Synthesist—Creator Of ‘Synergy’
[Reprinted from the March, 1977 issue of Contemporary Keyboard]
With a keyboard in one hand, a soldering iron in the other, and three recent well-received albums under his belt, synthesist Larry Fast wears two hats—he is the mainspring of Synergy, an electronic one-man band with two albums, Synergy [Passport, PPSD-98009] and Sequencer [Passport, PPSD-98014], to its credit, and also the touring and recording keyboardist for progressive rock group Nektar, whose Recycled album [Passport, PPSD-98011] showcases his keyboard talents.
Fast has a more thorough grounding in electronics than do many of his fellow synthesists, a fact which has allowed him to use the recording studio as a sophisticated arm of the synthesizer. In fact, it was his involvement with electronics that first landed him among the empyrean of multikeyboardists. "I was working for college radio station WJRH, in Easton, Pennsylvania," Larry relates, "and while I was there, I interviewed Rick Wakeman. Rick had only been in Yes for about four months, and he was on the Yes tour promoting The Yes Album [Atlantic, 8283]. We got to talking about the pros and cons of the Minimoog, and it turned out that he needed some custom-designed equipment—so I wound up building it for him." The Fast boxes can be seen in the booklet that comes with Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans [Atlantic, 502-908]. They include a primitive but effective phase shifter, a VCO, a small sequencer, and a panel of rotary switches used to set up preset effects.
It was through his acquaintance with Wakeman that Fast first landed a recording contract—but before then, he had paid some dues. A self-confessed AM radio junkie, he first got turned on to the Beatles in 1963 by listening to New York DJ Cousin Brucie's popular show. Deciding that a musical career was for him, Fast started out by playing the violin. "I can still pick it up and not make horrendous noises,” he laughs. "You could call it quasi-music."
He subsequently became familiar with the piano, and then with electric guitar, "which,” he recalls, "I bought for 29 bucks at Korvette's, only because an organ was financially out of reach. My guitar idols at the time were anybody who could play a D minor chord with reasonable accuracy." When he became slightly more proficient he formed his first band, a punkrock outfit that terrorized high school gyms with their Stones and Beatles imitations. His career as the next Eric Clapton hit the skids when he scraped together enough money to buy a Wurlitzer electric piano and a Vox Continental organ. Also at about this time, he started seriously listening to and forming ideas about music.
The synthesizer was beginning to be heard from by the time Fast entered college, but not being able to afford the early bulky modular systems, he played around with oscillator and filter circuits of his own design. "They were crude," he acknowledges, "but they worked." He took electronics courses and experimented constantly, developing more sophisticated design concepts.
"You couldn’t really call the equipment I was building back then a synthesizer,” Fast points out, "for the same reason that you can't call an oscillator and a tape echo a synthesizer, even though with the two of them, you can create electronic music. But in the seminal period of electronic music, the structures that now delineate synthesizers weren’t set up yet. I had filters and things of that nature; but I never got into any heavy interconnected sequencing at that time."
Still, his modules were refined enough to attract Rick Wakeman's attention. Wakeman and Yes manager Brian Lane were instrumental in landing Larry’s first professional band, Essence, a recording contract. An American band working in the European progressive tradition, Essence recorded an album for Warner Bros. in 1973, which unfortunately has never been released. Soon afterward, Fast met producer Marty Scott, and the two of them dreamed up the Synergy concept.
Armed with a souped-up Minimoog ("I felt like a greaser with a 396 Chevelle; I just couldn't leave it alone"), some Oberheim expander modules, and a Mellotron, Larry started work on the first Synergy album, which took 350 hours of studio time to put together. He found that this limited amount of keyboard equipment was all he needed. "Making good electronic music doesn't depend on how many oscillators your synthesizer has, or on how many thousands of dollars you have tied up in esoteric keyboard equipment,” he testifies. "It all depends on how fully you use what you have. It doesn't impress me to see somebody with a hundred oscillators and two hundred filters create sounds that could have been created on a Micromoog."
The second Synergy album, Sequencer, was recorded using a system built around a Moog 15, the smallest of the modular Moog systems. Fast first laid down a click track to insure metronomic regularity, and followed this with some pilot tracks, which plotted out the basic ideas for each piece. He reports that the pilot tracks a re usually replaced later with embellished final tracks. "A lot of weirdness happens in laying down the tracks," he remarks. "I might have a random data select choose things from four or five separate tracks, and then feed the whole thing back through the synthesizer and have the computer pick off different ones at different times."
