I don’t normally do Christmas shows; that is, I normally do shows at Christmas, but not those peculiar events known only to the British, called pantomimes. These shows feature a story loosely based on some old fairytale or legend. The leading male character, known as the principal boy, is played by a girl, and the comic old woman, known as the Dame, is played by a man, usually with a vast number of outrageous costume changes and a great deal of innuendo. Soap stars and reality TV rejects seem to make up most of the cast these days, but the screaming from 1,000 or so children high on sugar drowns out most of the dialogue, so acting skills are not essential.
If you’re ever in the UK at Christmas time, check out one of these shows just to experience its sheer vulgarity. We even subject some of your own countrymen and women to pantomime in return for vast amounts of money. Pamela Anderson has even displayed her enormous talents as The Slave Of The Ring, a version of Aladdin. You get the idea.
I was working on another, rather different version of Aladdin in another theatre—only my second ever pantomime in almost 40 years—and a little episode with the composer set me thinking. We had a three-piece band in the pit—keyboards, bass, and drums—and a score that covered everything from Bollywood spectacular, through hip-hop and country/western, to Victorian music hall, so the composer had some backing tracks to add a bit extra to the overall band sound for the more modern numbers. During one of the technical rehearsals, he asked me if I thought anything needed changing, and in my usual diplomatic manner, I told him I wasn’t too happy with the nasty synth harmonica figure in a country/western-style backing track that poked out of the mix and compromised a vocal line. He gave me a strange look and asked me to point it out while the track played. “Oh, you mean the violin?” he asked, when I’d duly flagged up the offending noise. “Okay, I’ll take it down a bit in the mix.”
Now, I’ve been married to a fine cellist for 25 years. You can hear her on many British TV shows, as well as on a number of film soundtracks, pop songs, and, if your inclination lies that way (begin shameless plug), chamber music recordings by The Raphael Ensemble (end shameless plug). So I like to think I know how string instruments are supposed to sound, and the noise on the backing track could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as a violin or even a fiddle. Then the realization hit me: Like many composers, he was suffering from what I’ve come to call sample blindness.
In order to examine this phenomenon, I must take you back in time over a half century, so bear with me. When the BBC inaugurated the Radiophonic Workshop in 1958, its remit was to provide effects and music for radio and TV programs that couldn’t be created by traditional means. The vogue for electronic music and musique concrète was in full swing across Europe, and the workshop attracted a number of talented staff such as Daphne Oram, Dick Mills, and Delia Derbyshire.
In 1963, Derbyshire realized the instructions of composer Ron Grainer in his notes for the theme of a new children’s program called Doctor Who. The resultant piece is one of the best-known and most enduring theme songs in TV history, created by Derbyshire and her assistants entirely through the techniques of editing, looping, and vari-speeding magnetic tape recordings of various sounds sourced from test oscillators and white noise generators, and a single plucked string of a broken guitar. It still sounds wonderful 50 years later, and Derbyshire, no longer with us, has acquired something of a cult status among avant-garde musicians.
The composers and technicians of the Radiophonic Workshop produced sound and music for all manner of programs using similar techniques, but with the introduction of the first analog synthesizers, subtle changes started to creep in to the department’s output. Instead of creating sounds that had never before been heard, there was a slow but inexorable shift toward imitative synthesis where, for example, a theme tune that might normally have been recorded using a brass quartet was scored instead for a synthesizer programmed to sound a bit like a trumpet, trombone, or French horn. There was no real need for this in many programs; it was simply a way of saving money by not employing musicians. Disillusioned with these developments, many of the most talented members of left the workshop, Derbyshire among them.
After the pioneering analog synthesizers of Robert Moog in the US and Peter Zinovieff’s EMS in the UK, and the refinements from the likes of Sequential Circuits and Alan Pearlman’s ARP, came the digital keyboards from giants like Yamaha, Casio, Korg, and Roland, each with its own library of “instrument” patches, some of which required a fairly large leap of faith in the acceptance of their interpretation. Next came the samplers; first, the hugely expensive and unwieldy Fairlight and the rather less expensive and more portable Synklavier, followed by more affordable systems from Akai, Roland, and E-MU Systems. We were in a different world.
Many of those who embraced this technological bounty were what I would call non-technical composers. They didn’t really know much about computers, MIDI, or sequencing, but they now had access to a keyboard with buttons on it labeled “brass section,” “horns,” “strings,” and even “choir.” Add to that a fairly basic sequencer, and life was wonderful. No more piano demos, no more waiting for the studio day to fine-tune the results, no need to write out band parts, and no need to compromise on numbers. They could put together arrangements and hear the sounds that were in their heads come out of loudspeakers, more or less.
That, for me, is where the trouble started. The first time I came across this phenomenon was on a simple show, both for the composer and me—a period piece set in Victorian England. The composer had acquired an expensive sampling keyboard and was keen to show it off, so the first demo, supposedly of a string quartet, came along on a DAT tape, comprising some of the nastiest string sounds I’d ever heard, complete with plenty of earth-loop buzz from his home studio setup. I rang him to ask when we were doing the recording session with musicians and was startled to find out that he was happy with the demo, and that’s the way he would leave it. He noted that he could alter anything during the tech without the musicians, and that, if there was time, he might get it recorded properly later.
That’s the way it stayed for the show in the West End and for its future life. I put this down to a combination of laziness and greed, as the money for the session and the musicians went straight into the composer’s pocket, but I soon realized that his was not an exceptional case.
And there, I believe, is the cause of sample blindness. Presented with a range of sounds that approximate instruments, I’m pretty sure some composers no longer hear how the actual sounds should be produced; they hear “beyond” the samples, and their imagination fills in what’s missing. In theatre, budgetary constraints are often why music and sound are the poor relations of the creative departments. I imagine that a composer, given a budget that will just about stretch to a trio, would rather compromise and use synths and samplers to mimic a rather larger orchestra.
Even with the array of sample libraries available today, I often wince at the awfulness of the sounds I encounter. On a number of occasions, I’ve been so offended by what’s been presented that I’ve found money from my budget to bring in musicians, always with the somewhat bemused composer’s permission. But much of the time, the wincing goes unnoticed; these people are my friends and colleagues, and I know that they don’t intentionally produce bad sounds. I believe they don’t recognize how poor some of the samples are and carry on in blissful ignorance.
Do I comment these days? Yes, sometimes I do, because I feel I need to point out a glaring problem that’s slipped past the critical radar, but a lot of the time, I keep my own counsel. Probably the strangest incident was at a major drama college with a performing arts institution and its own music school. The composer on the show I was supervising was producing beautiful music, scored for traditional instruments, but the sounds emanating from his keyboards were not great. I asked why he didn’t simply get the college’s music students to play the score for him once he’d finished composing. He shrugged and said that it was too complicated and that it was easier to use synths. “I know what it should sound like, and that’s really all that matters,” he said. Sadly, I think this attitude, combined with time and budgetary limitations in theatre, creates an audience that doesn’t actually know what string, brass, or woodwind sections sound like and a class of composers who have placed convenience over quality and have trained themselves not to hear the often sub-standard results.
I’ve embraced synthesizers, samplers, sequencers, and digital recording systems from the very earliest days, and I realize that the palette of sounds available to composers today is vastly larger than it was 50 years ago. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if a tiny percentage of the effort that goes into creating ever more lifelike copies of instruments that already exist went into creating something astonishingly original, like those early pioneers working in a converted roller-skating rink in a leafy West London suburb?
John Leonard is an award-winning designer who has been working in theatre sound for over 30 years. In his spare time, he records anything that makes an interesting noise in high-definition surround sound.