George Barker, composer, synthesist and owner of Ravenwood Music

It was the early eighties when George Barker boldly went where no one had gone before. Armed with a report and costings, he stepped into the board room of publishing house Josef Weinberger Ltd and convinced the managing director to invest in a game changing musical computer. And so, the madness began….

Currently, George Barker owns a company called Ravenwood  Music, specialising in providing electronic music in every style you can think of. By the name of Willie Gibson he writes, produces and puts out his own music. George: “I have my own ProTools studio complete with an extensive Eurorack modular system and several other synths.” The modular is his main working horse. 

Music has always played an enormous part in George’s life. “Originally, I started out as a trumpet player. After leaving music college in 1969, I often worked in pick-up bands, backing American Soul artists on UK and European tours. In 1973 I decided that I could not go on indefinitely as a jobbing brass player. After much job searching, when it became clear that the most unemployable person in the music industry was a musician, I ended up at the publishing house Josef Weinberger Ltd. Whilst predominantly a publisher of musicals and operetta, JW had a production music department, popularly known as ‘mood music’ or ‘library music’. JW supplied broadcasters, production companies, ad agencies and any user of music in audio-visual media. We produced recorded music which we felt was appropriate for the market, we had it pressed on 12″ vinyl and supplied copies, free of charge to bona fide users of such music. In 1974, I started being much more involved in commissioning album projects and in studio production. And in the world of production music, things were changing fast.”

Need we say more?

“This was also the time of the birth of commercial radio in the UK, which was an important market for JW, despite the relatively low fees as opposed to TV advertising. Back then ad agencies were used to handling TV and press advertising, but they simply didn’t understand radio advertising, which left the market open to specialist radio production houses – some of my best clients – who devised many creative and imaginative ad campaigns. In January 1981, I attended the MIDEM music industry convention in Cannes. That’s where I first heard of this new machine that could sample real sounds. Not much else was known about it. I then spotted an ad in a pro-audio magazine called Studio Sound, which had a 1/8 page monochrome strip ad with a picture of the Fairlight and the strap line: ‘Fairlight C.M.I – Need We Say More?’ and a contact telephone number. “

“Well, yes indeed: they needed to say more!  If this machine did anything like what I had heard, then it had great potential in advertising. We worked with some very creative companies in radio advertisement and that’s really where I saw its potential. In fact, not so much for music, but for using tuned sound effects.
So I called the number. I wouldn’t say that reception was warm, and I had to do a lot of persuasion even to arrange a visit to see the Fairlight and discuss my plans, as the company repping Fairlight in the UK, Syco Systems, had never heard of Josef Weinberger, nor of ‘library music’. They were really only interested in selling Fairlights to stars. In fact, later on, they confessed that it was very frustrating that so far, they had only sold to universities and educational facilities and to virtually no rock stars! JW was I believe the 7th purchaser in Europe.”

“So, I made the journey to see the beast at Peter Gabriel’s studio in Bath, where at that time Syco Systems was based, and I was sufficiently impressed and confident that this would be just what we needed to develop our activities in supplying music for advertising. My next task was to convince the management directors of JW that what amounted to the biggest single investment in our department was worthwhile. It should be noted that JW was – and in some ways still is – a very old-fashioned company; very straight-laced and into ‘serious music’. Somehow, I managed to convince the managing director. I got permission to put the order through. Then followed a six-week wait for a machine to be shipped from Australia. But, Syco had kindly provided me with a typeritten manual of the Mk1 Fairlight CMI, which constituted my bedtime reading every night during the six weeks of waiting. I’m a great believer in manuals! And I literary read the thing from cover to cover, almost daily.”

“The Fairlight arrived in July, accompanied by Syco Systems’ distinctly eccentric engineer Philip Brain, resplendent in hippie-style paisley design shirt and velvet jacket; much to the horror of my managing director! Once set up, and with only half a dozen factory sample disks, I was pretty much left to my own devices. I even had to go out and buy a microphone for sampling!  When I actually got the machine, initially, I could turn it on, load sounds, plug the thing up correctly and actually get sounds out of it. After that, the manual became largely irrelevant, because, I also had the MCL manual which had all the syntax for writhing music in command line level. Eventually, they developed Page R which allowed you to write notes in, which was okay, but still incredibly tedious putting stuff in. I think I only used that on a couple of demos I did for advertising pitches.”

