mode.
Of course, Cubase, and its bigger brother Nuendo, stand on their own merits as well. One of those merits is sound quality, something Alan knows a thing or two about. “A Valid Path was mixed entirely ‘in the box,’ not through an external console,” he points out. “I actually had a pair of original Yamaha O2R mixers, and they worked brilliantly, but we wound up not mixing through them. For my next record, I’m using an O2R-96 with Steinberg software, because the two integrate really well. To record, say, a drum kit, the converters on the O2R-96 are state-of-the-art, so it’s going to sound good.”
What’s even more important to Alan is – you guessed it – immediacy. “With Cubase and Nuendo as the basis of my recording existence, everything can be called up, every fader movement I make is going to come back at me whether it’s five minutes or five months later. For that reason, I’ve actually begun to regard mixing as not a separate thing, but as part of the recording process. You just keep doing stuff until it’s to your liking, then you say, ‘Oh, it sounds like a record now!’ As opposed to a more formal process, where, you know, you pull faders down, then put them back up, going, ‘Let’s check the drums, check the bass,’ and so on. I’m mixing as I go along!”
Now that you know how the Yamaha Motif XS and Steinberg software helps Alan’s creative process, drop in to any Guitar Center store to play the Yamaha ultimate recording rig and experience these powerful musical tools for yourself.
The entire catalog of The Alan Parsons Project will soon be available in remastered form and includes previously unreleased bonus material. Five albums have already been released. For more information, tour dates and more, be sure to check out Alan’s official website at alanparsonsmusic.com.
*Yamaha Ultimate Recording Rig: Motif XS8, Dell Inspiron 15” laptop computer, Cubase 4, a pair of HS50M Powered Monitors, and a set of RH10MS Headphones.