Much of the complexity and color in Fast's music comes not merely from the synthesizer but from the studio itself. Using matching transformers, he feeds the synthesizer signal straight into the computer-assisted board, which allows him to make use of digital delay lines as well as phasing and flanging equipment. "These devices aren’t taken into account in most electronic music compositions," Fast points out. "I don't know of a synthesizer with a built-in digital delay line—and that’s a really good effect. Voltage-controlled phasing and flanging are two more nice effects not built into any of the machines now on the market. But all those devices are in every recording studio, so all I had to do was tie them in. I had patch points to all the studio devices brought up to the synthesizer so the whole thing became one huge instrument."
Fast reports that he does a lot of ping ponging of background tracks. "I add on one line at a time, but there’s no point in keeping them separate, since they're just textures." How does he get his ‘Fender bass guitar’ sound? "That’s a very basic patch," he replies. "The waveform was picked out by trial and error; it’s a sawtooth combined with a few variable-width pulses. A lot of the sound comes from very careful use of the bandpass filters on the Oberheim, and also from using the filter bank on the Moog to pick up certain of those good clicky overtones, for when the pick strikes the strings. The envelope is obvious—quick attack, rapid initial decay, sustaining at about a third to a half of the peak, and then decaying out. I allowed myself a little bit of a pitch bend, because it occurs naturally. I also sparked the sound up with an Orban Parasound parametric equalizer on the remix.”
For all his studio expertise, Fast is still into live performing. Through his connection with Passport Records, he met guitarist Joe Moore and began jamming with Nektar. Fast accompanied them to their chateau in France, where he laid down the synthesizer tracks for and helped engineer their Recycled album; and having done this, he was a natural to tour with them.
He is quick to point out the differences between live and studio work. "The governing factor in playing live is time,” he notes. "There’s an art to spending the right amount of time setting up the sounds you want. You're bound to lose the studio subtleties when you perform live anyway, so it's foolish to try to recreate the record exactly. At the same time, if you don't spend enough time presetting the machines, everything will start sounding Moogy."
For his live performance with Nektar, Fast has built a system around a Moog 15 and his prototype Polymoog. Secondary instruments include his old Minimoog, two Micromoogs, an Oberheim Expander Module, three Oberheim DS-2 digital sequencers, and two Oberheim analog mini-sequencers. He also carries a Freeman String Symphonizer as a spare signal source, and his effects devices includes a Mu-tron Bi Phase which has been modified to provide voltage-controlled phasing.
The instruments are fed into a Yamaha PM-400 mixer and a stereo crossover, the output of which is split and injected into the soundboard and Fast's monitor system. The JBL monitor speakers and horns are bi-amped; low frequencies are handled by two Macintosh 100-watt-per-channel power amps, while the highs run through two Macintosh 50-watt-per-channel heads.
All his equipment has been modified. "On the Oberheim sequencers and expander modules, I basically pulled out patch points all over the place. I put a patch panel on the front of each unit, so in effect, I'm not locked into the switches that appear on the panels. To a limited extent, the Minimoog is like that now, too. It has a half a dozen extra patch points on it—an external input to the modulation wheel, access to the voltage-controlled amplifier from the outside world, practical stuff like that.
"Also, the mini-sequencers don't normally accept an input trigger from the Moog," he continues. "If you’re using them with a Moog system, you can’t use them any other way except from their own clocks. So that required making up an extra little circuit board to invert the trigger and do a couple of voltage-matching operations-nothing very exotic."
Asked whether his musical approach to the modular Moog 15 is different from his approach to the performanceoriented Minimoog, Fast comments, "I guess what I'm doing is bucking that. I can see how differences would come up naturally, because the Minimoog by the nature of its design would lend itself better to certain types of sounds. Things like a little bit of vibrato at the end of the tone would be a pain in the ass on a modular system. But at this point, I don't want to be limited to the Minimoog, so I added these extra patch points to its output so I can use its keyboard and still be tied in to the rest of the system. That kind of modification is strictly because I'm lazy. I don't want to sit there and patch for three hours."
At the moment, Synergy is strictly a studio act, though Fast sees some possibility of bringing it on the road in the future. "I just got my first microcomputer—a Fairchild 6502. I'm designing all the input and output interfaces myself, which will make a lot of difference in the ease of operating the system in a real-time mode. I'll have computer control of all the voltagecontrolled functions—pitch, timing, and eventually programming.
"The rough part of live performance," Fast concludes, "is sitting down and having your fingers play the right notes every time. I prefer playing the music at home and storing it to be triggered later. I believe that the electronic and mechanical functions can retain all their spontaneity, provided that the keyboardist is willing to take the time to work the music out."