Muddling through

“Around the corner from our office was the sound department of one of my best clients at the time. One afternoon, I lugged the Fairlight to their studio to experiment. Now, the first thing we discovered was that, although the Fairlight could sample from 10k to 31.5k, we had no means of ascertaining what sample rate to set, in order that a pitched sample (say a middle C) appeared on the keyboard in the right place. To know this, you needed to know the frequency of the pitch x 128, divided down below 31500. So for example – one that I remember – the sample rate for G was ‘25088’ which is 196×128. Somehow, I managed to find a pitch-to-frequency table, published by a hi-fi magazine. In a later software revision, Fairlight added a page where you could select pitch-related sample rates. This is just one illustration of the fact that the developers didn’t really have a clue about how musicians worked or what they needed. The piano keyboard for example. It was rubbish! And it was criticized by lots of keyboard players. It was just plastic making contact on metal. Also, it wasn’t very robust. One other misconception: the Fairlight wasn’t a synth in any practical sense. Yes, you could draw waveforms on the screen, but you wouldn’t want to. Yes, it could do additive synthesis, but again: it was so clunky… When clients asked for synth sounds, I’d actually had to rely on sampled synth sounds that I got. The only sound I ever created was some weedy harpsichord.” Things like that demonstrate they didn’t really have a connection with musicians during its development. They certainly didn’t really have much understanding of how stuff was written or recorded, I think. A lot of things, we had to work out on the fly, in the studio, which could get pretty expensive. I think, Fairlight’s biggest problem in the early days was that they had this somewhat arrogant view that if you had a CMI, you didn’t need anything else. And that’s why they resisted MIDI for a long time. By the time the IIx came out, there were cheaper alternatives.”

“You could sync it to itself, which I had to do on a few occasions. For example, I did Händel’s Watermusic for a film by the English Tourist Board. I needed more than 8 outputs, so I had to sync to one part of the multitrack and than sync the other parts on to that. The only way you could do it was by feeding it a square wave. Which was hit-and-miss, because if you didn’t get the level right, it wouldn’t sync. It was quite a nightmare to do it.”

Syco’s soirées

“Yes, there were technical issues  From time to time, Syco Systems would organise little drink-parties in the early evening, where users could discuss possible improvements, problems that we’ve had, stuff like that. I probably met J.J. Jeczalik on one of those gatherings…. Certainly, Hans Zimmer was there on a couple of occasions. The company was run by Steve Paine. He had an colleague, Mike, who was an ex piano salesman. A really nice guy, but possibly more interested in making sure the mixture of his pink gin was right, rather than discussing business. I must say, it was all very amateurish. At that time, in the early days, there wasn’t a market for a high priced machine such as the Fairlight. It was 13.000 Pounds when we bought it; we paid 12,5 ‘cause we got a generous discount.” Laughing: “I was probably earning considerably less in a year at that time! The CMI was beyond the price range of most individual musicians. It had to be studios or companies that bought the machine. And they sold several to musical universities, musical department. That’s what frustrated the guys at Syco systems. They wanted to sell to stars… We bought one way before Kate Bush did. I think she probably was the best sort of high profile user they could wish for. They really wanted to live the rock and roll life. And God knows they tried.”

Sacked

“There were things it could do pretty well and things it couldn’t, because of the limits of 8 bit sampling. I think, one of the worst experiences was with composer Jeff Wayne (War of the Worlds). He was pitching for a football world cup-thing on tv. He hired me and the Fairlight, and he wanted to do something with the sound of a referee whistle. However – and this sort of really demonstrates its limitations – he hadn’t factored in that a referee whistle only sounds like a whistle in the key it is actually in. I think, something like F#. But as soon as you move the pitch of that sound, like three notes down, it ceases to sound like a referee whistle. Also, the vibrating sound of the pea inside the whistle changes as well. So it sounded ridiculous. To make a long story short: I got fired!
On that same session, there was a guy called Ken Freeman. He had been involved in synthesizers for a very long time. He designed and built the Freeman Symphonizer, a huge string machine which featured on quite a few commercial records at that time. He had bought a Synclavier, and he was sitting there with headphones on while I was making a fool of myself, trying to explain why Jeff Wayne’s referee whistle sample wouldn’t work. And, in the silence that followed, Ken put off his headphones and played back a perfectly created referee whistle on his Synclavier!” 

“I hardly used the sounds that came with the CMI. I had access to lots of sound effects, due to my work in production. A friend of mine at the time, he was a viola player, provided me with a single plucked viola sound. I used it in this mind numbing Music Composition Language to program ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’, which was used in a commercial. You could start of with a few basic parameters, for instance: the octave it started in, time signature and tempo. But then, you’d have to put in the pitch of a note with a letter, the duration, the gap time between two notes… For each musical line, you’d have to write a file, just in text, on the alpha numeric keyboard. You could have eight different sequences, and those could be part of a part, and you could have eight parts in a piece. That’s how I built up the piece of Vivaldi’s For Seasons I made for another film. The only way of checking was to compile it and play it. Now, in the Vivaldi piece, I only missed one comma, and the whole sequence was out by a tiny fraction of a second, and I had to find out where the hell the missing syntax or the missing comma was. I also had the flu at that time, I felt very ill, and of course I had a pressing deadline.” 

Crisps, barks and hello’s

“Yes, I did like my job at that time. I was actually quite obsessed with it. The Fairlight thing was a real challenge.. In fact, one of the guys I worked with a lot subsequently said it was impossible to talk to me about anything except the Fairlight, for at least the first year or so that I had it. I don’t know whether my wife would agree with that 🙂 Also, I was aware of the fact that I had to make the thing work, because I persuaded the company to spend so much money on it.  I’m not a keyboard player. So, I operated the Fairlight and a keyboard player would do the playing part. One guy in particular that I worked with was Tim Cross (1955 – 2012). Tim had done several albums for JW and, he worked with Mike Oldfield, TV Smith, The Adverts and many more. He also had done hundreds of radio ads for some of the top radio production companies at the time. He was a very talented writer and musician. When I told him we were getting a Fairlight, he was incredibly enthusiastic.”

“The reaction to the Fairlight in advertising and allied audio-visual media was, to say the least, an uphill struggle. There was a lot of ‘Well, who else has used it?”. Furthermore, the Fairlight was misunderstood as a universal ‘music generating machine’. I well remember, whilst doing some banal session playing tunes on potato chips or corks or whatever, being asked by one agency person: ‘Can you do Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday?’ So, it came down to sounds of crisps, champagne corks, dog barks and that sort of things.
Frustrated by the lack of work, in 1983, Tim and I embarked on a ‘tour’ of London ad agencies where we managed to get all kinds of ad creatives in one room to experience the possibilities of the Fairlight. It was great and horrible at the same time! Trying to lug it around in taxi’s was a nightmare. That was just the logistics of it all. Trying to get all of the agency creatives in the same room at the same time, that was the first problem. So, we pitched the idea to some of the bigger agencies in London. In six months or so, we managed to do three or four presentations. We would get one of the creatives to say the word ‘Hello’ into the mic and Tim would instantly play a jingle, based on the sampled word. Not one job ever came from this abysmal tour! But again, part of the problem was: so-called advertising creatives are some of the most conservative people in the world. They don’t like taking risks and they don’t like doing anything new. I don’t know how it is nowadays, for I hardy see any tv commercials now, but back in the day, all commercials were very derivative of other successful ads. So we would have needed some very landmark commercial campaign and then, everyone would want to use it for everything.”

Madness and more

George’s Fairlight skills can be heard on some well-known pop music. Most notable on Madness’ Driving In My Car.  “I did some re-recordings of House of Fun for Top Of The Pops. Back in those days, tv show Top Of The Pops, there were Musicians’ Union  restrictions on using recordings. So, tracks had to be re-recorded especially for TOTP. Often they were never used. but you still had to go through this ridiculous farce of re-recording the track. Or not. Sometimes, it never even got to that, because the manager would take the BBC producer over to the pub and they’d ‘pretend’ they had done a re-recording. It happened all the time…. So that’s how I started working for Madness for the first time. J.J. Jeczalik did most of the earlier Madness tracks. I think he did every album up till The House Of Fun. J.J. wasn’t available at that time. I did all the Fairlight stuff on ‘driving in my car’.”

“The Madness guys never did anything unless there was a reason for doing it. Everything was really well thought-out. They knew exactly what they wanted when they went into the studio, I mean, there was no real sort of down time where I turned up and nothing happened.  They wanted a car door slam-sound and we actually went into an underground car park and we recorded it. But when we sampled it into the Fairlight, it lost all of the room around it.
Another example: there was a band called Modern Romance who wanted handclaps, because they were too lazy doing their own handclaps through their album. So they wanted sampled handclaps. And that’s exactly the sort of sound that doesn’t work with the Fairlight because of the transient response; there’s no transient at all; it’s just a dull thud. Basically, bright metallic tinkly things of short duration work by far the best.”

“And, there was a band called Red Box for which I worked on a song called Chenko, 1983.  It’s such a massive production, it’s probably hard to hear the Fairlight in it.  There’s everything going on, and on one point, their producer whispers ‘It’s so quiet.’ and it’s somewhere in the track, but there’s so much going on… If you didn’t know it was there, you probably can’t hear it. Tim Cross played the keyboards. He wasn’t in the band, but he did most of the keyboard parts.”

What happened to the 7th CMI?

It languished in the office – It survived at least two office moves and generally slipped into terminal decline. George: “It remained dormant for a very long time. The light-pen didn’t work anymore, several keys on the alphanumeric keyboard had ceased to work and there was something wrong with the graphics card and the sampling card. It got replaced, but I don’t think it was ever installed. It was written off in the books years ago and it was just cluttering the place up. The Financial Director said: ‘Why don’t you take it to your home? It doesn’t have any value what so ever! It’s just in the way!’  I could have taken it home but to be honest, I really didn’t have a great use for it. It was an enormous bulky thing to have anywhere, so I passed on that one. But, in hindsight, I probably should have snapped it up! But, it had got very much sort of beaten up, lugging it and out of taxi’s and studio’s and stuff like that. It wasn’t really designed for that sort of life. You’d have to handle it delicately; even lugging it down the stairs and putting it down on the floors would unseated the cards. From what I remembered, eventually, it was sold for almost nothing and got shipped to Italy.”

Everything electronic

“When I started at JW, I didn’t know about library music or production music, I was given a card index with clients and we didn’t have many lp’s at that time. Just a lot of 7 rpm discs and tape. I joined JW in October 1973 and it would be for only 3 months. I stayed until 2012.”
George built Ravenwood Music as a total separate company. “We represent some of the small boutique music production companies. Many of them are producing trailer music. In fact, our biggest catalogue in terms of earnings, is Brand X owned by a couple of guys who started out working for Hans Zimmer in LA. It’s a small world. And so, because of my own long-term obsession with synthesizers, i wanted to build Ravenwood as an electronic music library and by that, I don’t mean just EDM. We got all sorts of stuff, for instance, a very interesting Musique Concrète production we did at the end of 2018, it came out in January. Jez Butler, the guy who wrote and produced it, uses all sorts of house hold stuff and he doesn’t have a Fairlight. But I think he is more creative than anyone I knew with a CMI back in the day.”

“I wanted to make Ravenwood THE electronic music production publisher. It is not without its problems, because there is a lot of resistance against the use of electronic music. Especially in the States. Even despite things like Netflix and tv shows like Stranger Things and Mr. Robot. I have seen it on e-mails in block letters: “definitely NO synthesizers!” But, I’m on a mission and because of my age and stage: I have nothing to lose really. By far the biggest challenge is to find talented writers. There are a lot of people with home studios who can make a lot of noise, but that’s not what I need. It’s just like the difference between journalism and writing a novel. What we want is the journalistic approach. Good beginning, good ending, End of story.”

Modular Music

Back in the day, George Barker programmed Vivaldi-pieces, using Fairlights’ “mind-numbing Music Composition Language”.  Nowadays, he pushes his modular beast way beyond its limits. On Bandcamp, you can find his rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Also, there’s the album called Saint Ex’  George: “One of my other obsessions is flying. I got a flying license, but it’s no longer valid. One of my sort of heroes is the French aviator / pioneer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who’s biggest claim to fame is his book called The Little Prince (Le petit prince)  He disappeared and is believed to have died while on a reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean in July 1944. In honour of the 75 anniversary of his death, I’ve done a mini album, a kind of tribute. All modular. And just one sample… – I rarely, if ever, use samples in my work!” 

https://williegibson.bandcamp.com/album/saint-ex